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College Essay Writing and Interview Skills


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2015 Common Application – Your Essay May Be Optional!

Common App optional essay 2015

The Common Application just released this information:

“Starting with the 2015-2016 application year, Common Application Member colleges and universities will have the choice to require or not require the Common App Personal Essay.”

This change means that it is possible some students may not be required to write a Common App personal essay.

Do I hear cheering?

Hold on a sec…

The Common App also says that students will always have the option to submit the personal essay.  

So if you’re faced with the choice – to write or not to write – what do you do?

WRITE, of course!

The Common App essay gives you the chance to stand out. Schools get to know you apart from your test scores, grades, and activities list.

So, take the time. Write a story about yourself that highlights your unique qualities and shows how you’re growing into a mature young adult.

Give the schools another reason to know you’re the kind of student they can’t afford to be without. 

Find more information about the Common App’s new essay changes on their blog.
For a list of the 2015-2016 Common Application Essay Prompts, click here.

sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skills


Sharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting in Redding, Connecticut. A Writers Guild Award-winner and two-time Emmy Award nominee, Sharon lectures extensively on essay writing. Sharon teaches students how to master interview skills, write killer resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into memorable college application essays. She works with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, Skype and email. Visit her website for more info. Connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.

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College Essay 500 Word Limit: 5 Simple Ways to Pare it Down

college-essay-500-word-limitMany college essays, including the essay for The Common Application, limit you to 500 words.

It can be tough to write an interesting, creative essay and keep it short, but if you know a few simple tips you can deliver an essay that will impress.

Here are 5 Ways to Succeed with the 500 Word Limit:

1. Think Small Instead of Big. Don’t try to tackle a big topic like world peace or what you did for your entire summer vacation. Choose a shorter span of time and a topic that’s not too broad.

2. Write About a Moment. A moment is a brief period of time when you learned something meaningful to you. Moments can make powerful essays.

Here’s an Example of a Moment:

  • A student working in a store noticed that a customer had dropped some change. It wasn’t a lot and he almost didn’t stop to pick it up, but then he did. The customer was extremely grateful and told him she was counting on that money. The student wrote about how he’d never forget that something insignificant to him could make such a big difference to someone else.

3. Begin in the Middle of Your Story, Where the Action or Conflict Starts. This technique will not only save you words but it’s also a great way to draw the reader into your story. Here are two examples of introductions that were changed to start with action:

Example #1:
Before:
“I spent my summer vacation interning in the emergency room of a hospital.”
Changed: “The bloody gurney wheeled past me. I closed my eyes and prayed for the strength not to pass out.

Example #2:
Before: “I always wanted to climb a mountain, so that’s what I decided to do my freshman year.”
Changed: “Hurry up!” my dad yelled, as I scrambled to collect myself for another day of mountain climbing.

4. Use Adjectives and Adverbs Wisely. If your essay is too long try to edit out some of your adjectives and adverbs. Here are two examples of edits and the reasons behind them:

Example #1:
Before: As Andrew walked his large legs made heavy, thumping sounds. He turned to stare at the dawning sunrise.
Changed: As Andrew walked his legs made heavy, thumping sounds. He turned to stare at the sunrise.
Why the Change? 1. Size adjectives, like “large,” are often too general. “Heavy” and “thumping” are specific and convey the idea of being large. 2. “Sunrise” is dawn. Look for these kinds of redundancies.

Example #2:
Before: “He walked convincingly.
After: “He strode.”
Why the Change? One word conveys the same idea.

5. Edit Your Essay. Here are 4 ways to eliminate words:

  1. Eliminate any details or explanations that don’t move you toward your conclusion.
  2. Don’t repeat your ideas.
  3. Pare down adjectives and adverbs (see tip #4).
  4. Ask someone else to read you essay. Sometimes, as writers, we get attached to our material and it becomes difficult to know what to cut. Ask one or more people who know you to give you suggestions.

Can you submit an essay that’s over the limit? Check with the admissions office at the college(s). They’ll be able to guide you.

related posts:
How to Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit: Pt 1 (7 Tips to Remember)
How to Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit: Pt 2 (Think Small and Still Tell a Big Story)
How to Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit: Pt 3 (Essay Samples )
How to Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit: Pt 4 (Ideas that Work)

Read Time.com on the Common App Essay Word Limit

sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skillsSharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting, and is the recipient of a Writers Guild Award and two Emmy nominations for her work in television. I work with students everywhere: in-person, over the phone, and by computer. Connect with me on Google+, Twitter and Pinterest:
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How to Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit: pt 4 (Ideas that Work)

Congratulations! If you’re reading this, you’re on your way to succeeding with the Common App Essay’s 500 Word Limit.

So far in this 4 part series, I’ve given you 7 Important Tips to Remember, told you how to Think Small and Still Tell a Big Story, and showed you some Writing Samples.

Now, here’s how to find Ideas that Work:

1. Don’t Choose a Topic that’s Too Big

This is perhaps the most important thing to remember. If you write about your entire summer vacation, or an idea or event that’s going to take 3 paragraphs just to explain, you’re in trouble before you begin.

2. Write about a Moment in Time

If you can find a moment — something that happened in a brief period – you can be well on your way to tackling the 500 word limit.

For example, I had a student tell me about the time he spent playing catch with his brother. It started out helping him improve his baseball skills, but then he found it drew them together as brothers. He used that game of catch — that moment in time — to write about their friendship.

I also had a student write about babysitting for kids who played video games instead of using their imaginations, and she talked about how imagination was so important to her. She used that night of babysitting as her jumping off point to write her Common Application essay. It was her moment in time.

Remember, moments can be easily related in 500 words. If you want more examples,  I’ve written more about moments in an earlier blogpost.

3. Write about an Idea

What do you love? What is it about you that makes you different, interesting, or unique?

Let’s say you love music. Why? What does it do for you? How does it shape who you are or how you see yourself in the world?  Use the IDEA to craft an essay.

Connecticut College has a great page called “Essays that Worked.”  On it are different Common App essays from admitted students, including a couple of examples of how students write about an “idea.” One student writes about why she doesn’t watch television, another writes about why she’s so comfortable when she’s curled up. While these essays are over 500 words (they were submitted before the new limit), an idea can definitely be tackled in 500 words or less.

4. Leave time to Edit!

I can’t stress this enough — leave enough time to edit your work. If you’re long and you don’t know what to do, ask an adult who has good writing skills to help you. But you can’t finish at 11 pm before your deadline and expect to edit your essay.

Well-edited essays are stronger, clearer, and easier to read.
Editing shows you took the time to review and polish your work.

Impress your college reader. Edit.

5. Does the Common Application Essay Need to be 500 Words???

This is a great question, and one that’s being answered in different ways. The Common Application says it expects students to adhere to the limit. I’ve talked to admission counselors who say that going over a little isn’t going to hurt anyone. Others say if you’re over by a lot, it doesn’t say good things about you being able to follow instructions.

Here’s what I have to say:

1. If you want your Common Application essay to be more than a few words over the limit, contact the admissions counselors at the schools you’re applying to. They’re the only ones who can give you a definite answer.

2. Boring is boring, no matter how long or short it is. So be interesting, be yourself, and write a wonderful, 500 word essay.

related posts:
How to Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit: Pt 1 (7 Tips to Remember)
How to Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit: Pt 2 (Think Small and Still Tell a Big Story)
How to Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit: Pt 3 (Essay Samples )

Read Time.com on the Common App Essay Word Limit

Sharon Epstein, FIrst Impressions College Consulting..Sharon Epstein First Impressions College Consulting
Need help? Get in touch! I work with students everywhere: in-person, over the phone, and by computer. Visit my website for contact info.


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How to Succeed with the Common App Essay 500 Word Limit: pt 3 (Essay Samples)

Congratulations! If you’re reading this, you’re on your way to handling the Common App Essay’s 500 Word Limit.

In part 1 & part 2 of this series, I gave you 7 Important Tips to Remember, and told you how to Think Small And Still Tell a Big Story.

Here are 4 more writing tips, including before and after writing samples, so you can see how to pare down an essay without compromising your ideas:

1. Start In the Middle of Your Story. Begin right in the middle of things, where your action or conflict starts. You’ll not only save words, but also create excitement and immediately draw the reader into your story. Here are three examples of changing an opening line:

Example #1:

  • Before: “I spent my summer vacation interning in the emergency room of a hospital in Seattle.”
  • After: “The bloody gurney wheeled past me. I closed my eyes and prayed for the strength not to pass out.

Example #2:

  • Before: “I always wanted to climb a mountain, so that’s what I decided to do my freshman year.”
  • After: “‘Hurry up and get your rear in gear!’ my dad yelled, as I scrambled to collect myself for another day of mountain climbing.”

Example #3:

  • Before: “Last year was a rough time for me. My parents and I really didn’t get along.”
  • After: “I opened the letter, not knowing how angry my parents would be.”

Tip: If you’re not sure where your action should start, write your story from the beginning. You’ll probably find your action begins in the second or third paragraph.

2. Use Adjectives and Adverbs Wisely. Don’t be a word hog. If you’re over 500 words, start by eliminating some of your adjectives and adverbs. You probably won’t miss them.

Example #1:

  • Before: As he moved, his large legs made heavy, thumping sounds. He turned to stare at the amazing, dawning sunrise.
  • After: As he moved, his legs made heavy, thumping sounds, He turned to stare at the sunrise.
  • Why? 1. Size adjectives like “large” are often too general. Words like “heavy” and “thumping” are specific. 2. “Amazing” is an overused adjective. Try not to use it. 4. “Sunrise” is “dawn.” Look for these kinds of redundancies.

Example #2:

  • Before: “He walked convincingly.”
  • After: “He strode.” The writer condensed his words by choosing one word that conveyed the same idea.

3. Use Dialogue With Less Commentary. Dialogue works well in a college application essay. But when you need to pare down your words, go easy on the commentary — the words that explain the dialogue.

Example:
A father and son are climbing the face of a cliff.

  • Before:
    “I can’t reach it!” he yelled.
    “That’s okay, I’ve got you,” his father replied knowingly.
    “No, dad,” he said, scared.
    “You won’t fall, son,” his father coaxed. “Slide your hand up until you feel the ledge.”
    He stretched out his fingers and grasped the rock. “I’ve got it!”
  • After:
    “I can’t reach it!”
    “That’s okay, I’ve got you.”
    “No, dad.”
    “You won’t fall, son. Slide your hand up until you feel the ledge.”
    He stretched out his fingers and grasped the rock. “I’ve got it!”

Twelve words were cut. The dialogue is still effective (even better, actually, because the action is faster), and the commentary is minimal.

4. Have Someone Else Read Your College Application Essay. Sometimes, as writers, we’re just too close to our material, and it becomes difficult to know what to cut. Ask one or more people who know you to look at your essay and give suggestions.

Now you’re ready for part 4: Ideas that Work!

Read Time.com on the Common App Essay Word Limit

related posts:
How to Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit: Pt 1 (7 Tips to Remember)
How to Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit: Pt 2 (Think Small and Still Tell a Big Story)
How to Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit: Pt 4 (Ideas that Work)

Read Time.com on the Common App Essay Word Limit

Sharon Epstein, FIrst Impressions College Consulting..Sharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting
Need help? Get in touch! I work with students everywhere: in-person, over the phone, and by computer. Visit my website for more info.

Leave a comment — I’d like to know what you think.


6 Comments

How to Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit: pt 2 (Think Small and Still Tell a Big Story)

Welcome! If you’re reading this you’re on your way to success with the Common Application Essay’s 500 Word Limit!

In part 1 of this 4 part series, I gave you 7 Important Tips to Remember. Now I’m going to give you 5 Ways to Think Small And Still Be Able to Tell a Big Story.

One concern I hear from students is that they can’t tell their story in 500 words. After all, this essay has to pack a big punch; it has to say good things about you, show the college why you’re unique, what kind of learning experiences you’ve had, and why you’d make a good addition to the campus community. How can you fit that all into 500 words?

Here’s how:

1. Start by Knowing What a 500 Word Essay Looks Like

  • 500 words is one page and about five paragraphs.
  • Take a look at the handout I give my students, It will give you a visualization illustration of 500 words.
  • Surprised? Now that you know, you can start to plan.

2. Choose a Smaller Topic, Instead of Big

  • Don’t try to tackle a big topic like world peace or what you did on your entire summer vacation, you don’t have the space. Choose a shorter experience or a moment in time that was meaningful to you and reflects something positive about you.  
  • Moments are a great way to “think small” and still be able to tell a big story
  • Here’s an example of writing about a moment: Alan worked at the checkout counter of a store. One day a customer didn’t notice she’d dropped some change, and Alan picked it up and returned it. The customer was extremely grateful, and Alan said he’d never forget the moment he understood that even a small amount of change could make a big difference to someone.

This moment happened in a matter of seconds, but had a major impact on Alan and was a growing experience for him and was a good choice to write about.

3. Never Lose Track of Your Point

  • Know the point of your essay. You should be able to write it down in one sentence. For example: “I learned to trust my parents, and that every argument has two points of view.”
  • Every paragraph should direct the reader to your point. It’s like pouring water into a funnel. If the top of the funnel is your introduction and the spout is your conclusion, all the ideas guide the reader in that direction.
  • Eliminate ideas that don’t direct the reader to your point

Here’s an Example

  • Remember Alan? What if Alan thought he should describe how funny his co-worker Alice was because she couldn’t eat peanut butter and jelly without getting jelly all over the cash register?  Interesting? Maybe. Does it get to his point? No.
  • Think of it like climbing a tree. Your essay is the trunk of the tree. Sliding off onto a branch might give you a different view, but you only have time to climb the trunk. Alan’s tree trunk was the customer, the dropped change, and his realization.

4. Edit! Even if it hurts.

  • Edit out any ideas, details, or explanations that don’t move you toward your point. (See #3)
  • Don’t repeat your ideas.
  • Pare down your adjectives.
  • Get rid of extraneous words.

5. Don’t Wait Until the Last Draft to Count your Words

For your first draft or freewrite, let your imagination go. Then do a word count after that. You’ll be more in control and spend less time figuring out what to cut.

To summarize: Moments are a great way to “think small” and still be able to tell a big story. Keep to your point and you can write an effective, memorable, and short Common Application personal essay. Edit and keep track of your word count.

Now you’re ready for Part 3: Essay Samples!

related posts:
How to Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit: Pt 1 (7 Tips to Remember)
How to Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit: Pt 3 (Essay Samples )
How to Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit: Pt 4 (Ideas that Work)

for more info: Read Time.com on the Common App Essay Word Limit

Sharon Epstein, FIrst Impressions College Consulting..Sharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting
Need help? Get in touch! I work with students everywhere: in-person, over the phone, and by computer. Visit my website for more info.

Leave a comment — I want to know what you think.


3 Comments

Writing College Application Essays: How to Choose a Topic, Part 2

It can be tough deciding on a topic for your college application essay. Many students just can’t think of an idea.

That’s why, in a recent post, I suggested 3 questions to ask yourself if you’re having trouble choosing a topic for your college application essay:

1. Is there a time in my life I’ve taken a risk?

2. Is there a time I’ve turned a failure into a success?

3. Has there been a difficult choice I’ve had to make, but I’m glad I made it?

Here’s another way to choose a topic for your college application essay:

Do this: Close your eyes and think of 2 or 3 moments in your life that stand out. Don’t think too hard! What comes to mind first? Is it a success? A failure? An embarrassment? An opportunity? Maybe it’s a moment spent with a family member, friend, or even someone you briefly met and never saw again. Be honest with yourself. Don’t toss a memory under the rug because it’s painful or embarrassing. Write it down.

Now: Ask yourself why that memory stands out. Did you learn anything from it? Did it change you in any way? Did it influence your actions or thoughts, the choices you later made, or how you see the world somehow?

Sometimes first thoughts are best thoughts. Take the time to figure out why these memories have made an impact on you. They might just make a great college application essay.


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Writing College Application Essays: First Commandment: “Know Thyself”

Question: What’s more important than the topic of your college application essay?
Answer:
Knowing who you are.

What do I mean when I say “know who you are?”

  • Know what kind of person you are
  • Know what your values are
  • Know why you make the choices you do
  • Know how you want to represent yourself to the colleges who will be reading your college application essay.

This can be tough. We usually don’t write about ourselves, or think about what makes us interesting or what our goals are. We usually don’t reflect. But reflection is very important. You can even do it before you choose a topic. In some cases it will lead to a topic. And wouldn’t that be great?!

Question: How do you figure out who you are?
Answer:
Do the research. Interview your subject.

You’d do research on a subject for a school paper, right? Of course. Your college application essay is no different —  it’s just that the subject is you. So let’s get started. Here’s how you get to know yourself:

1. Schedule: You need a quiet time with no intrusions. It can be one longer session or several shorter ones, but try to get it done over a few days at most. Your don’t want long interruptions of time —  you want your thoughts to flow.

2. Prep: Make sure you have a pen and paper or a computer to write down your answers. After each question give yourself time to think.

3. Interview questions. Here are 6 questions to get you started:

1. What are 3 values I respect? For instance — respect, loyalty, courage? (There are many values you can think about. Google them.)

2. How do I reflect these values in my choices?

3. How would I describe myself to a stranger?

4. What do my friends like about me?

5. What’s been the hardest thing in my life?

6. What are my goals and how do I plan to reach them?

You’ll probably think of more questions as you go along. After all, you know your subject best.

When you start writing you’ll find you may not use all of your answers in your college application essay. That’s okay; you have a reservoir of material to draw from. What’s even better is these answers don’t belong to anyone else — they can’t. They help define who you are. They detail what makes you interesting, what your journey has been. No one else will be able to write your essay. That’s the way it should be. That’s what colleges are looking for in a great college application essay.

One more thing about your interview subject: Make sure he or she is honest. If you allow your subject to skate by with half-truths or skirt important answers you won’t really get to know him. Neither will the college you want to attend. And that would be a real shame.