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Prepare Now for that College Application Essay

Here are some tips for writing that 500-word college common application essay.

Tick.  Tick.  Tick.  You’re only weeks away from starting your senior year.  And you want to squeeze every bit of fun and sun into August’s last steamy days.  But if you haven’t already started—or finished—your 500 word college common application essay, here are three good reasons why doing so before September rolls around will pay off.

1.    Selecting the right topic takes thought, time and, sometimes, trial and error.  Why turn up the pressure on yourself by waiting ‘til the week before your application’s due to write your essay?  You can start—or finish—now.

In case you don’t already know, this year’s topics are the same as last year’s.  These are the possibilities:

a) Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

b) Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.

c) Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.

d) Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.

e) A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.

f) Topic of your choice.

Sometimes it takes a couple false starts to pick the right topic.  It might be tempting, for example, to choose the one that seems easiest at first, only to find that it doesn’t best showcase your talents, writing skills, personality and unique qualities you can bring to the campus community.

For example, you might be tempted to choose topic C because it seems easy to write about how your soccer coach inspired you to play first string when you thought you’d never make the cut.  But once you get started, you might find that topic seems too predictable, that you know classmates who could write a similar essay.  What you want to do is pick the topic that gives you the best chance of capturing the attention of busy college admissions officers.

Time to regroup and start again.

That doesn’t mean your first attempt didn’t teach you something that will help you choose another topic and write the essay that best shows off your skills, your ambitions and your commitment.

Better to find that out now, rather than the night before your application goes into the mail.

2.    Do the math!  Once the school year starts, it’s easy for coursework, sports and other activities to distract from the time and energy it takes to write an essay that will give him you the best shot at admission into a first-choice school.  Focusing on essay writing while getting ready for Homecoming or finishing a science project or volunteering at the senior center won’t be as easy as it is now.  You just won’t have as much time then as you do now.

3.    Writing a first draft takes time and energy, but your job doesn’t stop there.  Proofreading for grammar and spelling isn’t all that time-consuming.  But a comprehensive edit often takes more time and energy than writing the first draft.  Why?  Because it’s in the editing process that you’ll need to take your thinking and writing skills to a deeper level by asking questions like these:

  • Have I presented my thoughts logically yet creatively?
  • Have I included concrete examples to support my central thesis?
  • If a friend had written this essay and asked me to review it, what would I suggest to make it better?

Once you’re satisfied with your draft, set it aside, then go back to it a week or so later.  Do you still love it as much as you did when you thought you were through?  If the answer’s yes, terrific.  If not, it’s time for another draft.

When you’re done, remember you’ll need also need to write college-specific essays on applications for individual schools. They’re likely to be shorter than the common app essay, but they’ll still take thought and energy.  Not to mention time.

Madeleine Parish is a writing coach and editor specializing in creative and academic writing, including college application essays.  She lives in Darien and can be reached at mppwriter@gmail.com.

Ms. Parish offers some good advice here. Now is the time to start those essays. Remember, though, the college essay is completely different from the five paragraph essay you've learned to write for school. This is about you, and you need to be genuine. Make sure your essay sounds like you and is written in your words using your voice. Kim Lifton, Partner, Wow Writing Workshop, Michigan.

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