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person using dictaphone
If you find writing difficult, try recording your thoughts first.
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First, don’t be boring. Your college essays need to be memorable—but in a positive way. That will help you stand out from other applicants.

Choose a topic you are passionate about. If it is interesting to you, it is likely to be interesting to others. Tell a story, since people are hard-wired to listen to stories. Give specific examples instead of general statements unsupported by evidence.

Avoid controversial topics like politics and religion, because the reader may react more to your position on the topic than your writing, even if you try to be balanced. Also avoid humor, because what is funny to you may not be funny to others.

But even these rules are meant to be broken.

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My own college application essays were risky because they were risqué. I wrote my essays about depositing checks from Playboy at the bank. When I was a child, I wrote puzzles for Games Magazine, which was owned by Playboy Enterprises at the time. My checks came from Playboy Enterprises, Magazine Division, with no further identification.

Imagine a young boy, not yet a teenager, depositing such a check at a small, hometown bank where everybody knows his mother on a first-name basis. The teller looked at the check and then at me, with a strange expression on her face. I winked and said, “Oh, didn’t you see it? It was in the March issue.”

I closed each essay with a puzzle I custom-wrote for that college. The puzzles were laddergrams, also known as doublets and change-the-word puzzles, where the word on the top rung is changed one letter at a time into a new word, eventually reaching the word on the bottom rung. For example, you can change LEAD into GOLD in three steps: LEAD, LOAD, GOAD, GOLD. Visit www.laddergrams.com for more examples and some of my puzzle books.

My essays could easily have backfired. But they worked. I applied to only four colleges and was accepted by all of them. I found out that I had been admitted to Brown University on a campus tour. The tour ended in front of the admissions office, which displayed some of the more unusual essays the university had received. The tour guide pointed to my essay and said it took admissions staff members several hours to solve the puzzle and “needless to say, we admitted him.” That laddergram was THINK-BROWN, a particularly challenging puzzle.

Here’s another tip that can yield a powerful essay. It also works for people who suffer from writer’s block. Instead of writing or typing your essay, answer the essay question out loud, while recording your answer. Then transcribe the recording and create an outline to add structure and organization. This tip works well because people write or type at 30 to 60 words per minute but speak at about 200 words per minute. Thus, the act of writing interferes with the flow of thought. Answering the question orally also yields a more fluid and passionate essay.

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A similar tip can help with proofreading your essays. Print out a copy of your essay, so that it looks different than it appears on your computer screen. It is often easier to edit your writing if you can pretend someone else wrote it. Read it out loud, marking a red X wherever you stumble. The disfluencies are signs of a problem with the essay, such as spelling or grammar errors, the wrong word choice, or poor logic. Fix these errors and print out a new copy. Repeat the process until you can read the essay from start to finish without stumbling.

Mark Kantrowitz is one of the nation’s leading student financial aid experts. He is the author of several books about paying for college, including Filing the FAFSA, Twisdoms about Paying for College, and Secrets to Winning a Scholarship, and has served as publisher of the FinAid, Fastweb, and Edvisors websites.