Tips for Essay Writing

One guidance counselor’s tips for helping students write engaging, effective college essays

Posted by Helen Scotte Gordon

Helen Scotte Gordon is the Director of College Counseling at Moses Brown, an independent, college preparatory school in Providence, Rhode Island, founded in 1784 and enrolling 765 boys and girls, nursery through grade 12. Guidance welcomes her perspective to our blog.

As a follow-up to my last post on helping rising seniors kick off their college essays in summer, here are some tips I’ve refined over the years to help students get writing – and retain their authentic, touching teenage voices. I hope other guidance counselors and students will find them useful, as well.

Understand the assignment

The goal for each senior is to share a piece of his or her life story.  I regularly stress that the essay should resemble a “memoir” – a short, informal autobiography, rather than a formal treatise. Admissions deans want to develop a sense of each candidate beyond the transcript and test scores.

Start small when brainstorming

Too often, seniors presume they must write about a momentous occasion or an event of huge importance.  Instead, I encourage students to focus on smaller experiences or events: a sibling relationship, part-time job, favorite hobby, family ritual or cool adventure.

Talk it out

When school is in session, I sometimes toss out an essay “prompt” question for discussion, and invite students to record their informal responses via voice memos (or equivalent functions) on their phones.  I’m consistently amazed by the way students “talk” their way through entire essays.  Then, I send seniors off to type up drafts and refine their idea. Rising seniors could try this approach on their own during summer.

Ignore word counts at first

It’s difficult enough to start writing without introducing an immediate constriction. I encourage seniors to focus on one-and-a-half to two pages, double-spaced, for a first draft. Instead of counting words, they should roll out their story. (Trade secret: candidates can upload more than 500 words into the Common Application!) I urge students to utilize the essay writing model employed in their classes (introduction, body, conclusion) and see where their topic leads. The best subject allows them to write easily and comfortably — and even have a little fun. They can always edit and shorten at a later point.

Protect the voice

Admissions officers enjoy late adolescents and like reading their work. They don’t expect students to speak or write like trained lawyers, doctoral candidates or job interviewees.  Admissions deans look forward to intelligent, down-to-earth, 17-year-old observations of the world. One dean regularly tells me he loves “teenage angst!”

Use caution when seeking editors and reviewers

Involving multiple parties in a college essay can lead to frustration and mini-disaster. Each individual will have their own opinion. Some adults know the craft of writing, but do not truly understand what admissions officers seek. Parents often expect more formality than necessary. My best advice to students? Work closely with their guidance counselor or college advisor —and possibly seek out one other person (a teacher, advisor or informed friend) who understands the essay’s purpose.

Read aloud and proof repeatedly

Seniors should proofread their essays carefully — never trust spell check with this job! I recommend students read their text out loud, the old-fashioned way, to catch errors (for example, missing commas!) and assess for flow and awkward phrasing. Reading a piece out loud immediately highlights weak and clunky writing. Final drafts should also include vivid images that allow readers to see, hear and imagine the situation or action.