Writing the Perfect College Essay – Tips, Techniques and Strategies

November 1, 2021 
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If you are in the process of applying to college, the essay or personal statement is just one more thing to add to your neverending to-do list. Since the essay is not as important as grades or test scores, it can be tempting to put it off or put in the minimal amount of effort needed to get it done. Bad idea. Colleges are not only receiving more and more applications, but more applicants means it’s getting harder to stand out from the crowd. Since it’s one of the best ways to make a good impression, here are some tips, techniques, and strategies to help you craft an unforgettable college essay.

Make a plan and get started early.

Don’t wait until the last minute to write your essay. It might take a while to figure out the best way to answer a prompt (and even pick one!). You’ll need to set aside time for brainstorming and planning. Your essay will also need to go through multiple drafts, including getting feedback from someone you trust, so it’s not something you can get done in an afternoon or a weekend.

The best time to get started on your college essay is the summer before senior year. If you write two or three times a week for 30 minutes, then you have about a month to brainstorm and outline, a month to write, and a month to proofread and edit. You can also work on your essay in the fall of your senior year, but you’ll have to fit it in between homework and other activities. 

Pick the perfect topic.

The essay is a way for colleges to get to know you. The real you. Starting in your junior year, keep a list of experiences that provide a “snapshot” of your character and personality. You’ll also want to make a list of colleges you’re considering applying to and identify the essay topics and other requirements for each school (e.g. due date, word count).

Review samples or models of essays that worked.

Point yourself in the right direction by getting a better idea of what works and what doesn’t. You obviously don’t want to steal someone else’s story, but reading sample essays is a great way to get inspired. 

Answer the question.

Most essay prompts ask you to share an experience that changed or shaped you. Using vivid imagery, take your readers on a journey that helps them experience your moment of realization or transformation. Be open and vulnerable to help readers connect with you and empathize with what it took for you to become the person you are today.

Tell a story.

Forget the five paragraph essay. Your goal is to write a story that stars you as the main character and shines a spotlight on something special about you. Remember to show more than tell. Just like a movie, make sure your essay has stakes, conflict, defining moments, emotion, and even dialogue. Your story can be one moment in time or a longer story made up of several moments.

Be you.

There is no one else exactly like you, so show that in your essay. Don’t pretend to be someone you’re not by writing about topics or in a style you think will impress. Faking it with forced diversity, adversity, or formal language will be a huge turn off. It’s better to just be yourself. Write with a bit of humor and use specifics that no one else can (e.g. the sounds of your neighborhood, the name of local businesses). Don’t repeat yourself either. The essay is a place to be authentic and represent something that isn’t already in your application.

Use your senses.

Put your readers in your point of view. Let them see what you saw, smell what you smelled, touch what you touched. Go from stating that “baking was how I coped with anxiety and realized I wanted to study chemistry” to “the frustration and chaos of the day dissolved with each turn of the dough and each precise measurement.”

Proofread and share your essay.

Proofread your essay for errors and to make sure you’ve provided a clear answer to the prompt. Fix awkward wording and see if you can find any part of your story that can be enhanced with a more active verb, a more candid admission, or a more playful turn of phrase. Then, it’s time to share. Sharing something you’ve written with anybody can be scary, especially writing this personal. Be brave. Feedback from friends, parents, teachers, and others you trust can give you valuable perspective and help you catch errors you may have missed.

Get help.

College essays ask you to step outside your comfort zone: you have to be a storyteller and bare your soul. It’s not easy. That’s why A+ Test Prep and Tutoring offers college essay support in the form of downloadable tip sheets, editing, and tutoring services. 

At A+ Test Prep and Tutoring, our practices are based on the latest developments in educational theory and research. We have an excellent team of tutors who can help you with standardized testing, executive functioning, or achievement in any other school subject. If you want to find out more about our services, our Client Service Directors Susan Ware and Joelle Faucette can be reached at 215-886-9188.

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