How To Organize Your College Essays

high school girl organizes her essays for collegeAs you gear up to get started writing all of your college essays, taking even 5 minutes to organize yourself first will save you TONS of time. After 20 years of organizing these essays with my students, here’s what I recommend that you do to survive, and to be able to generate the absolute best college essays possible.

1.  Make a final list of your colleges, on a word doc
This is important because you need to write a lot of little essays to apply to college and the last thing you want is to be figuring out which colleges you are applying to at the same time–because you might write essays that you don’t end up using, and I can’t even think of a worse torture in life. Get your college listdone first, and then you know exactly what you need to do, and no more.

2.  Copy/paste the essay prompt from each college
A college might ask you to write NO essays (WooHoo!!) or they might ask you to write 8.  No joke.  Sooo, you need to go on their application, or their writing supplement page of the Common App (if they are an Common App school) and copy/paste the actual writing prompt onto a word doc where you will draft your essay. (Do not write your essays in the little boxes because you will have much editing to do and it’s impossible to do it in the little boxes.) DO NOT put the prompt into your own words, and DO NOT abbreviate it.  You need to see the actual question and be sure at all times that you are addressing the actual question they asked.

3.  Copy/paste the word OR character limit for each essay
Some essays will give you a word limit, say 150 words or 500 words, and some essays will give you a character limit, say 200 characters or 2000 characters.  Pay CAREFUL attention to whether the prompt asks for words or characters!  There is a huge difference between 140 characters (a tweet) and 140 words (a small paragraph).  There is a painfully huge difference between 500 characters (a small paragraph) and 500 words (a page long essay).  Every year some poor sucker comes to me (proudly) with a 500-word essay they wrote for a college only to nearly cry when I quietly point out to them that school only asked for 500 characters.  Don’t let this happen to you.  It is really, really sad.

4. Before you start writing, play the Recycle Game
Ok, so it’s not a fun game (none of mine ever really are), but it IS a game that will help save you time.  Here’s what you do: read your *complete* Master List of Prompts that you carefully copied and pasted from each school’s current application (not last year’s app, which is also often still on the internet, for reasons unknown to man but that do seem to strike down innocent students yearly…).  Next, you think: “Who is asking the same question?  Where can I recycle?”  Even colleges asking similar questions can often be slightly tweaked and then recycled.  DO NOT write any essay twice because that is a criminal waste of precious time.  Write only what you have to.  The Recycling Game can often save you from writing 5 essays–no kidding!

5. List the qualities or accomplishments you want to make sure the colleges learn about you
Perhaps list your top ten, and then as you look at all of the essays that one school is going to get, ask yourself: How can I get my top ten into those essays?  Some schools ask you for 1 essay and some ask you for 5, but you want to try to figure out how to get your best selling points into *each* application, so know what your points are first.

6.  Start brainstorming your ideas for each essay
Make sure you have something to say before you start writing.  It sounds simple, but when you are nervous you sometimes just jump right in without planning, and that is always a mistake.  Have something to say about each little essay you have to write, and know what your point is before you try to draft.  This ensures that each essay does, in fact, have a point, which is critical.  Just filling up space won’t win you any points.  Saying something meaningful, and not repeating yourself and not leaving out big selling points–those are the keys to success.

7. Write
Write from the heart, write it *yourself*, do not get too many editors involved, and always tell the truth but be polite.  No slang, no profanity, remember your audience.  Don’t be flowery; get to the point.  Don’t be philosophical; tell a story that shows the meaning.  Don’t be overly honest; we all have our less than finer moments but this is not a confessional and not the time to air your dirty laundry.  Don’t brag, but do talk about what you love and say why you love it.  The most important part of this writing process is to start early and edit a lot.  Give yourself time to ponder and change things. Ask a teacher or counselor to read and give you feedback.  And lastly, make sure to preserve your own voice and style and your own message.  These are your college essays, and if you follow this plan of organization you will be sure to be a success!

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