Writing an effective college essay

by Carol Sesnowitz
“Within the past seven years, I have moved 369 times.” How can that be? I certainly wanted to read more and find out. That sentence was the first sentence of a college essay that immediately captured my attention. Although the essay was one that was presented by a colleague at a workshop I attended and was not one sent to VCU, I have never forgotten that essay’s first sentence. Capturing the reader’s attention at the start is an essential element of a good essay because your essay is when the admissions staff meets you, albeit on paper. That first sentence certainly made me want to read more and to learn more about the applicant.
What is it that the college admissions committee is looking for in the application essay? The college essay is your opportunity to let us learn something significant about you. It’s an opportunity for you to tell us a true story about yourself. You can talk about your talents, values, leadership skills; or you can describe an experience that has changed or affected you. It is also a time when you can explain anything in your application that might need further information. Your essay will provide us with insight about you that goes beyond your transcript and test scores. In addition, we will learn about your writing skills, organizational skills as well as your ability to convey your thoughts using proper grammar and spelling.
Here are some quick tips for writing a good essay:
• Start early
• Answer the question
• Spend most of the time on the introduction
• Grab the attention of the reader
• Do not summarize in the introduction
• Be interesting
• Be original and be yourself
• Give examples and be concrete
• Don’t ramble
• Do not use a Thesaurus for your essay
• Use clear imagery, avoid a flowery or pretentious style
• Be sure the body of the essay is related to the introduction
• Be sure that the flow is logical
• Be sure to end with closure
• Spell check and proof carefully
So, are you wondering how that essay I mentioned evolved? Are you curious about how the student could have moved 369 times in seven years? Well, the answer’s quite simple: his parents were divorced and lived apart from each other. The student told his story about how he moved between his parents’ homes every other weekend because he couldn’t choose one over the other.
This essay wasn’t about the extraordinary or the unusual, but about an experience unique to the author that engaged the reader. That’s good storytelling. And good storytelling makes for a good essay.