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A Writing Guide for College Essays

A Writing Guide for College Essays

A writing guide for college essays will ensure that your essay is remembered by the admissions committee.

By Katherine Cohen, PhD.

March 10, 2009

Although Halloween usually marks the start of the holiday season for America’s retailers, if you are a Senior applying to college, the day signals the unofficial start of the college application season.

Regardless of your grades or test scores, you will likely struggle writing your personal statement, commonly known as “the college essay.” Here are six tips that will help you through this stressful, but essential part of the college application.

1. Follow directions. Make sure that you address the recommended topics and answer the questions asked. Also, heed word or page limits. Good writing does not necessarily mean lengthy writing. Rarely do four single-spaced pages impress very busy admissions officers who must make quick judgments of your candidacy. If you are using the Common Application, I recommend that your personal statement not exceed one and a half pages.

2. Use the appropriate format. When applying online, your essay will automatically be formatted to fit standard guidelines. However, if you decide not to send the application electronically, follow these guidelines:

  • Use single space.
  • Use Times New Roman in a 12-point font.
  • Make sure that each page has your name, high school and date of birth.
  • Print on only one side of the page.

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3. Start with a catchy first sentence. It is always a good idea to have a catchy first sentence. If it grabs the reader’s attention, he or she will be encouraged to read on. If you are experiencing writer’s block, skip this first sentence, and work on the rest of your essay. Explore your theme and brainstorm examples. Then, go back to the beginning and nail it.

4. Avoid clichés. Do you see commonly used phrases in your essay that you’ve heard frequently in casual conversation? If so, these are probably clichés. Clichés usually sneak in when you are trying to be descriptive. Sadly, clichés dilute your distinctive voice. For example, you may write: “it was raining cats and dogs.” Instead, you could share the same idea with the sentence: “heavy raindrops fell, blinding my view.” Rewrite overly-used statements in an original way so you can stand out.

5. Use the active voice. This is a challenge for all writers. As a matter of style, writing in an active voice energizes an essay. Avoid the passive voice. Word processing programs often provide assistance with converting passive sentences to the active tense.

6. Use your conclusion to recapture the main points of your essay. Your conclusion should leave a lasting statement that reminds the reader of your essay’s key points. Reiterate the main themes of your essay, but say it in a different way than you did before. Make sure that you do not bring up new ideas in your conclusion.

I hope these tips help you write a great college essay. As solid writing only comes with practice, I recommend that you invest time in your personal statement. To start, complete a first draft of your essay at least one month before the deadline. Then, take a break between revisions. A few days between each draft will allow you to think clearly and not be overwhelmed. Share copies with your friends, teachers and parents to get their feedback. With continual proofreading and editing, you’ll be able to see a fresh perspective.

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