6 College Essay Tips from a Top Pro

Last Updated Jun 16, 2010 1:29 PM EDT

If your teenager will be a high school senior in the fall, now is a great time to start tackling the dreaded Row of used pencilscollege essay.

I asked Alan Gelb, a college essay coach and the author of the most popular college essay book on Amazon, Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps: Crafting a Winning Personal Statement, how teens can ace this standard 500-word essay that has terrorized millions of students.

Here are Gelb's suggestions:

1. When should you begin writing your college application essay?
This is a task that you shouldn't rush. You need time to let your material percolate up to the surface, brew a bit, and then settle. You want to have time to sit with the college essay a bit after you think you're done. There's more to do on second and third looks. I usually tell students to plan on three drafts and a polish, so give yourself at least two or three weeks for this.

2. How do you pick a college admissions essay topic?
The essence of the personal statement is that it's a narrative and every narrative needs conflict and resolution. Think about what has kept you up nights, what you've overcome, what has excited you, intimidated you, and driven you.

3. How can you get those first words down on the page?
I often counsel writers to start with free writing. Set a timer for five or 10 minutes and then just GO! Don't worry about any of the content - just keep writing. This is a kind of limbering exercise. Afterwards, you can look over what you've written to see if there's anything worthwhile saving (and chances are there will be.) At the very least, this exercise should have loosened you up.

4. What subjects have been written to death?
I try not to steer writers that I work with away from subjects. If something wants to be told, then it probably should be and, as we all know, there are no new stories -- only ways to tell them. I just tell writers not to:
  1. Boast
  2. Apologize
  3. Complain
5. What's the best way to make your college essay a personal reflection?
Find your personal voice. It's there waiting to come out. Always read your writing out loud to see if you can hear it.

6. Any other college essay advice?
Be a real person in your essay. Don't try to be super human. Present yourself honestly and realistically because this is your chance to make an emotional connection with your reader. In fact, it's probably going to be your only opportunity in this admission process to do that.

Lynn O'Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution, an Amazon bestseller, and she also writes for TheCollegeSolutionBlog. Follow her on Twitter.
College application image by Hownowdesign. CC 2.0.

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