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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, December 15, 2005

It may be the most important paper you ever will write

By Treena Shapiro
Advertiser Education Writer

With application deadlines around the corner, December is a busy month for college-bound seniors.

Now is the time to narrow choices to dream schools, sure bets and unknowns and mark the application deadlines on a calendar.

Before school lets out for the holidays, applicants should ask for letters of recommendation from teachers who know them well and can make strong statements.

"Teachers should be given ample time to write these recommendation letters. They may refuse your request if it is last minute," warns state Department of Education specialist Dennis Kajikawa, who compiled a list of advice from local college counselors.

December is also the time to request that your transcripts and test scores be sent to schools and to update your personal data sheet.

If any applications are missing, students should make sure they are available on the college Web sites or request them from colleges as soon as possible. Many schools have Dec. 31 deadlines, and others have deadlines that already have passed.

With all that out of the way, college applicants can then focus on their essay.

Transcripts and test scores are important, but the essay gives applicants a chance to stand out. Here are tips from the College Board on essay-writing, adapted from "The College Application Essay" by Sarah Myers McGinty:

KEEP FOCUS NARROW

Your essay must prove a single point or thesis. The reader must be able to spot your main idea and follow it from beginning to end. Try having someone read just your introduction to see what he or she thinks your essay is about.

Essays that try to be too comprehensive end up sounding watered down. Remember, it's not about telling the committee what you've done they can pick that up from your list of activities instead, it's about showing them who you are.

PROVE IT

Develop your main idea with vivid and specific facts, events, quotations, examples and reasons. There's a big difference between stating a point of view and letting an idea unfold in the details:

OK: "I like to be surrounded by people with a variety of backgrounds and interests"

Better: "During that night, I sang the theme song from Casablanca with a baseball coach who thinks he's Bogie, discussed Marxism with a little old lady, and heard more than I ever wanted to know about some woman's gall bladder operation."

BE SPECIFIC

Avoid trite, generic and predictable writing by using vivid and specific details.

OK: "I want to help people. I have gotten so much out of life through the love and guidance of my family, I feel that many individuals have not been as fortunate; therefore, I would like to expand the lives of others."

Better: "My mom and dad stood on plenty of sidelines till their shoes filled with water or their fingers turned white or somebody's golden retriever signed his name on their coats in mud. I think that kind of commitment is what I'd like to bring to working with fourth-graders."

WHAT NOT TO SAY

Most admissions officers read plenty of essays about the charms of their university, the evils of terrorism, and the personal commitment involved in being a doctor.

Bring something new to the table, not just what you think they want to hear.

DON'T WRITE A RESUME

Don't include information that is found elsewhere in the application. Your essay will end up sounding like an autobiography, travelogue or laundry list.

  • "During my junior year, I played first singles on the tennis team, served on the student council, maintained a B-plus average, traveled to France and worked at a cheese factory."

    Yawn.

    NO UNNEEDED WORDS

    OK: "Over the years it has been pointed out to me by my parents, friends, and teachers and I have even noticed this about myself, as well that I am not the neatest person in the world."

    Better: "I'm a slob."

    PROOFREAD

    Typos, and spelling or grammatical errors, can be interpreted as carelessness or just bad writing. Don't rely on your computer's spelling checker. It will miss errors like the ones below.

  • "After I graduate form high school, I plan to work for a nonprofit organization during the summer."

  • "From that day on, Daniel was my best fried."

    ON THE WEB

    For more tips on the college appli-cation process and other topics, see www.collegeboard.org.

    Reach Treena Shapiro at tshapiro@honoluluadvertiser.com.