Applying To College

College Essay Writing and Interview Skills


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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.”


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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.