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DOs and DON’Ts of writing a college application essay

December 6, 2012

We are happy that our students are reaching out to us for help as they finish (or start) writing essays for their college applications. We would like to emphasize a few important tips that will help students finish out these last few weeks of the application season.

Image Courtesy of thomaseagle at Flickr

Image Courtesy of thomaseagle at Flickr

A few DOs and DON’Ts of writing a college application essay:

DO rephrase the essay prompt into a question.

Having a clear question makes it easier to write a clear answer. Even in cases where the prompt is not a question, try to frame it into a question or questions so that you can develop your essay in the form of an answer.

For example, this is a common prompt:

Reflect on something that you would like us to know that we might not learn from the rest of your application – or something that you would like to say more about.

This prompt is really asking: “What do you wish the school knew about you that is not covered in the application?”

Here’s another example:

Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.

This essay topic is more of a three-part question: “Who or what has influenced you?”; “Why? What qualities about this person or thing influenced you?”; and finally, “How has this person or thing influenced you?”

DON’T forget the main point of your essay.

The main point(s) is the answer to the question in the essay prompt. Write the question in the header so that you can see it often and ask yourself if what you are writing is answering this question. If what you are writing has nothing to do with the main point of the essay, it is likely that you are taking the reader off-course too.

Image courtesy of Unhindered by Talent at Flickr

Image courtesy of Unhindered by Talent at Flickr

DO use a hook for your opening sentence(s).

It is always hard to start an essay, and while it is okay to start an essay by immediately answering the essay prompt, why not secure the attention of the reader with a device called a hook?

A well-developed hook will encourage the reader to continue reading, as well as setting a personal tone that can make your essay stand out from the thousands of other essays that are reviewed during the course of an application period.

Writers can use questions, examples or anecdotes, or quotes for their hook.

For example, let’s say that my essay topic is Explain your choice of major at University of College Name.

The questions being asked are, “What do you wish to major in, and why?”

My hooks could be:

Question:                    How is an eighteen-year old supposed to know what she should be studying in order to land her dream job? I do not know exactly what would be the dream job for me, but I have always been most interested in studying the different legacies of civilizations past and present worldwide, so I hope to focus on the most enduring creations of humanity by studying architecture.

Example/anecdote:                When I was thirteen, I was lucky enough to do a tour of Western Europe with my family. Especially in comparison to the urban landscapes in the U.S., it was incredible to see buildings from the 17th century side-by-side with those commissioned several hundred years later. The designers clearly had a deep respect for the older buildings and were successful in preserving the identity of neighborhood and city. I consider these architects and planners to be my role models.

Quote:                          Denise Scott Brown once said “We observed that buildings can be designed like gloves that snugly surround each finger of your hand, or like mittens that allow different-sized hands and fingers to fit and wiggle.” A forward-thinking architect should be thinking about future uses of a particular building or space and design accordingly. I belong to this school of architecture, and I would like to learn the skills to design multi-purpose buildings that can last for centuries.

 Obviously, the first two types of hooks can be developed entirely on your own but finding a suitable quote may require additional effort. It is recommended that you look to articles featuring a personage related to your essay topic. Videos of interviews are also helpful when searching for an inspirational (and on-topic) quote.

These DOs and DON’Ts should get you started on writing your essays or reviewing your completed essays with a critical eye. Good luck!

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