Essay Writing

Writing the College Essay: Tips & Suggestions

Writing a college essay is no easy task. In general, no one should expect to be able to have a final draft completed in one sitting. It is a process that takes time and effort. A college essay is an opportunity for a applicant to demonstrate his or her appropriateness to the next college, to explain any unusual problems he or she may have had, to showcase particular talents and interests and to show the admissions committee that there is more to an applicant than just grades on a piece of paper.

What admissions offices are looking for when they read a college essay:

  •     The student's ability to write
  •     The student's level of self-awareness
  •     The student's personal and academic goals
  •     How good a fit you are with their institution

Generating Ideas
Brainstorm, free write and/or mind map on each of the following topics:

  •     Strengths: What words best describe you?
  •     Passions: What excites you?
  •     Turn-around experiences: Have you had an experience that turned your life around?
  •     Highlight special skills: eg. visual organization, athletics, etc...
  •     Key point: If you could only tell the college ONE thing about yourself, what would it be?
  •     You as a learner: Discuss your strengths and strategies.

Does a theme emerge? Look over your ideas. What are the connections, the themes—what is the best way to distinguish yourself as an applicant? Can you think of an event, story or an analogy that could provide an effective opening for your essay?

Your Academic Turn-Around
You can use the following as a general outline for an essay or incorporate the information into an essay of your own choice. If you need to explain your academic past (e.g. weak high school records, failures at other colleges), it is important to do that in your college essay or somewhere in your application.

  • The Past: Discuss your past briefly. Colleges will have your transcripts, so talk about what lay behind the record. Be honest, but don't dwell on your past or your learning differences.
  • The Present: Tell a story or focus on a personal strength. Discuss 1-3 reasons why you're a different person now than you were two years ago.
  • The Future: Why are you ready to move on? Why are you ready for this particular college program? How does this program specifically meet your goals and needs?

Before you draft your essay, you may want to talk through your ideas with someone who knows you well, to get feedback and perhaps come up with additional ideas. To show who you are, remember to use your personal voice (an informal and direct tone). Tell your story in simple words.

Most essays will go through several revisions before they are ready to submit.  Below are some important questions to ask yourself about your draft.

Does your draft:

  • Have a beginning that will catch the reader's attention?
  • Focus on a theme that is developed throughout the essay?
  • Give the reader a sense of who you are?
  • Contain information about your LD?
  • Address any specific instructions colleges have provided (see list above)?
  • Have a personal tone and simple language?
  • Have 250 - 500 words?

Once you are happy with the content and organization of your draft, be sure to proofread it AND have someone else proofread it.  Remember to use the spell check and grammar check on the computer.  Read your draft out loud. You may want to read one sentence at a time, starting with the last sentence of the paper (to avoid focusing on ideas rather than grammar, spelling, etc).

In general, a good essay needs:

  • Main Idea
  • Evidence to Back Up the Main Idea
  • Organization
  • Coherence—in other words, easy to read
  • Correctness—no grammatical or spelling errors

Sample Essay Questions
There are several different types of essay questions that you may be asked.

  •     The "Tell Us About Yourself" question.
  •     The "Why Do You Want to Attend Our College" question.
  •     The "Creative: We Want to Hear What You Have to Say" about a particular topic question.
  •     The "Why Are You Transferring and What Do You Hope to Achieve" question. (found on the Common Application)

Below are some ideas on how to approach each of these questions...

The "Tell Us About Yourself" question.

  • Write a 1-2 page statement that will convey to the reader who you are.
  • Describe the most interesting experience you have had in your life.
  • What is the most difficult decision you have had to make in your life and how has it affected you?

The "Why Do You Want to Attend Our College" question.

  • Write about your reasons for choosing to apply to a particular college and why you think you would be a good fit for that college?
  • What are your career goals and how to you think the college you are applying to will help you achieve those goals?

The "Creative: We Want to Hear What You Have to Say" about a particular topic question.

  • Who was or is the best president the United States of America has had to date and why?
  • Tell us about a book that you have read recently. What is the main idea of the book and why is the work important?
  • If you had unlimited amounts of money, what would you do with your time?

The Common Application question for transfer applicants:  "Why Are You Transferring and What Do You Hope to Achieve?"

  • For students at Landmark, the" why you are transferring" question is often pretty straight forward—it can be “I’m graduating…” or “I’ve gotten what I needed out of my Landmark College experience and I’m now ready to move on…” 
  • Be sure to address why are you ready to move on. You’ll need to give some solid examples of what you’ve learned during your time at Landmark and how this will help you to be successful at your next college or university. 
  • Regarding “what do you hope to achieve?” This can be straightforward or more detailed. A straightforward answer could be: "I want to earn my bachelor's degree because having a solid educational background is important to me.”  A more in-depth and detailed answer might be along the lines of: “I always wanted to be a veterinarian, and the first step is to earn my bachelor’s degree…” 

For all essay questions, be sure you are actually answering the question and keep in mind who your audience is.

A Few More Thoughts About College Essays

  • There are no right or wrong answers to a college essay. Don't get preoccupied with saying what you think the admissions committee might want to hear.
  • Read the question carefully and make sure that you have clearly answered the question being asked.
  • Using words you don't know is a dangerous game. Using words incorrectly is a dead giveaway that you are not a strong writer.
  • Be yourself, but don't be a comedian—humor often falls flat in essays. 
  • When writing your essay, ask yourself: "Who will be reading my essay, and have I said anything that could seem offensive to that person?"
  • Unless you are asked to write about a specific political topic, keep your politics, religion, and business affairs out of your essay.
  • You will often be given a limit to how long your essay can be. Do not allow your essay to go longer than the stated limit. Nothing turns off an admissions committee more than students that can't follow directions.