The Killer Essay Process

The Process: Ten Steps to Writing the Killer Essay

1) Carefully Read the Application Questions
Each application question is a general prompt that always asks one thing: “Who are you?” Do not spend too much time or space writing about the prompt itself, but concentrate on how it personally affects you.

2) Banish Writer’s Block
Blank pages are the enemy of not only most college and graduate applicants, but even professional writers. Click this link for warm-up exercises guaranteed to tame your inner critic.

3) Brainstorm for Ideas
Take a day or two off before you re-read the choices and decide which prompt gets your juices flowing. If it feels interesting and natural to write about, your admissions officer will enjoy reading it. If it feels like total torture, your reader will probably agree.

4) The Rough Draft(s)
Set a timer for 15-20 minutes. Experiment with writing about different topics or points of view. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling. Just focus on content. When you reread them, remember, they’re supposed to be rough. But you might find one word, sentence, or phrase, that’s a gem. Start your next draft with it. If you hate it, set the timer and write about something else.

5) The Rewrite(s)
Most professional writers will tell you that writing is about rewriting. So print out a copy of your most recent draft, then grab a red pen and highlight the good stuff, cross out the bad, scribble new ideas in the margins and include these changes in your next draft.

6) Read Your Personal Statement Aloud
At this point, you have become too familiar with the words in your personal statement. When you read it aloud, you will be able to hear the essay in a more objective way. Pay attention to it’s rhythm, tone, and style. Read it aloud to others, notice their reactions and jot down their comments.

7) Editing with Results
Now is the time to switch “hats” and become your own editor. The following questions are just a few you might ask. You can also give this list of questions to someone who has read your essay recently.

  • Does the opening sentence grab the reader’s attention?
  • Does the essay focus on one subject or experience?
  • Does it communicate how the subject or experience has changed you?
  • Are the sentences lean and free of unnecessary words or repeats?
  • Is it written in a dynamic style, using active verbs, colorful adjectives, and specific examples?
  • Does the beginning and length of each sentence vary the style?
  • Does the ending sound like an ending?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no”, REWRITE!

8) Feedback on the Final Draft
Get reactions from two or three smart friends or family members who truly understand that the application essay should not be about anything that the Admissions Officer will already know from the rest of your application. The tone should be casual. Wit is good. Personal is fine. An academic English paper with big words is not. Take some time to think about their feedback. Try not to take any criticism personally nor accept every suggestion. If you agree with some of their points, you know what to do: REWRITE!

9) Polish Your Final Draft
After a few days, with a fresh perspective, read your last draft aloud again and add any details that will make your personal statement shine. You know the drill: REWRITE! 

10) Proofread Your Final Draft
You have read your personal statement so many times that it is difficult to catch the typos, misspellings and grammatical errors that Admissions Officers hate. Ask one or two “Type A” English wizards to proof your last draft. Once you have corrected every error, consider your essay done. Congratulations!



What Students Say About Susan 

"Susan was a lifesaver during my college essay writing process! From brainstorming creative topics to editing the final draft, Susan was by far the most helpful aide I had. The college application process can be so overwhelming, especially with the numerous essays required at each school, and to have someone to coach you, and yes, at times hold your hand, saved my sanity and my applications. Susan is the most supportive, creative and compassionate woman that I have had the pleasure of working with and I have no doubt in my mind that when grad school applications roll around she will be the first one I call. Thank you Susan for everything you have done! You’re amazing!"

Pitzer Class of 2010

"Susan not only helped me to write the best personal essays I could, but also taught me how to express myself in clear, concise and persuasive prose. What I learned from her helped me get into college and allowed me to flourish there. In fact, Susan's emphasis on brainstorming, free-writing, rewriting, and self-editing have become the cornerstones of my own writing process, which has served me well professionally and personally. Susan is a teacher and mentor of unparalleled wisdom and skill. She is my personal guru, and I sing her praises to the heavens daily. I cannot recommend her highly enough. If you ever have the chance to work with Susan, grab it!"

Yale Class of 2002

"Susan Wolf helped me throughout--from conception to execution. She was a guide and mentor, helping me refine my ideas and craft a series of application essays. Working with Susan was instrumental for me, and the single reason I believe I got accepted. She helped me keenly identify the things that could help distinguish me from the hundreds of other applicants. She worked with me to make sure that my essays were more lucid but still retained my voice. As a writer now for the Wall Street Journal, that was very important to me. I've worked with a lot of editors in my job and can honestly say that she is exceptional. I feel very lucky that I got a chance to work with her on my college application process.

Princeton Class of 2004

"As a writer, its my job to tell stories. One of the hardest stories to tell is your own story. Susan Wolf helped me tell my story. If it wasn’t for her knowledge and dedication, I don’t think I would have been admitted to the college of my choice. It is rare in life that we meet someone who truly cares for our well being. Anyone who has the opportunity to work with Susan will get 100% of their money’s worth."

Emerson Class of 2014

"Susan listened to the personality beneath the words of my first draft and pushed me to create a unique college application. She has the experience to guide you and the energy to spark your writing."

Duke Class of 2013

"Susan is a breath of fresh air in the college application process and gives you the tough love you need. She's direct, insightful, and knows exactly what to tell you to move your application to the next level - whether it's thinking through schools, assessing your application as a whole, or wordsmithing your personal statement. Most importantly she performs her job within a context of caring and fun so that working on your app becomes a fun challenge rather than a source of dread. She was critical for my results and the process couldn't have been better!"

Harvard Class of 2007

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