Writing an unforgettable college essay

Please Note

I had originally written this article on my Facebook in May 2011. However, I am posting it here for posterity, archival, search engine friendliness, and link-ability. I have tried my best to update this article for relevancy but I do not make any guarantees for its accuracy or quality control. I'm just a guy who wrote college essays to get into college. -Ashraf

Prelude

This is for the people who are trying their utmost hardest to write a ridiculous college essay but are failing miserably. This is for the people that have been nagging me for some direction in their college essay and how I can hold their hand through every step of the process. This is for the person who wants to stop pulling their hair out and do something about their horrendous writing.

I have written this as abridged, loosely organized guide to writing an awesome college essay (or something close). If you don't get into the college of your dreams because of these tips, I'm very sorry. Unfortunately (and gratefully on my end), I will not be held liable for that. But I do pray that you get into an awesome college which will help propel you to an awesome start.

I have also attached a number of my writing pieces at the end of the article that you can parse and study for your own benefit. Although my essays are not the cream of the crop, they have been Peter Wilson-approved (see credits) and that is saying something :)

Let's go with the classic don'ts, do's, tips, advice, and of course, the final thought.

Don'ts

Stop it with the rebellious attitude

Seriously, it's great that you don't care about this college. It's also great that you don't know how to write an essay or that right now your cat is scratching its butt. Frankly, that attitude is annoying, ridiculous, and over played. Although you might think you are taking a unique approach to your essay, you are actually as irritating as nails scratching a chalkboard.  I'm pretty sure you know how irritating that can be.

Thinking outside the box requires careful consideration, not careless rebellion and sticking your finger to "the man." Colleges are looking for well-developed constructive thought, not what is happening around you right nowor how it feels to pick your nose at 2 AM in the morning.

Cut your philosophical tirades

Honestly, you are not the greatest thinker (yet). You are not writing an epic (yet). You are also not going to be the next Shakespeare (yet). I don't need a 2 page triad on how the beauty of life makes your pants wet or how the color blue is like a drug to you. Seriously, philosophical statements are asking for vague introductions to who you are and how you are significant for this school. Frankly, they are not looking for your college thesis just yet.

It's not all about you / stop being so self-centered

Stop talking about how you were amazing in baseball. No one really cares that you can scale 14 feet fences and run away from the cops. I also don't really care about how well you are doing in school, how every award plastered on your wall has a gold star because your awesome. By talking about your life's accomplishments, you are actually telling me that you don't care about the world around you, you have no context in your words, and you rely on your accomplishments to dictate who you are as a person rather than delivering your personality, your style, your sense of uniqueness to the footsteps of the college of your dreams. 

This is not an award ceremony

Similar to the previous item, I don't need a list of all those awards you got for yourself and your kitten. Also, I don't need a count for how many leaves you raked for community service or how many footsteps you walked to end breast cancer. You will have many chances to go on stage and be in the limelight. This is not the time to deliver your own personal award show to your college essay reader.

Don't write so much

Please, no monologues, no extended unabridged extensions of your entire life and your two past lives and how you and your cat were reincarnated. Short, sweet, and to the point. Seriously, simple can make your life brilliant.

Don't write so little

You can't get away with one word, sentence, or paragraph. I need to see that you care about this college and that you have actually put some thought into your writing process.

Do not be overtly dramatic

"I saw the fuchsia and crimson colored blood drip on the granite alabaster table top as it graced the florescent white floor, staining my mother's favorite kitchen tiles forever."

Really? You really think that delivers the importance of your mother's favorite kitchen titles to me? Do you think I really care about those tiles that much? Drama is to be used sparingly, effective, and at times of climax during your story. Deliver an effective viewpoint, not the next daytime soap opera.

Stop it with the colloquial language

This is not Ebonics 101. Don't be all over the place screaming "Yo you wuz good. My brah is awesome yo." in your writing. And please, don't ever start and end a sentence with "yo", that's just awkward.

Don't overuse complicated terminology or words

"The thought permeated the membrane of brain, keeping me in a state of perplex awe and distraction as I brush my fingers in a casual, vicarious manner."

Seriously? Come on, I know you are not that smart (yet). Or maybe you are smart, but that's just pretentious. The thesaurus is a nice acquaintance; don't make it your best friend. Be nice and courteous to it and you will have some beautiful writing. I can tell when you are not talking in your voice when your writing sounds like you are writing your Graduate School thesis. 

Don't carry on and on

Because the more you do...the more it leads into you...(see next point)

Don't go on a tangent

...Yes, that annoying mathematical figure that also means how you deviate from your main concept or point. Stick to your writing flow and you will be good to go.

Dos

Be a storyteller

Humans are natural storytellers. We love to talk in stories and exchange stories. This is how we grow as humans. Storytelling is in our blood! Stop going against the grain and write a beautiful story. A memorable story is often relatable, a good moral, a dynamic, different perspective of you, and honest.

Write about something meaningful

If you fake the story, you will most likely screw up your college essay. Write about an important event in your life or series of connected events that helped you grow as an individual. Don't be scared to talk about the dramatic and sensitive portions of your life; often they evoke the strongest writing pieces I have come across.

Write as if your life depended on it

Be scared, be frightened, perspire extensively, and you just might be able to make it to the big leagues.

Be creative and write in your own voice

Creative doesn't mean you need to know how to come up with the next bestseller. You need to plan, think critically, analyze, process, and then be honest. Don't write like you're a white suburban mid-twenties woman if you are a Bangladeshi male on the verge of becoming an eighteen-year-old. And vice-versa. I need to see what is inside you that is ticking, and the only way I can see that is if you articulate those wonderful curated thoughts roaming in your head.

Seriously, trust that this is not the end of the world. It does become easier. You are a great writer, no matter who you are. You should completely trust yourself and your capabilities; you've got this.

Tips

Use a mind map/brainstorming session

Seriously, get your favorite writing utensil, even if it's a quill dipped in ink, grab the nearest paper or material that can be scribbled on and start drawing. I would begin by focusing on important, significant moments in your life that have affected you or grabbed you in someway. 

If nothing is coming to your head, start by writing out your school years or the last four or five years on the paper and list everything you did in that time frame. Then, begin to narrow down items until you come to about five or six things worth talking about.

Focus on building initial paragraphs instead of hammering out whole paragraphs

Remember those topics you narrowed it down to? Well, you should write a paragraph or two for each one and then go to sleep. Wake up and read those paragraphs again. Then circle the ones you think you have potential (around 2-3) and go forward writing a page for each one of those. If you can't narrow it down, write a page for each one of those topics. Narrow down those one pagers to around one or two essays that you can focus and refine.

Copy a writing style from your favorite write. Then go with the flow.

Get your favorite author's book, read over a few select paragraphs and try to mimic the writing style. Then write a page or two in that style. Pretty soon you'll be able to tweak your style to fit your needs and craft your words ideally.

Vary your sentence structure and vocabulary

Big sentence. Small sentence. Medium sentence. Small sentence. Big sentence. Medium sentence.

versus

Big sentence. Big sentence. Big sentence. Big sentence. Big sentence. Medium sentence. Big sentence.

Having different sentence structures and vocabulary help keeping your writing piece fresh in the mind and unique among those monotone writers that love sticking to their big, perplexing, and complex sentence structures and over the top "think that they are smart" vocabulary.

Cut, strike through, delete, backspace, remove, whiteout, and get rid of it until there is nothing left to cut

Get rid of all the excess fat. Those verbs, subjects, pronouns, conjunctions, just simplify it all. Simple sentences can evoke meaning in a powerful way without being overwhelming in detail.

Have it peer checked and adult checked

Peer checked because peers among you will always be able to recognize your story flaws and relate to you.

Adult checked because adults above you will always be able to recognize your writing flaws and structural fail.

Read it aloud

You can get a feel for the tone, rhythm, tempo, and pace of your writing simply by reading it aloud after writing. Often when I am writing, I am reading aloud in my head. Curious and interesting sentences that tend to be hammered out by my petite fingers often take a good three readovers before I recognize the value in what I am writing. Read it aloud.

Set a deadline for yourself (and a word limit, please)

Deadlines are what keep us going. It is what makes you want to submit your work on time because you fear the penalty (going back to the fear mantra...). Giving yourself a specific deadline, say a particular hour on a particular night with a particular amount of words completed (say 500) will make your life much more easier. Also, ensure you have punishments and rewards in place for yourself.

I usually say something along the lines of:

I am going to get this writing piece finished by 12:00 AM, Sunday morning. If I do not complete this writing, I will not be able to the internet for 12 hours. If I do complete this writing, I will treat myself to Chinese food. 

You'd be surprised to see how you can accomplish with a deadline in the back of your mind.

Advice

  • Writing is a slow and steady process that requires careful curating.
  • Study writing around you, behind you, in front of you, and your own.
  • Discipline is key to ensuring a great written work.
  • Patience, persevere, balance, you've got this.

Resources

I have linked some of my work here as a reference point. Use it to help you lift your essay off the ground. If you need personal help, message me. Note, I am in college, so it maybe difficult for me to check ideas with you or edit your essays on a timely manner. I will try to help you when it is possible for me to do so.

First Runs

First attempt at a college essay / I had a tough time going the first time around, just like you :)

My Mind MapThese are the very first paragraphs I wrote for my essays in order to develop my ideas.

Writing

Building a vivid IntroductionThis is how you capture the audience (or at least, I think is a good attempt by me)

Great Imagery / Noticed how I am building the imagery and scenery here.

Dragging on and onGood story but it's taking forever to get to the point.

Unnecessarily Dramatic / There is a limit to how much you can make this a soap opera.

My College Essays (Ordered from Great to Meh)

Biking. My anti-drug.I really, really love biking and this essay alone lets my character shine through.

The Corner of a Basement I Call HomeMy basement masjid has impacted me heavily so it makes a lot of sense how this essay came to be

A Bengali Boy in a Hispanic WorldMy neighborhood has also shaped my worldly views so why wouldn't this come naturally :) 

The Principal ConfrontationThis is a case of stretching the truth (or just straight up lies at some point. Never lie on your college essay, I was an idiot.) but makes for a good way of crafting something important.

A Chance for DiscoveryDiscovery by Daft Punk is an awesome album and I encourage you guys to check it out. This is a different perspective on a college essay showing my passion for something.

A Lonely Road Filled with HopeAlthough this wasn't my strongest, it still has some weight in it.

Credits

A heartfelt thank you to Peter Wilson for all the work he has put into me, all the effort he put into me, and for all the advice for college. I highly recommend you check out the College Readiness Program at Sunnyside Community Services. You can call (718) 784-6173 ext. 436 to sign up.

Inspired by Ahsan SayedTauhid MahmudMuhtasham Sifaat, and Priyanka Vashisht to keep going. Thank you for pushing me to write more and write even better than yesterday.

And a special thanks to Janis Mahnure. If you hadn't asked me for the college essay writing help, I probably wouldn't have been driven to writing this. Plus, you were experiencing your Senior mid-Fall crisis, so I completely understand :).

Final Thought

Anyone can write about you. Only you can tell me your story. You've got this. Now do it. God speed.