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St. Paul


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Writing the College Essay

What Colleges Want to See
  • Can you write? — Colleges look to see if your writing ability meets the academic standards of the college. Are you able to take a thought and develop it into a well-organized and clear essay?
  • Who are you? — The essay is your chance to express yourself and who you are to the admissions officers. They are looking to get a sense of your values, passions and beliefs and want to hear about those through your own voice. Above all, they are trying to learn how you are going to impact their community. Will you make their school a better place by attending?
Selecting a Topic
  • Some colleges may give you freedom in what you choose to write about while others may provide a specific question or prompt for you to answer.
  • If you are required to address one of the college's assigned questions:
    • Do your research—go to the library, use the internet, ask others what they know about the topic.
    • Organize your thoughts and opinions before you start.
    • Draft an outline of points you want to cover and list some supporting ideas.
    • Have an idea of what your conclusion will be.
    • Be sure you answer the question.
  • If you can choose your own topic:
    • Your essay should reveal your true self in your own voice.
    • There is no single "right" topic.
When to Get Started
  • Start working on your essay the summer before your senior year. Senior year is a busy time and the summer will provide you with uninterrupted time to reflect and look through your essay at your own pace.
Creating Drafts
  • Now that you have selected a topic, start writing! The first draft is not meant to be perfect, so just write everything that comes to mind down on the page. It might be helpful to set a timer for twenty minutes and not stop writing until it goes off.
  • Finished writing? Now don't look at it again until tomorrow.
  • Next, re-read through your essay. Do you still feel good about the topic? Is the essay about you? Is it truly your voice? The essay should address the "who, what, why and how" of you.
  • Review your essay. How is the structure? Does the first sentence or paragraph grab the reader?
  • Get some constructive input from teachers, parents or peers. However, be sure the essay still sounds like you after any revisions.
Helpful Weblinks
CollegeXpress also has some great articles on Writing the College Essay.  
Guide to Grammar and Writing


Tips From Admission Counselors
  • The essay is one of the few things that you've got complete control over in the application process, especially by the time you're in your senior year. You've already earned most of your grades; you've already made most of your impressions on teachers; and chances are, you've already found a set of activities you're interested in continuing. So when you write the essay, view it as something more than just a page to fill up with writing. View it as an opportunity to tell the admissions committee about who you are as a person.
  • Be yourself. If you are funny, write a funny essay; if you are serious, write a serious essay. Don't start reinventing yourself with the essay.
  • If you're recounting an amusing and light-hearted anecdote from your childhood, it doesn't have to read like a Congressional Act make it fun! Use vivid examples, descriptions and quotations; they bring your essay to life.
  • Tell us something different from what we'll read on your list of extracurricular activities or transcript.
  • Take the time to go beyond the obvious. Think about what most students might write in response to the question and then try something a little different.
  • Don't try to take on too much. Focus on one "most influential person," one event, or one activity. Tackling too much tends to make your essay too watered down or disjointed.
  • Concentrate on topics of true significance to you. Don't be afraid to reveal yourself in your writing. We want to know who you are and how you think.
  • If the essay assignment requires, take a stand on an issue. Don't waffle, unless you are truly unsure about an issue. Admission officers are looking for thoughtful argument & organization. Your beliefs don't need to be the same as the reader. Don't fear that you will offend someone.
  • Write thoughtfully and from your heart. It'll be clear who believes in what they are saying versus those who are simply saying what they think we want to hear.
  • Essays should have a thesis that is clear to you and to the reader. Your thesis should indicate where you're going and what you're trying to communicate from the outset.
  • Don't do a history report. Some background knowledge is okay, but do not re-hash what other authors have already said or written.
  • Answer each school's essay individually. Recycled "utility essays" come across as impersonal and sanitized. The one exception is an essay written for and submitted to Common Application member schools.
  • Proofread, proofread, proofread. Nothing says "last-minute essay" like an "are" instead of "our" or a "their" instead of "they're."
  • Keep it short and to the point.
  • Limit the number of people from whom you request feedback on your essay. Too much input creates an essay that sounds as though it has been written by a committee or results in writing that is absent your own voice.
  • Ask yourself: Did I answer the question asked of me? Is this essay enjoyable to read?
Essay Writing Tips
(Excerpts from The Princeton Review--"College Admissions" and "How to Write Your College Application essay," by Kenneth Nourse)
  • Don't repeat information that you included in previous sections of your application.
  • Grab your reader in the first paragraph. Be poetic, dramatic, sly, humorous — just not boring!
  • Try to highlight what makes you different, state why you are interesting enough to be a member of that class.
  • Be original, don't write about what everyone else is writing about.
  • Ask yourself: What should the school know about me?
  • Relate personal experiences if appropriate— use vivid examples, descriptions and quotations to bring your essay to life.
  • If the essay requires you to take a stand on an issue, don't waffle. Admissions officers are looking for a thoughtful argument and organization.
  • Your college essay should have an order. Its overall appearance creates an impression in the mind of the reader.
  • Type your essay.
  • Don't let your mom, dad, sister, or dog write your essay.
  • Watch spelling. Check grammar, transitions and clarity of thought.
  • Conform to length guidelines. Often 1-page, single-spaced (about 500 words ) is sufficient.
  • The first two sentences are critical.
Don't Write About
  • Your relationship with your girlfriend or boyfriend— important to you, but a little creepy to an admissions officer.
  • Your religious beliefs.
  • Your political views.
  • The evils of drugs — Drugs are indeed evil, but student essays on this subject tend to sound goody-goodyish or contrived.
  • The pleasures of drugs — for obvious reasons.