This October, I'm applying early to 7 universities in the US. Those 7 universities (in total) required me to write 23 essays, including my Common App essay, which means I've written a total of 71 drafts.
I've spent the past two months writing these essays, so I think I'm finally qualified to advise you on how you should structure your college essays. And even if you're not writing college essays, most of these tips generalize to writing in general. So keep reading!
Your first draft of any essay will always need improvement and editing. No one sits down and writes a perfect essay on their first try. I learned this the hard way because I tried to write many outstanding essays as my first drafts. This is practically impossible.
Instead, you should write a crappy first draft and wait for feedback from your parent(s), teacher(s), or counselor(s). This is what almost every great writer does. Read more about crappy first drafts (and why they work) here, here, and here.
Remove all 'popcorn' words. 'Popcorn' words don't meaningfully contribute much to a sentence, and you can almost always remove them or shorten them. Here's an example of two very popcorn-y sentences from one of my first drafts:
This year, I’ve gotten a whole lot better at planning out my schedule for these difficult exams. College is really different from high school because it’s way easier to procrastinate and fall very behind in college. (36 words)
See all of the popcorn words/phrases? I see a ton: 'a whole lot', 'planning out', 'really', way', and 'very'. Let's cut those out.
This year, I’ve become better at planning my schedule for these difficult exams. It's easier to fall behind in college (versus high school) due to procrastination. (26 words)
You'll occasionally have to restructure your sentences. That's fine. The real win here: we've just cut off 10 words from those two sentences and their meaning is virtually unchanged. Word count matters in these essays because the Common App will cut you off at the word limit.
Here are some common 'popcorn' words:
- a lot
- sort of
- kind of
Look out for these, and ruthlessly cut them from your essays.
Have 2-3 people give feedback on your essays. I had my parents and my college counselor give me feedback, and that system worked quite well. Here's why I would try for 2-3 people's feedback:
- 0 people give you feedback: You may completely miss grammar, punctuation, or spelling errors. Plus, you might write essays that make sense to you but don't make sense to anyone else. DO NOT DO THIS.
- 1 person gives you feedback: That person may have to review a ton of your essays (depending on how many schools you're applying to). Plus, they may force their style of writing onto yours, which may not be advantageous.
- 4+ people give you feedback: Everyone has different style suggestions, which can "stretch" your essay into too many directions. For example: 2 people may think an essay is good to go, while 1 person thinks Paragraph 4 needs major edits, and 1 person thinks the whole essay needs to be scrapped. This is, generally, a pain to deal with.
Make your essays easily understandable. College admissions officers (AOs) are smart, but they read a ton of essays during admission season, which is (probably) very tiring.
Your Common App essay or supplemental essay might be the most creative, most insightful, or most hilarious essay you've ever written. That doesn't matter if the admissions officer can't fully understand your self-proclaimed literary genius. Therefore, you should:
- Use clear, occasionally short sentences.
- Don't use complicated vocabulary (once or twice is okay).
- Answer the prompt. Don't write a tangentially related essay.
Let's say Sarah, an exhausted AO, is sitting down with a cup of chai at 8pm. She still has two essays to review: Student A's and Student B's. The essay prompt for both students is "Why are you interested in the major you indicated as your first-choice major?"
Student A's essay: I've chosen applied mathematics as my major due to its captivating proclivity for theoretical abstraction and practical implications. The intricate interplay of abstract algebra and real-world problem-solving tantalizes my intellectual curiosity. This passion was ignited when I encountered an enigmatic challenge at the crossroads of numerical analysis and differential equations, where my appreciation for the discipline deepened as I grappled with complex equations with aplomb.
Student B's essay: I'm pursuing a major in applied mathematics because I've had a personal experience that underscored the real-world relevance of this field. During a summer internship, I worked on a project that involved optimizing supply chain logistics for a local business. I applied mathematical models to streamline their operations, and witnessing the tangible impact of my work convinced me that this major is the right path for me.
Both students discuss an experience that made them want to major in applied math. But Student A uses complex words and doesn't explain what their 'enigmatic challenge' was, while Student B uses clearer language and clearly explains why their summer internship made them want to major in applied math.
Which essay would Sarah think is better?
The most important sentence in any of your essays is the last one. This is due to the recency effect, and it's why you want your last sentence to be memorable (or make an impact on the reader).
There's a famous quote that summarizes this concept well:
People don’t remember books, blogs, or articles. They remember sentences. That should be your goal: a collection of memorable sentences. One good line is infinitely more powerful than a few clumsy paragraphs. – Morgan Housel
Anyways, thanks for reading. I couldn't think of a memorable ending sentence for this article, so I guess I'm off to write more college admissions essays! See you next Saturday.