The Six Phases of the College Essay

There are six phases of a college essay.  Don’t try to do all of them at one time.  What does that mean?  It means the first draft of your college essay is NOT the final draft!  Work through these steps to build a strong essay that reflects your voice:

College Essay Phase 1:  Brainstorming

Put some ideas on paper.  What are you trying to accomplish with this essay?  What do you want colleges to know about you?  We aren’t writing yet; we aren’t even outlining!  Just think about all of the stories you COULD tell them that illustrate some of your more interesting qualities.  What makes you likeable?  What are your best qualities?  Who inspires you?  What experiences have turned you into the person you are today?

Tips for this phase: Don’t dismiss any ideas at this point – any topic has the potential to be a good college essay.  It just depends on how you write it!

College Essay Phase 2:  Development, Part 1

I know this sounds gross, but this is the ‘barf’ phase.  Just write.  Barf out some stories.  Write them using the exact same language you would use if you were telling someone the story.  Write like you talk.  Record yourself talking into your phone if that helps!  Just barf it out.

Tips for this phase: don’t edit yourself.  Don’t be afraid to dive down a rabbit hole that you didn’t expect to dive down.  For example, when you first thought about telling the story of receiving the chemistry set for Christmas when you were 9, you didn’t remember that that was the same Christmas your aunt announced she was pregnant or transitioning or something else random and totally unrelated to the chemistry set.  But write about that as well.  Tell us all of the facets of the story and all of the emotions you experienced.  Tell us what the house smelled like that day!  Don’t worry about the word limit yet!  We’ll clean it up later!

College Essay Phase 3: Development, Part 2

This is the first phase where you will review what you have written.  Look over the story (or stories) you’ve told.  What do they tell us about you?  Are they YOUR stories, or are they stories any of your friends at school or at camp could tell?  Are you using action verbs to paint a picture for the reader?  Are you helping them see the contributions YOU will make to their campus?  The goal for this stage is for you to ensure your essay expresses your authentic voice and perspective, and for you to be memorable and likeable.

Tips for this phase: we’re less concerned at this point about word selection than about the big picture.  Now is the time to really get settled with your essay topic and the stories you use to illustrate your main points.  If you like to outline, now’s the time to do it.  If you aren’t happy with your stories, circle back and work through the previous phase again.  Don’t pull out the thesaurus quite yet, and don’t worry about word count yet.

College Essay Phase 4:  Refine

This is the phase at which we drill down into the grammar and word choice.  Are you making your points in the most concise way possible?  Are you using a comma where there should be a semicolon?  Do you have run-on sentences that distract or detract from the essay’s impact?

Tips for this phase: you might want to put your essay away between the previous step and this one – let it sit before you refine.  Sometimes a few days of absence from your essay will help you see it with fresh eyes.  

College Essay Phase 5: Polish

This is the step we like to call ‘tightening.’  We edit for word count here, and we edit in such a way that we don’t lose any meaning. For example, you could tighten this:

“My lab partner Kenny and I were assigned to give a 20-minute presentation on the results of our chemical reaction involving radon and helium.  We thought that we wouldn’t have enough material to speak for that long, but we soon realized that we had much more to share than we had originally anticipated.” (54 words)

…to this:

“My lab partner and I soon realized that the information we wanted to share about the results of our radon experiment exceeded the assigned 20-minute presentation time.” (27 words)

See – we literally cut the original sentence in half, but we basically said exactly the same thing!  This is why we tell you not to worry about word count.  Get the story out, and we’ll tighten it at the end.

Tips for this phase: read your essay aloud.  Listen to how it sounds when you actually hear your voice saying the words.  Does it sound like you talking?  You should be able to hear phrases that you could shorten, sets of 6 words you could really say in 3.

College Essay Phase 6: Share, But Beware

If you want to share your essay with your parents, an English teacher, or some super-smart friends, feel free to do so, but here are a few tips:

  • It’s very hard for someone to review an essay and NOT comment on it.  Most people are very likely to tell you how they would change things. So….
  • Remember you can’t please everyone without losing your voice and your ownership. So…..
  • Don’t feel the need to make every edit everyone suggests.  This includes your parents and teachers.
  • Give access to comment only, not to edit.  No one should edit your college essay directly, changing your words without your knowing.
  • Remember that parents, teachers, and other adults use different language than teenagers do, so what others suggest may not sound like you sound when you speak or write.  And college admission officers know the difference between a 48-year old’s writing and a teenager’s.
  • In the end, your essay must be YOURS.

Did you read Magellan’s 10 Commandments of College Essays?

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