July 10, 2023
We get it—the college essay is hard.
In 650 words or less, you are meant to convey the entirety of who you are as a person. You are meant to talk about your experiences when you might not have many. College essays ask you to explain your goals while you’re still figuring out your way in the world and your thoughts when you are still forming your own ideas and opinions.
It can be overwhelming staring at the 1–3 sentence prompts available through the College App, but it doesn’t have to be. In this blog, we’ll give you four quick tips on ways to conquer the college essay and make it work for you so that colleges know you are more than just your test scores and GPA.
1. Have a Key Message
The point of writing is to convey some message or idea, to communicate with your audience. The best writers are those who are able to write clearly and persuasively about a particular concept or idea.
In fiction, things like character are conveyed through well-crafted sentences that build on one another. In a movie review, a good critic will try to use the film they just watched to make a larger point instead of regurgitating the plot verbatim.
The same is true of a college essay. At the start of any piece, you might think about what core idea you want to convey and build the essay around that. Using the Common App prompts as a starting point, try to construct a one-sentence argument that responds to the prompts. If, for example, you want to write about how your background or identity has shaped you, you might talk about the specific values that background has instilled in you. If you write about an obstacle, you might explain how this obstacle taught you to overcome certain challenges in your life.
As you brainstorm ideas on a message alone or with your college advisor, make sure that the argument you construct reveals information about you and not a friend or relative. Also, while it is important to be honest, make sure you are aware of your audience and the ways that certain experiences might be interpreted by them. While a cruise around the world might have been fun or exciting, it might be off-putting to those who lack the resources to go on similar trips themselves.
2. Remember Structure Is Important
The second important aspect of writing is structure. On a most basic level, structure means making sure that ideas proceed in a logical sequence, that one sentence leads organically to a second and that each collection of sentences is broken into logical paragraphs united by a central idea.
In short, it’s about ensuring your ideas are readable and comprehensible. That means ensuring your individual experiences are connected (e.g. you probably wouldn’t suddenly switch to writing about the time you broke your arm in an essay about your volunteer work at a soup kitchen). It also means making sure that your content is readable (e.g. an essay written in one long, unbroken paragraph is more likely to provoke exhaustion than interest).
In taking these basic steps, you can ensure that you get your message across in the clearest way possible.
3. Don’t Take Shortcuts
Finally, you want to ensure you give yourself the resources you need to succeed.
While it may seem tempting to put off your essay, to focus on other tasks and responsibilities, waiting until the last minute can cause you to make unnecessary mistakes. You may find it difficult to think of a compelling point or argument one hour before the deadline. It is unlikely you will have the time to proofread, which could mean submitting an essay laden with spelling errors, bad grammar, and awkward or confusing sentences.
You may also feel tempted to use tools like ChatGPT or OpenAI to write for you. While these tools have gotten significant attention in recent months and may, in some settings, be useful for basic tasks, neither ChatGPT nor OpenAI is capable of thinking. Instead, these tools replicate patterns from their datasets in ways that are often easy for a casual reader to identify. They produce pieces that are extremely generic and, at times, nonsensical.
Not only will you likely be left with a bad essay, but it’s very possible that your attempted use of these tools will be detected. If this happens, your application could be thrown out by the college admissions office and your work rendered meaningless.
While each college essay is unique, we find these tips to be among the most useful for students writing their college essay. We hope it has proven useful to you.
If you’d like more tips, don’t hesitate to set up an appointment with a Class 101 College Advisor who can get you started down the right path
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