Vital Tips for Writing a Winning College Application Essay

hello my name is Lynn Haney and in my role as a writing coach here in Guilford I see a lot of people of all ages some in their teens and others I’ve had a woman who was 98 so I’ve done pretty much a range of people and I must say I really get a kick out of helping kids with their college application essays because they are so fresh and they feel their emotion so much and it’s such a do-or-die time because you know writing this essay can be a deal breaker sometimes it’s not I mean if you have lousy grades it’s not going to put you over the top but if you’re you know sort of in-between well-written essay can really do a lot this isn’t to say that you can do it the night before I have helped people on the night before and some of the essays were certainly passable in fact I’d say they were all passable but you do get slip-ups that you wouldn’t get if you had taken some time so it is a good idea to start early and also tip number one is to brainstorm I know you’ve heard that but really heighten your awareness of an idea that is uniquely you that would work in an essay it can be very intimidating because you’ll read about these rich kids who go helicopter skiing in Greenland and write about it and you know they had a fascinating time the last time they were in Chile and you think to yourself well I really can’t come up with something like that but in your own experience of your worldview you can come up with some interesting ideas a number of students go on mission trips and these mission trips are good but the problem is that the people who are reading the essays at colleges have had mission trips up the ying-yang this is not to say that you should reject the idea I’m just using it as an example but what you need to show is that it’s not just your doing a photos guide of Ecuador that you’re talking about your particular experience in that particular place I had a student who wrote about going and working in an orphanage in Ethiopia and the essay definitely worked a reason it worked was that she didn’t go with a group she looked up orphanages in Ethiopia and she made her own plans to go there she arranged raised some of the money and she took off then she not only did that but develop the idea of being an independent compassionate person within the body of the essay which brings the next tip which is at the onset think about structure structure matters this is another way that you can get help from the internet or just from opening a book there are marvelous books at libraries on writing your college essay and so you want to have you know the introduction the body of the essay and the ending try to keep that in the back of your mind though and really plumb your depth about what you want to say once you have your idea down you have to then match it to your personality it’s a good idea if you can to inject some wit because so many of these essays are boring that just a little levity covers a multitude of sins now this isn’t to say that you should be funny haha that only works if you are the certified class clown and you’ve been it for years that everybody tells you you’re funny and maybe you do stand-up on weekends I’d say go with it but for most of us just having a short clipped remarks that bring a smile to the face that’s a better idea okay now honesty this is something that’s so important because in school often you’re writing those papers to satisfy your teachers and they are fairly predictable and it’s also they may not be about the you that’s really you and that’s what colleges want to know for all your shortcomings this isn’t to say that you get into a wine and or that you spotlight your faults but you have to say this is what I’m about and this is what I really want okay I’m a band nerd that’s who I am take it and run with it now let’s get to providing details in order to set a scene I want you to think about your essay is telling a story and supposing that you’re sitting around a campfire and you want your story to be the best story so you use a lot of literary techniques you use some dialog you use suspense you have hooks in the story so people want to keep reading put that in your essay that’s the way an essay becomes vivid another way is with verbs just look at the sentences you’re constructing and figure out how you can boost it up a notch with more active verbs and you’ll be surprised how much better it gets now we’re talking about an essay that’s only 500 words long you can go 600 650 but you it reminds me of that I used to write book reviews for Publishers Weekly and the editor told me that they were only supposed to be one long paragraph long and she said the only exception would be if Jesus Christ came back to earth again we would give him two paragraphs on his memoir so with with that kind of mandate it’s something like that with the length of these essays that you cannot run on and you want to make sure on your first draft to really try to do it as much as you can on yourself this is where you may be going to a college counselor or you may be seeing a writing coach but what you want to do is have your ideas gel somewhat by yourself and then and after you finish this first draft that’s the time to let people read it and what you want to do preferably is to have people who know something about writing such as your teacher at school to read it over because they know what the people in the college admissions committees are looking for and they can flag things and that’s what a professional can do but there also is this gut reaction so you know flag down down the cable guy or the man who comes up to take the garbage away and say what do you think of this idea that’s going to be a very good idea because sometimes that untutored person in terms of writing will say yeah but you know that third paragraph is Snoozeville and it doesn’t fit with the rest of it and that’s a gem of a good advice something that does work very well and I’ve seen this over and over again and that’s showing you’re smart without being arrogant showing your enthusiasm about something that may not you know capture the imagination of a lot of other people but it happens to be your thing I once helped a student who was writing about a physics competition and this isn’t something that is particularly along my line but I have to say I got caught up in it and I think I put some of my best work into helping him because I could see what he was doing and it was so so well done I had another student who wrote about a boat he was building and this was someone who had never been good at English classes really didn’t enjoy that sort of thing but he did I said what do you like and he said oh I just love the built boat building course it Guilford High School and I said tell me about it well this was almost a model of an excellent essay because in talking about building the boat he was telling about himself that he is is a precise person a person who plans things but it was also a compassionate person because some of the other kids boats were sinking and he was giving them advice on how to make their boat float the thing to remember about this is that you don’t have to be that ordained class writer the people said oh he’s gonna win a Pulitzer Prize forget it write about what really makes you go and it will be bound to be a good essay also I would say to be provocative and I’ll give you an example from my son Alexander when he was in school he was invited to go to West Point for a tryout week they thought that he had the potential to be a soldier I could not be more surprised I knew he had a potential to be a writer and a cut-up and a pain in the Duff sometimes but never somebody to safeguard our country but I thought I said to him it’s a week out of town go and see what you think of it well he arrived at West Point and looked at all the tank and although people with marvelous posture and clear-cut goals and he knew it wasn’t for him but he saw the humor in it if someone like him ever went to West Point and the havoc they could cause and he wrote his essay along those lines and it turned out to be very funny and it got him into the college he wanted to go to so don’t be afraid to be a contrarian is what I’m saying about that and also take something from your family life this is probably the easiest to do because but when you’re 16 17 and 18 years old you don’t really know a lot I mean you know your chances at world travel fighting in Wars saving babies from burning buildings they haven’t happened yet you may think that writing this essay is so arduous and it is there’s no question about that it can be easier particularly if you plan in advance and you take down notes but it’s still not going to be a walk in the park the thing though is that you learn wonderful tools that are going to help you not only in your senior year and in writing papers in college but also in life when you’re when you have a job and you’re asked to write a personal statement this will come back to you these tools that you’ve learned so as you embark on your senior year I say good luck and it’s the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair thank you