How Do You Write A Great College Essay

I’ve looked at plenty of college essays over the years and the vast majority of them have been b-o-r-i-n-g.

The mediocre essays that I’ve seen have usually been guilty of one or more of these no-no’s:

1. They lacked details.

2. They didn’t convey the student’s voice.

3. They covered too much territory. (Writing about something that lasted seconds, minutes or a day in a teen’s life is much better than trying to jam a student’s entire life into a 500-word essay!)

4. They read like the dull expository essays that high school English teachers force students to write. Formal English papers are deadly and relying on English teachers, who may be poor writers themselves, for instructions on how to write a winning college essay is often asking for trouble.

A Favorite College Essay Tip

Summer is an excellent time to get started writing college essays. I’ll be talking more about college essays as the 2015-2016 admission season kicks into gear, but today I want to share one of my favorite tips:

Don’t bore the admission readers with a dull opening line!

During admission season, admission reps often have to read dozens of essays a day. It’s inevitable that the essays will blur together, which is an excellent reason why applicants need to make theirs stand apart.

Applicants will win brownie points if they start their essays with an opening sentence that grabs the reader’s attention.

Need examples? If so, you should read an old article in the Stanford Magazine that includes opening college essay lines that the university’s admission reps particularly liked.

Opening Lines from Stanford University Admission Essays

Here are some of the Stanford admission officers’ favorite opening lines from the school’s 2012 graduating class:

  • I have old hands.
  • 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’ve been surfing Lake Michigan since I was 3 years old.
  • On a hot Hollywood evening, I sat on a bike, sweltering in a winter coat and furry boots.
  • As an Indian-American, I am forever bound to the hyphen.
  • Unlike many mathematicians, I live in an irrational world; I feel that my life is defined by a certain amount of irrationalities that bloom too frequently, such as my brief foray in front of 400 people without my pants.
  • I change my name each time I place an order at Starbucks.
  • When I was in eighth grade I couldn’t read.
  • Sitting cross-legged on the floor of a Bhimanagar slum dwelling in Bangalore, I ran my fingers across a fresh cut on my forehead.
  • Some fathers might disapprove of their children handling noxious chemicals in the garage.

Here’s where you can read the entire Stanford Magazine article on college essay opening lines.

Where To Get Great College Essay Advice

Before getting started on a college essay, I’d strongly urge teenagers to head over to Essay Hell, which is a tremendous source of advice and tips on how to craft amazing college essays.

At Essay Hell, you’ll find tons of free advice on the site’s blog, as well as invaluable ebooks and an online writing bootcamp.

Read more:

Can a Guinea Pig Be in a College Essay?

A Lovely College Essay Example

Learn More…

I’ve opened up registration for my latest online course – The College Cost Lab – that will explain how parents can cut the cost of college.

Enroll early and you’ll get my new guide, The Ultimate List of the Nation’s Most Generous Colleges. – Lynn O’Shaughnessy

Here’s a tip: Choose a topic you really want to write about. If the subject doesn’t matter to you, it won’t matter to the reader. Write about whatever keeps you up at night. That might be cars, or coffee. It might be your favorite book or the Pythagorean theorem. It might be why you don’t believe in evolution or how you think kale must have hired a PR firm to get people to eat it.

A good topic will be complex. In school, you were probably encouraged to write papers that took a side. That’s fine in academic work when you’re being asked to argue in support of a position, but in a personal essay, you want to express more nuanced thinking and explore your own clashing emotions. In an essay, conflict is good.

For example, “I love my mom. She’s my best friend. We share clothes and watch ‘The Real Housewives’ of three different cities together” does not make for a good essay. “I love my mom even though she makes me clean my room, hates my guinea pig and is crazy about disgusting food like kale” could lead somewhere

While the personal essay has to be personal, a reader can learn a lot about you from whatever you choose to focus on and how you describe it. One of my favorites from when I worked in admissions at Duke University started out, “My car and I are a lot alike.” The writer then described a car that smelled like wet dog and went from 0 to 60 in, well, it never quite got to 60.

Another guy wrote about making kimchi with his mom. They would go into the garage and talk, really talk: “Once my mom said to me in a thick Korean accent, ‘Every time you have sex, I want you to make sure and use a condo.’ I instantly burst into laughter and said, ‘Mom, that could get kind of expensive!’ ” A girl wrote about her feminist mother’s decision to get breast implants.

A car, kimchi, Mom’s upsizing — the writers used these objects as vehicles to get at what they had come to say. They allowed the writer to explore the real subject: This is who I am.

Don’t brag about your achievements. Instead, look at times you’ve struggled or, even better, failed. Failure is essayistic gold. Figure out what you’ve learned. Write about that. Be honest and say the hardest things you can. And remember those exhausted admissions officers sitting around a table in the winter. Jolt them out of their sugar coma and give them something to be excited about.

10 Things Students Should Avoid

REPEATING THE PROMPT Admissions officers know what’s on their applications. Don’t begin, “A time that I failed was when I tried to beat up my little brother and I realized he was bigger than me.” You can start right in: “As I pulled my arm back to throw a punch, it struck me: My brother had gotten big. Bigger than me.”

LEAVE WEBSTER’S OUT OF IT Unless you’re using a word like “prink” (primp) or “demotic” (popular) or “couloir” (deep gorge), you can assume your reader knows the definition of the words you’ve written. You’re better off not starting your essay with “According to Webster’s Dictionary . . . .”

THE EPIGRAPH Many essays start with a quote from another writer. When you have a limited amount of space, you don’t want to give precious real estate to someone else’s words.

YOU ARE THERE! When writing about past events, the present tense doesn’t allow for reflection. All you can do is tell the story. This happens, then this happens, then this happens. Some beginning writers think the present tense makes for more exciting reading. You’ll see this is a fallacy if you pay attention to how many suspenseful novels are written in past tense.

SOUND EFFECTSOuch! Thwack! Whiz! Whooooosh! Pow! Are you thinking of comic books? Certainly, good writing can benefit from a little onomatopoeia. Clunk is a good one. Or fizz. But once you start adding exclamation points, you’re wading into troubled waters. Do not start your essay with a bang!

ACTIVE BODY PARTS One way to make your reader giggle is to give body parts their own agency. When you write a line like “His hands threw up,” the reader might get a visual image of hands barfing. “My eyes fell to the floor.” Ick.

CLICHÉS THINK YOUR THOUGHTS FOR YOU Here’s one: There is nothing new under the sun. We steal phrases and ideas all the time. George Orwell’s advice: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”

TO BE OR NOT TO BE Get rid of “to be” verbs. Replace “was” in “The essay was written by a student; it was amazing and delightful” and you’ll get: “The student’s essay amazed and delighted me.” We’ve moved from a static description to a sprightlier one and cut the word count almost in half.

WORD PACKAGES Some phrases — free gift, personal beliefs, final outcome, very unique — come in a package we don’t bother to unpack. They’re redundant.

RULES TO IGNORE In English class, you may have to follow a list of rules your teacher says are necessary for good grammar: Don’t use contractions. No sentence fragments. It’s imperative to always avoid split infinitives. Ending on a preposition is the sort of English up with which teachers will not put. And don’t begin a sentence with a conjunction like “and” or “but” or “because.” Pick up a good book. You’ll see that the best authors ignore these fussy, fusty rules.

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