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7 Ways to Improve Your College Essay

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Whether you're still wondering how to start a college application essay, or you have written your first, second, and third drafts, these tips will help your essay shine.

Maybe you’ve completed the first draft of your college essay and you’re now ready to revise it, or maybe you haven’t yet found a topic to write about. No matter where you are in the essay-writing process, consider the advice below from college admission coaches and admissions officers. You might get inspired!

1. Check your topic--is it about you?

No matter what experience, challenge, moment in time, or other topic you are writing about, your essay, at its core, is about you: What you care about, what makes you tick, what inspires you, what you value, what makes you different from other applicants, and what you’ll contribute to the college community.

 “Of course you want [your essay] to be a good read and stay on topic, but this is about showing admissions who you are,” explains Ashley McNaughton, founder of ACM College Consulting. “You don't want to get caught up in thinking too much about what they are expecting. Focus your thoughts on yourself and what you want to share.”

2. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable.

Ethan Sawyer, the essay coach behind College Essay Guy, says the essays he considers great sound like they are coming from a deeper, more vulnerable place. “After reading your essay, the admissions officer should know more about you--and feel closer to you.”

This might mean writing about experiences that were awkward, uncomfortable, or even embarrassing, or that reveal something personal that few people know about you. While these topics can be difficult to write about, it’s important to explore them, says Janine Robinson, essay coach and founder of Essay Hell. “When you share painful memories--and what you learned from them--you come across as humble, accessible, likable…and mature. Chances are, you also shared a mini-story that was interesting, entertaining and memorable.”

3. Review structure and flow.

Sawyer recommends this exercise to improve the structure and flow of your essay and help clarify what you’re trying to say:

  • Bold the first sentence of each paragraph in your personal statement.
  • Reading only those sentences, the essay should still make sense and read like a “mini” essay on its own.
  • If some parts don’t make sense, write a new outline where all the bold sentences flow together, then…
  • Revise your paragraphs so that each one fleshes out your new topic sentence.

4. Read it out loud.

Reading your essay aloud can also uncover problems in its structure, weak transitions, or spots where a reader might lose interest. Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admissions at Georgia Tech, suggests voice recording your essay. “There is something magical about reading out loud....we hear things differently and find room for improvement when the writing is flat.”

Reading out loud can also help you with tip #5.

5. Make sure it sounds like you.

 “The most meaningful essays are those where I feel like the student is sitting next to me, just talking to me,” says Kim Struglinksi, former admissions counselor at Vanderbilt University in the Vanderbilt blog. “Use words and phrases that you would actually use in everyday conversation.” If you are stuck on writing any part of your essay, she suggests turning on the recording device on your phone and start talking.

6. Get a second opinion.

Have one or two people--perhaps a teacher or counselor--review your essay. Ask them if the essay rings true to them. Can they spot your values? Did they find any parts of it unclear or difficult to understand? Can they hear your natural voice?

7. Be honest about what matters to you.

Try not to write what you think your college wants to hear. You don’t necessarily need to write your essay about a big, life-changing, how-I-will-save-the-world topic.  Even a seemingly insignificant experience can provide insight into your uniqueness. “Be thoughtful about the experiences you've had that have shaped who you've become,” advises Lauren Gaggioli, founder of Higher Scores Test Prep. “Be your brilliant self. And trust that your perfect-fit college will see you for who you truly are and say ‘Yes! This is exactly who we've been looking for.’”

Portions of this article were adapted from 35+ Best College Essay Tips from College Application Experts, posted on the College Essay Guy blog. College Essay Guy (a.k.a. Ethan Sawyer) offers college essay-writing advice, step-by-step tutorials and videos, and examples of great essays on his website and in his book, College Essay Essentials.

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