Heads up! These are the most common problems for students attempting to write brilliant college essays. The good news? Every single one is easily avoidable.
Since junior high school, your teachers have probably been giving you the idea that essays have an introductory paragraph, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. There’s only one problem with this. It’s a lie. The five paragraph essay doesn’t exist in the real world, and if you think of your college essay that way it’ll end up boring, reductive, and predictable. Try to draw the reader into a compelling story, as a fiction writer would, or let them see what’s inside your head, the way a magazine columnist would. Then create a sense of resonance at the end that leaves them thinking, and your essay will stand out. To think of this as a five-paragraph essay is death. Think of it as literature, and you’ll be fine.
Just because a story is exciting doesn’t mean it will get you into college. If you moved here from another country, for example, what does that show about you? Is that enough? Most students don’t spend enough time on topic choice, and as a result they tell a story that seems important without thinking enough about what that story illustrates. If your sister is severely handicapped, will that get you a good college? Do you think you’re the only person whose team won a championship? Maybe huge events shape you, and if you can show that, fine. But I’ve worked with students who got into their top-choice school by writing about losing the wrestling championship, giving up television, being afraid to get out of the ambulance on an emergency rescue call, being gay, writing in a journal, trying to hide their racial identity, shooting hoops with the girls in their driveway, or a painting they couldn’t stop thinking about. Don’t just consider the big headlines in your life. Spend time on topic choice, and you’ll save time in the long run.
Cutting is a significant part of the revision process. The finished product can't be any more than 650 words long. Some schools have supplements with word requirements that are much shorter. I go through an essay asking myself, at every sentence, do we need that? Do we need that piece of information in the reader’s brain to get us to the next thing? It helps if you focus before you write. Think of a photographer, cropping though the lens so that he only gets the butterfly, not the entire garden. I once worked with a student who wrote five pages about a summer spent working in New York, and we eventually cut it down to one. It was so painful, because many of the sentences were lovely and powerful. If he had started by thinking about what he could accomplish in only a page, and just writing that, it would have been much easier.
Most students start writing before they know what they’re trying to accomplish in the piece. It’s important to do lots of journal writing or freewriting before you start. If you are just writing about something, but you don’t know why, or you’re not sure what you want the reader to feel, you’re more likely to ramble. The rehearsal stage lets you get a feel for where the power is in your topic, and what’s really important.
Once you start second-guessing yourself thinking about what you think the college admissions people want, you’re dead. One student, who got into his top-choice school with an essay about being an EMS worker who was afraid to get out of the ambulance, started out with a rough draft that was all about bravery and community service. But that wasn’t the real truth, and it showed. One of my most brilliant students got into MIT with an essay about failing a math competition because he was complacent and didn’t train hard enough for it.
The time to focus on SAT words is when you’re studying for the SATs. After that, they are a liability in most cases. Lots of SAT words cluttering up your prose will not improve your essay. They will make you sound like a pompous jerk, probably. You are likely to use these newly-aquired words in a slightly incorrect way, which really makes you look bad. And even if you use them perfectly, they will probably take all of your actual personality out of the essay. Voice is way more important than vocabulary. Real ideas, clearly and cleanly expressed, are what’s important.
It’s important to go from concrete to abstract at some point in your essay. You want to tell the reader what you notice about the experience, what it represents to you, what you realize as a result of it. Think of the event you are writing about as a springboard to an important point that you want to make, or an insight that you have. I talk to my students about something I call “the reflective chunk.” Usually it comes at the end.