Applying To College

College Essay Writing and Interview Skills


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Writing College Essays: How to Start with Action

When I updated my blog post, 3 Ways To Start An Interesting College Essay, I realized I had a lot to say about how you can use action to grab your reader’s attention. So I’ve given “Action” its own post. It deserves it.

First, let’s recap: When you write the intro to your college application essay you need to grab your reader’s attention.

Why is it important to grab the reader’s attention?

Easy. If you’ve ever flipped a channel or looked for another video because the first one didn’t catch your attention right away, you know the answer.

Dull. Click. Moving on…

You’ve got one chance to draw your reader in and create enthusiasm and excitement for what’s to come. Take it!

Why Use Action?

Here’s a great example: Picture the opening scene from the movie “Scream.” The film begins when Casey, a teenage girl, is home alone and the phone rings. At first it seems like a wrong number and she starts chatting with the caller. But then the caller whispers that Casey never told him her name. When Casey asks why he wants to know, he replies, “Because I wanna know who I’m looking at.” That’s the moment Casey realizes that the caller is watching her.

Does that scene grab your attention? Sure. Here’s why:

    • You’ve been plunged into the story
    • You have details but you don’t have all the pieces
    • You can’t wait to find out what’s about to happen
    • Something is happening NOW

The Takeaway:

Create intrigue, excitement or suspense in your intro and you’ll make the reader excited to see how your story unfolds. You’re not writing a horror movie of course (I hope not!)—but you get the idea—Find the most interesting parts of your story and use them. Start when something interesting is happening and let the rest of the story unfold. Your reader will want to learn how it turns out.

Just to be clear: You don’t have to be the best writer ever. You don’t even have to use action to start your college application essay. (Remember, I’ve written about three ways to start an essay.) But you do want to interest your reader in your first few sentences.

So now let’s get serious about action.

Starting with the action in your story is probably the most common method students use to write college admission essays and personal statements. It’s almost a sure-fire way to succeed. Why? It’s personal. It’s unique (it only happened to you). And it can create immediate excitement and interest.

There Are Two Kinds of Action or Conflict

There are two kinds of action or conflict: physical and mental.

Physical Action or Conflict: This is the kind of action you can see. Something physical is happening. You’re breaking through the starting gate, tearing apart your bedroom, discovering a fossil, etc.

 

Mental Action or Conflict: This is something you’re thinking about. You’re struggling with a decision, solving a problem, figuring out if you can go outside of your comfort zone, etc.


Examples of Starting with Action

Here are two opening sentences that use action.

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

Physical and mental action: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.”

Notice how they both start in the middle of what’s happening. Something is happening NOW.

Start in The Middle of Your Action

Writing chronologically isn’t an attention grabber. Unless it’s absolutely necessary, don’t start your story at the very beginning, like the day you started school or when you came down the stairs on Christmas morning. Start at the moment you broke your arm at recess or a puppy popped out of the Christmas gift. It’s much more interesting!

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

Give Background Info Later

Don’t worry about not giving background information right away. In fact, that’s good! In the above examples the students don’t reveal many details in the first sentence. That helps create interest and intrigue. (A little mystery is exciting after all.)

Start where the action begins and give the background information later. You’ll make you reader WANT to keep reading to find out more.

Sample Essay Structure

Here’s how to start with action and give background info later:

Paragraph one: Start with the action in your story.

  • I plant my Giant Slalom poles into the snow and push my shivering body through the starting gate. My heart is racing as I dash past the crowds, listening now only to my frost-covered breaths coming in quick succession, and focused only on my goal ahead….”

Paragraph two: Add some background and context to your story.

  • I’ve been skiing in the shadow of Mt. Hood since I was six years old… “

Paragraph three and on: Continue to tell your story, revealing important details as you go along.

Start with the action. It will help you write your college application essay in an exciting and original way. If using action doesn’t fit your topic, read about other ways to start an interesting college essay. And THAT is one way to help get your college essay personal statement noticed.

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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Writing College Application Essays: Finding Your Positive Qualities

You should know a lot about yourself if you’re writing a college application essay.

You should have a pretty good handle on what you like, what’s important to you, what makes you laugh, dream, think or doubt. Because these are some of the things that make you you.

And…

You should definitely know your positive qualities.

So, what are your positive qualities? Can you name a few? …Some…none?

Download my Positive Qualities Worksheet. It will help you identify your best qualities. It will also help you link your qualities to some of the stories you have to tell.

And it often leads to good essay ideas.

Showcasing your positive qualities is one of the best ways to help schools get to know you. So start here. Get to know your positive qualities.

Here are two more posts you should read to help get you started:
How to Start Writing Your College Essay and Five Tips Before You Write.

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 App Essay #4: Problem You’ve Solved or Would Like to Solve

how to write 2015 common application essay problem you've solved or would like to solveThe Common Application essay topics are out.

How do you choose which essay to write?

This 5 part series helps you figure out which question on the 2015 Common Application essay is right for you.

Ready for number 4? Let’s do it!

Common Application Essay Prompt #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.

Is This Prompt for You?  Look at the Keywords:

how to write 2013 common app essay

“Problem you’ve solved or would like to solve”“Personal importance”“No matter the scale”

Do the Keywords Apply to You?

Answer yes IF

  • You’ve identified a problem with meaning and importance to you.
  • You can see down the road from problem to possible solution.
  • You have actively worked on a solution OR you have plans for a solution but haven’t put them into action yet.

how to write 2013 common app essayPitfalls to Avoid:

  • The problem isn’t meaningful enough to you. Sure, you could write about lobbying for longer lunch periods at school, but so what? Don’t be superficial. Your story should tell the colleges what you value and give them an idea of your outlook on life.
  • Vague or generic essays. Essays should never be generic, but keep a special eye out if you’re writing about “larger” problems. For instance, if you say, “The world has too many people and I want to do something about it” — that is not specific enough. Gather your facts and know what you’re talking about.
  • Don’t forget the question has three parts: (1) Describe a problem; (2) Explain its significance to you; (3) Identify a solution. You must answer all three parts.

Great News! This Question is Broad — There are Many Ways to Answer:

  • You saw a problem and implemented the solution. (“When I saw that the kids at the teen center didn’t always have enough nice clothes to wear, I set up a “free clothes” rack inside the door. Now they can take anything they want.”)
  • You haven’t implemented the solution, but you can explain it. (“Now that my partners and I have identified the source of the pollution flowing into the river, I plan to work with local authorities to set up a better monitoring system to prevent future spills.”)
  • Your topic is small in scope. Don’t mistake small for mundane, boring, or unimportant. If you’ve found a solution to an everyday problem of personal importance, write about it! I always tell my students, “You don’t have to have something big to write about. The topic just has to have meaning for you.”
  • Your topic is large in scope. If you prefer to tackle bigger problems, this prompt lets you do that. If you’re not sure, ask yourself, “If I had the power, what kind of lasting change would I like to see in the world or in my community, and how would I achieve it?” It’s okay to dream big with this essay — just make sure to include a possible solution and be as specific as you can. (“After I saw how locusts destroyed the harvest, I realized that if scientists could understand more about insect life cycles, then we might be able to save the crops and even combat hunger. That’s why, in college, I want to set up a research study and use mathematical applications to help predict these terrible years.”)

What Colleges Learn About You From This Question:

  • Your problem-solving skills.
  • How you think when you’re faced with challenges.
  • An idea or experience you truly value. Hooray! This is a major part of what colleges look for. Did you devote one of your birthday celebrations to raising funds for an animal in need of medical care? They’ll see you’re compassionate. Did you find a new meeting place for seniors after fire destroyed their first venue? They’ll see you’re determined. The problem and solution you choose to write about tell the colleges who you are.

Write a Winning Essay — Tell a Story

This essay prompt lends itself to story telling, which is one great way to write a winning essay. Here’s an example of how you might structure this essay:

  • Begin with the action in your story. (This is an excellent way to draw in your reader.) Start at the moment you discovered or realized the problem.
  • Set the scene for the reader. Explain where you were, why you were there, and what you were doing.
  • Discuss who/what was affected by the problem and why that was meaningful to you.
  • Explain how you came up with a possible solution (Research? Thought? Talking to people?) Colleges like to see how you think, so include your decision-making process.
  • Make sure you identify your solution, or what you might like to see as a solution.

Next time: How to Write Common App prompt #5.

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 #5: Transition from Childhood to Adulthood

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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Writing College Application Essays: The Failure of Faking It

writing college essays - the failure of faking itLet’s get this out of the way – Never fake it.

Don’t make stuff up when you’re writing your college application essay.

I could spout off like a stuffy old aunt and tell you it isn’t right and that it’s not the assignment (it’s not), but let me give you a better reason – it can affect your chances of getting into the college of your dreams.

Why? Colleges can tell?

Yes. Often. If you’ve read thousands of college essays, you’d develop a nose for these things, too.

So let’s talk about the obvious question: Why do some students feel like they need to make it up?

1. They think it’s what colleges want to hear.
2. They think they don’t have anything to say.
3. Writing is hard! Making it up sounds better.

Here’s the truth:

1. Colleges want to hear about YOU. They want to discover the world through your eyes – who you are and how you think. So take them on that journey, not some warmed-over version of what you think they want, or who you think they want. Just give them you.

2. You are important enough and you do have something to say. College essay writing can be intimidating. Often, students think they don’t have anything to say because they’ve never had anything “big” happen to them, like a life-changing event or a special vacation or trip. But that’s a myth. You don’t need anything big to write about. Colleges get that. They just want to learn what’s meaningful to you.

3. Writing IS hard. That’s the assignment. You’re not going to polish it off in one draft. Making it up might speed up the process, but it won’t make it a successful one. You’ll miss important details you could only write about if they happened. Unfortunately, the colleges will miss those details, too.

 An Example of Why Faking it Fails:

 A student didn’t want the colleges to think he was part of a losing football team. “We’re having a great season!” he wrote. “The offense is like a brick!”

That’s what he thought the schools wanted to hear.

The truth was, the team was having a poor season and the student was affected by that. He even thought about quitting but decided to stick with it and worked to improve the team.

Since he faked it, the student didn’t have a chance to show how he helped his teammates work through a bad situation.

If you were a college reader, what would help you decide to admit this student – hearing him brag, or learning how he demonstrated resolve and teamwork during a tough time?

Real life is better when you don’t fake it.

Really.

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

3 Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Start Writing Your College Application EssaysSooo…. you’ve got some essays to write.

When are you going to get started?

Today?

No?

Tomorrow?

Here are 3 Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Start Writing Your College Application Essay:

  • Go Outside. Yes, you heard me right. Think about your essay everywhere EXCEPT in front of your keyboard. This works, because it allows your brain to become more creative and relaxed. So walk your dog, ride your skateboard, take a swim –  let your brain be inspired.
  • Freewrite: Do you have an idea or two but can’t get a decent sentence on the page? Then freewrite. Give yourself 10 or 15 minutes and write a train of thought paragraph about your topic. Close your eyes and try to put yourself in your story. Write what you felt, heard, tasted, saw, smelled. What were your emotions? What were you thinking? How did it affect you? You’ll be surprised at the material you come up with. After that, you should be able to move on to your essay.
  • Forget about writing “THE ESSAY.” Yes, the college essay is important but I’ve met students who are actually afraid to start writing. They feel so much pressure to choose the perfect topic and make the essay convey everything that’s special about them that they start to panic.

Here’s what I tell them:

  • Your essay isn’t your resume. You only have 650 words. You have to choose what you want to tell the colleges about you – not throw in the kitchen sink.
  • You Don’t Need a One-of-a-Kind Topic. Why? Because YOU are the unique part of your essay. While other students may choose the same topic, no one will react to it, learn from it or grow from it the same way. Schools want to understand your perspective. They want to see the world from your eyes.
  • Don’t settle for easy answers. This is an excellent tip for writing a great essay. Look inside yourself and dig deep for this essay. One way to do that is to keep asking yourself “why?” “Why is it important for me to tell this story?”…”Why did I react this way?” Take the time to figure out those answers and you’ll have an essay to be proud of.

Sooo… you’ve got some essays to write.

What are you waiting for? Go outside and get started.

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 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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Common App 2013 Essay Prompts

Common Application essay prompts 2013

The 2013-2014 Common Application won’t formally launch until August 1, but  the Common Application essay prompts are already out.

There are changes from last year:

650 word limit (up from 500)
All-new prompts
No “topic of your choice”

Here are the 2013 Common Application Essay Prompts with Instructions:

Instructions: The essay demonstrates your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and
helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice. What do you want the readers of your application to
know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you
answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and
structure your response. Remember: 650 words is your limit, not your goal. Use the full range if you need it, but don’t feel obligated to do so. (The application won’t accept a response shorter than 250 words.)

  1. 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.
  2. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
  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 place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
  5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

In future posts I’ll give you easy-to-follow tips on writing your 2013 College Application essay.

sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skillsSharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting in Redding, Connecticut.
Need help? I work with students everywhere: in-person, over the phone, and by email. Visit my website for more info. Connect with me on Google+, Twitter and Pinterest:

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