Tips On Writing Essays In College

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Hey there guys! This week’s article is a guest post by Ransom Patterson. 

Ransom is a sophomore at the College of Wooster majoring in English and has been an incredibly active CIG reader – leaving well thought-out comments on articles, listening to the podcast, submitting listener tips and questions for Q&A episodes, and more – all things that I’ve been incredibly happy and grateful to see.

Not only that, but Ransom has also taken the time to create his own website, portfolio, and blog using the personal website guide – and he did it when he was a freshman! I can safely say that Ransom’s got his sh*t together. 

On his blog, Ransom’s been writing about grammar usage and other English tips – things that are definitely useful to students. Based on this work, I’m happy to bring you a guest post from him – enjoy his writing tips, and start crafting kick-ass papers!

I don’t know about the rest of you, but here at my school midterms are right around the corner.

For lots of you I’m sure that means a bunch of papers will soon be due. With that in mind, here are six tips to help your writing stand apart (note that 300% is merely an estimate of your improvement. YMMV).

1. Don’t Trust Spell Check!

We’re quite lucky that we have software that can catch our spelling mistakes.

Despite all its sophistication, though, it’s still no substitute for knowing proper usage. Computers are stupid; they can’t distinguish such subtleties as the difference between:

  • “your” and “you’re”
  • “its” and “it’s”
  • “their,” “they’re” and “there.”

Don’t be the student who turns in a paper with these basic errors – always proofread your papers! Or visit your school’s writing center (see tip 5).

2. “Its” Does Not Equal “It’s”

Since spell check doesn’t know the difference, this rule bears repeating. It’s bad enough to make this error in an informal social media situation, but it’s a truly capital offense in formal writing (this mistake irks every English professor or teacher I’ve had).

So what’s the difference?

“Its” is the possessive form of “it,” as in,

“The corgi loved its lobster costume.”

Only use “its” when referring to something that you could safely call “it.” People generally do not fit this category, particularly in formal writing.

“It’s,” on the other hand, is the contracted (which is just a fancy way of saying shortened) form of “it is.”

Just as “you’re” is short for “you are” or “they’re” is short for “they are,” so “it’s” is short for “it is.” Only use “it’s” where you could also use “it is,” as in,

“Look at the corgi–it’s so cute!”

If you remember the difference between its and it’s, you’re certain to impress your professors.

3. When in Doubt, Stick to Third Person (Usually)

When you’re writing a formal paper, it’s generally best to stick to the third person.

Avoid phrases such as “I believe,” “I think,” or “you know.” Not only are these phrases inappropriately informal, but they also make your writing seem weak and wishy-washy. If you really think or believe something, show it with concrete evidence.

Writing Commons has a more nuanced view on this topic, but this observation is a good one for writers who are unsure:

“Why do teachers often counsel against using the first person in an academic paper? Used too frequently or without care, it can make a writer seem self-centered, even self-obsessed. A paper filled with “I,” “me,” and “mine” can be distracting to a reader, as it creates the impression that the writer is more interested in him- or herself than the subject matter.

Additionally, the first person is often a more casual mode, and if used carelessly, it can make a writer seem insufficiently serious for an academic project.”

Once important exception to this rule is if you are writing a personal reflection paper. The essays you wrote as part of your college application probably fit this category.

Knowing how to write about yourself is essential when applying to graduate school or filling out job applications, especially on those pesky cover letters. Talking about yourself can be uncomfortable and difficult, but it’s a skill you neglect at your peril.

4. Be F*cking Specific!

Compare the following two sentences and tell me which is more descriptive:

  1. The corgi liked her new ball.
  2. The corgi chased her new ball with relish.

Hopefully you would agree the second example is more descriptive and interesting than the first. This is because the second example is specific! Instead of vaguely stating that the corgi “liked” her new ball, the second example demonstrates that by describing a concrete action the corgi took.

Apply this principle to your papers, and you will be lightyears ahead of most students. As one of my current professors, Dr. Prendergast, puts it,

“If you’re having trouble meeting the minimum word count for a paper, it’s probably because you’re not being specific enough.”

Just remember: Show the reader, don’t tell them.

5. Don’t Fear Your School’s Writing Center

I imagine your school has some sort of writing center, a place where you can get knowledgeable people to help you make your writing assignments awesome.

Use this resource! (you’re paying for it regardless) There’s no shame in getting help, and it’s always good to have someone look over your work before publishing/submitting it. Even super famous authors have editors.

If you’re not sure if your school has one, just Google “Name of your school” + “writing center.”

6. Have a Point!

Ever get halfway through watching a movie and wonder, “What was the point of this film again?”

There’s plenty of action, the special effects are spectacular, but you’re unsure why you’re watching it (think Transformers 4).

Don’t let this happen to your paper. Don’t write just to fill space – begin with a point in mind and follow it through to a strong conclusion. This isn’t always easy, particularly if the paper is long, but it’s essential that you keep your point (or “thesis” in academic terms) at the forefront of your paper at all times. Every word you write should, to some degree, further this point.

This is why the stereotypical “Five Paragraph Essay” with the introduction, three body paragraphs, and conclusion is such a popular way of teaching students to write – it makes sure you establish your point from the outset, state three pieces of evidence in support of it, and then bring it to a (hopefully) strong conclusion. Don’t be a slave to this formula, but feel free to use it if you’re not sure where to begin.

Just remember, your professors hate reading pointless, meandering papers just as much as you hate watching Michael Bay’s pointless crap (was that too harsh?). Editor’s note: I love watching Michael Bay’s pointless crap because I am secretly a 5-year-old and ROBOT DINOSAURS

These are just a few tips to get you started. If you want more in-depth advice, I recommend the following blogs/sites:

These books are also excellent:

Good luck, and may the grammar gods smile on you in all your writing endeavors.

Images: Startup stock photos, corgi, transformers

Here’s a brutal truth about applying to college: On paper, most teenagers are not very unique. Some three million high school graduates send applications into universities every single year, and that’s just within the United States. Seasoned admissions officers—particularly at elite schools—know how to spot cookie-cutter applicants and toss them into the reject pile in seconds.

Luckily, you do get a modest chance to distinguish yourself. Universities in the US and across the world are increasingly looking away from test scores and grade point averages and toward one particularly unique component of students’ applications: the essay. If done exceptionally well, it’s a catapult to an acceptance offer. So what exactly is the best way to sell oneself to Harvard in a thousand words or fewer? Reporters and editors across Quartz’s newsroom have come together to offer some foolproof advice.

Forget “writing from the heart”

Parents and teachers will often tell students who are just starting out on their essays to “write sincerely,” “write about your feelings,” “write about what matters to you.” That advice, while well-intentioned, is not helpful. An essay can be completely heartfelt—and terrible.

Instead of starting from such a broad place, begin with the narrow strategy of researching the worst college-essay clichés; that way, even if you don’t have the faintest idea what to write about, you at least know what you have to avoid. Examples of hackneyed essay characteristics that immediately make admissions officers roll their eyes include:

  • Dictionary definitions (“Webster’s defines ‘courage’ as…”)
  • Epigraphs or references of famous writers (“It was the best of times…”)
  • Sound effects (“Whizz! Snap! Whew! went the rocket that I built…”)
  • Sentences that are just strings of SAT words (“The fortuitous phenomena that transpired on the fortnight of…”)
  • Overused metaphors
  • “Let me tell you a story”
  • Repeating information from other parts of your application, i.e. re-listing all your extracurriculars
  • Talking about the university instead of yourself
  • Over-using passive tense, instead of telling an engaging story
  • Sticking too close to the prompt (“A time I overcame an obstacle was when…”)

Don’t be interesting. Be interested

Now, what to write about? Essay prompts are intentionally open-ended, and there are several ways to go about choosing a topic. Here’s a nearly foolproof one: Write about a person, place, or idea that you genuinely—perhaps to the point of geeky, nervous-laughter embarrassment—love.

“Write about what you’re interested in, not what you think is interesting about you,” says Quartz lifestyle reporter Jenni Avins, who wrote about her part-time job in high school making crepes in a coffee shop: “I was really interested in the people who came into this creperie, and this little world. It was an observational piece about having this window on a community.”

But this doesn’t mean you should ramble on pointlessly for five paragraphs. Make sure your topic reveals something about yourself, or why you want to study and pursue the things you do. Jenni’s essay highlighted her curiosity toward others. Quartz science editor Elijah Wolfson wrote his essay about pizza joints in New York—but it was really a tale of moving across the country and coming to terms with loss.

Yale’s dean of admissions Jeremiah Quinlan told Quartz last year that the university is explicitly “looking for passion” in the kids it admits; you can bet that the admissions offices at Stanford, MIT, and other top-tier schools are hunting around for the exact same. Don’t worry about your topic sounding too boring or pretentious—the raw emotion underneath matters more.

Pull out unflattering memories

It can be instinctive to paint the best picture of yourself possible in your essay, but put aside vanity and pride for a moment. You’ve already spent the rest of your college application flourishing your immaculate GPA, club leadership, and volunteer work. Oftentimes, the most powerful essay topic is one that lets some of your imperfections seep through.

You can start by thinking of a time that you struggled, made a mistake, or were embarrassed. Quartz technology reporter Mike Murphy, for example, wrote his essay on being stranded at the bottom of the Grand Canyon as a kid. He begins by setting up the scene: “I’m sorry, but 3:30 a.m. is never the same as 4:00 a.m.” He goes on to explain how he and his relatives were accidentally separated on the trip, walking the reader through the challenges he faced on his way back to safety, and ending on a tone of humility and lesson-learning.

Good essays don’t all need to hype up an applicant’s superpowers: They can expose weaknesses, demonstrating subtlety and self-awareness.

Tell a story—however you want to

When it comes to the college essay, taking a risk—however small or big—is better than playing it safe. Try writing different versions of your essay, maybe in completely different formats, just to see if one of them resonates more than the others.

“Admissions officers have to read so many essays that physically look the same. An essay that stands out is simply more memorable,” says Quartz growth editor Jean-Luc Bouchard. “I wrote a series of thematically linked poems for my admissions essay, and even though the poems were probably pretty bad, I think I got points just for trying something different.”

You may recall the news this spring about Ziad Ahmed, a student who got into Stanford by writing “#BlackLivesMatter” a hundred times on one of his essay prompts. Such ventures may come off as gimmicky—and we certainly wouldn’t recommend anyone repeating this exact idea in a future year—but they’re effective at one thing: grabbing the reader’s attention. Ziad, who had interned for Hilary Clinton and was recognized by Barack Obama at a White House dinner in 2015, was already more than qualified. What his essay did was make admissions officers pause in their tracks for a moment, and peer a tad more closely at the rest of his application.

Tinker with your essay. Think of it not as an essay in the academic sense, but an unlined blank canvas you can use to present whatever you want. That said, no sound effects—please.

Proofread

Run your essay through spellcheck. Ask a teacher, friend, parent, or counselor to read it over—then ask five more people to do the same. Admissions officers barrel through dozens of essays a day, and the rote tedium of it can cause them to be hyper-critical of even the smallest of typos and grammatical errors. Show them this small respect, and you’ve already beat out many others kids for that coveted acceptance letter.


Read this next: How to go to college for free in America

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