Writing College Essays
In a recent blog post, http://collegeplancoach.com/?p=178, I wrote on college planning activities during summer months. One activity was working on college essays, and I thought this topic could be examined in more detail. This information will help with writing college application essays, college entrance exam essays, and essays in college.
College Entrance Exams Essays
First, here’s a secret about college entrance exam essays. Only about half the colleges want one. And the big secret – many schools that ask for them, don’t use the essay. That said, you can’t blow them off! Even if a college doesn’t use the essay yet requests it, they will tell you they use it. Just understand that colleges that really want writing samples will usually request an essay beyond what’s asked for in an entrance exam. College entrance exam essays are timed so they are also about writing under pressure. Ugh! The SAT essay exam will become optional in spring 2016 – that’s when the whole SAT changes.
Where’s the best place to start learning about college entrance exam essays? Always go to the source first. Here’s the grading information and writing tips that College Board and ACT share:
https://sat.collegeboard.org/practice/writing/sat-essay (students and parents)
http://www.actstudent.org/writing/scores/guidelines.html (students and parents)
Read the sample essays and practice writing your own. Practice under timed conditions. Put on the time pressure so you have a taste of what it will feel likes like when in the testing environment. Test prep companies believe that clear hand writing improves scores although both testing companies state that legibility doesn’t count.
College Application Essays
There are a couple of goals to keep in mind when writing college admission essays. This is your time to tell the college what makes you unique and how you differ from every other student applying. Don’t blow it by telling what readers already learned in the application unless you can twist the experience to show a unique slant on what’s already stated.
This is the time to show the college how you express yourself, to show insight gained about who you are, and to share your dreams and aspirations. Grammar counts. Don’t let colleges weed you out because they can’t understand what you’re writing.
This is the time to shine within context of the essay topic. Picture someone sitting for hours reading essay after essay after essay. Picture most essays going into a so what pile – a scant few make it into the sparkling star pile. Where would you like your essay to land? If your essay involves sports or community service, you’d better find a twist to make it stand out because there will be tons on those topics.
It’s good to read about college essays before attempting one. Below are links to real essay prompts as well as blogs giving an overview of writing application essays. Remember, college admission staff read hundreds of essays each application cycle. You want them to know you are special, but they won’t unless you show (not tell) how.
http://blog.commonapp.org/category/essay-prompts/ The Common Application prompts for 2015 – 2016 year as well as links to prompts from previous years.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/college-application-essays/ This Huffington Post site has blog posts from different writers. Read multiple blogs and tips so you have different perspectives. Did you find a common theme?
http://www.essayhell.com/ A site that wants you to buy something but has good free stuff too. The author has a sense of humor too.
https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/get-in/essays Big Future again. They have great information but no sense of humor. Check out their sample essays.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/elizabeth-benedict/common-app-college-essay-prompts-they-re-here_b_6984710.html Wanted to make sure you read this one.
Ask your professional school counselor or English teacher if they have information on college application essays. They may have books or other materials they’ve collected.
Now that you’ve learned more about college application essays, not only the types, but also what the colleges want, it’s time to think. Spend a few days thinking about which questions work best for you and why. Think about how you would approach your question. Think about what makes you unique and different from others. Reach into your gut and think about yourself in ways you’ve never imagined – what you’ve learned, who you are, who you want to become, how and why you do want to become that person. After you’ve spent days thinking, it’s time to write a first draft.
General Writing Tips (for college and beyond)
I wanted to give pointers on writing that will help with college as well all writing you will do for the rest of your life. This information will help with emails, tweets, letters, memos, and papers – from the small paragraph to the large term paper. You may not have hours to let your writing rest (I’ll explain), but even rereading before hitting the send button will improve emails – from glaring errors to word choice.
It’s important to work on writing early and not start the day before the deadline. I’m a writer. I love writing – really. It’s great fun but not everyone thinks so. That said, everyone can improve writing by following these steps.
There’s a process to writing. Writing involves prewriting, writing, revising and editing, and polishing. Writing is not pounding out words on a screen and thinking you’re done.
What’s prewriting? Before pulling out a pen or sitting in front of a screen, start thinking about what you want to write. Turn the topic in your head and look at it from different angles. Think about the topic when it’s quiet – my time for thinking about writing is before sleeping and while driving. When is yours?
Research the topic on the Internet. What are other people writing about the same topic? I wrote a novel about rafting through the Grand Canyon and read everything I could find – books, journals, blogs, and history. Reading, researching, even pictures help you think more about the topic. A novel certainly takes more research than a paper but you get the point.
Next comes the actual writing. For me, a first draft of 1000 words (2 pages) or less is usually completed in one writing session. You may be different. I let words flow. Words come fast or slow. More often than not, the words come fast because I’ve been thinking and reading about the topic. When writing about something with an emotional slant, I write with pen and paper. It’s slower and helps with staying in touch with feelings. What works for you? You might need to experiment. Some people write in a crowded room while others want peace and quiet.
After a first draft, give the writing a rest. Let it breathe. Walk away and don’t look at it for a day or two (depending on deadlines). Why? When I first write something, I usually think it’s pretty good. Ah, confidence! Truth is it’s not!
Twenty-four hours later, the words don’t look that good. Ugly thought gaps appear. The writing is unclear and not precise. I thought I was clever and wasn’t. The flow from paragraph to paragraph doesn’t make sense. At the very least, I didn’t convey what I thought I was writing.
Now comes revising, and rewriting. Sometimes rewriting can mean tossing out the whole piece and starting again. Sometimes the rewriting means changing sentences and paragraphs by adding additional information for clarity while sometimes it means deleting lines or whole sections. More often than not, the rewriting leads to thinking of something new – providing additional insight and adding layers to the words to give them more depth.
The writing receives another rest and another rewrite. Rewriting may happen two, four or five, ten times. Sometimes a deadline will stop the process. Sometimes I get sick of looking at it and move on.
Polishing and proofing is the final stage. With polishing, I look for the little things that need fixing. Tweak a word choice or subject/verb agreement. Also, focus on proofing. Not my strong suit so I have help. I ask others to read posts. I read work aloud. Writing sounds much different when reading words out loud than when reading them silently.
That’s the basics. I guarantee that if you follow these steps, you will be a much better writer than you were yesterday. Yes, grammar counts! Find help if you don’t know the rules (teachers, websites, friends).
I hope you learn to have fun with writing or at least not hate it. You’ll write lots in college and often in the workplace. Remember writing is rewriting. Some of my favorite writers spend hours/days on a sentence or paragraph. I don’t expect you to do that but great writing take time and thought.
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