1. Write your college application essay before your senior year begins. Senior year is very busy, and you don't need another distraction from concentrating on what's more important: your studies. Get it brainstormed, drafted, corrected and finally written before September 1.
2. Find a topic that you know better than anyone. For example, you're a dancer because you use dance as a way to express with your body what you cannot express with your vocal cords. Who knows the language of your body better than you do? Who knows more about what you say with your dance than you do? You're the expert, which is why it'll be a whole lot easier for you to communicate what you want to say. Read: your essay can be one easy task!
3. Keep it simple. By way of illustration, let's say you're standing on a street corner and you witness a car crash in front of you; you were the only one who witnessed the crash, and the police have asked you to write a description of what you saw. Why did the police ask you? Because they know you are the expert in what you experienced in that brief moment of the car crash. You could write about a brief moment in your life that had some positive impact on you because you are the expert on how that moment affected you. Keeping it simple also means using simple words, so throw away the thesaurus.
4. Make your first statement of the essay the most powerful. Readers in a college admissions office believe 80% of the essays they read are a waste of time. So make your first statement a "hook" - a pleasant surprise that catches their attention from the get-go. Here are some example first-sentences of what some of my students wrote last year:
"I was suddenly surrounded by rifles pointing at me." (theme: paintball) "It was clear that I was completely cut off from civilization." (theme: wilderness hiking) "I had nowhere to go but down." (theme: overachieving) "Pain was a requirement for me to succeed." (theme: dancing/ballet)
5. Read your essay out loud. Besides your eyes use your ears to hear what you're saying. Reading out loud gives you another sense of how the essay is moving, and you'll be able to tell if it sounds right or needs improvement. Then get friends and family members to read and listen to what you're saying. Ask for comments and suggestions.
6. Essays should be no longer than 500 words. Give the admissions reader another reason to LOVE you - keep it shorter than 500 words. The 500-word limit has been a standard for years, and the Common App now allows you to write more than 500 words. With short attention spans in a college admissions office, do you think colleges are excited that the Common App allows you to write more than they want to read? Less is more, or quality beats quantity every time.
7. Keep your essay upbeat and positive. My favorite college essay requirement comes from the College of William & Mary: "Surprise us!" What they're asking you to do is write something that's positive. Why? Like most colleges they're so used to reading the seven deadly topics they don't like: divorce, disabilities, death, dysfunctional behavior, trips, sports injuries, and boyfriend/girlfriend breakups. Not to write about these topics would be a huge surprise.