By Faith Evans on September 15th, 2020

A Journalist's Advice for Writing a Great College Essay

A Journalist's Advice for Writing a Great College Essay

If you’re sweating over the fact that colleges plan to judge your life’s worth based on transcripts and test scores, then good news! You’ll also have to write a personal essay. Here’s some advice from a journalist (and fabulous essayist, if I do say so myself) on how to write your way to admission.

Do: Hook your readers from line one

“There I was: holding on tight to my cup of Top Ramen with one hand, frantically jiggling the toilet handle with the other, and toe-gripping my new flip flops, which were dangling precariously over the water-spewing whirlpool.” Catch their attention! Admissions officers are people too, and starting with a bang (or a flush) certainly won’t hurt your case.

Writing a great hook is also key to setting the proper tone. You don’t need to be hilarious or exciting. Know what you want your readers to feel going into your essay, and let your hook reflect that.

Don’t: Forget to explain and analyze your stories

A cool story will only get you so far. Make it meaningful. Give it some context in a larger, life-encompassing sense. Or at least relate it to a central message.

For example, I mentioned my Top-Ramen, flip-flop, toilet-whirlpool-of-death story earlier. Recently, in a series of tragically timed dorm disaster scenarios, one of my roommates broke the toilet while I was halfway through dinner. Since I was feeling (foolishly) macho, I picked up my bowl of noodles and made my way to the bathroom, where disaster ensued. If there’s one thing I learned from that less-than-ideal evening, it would be that pride precedes a fall — a.k.a., if you’re going to be a cocky buffoon, get ready to take the L.

If you’re having trouble coming up with a “lesson learned” moment, or a general theme, lean on your essay prompt for ideas. Many colleges will spell out exactly what they want from you.

Do: Use an outline as you go

You’ll probably have a few ideas of what you’d like to include in your essay, just from reading the prompt. But if you don’t, don’t worry! Take ten minutes to brainstorm beforehand. This will save you time and energy, whether or not you already have ideas.

Use your outline to build your essay around that central theme. Once you have your overarching point, come up with a few examples or supporting points, and break those into your paragraphs. Those will be the bones of your essay; throw in a few stories, jokes, and/or personal moments in between, and voila! Your essay will be thoughtfully written and easier to follow.

Don’t: Bore yourself as you write

If you’re bored typing it, admissions officers will fall asleep reading it. Writing may not be your strong suit, but at a bare minimum, you should feel pretty confident that your essay brings something unique to the table and sounds like you.

Starting to doze off at the halfway point? There’s one trick that might help: if you’re absolutely stuck on one snooze-worthy sentence and have no idea where to go, then go backwards. Oftentimes the problem isn’t in the sentence where you left off. Maybe it's the preceding sentence, or even higher up in the topic sentence of your paragraph. Don’t be afraid to start highlighting and deleting.

Do: Read it aloud to a friend

Or a pet, or a stuffed animal. Reading your work aloud will help you catch unexpected errors, like awkward word-choice or choppy sentences. If you have a friend or parent available to listen along, they might also help you edit a confusing sentence or brainstorm new ideas.

Don’t: Submit it the second you finish

It’s okay. We all know that you’re writing this the night before it’s due. However, if you have any wiggle room at all with the deadline, try to submit it the day after you’ve finished. Give yourself 12 to 24 hours of space so that you’ll be able to reread it with fresh eyes before you hit send. You’ll be surprised at the errors you catch.

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