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    8 Tips for Starting Your College Essay

    Posted August 12, 2014, 2:00 pm by Elly Swartz
    start the college essay

    The e-mail in your inbox from your college counselor, the back-to-school commercials, and the three college road trips you’ve endured listening to Mom’s playlist, strongly suggest it’s time to start writing your college admissions essay. It’s not that you haven’t thought about it. In fact, I bet you’ve thought about it on the bus ride home from soccer, in the shower between lather and rinse, and right before you fell asleep last night. Ideas are percolating, but now that it’s time to actually put the words on the page. The only problem, you’re stuck. You can’t seem to string together a solid, thoughtful paragraph, let alone 650 words worth.

    Don’t worry. I promise there is a story in you that will embrace your voice, your vision and your passion. And it doesn’t have to be big. In fact, it is often the slivers in time that best share who you are. Those small moments when no one is watching.

    So let’s go. The blank screen awaits.

    8 Tips for Tackling the College Essay

    1. Gather Around for the Brainstorming Interview

    First stop, sit down with family and friends. Time to reconnect and relive all those happy and occasionally embarrassing childhood stories. Ask Mom and Dad, Grandpa Jo, Aunt Ida, your best friend, and little brother a few simple questions. These memories are a wonderful place to kick-off the process. They may trigger your own memory or help you make connections between your present and past. Consider them the story springboard.

    • If you could tell the admission’s officer one story about me as a child/adolescent/high schooler, what would it be?
    • What qualities do you think an admissions officer should know about me?
    • What are some of your most cherished/embarrassing/funny/endearing memories of me?
    • When do you remember me being the happiest? Most scared? Most determined?
    • What were my favorite toys/books growing up?
    • Did I have a special spot to sit, sulk, think, read?
    • What was I like in middle school vs. high school?
    2. Make a List

    List your favorite books from when you were a little one and now, your treasured apps, your favorite games, and most visited websites. What you read, play, and search says a lot about you. Find out what you’ve been up to. Perhaps your list will remind you of the YouTube video you watched to teach yourself how to build a computer. Or the time you and Dad had a chess marathon replete with pizza, wings and no sleep. You never know where your stories are hiding.

    3. Be Genuine

    Use genuine, honest emotions to captivate your reader. Any one can say my heart raced and my back was against the wall. Only you can say the moment felt like I was flying down Thunder Mountain Rollercoaster in the dark after eating a Gimme-the-Works hotdog.

    4. Begin at Hello

    Be sure your first paragraph introduces you to the reader. Take time to decide what it is that you want the colleges to know about you?What do you have to say that isn’t in your transcript or on your activities resume? This is a wonderful opportunity to share your voice. If you’re funny, be funny. If not, this is not the place to start. If you’re thoughtful and sensitive, by all means, share a story that reveals that special side of you. Listen to who you are, because that’s who the admission’s officer truly wants to get to know.

    5. Answer the Question

    When sharing your story, remember to answer the question being asked. Stay on track. It sounds simple enough, but often stories traverse and wonder. For instance, while your work in the orphanage in Uganda was a life-changing experience, talk about it as it relates to you and the question being asked.

    6. Keep it About You

    A story about your 100-year-old Gram is lovely and heart-warming, but it doesn’t tell an admissions officer about you. This is your one opportunity to tell the college something about you that is not on your transcript or in your activities list.

    7. Stay Positive

    You may hate the college process, think the standardized tests are stupid, and the applications are tedious. However, your essay is not the place to share your discontent with the application process. Lament with your friends during free period or over burgers with your family. Don’t waste your 650 words complaining. Keep it positive.

    8. Choose Wisely

    You have 650 words to tell a story. Engage your reader from the first word of your essay. Use first person narrative, descriptive adjectives and your senses to describe your moment. What did it feel like? Look like? Smell like? Close your eyes and really think about. Then, bring the admissions officer into your story.

    So read the college essay questions, think about the tips, and start filling that blank document. This is not the time to edit or censor your story. For now, just write. When your first draft is done, do your victory dance and then we can talk about revision.

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    Elly Swartz

    Elly Swartz

    Elly Swartz is the founder of The Essay Adviser, a writer, a lawyer, and a former teacher of Legal Research and Writing at Boston University School of Law. Elly helps navigate the application process, and is dedicated to providing personalized application and essay advisory services for college, graduate school and independent secondary school through individual advising and group workshops.