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Five Ways Your College Essay is Different From Your English Class Essay

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Magellan counselors get lots of our writing tips from College Essay Guy Ethan Sawyer.

Rising high school seniors sometimes get started on their college essays by approaching them in the same way they approach their English class essays.  They are two totally different animals!  And therefore, students should approach the college essay differently.

Here are some basic differences:

  1. There’s no thesis statement.  This is not an analytical work – you aren’t comparing or contrasting literature, or explaining a scientific theory.  Instead, your job is to convey something interesting about yourself, something that will help colleges see how you will contribute to their campus.
  2. You don’t need to support your thesis with facts (no thesis – no facts!) – but you do need to tell a story. “Show, Don’t Tell,” is the standard college essay mantra, and by that, we mean don’t tell us that you are a certain way (intelligent, funny, leader, humble, whatever you are), SHOW us by recounting a story that demonstrates your selected personality trait.  Your stories are your proof!  A well-described image or story can leave the reader wanting to meet you and welcome you to their campus!
  3. It doesn’t have to be five paragraphs.  It can be two – or ten!  It can be longer or shorter.  There’s no formula here.  It shouldn’t be just one big chunk of text – separate out your thoughts in an organized way, using as many (or as few) paragraphs as you need to help illustrate your point.
  4. It doesn’t have to be chronological.  Until now, we’ve taught you to take us methodically – most of the time chronologically – through a story.  For your college essay, sometimes it’s better to jump right into the action and skip the lead-up that tells us how you found yourself in that particular situation.  Chances are, if you do a good job of telling the story, we’ll figure out how you got there – and an interesting “right into the action” opening will make the admission officer want to keep reading!
  5. The subject is YOU.  This may be the hardest for teenage writers to grasp – for many years, we have taught you to write about literature and history, learning how to compare and contrast, as well as analyze others’ work and opinions.  For this very special assignment, we’re asking you to do something completely different – focus on yourself.  THIS IS HARD!  But a college essay that does not make the reader walk away wanting to meet the writer is a wasted opportunity.  This essay needs to have YOUR experiences, YOUR personality, YOUR voice.

What should my college essay be, then?

Here’s a great blog post that details what college admission officers are looking for when they read your application file.

What does that mean – “deep, personal reflections?”  That sounds scary!  Take a look at this post about skills and traits that college admissions officers look for – see if any of these apply to you, and if you can tell a story that illustrates that.

Here’s a great sample essay – look for the five things in the post linked above as you read it!  You can also see very clearly that this essay is very different than one you would submit in your English class.

What about grammar?

Some people will tell you that grammar, punctuation and spelling don’t count.  We’re here to tell you they ABSOLUTELY DO!  College admission officers will notice if your writing is sloppy or has errors in it.  While we don’t recommend that you have *lots* of people review and proofread your essay (sometimes you will get conflicting advice from different people, and this will be frustrating and may cause you to make changes that could make your “voice” get lost), we definitely suggest you have at least one or two people review it for basic grammar, spelling and punctuation errors.


Need help with your college essay(s)?

Magellan will host two essay writing workshops in late August.  Details here – please join us and let’s get writing!

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