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Tips for Writing a Good College Admissions Essay

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

The article: “How to Conquer the Admissions Essay” by Rachel Toor in The New York Times Education Life,/i>, August 2, 2017,
In this New York Times Education Life article, Rachel Toor (Eastern Washington University/Spokane) suggests that students getting ready to write their college essay should picture where it will be read: “A winter-lit room is crammed with admissions professionals and harried faculty members who sit around a big table covered with files. The admissions people, often young and underpaid, buzz with enthusiasm; the professors frequently pause to take off their glasses and rub their eyes. These exhausted folks, hopped up from eating too many cookies and brownies, have been sitting in committee meetings for days after spending a couple of months reading applications, most of which look pretty similar…”
“Your goal,” says Toor, “is to write an essay that makes someone fall in love with you.” Her suggestions:
- “Choose a topic you really want to write about. If the subject doesn’t matter to you, it won’t matter to the reader.”
- Pick a topic that’s complex, where you explore your own clashing emotions, where there’s conflict.
- Take a risk. One applicant wrote about having heart-to-heart talks with his mother while making kimchi. “Once my mom said to me in a thick Korean accent, ‘Every time you have sex, I want you to make sure to use a condo.’ I instantly burst into laughter and said, ‘Mom, that could get kind of expensive!’”
- Don’t brag about your achievements. Better to describe struggles, even failures. “Be honest and say the hardest things you can,” says Toor.
- “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.”
Toor also has a list of things students should avoid in their college essays:
- Repeating the prompt;
- Giving Webster’s Dictionary definitions of words;
- Quoting another writer (not a good use of precious real estate, she says);
- Using the present tense to tell a story;
- Using sound-effect words like Ouch! Thwack! Whiz! Whooooosh! Pow!
- Giving agency to body parts (“My eyes fell to the floor”);
- Using clichés;
- Using passive, static writing – Instead of “The essay was written by a student; it was amazing and delightful,” write “The student’s essay amazed and delighted me.”
- Using redundant “word packages” like free gift, personal beliefs, final outcome, very unique
- If they get in the way of effective writing, following “fussy, fusty rules” like avoiding contractions, sentence fragments, split infinitives, ending sentences with a preposition, and beginning a sentence with a conjunction.

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