Writing Your College Essay

It’s that time of year, when those seniors who didn’t finish their college admissions essay over the summer are working on it on their own or in a high school English class.  I always inwardly cringe when a client shares their essay with me and tells me “my high school English teacher told me I can send it now, that it’s perfect,” or “I got an A+ so…”

These essays are usually pretty well written, they are without grammar or spelling error, and may tell a personal story, but often they are unremarkable, and that is the worst thing a college admissions essay can be.

Do a simple Google search and you will find countless opportunities to get advice on writing your college essay, you can even hire an essay coach like me to help you, and one message will be clear.  Your essay should show the you that doesn’t show in your application. Great, you say, how the heck do I do that?

When writing that essay address these factors:

What is your writer’s voice? 

We talk about writer’s voice a lot in high school writing classes.  Voice is that unique style that your writing has that no one else’s does.  The words you choose, and the way they go together, help express your writer’s voice.  A person familiar with your writing should be able to recognize it.  I work with my clients from brainstorming to rough draft, so by the time I get to about the third or fourth version of the essay it is easy to recognize that writer’s voice.

How do I make my voice shine through?

Although writer’s voice is unique to each writer, it can be difficult to have it shine through in a college essay.  This is a high stakes piece of writing. An admissions essay is often used to determine many things:  admissions to college, acceptance to honors programs, and awarding of scholarships. Start writing your essay early, not a couple of days before it’s due.  Start by brainstorming.  Make notes, if you like to draw, put yourself mentally in your memory and draw what you see.  Draft your essay by telling that story.  Your college essay should read like a story about you, not an English class essay.

How can I make my essay interesting to the reader? 

Remember, this is a story.  Pick up your favorite novel. Take a look at a chapter or two.  That author uses a variety of storytelling techniques to make the words on the page come alive.  Think about using a variety of methods: imagery, dialogue, first person point of view are just a few examples.  You lived that story, now write it!

I still don’t get it, I wrote my story and it is boring.

Read through that essay and find the one sentence that you feel encapsulates the entire essay.  Recently on an essay about her love of travel a client of mine wrote “I am most comfortable in the in-between, in the places that take me elsewhere.”  That awesome sentence was the essence of her essay.  Once she realized that revising her essay became so much easier.  If you can’t find that essence yourself, ask someone to read it and to highlight the phrases and sentences that really stand out to them.  You won’t believe how great of a writer you are!

I keep reading about “writer’s message, what does that mean?

Your essay needs to have a writer’s message.  You are probably more familiar with the term “thesis,” but thinking about it that way can be limiting.  Where it occurs in your essay is not as important as the message you are conveying. Think about these things:  What is the bigger lesson you learned,  the reality that you realized, the change you made and it changed you?  Let go of the prescribed formula that you have been adhering to for most of your academic life, and that message just may shine through.

It’s grammatically correct and without a spelling error, but I still don’t think it is that interesting, what else can I do?

Sometimes it is difficult for high school seniors to get really personal in their writing.  You have never had to write this way before, and it is intimidating.  The colleges expect you to have this great personal insight, humility, and writing style that is close to professional all at the same time!  When you are reviewing your essay think about the semantics of your essay.  Do many of your sentences begin the same way with subject (usually I) and verb?  Do you use personal pronouns in almost every sentence?  Begin by highlighting all of the personal pronouns and linking verbs you use.  Do you have a preponderance of these?  Revise using action verbs instead and vary the beginnings and types of sentences you use.  You will be amazed at how well your essay flows after that.

I feel better about it, but I am still not sure, what can I do?

Take the essay to someone who can give you constructive, honest feedback.  Don’t just hand it to them and walk away; ask for what you want.  Ask them to read your essay for voice.  Does it seem like you are coming through?  Is the story you are telling coming off the page and giving the reader a feeling that they are there? What is your message to the reader? They should be able to figure that out without you telling them.

I am finished with it, and it’s ready to go, what now?

I always suggest you print your essay once and read it outloud.  How does it sound?  Does it have a natural flow?  Read it to someone else, what do they think?  Now double and triple check it for spelling and grammar and correct any mistakes before you send it off.

How will I know if it is good enough?

A famous writer once said “writing is never done, it’s just due.”  At a certain point you will need to let it go, be confident that it is the best it can be and send it in!

Annamarie Brachfeld, BA, MAEd, IEC
Co-Owner, Monumental Beginnings
Specializing in test prep, school success, and college essay