In writing the college application essay, the focus is often on hitting a home run. Yet before you can do that, you need to perfect the mechanics of your swing (You have my word, that will be the last baseball analogy of the year.).

So let’s review a few writing basics.


Everyone knows what brainstorming is, yet too many students don’t fully commit to it. Not only do you need to brainstorm on your essay topic (Please see my recent “How to Barbara Walters Yourself” blogs), you also need to brainstorm hard on your topic, once you’ve chosen it. This means you should explore it from every angle, even ones that you think will go nowhere. Turn the idea inside out, push yourself to find original ways to communicate your meaning. You may run into a few dead ends, but you might also forge a toll free road to a super essay (You have my word, that will be the last road analogy of the year.).


Prewriting is simply emptying your brain on paper, freely writing every thought you might have about your subject, with no regard for sequence, spelling or grammar. This can take the form of memories, the meaning of memories, feelings, new ideas that might come to you in the moment, great turns of phrase, a cool opening or closing for the essay, whatever. Prewrite several times for each essay, about ten minutes each. You might not use everything you write, but you’ll be surprised at what comes out.


Absolutely critical, not to be skipped! Outlining is when you take all the ideas you have so far, and put them in order. It doesn’t matter if you use bullet points or Roman numerals; the critical factor is that, by outlining, you are creating a blueprint from which to construct your essay (You have my word, that will be the last architecture analogy of the year.). Work with the outline, move things around, delete points that aren’t working, see connections you might not have seen before, allow what you have to stimulate new ideas. Spending time here will make your actual writing faster, easier, and more fun.

Draft #1

The important thing here is not to try for perfection. Understand that you’re probably going to refine everything you write in your first draft so don’t agonize over every word or phrase. Make it as good as you can, of course, but keep moving forward. Refer to the outline, continue to add new ideas as they occur to you. Key idea: Don’t worry about word count here. Write everything down, you’ll have plenty of time to cut it back.

Revision #1

You’ve heard the phrase “writing is rewriting?” Here’s where you prove it. Reread, review, rethink, rearrange, restructure. Delete extraneous words or uninteresting ideas. Be sure the essay stays on point. Stay alert for unclear moments. Correct grammatical errors. Vary your vocabulary and sentence structure. Work on a memorable opening and closing. Make sure your essay flows naturally from one point to the next and if not, add transitions. If word count is an issue, start addressing it here.

Revision #2

Continue improving and refining. Be alert for word repetition and find substitutions. Elevate your language. Omit clichés if you’ve used them. Stay focused and keep your standards high. Bring the essay closer to the maximum word count.


Add similes, metaphors, interesting comparisons, artful turns of phrase and tasteful humor. Perfect your opening and closing. Finalize word count. Submit, smile, wait for those acceptances to come rolling in.

For more personal help with the college application essay, contact Craig Heller at 818-340-1276 or [email protected].

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