How to Write a Killer College Essay: Let Me Help!

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Dec 22, 2002 (Updated Nov 18, 2010)


The Bottom Line Get as many people to read your essay as possible. My little brother is applying to college. How cute!

With the Common Application, applying to college today is much easier than it was in the past. Many colleges and universities accept the Common Application nowadays, and students can apply online. If you are planning to apply online, I would suggest printing out the application form and filling it out by hand and then typing it into the computer to make sure everything is perfect. Applying online saves you money on postage and the pressure of having to print neatly in the boxes. However, printing out the form first may avoid the slight disaster that befell my brother today.

Today, my brother was filling out the online application (not common) for one of the schools to which he is applying for next fall. Being a veteran of the college application process (I went through it four years ago), I decided I would keep him company and help him sort out some of the wording in the section where you list your "most important activities." We looked over the form on the screen and clicked "submit application," which took us to a page that said we had forgotten to fill out a certain tiny field. It instructed him to click "back" on the browser, but when we did that, everything he had filled in was gone, as the fields had all been cleared! My poor little brother had to fill the whole thing out all over again.

The number one rule of filling out and sending in applications is always read directions carefully. If the university asks for two recommendations and three writing samples, make sure that's what you submit. Formatting is important, as well. One university that I applied to insisted that the application be done by hand. I wondered if they did a handwriting analysis on everyone's essay... Maybe that's why I didn't get in...

Fortunately, most of the parts my brother had to re-do were fairly simple such as "place of birth" and the names of the classes he is currently taking. By far the most time-consuming part of the college application process is the essay, which he had saved in a word processed format. (More on this later.) This brings me to the second rule of college applications:

Leave yourself plenty of time.

You are going to have to ask teachers and guidance counselors to write you recommendations; get the registrar's office to send your transcript; get ETS to send your SAT scores; and fill out the factual questions on the application. This afternoon, my brother and I were running up and downstairs with questions such as, "Mom, what year did you and dad move to Massachusetts?" and "Dad, what is your highest college degree?" You don't want to be running around finding out this info at the very last minute.

Before you submit your application, have someone you trust read it over to make sure you haven't made typos. You could read over something you have written several times and miss a mistake that someone else will pick up immediately.

The Essay or "Personal Statement"

Colleges receive thousands of applications each year from students with similar SAT scores, grades, and family backgrounds. For instance, Harvard could fill its entire freshman class several times over with valedictorians who scored 1600 on their boards. However, you can make your application standout from the rest of the pile with a well-crafted and entertaining essay. But it takes a lot of work to impress the admissions officers in under 500 words!

Brainstorm ideas

The first step is to decide a topic on which to write. I found this to be the most difficult part of the essay-writing process, which is part of the reason you need to start early. You may start writing an essay and decide that the topic is going nowhere. As long as this happens well before the deadline, it's fine. Simply choose a new topic and start over. I read a book that advised against writing about sports and family vacations because those are two of the most common topics and tend to be filled with clichés.

Remember, the admissions officer who is reading your essay has probably read dozens of them that day, and if yours is boring, he or she will just toss it to the side.

Here are some things to questions to ponder in regards to your topic:

Are there a lot of other students out there who could write the same essay?

Would I want to read an essay about this topic?

Does this topic represent who I am as a person?


The Common Application has three broad essay questions and a fourth option to write about "a topic of your choice," so don't limit your ideas. Consulting with someone who knows you well may help during this phase, as well.

Writing and Editing

Let your ideas flow during your first draft of your essay, not worrying too much about length. Once you have written a coherent essay, edit, edit, and then edit again! Put your essay aside for a few days and then look at it again and you may find mistakes or areas where the essay can be improved that you had overlooked before.

Also, get other people to read your essay! In our family, my mother was the first person I turned to when I wanted an essay proof-reader since she is a professional writer. However, my dad and I both found a couple of words that should be changed in my bro's essay that my mom had overlooked. In other words, you don't need a professional writer to read your essay, but you need someone to do it. Some suggestions for qualified people (besides your parents) are:
-Your English teacher (or another teacher you trust)
-Your guidance counselor
-Relatives and friends of the family
-Peers
-The cashier at Stop and Shop

OK, so I was just kidding about the last one, but I can't stress enough how important it is for someone else to read your college essay before you submit it.

Things to look for when editing:
Extra words--Take out any words that you don't need. You want your essay to make an impact using the fewest words possible.
Clichés--You don't want to bore the essay reader or, worse still, make him ill.
Sentence structure--Since the essay is presumably about yourself, you may have the tendency to start every sentence with "I." Don't! It's boring and repetitive.
Word choice--Try not to repeat the same words over and over. Have a thesaurus handy. However, don't use words that you have never heard of, as this can make your essay sound awkward. Also, you don't want to make it seem as if an adult wrote your entire essay. On the other hand, you want to avoid slang, since it can sound sloppy and careless.

Good luck!







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