There’s a reason Janine Robinson named her site devoted to guiding students through the college essay application process Essay Hell.
“It’s the most dreaded piece of writing people do in their lifetimes,” says Robinson, a former journalist and English teacher who now coaches students. “There’s so much riding on it, but no one has taught students how to write this kind of essay.”
We asked Robinson for her advice on creating an essay that shines.
Get a little personal
It may surprise people, but Robinson says the best students often write the worst college essays. “Students might not understand that these essays are supposed to be personal, and not the formal essays they are used to,” Robinson explains. “You should ditch that five-paragraph formula and avoid using words like ‘nevertheless’ and ‘furthermore.’”
Instead, students should think of how they want to introduce themselves to admissions officers. “The voice should be familiar,” Robinson says.
Tell a good story
Many students Robinson works with worry that their lives aren’t interesting enough to write about. “They think they need to impress the reader by having a topic that’s about something like how they climbed Mount Whitney,” she says. “But the best essays I’ve read have been about mundane topics. Students really do have a lot to talk about.”
For example, have you been babysitting since you were in middle school? Are you a huge music fan? Those are perfectly good topics to write about in your essay. “I tell students to just think about what they do on a Saturday,” Robinson explains.
Show some personality
A common mistake students make is writing essays that are too general and devoid of any personality. “Being boring is like death to an effective college essay,” says Robinson. “Pick one quality or descriptor that you want to highlight in your essay. Then your essay will have a sharp focus because you are showcasing that quality.
Highlight a conflict
We don’t mean you have to write about a family tragedy or a catastrophic event in your life. “One trick is to find something that has happened to you and think about how it included a problem you had to solve,” says Robinson. The problem could be as simple as you overcoming a personal phobia, like a fear of heights, or getting a driver’s license after lots of practice. “I had one student who wrote about how he dealt with his excessive body hair,” she recalls. “It was a killer essay.”