10 Steps that Will Help You Write a Great College Essay

Preparation: Grab a handful of different colored pens, pencils, and/or highlighters. Print out a draft of your paper. I don’t know why, but you can see your writing better—or at least differently—when it’s on paper.

  1. Put a squiggly line under your thesis statement and ask:
    • Where does the statement come?
    • Is it precise and arguable?
    • Does it require evidence and analysis to defend it?
  2. Go through the draft and underline the topic sentence of each paragraph.
    • If there is not a clear topic sentence, ask yourself: What am I trying to say in this paragraph?
    • Write your answer in the margin and move to step 3.
  3. Go back to the paragraphs that have topic sentences and ask:
    • Do all the other sentences relate to this idea?
    • Have I provided evidence to support it?
  4. Go through your essay and look at each piece of evidence (quotation, block quotation, media) and ask:
    • Have I introduced the evidence by identifying its source and giving a brief, purposeful summary?
    • Have I followed up with explanation of how the evidence/quotation serves my argument?
  5. Go through your essay and highlight keywords, using a different color for each keyword. See what patterns emerge and ask:
    • Have I drifted in my focus or lost track of an important concept?
    • Have I mixed up too many different concepts?
  6. Extract your topic sentences, put them in order in a separate document, and ask:
    • Is there a logical development of ideas?
    • Should you rearrange the order for a more logical flow?
    • Can you envision a shape, path, or structure for this flow of ideas?
  7. As you assess the overarching structure of your paper, think about ways to implement parallel structure.
    • Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream would not be nearly as memorable if he had imagined a nation where his children “will be judged not by the color of their skin, but by who they really are on the inside.”
    • You can achieve parallel structure at the sentence level by putting items in a series in the same grammatical structures, e.g.: “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
    • You can implement parallel structure at the macro level by setting up a template for each source you analyze and addressing each in the same order or pattern.
  8. Cut and paste your text into the Writer’s Diet test.
    • Look for diagnoses of passive voice (pink highlighter).
    • Consult the OWL at Purdue website for help converting passive voice to active voice.
  9. Read your essay out loud from start to finish.
  10. Use Zotero to collect, manage, and cite your sources and generate a bibliography in a snap.
    • Remember to double check the citations Zotero generates, because it often gets something wrong or leaves out crucial information (like the author).

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