So, um, I kind of wrote you an essay about writing essays. I’ve got two decent excuses for this:
- I wrote an essay about four years ago for almost exactly the same prompt, and it won me a scholarship.
- I’d like to be an English (or literature) teacher, so this was good practice summarizing my essay-writing tips.
I see @nauhziy just posted some very good advice on university applications specifically. Keep in mind I was writing to a Liberal Arts college, so his more cautious advice may be more appropriate depending on where you’re applying.
Okay, here goes…
Is it too personal? I’m not sure exactly what you have in mind, so I can’t give you a black and white answer to this question. However, keep in mind this is your only chance to show this university who you are beyond your academic record. Personal is going to be more memorable for whoever’s reading a stack of these essays.
Maybe imagine you’re talking to a stranger you’d really like to impress. I mean that’s what you’re doing, but ‘admissions office’ is kind of nebulous and not motivational. Take a celebrity or author you really admire, someone who inspires you. I’ll use the singer Lorde as an example, as she’s one of those people for me. So hypothetically, I meet Lorde, and she honestly seems to want to get to know me as a friend, and we get a chance to talk privately without any kind of media involvement. We have a great conversation about music and writing, and then she says ‘Alexandra, I heard you once did [essay topic] – that sounds really interesting, what was that like?’ There’s your essay – a quick summary of something that changed you, to someone you want to impress.
If you’re not sure about mentioning personal information about friends and family, change their names: e.g. ‘I have a friend (let’s call her Hannah), who…’. The other thing to keep in mind is that you will probably never have to meet the person who reviews your essay.
On a related note, having a style that’s too casual might be something to watch for; your writing should be polished and probably fairly formal. Aim for being genuine and avoid sounding stiff. Be honest and write about something you really care about, and let your style come from your interest in it.
You said you probably have a topic already, so this may be superfluous. But as this is turning into it’s own essay, might as well throw in some advice for picking a topic for this sort of thing.
- Take something unique and make it real. Have you done something unusual in your life? Taught Irish dancing? Worked at a museum? Cared for a friend or relative in the hospital? Bottle fed a lamb? Learned to sail? (Even if it seems normal in your community, it could be surprising to the university, depending on its location. However, I believe essays about travelling to a foreign country are fairly common, and not as unique as you may think. You’re more likely to know something truly unique about an area you’ve lived most of your life.) Tell us what it was really like. What details would we not guess? What would a normal day doing this be like? What’s most memorable about this for you?
- Take something normal and make it interesting. I’m fully convinced you could write a great essay for this prompt about working at a grocery store. (And it might not be as common a subject as you think, because other students tend to dismiss it as boring.) Maybe that work as a cashier brought you out of your shell, helped you realize you weren’t as shy as you thought, and gave you confidence to realize you could earn money on your own and actually enjoy the process. If something ‘ordinary’ indeed helped define you as a person, it’s a fine topic for an essay. You’ll make it unique by being personal and specific.
- Figure out what you enjoy writing, and find a topic that fits, or fit your topic to it. When I wrote an essay for almost exactly the same prompt several years ago, I hated writing about myself. What I did like writing was vivid description. I’d had a fairly unique job working at a museum, and wrote the essay mainly about my favorite exhibits, and favorite questions from tourists. I made the essay descriptive, and showed how the job had influenced me by my description.
Writing the Thing
The trick in writing essays, I’ve found, is to fool yourself into thinking you’re not writing an essay. It might be splendid to say things like ‘I can’t do the dishes tonight, I’m busy writing my essay!’ but thinking about it only gives me writer’s block. Below are two methods for working on your essay without that pressure. (They combine well, too!) Also, for either method, I recommend never deleting more than half a sentence. Make another document (call it essay scraps or some pun related to your topic), and copy-paste there instead of deleting stuff. If you ever change your mind, or your computer crashes and you lose your work, you’ll be very glad to have it!
- This is good for that basic 3-point essay structure. First off, if at any time during this process, you come up with a brilliant sentence for your introduction/conclusion, write it down and save it. You’ll probably want to write both of these sections last, but it’s much better to have something to start with.
- Brainstorm a list of possible topics. Go crazy, don’t worry about being redundant, just put lots of words on your page. Take the ones that jump out at you (probably more than three), and list them in a column. Then, under each one, write yourself some notes about what you’d put in that paragraph. They can be sentences or keywords, whatever’s easiest. Imagine you’re taking lecture notes from your own brain.
- Keep swapping between your topics and adding details. You’ll probably find a couple that you don’t have as much to write about as you thought, or maybe two that are similar and should be combined. Rearrange as necessary and remember that three paragraphs is not a rule set in stone. If it makes sense and fills up your word count in the end, do it. (Unless you’ve got specific instructions to write a three-paragraph essay, then you don’t have a choice.)
- Eventually, your notes will approach paragraph length. Now you’re not writing, you’re editing. Connect the dots, check for redundancies and awkward grammar.
- Write your introduction and conclusion. This is much easier when the rest of your essay is done (yay!), because you know exactly what you’re introducing and concluding. If you need a title, grab a phrase from your favorite or most interesting sentence in your conclusion. That way, whoever’s reading it will at least read to the end to learn what your title means, and the repetition with be more memorable.
- AKA the freewriting method. Set yourself a timer, or a word count goal, or say you’ll finish a page. Start writing whatever you think of related to your topic and don’t stop until you reach your goal. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling, just type as you think. (Or use old-fashioned paper if that’s easier for you.) If you’ve never done this before, or have a hard time writing without stopping, you might have good luck with Fighter’s Block (link at the bottom). It’s online, no download required – set a word count goal and it gives you a health bar and will ‘kill’ you if you stop writing for too long. You can adjust the difficulty and you can pause. Telling yourself you can have a cup of tea/coffee/chocolate when you reach your goal also helps.
- Depending on how much you have that looks useful, do this a couple times. Sometimes it helps to reread what you’ve done already, and even continue on the same document, other times starting fresh does the trick.
- Take what you’ve written, copy it somewhere else, and start deleting what won’t work in your essay. Deleting stuff is fun and doesn’t feel like work! Rearrange what does work by topic.
- Like the method above, you’ll reach a point where you’re simply editing. Connect ideas, check spelling and grammar, add to the beginning and end if needed to sound like an introduction and conclusion. Once again, if you need a title, grab a phrase from your favorite or most interesting sentence in your conclusion.
- This method probably won’t lead you to a basic, three-point essay. You might want to push it in that direction if that’s what you think this university is expecting. Broadly though, outlines exist to give you structure to write in, and make your finished work easier to follow. If you finished it, it makes sense to readers, and you aren’t specifically required to use a certain structure, who cares if it fits in a box? The goal is successful communication.
- Get someone to read your work! (Or several people.) This is really important, especially if you’re using my second method above. If you’re planning to write something especially personal, you might think ahead of time about who you want to read it for you. If you’re worried you might not finish in time for this step, find someone who will set an earlier deadline and nag you about it. When you reach that deadline, send them what you’ve got, even if it doesn’t seem finished. Feedback will give you more energy to keep going.
- Read it out loud. This is an excellent way to notice errors you’ve been skimming over.
- If you have time, set the essay aside for a day or two, then come back and read it again. Tbh, I almost never have time for this, but usually wish I did.
- Double-check the formatting the application requires, and make sure your font is the right size, the margins are what they want, etc. If you need to make text look like it fills more or less of a page, try different fonts, different line spacing, or different font sizes – within their guidelines and reason! Probably should keep your text size between 10-13, and try fonts that look like Times New Roman, which is pretty standard.
A Quick Personal Suggestion
If you’re at all inclined, can I humbly suggest you pray about this? Essays are scary and this is a big one. Honestly I’ve become a more serious Christian in the midst of academic pressure in the past few years, and tend to view my best essays as minor miracles. Writing’s a weird mysterious process, and I’m pretty sure there’s something more than my own little brain at work…
Good luck on your essay and college plans! Hope this was helpful
EDIT: Oops I forgot the link! Fighter’s Block is a handy tool for motivating yourself to get a lot of writing done (I’ve used it a bit working on my WIP)