Applying To College

College Essay Writing and Interview Skills


Leave a comment

College Visits: Great Prep for College Application Essays

Planning to visit colleges during spring break? You’re not alone. March is the time many high school juniors (and some sophomores) start their college tours.

On these visits you’ll be looking for answers to questions like “Is this school for me?” and “Will I be happy here?” But let me give you another question to ask yourself: “What can I learn from this visit that will help me write a great college application essay?”

 

Here are 3 ways to make college visits work for your college application essays:

1. Make contacts

Making contacts is great for two reasons: 1. You can learn a lot from the people you talk to, and 2. You can get in touch later if you have more questions.

There are several ways to make contacts:

  • Schedule an interview for the day you’re on campus. If the school doesn’t offer interviews see if you can get an interview with a professor in a field of study that interests you. Get your contact’s name (correctly spelled) and email, and send him or her a thank-you. That way if you have more questions you can follow up knowing you’ve already made a good impression.
  • Are you an athlete? See if you can meet a coach or a student athlete. Same goes for the thank-you note.
  • Chat with your tour guide when you go on the tour. At the end ask for his or her name and email and ask if you can write if you have more questions.

2. Notice details

Details are important in college application essays. They make your essays personal and separate you from students writing essays so generic that 1,000 others could have written the same one.

When you visit each college notice what makes an impression on you. It can be anything from how you feel walking on campus to the kind of students you meet. The details don’t matter, as long as they matter to you.  Do you see a dorm you might want to live in? Find out its name. Is your tour guide a member of the student council and you think you’d like to join? Ask what her experiences have been.

The more details you collect now the more information you’ll have for your essay later.

3. Write it down:

Take a pad with you and write it down. Let me say it again: write it down. At the end of the day your note pad should have the names and emails of your contacts, and a detailed list of what you saw and liked, and why.

Why go through the trouble? Let me give you an example: A student of mine had to write a short essay about why he wanted to go to college X.  In his first draft he wrote that he went on the tour and liked the campus and dorms. It was too generic, so I asked him to find an alum or someone on campus he could talk to. He surprised me by saying that he’d hit it off with his campus tour guide and had gotten his email. So he emailed him with some questions about campus life and extra-curricular activities, and asked him more about the dorm he’d liked.  When he re-wrote his essay it was full of detail. He also made sure to mention he had corresponded with his tour guide — an impressive fact that was not going be lost on the school.

Prep for your college application essays. Use your college visits as opportunities to make contacts and gather details. The end result will be essays that are detailed, personal, and well worth the effort.


Leave a comment

Who Should Read Your College Application Essay?

When I was speaking last week at the Mark Twain Library in Redding along with Matthew Dempsey from Fairfield University, we both addressed the question of who should read a student’s college application essay before it’s submitted.

Here are our suggestions:

Ask more than one teacher, preferably an English teacher, to read your essay. Why more than one? Because different people see different things. One teacher might flag your grammar and sentence structure while another might focus more on your story telling and organization.

Try to find someone who knows what’s expected by a college application essay. College application essays are different beasts. Unlike the usual high school essay, this essay has to reflect you —  your interests, your insight, and what makes you unique.

Parents can be good readers, too. Parents may not be your most objective audience (which is why teachers are important), but they know you, and can tell if there’s enough “you” in your essay.

Hire a college essay coach when you need one.

  • College coaches know what colleges expect.
  • College coaches can see the weak points in an essay and provide detailed suggestions on how to strengthen them. They have many tools and teaching techniques at their fingertips.
  • College coaches can relieve family tension. They’ll handle time management and deadlines, so parents don’t have to worry (or squabble with their teens).

Find people you trust to read your college application essay. It’s an important part of the writing process.


Leave a comment

Writing College Application Essays: Overcoming Procrastintation

So it’s almost the end of October and your college applications are due soon. You’ve written some of your short essays, but haven’t started the long one. You know it’s got to be done — it’s niggling away in the back of your brain, slightly annoying, starting to become more and more persistent, but you keep pushing it back, thinking you’ll start it tomorrow, or the day after, or sometime after that. So when are you going to start writing your college application essay?

Let me ask that question another way. Why haven’t you started? Here are some common reasons I hear:

1. Too busy
2. No topic
3, Too nervous
4. Writer’s block

Let’s tackle these problems one by one:

Too Busy? Divide your essay writing into manageable pieces. Do it in small bites. Take a look at your schedule and see where you can give yourself a half hour at a time. Then divide up what you need to do. The first half hour choose a topic and jot down some thoughts.  The next make an outline. The next begin to flesh it out, and so on. You’ll have an essay before you know it.

No topic? Try these exercises:

  1. List 3 or 4 people who have influenced you. Then write down what you’ve learned from them and how that’s made you a better, more interesting or different person in your life.
  2. Ask your family to help you try and remember a time when you struggled with something that you learned from or helped you grow as a person, and then jot down some of your own feelings about that time.

After you’re done, take a look at what you’ve written. You’ll probably find a good college application essay waiting for you in one of your answers.

Too Nervous? Nerves are common, but too many nerves can stop you in your tracks. The trick is to start writing. Even if you don’t have a topic, just write. Don’t know where to start? That leads me to the last problem:

Writer’s Block: Writer’s block can be caused by lots of things, including nerves, but if you’ve got it you’ve got to find a way to get rid of it. I like free-writing. Go to a quiet place and write for five minutes.  Don’t put any pressure on yourself about what to write, just do it. It can be about anything, or nothing. You can write about the pieces of lint on your carpet or how your little brother is annoying or anything that comes to mind. The trick is don’t stop. If you’re writing and draw a blank, write the last sentence over again until something new comes to mind. Have fun and try to enjoy it. After you’re done, free-write again, this time about the topic you’ve chosen for your college application essay. But don’t write your essay. Write about one aspect of your topic, one detail, or one emotion. When you’re done, look it over. If it’s awful, toss it in the trash. It’s okay to do that. Not everything we write is for keeps. But keep on with this process and you can be well on your way to overcoming your writer’s block and moving ahead.

Figure out why you’re procrastinating and you can get on with the business of writing your college application essay. I hope these tips help speed you on your way!


2 Comments

College Admissions Essays: Finding Your Authentic Voice

If you walked up to your friends and said  “What’s shakin, bacon?” instead of “Hi” would they laugh? Would they wonder what alien abducted their friend, or whose voice you borrowed?

There are lots of ways to say hello: “Hi, How are you, How ‘ya doin’, Yo, Peace, Hey, What’s up…” the list is almost endless. How do you say “Hello”? Whatever way you say it, it’s your own, because you’re speaking in your own voice. And that’s important to remember when writing your college admissions essay. Write in your own voice. Your authentic voice.

How do you know if you’re writing in your authentic voice?

Here are four tips:

1. Read your essay out loud: If it reads easily , you probably have a good handle on your voice. Take note of places you stumble and work on those.

2. Is your writing style too formal? If your essay has a lot of formal language like “thus” and “however” take another look and make sure it’s necessary. If not, choose less formal words. If some of your sentences feel stiff when you read them out loud, try changing the sentence structure around and then read it again.

3. Is your writing style too casual? It is possible to be too casual. Remember, you’re writing your college admissions essay for an adult to read. This isn’t a text message to your bff.

4. If you’re having trouble finding your authentic voice: Try writing a mock letter to a friend who doesn’t know you very well. It can be about anything: school, your friends, what you do for fun, what the dog did yesterday.  Be the narrator and explain what that part of your life is like. As you write, you’ll find you start using more of your authentic voice.

Your college admissions essay needs to reflect you, and who you are. One important way to do that is to write in your own voice.

I’m outta here.


Leave a comment

Writing College Admissions Essays: A TV Lesson in Good Planning

I was watching TV today (I do that a lot). It was a program about a do-it-yourself bathroom renovation disaster, one of those shows where an expert arrives just in time to help the hapless homeowner.

The homeowner (let’s call him Dave) had started to renovate his basement bathroom, which included a laundry. First he put in a new washer and dryer. Then he put in the trap for the toilet (the opening in the floor for the toilet). Next, he wanted to put a wall between the toilet and the washer and dryer. That’s where Dave’s project had stalled.

I watched as the expert looked at the trap, then at the washer and dryer. Then he turned to Dave and asked, “How far from the wall should the toilet be?”

Dave paused. “Maybe about two and a half feet?”

“That’s right,” the expert said, as he measured the distance to the washer and dryer. “Unfortunately, that’ll put your new wall about a foot from your washer and dryer. You won’t have any room to do your laundry.” Silence. “I get the feeling you didn’t make a plan here,” the expert said.

“Not at all,” said our helpless homeowner.

“Well,” replied the expert, “You’ve got to have a plan. If you don’t know where you’re ending up you won’t have an idea how to get there.”

Simple, right? You might even be saying, “How dumb is this guy? He went ahead without even thinking.”

You can’t do that with your college admissions essay.

You need to have a plan before you start writing. Make an outline. Know where you’re starting with your college essay, where you’re heading, and where you want to end up. Spend time thinking about your conclusion. (Don’t forget it’s the last thing your college admissions reader sees.)  What will you say you experienced or learned? What will the admissions reader learn about you? Do all that before you start typing.

If you don’t know where you’re ending up you won’t have an idea how to get there.

You can go back later to add details, rearrange sentences (even paragraphs if necessary), and edit until you’re satisfied. But first build your structure.

Take it from our hapless homeowner. Make a plan. Otherwise you may not have any room to do your laundry.

For more help outlining and organizing your college admissions essay, read my previous post  “Organizing Your Thoughts.”


1 Comment

Writing College Admissions Essays: Organize Your Thoughts

My college roommate Vera used to do a remarkable thing. She’d sit down and write a paper. Not one paragraph. Not two paragraphs. The entire thing. Start to finish, introduction to conclusion.

And then there was me, writing my outline, then writing, revising and editing.

How could she do that so fast? (Okay, besides the genius factor. I mean, who sits down and writes an entire college paper from their head? ) Here’s the answer: She didn’t. While I wrote my outline, Vera was thinking. I wrote it down, but she didn’t. We did the exact same thing in two different ways. We both spent time thinking before we started. We organized our thoughts.

When people ask me what college admissions readers are looking for in an essay I say three things:

  • How well you convey what’s unique and interesting about you
  • How well you write
  • How you structure and organize your thoughts

That’s the top three. If your thoughts are rambling and your ideas are scattered you might as well save the money for your application fee. So how do you organize your thoughts for a college admissions essay? The best way to start is with an outline.

If you need help getting starting, use this tried and true method: Divide your essay into three parts: introduction, body, and conclusion.

Your introduction needs to be compelling enough to propel the reader into the rest of your essay. For example, you can ask a question that needs to be answered, or present an event in a way that reveals itself as the essay unfolds. In the body you answer that question or reveal that information. This is where you present your facts, tell your story, and include your details. You end with your conclusion.

Don’t know where to start with your outline? I’m with you. It can be tough to get going. So brainstorm. Take a quiet moment and think about your topic. Write down all the thoughts that come to you. All of them. Don’t edit yourself. Be creative. Ask yourself questions, and answer them. Think about details and write them down. Think about humorous things or sad things or what people said, and write that down, too. Let your mind take you and go there. You’ll have a treasure trove, I promise you. Then edit and organize those thoughts, and you’ll have a starting place for your outline.

The work that takes place before you begin to write is the hard part. Work on your outline. Make sense of your essay. Organize your thoughts. You’ll be well on your way to success.