October 8, 2013

How to Start Your College Essay | Tips and Outline

or...The Start-To-Finish Guide to Overcoming Writer’s Block

Writer’s Block can strike the best of us, particularly when it comes to the college essay. Many of my students (who will remain nameless!) have sat by their computers for hours, “writing their college essays,” without writing a single word. If you are like these students, know, first, that you are in good company, and second, that it is really not that hard once you have a plan of action. Here are some tips for those students with writer’s block, that will take you from staring at a blank document to the clicking "send" on the finished product.

1. Decide your goals.

Before any big project, it is necessary to know what you are trying to accomplish. The essay is about showing off your intangibles, those qualities that don’t come through in the rest of the application. Think about what you want to stress. Is it your determination in the face of adversity? Your creativity and quirkiness? Your loyalty? Make a list, and keep the goals in mind when planning the essay. For more details on this step, read all college essay-related blog posts.

2. Choose your topic.

Sometimes you get to choose the essay topic, and sometimes it is chosen for you. Either way, you are going to have some leeway to decide what you want to write about. Usually, this involves telling some kind of story about yourself. Choose which story or experience (that answers the essay question) is most interesting and significant, and would allow you to best accomplish the goals you laid out in step one.

3. Outline the structure.

Before you start writing, decide how you are going to structure your essay. One common, and effective structure is to start with a paragraph about yourself, then tell the story about yourself, then talk about the significance of the story. Another possibility is to start with the story and then connect it to aspects of yourself. However, there are other potential structures that you may decide to employ. Deciding on the structure beforehand will make writing the essay less intimidating and make the finished product more organized and coherent.

4. Outline the content, step-by-step.

Now that you have the structure, you can outline each part. To do this, just write bullet points in chronological order, covering what you want to say and remembering how it relates to the goals laid out in step one. You can write these bullet points in shorthand, but the more detailed your outline is, the easier the inevitable next step will be.

5. Write it!

You knew this part would come eventually! You already have the outline, now put it in full sentences. Vary your sentence structure, add transitions, similes, descriptive words, and all that other stuff English teachers (and admissions officers) love!

6. Trim it down or bulk it up.

Usually, the essay question specifies a word limit. Now that you have a rough draft, it is time to think about length.

If the essay is too short, make sure that it is truly complete and has accomplished all the goals you laid out. If you are convinced that it is already complete, add more descriptive details, quotes, and anecdotes. This will not only make your essay longer, but will also make it more readable and interesting.

If the rough draft of your essay is too long, go back and trim the fat. Do you have any sentences that are redundant or that don't introduce new information? Depending on how many words over you are, you might have to make some difficult decisions. If all else fails, get a trusted friend or parent to read the essay over and tell you what is essential, and what can go.

7. Edit, edit, edit!

I can not stress it enough! Edit it 1000 times, and get your teachers, parents, siblings, neighbors and friends to do the same. Even if you are the next Shakespeare and think your essay is perfect as it stands, keep editing. You'll be glad you did.

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