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Writing a Perfect College Essay

With November 1 (the first deadline for college applications) looming, hopefully your high school senior has written at least a draft of the Personal Statement for the Common Application. As a writing instructor, I’ve seen hundreds of college application essays, and I know all the tricks. Before your child finalizes his essay, here are some questions he should ask himself to make sure it will stand out in the eyes of college admission officers:

Does the opening line grab a reader’s attention?

Admission officers read so many essays they all start to blend together, but a catchy opening will get their attention. One technique is to start the essay in the middle of the action, at the high point of tension or drama. For example, if a kid is writing about a recent rock climbing adventure, he could open with something like, “There I was, dangling 3,000 feet above the ground, wondering which bones would break first should I fall.”

If a student can’t stick to the word limit, the college may worry that he or she can’t follow directions.

Beginning an essay with a provocative question, such as “Do you ever get the feeling you’ve entered another dimension?” will also make an admission officer want to keep reading. So will an unusual statement. A favorite of one admission officer: “Old people are stinky.”

Does the essay stick to the word count?

Students are asked to keep the essay to 500 words. Your child should try not to go over the word limit, for a few reasons. Admission officers don’t want to read any more than they have to. Secondly, if a student can’t stick to the word limit, the college may worry that he or she can’t follow directions. Third, most essays only improve when edited down. As the famous quote goes, paraphrased, “If I had more time, I would have written less.”

Does the essay tell a story?

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This is not the place for students to regurgitate their résumé or throw in a laundry list of achievements. The most effective essays tell a compelling tale. How best to do this? Narrow the focus of the essay. For example, instead of writing about his entire swimming career, your child would do better to spotlight one challenge, one pre-race ritual, or one kid he’s coached that is of interest and illustrates his broader swimming experience. Similarly, your daughter shouldn’t try to span her entire acting career in an essay, but instead, pick one character she played and how it related to her.

Is it written in the active voice?

A common mistake young writers make is writing in the passive voice instead of the active voice, such as “The game was won by us,” rather than “We won the game.” This slows down the pace of the essay and results in cumbersome phrases. If possible, students should also use action verbs—run, shout, eat—rather than “to be” verbs—was, were, is, etc.

Does the essay use everyday words?

Some writers feel they need to cram in as many SAT words as possible into their essay in order to show off their impressive vocabulary. The trouble is, their writing may come off as stiff and/or pretentious. Admission officers say they prefer nickel words versus the $5 variety. Also, this desire to impress can lead to the misuse of words, for example saying, “I fancied reading” instead of “I love reading.” Simple and heartfelt is almost always best.

RELATED: Navigating the College Admissions Process

Does the essay contain compelling details?

Details make an essay come alive and help the reader vividly “see” what the author is writing about. But too many young authors forget to add them. For example, one applicant wrote an essay about a garden she grew for disadvantaged children without ever mentioning what vegetables she planted. Another related pitfall is when students write in generalities, such as, “The experience really helped me grow,” instead of explaining specifically how they grew—for example, they gained leadership skills or confidence. Specifics are what turn a potentially generic essay into a memorable one that expresses a student’s individuality and personality.

Does the essay stay on topic?

It’s not uncommon for kids to start an essay on one topic—music, for example—then halfway through veer off onto another one, such as the speech and debate team. Unless there is a unifying factor up high in the essay that ties these two activities together, the essay loses focus and impact. Students need to maintain the thread of the idea from start to end.

Last but not least, does the essay show your student in the best light?

Admission officers are looking for students who will contribute to their colleges, do well academically and be leaders and role models. Your student should make sure the essay highlights his or her best qualities so the person who emerges is someone the admission officers can see succeeding at school and in life.

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