Writing a Great College Essay: Opening Lines, Humor, and Adjectives

Stop thinking and start writing!

College admissions officers read thousands upon thousands of college essays each year. Memorable? Not always. But yours can be! If you’re lacking an incredible, life-altering experience to impress the admissions officers, not to worry. Remember: everyone’s life is unique and filled with anecdotal treasures and moments that are bound to tickle a curious admissions officer. Colorful language and style can enliven anyone’s personal experience. Enticing opening lines, humor, and adjectives are three techniques to keep in mind when writing an essay.

  • Opening Lines: Nothing grabs a reader quite like the opening line of an essay. Open with a thought-provoking question, an exciting exclamation, or an enlightening description. The admissions officer will want to continue reading your essay if the first line is intriguing.
  • Humor: Approach with caution! Remember: you are not writing a comedy sketch for a light-hearted audience; these officers mean business! But splashes of humor here and there, in, say, a description or personal reaction, can add color to an essay.
  • Adjectives: To be added gingerly! Do not fill your essay with ostentatious adjectives (think supercalafragalistic…) but do add appropriate, zesty adjectives where necessary. It may bring a smile to an officer’s face!

For more great tips, see this blog by Lynn O’Shaughnessy.

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Take a Moment to De-Stress

When you're starting to feel like this, watch our videos.

May 13, 2012

For juniors starting to contemplate the anxieties of the college application process up ahead, we wanted to pass on these great stress buster videos, which will definitely release some of that tension. In addition, stay tuned in to our blog as we regularly post updates on how to stay on top of the process. We also hold free webinars throughout the season, allowing for individual questions to be addressed.



Turning a Personal Experience Into the Perfect College Essay

It's hard to go wrong when writing about a meaningful experience

Students face all kinds of situations growing up, but the best kind of story is when someone can overcome and move beyond a significant challenge in his or her life. Through his own courage and determination, high school senior Daniel Altman was able to overcome a stutter, which he had struggled with since the age of two, through his work as a Production Assistant working on an Independent Film.

This is especially inspirational, because Daniel was also able to turn his personal success into an inspirational college essay, which got him accepted into his first choice college. Find the complete essay here.

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An Essay on Adversity

As juniors begin to turn their thoughts to the college application process looming in front of them, now is the time to start to generate ideas for a stand-out essay. There is no doubt that the essay has the power to set a student apart from the pack, and is often the most challenging part of applying to college.

To get your thoughts flowing in the right direction, we'll be posting a series of essays over the coming months on commonly asked essay questions. In the below essay, the student was responding to a question asking her to describe a personal challenge. She also used the same essay in modified form to address additional essay topics from other colleges on her list that asked about a life-changing experience, personal value,  and personal trait/individuality, among others:

I found out I had severe scoliosis when I was twelve, and suddenly, like my spine, my life became a twisted mess. I was told that if I didn’t wear a brace twenty-three hours a day for two full years, my spinal cord would shift and I would need surgery. In the beginning, I let my mother convince me it wouldn’t be that bad. However, my father, always the family realist, hid nothing in his reaction to the news: I was in for a horrible two years.

After two excruciatingly painful months, literally and metaphorically, I made a decision: I was not going to wear the brace. I was going to accept my physical fate, and work on being the Carly I knew I could be; whether I was standing straight or otherwise. I was well aware of the risk I was taking, but I also knew that I was prepared to assume responsibility for this choice.

As luck would have it, the curve in my spine did not get worse as I grew, though this was not something anyone could have predicted—a lucky twist in the tale, if you will. And though I was not left with a severely crooked spine, many questions remain: If I had worn my brace, would my back be straighter? Was I right to shun my brace, or was it stupid – a risky gamble and a mistake? I will never fully know the answers to these questions.

Resolution for me came through introspection and acceptance. I understand myself better as a result of this experience, as well as the world around me. I see that the cards I was dealt were not very bad in the grand scheme of things. Today, my scoliosis is rarely on my mind and I am at ease with myself once again. But I still have my brace. I keep it in the closet, because I never want to forget the experience. Once in a while, when trying to explain myself to a new friend, I pull it out. It never disappoints.

Three Ways to Make Your Application Essays Stand Out

Your excellent grades and SAT scores aren’t the only things you’ll need to get into the top school of your choice. You’ll also need application essays that reflect what an inquisitive and intelligent person you are. If you don’t spend much time on your essays, you can’t expect a college admissions board to spend much time considering your application, no matter how impressive your credentials are. Since application essays are kind of a big deal, writing them can be pretty nerve-wracking. We’d like to help decrease your stress levels by providing you with a little guidance when it comes to your essays. Here are three tips to help you write memorable, meaningful application essays that are sure to impress the bigwigs at your dream school:

1.  Give yourself a couple of days to think about an essay topic.

This will give you enough time to formulate exactly what you want to write about in your head. You may want to record ideas you have for essays in a notebook. Oftentimes, the best writing ideas won’t come to you when you’re sitting in front of the blank page on your computer screen. The best ideas may come to you when you’re eating breakfast or brushing your teeth before bed. If you spend a couple of days contemplating a topic and coming up with ideas, you’ll be prepared to write the best essay possible.

2. Avoid writing what you think people want to hear.

Your college application essays shouldn’t be anything like the papers you write for history class. There’s no right or wrong answer to an application essay question. It’s important to be yourself and express your independent ideas in your essays. Your essays are an opportunity for you to let college admissions boards know who you are. So, show off your personality and unique beliefs. Just remember to keep your essays appropriate and on topic.

3. Have someone you trust proofread your finished essays.

You could ask a friend, older sibling, or parent to take a look at your essays. You want the grammar and spelling in your essays to be perfect, and another person can help you catch any and all writing mistakes and errors.

College application essays are important, but you should do everything you can to stay calm while writing them. Take deep breaths if you need to, and don’t be afraid to express yourself!

About the Author: Carolyn Knight is a professional writer and guest blogger who writes about the higher education industry, registered nursing schools, and time management skills for students.

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What Not To Write About For College

What Not To Do

We can think of a few things not to do this application season. This... actually, this is one of those things.

When your pile of applications gets overwhelming, you may feel the urge to just "churn one out." If you're writing so many pieces, what's the harm in focusing on a few and doing a few others more quickly? Right? Well, rushing can lead to simple mistakes, especially in the choice of topic. You do not want this thing to feel tossed-off.

In fact, sometimes knowing what not to do can be as useful as knowing what you ought to do. There are many essay topics that spring to mind quickly. These ideas can be enticing - in many cases they seem to almost write themselves - until you realize that they don't paint a particularly flattering portrait of you, or that the reason they sprung to mind so easily is that you've read essays just like them several times before.

Always look out for cliche! Avoid it like the plague, as well as essay topics that center themselves around your faults or around things that you are not, rather than things that you are.

Any advice about what not to do, of course, always comes with a grain of salt. There are always exceptions, so use this only as a guide. Just make sure that if you cover one of the following topics, you do so in a unique way that highlights your strengths:

  • Crime you've committed
  • Character flaws
  • Excuses for your shortcomings
  • The "Big Game"

This last one might surprise you - the big success at a sporting event is a common topic, and it talks about a positive, emotional event. So why not use it?

It often leads you down very well-worn paths without necessarily telling us much about what you will be able to bring to an academic or social environment. More often than not, these essays focus on one-off events that don't translate to your everyday life. But worse, they aren't memorable.

Picture an admissions officer reading through five hundred essays. Five. Hundred. Essays. How many of these feel the same? How many are about a success in a sporting event? Push further, past cliche and into the elements of who you are that are specific to you and what you do. Things no one else in your school can say.

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How To Handle The Open-Ended College Application Essay

Too Many Choices

You mean I can have any bag of lettuce? Any bag at all?
So many choices.

We have written about the style of the college essay many times here on CEO Blog. The form at its best is almost its own genre of writing – it is a combination of story telling, personal expression, and resume that demands a level of revision that most high schoolers are not used to.

There are all kinds of things that can make a writer freeze up when putting together a personal statement, but ironically, one of those things is having too many options. Many essay prompts, including the Common App’s long response, allow you to write on a topic of your choice, which is to say anything at all.

When you can write about anything, write about your passion.

Your passion won’t be the thing you think you’re supposed to write about, or the thing you think will be most impressive to the guidance counselor you are imagining, but it will be the thing that makes you sit up and say, “I can write about that.”

When you have that a-ha moment and recognize what you care about, your writing will actually improve. You will avoid cliché and, better yet, you will be able to write with detail that shows you understand the world you’re talking about. You will be able to invite the reader into an understanding of what you love and show why your involvement in it matters.

In short, you’ll be able to describe for the reader something about yourself that your resume doesn’t reflect as well as it could, and that’s the job of this piece of writing.

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5 College Essay Writing Mistakes To Avoid

Now that you've all come out of your turkey-induced comas, let's get back to the matter at hand - finishing off all those college application essays you have hanging over your head. This kind of writing can be hard to kick-start, especially if you’re used to writing more academic essays, but hopefully with the guidance we've been able to give here on CEO blog, you'll be able to write memorable pieces without falling into the common traps. What common traps, you say? Funny you say that. We've got five common mistakes for you to avoid, listed here for your list-loving pleasure.

Dont Go Down This Road People

Don't go down this road, people. Please.

1. Don’t write a traditional 5-paragraph essay with a thesis, body, and conclusion. Take some risks with the structure and show your personality. Use the first person and just start writing. See what happens. You can pose a question or start with a distinctive opinion on a topic. Almost anything goes.

2. Don’t be gimmicky. We’ve all heard about the student who wrote his essay about his childhood years with a crayon and got accepted to every college. The likelihood of this being true is slim. It’s like communism: good in theory, impossible in practice. Let the substance of your writing be the real story.

3. Don’t come off as arrogant. This can be difficult, because part of what you’re trying to do with your personal essay is highlight something positive about yourself. But it’s one thing to call yourself awesome in your own essay and quite another to write about things you’ve done that show how awesome you clearly are. The old rule of writing applies here: show, don’t tell.

4. Don’t be cheesy. You shouldn’t come off like a bad Hallmark card. Let’s be serious. You’re not somebody who is so inspired by the beauty of the world you are brought to tears at the sight of a single flower. Come on. You know over-sentimentality when you see it, so keep it out of your essay.

5. Don’t use overly formal language. Applying to college is serious business, but that doesn’t mean that the tone and style of your essays need to be stuffy. Colleges are looking for personality and character, so relax when you start expressing yourself. Instead of writing something dry like, “I have come to this understanding according to certain factors that have influenced my life…” write something lively like, “During the summer of 2009, I was stalked by my literary hero.”

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College Application Essays: Pacing Yourself This Fall

Will you take a risk when you write your essays?

Chances are, your days are already pretty packed: classes, extracurriculars, seeing friends, spending time with family… and now applying to college on top of that. Senior year can be overwhelming, especially when it comes to writing your personal essays. And while you’ve certainly written essays on the Civil War, Einstein, or plant biology, a personal essay is a different animal. It can be time consuming and even emotionally draining, depending on your choice of topic. Make sure to pace yourself accordingly and keep that pile of college essay assignments manageable.

Make sure to set aside a little bit of time every day to work on your essay. It’s better to spend 20 minutes on it daily than 10 hours right before it’s due. You’ll find that visiting it every day will help your ideas flow and connect better, give you perspective on what you’ve already written, and reduce the chances of sloppy mistakes.

As for topic selection, instead of trying to brainstorm an essay that matches an existing question from your school of choice, try working backward. Think of a personal experience that moved you or changed you, then tailor that to answer the question. Let’s say you want to write about your experience playing the flute for the first time with a large orchestra. This story answers a lot of possible essay questions: what was a personal activity of special significance, or an accomplishment you are proud of—even an adversity you have dealt with. This one story can be tweaked into the many essays your colleges require.

It’s great to get feedback from a friend or a teacher on a draft you’ve written, but don’t overdo it. A common mistake is an essay written “by committee” – too many people have read it and the writer is trying to please too many different opinions. In the end, you’re left with an essay with all the life sucked out of it. Find one person you trust—preferably not a family member or friend—and let that individual be your sounding board.

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The China Conundrum from The New York Times

New York TimesThe New York Times has a magazine piece up today about the influx of Chinese students into the American university system in recent years. Many of the students, the article notes, are from middle- to upper-class families that can afford to pay the full tuition - a boon for schools struggling under recent budget cuts - but who often arrive without the requisite English skills to keep up in the classroom.

The onus is on them, for the most part, and though navigating a university education in one's second language is an enormous challenge, it's one that isn't dissuading Chinese parents from sending their children to America in rapidly-increasing numbers.

As with any international shift in the college admissions game, understanding the system is of primary importance, especially when choosing your school and managing the college essay process. A number of the students cited in the article admit that when they applied to the school, their English was not strong, which is all the more reason to keep the application process simple, efficient, and direct, so as not to write any unnecessary essays or misinterpret what's required for a given application.

Use of College Essay Organizer has likewise grown among international applicants and international counseling services, and that's to everyone's benefit. Keep things simple and targeted, and make the most of what you have.

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