Five Practical Tips for Writing for Colleges

Listen to “Five Practical Tips for Writing for Colleges” on Spreaker.

On Monday, I gave the same 30-minute presentation five times. It was a challenge on several levels. First, the technology platform did not allow me to see the participants when I was sharing my screen, which meant no head nods indicating they were tracking with me/still awake. Second, the school placed all students on mute, so unlike in-person sessions, nobody was laughing, “uh-huh-ing,” or asking for clarification along the way. Third, the chat feature was not viewable during the presentation, so I had no idea if students were asking questions, leaving comments, or making snide remarks as I talked. And lastly, it was the same presentation. Five times. For 30 minutes each.

That’s right. I went back-to-back-to-belly (LUNCH) back-to-back talking to my computer screen about “Writing for Colleges.” Brutal. Oh… and did I mention it was a Monday? BRU-TAL!

As I was eating my microwave burrito during the lunch break, I tweaked my presentation a bit– and then I did so again after the fifth  time. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argues you need 10,000 hours to become “really good” at something. However, that was the pre-Covid world. Now the standard is presenting on the same topic five times in a three-hour period to an unfeeling, unresponsive computer screen.

Yep. The next time someone asks me to do that, I will be ready. I won’t agree to it, of course (did I mention it was BRU-TAL?), but at least I can now pull some images, stick with a theme of five, and share part of what I talked about with those muted, invisible students on Monday (Monday!).

A few weeks ago, I gave some of our best all-time advice about writing essays. Those blogs speak to who is reading; the fact that there is no perfect essay topic; and how to prepare and approach your essay. If you want philosophy and perspective, read that blog. This is the nitty gritty. NO sugar coating. Do these things or perish.

Five Practical Tips for Writing for Colleges

  1. Answer the freakin’ question. Does this sound as ridiculous to read as it does to write? Well, hopefully your class will get this right and I can leave it off next year’s blog. But I doubt it. Every year, EVERY YEAR, there are students who submit essays and short answer questions that are completely unrelated to the prompt. When your girlfriend’s mom asks what you want for dinner, do you say, “17?” Then why, for the love of all things holy, do you write off-topic college essays? C’mon, man. This is the most basic of basics.

At many colleges and scholarship programs this is commonly the first line in the rubric for grading or scoring your writing, “Does the student answer the question?” Don’t start in a hole. Just because you wrote a paper three weeks ago of the same length for your history class and got an A, does not mean you CTRL+C and paste that thing into your Common App. Answer the freakin’ question.

What’s in that bag? Why did she lick it but not eat it? Your reader is curious. Get to the point.

2. Get to the point. Your first sentence matters. Admission readers start with you. They are naturally curious. They open every application and essay hoping it is good. Your job is to keep them with you.

The first sentence of every paragraph matters. Many readers skim. Don’t you? If you’d been reading 30-50 essays a day for weeks on end, you’d want some punch in the first line too, right? You’d want the first paragraph to have detail and be specific and lead you into the rest of the essay too, right? See, these people aren’t so different from you. Don’t bury the lead or waste a bunch of time and words when you have so few for most of these prompts. Get to the point.

Sometimes we need to look at things from a different perspective to see everything clearly (Do you see the old and young lady here?).

3. Print it out.  Let’s be honest. We’ve all sent a text or an email with a misspelled word or two put words in the wrong order (see what I did there?). Sometimes we look at a computer screen for so long that our writing sounds correct in our heads, because we know what we meant to say.

After your first draft, and again before you submit your application, print out your essays and short answer questions. You will see things, catch things, and improve things as a result. Trust me. Print it out.

 4. Read it aloud. Once you print your essay out, grab your phone. Go to the voice notes app and hit record. Now read your essay and listen to it once or twice. I’m guessing you don’t even make it through the first 150 words without pausing to revise. That’s a good thing.

Keep reading and listening to it until you are satisfied. This is your best simulation of how an admission reader will hear your voice in your writing. Does this sound a little awkward and uncomfortable? I’m sorry. Try presenting the same 30-minute session five times in three hours and we can talk about awkward and uncomfortable. Didn’t we already establish that awkward and uncomfortable are two key steps on the path toward improvement? Read it aloud.

5. Get it done. In most years, over 2/3 of applications are submitted in the last three days before deadlines (and a few thousand in the last couple of hours). It disturbs my wife greatly when I try to think like a 17-year-old. But when I do I’m confident the reason it’s taking so long to submit the application is not because you’re trying to remember your address or whether or not you have a driver’s license. Nope. It’s the essay. This is not an egg. Sitting on it does not make it better. You know what does? Numbers 1-4!

So after you have done those, turn it in and move on with your life. You cannot control exactly how your essay is received. You cannot be assured it will be the best writing they read all year or “the thing” that gets you in, but you can be assured these five tips will make it better.  Not convinced? Try reading this all over again four more times.

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Author: Rick Clark

@gtadmission