As a former English and Spanish major, I have written a lot of essays. A lot. And as an admissions counselor, I’ve had the opportunity to read more essays than I’ve written in my entire life.
I really enjoy reading and writing (and even editing) essays, so for this post I thought I’d give you all some essay writing tips. I was initially planning to specifically focus on college application essays, but since it’s the end of the school year and many of you are probably working on final essays for some of your classes, I thought I’d broaden my advice a little bit. Hopefully you’ll find each of these tips helpful, whether you’re working on an essay for an English class or for a college application!
- Make sure you actually answer the prompt. This piece of advice might seem very obvious, but it’s something that often trips people up. I’ve read several essays where people don’t actually answer the question that was posed. I’ve even been guilty of this at times. There are a lot of things you have to focus on when you write an essay: structure, gathering details, grammar, etc. Sometimes people get so focused on all of those things that they never end up actually answering the prompt, or they briefly address the prompt and then veer off to talk about something that’s only tangentially related. One way of tackling this problem that I’ve found helpful is making sure to write your thesis statement before you write any other part of the essay. Depending on the type of essay you’re writing, this thesis may be a little bit vaguer or a little bit more explicit; the important thing is that your essay does have a central “point.” Once you’ve done that, ask yourself: “Does this thesis statement answer the prompt?” If it does, you’re on the right track! From there, each time you finish a paragraph, come back to that thesis statement and make sure that what you’ve written supports it. You may end up needing to tweak your thesis as you write and examine your evidence more closely (this almost always happens to me), but each time you do, double-check to make sure that it still answers the essay’s prompt.
- Don’t skip the pre-writing process. Before I write an essay, I always take some time to outline. First, I try to come up with a rough number of paragraphs that I want my essay to be. From there, I make a note of the evidence I’ll be using for each paragraph and write a brief description for myself of how I’m planning to use that evidence in my argument. This may seem like extra work, but it actually saves a lot of time later on in the process. You don’t have to think about what you should be doing next while you’re writing, which saves you from having your writing flow interrupted. Outlining also helps you stay on track and keeps you from repeating points you’ve already used earlier in the essay or leaving important things out. No matter what kind of essay you’re writing, outlining is sure to make the overall process easier.
- Do at least one round of edits. It drives me absolutely crazy when people tell me that they submitted a first draft without even looking it over once. One time, I edited nine different drafts of a paper before I turned it in (my friends still make fun of me about this to this day). I wouldn’t recommend doing this, but there is a happy medium to be found between nine drafts and one draft. To state the obvious, giving an essay at least a second read will help you catch small errors like grammar mistakes. It can also help you notice problems with the content. Hopefully you won’t have to do a complete overhaul with your second draft, but even doing some light editing can make the paper a million times better.
- Start early. If you want to write a second draft, it’s important to give yourself enough time to do so. I know it’s easier said than done to start something early. I can procrastinate with the best of them, but starting an essay early makes things easier all around. In addition to having enough time to do a second draft, you’ll also be less stressed. One of my biggest regrets to this day is not starting my college application essays earlier. I could have saved myself a lot of stress and worry by starting them a bit earlier in the school year, or maybe even toward the end of the summer before my senior year. The same thing applies to essays for school. It’s unlikely you’ll start working on any essays for your classes months in advance (unless it’s something like an IB Extended Essay), but even just starting to brainstorm ideas as soon as you get the prompt for an essay can make a huge difference.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help, but don’t let your voice get lost. Getting help with your essays is always a great idea. Whether you ask a peer or a teacher to look at an essay before you submit the final version, getting a second pair of eyes on something you’ve written is always helpful. When you write an essay, you can get so entrenched in the material that you’re not able to see the mistakes anymore. Having someone else look at the essay can help you catch errors and see things that aren’t necessarily bad but could use some improvement. It’s also important to make sure that you ask the appropriate person for advice. Another way of putting that is to think about who is the most qualified to look at a particular essay. For example, teachers and counselors are both great resources, but the former is probably a better person to ask for help with essays for class, while the latter is definitely who you should go to for help with college essays. With all of that being said, you also need to stay true to your own voice when you’re writing an essay. Taking the advice of others can be helpful, but at the end of the day, it should be your work and your unique voice that is showcased in the final product.
- Have fun with it! This can be easier said than done at times, but you should try your best to have fun with whatever it is you’re writing. Sometimes you might have to write about something that’s not super interesting to you, but try to find some way to psych yourself up and get excited. And if you do have a choice between multiple prompts (like for our Uncommon Essay), don’t just go for the one that sounds the easiest. Go for the one that most stands out to you! I can tell you that my writing was always miles better when I was working on something that I was excited about.
There’s a lot more that goes into essay writing, so this list of tips isn’t exhaustive, but hopefully they are a good starting point (or reminder!) for you. Best of luck to all of you essay writers out there, no matter what you’re writing your essay for! Now get writing!