We all have the tendency to overuse certain words and phrases. After all, having an over-riding idea or theme is crucial to an excellent essay, right? Yes, but hammering the same idea to death in a 500-650-word personal statement creates a sluggish composition and boredom for the reader. It makes us look like we suffer from a seriously limited vocabulary and shallow thinking.
Definitely not suitable for a college essay.
So how to avoid weak, boring writing?
Here are nine tips I use with my students to help them write their best possible essay:
Start early. Write your first draft weeks in advance of the deadline. A college essay isn’t the same as a school paper. You won’t get a letter grade for your submission, but it could trigger a rejection letter from your dream school. Give yourself more than adequate time to do your best work.
Let your writing go cold. Once you’ve written your draft, revised it, and once it feels finished, leave it for a day or two (or even a week). Come back to it and you’ll be amazed at what you catch!
Read your writing out loud. There’s no better way to know if your writing flows effortlessly for your reader. That phrase that sounds brilliant in your head may come out awkwardly when vocalized.
Keep a sharp eye out for word or phrase repetition. This one is huge. I’ve had students use the same word phrase and three times in one sentence and up to 19 times in an essay! There’s a time for repetition. This. Is. Not. It. Notice repeated words. Find alternatives and replace the offenders (with the next tip).
Use a thesaurus. College essays are not the place to display a compromised vocabulary. Head to www.thesaurus.com and craft a richer, fuller composition as you display your robust wordsmithing skills!
Avoid slang or teen-speak. In a recent essay, my student wrote, “I thought it was so cool!” Twice. It’s okay to be conversational in your writing. But this isn’t the time to only articulate your thoughts at a thirteen-year-old level. You could just as easily write, “I thought the film was brilliant!”
Be smart with quotations. Students love to use quotes in their essays. Know when it’s important to be precise and when it’s not. Quoting Robert Frost on the road less traveled? Check and double check for exact wording. Quoting your best friend’s uncle? It’s okay to paraphrase or slightly edit his exact words to better tell your story or to make your point.
Avoid using “it” as a noun. Rather than use “it” as the subject of a sentence, engage your reader with more precise, descriptive words. For example, rather than writing, “It was such a neat opportunity,” try “My internship allowed me to explore an exciting, new field.”
Ask questions about what you’ve written. Read through the essay and ask yourself if each point is crystal clear. What’s obvious to you will be vague to your reader unless you articulate your thoughts with concrete, tangible word selections. Have you ever had a lifelike dream and tried to tell a friend about it? If you’re anything like me, your description comes out lame in comparison to the picture you remember. It’s challenging to create a vivid, engaging tale. And on a college essay, it’s worth it. Keep refining your text. (Our students go through 10-16 revisions. Really. As a result, their personal statements are an excellent representation of who they are and their essays are clear, concise and worth reading.)
Use a professional grammar check program. Upon completion, run the text through www.grammarly.com. Among other things, Grammarly is great at catching words that are over strong or overused‑‑such as passion, amazing, and life-changing—and which should be used rarely, if at all.
Every student’s college essay is made up of a certain number of words. Deliberately selecting those words to glean the most value and clarity ensures the writer will stand out to college admissions officers in all the best ways.
Mike McKinnon is the founder of College Planners of America, Ltd., a firm of independent educational consultants which helps families calmly and efficiently navigate the road to college and beyond. For over 20 years, he has a heart for assisting parents to strategize ways to fund college and for helping students ace the college selection and admissions process. He can be reached at email@example.com or 630-971-2300.