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Three Signs Your College Essay is #DoingitRight

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Doing it Right on Your College Essay

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Now that's doing something right.

In Part 1 of this post we talked about how not to write your essay. Time for the positive part, the what-you-should-do-instead. First, a quick recap of what to avoid doing on your college essay:

  1. Don’t write it like an AP English paper.

  2. Don’t write about your tennis/violin/mission trip in a way that sounds like everyone else.

  3. Don’t think that writing about how your turtle/grandmother/friend died that you will automatically get in. You’ve got to do more.

You might be #DoingitRight if...

  1. You avoid sounding like an AP English essay.

  • Write like you talk. (Like this post?) Yup. OK, maybe not super casual like this, but here’s a good reference point: Imagine you’re sitting across the table from my grandmother, who has a pretty decent vocabulary and loves a great story.

  • Tell a great story. You know what a great story sounds like. (That’s not a question. You know.) How? Think of your essay like a movie. Think in images. My best example (my favorite, ever, by the way), is about a kid who shot his brother.

  • Write your first draft from the heart. Yeah, that’s a “Finding Forrester” quote. And how do you do this? Write “If you really knew me, you would know…” at the top of your page and then finish the sentence. Do this 10 times. See what happens.

  • BONUS TIP: Demonstrate at least five of your essential values in your essay. What are your essential values? Check my list to get your brain going.

2. You avoid sounding like every other tennis, or violin, or mission trip essay.

First, try writing about something other than an extracurricular activity in your main statement. Why? Because you want to save your extracurricular activity FOR YOUR EXTRACURRICULAR ACTIVITY ESSAY SUPPLEMENT. (Sorry, caps lock got stuck.) But if it’s all you’ve got to work with, do this:

  • Go back to that list of values and think about your activity (tennis, violin, mission trip).

  • Ask yourself what values most essays on that topic will emphasize.

  • Then ask yourself: What unusual values or lessons could my essay show instead? How did playing the violin teach you the importance of uncertainty? What did playing tennis teach you about vulnerability? Or how did that mission trip teach you the concept of microaggressions?

Here’s an exercise to get you started: Close your eyes and point to a random value on the list. In your mind, try and connect that value to your activity.

Example: Try and connect “tennis” to “vulnerability.” And, by the way, if the value you pick presents an obvious or too easy connection, choose another one that’s not obvious. Studies show that if you find at least three unusual values your essay will be 87 percent more interesting and 26 percent more likely to stand out. #MadeUpStats #ButYouGetThePoint

3. Ask these questions about your essay on an injured, dead or dying dog/grandmother/grandfather/aunt/turtle.

  • Could this death represent a metaphor for something else in my life? Then try weaving that something else into the essay. Here’s an example, about a dying bird.

  • Did I initially pursue a bad coping strategy, before I shifted and found a better coping strategy? Here’s what that might look like.

  • So what? Ask this again and again as you write the essay. It’s the most important question for the college essay - and maybe in general. Here’s an example that involves watching a grandmother make kimchi.

How will you know when you’re #DoingitRight?

You’ll know when you end up with something interesting and original that clearly demonstrates your values.

Like this text from a student who passed on a family fishing trip to work on college essays. And that's how you know you're doing it right.

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