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The Stages of College Essay Writing

The Stages of College Essay Writing

The college essay occurs in three stages: topic-storming, actual writing, and the dreaded editing period.

Maya Moritz

September 10, 2013

In reality, thousands of other students applying for college will have similar grades, a comparable GPA and extracurriculars, so perhaps the only way to truly individualize your application is your essay.

Your grades are most likely not funny, sentimental, quirky, deep or moving, but your essay can be. Moreover, the student with a 4.0 could be the most diligent Game of Thrones fan or a great amateur reed pipe player, but an application reader would never know without an essay.

The college essay occurs in three stages: topic-storming, actual writing, and the dreaded editing period.

Stage One: Topic-Storming

Topic-storming occurs from the time your oldest cousin starts applying to the second you’re staring down at the Common Application.

Suddenly, you can’t remember any passions, quirks, or experiences of your own. This may be the time to consult a parent, friend, guidance counselor or, perhaps, your diary or schedule.

Making a list of your activities can help you choose a topic.

Ultimately, though, the topic doesn’t matter. The man leading our talk at Brown mentioned that the topic of the best essay he’s ever read was entitled, “Which is Better: Nachos or Doritos?” Maybe such a topic is not the stuff of Shakespeare, but the application reader said he was so enchanted with the essay because it was used as a metaphor for the applicant’s life.

Therefore, any topic can make an incredible essay and you don’t have to spend a week in Zimbabwe saving orphans to have a good one.

While your essay does not need to be the first ever written about the topic, it should be somewhat uncommon. Topics that college admissions officers see all the time include mission trips, love of school subjects, that summer you worked in your sleep away camp and a grandfather’s life or death. Unless you have some novel lesson to transmit, the reader has seen this essay.

In short, your essay does not need to be an invention, but it should be an innovation: not the laptop, but the computer.

Stage Two: Writing

Then, inevitably, comes the writing. The style in which you write your essay should be very clearly yours. If the style is unique to you (as unique as it can be while still being called a good essay), it will display your personality and have an individual voice.

Voice is maybe the most important aspect, as many people have similar experiences and backgrounds, but nobody has the same voice.

Obviously, use everything at your disposal: old English assignments, your teachers, a thesaurus, a dictionary, Spellcheck.

Look up a word before you use it and be concise. Vague, frivolous sentences will not add to the essay, in which each word holds weight.

Stay away from cliches and don’t be sarcastic if it could be misinterpreted in any way.

While you want your voice and personality to be represented in your essay, you don’t want your negative qualities to be highlighted. Taking on a condescending, pretentious, or cynical view won’t make you an appealing candidate.

Additionally, choose a topic that will allow you to tell the truth while connecting to the reader.

For example, a lament for your mentally ill friend could be depressing, but an ode to an inspiring ally who overcame obstacles and motivated you could be moving. In many situations, a simple change of perspective can change an essay from dull to exciting, dark to hopeful.

Stage Three: Editing

Then, once you’ve written, checked, rewritten and looked again, your work may seem done.

Your essay is both witty and sharp, with some wry observations and subtle nods to your goals and heroes. But one man’s trash is another man’s treasure and you should hand the essay off to multiple people of different perspectives and mindsets for editing.

The number of editors you enlist, however, is important. Too few and your essay may have previously unidentified issues. Too many and your voice may be lost in the edits that you’re given. With that, take every piece of advice with a grain of salt and never let the voice of others overwhelm your own.

Most of all, this is your essay. Short of insulting remarks or alienating language, you should make it as true to you as possible. The more the reader gleans of your personality, the better they’ll know if you’re suited to the school.

The best essay will grant you access to the best school for you and truly show the reader your talent, ability and personality. If enough work is done, anyone can pen a truly acceptance-worthy essay.


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