First, don’t be boring. Your college essays need to be memorable—but in a positive way. That will help you stand out from other applicants.
Choose a topic you are passionate about. If it is interesting to you, it is likely to be interesting to others. Tell a story, since people are hard-wired to listen to stories. Give specific examples instead of general statements unsupported by evidence.
Avoid controversial topics like politics and religion, because the reader may react more to your position on the topic than your writing, even if you try to be balanced. Also avoid humor, because what is funny to you may not be funny to others.
But even these rules are meant to be broken.
My own college application essays were risky because they were risqué. I wrote my essays about depositing checks from Playboy at the bank. When I was a child, I wrote puzzles for Games Magazine, which was owned by Playboy Enterprises at the time. My checks came from Playboy Enterprises, Magazine Division, with no further identification.
Imagine a young boy, not yet a teenager, depositing such a check at a small, hometown bank where everybody knows his mother on a first-name basis. The teller looked at the check and then at me, with a strange expression on her face. I winked and said, “Oh, didn’t you see it? It was in the March issue.”
I closed each essay with a puzzle I custom-wrote for that college. The puzzles were laddergrams, also known as doublets and change-the-word puzzles, where the word on the top rung is changed one letter at a time into a new word, eventually reaching the word on the bottom rung. For example, you can change LEAD into GOLD in three steps: LEAD, LOAD, GOAD, GOLD. Visit www.laddergrams.com for more examples and some of my puzzle books.
My essays could easily have backfired. But they worked. I applied to only four colleges and was accepted by all of them. I found out that I had been admitted to Brown University on a campus tour. The tour ended in front of the admissions office, which displayed some of the more unusual essays the university had received. The tour guide pointed to my essay and said it took admissions staff members several hours to solve the puzzle and “needless to say, we admitted him.” That laddergram was THINK-BROWN, a particularly challenging puzzle.
Here’s another tip that can yield a powerful essay. It also works for people who suffer from writer’s block. Instead of writing or typing your essay, answer the essay question out loud, while recording your answer. Then transcribe the recording and create an outline to add structure and organization. This tip works well because people write or type at 30 to 60 words per minute but speak at about 200 words per minute. Thus, the act of writing interferes with the flow of thought. Answering the question orally also yields a more fluid and passionate essay.
NEWSLETTER: COLLEGE_PLANNERSign up for COLLEGE_PLANNER and more View Sample
A similar tip can help with proofreading your essays. Print out a copy of your essay, so that it looks different than it appears on your computer screen. It is often easier to edit your writing if you can pretend someone else wrote it. Read it out loud, marking a red X wherever you stumble. The disfluencies are signs of a problem with the essay, such as spelling or grammar errors, the wrong word choice, or poor logic. Fix these errors and print out a new copy. Repeat the process until you can read the essay from start to finish without stumbling.
Mark Kantrowitz is one of the nation’s leading student financial aid experts. He is the author of several books about paying for college, including Filing the FAFSA, Twisdoms about Paying for College, and Secrets to Winning a Scholarship, and has served as publisher of the FinAid, Fastweb, and Edvisors websites.
HOW TO WRITE A PAPER AT THE LAST MINUTE
Return to Clips.
Many students put a lot of effort into not doing their work. As the end of the year approaches and final assignments mount, they'll find they have to try a lot harder to not get the work done.
A week ago, tomorrow seemed a long way off, but the deadline looms: The four- or six- or eight-page paper must be turned in. But what if you've skipped a lot of classes or haven't read your textbook? What if you don't even own it yet?!
Then you're in trouble, but of course, it's not your fault. Life is hard and complicated.
At least that's what your professor will say when you get your paper back marked with a letter from the nether regions of the alphabet.
But it doesn't have to be that way. Writing final papers in a hurry is a skill just like, say, painting a fence. In fact, the two jobs have one common technique: use a lot of whitewash.
Here are five easy ways to write a good paper, at the last minute, with limited knowledge of the subject matter. You canUt be completely ignorant about your topic, but these methods may help conceal the flaws.
1.) Your point
This sounds easy, but it's actually the hardest part of the process. The teacher wants you to answer a question or defend a viewpoint in your paper.
Sometimes teachers give you a specific question, while other times you are given a general topic. Either way, the first thing you must do is think about what the teacher is asking for. Once you know that, you have a point to argue.
For example: What caused the fall of the Roman Empire? or Discuss how the fall of the Roman Empire might have occurred.
Think back on anything you might have read or heard in class on the topic, and try to plug in the missing factor that will turn that question into an answer. That's your thesis statement.
One thing to remember is that it doesn't have to be spectacular, or specific. Write about what you know. Don't try to guess "what the teacher wants," and don't be afraid to take a chance.
Keep in mind that a paper is written to defend a viewpoint. If there weren't multiple viewpoints, there would be no need for argument.
A thesis statement: The invention of the aqueduct caused the fall of the Roman Empire.
Just make sure that you can support whatever it is you're arguing. Don't start something you can't finish, and make sure you have in your first paragraph that one simple sentence explaining the point of your paper. With that, you have created a direction for your argument. Now, all you have to do is follow the path.
2.) For why or wherefore?
Don't try to sound smart. Keep your paper simple. A straightforward, easy-to-follow argument will get you an "A" every time.
Sometimes, when we're not sure what we're talking about, we try to use big words. For one, they fill up space and can inflate a three-page paper by almost half a page. But don't do it.
If length is your worry, then manipulate the type font and margins when you're finished.
When using big words to sound intelligent, the opposite often occurs. Last-minute papers turn into jumbled messes of multiple instances of "Therefore, as to whether..." and "Indeed, it is clear the fact that...." We try to mimic the rhythms of scholarly rhetoric, and end up sounding moronic.
For example: Therefore, the aqueducts of the Romans having been made of lead, the water supply for the city may well have been contaminated and caused many to go mad from lead poisoning.
That sentence fluffs up the paper, but is dull and boring. Too many words. Basic bad writing.
A better example would be: Many Romans suffered from madness brought on by lead poisoning because the city's water supply was contaminated by lead-lined aqueducts.
The latter sentence is precise. Remember, good writing is clear writing. Clear writing should include active verbs and simple subjects. Don't think your argument has to be complicated to be good.
A teacher will read a straightforward sentence as an indication that you know what youUre talking about, and, indeed, you will. The trick is pulling the right information from your mind, and stating it precisely.
Take whatever kernel of information you got from the class and narrow it down into simple statements. By doing that, you've taken the reins of your paper, and the rest is easy.
3.) Last-minute research
After scraping together an argument and writing down everything that you know can support it, you may find you've only got half a page of material.
Don't panic. Take your information and quickly look it up in the index of your textbook. Turn to those pages, and see if there is anything you missed (or never bothered to read) that might support your argument.
If there's any chance that your thesis will work, you should find something. When you do, quote it. That's the best way to stay close to what you know, fill up the pages, and still write a legitimately good paper.
Never plagiarize, but don't be afraid to use other people's arguments to support your own. Just make sure you credit them.
Remember, you have your point. Just pour through the book, finding anything that remotely relates to it. Make things work.
Again, take chances. Even if a particular passage only dimly supports your argument, use it. Just make sure that you explain how the quote relates to your point. That's called "putting it in context.". You have to set the quote up before slamming it down into your paper.
Simply explain why you think it supports your thesis, explain in simple terms what the quote says, and then quote away!
An example of a quote: According to the medical dictionary, "small doses of lead over a long period of time can cause increasing fits of psychosis."
(Then take a chance and make a connection.)
Water rushing over the lead-lined aqueducts carried just enough of the harmful element to slowly drive the entire population of Rome insane. The textbook states that the downfall of the empire began long before the aqueduct came into wide use. But the wealthy began using aqueducts long before they snaked through the city.
(Then, perhaps, another chance and another quote.)
The wealthy held all the political power in Rome, and made almost all decisions affecting the city. As the textbook states, "The ruling class of the Roman Empire was designated by their wealth."
There, you've just made a pretty good argument. Keep digging through the book, and don't be afraid to cheat a little. Remember, the bigger the quote, the longer the setup. You'll fill those pages in no time.
4.) 1-2-3 structure
Now that you've got your thesis, the rest is easy. The next thing to do is plan to write your paper in three parts.
The first is your opening paragraph. That's where you place your thesis statement (either as the first or last sentence.) The rest of the paragraph should be setup; explain your thesis. As a high-school English teacher once told me, "Say what you are going to say." That's step one.
Step two is the long part: "say it." You've got to support the claims you've made in the opening paragraph. Start each paragraph in this section with a straightforward "minithesis," and explain it (see Part 3.)
Here's a good example of a string of minithesis topics:
- The rulers of Rome were wealthy.
- The wealthy had aqueducts before the rest of the city.
- The empire began its decline before aqueducts were widespread.
- [D The fall of Rome is often attributed to poor leadership.
- The leadership was poor because the rulers were crazy with lead poisoning.
There, you've said it. Now comes the third step. "Say that you've said it." A final, wrap-up paragraph should summarize what you said in the second step. End with your thesis statement, but start it with a "therefore."
Therefore, the invention of the aqueduct caused the fall of the Roman Empire.
5.) Don't screw up
Now that you've gone through all four steps of writing a good last-minute paper, don't let stupid mistakes drop your grade.
Proofread. Make sure you cite sources. Manipulate the font and margins a little to meet the page-length requirement, but make sure you don't go too far. If you followed all these steps, you wonUt need to overdo it.
A solid argument is still a solid argument whether it's two pages or 10 pages long. The professor wants to know that you know what you're talking about.
Creating four-inch margins and overlooking obvious spelling mistakes will indicate the paper was a rush job, and may arouse suspicion. Even if there are only the tiniest holes in your argument, the teacher may go back and try to find them.
If you give yourself about five hours to go through these steps, you should come away with a pretty decent paper. Keep in mind that if you had slaved over it for weeks, you probably would get a better grade.
However, the grade you do receive may be worth the time you blew off enjoying the first warm weeks of spring, or the late nights you spent in the bar instead of in the library. Obviously, the more time you have, the better your grade.
Even if you awake and find you have only one-half hour to start and finish a paper or miss the deadline, there is still something you can do.
Go back to sleep.
Rome wasn't built in a day, but it takes a few hours to explain why it fell.