Applying To College

College Essay Writing and Interview Skills


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Common Application Essay Quiz – Are You Ready To Write?

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Are you ready to write your Common Application essay? Take this quiz and find out.

It’s a fun way to collect some important info before you sit down at the keyboard. Because writing a great college essay isn’t just about getting something written—you need to know what you’re writing and why.

quiz-nightsTest yourself! See how many answers you know.

Ready? Here goes—

  1. What’s the maximum word length of a Common Application Essay?
  2. Name at least three things colleges look for in a Common Application essay.
  3. How important is it to write about a big event in your life?
  4. Can you name at least three of your positive qualities?
  5. What’s sensory detail and why is it important?
  6. If you’re having trouble writing or finding a topic, where can you get help?
  7. Should you let someone read your essay when it’s finished?
  8. What if you’re not inspired by the Common Application prompts—are you stuck?
  9. Can you revise your essay after it’s been uploaded?
  10. Why is it important to capture your reader’s attention at the start?
  11. What’s the most important thing to do before you write?
  12. BONUS QUESTION: How many Common Application questions are there this year?

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Answers:

1. What’s the maximum word length of a Common Application Essay? 650 words. You can’t upload more than that.

2. Name at least three things colleges look for in a Common Application Essay. Colleges look for several things, including:

  • Your writing skills
  • Your communication skills
  • Your personality on the page
  • Some of your best qualities or values
  • How you think or make decisions
  • And often, what you’ve learned or how you’ve grown from your experience

3. How important is it to write about a big event in your life? Not at all. In fact, some of the best essays are about smaller moments in life. How do you find your smaller moments? Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Have you made a decision or have a personal accomplishment not many people know about?
  • Is there a hobby or interest that shows off your personality?
  • Is there an object in your room, garage, or coat pocket that means a lot to you and has a story behind it?
  • What do you do, or where do you go, when you’re curious and want to learn more?
  • What do you think about when you’re by yourself?
  • What do you dream about?

Keep thinking! Lots of ideas can make original, interesting essays and none of them have to be “big.”

4. Can you list at least three of your positive qualities? If you can’t, download my positive qualities worksheet. Schools want to learn about your good qualities and you can’t tell them unless you know.

5. What is sensory detail and why is it important? Sensory detail explains how something smells, feels, tastes, sounds or looks. Using sensory detail will make your essay pop–it will help it stand out and sound original. 

Try this experiment with sensory detail: Think of adjectives that describe how your dinner tasted last night. The adjectives should convey a sense of taste. Here are a few: spicy, bland, warm, mushy. Now, think about the difference between these two sentences: “I ate meatloaf last night”/“The meatloaf was so dry it was crispy.” The first sentence says you ate dinner. But the second sentence lets your reader taste that awful meatloaf. Dry and crispy are examples of sensory detail. Using sensory detail will help transform your essay from bland to knockout.

6. If you’re having trouble finding a topic or writing your essay, where can you get help? 

  • You can find more info on my blog. Try starting with How to Start Writing Your College Essay.
  • Look for resources in your school, like a writing center.
  • Ask a guidance counselor or an English teacher who’s read a lot of essays.
  • Read essays online for inspiration. I like Johns Hopkins because it includes comments from college admissions officers. Connecticut College is another good site.
  • Google the school(s) you’re applying to. Many have admissions blogs with essay advice.
  • Some students opt for private tutors (like me).
  • And finally, don’t forget the library—there are lots of books that will give you step-by-step guidance.

7. Should you let someone read your essay when it’s finished? Yes, especially to proofread. Ask a teacher or adult who is good with writing (and with English if English is your second language). Ask for help even if you’re a good proofreader—mistakes are easy to miss. Another reason to share an essay is to get feedback. Just be aware that when you ask for opinions you’ll get them. So take all the comments into consideration and then choose what to add or change, if anything. Remember, it’s your essay.

8. What if you’re not inspired by the Common Application prompts—are you stuck? No. This year (2017) the Common Application includes a topic of your choice. You can create your own topic, answer another college’s prompt, or use an exceptional essay you’ve already written. This prompt is brand new, so it will be interesting to see how students respond.

9. Can you revise your essay after it’s been uploaded? Yes. You’re allowed unlimited edits to the essay after your first application submission.

10Why is it important to capture your reader’s attention at the start? Your college reader has read lots of boring essays. Don’t be that person. Help your essay stand out. To learn three different ways to capture your reader’s attention, read 3 Ways to Start an Interesting College Essay.

11. What’s the most important thing to do before you write? Think. Give your brain time and space. Mull over ideas. Think in the shower, walking to class, or playing with the cat. Dislodge memories you haven’t thought about in forever. Get excited about what you love and what you care about. Only after you brainstorm should you sit down to write your Common Application essay.

12. How many Common Application questions are there this year? There are 7. These are the Common Application prompts for 2017-2018. You can also find the prompts on the Common App’s Facebook page.

For more information:
How to Start Writing Your College Essay
3 Ways to Start an Interesting College Essay.
Huffington Post: The Common App Essay Prompts are Changing

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


Find your story. Sharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting in Redding, Connecticut. She’s a Writers Guild Award-winner and two-time Emmy Award nominee who teaches students how to master interview skills, write killer resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into memorable college application essays. I work with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, Skype, Facetime and email. Visit my website for more info. Connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.

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3 Ways to Start an Interesting College Essay

how to start a college essayHow do you start your college essay in an interesting way?

It’s important to know, because if you put your reader to sleep in the first few sentences, well…

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…

So how do you make your first paragraph interesting?

Easy. Grab the reader’s attention. Entice him into wanting more. Create intrigue, excitement or suspense, so she’s excited to learn how your story turns out.

You’ll almost always find success.

Here’s the secret:

Just know three solid writing techniques and choose the one that’s best for you.

Here are 3 Great Ways to Start Your College Admissions Essay:

  how to start a college essay 1.  Start Where Your Action or Conflict Begins.

There are two kinds of action or conflict: 1. Physical  and 2. Mental.
Physical action or conflict is fairly self explanatory—there’s some kind of action going on in your story. (You’re breaking through the starting gate, tearing apart your bedroom, discovering a fossil.) Mental action or conflict is similar—something interesting is happening, but it’s something you’re thinking about. (You’re making a decision, attempting something out of your comfort zone, taking a chance.)

Examples

My body tenses, the anticipation prying doubts from my head, forcing me to tighten my grip and lock my jaw in preparation. It’s time.”

I plant my Giant Slalom poles into the snow and push my shivering body through the starting gate.”

“We sit in the very back row of the dark auditorium, watching, waiting, as the curtain begins to rise.”

Starting with action works because:

  • It plunges the reader directly into your story
  • It builds excitement
  • It grabs the reader’s interest and makes him or her want to find out more

Don’t make this mistake: Some students start their stories at the very beginning chronologically—like the day they started school or came down the stairs on Christmas morning.

Yawn.

That’s like starting a fairy tale at “Once upon a time.” (“Once upon a time there were deep dark woods and all the creatures who lived there, and the woods were very scary…”) You’re forced to wade through tons of description before you get to the interesting stuff—like when Little Red Riding Hood meets the wolf or the witch shoves Hansel into her oven.

Shove Hansel into the oven right away—start where the action begins.

Hot Tip: If you’re not sure where your action begins, write your story from beginning to end and then find the place something interesting starts to happen. It’s often several paragraphs from the beginning.

Before and After Action Example

A few years ago one of my students interned in an E.R. This is what he wrote to start his essay: 

Before: “I spent my summer vacation interning in the emergency room of a hospital in Seattle.”

Blah.

It was boring. There was no action. Nothing happened.  I asked him, What can you show us? What were you thinking? When did something interesting start to happen? This is how he revised it:

After: “The bloody gurney wheeled past me. I closed my eyes and prayed for the strength not to pass out.”

Fantastic! This is a vivid, energetic snapshot of the E.R. There’s both physical action (the gurney being wheeled) and mental conflict (the student doesn’t want to pass out). The student transported us into his world.

Give Background Info Later in Your Essay

Did you notice the student’s new sentence doesn’t mention he’s an intern, in Seattle, or even that he’s in a hospital?

Explain your background information later in your essay. This writing technique works! (Think about it—would you want to see a movie after your friend just told you the whole story?) By revealing your story as you go along, you create suspense and excitement for the story to come. You’ll make you reader WANT to keep reading to find out more.

Here’s the second method for how to start your college essay:

how to start a college essay2. Start With an Intriguing Statement.

Starting with an intriguing statement works well if your essay has less action and focuses more on your point of view or the way you think.

Here are three examples:

I’m done giving up.”

“I hate taking showers.”

“I love strangers.”

An intriguing statement works because: 

  • The statement itself is interesting
  • It tells the reader only part of the story
  • It creates anticipation for the story to come
  • It makes the reader want to keep reading to find out more

Try it. When you read the examples I gave you above, did you want to know why the student stopped giving up or why someone would hate to take showers? If you said yes, then you’ve been hooked by the power of an intriguing statement.

Here’s writing technique number three:

how to start a college essay3. Ask a Question.

Why did I quit the football team?”

A question works because: 

  • The question itself is interesting
  • The writer hints at only part of his story 
  • The writer builds anticipation for the story he’s about to tell

The technique here is simple: When you ask a question your reader will automatically keep reading to see how it all turns out. And that’s mission accomplished.

So…

Start with action, a question, or an intriguing statement. Grab your reader’s attention right away. You’ll be on your way to an interesting and memorable college application essay.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in July 2015 and has been revamped and updated to include additional information and examples.

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

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

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College Essay Help: How To Start Writing Your College Essay

how to start writing your college essayNot long ago a student called me. His guidance counselor asked him to write his college application essay and he wanted to brainstorm ideas. But then he confessed:

“I don’t even know where to start.”

That’s when I realized I needed to write this post. Because by the time you’re finished reading it, you’ll know how to start writing your college application essay personal statement—and have lots of ideas as well.

How Start Writing Your College Application Essay

1. Read Other College Application Essays. Get a feel for college essays by reading samples you can find online and in books. Some schools post their best essays online, including Hamilton College, Tufts, and Johns Hopkins. I especially like Johns Hopkins because you can read comments from their admissions officers, who tell you what they like about each essay.

Tip: Google the schools on your college list and see if they post college admissions essays. A good search term is “Essays that Worked.”

2. Use What You Read as Inspiration, Not Competition. This comment is for all the students who read sample essays and think they can “never write anything as good.” What makes an essay good is that the author has dug deep and put a part of him or herself directly on the page—it’s honest and written from the heart. That’s exactly what you need to do with your story—be honest and write from your heart. So get inspired, not intimidated.

3. Here Are Three More Things You Can Learn From Reading Essays:

Structure.

College Essay Help How to Start Your College Application EssayThere are lots of ways to structure an essay. An essay can be one story or a series of events; it can take place in one moment or over a longer period of time; it can be told chronologically or out-of-order; it can take place in the past or present tense (Or, if you want to get fancy, both.)

Find an essay or two you like and take a look at how they’re structured. If you find one that inspires you, that may be the structure for you.

Writing Techniques.

College Essay Help How to Start Your College Application Essay Good essays use good writing techniques. Pay special attention to how the writer grabs your attention from the beginning. (Read 3 Ways to Start an Interesting College Essay.) Focus on how the writer uses detail to illustrate the story’s look, feel, sound, taste and smell. Then read it out loud. (Yes, really!) I want you to notice that when sentences are different lengths the essay flows better. These are all super writing techniques you can use.

Personality.

College Essay Help How to Start Your College Application Essay

Everybody has a personality. (Okay, almost everybody.) But if your personality’s not in the essay, how’s the college going to get to know you? More important, how will they separate you from the next student, or the next 50 students?

Take this essay personality quiz: When you’re finished reading a sample essay ask yourself these questions: Did you get a sense of the writer’s personality and values? Could you strike up an interesting conversation with this person? Do you think he or she has told you one of the most important things about him or herself? Would the writer make a good college student? You should be able to answer yes to all of those questions. That’s what your essay should do, too.

Now, Make It Work for You!

4. Identify Your Positive Qualities. Are you kind? Compassionate? Determined? One of the best ways to create a unique essay is to showcase your positive qualities. Identifying your positive qualities can often help you find a topic, too.

Get started! Download my worksheet on Finding Your Positive Qualities. You’ll be on your way.

5. Brainstorm Every Possibility. Get creative! Never set limits on your ideas until you’ve thought of everything.

6. Display Your Passion. What do you love? What do you care about? What motivates you to learn and be curious outside the classroom? Get excited to write about what puts a fire under your feet and you’ll make your college reader excited, too. Passion is contagious!

7. You Don’t Need a Unique Topic, Just a Personal Approach. If you have an original topic, go for it. But the truth is, lots of students are passionate about similar events like travel, family and sports. If that’s the case, you must, must, must find an approach that’s unique to you. How do you do that? Show us the world from your point of view. If you want to write about sports, for instance, don’t write about winning “the big game”—think about why that sport matters to you. One of my students wrote about her love-hate relationship with her workout routine and used it to show her passion for rowing. Your essay should reflect your personality—no one else should be able to write it but you.

8. Be Someone Colleges Want to Accept. Colleges want students they feel will succeed now and far into the future. So show them you’re the person they’re looking for. Have you been through a tough situation? Show you’re resilient. Have you had to make decisions? Show you’re responsible. Write about your curiosity, your courage, your problem-solving skills—whatever is special to you. Get colleges excited in what you care about, and give them a great reason to accept you.

So…put your passion and heart on the page. Present it from your point of view. Show the colleges you’re ready to head into your future.

Now that you know how to start, you’re on your way.

Related post:
3 Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Start Writing Your College Application Essay

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


Sharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting in Redding, Connecticut. She is a Writers Guild Award-winner and two-time Emmy Award nominee. First Impressions College Consulting teaches students how to master interview skills, write killer resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into memorable college application essays. Our tutors are award-winning writers and published authors who work with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, video and email. Visit my website for more info. Connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.

 

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How to Write 2015 Common Application Essay #5: Transition from Childhood to Adulthood

how to write Common Application  essay 5 childhood to adulthoodThe Common Application essay prompts are out.

How do you choose which essay to write?

In this 5 part series I help you figure out which question on the 2015 Common Application essay is right for you.

We’re down to the last one. Whew!

Ready for #5?

Let’s do it!

Common Application Essay Prompt #5:

Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Is this Prompt for You? Look at the Keywords:

how to write 2013 common app essay

“Accomplishment or Event” … “Transition from Childhood to Adulthood” … “Culture, Community or Family”

What the Keywords Mean:

  • “Accomplishment or event” is a very broad phrase. That’s good! It means you can choose almost anything you’ve done, experienced or accomplished.
  • “Transition from childhood to adulthood.” Don’t feel quite like an adult yet? That’s okay — you can still answer the question. The Common App really wants to know how you’ve become more mature or responsible over time.  
    • Ask yourself these questions: Have you taken on more responsibility? Do you make decisions in a more mature way? Are you more dependable? Do you teach younger students what you’ve been taught? Does your family or community ask you for advice on an issue you’ve become knowledgeable about? Have you been through a religious or cultural rite of passage that was meaningful to you? There are many ways we grow into adulthood.

Still Looking for a Topic?

  • Here are a few more questions you can ask yourself: Did you set a goal for yourself that you achieved? Did you work hard at a task, hobby, or skill that you eventually were able to master? Did you have a relationship with an important person that helped shape you? Did you have a life event that forced you to take on more responsibility? Did you have an experience that helped you become more compassionate or understanding? Did you experience a traumatic event that made you see the world in a different way? Did you need to find a way to get yourself out of a difficult situation? Did you start your own business? Did you learn how to allocate your own money? These are just a few ideas — make sure to keep thinking!

how to write 2013 common app essay

Pitfalls to Avoid: 

  • Don’t forget to include a learning experience. Although the prompt doesn’t specifically ask for it, colleges want to know how you grew or what you learned from your experience. How did your experience shape your attitude, outlook or actions? How did it help you become the person you are today? Make sure to tell them.

Essay Topic Example 

A young woman began dancing before she could tie her shoes. The tradition at her dance studio was that the older dancers mentored the younger ones. As she grew older and became more accomplished, she started teaching the younger students. Now she helps them in the studio and outside of dance. As she has matured, the student has learned what it takes to be a friend and mentor, and is helping continue her dance studio’s tradition.

Is this Example Successful? Yes.

  • All the keywords are addressed.
    • The student writes about an accomplishment in her community.
    • Her transition from child to young adult is marked by taking on more responsibility and becoming a teacher and mentor to the younger dancers.
  • She learned from her experience.
    • The student has matured and become more responsible.

What Can Colleges Learn About You From This Question?

  • Your level of maturity.
    • Schools can get a feeling for how well you will interact with your peers and instructors, your decision-making abilities, and even your possible leadership skills.
  • Your ability to develop important relationships within your family, culture, or community.
    • Schools can learn what kind of community member you will be at college.
  • The kind of idea or experience that’s truly meaningful to you.
    • Your essay topic tells the school a great deal about what’s important to you. Make sure you choose a topic that is meaningful to you and says good things about you.

We’re done! We’ve covered all the prompts. If you’ve read the blog posts I’ve written on how to answer each question, you should be able to choose the right topic and write an essay that makes you shine. If you have any questions, drop me a line and let me know.

Also in this series:
How to Write Common App Prompt #1: Background, Talent, Identity, or Interest
How to Write Common App Prompt #2: A Time you Experienced Failure
How to Write Common App Prompt #3: Challenged a Belief or Idea
How to Write Common App Prompt #4: Problem You’ve Solved or Would Like to Solve

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 teaches students how to master interview skills, write killer resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into memorable college application essays. Sharon lectures extensively on essay writing. 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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2015-2016 Common Application Essay Prompts

2015-2016 Common Application Essay PromptsThe news is in!

The Common Application just announced The Common Application essay prompts for 2015-2016.

  • There are five questions to choose from.
  • The maximum essay length is 650 words.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing insights, question by question, to help students understand, think about, and write outstanding college application essays.  I have lots of ideas to pass along.  In the meantime —

Here are the 2015-2016 Common Application Essay Prompts:

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

2. The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea.  What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

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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Choosing the Right Words for Your Resume

Job vs. Work?

Experience vs. Skills?

How do you choose the best words to use on your resume?

Grammar checker Grammarly looked at 500 job postings, and then examined the language those companies used to express their hiring priorities. What did they learn?

The words that companies use in their job listings can convey the companies’ values and the type of employee they’re looking for.

Knowing that can be a big plus when you’re crafting your resume and cover letter.

Take a look at the infographic. You may find your resume is ready for an update.

Watch Your Words in the Job Search!

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 nominee, Sharon teaches students how to write memorable college application essays, write outstanding resumes, and master interview skills. She works with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, Skype and email. Visit her website for more information and connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.


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2014-2015 Common Application Essay Prompts

2014-2015 Common Application essay prompts

The news is in!

The Common Application just announced that The Common Application essay prompts for 2014-15 will be the same as last year.

The essay length will continue to be capped at 650 words.

Last year, nearly 70 percent of Common Application member colleges and 90 percent of school counselors said that the prompts were effective in helping students represent themselves to colleges. So they’re doing it again.

That’s good news. Last year my students wrote terrific essays using these prompts. And in the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing what I learned, and writing about how students can answer them.  I have lots of ideas to pass along.

In the meantime, here is the list:

The 2014-2015 Common Application Essay Prompts:

  • Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  • Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure.  How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
  • Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea.  What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  • Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content.  What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
  • Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skillsSharon 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 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.