College Application Essays: 5 tips for success

It’s that time of year again — sugar plums, holiday lights and college applications. Parents and students alike agonize over deadlines, requirements, letters of recommendation…and essays. Always, the essays.

College and scholarship applications ask something of teenagers that they’re not always comfortable doing — writing about themselves authentically, yet selling themselves as a worthy applicant, within a constrained word or page count. Not an easy task for most people, to be honest, but here are a few simple tips that can help.

  1. Brainstorm ideas — Setting aside time to actually think about what you want to write, rather than just sitting down at your laptop to pound something out, will almost always result in a better product. Sometimes an outsider can help you focus ideas for essay topics, and if you choose to work with a writing coach, they should do this with you at the very beginning.
  2. Set deadlines — Most people focus on the main deadline when putting together applications, but more planning will actually help. With a calendar in front of you, work backwards from the final deadline and set milestones along the way for all elements needed for your application. For the essay, you should also include deadlines for brainstorming essay ideas, writing rough drafts, having it reviewed by someone you trust, and final draft (and final proof for those pesky typos). If you choose to work with a coach, this should be part of your first session.
  3. Two reviews — All essays should have two reviews: one for content, ideas and voice and another for grammar, spelling and typos. A good writing coach should do both, but you can also find people you trust and have a good rapport with to do those reviews. And remember: be sure to allow time in your application process (see #2).
  4. Two sets of eyes — This hard and fast rule has stayed with me from my first job in PR. Have not one, but TWO people review your essays. We’re all human, and two people for the final review will better your chances of not saying “your” when you really mean “you’re.” If you have a coach, they can serve as final reviewer, but having someone else review it first who knows you even better can only help make your essay stronger.
  5. Write it yourself — I could always tell within the first several sentences of an essay which applicants were being themselves and writing from the heart. You have a distinct voice — use it! A good mentor or coach should help you distinguish it and showcase it in your writing, not write it for you.

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