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Writing your way into college

Jenna Johnson

Today's guest blogger is Barbara Gill, the University of Maryland's assistant vice president of undergraduate admissions and enrollment planning. Gill is a Maryland alum and has worked in admissions at the university for 24 years.

BarbUMD.jpgThis is the time of year that high school seniors, whether in English classes or at the dinner table, are intensely focused on one thing: their college essays. For many, the already-stressful process of applying to college is compounded by all the unknowns associated with this one component of the application.

Students are consumed with questions: Which topic should I select to write about? What should I write? What do colleges really want to read?

And perhaps the most pressing question of all: Will my essay be good enough?

I have had the privilege of reading thousands of college essays. I still feel a rush of excitement every time I come across a truly inspiring and engaging essay. So, I want to share with you a few tips that I hope will help guide your thinking about writing your college essays.

The topic is always you.
It is important to understand why colleges ask you to write essays. Simply put, we want to learn more about you -- so no matter the question, you are the topic. It is easy, especially when you have an interesting story to share, to spend most of your allotted word count providing context about an experience. However, you need to resist describing the "what" too much and reserve space for the more important "how" and "why" -- how this experience changed you and why it was meaningful.

Be specific.
Don't feel pressure to think "big." Often it's the small things or experiences in our lives that have a big impact on how we feel, think or act. Sharing a specific experience in your essay that speaks to who you are by illustrating your character, values and background is much more powerful than offering sweeping generalizations about yourself. One tip is to select a topic that allows you a more narrow response, and then use your word count wisely to provide details and depth.

There are no right answers.
I know this may be hard to believe, but it is true. Not every essay needs to make readers cry or laugh. The most compelling essays are the ones through which a genuine, thoughtful voice emerges. Sometimes, using your essay to address issues you think best to steer away from might be your best option. For example, colleges will notice a grade that isn't consistent with your overall performance -- better to help us understand why.

Avoid writer's block... by starting early.
Writing the college essay, like any writing, is a process, not a one-time event. Start weeks in advance of application deadlines to avoid writer's block brought on by pressure. And remember, the thinking part of this process is more important than the writing itself. Plan to spend time reflecting on specific experiences and how they have affected you. The more thinking you do in advance, the easier your writing will be.

And remember...
No matter what specific role the essay plays in a college's admission process, the essay universally serves as an opportunity to provide your voice in the admission process and influence how a college perceives you. While your transcript may help to indicate how well you'll do in English or organic chemistry, your essay helps us to better understand not only what you will contribute to our campus community, but more importantly, what we as a college are able to offer you, as you embark on this wonderful and exciting adventure.

Happy writing!

Campus Overload is a daily must-read for all college students. Make sure to bookmark You can also follow me on Twitter and fan Campus Overload on Facebook.

By Jenna Johnson  | October 22, 2010; 11:14 AM ET
Categories:  Admissions  | Tags:  Admissions, University of Maryland  
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Good advice here.
Remember you are selling yourself.
It is easier if you have had a life altering experience, but not everyone is so cursed, as many of these events are painful. One of my children skied into a tree while a sophomore in high school. His essay was great, but the experienced cost him most of a year of his life, and his medical problems do continue.
Try to draft your essay in one sitting, then, on successive days begin revising and correcting it.
Before completing it, run it through a spell check and grammar check. You can even have someone else to read it to check for homophone errors. Use a thesaurus.
This is worth spending a bit of time on to make it good.
John Dickert
Mount Vernon Farms

Posted by: 12191946 | October 23, 2010 12:57 PM | Report abuse

The best essays show that the writer loves the way words work to express an idea. A sense of rhythm and an appeal to the mind's eye, combined with the flow or a narrative or an argument, set an essay apart and make a reader want to read more.

Posted by: sigh | October 23, 2010 9:11 PM | Report abuse

Winning college essays all do the same thing.

Start with a story that grabs the reader's attention.
Continue by relating that story to past accomplishments.
Move forward by talking about future goals.

And always, always, always explain how the college you are applying to will help you to realize those goals.

Get specific with concrete examples and details, but don't go overboard and try to cram in three different anecdotes.

Posted by: SarahWK | October 23, 2010 9:47 PM | Report abuse

As a college consultant, I think you have given students some great tips for writing better essays. I usually encourage students to think of the simple things in their lives that may seem insignificant, but can be very revealing about their personalities. To me, reading the essays is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the college application process.

Posted by: collegedirection | October 23, 2010 10:24 PM | Report abuse

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