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5 Tips to Write a College Essay that Hooks Your Reader

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college application writing tips

You sit on your bed, at your desk and in the library wondering where to begin your college admissions essay. It’s not like there’s a Google map showing you how to go from here to there. How do you dig through 17 years of experiences and select the one that shares your voice, your vision, your passion?

Was it when you sat behind Grandpa’s dented old Buick the day you got your license, or the time you figured out how to rig your book to the shower door without getting it soggy so you could finish the last chapter of Fat Angie before bed? Or are those not what they are looking for?

Panic sets in. You take another look down memory lane. You haven’t climbed Kilimanjaro, landed in the Guinness Book of World Records, or won a championship in anything. You realize nothing big has happened to you. So, what are you going to write that an college admissions officer wants to read?

Unstick from that blank screen, sit back and read these tips. I promise, your life is filled with wonderful stories to share in a college essay.

5 Tips to Write a College Essay that Hooks Your Reader

Tip 1: Narrow Your Lens

Think small. Forget the time you tossed the buzzer-beater to win the championship basketball game. Write about a unique sliver in time. Slow down your story and share the moment you felt the synchronicity of your crew team as your oar skimmed the water, the time you watched your first model rocket launch from the backyard swing set with your big brother or the morning you sat in the rain, on purpose. It’s the small moments that can make big statements about who you really are.

Tip 2: Start with a First-Person Story

Try starting your essay with a story written in first-person narrative. Bring your reader into your story. Share the details and emotions of that moment. Talk about the clouds in the sky as your rocket flew past the tops of the pines and wound around the edge of the forest. Write like you’re directing a scene and the story is the main character.

Tip 3: Use your Senses

Nothing grabs a reader like details. Use your senses to tell the tale. What did the moment feel like? Look like? Sound like? Taste like? Let your senses be your guide. Think about the panic that rolled down your back and up your spine when you realized that you had buried your little brother’s favorite toy trucks somewhere on Mayflower Beach, but had no idea where.

Tip 4: Add Adjectives

Dig deep and describe your moment. Is Grandpa’s old car littered with gum wrappers? Does it smell like Old Spice? Do your legs stick to the seat from those peanut butter sandwiches he always eats? Again, you connect with your reader when you are able to convey the wonderful details of your story.

Tip 5: Emotionally Connect

Share your story in a thoughtful, honest and meaningful way. Any time you speak authentically from your heart, readers engage. People respect and connect to honest emotion.

Before you write, really think about the sentiment of the moment. Were you lonely in a gym filled with kids? Did standing at the podium feel like an itchy sweater on a hot afternoon in Boston? Allow yourself to convey the sentiments that will let the reader understand something about you that is not evident from your transcript or your activities resume.

Think of your essay as the heart of your application. Be honest and true to yourself. Now open your computer, you are ready to write.

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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.

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