Writing a Winning College Essay

The seniors at my son’s high school are in a panic. They can’t procrastinate any longer. They have to write their dreaded college essay.

A lot of college essays fail because students are so afraid of messing up. It’s hard for teenagers to be genuine when they worry about alienating admission officers.

I  had the opportunity yesterday to shares some tips on how to write a great college essay with kids at Ben’s school. Here are some of the suggestions that I gave them:

Start with a grabber first paragraph. You want your college admission essay to stand out and the best way is to begin strong. I told the kids about an article I once read in Stanford’s alumni magazine that contained first sentences from winning college essays.

Here are some college essay examples of first lines that Stanford liked:

  • When I was in eighth grade I couldn’t read.
  • The spaghetti burbled and slushed around the pan, and as I stirred it, the noises it gave off began to sound increasingly like bodily functions.
  • I change my name each time I place an order at Starbucks.
  • I have old hands.
  • Some fathers might disapprove of their children handling noxious chemicals in the garage.
  • While traveling through the daily path of life, have you ever stumbled upon a hidden pocket of the universe?

Break up the copy. One essay that I saw yesterday only contained two long paragraphs on the first page. Admission officers hate wading through such thick blocks of words. Don’t write paragraphs of more than three sentences if you can help it. And definitely not more than four.

Don’t bury the good stuff. Many teenagers are guilty of this one.  On Thursday I read a college essay, for example, from a girl whose father had been deported from the restaurant where he was a cook. Her father’s recent disappearance and his attempts to return to San Diego have obviously deeply impacted the girl, but she never even mentioned this pivotal moment in her life until the second page. I told her to put it in the first paragraph.

Deliver a take-home message. You can write a serious college essay, a humorous essay or a clever one. There is no one right way, but you have to make sure that the college essay reflects back on you. Whether you are writing about cleaning beaches, babysitting, coping with a family death or any other subject, the essay must provide a strong sense of self. Your personality must emerge and it should reflect what kind of person you are now – not when you were younger.

Watch the length. If you’re not a compelling writer, you can stop at around 500 words.

Further reading:

The College Essay Word Count

Winning One Liners From Stanford

The Dreaded College Essay

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One Response to “Writing a Winning College Essay”

  1. Josh says:

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