We know that safe and predictable essays aren't memorable and don't work. So how do you write a successful college essay?
1. Gather all the essay prompts. Create a single document where you can compare the essay prompts side by side. Check to see which ones are similar and allow you to maximize your essay efforts. It may mean changing a paragraph or an introduction, but you'll feel better knowing the body of the essay will do double-duty.
2. Write honestly about yourself. The essay is your opportunity to set yourself apart from other applicants. Write something that nobody else could write. Try to connect with the reader. That means to be open, be likable and above all, be yourself.
3. Write about something that is important to you. It will be a much easier essay to write if you care about your topic.
4. Think of the essay as a three-dimensional snapshot of who you are. Focus on a brief event or conversation, much the way a photo captures a moment in time. Highlighting one event, activity or relationship allows you to provide interesting details and share your passion.
5. Straddle the fine line of being boastful and subtle. The essay is your time to shine, but admissions officials aren't impressed with self-impressed applicants. Don't detail a laundry list of your leadership roles and awards. Figure out a way to talk about your accomplishments within the realm of a story or an anecdote. Have you shared your knowledge or talent with other people?
6. Don't assume you know what they want to read. Many students think their lives would be boring to admissions officials and then feel the need to pump themselves up in the essay. Some exaggerate their commitments to community service because they believe that's what colleges want to hear. Don't pretend to be someone you're not.
7. Avoid self-pity, self-loathing and above all don't make excuses. Remember that essay readers ask themselves, "Would this person make a good roommate?" Your essay doesn't need to be falsely cheery, but watch your tone.
8. Ask for feedback. Write your best essay, then have someone review it to make sure your ideas are being conveyed in an organized fashion. It's easy to fall in love with your own work and lose perspective.
On my bookshelf: "Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps," by Alan Gelb (Ten Speed Press).
Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. For more information, visit www.collegeadmissionsstrategies.com.