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How to Write College Essays 6 Grammar Rules You Should Break


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6 Grammar Rules You Should Break When You’re Writing Your College Essay

How to Write College Essays 6 Grammar Rules You Should BreakThe other day I told one of my students she could use contractions in her college application essay.

“You can do that?” she asked. “I’ve always been told not to use contractions.”

Like my student, you’ve probably been given a list of grammar rules to follow when you’re writing an English paper. But here’s the catch:

Your college essay isn’t an English paper. You’re telling a story. You’re writing in your own voice. You’ve got creative leeway.

Now to be fair, grammar rules are important. They help us clearly express what we want to say. They allow us to reach our reader in an effective way.

But it’s a big, creative world out there.

Look at me, for example. I wrote dialogue for soap operas. My characters didn’t avoid slang or contractions. If I wanted them to say, “Are you friggin’ kidding me, Alice? I’m outta here! I’m getting a divorce!”—they said that. I love how words sound and how I can combine them to make an impact. This is my style. The college essay is your style.

College Essay Writing Help 5 Grammar Rules You Should BreakSo welcome, creative traveler! You’ve landed in the territory of self-expression. This is where you get to tell your story. And to do that, I’m going to suggest you break a few rules.

6 Grammar Rules You Can Break While You’re Writing a Great College Essay:

1. Don’t  Use Contractions. Your essay should sound like you’re telling a story. It should be in a conversational tone. We all speak in contractions, so go ahead and use them. (Although, I avoid “would’ve” and “should’ve” because I think they’re too casual for college essays.)

2. Don’t  Use Sentence Fragments. Surprise! You might actually want to use a sentence fragment in your essay. A sentence fragment is short, so it’s like putting an exclamation mark on an idea. Think about using one when you want to emphasize a point. Here are three examples of sentence fragments:

I needed to find a new way to study. Because mine wasn’t working out.

The mountain was the tallest I’d ever seen. Which is why I knew I had to climb it

I finally remembered the answer. After the test had ended.

3. Don’t You Can Start Sentences With And, But and OrWant to start a sentence with a conjunction? Go ahead. In fact, you’ll be in good company. Here’s a quote from the Chicago Manual of Style, a guide that’s widely used in publishing:

“There is a widespread belief—one with no historical or grammatical foundation—that it is an error to begin a sentence with a conjunction such as and, but or so. In fact, a substantial percentage (often as many as 10 percent) of the sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions. It has been so for centuries, and even the most conservative grammarians have followed this practice.”

4. Don’t End sentences with a preposition. We’ve been taught not to end sentences with prepositions, so we re-write our ideas to conform to this rule. For instance, when we want to say, “What space did you park the car in?” we change it to, “In which space did you park the car?”

This type of change often makes a sentence sound more formal. College application essays, though, should be more conversational, and that’s why ending sentences with prepositions is okay.

5. Don’t Use I. You probably know you should use “I” when you write your college essays. But it’s not always easy to write in the first person, especially if you’ve been taught not to voice your personal opinion. It can feel uncomfortable to make that transition.

How to write college application essay use I Are there places you disappear from your story?

You can disappear from your story if you write in the third person. For example, if you write, “A change in study habits was needed,” you’ve taken yourself out of the sentence. It feels like you’re a distant commentator, the outsider looking in. Put yourself back in your story. Use I. Instead, of saying, “A change in study habits was needed,” say, “I decided that I needed to change my study habits.” And don’t be haunted by the third person.

6. No one-sentence paragraphs. One-sentence paragraphs can be amazing.

Toss the notion that all your paragraphs have to be at least three to five sentences. Sure, some paragraphs will be that long. But if a one-sentence paragraph will make your point, provide a transition, or be part of your creative flow, go for it. Don’t go overboard—you’re not writing a poem—but if it works with the rest of your essay, one-sentence paragraphs can do amazing things.

So, traveler, you’ve arrived in the territory of self-expression. You’ve traveled here to tell your story. You’ll still follow some important grammar rules: you’ll use descriptive words, choose the active voice, and make sure your subject agrees with your verb. But it’s time to stretch those creative limbs. And if you’re still not sure breaking these grammar rules is the right way to go, just open up one of your favorite books, by any good author, and read a few paragraphs. Some grammar rules are meant to be broken. So go right ahead.

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sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skillsSharon Epstein is a Writers Guild Award-winner and two-time Emmy Award nominee, teaching students around the world how to master interview skills, write resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into memorable college application essays. I work with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, FaceTime, Skype and email. Visit my website for more info. Connect with me on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.

 

How to Write Common Application Essay 4 questioned belief or idea


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How to Write 2018 Common Application Essay 3: Questioned or Challenged a Belief or Idea

How to Write Common Application Essay 4 questioned belief or idea

Are you wondering which Common Application essay is right for you? 

Are you ready to learn what makes college essays successful, and how you can be successful, too?

The Common Application essay may be the most important college application essay you’ll have to write.

In this post you’ll learn about writing Common Application essay #3. It’s part of my series on how to write the Common Application essay.

For the entire list of 2018 Common Application essay prompts click here.

Ready for number 3? Let’s do it!

Common Application Essay Prompt #3:

Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

Is This Prompt for You?  Look at the Keywords:

how to write 2013 common app essay

“Questioned or challenged”…”Belief or idea”…”Prompted your thinking”

Why Should You Consider This Topic?

  • You can show off your critical thinking skills.
  • It’s a chance to illustrate one or more of your personal values. (Not sure of your personal values? Click here for my personal values Worksheet.)
  • Colleges love to see how you think. They like to see what’s going on under the hood. It helps them envision you as a student when you get to school. Writing about what makes you think more deeply or how you’ve made some tough decisions will let the schools see what kind of independent thinker you’ll be when you get there.

Do the Keywords Apply to You?

A “belief or idea” can include:

  • Something you learned or were taught.
  • A belief or idea held by others (including friends, schoolmates and family).
  • A belief that’s unique to you. What if you thought your sister came from Mars? (Okay, that’s silly.) But sometimes we have our own ideas: Consider the student who thinks being loudest is the best way to gain attention, or the girl who thinks she’s happiest being alone. What if the student realized he’d rather have friends than negative attention, or the girl pushed herself out of her comfort zone to discover she enjoyed being a leader at school? Think about what you believed when you were younger, and if your ideas changed, why. If your experience is meaningful and says positive things about you (and answers the question), this prompt could be for you.

Beliefs and ideas can also be challenged on a bigger scale. Take a look at the essay example below where a student challenges the existence of an entire school event.

how to write 2013 common app essay

Pitfalls to Avoid

  • This question has THREE parts—make sure you answer ALL of them: The event, what prompted your thinking, and the outcome.
  • Don’t forget to reflect on your decision. Were you satisfied with the outcome? Did you learn something from this experience? Would you do it again? The ability to reflect demonstrates insight and maturity.
  • Don’t jump to the end result. Show your thought process. Thinking is a process. It goes step by step. It’s important to show how your thought process worked when you’re writing your story.

Here’s an example of how thought process works:

There’s a pebble in my shoe, so I reach down and take it out. Done deal? Wait! Let’s back up and pay attention to how my thought process worked: I feel something bothering me and I wonder what it is. I figure I should see what’s annoying me, so I reach down and realize it’s a pebble and decide to take it out of my shoe.

That’s thought process. It’s a simple example; but what if I wrote, “I had a pebble in my shoe and took it out.” No! You actually thought about it before you acted. It’s like math class when the teacher makes you show your work—jump to the end and you miss the process.

Not Sure this Question Relates to You?
Here Are Questions You Can Ask Yourself:

  • Were you told by an adult that you wouldn’t be successful in an activity, but you chose to pursue it anyway?
  • Did you challenge what a group of friends told you to do because you thought they were wrong?
  • Did you see someone being treated unfairly (perhaps even yourself) and attempt to rectify it?
  • Have you ever changed your beliefs because you learned something new?
  • Has someone or something ever caused you to question a strong personal value?
  • Have you always assumed something, but then found yourself in a position where you had to rethink that assumption?
  • Did you always think there was a way something should or shouldn’t be done, and then changed your perspective?

Which brings me to:

Should you write about religion? You can. I’ve had students who’ve written about different aspects of their spiritual journey, whether it was trying to conform to their parents’ religion or searching for their own truth.

But here’s the caution: You never want to offend your reader. A belief or idea you disagree with could be one that your reader accepts, so weigh your topic choice and be respectful when needed. Also consider the tone of your writing. For instance, it’s a lot different to say you felt a need to find your own spiritual path than you hated a specific religion and couldn’t wait to get out of there.

Bottom line: If you feel your topic could impact your admission, choose something different.

Tip: Some admissions officers tell me that many essays about spiritual journeys are starting to sound very similar to them. So if you want to write about your spiritual journey, find an original approach that makes your essay stands out. If it starts to feel generic, dig deeper into who you are and how this topic reflects your values, your ability to problem solve, or your goals. If you’re not sure it will stand out, switch topics.

Example of a Successful Essay Topic:

“Standing up for Autism”

Sam was a student with autism. Every year, his high school held an event in support of autism awareness. Students wore blue t-shirts, participated in programs, and raised money for a prominent charity devoted to autism. But Sam had become aware that many people in the autistic community were upset with this charity—they felt the charity didn’t recognize the full value or contributions of the autistic community and had made some very negative statements. After researching the charity Sam agreed, and decided he wanted the school to end its support. But he knew he’d have to handle it carefully and respectfully. So he collected evidence and videos and presented them to his vice principal. Then he wrote a formal letter to the Board of Education. After discussing Sam’s material, the Board agreed with Sam and decided that future events would no longer include the charity. Sam was both surprised and delighted. In his essay he wrote that he learned if he communicated his views in a clear and mature way, people in authority would respectfully listen and consider his viewpoint. In this case he was successful, and he felt he had made a positive difference.

Why This Topic Succeeds

  • All the keywords are addressed. Sam described the situation, discussed his thought process, and told the outcome.
  • He demonstrated critical thinking skills. He researched the charity to come to his own decision and then decided on the correct way to approach the school.
  • He included a learning experience. Sam learned that if he presented his views in a clear and respectful way that adults in authority would listen. He saw how he could make a positive change.
  • He illustrated some of his personal values: Community, Fairness, Responsibility.
  • He gave colleges excellent reasons to admit him: He took on a leadership role, communicated well with adults, and worked to create change. Even if he hadn’t been successful these qualities would have stood out.

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Next: How to Write Common App Prompt #4: A Problem You’ve Solved or Would Like to Solve

sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skillsSharon Epstein is a Writers Guild Award-winner and two-time Emmy Award nominee, teaching students around the world how to master interview skills, write resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into creative and memorable college application essays. She works with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, FaceTime, Skype and email. Visit my website for more info. Connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.


Read the entire series:
How to Write Common App Prompt #1: Background, Talent, Identity, or Interest
How to Write Common App Prompt #2: The Lessons We Take From Obstacles
How to Write Common App Prompt #3: Challenged a Belief or Idea
How to Write Common App Prompt #4: A Problem You’ve Solved or Would Like to Solve
How to Write Common App Prompt #5: An Accomplishment, Event, or Realization
How to Write Common App Prompt #6: Topic, Idea or Concept that Makes You Lose Track of Time
How to Write Common App Prompt #7: Topic of Your Choice

How to Write Common Application Essay 2 lessons we take from obstacles


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How to Write 2018 Common Application Essay 2: Lessons We Take From Obstacles

How to Write Common Application Essay 2 lessons we take from obstaclesHave you ever faced an obstacle and had to figure out how to get through it? Did you succeed—or maybe not?

Have you ever failed at something? I mean really tanked.

Did you learn from your experience?

Then Common Application Essay prompt #2 may be for you.

This is the second in my series on how to write the 2018 Common Application essay prompts.  In this post, you’ll discover how to approach Common Application Essay prompt 2 and decide if it’s right for you.

Are you ready? Here we go…

Common Application Essay Prompt #2:

The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

Is This Prompt for You?  Look at the Keywords:

how to write 2013 common app essay
“Obstacles”…”Lessons”…”Challenge”…”Setback”…
“Failure”…”Affect you”…”Learn”

Do the Keywords Apply to You?

Answer yes IF

  • You tried something and failed, took a risk that didn’t pay off, made a decision that turned out to be faulty, achieved something you weren’t sure you could do, figured out a way to succeed without enough resources, persevered in the face of difficult circumstances.
  • AND you learned from your experience.
  • AND you can reflect on how it affected you.

how to write 2013 common app essayPitfalls to Avoid:

  • This question has three parts—make sure you answer ALL of them: Your experience, how it affected you, and what positive lessons you learned.
  • Don’t wallow in the obstacle. It’s not the obstacle that’s important. Colleges are looking for how you responded and what you learned. Don’t spend too much space on what happened. Mention it and move on.
  • Avoid writing about a bad grade or marking period. Lots of students have a bad grade or marking period. If you write about it, the risk is that your essay will sound like a lot of others. (“I worked hard and learned that I could persevere.”) Remember: If your gut says it’s a common topic, sounds boring, or doesn’t differentiate you from other applicants, then choose something else to write about.

Tip: Failure isn’t the only option. Some students think this question is only about failure. It’s not. That’s why the prompt includes the keywords “obstacle,” “challenge,” and “setback.” Your experience doesn’t have to rise to the level of failure for you to write about it. And you certainly don’t have to try and manipulate a setback or challenge to make it sound like one.

Successful Essay Topic Example:

“Snowbound Night”

When he was 15, Andrew started a snowplow business using an ATV he had purchased. But the ATV wasn’t good at plowing deep snow. Andrew knew that, and would plow out his customers two or three times during a big snowfall. But one night his alarm didn’t wake him up, and by morning there were eight inches of snow on the ground. When Andrew started to move the ATV, it got stuck in his driveway. He knew his customers were counting on him, so he worked all night to shovel out the ATV, and plowed out his customers just in time for them to get to work.

After that experience, Andrew realized he needed to upgrade his equipment so he could serve his customers better. Eventually, Andrew traded his ATV for a truck with a plow, which in turn made his business more successful. Now he would like to pursue a business career.

Why this Topic Succeeds:

•    All the keywords are addressed. Andrew told his story, examined how his failure affected him, and then wrote about the positive lessons he learned.
•    It also shows he has good character. He didn’t leave his customers hanging.

But should you really write about a failure?

Absolutely. It’s a character-building experience.

Colleges wonder whether or not you can succeed in college by handling a bad grade, a difficult roommate or another frustration. When they see you’ve already been able to handle a significant challenge, you’ve given them that answer. They start to envision the kind of person you’ll be after college, too.

how to write 2013 Common Application essay

Are You Uncomfortable Discussing Failure?

how to write Common Application how to write essay personal statementDON’T BE.  Remember, colleges look for character-building stories and problem solving skills.

In fact, Christine Hamilton, Associate Director of Undergraduate Admission at Babson College, tells me she sees a lot of failure essays and that’s okay with her. She learns a lot about the character of incoming students by hearing how they’ve coped with failure.

CAUTION: Never write about failures that include very risky behavior or anything illegal (like hanging off a cliff or being caught drinking and driving).

If you enjoyed this post, I hope you’ll like my Facebook page

Next: How to Write 2018 Common Application Essay 3 A Time You Questioned or Challenged a Belief or Idea

sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skillsSharon Epstein is a Writers Guild Award-winner and two-time Emmy Award nominee, teaching students around the world how to master interview skills, write resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into creative and memorable college application essays. She works with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, FaceTime, Skype and email. Visit my website for more info. Connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.

Other posts in Sharon’s “How to Write” series:
How to Write 2018 Common Application Essay 1 – Background, Identity or Interest
How to Write 2018 Common Application Essay 2Lessons We Take From Obstacles
How to Write 2018 Common Application Essay 3 A Time You Questioned or Challenged a Belief or Idea
How to Write 2018 Common Application Essay 4Problem You’ve Solved or Would Like to Solve
How to Write 2018 Common Application Essay 5Accomplishment, Event, or Realization
How to Write 2018 Common Application Essay 6: What Makes You Lose All Track of Time
How to Write 2018 Common Application Essay 7: Topic of Your Choice

 


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6 Confidence-Building Body Language Tips for Your Next Interview

6 Body Language Tips for Successful Interviews

It takes just a few seconds before we pass judgement on someone we meet. We can’t help it; it’s our nature. Even before a person speaks our brains start to give us the thumbs up or thumbs down.

Body language is how we communicate without words. It can be a look, a smile, a stance, a gesture. It can be a fidget, a crossed arm, a slouch.

Interviewers start to make decisions about you the moment they see you. That’s before you say hello. So if your body is talking, you need to know what it’s saying. Because in an interview, good body language is essential to your interview’s success.

If you’ve got a job interview, a college interview, or an internship interview, here are 6 simple and successful body language tips:

1. Sit up straight. Slouching is a sign that you lack confidence. Leaning back is a sign that you’re defensive or don’t care.

2. Lean slightly forward. When you lean slightly forward you lessen the space between you and the interviewer. It shows increased interest in the conversation.

3. Don’t fidget. Fidgeting is a sign of discomfort or weakness. It’s also distracting. If you twirl your hair, pull it back. If you twist or rub your hands, fold them in front of you or keep them flat in your lap. If you tap your pen, put it away. Fidgeting can be a hard habit to break, but if you work on being aware of when you do it, and stop yourself when you do, you’ll find that over time you’ll be able to control it more easily.

4. Maintain good eye contact. Looking someone in the eye is a sign of honesty and directness. It also shows that you’re engaged in the conversation. It’s okay to occasionally look away — most of us do that, especially when we’re thinking. But remember to bring your eyes back to the interviewer. Don’t stare, though — that can get creepy.

5. No limp fish handshakes. A strong handshake is a sign of confidence, so be firm when you shake someone’s hand. Too strong a handshake can come off as aggressive (and potentially painful). So can holding on for too long. Not sure about your handshake? Find several people to practice with.

6. Smile. A genuine smile lights up your face. It shows the interviewer that you’re happy to be there and that you’re enjoying the experience. So when you meet your interviewer, smile. And when it’s appropriate during the interview, smile (or even laugh). Definitely smile when you shake hands and leave — that’s the last picture your interviewer will have of you.

For more information about interviewing, check out my posts on how to begin and end college interviews and why you might be failing your job interview.

All eyes are on you from the moment you arrive for your interview until the moment you leave. Make sure your body language speaks volumes — in the right way.

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 resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into memorable college application essays. She works with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, FaceTime, Skype and email. Visit my website for more info. Connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.

 


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How to Answer “Why This College?” pt. 2: 5 Steps to Writing a Great Essay

In my last post I wrote about what schools look for in a “Why Do You Want to Attend our School?” essay.

Buckle up! It’s time to start putting pen to paper.

Here are 5 Steps to Writing a Great “Why This College” Essay:

1. Before You Start Writing, Understand What Makes this School Different From Other Schools. Here’s how to collect that info:

  • Pay attention when you visit. Meet students, talk to faculty. When something interests you, ask questions.
  • Read the website thoroughly (not just the home page). Learn about the school’s educational philosophy and traditions.
  • Locate videos on the website to hear students tell you what they’re doing and why they like attending. This can help give you ideas!
  • Find the news page on the school website that relates to your area of interest and read at least one article that catches your eye. Your goals is to get excited about a teacher, a research program, an invention, a new book—something you can refer to in your essay.

Tip: Googling is an excellent shortcut. College websites can sometimes feel overwhelming. When you’re looking deeper for news and information, Googling can often get you there faster.

How to be awesome with Google: Use specific search terms. Let’s say you’re applying to the University of Illinois and you’re interested in bioengineering. Google  “University of Illinois bioengineering.” But a general search will return masses of information, so use the news tab for research and other news. Similarly, if you’re interested in joining a club, such as an outdoors club, Google the school’s name and “outdoor club” or “environment” or “hikes” and see what you find. (Do a general search here, not news.) Search videos too. One of my students discovered a video from a robotics class and wrote about how he’d work as part of that team.

WHEN YOU WRITE:

How to write "why this school" essay2. Don’t Be a Lightweight 

  • Make academics your main focus. It’s okay to mention after-school activities and dorm life as long as you’re knowledgeable about substantial things like courses, instructors, academic opportunities and educational philosophy.

3. Say How You’ll Fit In

  • Visualize yourself as a freshman on campus:  What classes are you taking? Why do you love being there? How are you contributing to the campus community? Why are you a good match? Write about it.

4. If You’ve Talked to People, Say So

  • Whether it’s a tour guide, admissions counselor, coach or professor, making a personal connection shows initiative and enthusiasm. So if you’ve talked to someone, write about it!
  • Mention what you learned from the people you talked to, and be specific about how it pertains to you. For instance, “My tour guide told me he had a great time at school” has nothing to do with you. BUT, if you say, “My tour guide told me how accessible all my professors will be. That’s the kind of atmosphere I’m looking for,” then you’ve written a sentence that is specific and shows how the idea relates to you.

5. It’s Almost Never Too Late to Make a Personal Connection

  • Even if your deadline’s looming you can probably get in touch with a student, alum, or coach.
  • Put on your thinking cap! Take advantage of any connections you have. If you have a friend or relative who attended, get in touch. If there’s a friend of a friend, use that connection! Don’t hesitate to reach out. Ask your friends, parent or relative to be the bridge to help you connect, and then email or give that person a call.
  • If you don’t know anyone personally, it’s still easy to connect. Here’s what you do:
    • Start by locating the email or phone number of the admissions office on the website.
    • Then call or write. They won’t bite—in fact, they’ll be delighted to hear from you. Then ask them to put you in touch with a student in your major so you can learn more.
  • Prepare a few questions so you know what to ask.

    • Here are some suggested questions: What professors do you recommend, what surprised you the most when you got to campus, what’s the best/hardest part about this major, what’s a typical day like at school, what do you do to relax, do you feel like you’re being prepared well to graduate, how do you think you’ll use your degree? Keep asking questions until you find something that gets you excited about going there!

True Story about Making A Personal Connection:

Last year I worked with a student applying to Cornell Engineering. His interests had changed since he’d visited, and now he was interested in pursuing two possible engineering paths, not just one. The problem was that he didn’t know much about the second path and the website wasn’t specific.

I suggested he email Cornell admissions and ask to be connected to a student in that major. When he did, they responded immediately with a contact. Then I helped him create five questions to ask. He emailed the student, introduced himself, and asked his questions. A few follow-up questions and he was done. By the time he was finished, my student had a much better grasp on the second engineering track. Now he could show the school he understood why it would be a good fit and why he was excited by what they had to offer.

It was just that easy.

Everyone who’s writing a “Why This School” essay should try to make at least one personal connection and then use these 5 steps to write a great essay.

NEXT: Part 3—Successful writing techniques, plus examples of essays in action.

Posts in this series:
Part 1: “Why This College”: What Schools Want
Part 2: 5 Steps to Writing a Great “Why This College” Essay
Part 3: “Why This College?” Essay Examples and Successful Writing Techniques

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in July 2012 and has been 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. 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 resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into memorable college application essays. She works with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, FaceTime, Skype and email. Visit my website for more info. Connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.


 

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How to Answer “Why This College?” Essay – pt. 1: What Schools Want

how to answer why this school essay

“Dear Student,
Please respond to this question: ‘Why do you want to go to OUR GREAT SCHOOL U?'”

How do you answer this question?

In this series of posts we’ll tackle this question. I’ll tell you what colleges look for (part 1) and then we’ll dig deeper so you can start writing (part 2). You’ll read essay examples to learn what works and what doesn’t work (part 3). I’ll even take you step-by-step through a “Why this school” essay sample that shows you how to write a successful essay even if you don’t know much about the school. 

Ready? Let’s do it!

First
This is an important essay
. Give it some time and thought.

Your Goal
Use specific examples to show that you understand what makes the college special and why it’s a good fit for you.

Schools Want to Know
1. That you “get them.” This means that you understand what makes them different from other schools. Take into consideration their academic philosophy, traditions, student life, etc.
2. Why you’re a good match for them. How will you fit in? How will you contribute? How will you take advantage of what they have to offer? Tell them why their school matters to you.

Schools Don’t Like
1. Vague answers such as “Your school really inspires me”… “I like cold weather”…“The campus is amazing.”

2. Hearing information they already know. Here’s an example: “I’m looking forward to going to OUR GREAT SCHOOL U because it has a Division I Soccer Team.”

Good right? No. They know they have a Division I soccer team. Personalize it instead: “I’ve been following Division I soccer for years and was excited when OUR GREAT SCHOOL U made it to the NCAA Soccer finals last December. I’ll be in the stands cheering when I get to campus next fall.”

Here’s a similar problem I see a lot: “Your Great School U. offers xxx number of majors and over xxx number of clubs.”

Again, they know how many majors and clubs they have. They care about why that matters to you.

Find a way to personalize it. For example: “At Your Great School I’ll be able to explore my diverse interests knowing I’ll be able to find the major that’s right for me. Outside of class my interests range from Cricket to tutoring, and with so many clubs I’ll be able to find the ones that I enjoy.”

Tip: When you state a fact about the school, that’s your cue to follow it with how it relates to you.

Don’t Use the Same Essay for Different Schools

Sometimes it’s possible to use the same first sentences for more than one essay (see part 3 for an example). But this isn’t a “fill in the blank” essay where you can plug in the name of a dorm or professor—the admissions committee will catch that.  Remember, the more specific you are the more successful you will be.how-to-answer-why-this-school

READ THE REST OF THE SERIES:
Part 2:
  5 Steps to Writing A Great Why This College Essay
Part 3:  “Why This College” Essay Samples

Editor’s Note: This series was originally published in July 2012 and has been 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. 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 resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into memorable college application essays. She works with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, FaceTime, Skype and email. Visit my website for more info. Connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.

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Common Application Essay Quiz – Are You Ready To Write?

common-application-essay-quiz-first-impressions-college-consulting

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?

http://clipart-library.com/clipart/56782.htm

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

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 resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into memorable college application essays. She works with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, FaceTime, Skype 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, teaching students around the world 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, teaching students around the world 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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How to Write 2016 Common Application Essay #3: Reflect On a Time When You Challenged a Belief or Idea

How to write 2016 Common App essay prompt 3 reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea Hooray! You’re applying to college!

How do you choose which Common Application essay to write?

In this 5-part series I help you figure out which 2016 Common Application question is right for you.

  • For the entire list of 2016 Common Application essay prompts click here.

Ready for number 3? Let’s do it!

Common Application Essay Prompt #3:

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

Is This Prompt for You?  Look at the Keywords:

how to write 2013 common app essay

“Challenged a belief or idea” “Prompted you to act”…”Would you make the same decision again?”

When Should You Choose This Essay?

Answer this question ONLY IF:

  • You were confronted with a belief or idea which you felt compelled to challenge or change.

What are Colleges Looking For?

Colleges are looking for your critical thinking skills. Show them your thought process (the steps you took to make your decision) and then reflect on your experience (which will show them maturity and insight).

how to write 2013 common app essay

Pitfalls to Avoid: 

  • Understand the keywords. “Challenged a belief or idea” means that you took some kind of action either on your own behalf or on the behalf of someone or something else.
  • This question has THREE parts—don’t leave one out. Discuss what prompted you to act, then reflect on your decision and say whether you’d do it again.
  • Don’t forget to include a learning experience. What did you learn? How did you grow?
  • Caution: You never want to offend your reader. Remember that a belief or idea you disagree with could be one that your reader accepts, so always watch your tone and be respectful when needed.

Not Sure this Question Relates to You?
Here are 3 ways you might answer this question:

  • Were you told by an adult that you wouldn’t be successful in an activity, but you chose to pursue it anyway?
  • Did you challenge what a group of friends told you to do because you thought they were wrong?
  • Did you see someone being treated unfairly (perhaps even yourself) and attempt to rectify it?

What Other Kinds of Beliefs or Ideas Can You Consider?

  • It can be a belief or idea held by others (including friends, schoolmates and family).
  • It can be a belief or idea you’ve been taught (including your attitude or action toward others, or how something should or shouldn’t be done).
  • It can also be your own belief—something that’s unique to you. What if you thought your sister came from Mars? (Okay, that’s silly.) But sometimes we have our own ideas: Consider the student who thinks being loudest is the best way to gain attention, or the girl who thinks she’s happiest being alone. What if the student realized he’d rather have friends than negative attention, or the girl pushed herself out of her comfort zone to find out she enjoyed being a leader at school? Think about what you believed when you were younger, and if your ideas changed, why. If your experience is meaningful and says positive things about you (and answers the question), this prompt could be for you.

Which brings me to:

Should you write about religion? You can. I’ve had students who’ve written about different aspects of their spiritual journey, whether it was trying to conform to their parents’ religion or searching for their own truth. But remember the caution: You don’t want to offend your reader. So along with topic choice, consider the tone of your writing. For instance, it’s a lot different to say you felt a need to find your own spiritual path than to say you hated a specific religion and couldn’t wait to get out of there.

Tip from College Admissions Officers: Some admissions officers tell me that many essays about spiritual journeys are starting to sound very similar to them. So if you want to write about your spiritual journey, find an original approach that makes your essay stands out. If it starts to feel generic, dig deeper into who you are and how this topic reflects your values, your ability to problem solve, or your goals. (Give the colleges good reasons to want to admit you.) If you’re not sure it will stand out, switch topics.

Example of a Successful Essay Topic:

A student’s elementary school teacher wasn’t a kind woman and picked on many of the children in her class. As a result, the student’s self-esteem suffered and her grades dropped. It took a long time for the student to learn to stand up for herself, but when she finally did she started to excel. In high school, she became a leader and mentor and spoke to teens about how to combat bullying. She taught them the harmful power of words, and how to use words in a positive way.  In her essay she explained why she would make the same decision again: “My passion for making a difference stems from my own experiences where negative criticism created a lasting effect on me…Becoming emotionally and physically independent and having the confidence to challenge social norms have become the most powerful tools in my possession.”

Is This Topic Successful? Yes.

  • All the keywords are addressed. The student told her story, described what prompted her to act, and explained why she would make the same decision again.
  • She included a learning experience. Once she learned to stand up for herself, the student took on the role of a mentor and leader, and worked to combat bullying.
  • She conveyed positive qualities. This student exhibited personal strength and moral character. She was able to pull herself out of a difficult situation to personally excel and to help others.
  • She gave colleges excellent reasons to admit her: She was a leader, a compassionate human being, and someone with high standards who wanted to make a difference.

Reasons Essay Prompt #3 Can Work for You: 

  • You can communicate your level of maturity.
  • You can highlight your critical thinking skills.
  • You can demonstrate that you’re open-minded and have respect for the beliefs and ideas of others.
  • You can show that your choices or ideas had an impact.
  • Interesting Fact: Last year, this was the least-answered Common App essay prompt. Since admissions officers won’t read as many of these essay answers, your topic could have a better chance of standing out.

Tip: It’s okay to say you wouldn’t make the same decision again. Colleges want to see that you have the maturity and perspective to understand your actions.  Just remember—by the end of the essay you should be saying positive things about yourself.

For more information on the Common Application visit their website. They also have a very helpful Facebook page.

Next time: How to Write Common App prompt #4.

Also in this series:
For the entire list of 2016 Common App essay prompts click here.

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 teaches students how to master interview skills, write killer resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into memorable college application essays. We work with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, video and email. Visit our website for more info. Connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.

 

 

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