The gymnasium was packed. College representatives had set up their booths in lines stretching from end to end of the basketball court. High school students either crowded around the more popular colleges’ booths or swarmed in tight groups, migrating from one station to the next. It was College Night, and everyone hungered for answers, advice—any information that could help them get into the school of their dreams.
If you’re reading this article, it’s likely that you’re just like one of these students. While there isn’t a magical reading that can wash away all your college-related worries, here are five tips that will help you successfully write your college admissions essays.
1. Consider writing by hand.
In the end, the most memorable piece of advice I found that night came not from one of the informational booths, but from a man I serendipitously crossed paths with. He told me, “Write your college essays by hand first. Use pen or pencil, whichever you prefer, but make sure you write them by hand.”
While it might seem rather impractical and tedious to manually write hundreds of words, writing your essays by hand will make them feel more personal. There is something more intimate about writing with a pen and paper than typing—and intimacy is exactly what you want in your essays. The point of the essays is for college admissions officers to get a better sense of who you are. Outside of academics, outside of extracurriculars, who are you as a person?
Note: If manually writing your first drafts isn’t an option for you, consider at least writing your outlines by hand. Aside from feeling more personal, outlining by hand also gives you more room to be creative—literally. With a pen and paper, you can write wherever you please, free from the structure that inherently comes with a typed document.
2. Get started as soon as possible.
With something as important as your college admissions essays, you want to give yourself as much time as possible. Some students start as early as the summer before their senior year.
Starting early has both practical and creative benefits. Some colleges offer early action or early decision applications, and you may want to consider one of these routes. Make sure you know the difference between early action and early decision!** Moreover, the earlier you start, the lighter your stress load will be. Imagine starting the week your application is due—with the amount of pressure on you to submit your application on time, you may end up sacrificing the quality of your essays for the sake of just finishing.
Keep in mind that starting early does not necessarily mean writing. A big part of the writing process is planning. While you don’t have to go to the length of making a thorough bullet-point outline for each essay, you should consider making note of some important, self-defining moments in your life. For example: when I was planning my own essays, I wanted to get straight to the essence of my personality. To do so, I first determined what my core values were—whether these were traits that I found and loved in myself, or traits that I strived to embody.
If you’re unsure of where to start, you can find lists of common core values online. Simply highlight the ones that speak to you, cut the list down to only the ones you’ve highlighted, go through each value again, then eliminate the ones that matter less to you. Continue this process until there are three to four values left, and you will have your core values.
**Both early action and early decision plans will allow you to receive your admission status—meaning whether you’ve been accepted or not—earlier than regular applicants. However, with early decision, you must attend the college if you are accepted.
3. Write, write, write.
It’s easier said than done, but just write. Free yourself from as many distractions as possible. This can mean finding a quiet time and place to write, but it can also mean getting yourself in the right mindset. When you’re writing your first drafts, it can be daunting to feel like you need to get everything right. I recommend focusing on one prompt at a time, ignoring the essay word limit and the pressure of maintaining writing conventions. You can always go back and edit your essays afterwards, and thinking too hard about these things as you write can impede the writing process.
Try to concentrate on answering the prompt as true to yourself as possible. If it helps, pretend that someone close to you has asked you the prompt, perhaps as a means of getting to know you better, and write the same way you would answer them. Remember that you are not writing a persuasive essay. Treat your college admissions essays instead as short stories: meaningful snippets of your life.
Additionally, it can be easy to bog yourself down by obsessively reading articles and watching videos with titles such as, “10 Common Mistakes to Avoid in Your College Admissions Essays.” These articles and videos may actually hurt you in the long run, especially if you find that you’re unable to write without worrying that you may be making those same mistakes. If looking for tips will reassure you and help you begin writing, then go ahead; but the more time you spend reading and watching, the less time you have to write.
4. Save the revisions for later.
Choosing the wrong time to revise can be detrimental to your writing process. If you revise your essays as you write them, you can stall or even prevent yourself from finishing. On the other hand, revising immediately after you’ve finished could go one of two ways: you may be hypercritical of your writing and mark too many mistakes, or you may feel like nothing needs fixing. Either way, you will be too close to your writing and need space.
Once you’ve reached the revision phase, you can start thinking about cutting down your essays to fit the given word limits and fixing any grammatical errors. Additionally, that moment is a better time to read articles about what mistakes to avoid in your essays.
I recommend revising using a method I like to call “zooming in.” Essentially, focus on the essay as a whole before diving into the little details. One of the first aspects of your essay that you may want to consider is how well it flows. A good way to determine flow is to read your essay aloud and make note of any places where it sounds awkward or overly formal. Afterward, you can continue “zooming in” by referencing the structural units of the essay, moving from paragraphs to sentences and, finally, to individual words.
Furthermore, don’t be afraid to ask for someone else’s perspective during the revision phase. Sometimes, you may be catering to colleges without even knowing it. Have someone who knows you well—perhaps a close friend or a longtime teacher—read over your essays to make sure that they truly reflect your personality.
5. Don’t stress too hard.
Don’t stress about presenting yourself as the perfect applicant either. It’s obvious when a student is trying to make themselves seem smarter, more charitable, more well-rounded, etc. Concentrating too hard on achieving perfection in your essays can inadvertently cause you to sacrifice pieces of yourself. Instead of seeing you, admissions officers will end up reading about a modified version of you, sculpted to unrealistic perfection. The pursuit of perfection will only lead you to obscure your true personality.
In other words, as the oft-quoted proverb goes, be yourself.