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College Essays

Right up there with unappetizing dorm food and strange college roommates, college essays are among the biggest sources of dread for new college freshmen. Sure things like note-taking, multiple choice exams, math requirements, and early classes all make the list, as well, but their bad reputations don’t quite reach the same larger-than-life proportions. Even high school teachers seem to get in on telling stories of dining centers serving up glue-like pasta, roommates who may have been raised by wolves, and A students suddenly receiving failing grades on college essays.

While there’s not much to do with the first two aside from practicing tolerance or avoidance, there are ways to make your college essay-writing experiences smoother and more successful. Whether you’re writing a three-page personal essay or a twenty-page research report, keeping the following tips in mind can help you write a better college essay while avoiding pulling an all-nighter each time an assignment is due.

Choosing a Topic

One of the biggest differences between writing for high school and writing for college is the greater degree of responsibility you have in choosing the topics for your college essays. Sometimes, you’ll be given an assigned college essay topic, but even then there’s often leeway. Your professors may want different things as well: showing mastery of a writing skill, understanding a course topic, or doing original research. Understanding your professor’s expectations and how to meet them is a crucial part of the process of choosing a topic for your college essays.

As important as pleasing your professor is, another important consideration when choosing a topic for a college essay is choosing a topic that you’ll actually want to research and write several pages about. Brainstorming and asking for help from outside sources, like a university writing center consultant, your instructor, or your peers can help with this. Looking through old notes and thinking about your passions and interests and how they intersect with your class and your assignment are also great strategies.

Doing Research

Few people are lucky enough to choose essay topics they can write about completely without outside research, and even if you feel you do fall into this category, your professor will still likely want to see some sources. Unlike high school, when the vetting process for sources often failed to extend beyond “well, it seems credible,” colleges often have strict standards of what is and is not acceptable to cite.

To get through this, be sure to start your research early and to get a good sense of what your professor will and will not accept as support in your paper. If there are specific things you need to use sources for or do research on to write a successful paper, be aware of them. Research-related requirements are usually fairly inflexible. After all, your college professors regard research as so important that they chose to do it for a living. Like it or not, you’ll probably have to spend some time in the library, or at least on a credible scholarly research website for each of your college papers. Accept this now to avoid bad grades and frustration in the future.

Writing the Essay

Even if you’re a champion at choosing essay topics and doing scholarly research, writing can still be a chore. It’s often hard to know just where to begin, and even if you have that figured out, there’s still the whole rest of the essay to write. If you have a clear main idea, a clear organization scheme, and a proper sense of what you’ll need to say and where you’ll need to use sources, writing an essay is easier. Surprisingly, spelling and grammar are a relatively low-priority concern for most instructors: they’re more concerned with what you have to say than whether you’re able to say it in the most precise manner possible. However, there are college essay writing conventions you need to follow, and tips and tricks that can make your writing experience more successful.

What to Do If You Get Stuck

We all run up against problems at some point, no matter how good we are at writing or how much we love to do it. If you encounter problems as you’re writing your college essays, be honest about them and try to resolve them as quickly as possible. This may mean asking for outside help from a roommate, a classmate, a friend, a professor, or one of the numerous writing-related resources your college likely has, like the writing center and campus library. Familiarize yourself with what’s out there to help and give yourself enough time with your writing to make use of those resources.

If you are out of time and up against a wall, don’t panic and don’t use gimmicks or try to trick the professor. As the saying goes, this ain’t their first rodeo. They’ve likely taught this class and assigned this paper before, and they have a good idea of what they’re looking for and what students do to get out of things. So while stretching your margins, messing with the spacing between characters or lines, or using other little tricks in your word processor may work sometimes, don’t rely on it. Also, be familiar with your school’s academic honesty policy and be sure not to run up against it. While borrowing material may seem like a quick way out of a jam, it can lead to problems. You may be best served by deciding to review the professor’s policy on late work, meet with him or her one-on-one, and turn the paper in late.

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