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How Can You Nail Your College Essays for Regular Decision Deadlines?

Ready to Submit? Proofread It!

As the regular decision deadline approaches, it is a good time to talk about putting the finishing touches on your college applications. With the long essays and the various short answers required by the colleges, the final step is a detailed check of the writing for clarity and style.

In the grand scheme of your college essay-writing process, most of the time spent should be devoted towards developing the essay’s message – grammar and writing style should be the last of your concerns. Admissions officers are trained to be focused on the content of the application, rather than how it’s delivered.

It’s much more important, therefore, to craft a coherent theme for the application. Strategize carefully a clear portrait of your best qualities that make you an attractive candidate. This picture can be conveyed through a set of essays, each with a unique angle supported by personal anecdotes. The responses should be clearly structured and answer the prompts fully.

But once you’re at a place where you’re comfortable with the messages, stories, details and descriptions included within the writing, you might be ready for the final phase. Proofreading!

What happens if an Admissions Officer has difficulty reading your writing?

Admissions officers are reading dozens of essays every day, and if the writing itself is obscuring the message, maybe they get lazy and decide: “OK, I’ve spent enough time trying to understand this essay, let’s move on to the next one.” On average, an admissions reader will only spend ten minutes on any one application. Therefore, they have to be able to move through the writing quickly, and understand the overall message at a skimming-pace.

Admissions officers aren’t looking for creative and philosophical writing, but rather structurally sound writing that unconsciously puts the reader at ease. When it comes to polishing the writing for style and grammar, the overall goal of the edits should be to increase the readability of each response. Nothing should get in the way of understanding that core message you’re transmitting to the admissions reader.

Conventions for Admissions Writing

There is no official style guide for college admissions writing. Every high school-age writer brings their own unique experience of writing to the table, and that is OK – even good! We want the writing to sound like you, not forced into submission by an official manual of dos and don’ts.

In fact, breaking official grammar and stylistic rules (as codified in places like AP, Chicago and APA) has an important place in admissions writing. The essays are all meant to be written informally, but still professionally. Whatever you need to do to get your point across is allowed. For example, you can use sentence fragments in very short answers!

That said, your admissions reader is expecting an essay – not a free-verse poem. Avoid things like bullet points, artistic line spacing (we want paragraphs!), or a format like a listicle (that’s something to save for a blog). Stylistic Tips

Admissions officers use the essays and short answers as a way to get to know you as a person – they’re hoping to learn something beyond what your resume, a listing of your awards, or your high school transcript can convey. This goal should be kept in mind when making stylistic edits – the writing needs to sound like you! Everything – from the words you use, the way you phrase something, the types of sentences you build – says something about who you are.

Therefore, pay conscious attention to the diction and turns of phrases you choose. Your voice – which you use every day in class, with your teachers, or with your friends and family – should be asserted in the writing. If you’re trying to describe a scene for the reader, what words/phrases would you use to describe the situation to a friend?

Other stylistic tips to pay attention to:

  1. Shorter paragraphs - Because an admissions read is so time-pressurized, the best way to help your reader move through the text effortlessly is to shorten paragraphs to very reasonable lengths. Even if it’s the same number of words – three short paragraphs is much more manageable to navigate than one giant one, because the reader knows where he/she can pause to evaluate what’s been said, and move on.

  2. Varied sentence length - Toggling between long and short sentences is another good way to engage your reader’s eye and ear. With each sentence – something punchy; something more involved; something punchy again; followed by something complicated – the reader’s mind will be working in a pleasurable space of unconscious involvement. When your reader can make his/her way through the entire piece of writing (650 words, for a common app essay) with this level of mental engagement, more than likely, your message will have been effectively transmitted. Which is all we are after, from a stylistic standpoint.

  3. Avoiding academic transitions – Lastly, as a corollary to the discussion of “sounding like you,” it is important to avoid academic-sounding transitions. Even unconsciously, using academic language can sound like you’re writing the way you were told to write – instead of writing what you actually think/believe. There is always an alternative to research-paper language. Instead of something like “due to the involved experience,” go with a simpler phrase that gets to the heart of whatever you’re trying to say: “I worked harder than I ever had before.”

Read It Aloud

A lot of the suggestions I make can be addressed by one simple proofreading exercise that works especially well for college admissions writing: read it to yourself aloud!

The process of reading aloud allows you to focus on the words you’ve created in a different way. It causes you to slow down and pay attention to each sentence – and how it flows into the next. You will notice your diction; does it sound like you?

You will also catch unintended grammar errors. A big one: you will quickly find out if your writing is repetitious in any way. Do you use the same word more than once in short succession? Or a similar sentence structure too often?

Reading aloud is something I often do with my students in one-on-one college counseling sessions – the student and I often notice the same things during our readings, and it helps us collaborate on editing ideas to nail their essays.

Berkeley2 Academy 1:1 college admissions counseling is available this winter break as the deadlines approach. We work on all aspects of the college applications. The essays, discussed above, are just one element in the package of materials presented to colleges. It is also important to strategize and review the resume, the application portals and other application deliverables. Please don’t hesitate to contact our offices to set up an appointment to go over essay writing or anything else as you finalize applications for the Regular Decision deadline.


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