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5 tips for writing a winning college essay

(MoneyWatch) This is the time of year when high school seniors start agonizing over the dreaded college essay.

But writing this all-important essay doesn't have to be torturous. Here are five tips to help teenagers get the job done:

1. Don't write a "McEssay." This advice comes from an administrator at the University of Virginia, who complains that such generic essays (typically five paragraphs) "consist primarily of abstractions and unsupported generalization. They are technically correct in that they are organized and have the correct sentence structure and spelling, but they are boring."

2. Start with a snappy opening line. During the hectic admission season, admission staffers can become numb to all the essays they must slog through. Start your essay in a compelling way. Here are a couple of winning opening lines from previous Stanford University essays:

"I change my name each time I place an order at Starbucks."

"I have old hands."

In one of my previous posts, you can see more fascinating opening lines from Stanford college essays.

3. Pick a subject carefully. Avoid hackneyed, controversial and sensitive subjects. Subjects that you should seriously consider not touching would be writing about politics, abortion or your own mental illness. Hackneyed subjects to avoid writing about include your sports team or a school trip to, say, help the disadvantaged. Also don't apologize, whine or complain in your essay. 

4. Find your voice. Whatever you decide to write about, your college essay must convey a strong sense of yourself. Your personality needs to emerge. The essay needs to reflect what kind of person you are now, not the person you were in middle school or when you got lost on vacation as a kindergartner.

5. Put your essay aside. Once you've finished your essay, let it sit for a day or two. After you've taken a break, you might be surprised in returning to it that you can find ways to improve your essay.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Turinboy

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