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

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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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What the CIA and Romance Novels Taught Me About Writing (Part 3): Beware Disconnected Ideas

Guest blogger: Joanna NovinsCopy of What the CIA and Romance Novels Taught Me About WritingPart 3 Beware Disconnected Ideas

As I write this blog, a Sesame Street song keeps running through my head, “One of these things is not like the other, one of these things is not the same…”

The third lesson in this series is a lesson as simple as the Sesame Street song. It’s so simple that I almost hesitate to write about it. And yet, it’s a mistake I see made by both seasoned professionals and students.

Connecting Disconnected Ideas

In my experience, people connect disconnected ideas because they have a lot of facts or ideas they’re trying to get down on the page. When you read through your drafts, examine each paragraph carefully. Ask yourself if all of the ideas or sentences in the paragraph have a common theme. If they don’t, to paraphrase the Sesame Street song, remove the ideas that are not like the other ones. If they do have a common theme, double-check your introductory sentence. Make sure it’s consistent with your common theme. If it isn’t, or you’re having trouble coming up with a first line, the problem may be that you have too many unconnected ideas in your paragraph.

At this point, you may be thinking, I’m an experienced writer, I know how to group “like” things together. But take a look at the following sentences:

  • Vlahos, who has been president for the last six years, likes strawberry ice cream.
  • Stringer, 82, plays basketball and soccer.
  • Chen, a lawyer, is twenty-nine.

If they sound correct to you, consider them more closely. Unless Vlahos is the president of Strawberry Land, his fondness for ice cream has nothing to do with his office. Stringer’s age has nothing to do with his interests. Similarly, Chen’s vocation has nothing to do with his age.

There are a couple of reasons for these all-too-common, disconnected connections:

  • You’ve reached the end of paragraph and you’re left with a few facts that are “interesting” or “nice to have,” so you dump them into one sentence.
  • Your ideas are related, but you’ve failed to include qualifying information. For example: Despite his advanced years, Stringer, 82, plays basketball and soccer on a regular basis.
  • You know the ideas are not related, but you’ve included them in a single sentence because you think short sentences sound flat: Vlahos has been president for the last six years. He likes strawberry ice cream.

Don’t fear the short sentence…exploit it!
Yes, I said it in my previous blog, and I’ll say it again, short sentences can be powerful. Admittedly, the examples I used were of important information summarized concisely for maximum impact, i.e. I shot the sheriff.

So what do you do if the information, by itself, has minimal impact?

Try changing up your verbs, adding an adverb, or a qualifier:

  • Vlahos has been president for the last six years. He enjoys strawberry ice cream.
  • Vlahos has been president for the last six years. He’s obsessed with strawberry ice cream.
  • Vlahos has been president for the last six years. Though lactose intolerant, he’s been known to sneak strawberry ice cream.

Words like “obsess” and “sneak” add tone to the writing. In this case, since they’re my choices, you’re also getting a sense of my voice as a writer. The choices you make will allow you to set the tone of your essay and showcase your voice as a writer.

A final word of warning: Beware the Ands
A good way to catch disconnected ideas is to look closely at your sentences with the word “and” as you’re editing. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is the sentence too long? If it takes up more than three lines of your paragraph, consider shortening it. “And” is often a good place to break a sentence. (If you break your sentence in two and both say the same thing, you’ve found a redundancy—delete the weaker sentence.)
  • If the ideas are connected, will breaking them into two sentences strengthen the point you’re trying to make? Two sentences may give you the opportunity to reveal more about yourself.
    • Consider: A competitive athlete, I like running and basketball.  vs.  A competitive athlete, I like running because it tests me as an individual. I like basketball because I enjoy working as a member of a team.
  • Is the connection between the ideas unclear? If you’ve written something along the lines of, I like soccer and neuroscience, ask yourself what is it about these different activities that appeal to you. Is it something they have in common? Or do you like them for different reasons? If you have lots of disconnected reasons you like both, consider whether your essay would be more powerful if you focus on the activity that is truly your passion.

Read the first two posts in this series:
Part 1: The Hook
Part 2: Keep it Simple, Stupid (K.I.S.S.)

Joanna NovinsWith over two decades of writing experience for the Central Intelligence Agency and the commercial fiction market, multi-published author Joanna Novins understand the importance of hooking the reader with the first line. She also understands the importance of telling a great story, whether it’s about manufacturing solid propellant missiles, happily-ever-after, or how to present yourself.  She has extensive experience working with writers of differing skill levels, from senior intelligence analysts and published authors to aspiring authors and high school students. Joanna holds a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and was awarded a bachelor’s degree with honors in history from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

 

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Common Application Essay: 5 Tips Before You Write

Common Application Essay 5 Tips Before You WriteYou’ve got a Common Application essay personal statement to write.

You sit down at the keyboard. Your fingers hover over the keys. You’re about to write your first words when —

WAIT!!!

  • Have you chosen an interesting essay topic?
  • Do you know your best qualities?
  • Can you show the schools how you think and make decisions?
  • Can you put your personality on the page?

If the answer is no, then you’re not ready to write.

HERE ARE FIVE TIPS BEFORE YOU WRITE YOUR COMMON APPLICATION ESSAY: 

1. Be Able to Answer Key Questions

Before you write your Common Application essay, you should be able to answer several important questions about yourself:

  • What are at least three of my most positive qualities?
  • What am I best at?
  • What am I most passionate about?
  • What obstacles or challenges have I faced and how have I gotten through them?
  • What are my saddest/happiest/most embarrassing moments? What did I learn from them?
  • Even if they seem silly or unimportant, what times in my life stand out to me? Why?
  • What do I want colleges to know about me when they’ve finished reading my essay?

Your essay provides a window into who you are.  At first that can seem like a lot to figure out, but it becomes easier when you break the answers down into small steps. It can even help you discover your best essay topic.

2. Stay Loose

Did you ever get so nervous that you couldn’t think? It happens to all of us — you sit down to write and your brain seizes up. Here’s what you can do to prevent your brain from a mini meltdown: 

  • Back away from the keyboard. Trick your brain into thinking it’s not thinking about your essay. Take a shower, walk the dog, play pickup basketball. Let your brain whir in the background while you’re doing other things. You’ll be surprised what kind of ideas can pop into your head.
  • Get creative! What are the craziest, weirdest things that have happened to you? Write them down! (When you lost track of the worms you bought for the compost pile…when you burned the cookies so badly your parents had to replace the stove…when you were thrown out of the museum for talking too loudly.) Even if you think an experience is “unimportant,” put it on the list. We’ve all got experiences that deserve a second look. Let your brain find them. 

3. Become a Fly on the Wall in Your Own Life.  

Are you looking for an essay topic? Are you concerned it could be better? Keep looking. Take a step back and be a fly on the wall in your own life. Become an observer.

Pay attention to what everyone’s talking about at school, how you interact with your family, what you think about when you’re by yourself. (Did your friends say something you disagreed with? Did your class conduct a psychology experiment that interested you in the human brain? Do you wish you could turn your bedroom into an art studio?)

Ask yourself what you were thinking about during those interactions, if you made any decisions, and why the moment was important to you. (Maybe you realized you needed to find a new group of friends, that you wanted to pursue psychology in college, that you’re happiest when you’re being creative.)

Remember, you don’t have to write about anything “big” — meaningful moments can occur anytime. If you take a step back and listen to what’s going on, you might be able to find one.

4. Don’t Stop at the Easy Answer

Your first answer runs the risk of being the easy answer — one that’s more superficial and less meaningful than you could eventually write. So don’t stop at your first answer. Keep digging and keep thinking. Come up with several possible answers before you decide what to write. 

5Jump start your memory

This is fun and easy! Scroll back through old photos, posts and texts and soon you’ll start to remember lots of stories from the past. Even better, you’ll discover tons of details you can use  — like exactly what your sister said to you when you had that fight, or how you felt when you caught that foul ball. Photos, posts and texts will reconnect you with your experiences. They might even inspire an entire college essay.

Take the time to think, and by the time you sit down at your keyboard you’ll be ready to write an interesting and successful essay.

Download a worksheet to help you find your Positive Qualities

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, Facetime, Google Hangouts and email. Visit her website for more info. Connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.

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