College Application Essay Writing Advice Stephen

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For a short paper, say 3-5 pages, I try to write my first draft in a single sitting. I try to write it in less than two hours. A fast draft probably won’t have all the quotes I need for a strong essay, and will certainly need editing and revision. But a fast draft means you have a starting place. You get the main points down on paper. And even for longer projects, this process of writing a fast draft will help push the whole process along.

Sit down, take a deep breath, and here’s my four steps to writing a super-fast first draft.

Note: this strategy assumes that you have a working knowledge of the topic you’ll be writing about.

The Four Steps to a Super-Fast Draft

Step One: Read the question

Really read the question. Think about what it is asking you to do. Do you need to make an argument? Summarize facts? Draw parallels between two (or more) topics?

Sometimes an essay question will provide the structure and outline for you, right there in the assignment (you should also check your original course syllabus for clues). If you are asked to draw a parallel between two books, or two historical events, or two concepts, then you know you’ll need to write an essay that briefly describes each, and then gives several examples comparing the two. There’s your essay outline, already laid out for you . If you are asked to describe an idea and make an argument about it, then you know you need to start by giving a general overview of the concept before making several specific comments on the topic.

Read the question, and you might already have a clear idea of what you need to write. Even if the question doesn’t lay things out in this specific way, you need to read the question carefully to find out what you have to do. Look for:

  • Specific questions to answer
  • If there are multiple parts to the question
  • Specific sources/topics/ideas/events you need to include
  • Length requirements

Step two: create an outline

An outline can be as simple as three ideas scribbled down that you know you need to address. It can be as complicated as a multi-page document with sections and sub-sections, bullet-points and supporting quotes.

The point of an outline is to get organized. Figure out your main ideas to be covered in the essay.

Here’s a perfectly adequate outline:

  • Subject: Here’s my main point.
  • Section one: Here’s one reason my point is correct.
  • Section two: Here’s another, related reason my point is correct.
  • Section three: Here’s a final reason my point is correct.
  • Conclusion: Based on those previous arguments, here’s why my point is correct and why it matters.

This is thebasic five-paragraph essay structure, which I’ve written about previously. It works for most essays of most lengths, from a one-page high school essay to an eighty page Master’s thesis.

Your outline is there to help you figure out what you need to write about. Do you know what’s important in your argument? Can you think of three pieces of supporting evidence?

Step Three: Write it down

Take a deep breath, and take the plunge. Write the whole essay. Do it in one sitting if you can, and let go of perfection while getting as much information on the page as possible. You will edit this later—no one will ever see this first draft. Just get the bones of the essay down on paper, and then flesh out your arguments and make it a full first draft.

If you have good notes from the texts you’ve studied, include quotes and evidence in this draft. Pull out your class notes and any research you’ve done. You want this to be as complete as possible, and the more evidence you include early on the more you’ll be able to make solid arguments while also spotting weak spots in the essay.

If you have limited research to include, just write the argument and know you’ll go back and add quotes later. When I draft my essays, I often remember what the text said, but don’t want to stop the writing process to search for a quote. So I’ll write something like:

…According to Professor Smith [CHECK] in his article ____________, my main point also applied in this other situation. He writes, “ ______ [SOMETHING ABOUT THIS IN THE SECOND CHAPTER].” This supports my argument because…

The empty underlined sections make it easy for me to see where I need to add text, and I write all my “notes to self” in all capitals so I can be sure to find that information. The point is to not interrupt your flow, and to do the big first effort of getting the words on the page. Write it down, note where more information is needed, and then keep on writing it down.

Step Four: Overview

Once you’ve done your full, speed-written first draft, take a few quick moments to look over what you’ve done. Is it all there? Is it clear? What do you need to do to flesh it out/add detail/add research? As you were writing, did new arguments or sub-points occur to you? As you were drafting your conclusion, did you realize you need to re-write the introduction?

Make a few “notes to self” at the end of your draft. Before you lose all that drafting energy, make sure you’ve noted all-important areas to edit or research to expand upon.

Here’s a tip: Choose a topic you really want to write about. If the subject doesn’t matter to you, it won’t matter to the reader. Write about whatever keeps you up at night. That might be cars, or coffee. It might be your favorite book or the Pythagorean theorem. It might be why you don’t believe in evolution or how you think kale must have hired a PR firm to get people to eat it.

A good topic will be complex. In school, you were probably encouraged to write papers that took a side. That’s fine in academic work when you’re being asked to argue in support of a position, but in a personal essay, you want to express more nuanced thinking and explore your own clashing emotions. In an essay, conflict is good.

For example, “I love my mom. She’s my best friend. We share clothes and watch ‘The Real Housewives’ of three different cities together” does not make for a good essay. “I love my mom even though she makes me clean my room, hates my guinea pig and is crazy about disgusting food like kale” could lead somewhere

While the personal essay has to be personal, a reader can learn a lot about you from whatever you choose to focus on and how you describe it. One of my favorites from when I worked in admissions at Duke University started out, “My car and I are a lot alike.” The writer then described a car that smelled like wet dog and went from 0 to 60 in, well, it never quite got to 60.

Another guy wrote about making kimchi with his mom. They would go into the garage and talk, really talk: “Once my mom said to me in a thick Korean accent, ‘Every time you have sex, I want you to make sure and use a condo.’ I instantly burst into laughter and said, ‘Mom, that could get kind of expensive!’ ” A girl wrote about her feminist mother’s decision to get breast implants.

A car, kimchi, Mom’s upsizing — the writers used these objects as vehicles to get at what they had come to say. They allowed the writer to explore the real subject: This is who I am.

Don’t brag about your achievements. Instead, look at times you’ve struggled or, even better, failed. Failure is essayistic gold. Figure out what you’ve learned. Write about that. Be honest and say the hardest things you can. And remember those exhausted admissions officers sitting around a table in the winter. Jolt them out of their sugar coma and give them something to be excited about.

10 Things Students Should Avoid

REPEATING THE PROMPT Admissions officers know what’s on their applications. Don’t begin, “A time that I failed was when I tried to beat up my little brother and I realized he was bigger than me.” You can start right in: “As I pulled my arm back to throw a punch, it struck me: My brother had gotten big. Bigger than me.”

LEAVE WEBSTER’S OUT OF IT Unless you’re using a word like “prink” (primp) or “demotic” (popular) or “couloir” (deep gorge), you can assume your reader knows the definition of the words you’ve written. You’re better off not starting your essay with “According to Webster’s Dictionary . . . .”

THE EPIGRAPH Many essays start with a quote from another writer. When you have a limited amount of space, you don’t want to give precious real estate to someone else’s words.

YOU ARE THERE! When writing about past events, the present tense doesn’t allow for reflection. All you can do is tell the story. This happens, then this happens, then this happens. Some beginning writers think the present tense makes for more exciting reading. You’ll see this is a fallacy if you pay attention to how many suspenseful novels are written in past tense.

SOUND EFFECTSOuch! Thwack! Whiz! Whooooosh! Pow! Are you thinking of comic books? Certainly, good writing can benefit from a little onomatopoeia. Clunk is a good one. Or fizz. But once you start adding exclamation points, you’re wading into troubled waters. Do not start your essay with a bang!

ACTIVE BODY PARTS One way to make your reader giggle is to give body parts their own agency. When you write a line like “His hands threw up,” the reader might get a visual image of hands barfing. “My eyes fell to the floor.” Ick.

CLICHÉS THINK YOUR THOUGHTS FOR YOU Here’s one: There is nothing new under the sun. We steal phrases and ideas all the time. George Orwell’s advice: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”

TO BE OR NOT TO BE Get rid of “to be” verbs. Replace “was” in “The essay was written by a student; it was amazing and delightful” and you’ll get: “The student’s essay amazed and delighted me.” We’ve moved from a static description to a sprightlier one and cut the word count almost in half.

WORD PACKAGES Some phrases — free gift, personal beliefs, final outcome, very unique — come in a package we don’t bother to unpack. They’re redundant.

RULES TO IGNORE In English class, you may have to follow a list of rules your teacher says are necessary for good grammar: Don’t use contractions. No sentence fragments. It’s imperative to always avoid split infinitives. Ending on a preposition is the sort of English up with which teachers will not put. And don’t begin a sentence with a conjunction like “and” or “but” or “because.” Pick up a good book. You’ll see that the best authors ignore these fussy, fusty rules.

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