By Kim Lifton
Last month, I reviewed an essay from a student in South Carolina who had experienced a failure (she lost a state meet title), and chose to write about what she learned from this experience (she had never lost before).
The draft was perfectly structured and polished – and it was well written. It began with a beautiful introduction about famous people who had failed miserably before her.
Like many students, this girl wrote her piece to fit a structure – the familiar five-paragraph essay. While doing so, she failed to provide rich content. Her rough draft was exactly 650 words (the limit on the new Common App). It was also clichéd, redundant and showed no reflection.
Draft Should Not Mirror Five-Paragraph Essay
A rough draft should never look like a five-paragraph essay or fit a word limit. It should be a little messy and full of great details. It is a draft that needs to be taken apart and put back together several times.
While this student is not the first, and certainly not the last, to write something to fit a structure, we’re fairly certain college admissions officers would gloss right over it. That won’t help a student stand out in the crowd.
College admissions officers tell us time and again they are tired of being bored and want to read genuine stories about students that show reflection. They want you to hook them with a great opening line, not sift through a wordy introduction with a three-pronged thesis sentence at the end.
They don’t want to read a story that sounds like Hemingway, Morrison or a college professor. And the story does not need to be big. Some of the best essays we’ve seen focus on mundane moments. Students do not need to start nonprofit organizations or save orphans from burning houses to get attention from colleges.
Students, in this type of writing, you can write the same way you would tell a story to your friends. Go ahead and use conjunctions and colloquial language. Just be authentic and say something interesting. You are the only subject of your story, and it has to sound like you, a 17-year-old who is ready for college.
Despite what you may believe, college admissions officers look forward to reading stories that make them want to know more about you. They want to like you. They are looking for students to fill a class, not looking for students to reject.
Tips to write an essay to make someone inside the admissions office like you:
- Ditch the five-paragraph essay format. Odds are pretty good you’ll never use it again after high school anyway.
- Focus on content first, structure and polish last. Our students do not start their first drafts until they are half way through our 10-step process.
- Don’t look for a shortcut. There’s no rubric or formula to model.
- Write too much in your first draft. You can cut it later.
- Focus on one small moment, not an entire summer adventure or a yearlong experience at a job.
- Use your own words, and your own voice. Don’t let anyone tell you what to write.
- Forget about preconceived notions about what makes a good essay. Just write. Be willing to be surprised.
In most cases, an imperfect piece of writing that makes an admissions officer smile will be just fine.Kim Lifton is president of Wow Writing Workshop, which created the first self-guided online tutorial for writing college application essays. We have extended our summer special; click here to learn how to write a college application essay that stands out! You can get useful writing tips by signing up for Wow’s newsletter. Wow is also on Facebook and Twitter. Check our schedule of upcoming webinars and workshops that will help you write great college admissions essays.