If You're A Parent Of A High School Junior, It's Time To Start Nagging

An NYU application reader shares her top tips for writing the perfect college essay.
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With the arrival of spring, many high school seniors now have an extra spring in their step as college acceptance letters arrive. As juniors prepare to rise, now is the time to begin crafting the perfect college essay. As an outside undergraduate reader for NYU, a writer, and a teacher, I’ve read hundreds of essays, so I know what it takes to really grab the attention of this audience. As a former English teacher and current tutor, I have helped hundreds of students improve their writing and polish their college essays to a high sheen to make their application shine. Below are my top tips for writing an application and essay that showcases who you are, what makes you special, and why your top choice should be dying to admit you. Grab a notebook and head into the sunshine. Start early, so you can finish strong.

7 Tips for Writing Your Best College Essay

1. Brainstorming

“Who are YOU?” asked the Caterpillar to Alice.

Some questions to get you started:

  1. Think about your strengths (what makes you, YOU )

  2. What are you most passionate about?

  3. Be whimsical: what’s your favorite word and why?

  4. What was your best failure?

  5. Name three words that describe you

  6. Think small, a chance encounter

  7. Is there a relationship that has defined you?

*Don’t be afraid of humor, but avoid a pity party.

2. Bypassing The Evil Critic

We all have this voice; successful people ignore it.

When brainstorming, grab a piece of paper and a pen/pencil and make a list of ideas.

Write fast.

By going quickly, you will bypass your internal critic, the evil voice on your shouldering whispering, “that’s stupid, no one wants to hear about that,” or “that’s been said before.”

Tell your inner critic to “go scratch!”

Don’t worry about being super inventive.

There are basically about seven plots that all stories recycle.

Plots don’t change, characters and settings do.

Think Lord of the Rings and Star Wars ― both heroic quests ― just different settings and fresh characters.

This is your story and there’s only one you. Yes, you are a fresh character.

There’s a saying: “If you put 100 poets in a field of sunflowers, they will come up with 100 different poems.” We are all unique.

3. Style

Think Salinger, not Shakespeare.

Put away the thesaurus; don’t use “impressive language.”

Keep it conversational, but no slang (imagine you’re having coffee with your hip, young English teacher).

Replace “to be” (is, was, were) verbs followed by a string of prepositional phrases with colorful, active verbs.

No strings of adjectives. Pick one.

Avoid passive voice:

Passive voice: The folder was thrown at the intern.

Active voice: The Hollywood agent hurled the folder at the intern.

No melodrama (think soap operas). Drippy, sticky, sappy won’t fly.

Avoid overuse of metaphors & similes (1-2 tops).

“Every draft you write makes you a stronger writer.”

4. Tone

Don’t be afraid to write about a flaw, especially if you’ve learned from it.

People respond to vulnerability. Our favorite heroes are flawed.

We love them for their flaws, not despite them.

Think Holden Caulfield. Odysseus. Gatsby.

Write from your heart (this is a cliché, avoid them. If you’ve heard the language before, don’t use it).

If you find yourself way over the word limit, Great! You are writing something you feel passionately about.

Write now. Edit later.

5. Drafting

The flourish of the quill.

Write the first full draft by hand (pen or pencil) then type (I can’t scientifically explain this. It’s voodoo writer stuff. It’s just always better).

Pretend you are the admissions reader—paint the picture for them, use descriptive language.

Remember they don’t know you; they don’t know your context.

You have to give enough details that they understand the story.

Use the senses (sight, smell, taste, sound).

Show don’t tell—I can say that my neighbor is gross. You either believe me or don’t.

Or I can show you— this guy eats ice cream on a spoon from the carton then tongue-kisses his dog, continues to slurp the ice cream off the same spoon that he then hands me asking, “Want a spoonful? Rocky road…”

6. Editing

Let your draft sit a couple of days, then roll up your sleeves, time to “kill the darlings.”

You love the turn of phrase you wrote. It’s pure poetry. Can you keep it?


Ask yourself if the sentence does one of two things or both:

  1. Advances the story

  2. Deepens our understanding of the character (in this case, YOU)

If a sentence doesn’t do either of these, cut it (or scribble it in your journal).

After you’ve gone through a thorough editing, give it to 2-3 people and get feedback.

7. Wahoo!

Smile or Weep

Congratulations! Read and hate it? Don’t fret. That is why you began early!

Go back to the list you brainstormed and try again. Every draft you write makes you a stronger writer. Writers don’t get better by fretting about writing, complaining about needing to write, or bellyaching about how difficult an assignment is—they get better by writing. Period. Stop fishing for answers on the Internet.

Get started!

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