How To Start Your Essay For College

You already know how to write an academic essay: you start with an introduction, throw in a thesis statement, find about three paragraphs’ worth of evidence, and wrap it all up with a tidy conclusion…

Now forget all that, because a successful college application essay is totally different.

Here's the thing: your college application essay needs to breathe life into your application. It should capture your genuine personality, explaining who you are beyond a series of grades, test scores, and after-school activities. But that’s not nearly as scary as it seems, because you get to choose what to share and how to share it.

Take a minute and think about the college or university admission officers who will be reading your essay. How will your essay convey your background and what makes you unique? If you had the opportunity to stand in front of an admission committee to share a significant story or important information about yourself, what would you say? The college application essay is your chance to share your personality, goals, influences, challenges, triumphs, life experiences, or lessons learned. Not to mention why you're a good fit for the college or university—and why it's a good fit for you. These are the stories behind the list of activities and leadership roles on your application.   

One of the most common struggles students encounter is resisting the urge to squeeze everything they’ve seen, done, and heard into their essay. But your application essay isn’t your life story in 650 words. Instead, pick one moment in time and focus on telling the story behind it.

Admission officers realize that writing doesn’t come easily to everyone, but with some time and planning, anyone can write a college application essay that stands out. One way to do that is to work step-by-step, piece-by-piece. The end result should be a carefully designed, insightful essay that makes you proud. Take advantage of being able to share something with an audience who knows nothing about you and is excited to learn what you have to offer. Brag. Write the story no one else can tell.

1. Get to know your prompt

Ease yourself into the essay-writing process. Take time to understand the question or prompt being asked.

The single most important part of your essay preparation may be simply making sure you truly understand the question or essay prompt. When you are finished writing, you need to make sure that your essay still adheres to the prompt.

College essay questions often suggest one or two main ideas or topics of focus. These can vary from personal to trivial, but all seek to challenge you and spark your creativity and insight.

  • Read the essay questions and/or prompts. Read them again. Then, read them one more time.
  • Take some time to think about what is being asked and let it really sink in before you let the ideas flow.
  • Before you can even start brainstorming, define what it is you’re trying to accomplish. Is this essay prompt asking you to inform? Defend? Support? Expand upon?
  • If it doesn’t already, relate the question back yourself by asking, “How does this—or how could this—apply to me?”
  • Avoid sorting through your existing English class essays to see if the topics fit the bill. These pieces rarely showcase who you are as an applicant.

2. Brainstorm

Get your creative juices flowing by brainstorming all the possible ideas you can think of to address your college essay question.

Believe it or not, the brainstorming stage may be more tedious than writing the actual application essay. The purpose is to flesh out all of your possible ideas so when you begin writing, you know and understand where you are going with the topic.

  • Reflect. You have years to draw from, so set aside time to mentally collect relevant experiences or events that serve as strong, specific examples. This is also time for self-reflection. “What are my strengths?” “How would my friends describe me?” “What sets me apart from other applicants?”
  • Write any and all ideas down. There’s no technique that works best, but you’ll be thankful when you are able to come back to ideas you otherwise might have forgotten.
  • Narrow down the options. Choose three concepts you think fit the college application essay prompt best and weigh the potential of each. Which idea can you develop further and not lose the reader? Which captures more of who you really are?
  • Choose your story to tell. From the thoughts you’ve narrowed down, pick one. You should have enough supporting details to rely on this as an excellent demonstration of your abilities, achievements, perseverance, or beliefs.

3. Create an outline

Map out what you’re going to write by making an outline.

Architects use a blue print. A webpage is comprised of code. Cooks rely on recipes. What do they have in common? They have a plan. The rules for writing a good essay are no different. After you brainstorm, you’ll know what you want to say, but you must decide how you’re going to say it. Create an outline that breaks down the essay into sections.

  • All good stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Shape your story so that it has an introduction, body, and conclusion. Following this natural progression will make your essay coherent and easy to read.
  • Strategize. How are you going to open your essay? With an anecdote? A question? Dialogue? Use of humor? Try to identify what the tone of your essay is going to be based on your ideas.
  • Stick to your writing style and voice. It’s particularly important when writing a piece about yourself that you write naturally. Put the words in your own voice. By planning the layout of your essay ahead of time, you’ll avoid changing your writing style mid-story.

Related:College Application Essays: A Step-by-Step Example

4. Write the essay

Once you are satisfied with your essay in outline format, begin writing!

By now you know exactly what you will write about and how you want to tell the story. So hop on a computer and get to it. Try to just let yourself bang out a rough draft without going back to change anything. Then go back and revise, revise, revise. Before you know it, you will have told the story you outlined—and reached the necessary word count—and you will be happy you spent all that time preparing!

  • Keep your essay’s focus narrow and personal. Don’t lose your reader. Start with your main idea, and follow it from beginning to end.
  • Be specific. Avoid using clichéd, predictable, or generic phrases by developing your main idea with vivid and detailed facts, events, quotations, examples, and reasons.
  • Be yourself. Admission officers read plenty of application essays and know the difference between a student’s original story and a recycled academic essay, or—worse—a piece written by your mom or dad or even plagiarized. Bring something new to the table, not just what you think they want to hear. Use humor if appropriate.
  • Be concise. Don’t use 50 words if five will do. Try to only include the information that is absolutely necessary.

5. Proofread

The last step is editing and proofreading your finished essay.

You have worked so hard up until this point, and while you might be relieved, remember: your essay is only as good as your editing. A single grammatical error or typo could indicate carelessness—not a trait you want to convey to a college admission officer.

  • Give yourself some time. Let your essay sit for a while (at least an hour or two) before you proofread it. Approaching the essay with a fresh perspective gives your mind a chance to focus on the actual words, rather than seeing what you think you wrote.
  • Don’t rely solely on the computer spelling and grammar check. Computers cannot detect the context in which you are using words, so be sure to review carefully. Don’t abbreviate or use acronyms or slang. They might be fine in a text message, but not in your college essay.
  • Have another person (or several!) read your essay, whether it’s a teacher, guidance counselor, parent, or trusted friend. You know what you meant to say, but is it clear to someone else reading your work? Have these people review your application essay to make sure your message is on target and clear to any audience.
  • Read your essay backwards. This may sound a bit silly, but when reading in sequential order, your brain has a tendency to piece together missing information, or fill in the blanks, for you. Reading each sentence on its own and backwards can help you realize not only typos and mistakes in grammar, but that you may have forgotten an article here and there, such as “a” or “the.”
  • Read your essay out loud. This forces you to read each word individually and increases your chances of finding
  • a typo. Reading aloud will also help you ensure your punctuation is correct, and it’s often easier to hear awkward sentences than see them.
  • Check for consistency. Avoid switching back and forth from different tenses. Also, if you refer to a particular college in the essay, make sure it is the correct name and is consistent throughout the piece. You don’t want to reference two different schools in the same paper!

6. Tie up loose ends

Celebrate finishing what you started.

Writing the college essay takes time and effort, and you should feel accomplished. When you submit your essay, remember to include your name, contact information, and ID number if your college provided one, especially if you send it to a general admission e-mail account. Nothing is worse than trying to match an application essay with no name (or, worse, an e-mail address such as donutsarelife@domain.com) to a file. Make sure to keep copies of what you sent to which schools and when—and follow up on them! Be certain the college or university you are applying to received your essay. You don’t want all that hard work to go to waste!

Looking for more college application essay help? We have tons—tons—here, including lots of real-world examples!

P.S. What did you end up writing your college application essay about? We wanna know! Leave a comment or get in touch here.

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Writing the perfect paper is a lot like a military operation. It takes discipline, foresight, research, strategy, and, if done right, ends in total victory. It follows then that the best advice for writing a paper -- be it a high school essay, a college research paper, or even an office memo at a Fortune 500 company -- would come from the tactics of a brilliant military commander.

I discovered these tactics myself as a student, reading in awe of the mastery of ancient military masters and put them to good use. I could then -- and still can, when necessary -- bust out a ten or even twenty page paper with a few days notice. I've developed a worry-free formula for your academic paper or essay (called the Spartan System) that has been so successful that it was printed out and taught as a curriculum by almost every English teacher I've had. Naturally, I was hesitant to teach my secrets to more than a few friends but after I left school and published the formula online in 2007, the formula went viral across the web. It's since been used in classrooms across the country by many satisfied strangers. I've gotten countless emails from adherents -- and these emails are always the same: your system got me an A. In my own life, I applied the tactics to my writing and knocked out a 70,000+ word book in 90 days... which I sold for a cool six-figures.

What Was My Secret?

In my reading of Greek history, I stumbled across an obscure military maneuver, one designed for troops penetrating deep in enemy lines. It seemed to be used by the greatest of generals from the Spartan Brasidas to the Athenian Xenophon (an actual student of Socrates). I thought, if this one trick can protect a ten thousand man march through country after country of hostile territory, it can probably work for a silly school paper.

Their tactic was this: to successfully march or retreat, the general brings his troops together in an outward facing square with their supplies and wounded in the middle and the strongest troops at the front and back. As they moved away from unfavorable ground, the men would defend their side, stepping out only slightly to meet their attackers and then retreating immediately back to the safety of the shape. And thus they were completely impenetrable, able to travel fluidly and slowly demoralize the attacking army. As Xenophon wrote, the idea was that having prepared hollow square in advance, so that "we should not have to plan [everything defense related] when the enemy is approaching but could immediately make use of those who have been specially detailed for the job."

My essay format works the same. Consider your introduction as the creator of the shape, and then the following paragraphs making up each side. They venture outwards when called to but never abandon the safety of the formation entirely. It is a process of constant realignment, maintaining the square at all cost. In terms of "writing" you need only to create a handful of original sentences for the entire essay: a thesis, a theme, a mini-thesis which begins each paragraph and a conclusionary sentence that says what it all means. Everything else is a variation of these four sentences in some way. Together they create the square, and the serves as the point of return -- much like Chuck Palahniuk concept of "chorus lines (see in books like Fight Club, where whenever the plot gets off track he immediately comes back to one -- "I am Jack's sense of rejection.") And so the reader always protected and the troops defend your point.

Forget your teacher's boring prompt. Forget "Commentary/Concrete Detail/Commentary/Concrete Detail" and all that nonsense. Let's do real work, real writing.

Here is the outline for a hypothetical five paragraph paper:

Introduction: (see a complete intro example here)

  1. Begin with a broad, conclusive hook. This will be the meta-theme of the paper. Example from a paper on The Great Gatsby: "When citizens exhibit a flagrant disregard of morality and law, societies quickly crumble."
  2. Thesis. This needs to specify and codify the hook in relation to the prompt/subject. Ex: "This atmosphere as shown in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby -- with blatant corruption and illegal activity -- eventually seems to become all but incompatible with a meaningful incarnation of the American Dream."
  3. One sentence laying foundation for first body paragraph. (These are mini-theses for each point you will argue.)
  4. Sentence for second body paragraph.
  5. One sentence for third body paragraph.
  6. Restate the hook and thesis into a single transition sentence into the first paragraph. "The 1920′s as the epitome of excess and reactionism symbolized a sharp break in the American tradition; one that no one seemed to mind."

Notes/Advice: Some say the thesis should go at the bottom of the intro instead of the top, which I think is a huge mistake. The point of a paper is to make an assertion and then support it. You can't support it until you've made it.

Body #1

  1. Rewrite first body paragraph thesis.
  2. Support the mini-thesis with evidence and analysis.
  3. Restate body paragraph thesis in the context of thesis as a whole.

Notes/Advice:

-Begin with your strongest piece of evidence

-Introduce quotes/points like this: Broad->Specific->Analysis/Conclusion

-Always integrate the quote, and try to incorporate analysis into the same sentence. As a general rule never use more than 5-7 of the author's words. Normally you can use even less: "It was Jay, who despite the corruption around him, looked forward to what was described as an 'orgastic future.'"

Body #2

  1. Rewrite second body paragraph thesis.
  2. Support mini-thesis.
  3. Restate body paragraph thesis in context of the paragraph above and thesis as whole.

Body #3

  1. Rewrite third body paragraph thesis.
  2. Support mini-thesis.
  3. Restate body paragraph thesis in context of the paragraph above and thesis as whole.

Conclusion

  1. Restate hook/meta-theme.
  2. Specify this with restatement of thesis once more.
  3. One sentence for each body paragraph, surmising its assertion.
  4. One sentence for each body paragraph, surmising its assertion.
  5. One sentence for each body paragraph, surmising its assertion.
  6. Rewrite hook and thesis into a conclusion sentence.
  7. Last sentence must transition to general statement about human nature. "The American Dream -- and any higher aspiration -- requires a society that both looks forward and onwards as well as holds itself to corrective standard."

****

That's it. Seriously. You can see why this frees you up as a writer; essentially, the format requires just six original sentences and the rest is nothing more but reiteration and support. It works for a paper of 300 words just as much as it does for one of 300 pages. It's self-generating, self-reinforcing and self-fulfilling. Could you ask for anything better?

Just like the tactics of the great generals, by laying out the square in advance with clear, orderly lines, you insulate yourself from the chaos of improvisation. You mark the boundaries now so later you don't have to. Each paragraph is given a singular purpose and its only duty is to fulfill it. No longer is the professor or teacher grading you in terms of the prompt, because you have redefined the dynamic on your terms. By marking the boundaries out early, excellence is achieved simply by filling them in with your sentences. You take the prompt and make it your own. You place the reader in the middle of the square, protected by all sides, and methodically move them forward, defending doubts and objections as they arise.

With the strongest thoughts at the introduction and at the conclusion, you make it so that the reader -- or the soldiers, as historian VD Hanson pointed out -- "might be led by the former and pushed by the latter." The thesis is buttressed at the top by your intro hook and at the end by your look forward. The middle is just details. The thesis is the entire paper-as it is, and always should have been. Once that is written, everything else falls quickly into place. The meta-theme, logically, is deduced from your primary theme just as your mini-themes are. All that is left to the writer is to simple decide a theme and record it to paper. And like Palahniuk, when we venture too far from it, remind the reader with a chorus line.

And if you object too much to rigid structure, consider the freedom this truly allows you (none of which is ever permitted in the horrible "Schaffer Method"). Once you've disregarded-or been able to reduce to the subconscious-the actual form of the paper, all that is left is the ideas. Isn't that what is truly important? Would you rather parrot back plot summary or take the theme not only to a new level, but an understandable one? If a professor can't respect that, what does their grade even mean? All I know is that this technique has allowed me both to remove any sort of stress from paper-writing, and even better, given me the opportunity to put to words concepts I'm grappling with.

So go now. Internalize this system and watch as it does all your work for you. See if you can beat the record: an 8 page paper in 3 hours... with a nice big A+ stamped on the front.

Follow Ryan Holiday on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ryanholiday

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