16 Easy Ways for Improving Your College Essay (Before Bringing it to the Writing Lab)

Beaker Beaker

I never cease to be amazed at the number of students who don’t use the Writing Lab — a free service (well, it’s included in your tuition) offered by my alma mater— especially since it doesn’t require making an appointment (which is why I hardly use the Lab at my current uni; I’m a fan of “first come, first served”).

After my first semester of community college, I ran everything by the on-campus Lab; however, I loved sending my creative pieces (for my poetry and creative writing classes) to the OWL (Online Writing Lab), as I received such thoughtful feedback. One of the pieces I submitted (“A Memoir of Mother Goose,” which has since been published on Medium) won first place in the college’s annual writing contest; the Writing Lab Supervisor helped me tighten up the structure, making it not only something I could be proud of but something that honored the people whose stories I told.

I’m the type of person who doesn’t want anyone to see my rough draft — only my polished one — and for this reason: the fewer small mistakes there are, the more likely that whoever reads my paper will catch the big mistakes. If your tutor is having to wade through too many misspellings, punctuation errors, and/or too much bad grammar, they might miss things like content and structure.

At the Writing Lab, I tutor college students (not just in English, but in history, science, and even graphic design — as they pertain to writing), I’ve noticed a lot of things students could do that would make their session even more productive and help them become better writers. I realize many hate writing, and that’s unfortunate, but to do well in school and at many jobs, you have to write capably, such as the cover letters and resumes before hire and the emails you may have to write after. 

As for college writing, here are 13 things all students should do with their paper before they come to the Writing Lab.

  • Outline your paper, on paper (not on your phone). This way, you’re not starting with a blank page. Craft your thesis and topic sentences. Once you have those and your paraphrases and/or quotations, you can structure your paper and fill in the blanks. However, if you just need help getting started, the Lab is great for that, too. After all, the Lab was where I learned how to construct an outline. Once I learned thesis statements, topic sentences, and how to break something down to the smallest of details, I was able to write any research paper. These things made me a better writer, for I learned how to structure a paper and avoid parallelism.
  • Read the story (or whatever it is) before you start writing about it. Read all your sources, highlighting and annotating as you go. This especially helps if the book is long and/or boring. Post-its are great for marking paragraphs in longer works. 
  • Bring a copy of the assignment. Just telling the tutor you have to write an essay won’t help them help you. Are you writing a reflection, a literary analysis, a research paper? Tutors need a frame of reference.
  • Run everything through spell check, even if Google Docs isn’t flagging anything. Just do it. Then, copy and paste your document into Word and run a check. Some people like the Hemingway app, but I think it sucks (even though I still use it on occasion). Maybe if it was called the Shirley Jackson app, I’d like it better; Grammarly also offers a free app. Even though I know how to spell, and everyone knows I know how to spell, it is quite embarrassing when I publish something with a misspelling, especially since a handful of my friends have English degrees.
  • Write your paper as soon as you can, so you can leave time to put your paper away for a day or two and go back at it fresh. Let it be a smelly pile of rubbish — just get it out of your head and onto the paper/screen. Take notes while in class (you don’t have to type them up, as you won’t use them all, thus saving a step); don’t just scribble what the professor says, but what other students say and what you are thinking about what they are all saying. This has been a lifesaver in my American Lit class (where I’ve only liked one of the four books we’ve read thus far).
  • Print out your paper, so you can make marks on it, which leads to the next step. 
  • Read your work aloud. I do this with every paper that comes into the Lab unless the topic is a sensitive one (we have a private room for that if need be). The eye catches grammar, punctuation, and misspellings; the ear captures more content-related elements, such as how your paper flows. One of the students I did this with was catching her mistakes as I read, and she was amazed at how much of a difference reading it aloud made. I want the students who come in to remember my advice and use it, so they won’t keep making the same mistakes (but rather, different ones).
  • Make the changes to your paper that the tutor suggested and then bring it back for another read, so he or she has a clean copy. Ideally, you will get a second (and different) set of eyes to coach you on how to improve your document and writing skills. I remember asking my supervisor why the students could only check two categories (e.g., grammar, punctuation, sentence errors, content, structure, formatting, and documentation) rather than get it all done in one sitting, and she told that students would be overwhelmed at all the changes they would have to make at once. 
  • Remove contractions (unless they’re in a direct quote). Look on the sunny side: Doing this will increase your word count. 
  • Connotation matters. For example, don’t refer to children as kids (also known as young goats). Use academic language. 
  • Be precise. Don’t use the words “thing” and “stuff.” Spell out what the “thing” is. For example, instead of saying, “Writing was her favorite thing,” say, “Writing was her favorite hobby, pastime, activity, etc.”
  • Don’t use filler words/phrases. Some examples are “very,” “really,” and “just” (the last of which I am guilty of). Rather than saying something is “very important,” say it’s “paramount.” As for phrases, “to be perfectly honest” is the one I hate the most because of course, you’re going to be perfectly honest with your reader.
  • Properly format and cite. You don’t want to lose points on something easy. If you think this stuff is silly, remember, it’s all about attention to detail. I still think of the poor lady who lost a ton of money on Wheel of Fortune for saying “Seven Swans a-Swimmin’”, cutting the g off the gerund.
  • Don’t leave empty-handed. Get handouts from the Writing Lab on the particulars that confuse you (commas seem to be everyone’s Achilles heel), and keep the ones concerning formatting and documentation on hand. Unless you write college papers all the time, you won’t remember all the nuances.
  • Remember that tutors are lifelong learners. I still have to get help with something I am unfamiliar with sometimes. I remember a professor telling me that the difference between an educated person and an uneducated one was that the former knew where to find the answer (and it’s not always Google or an algorithm).
  • Tutors will help you cite sources, but libraries will help you find them. When you find a source, copy and paste the link into a Google Doc so you can find it later. I’ve seen students who will have a great quote but will be unable to use it because they can’t find where they got it. If I’m getting my information from a book, I use bookmarks and sticky notes.

Doing these things before you go into the Lab just might make a letter grade of difference.

Interviews lead to useful information: What I learned from one semester of writing for the university newspaper

Boots

As a non-traditional student (meaning not “college age”), I am experiencing college life in a different way than most younger college students.  I don’t live on campus or with my parentsI am a married mom juggling three jobs, so I don’t have time for all the clubs, activities, and lecture series, and the notion of “Greek life” is, well, Greek to me.

Rather than hanging out in the library drinking three-dollar coffee on a laptop (my $99 ChromeBook knock-off has since eaten the dust), I sit in my home office and drink 15-cent coffee from my Keurig (using a reusable filter)—no styrofoam cups or plastic straws or disposable K-cups.  My classes are almost 100% online, as I had to keep my schedule clear so that I could work all the jobs I do.  As I will be working primarily from home in the spring, I will get to experience what it’s like sitting in a classroom next semester.

It’s a feeling I’ve missed.

For me, nothing will ever take the place of face-to-face interaction.  I like to say that one, in-person conversation equals 1000 texts.

When I was pursuing my Associate degrees, all my favorite classes (all of them writing-emphasis) were on campus; through them, I got to know my professors, and they got to know me even more; when you read someone’s creative work, you get a glimpse of their soul.

I look forward to developing my writing even more at UWF, for this university had something that Pensacola State College (PSC) did not, which was my degree program: English with a concentration in Creative Writing.

There are so many opportunities at UWF to write, whether it’s The Argonautica, The Troubadour, or The Voyager.

I’ve learned so much in the short time I’ve been with The Voyager.

From my Socratic Society interview, I learned that even though business majors get hired more, English majors get promoted more.  When you’re a writer (and not a STEM major), you need to hear these things.

From my Center for Entrepreneurship interview, I learned that you can start a business while in school; they will help you.

From my interview with a library intern, I learned that the Careers in Writing course teaches you about all the careers to be had in writing (not just teaching). 

Working for a college newspaper has connected me with people I wouldn’t have gotten to know otherwise, inspired me to attend events I might not have attended, and helped me write about things I never thought I’d be interested in; being a student reporter is also a great way to build your portfolio for future employers.

It was my love for college journalism that brought me to UWF.  A couple of years or so ago, when I was interviewing one of the writing contest winners at my alma mater, she told me she was coming here to pursue her degree in Creative Writingsomething I hadn’t known existed until then.  

Though I was only a reporter for The Voyager one semester, everything I learned was outside the newsroom because, as my adviser said, “The real news doesn’t happen here but out there.”

Community college is a great place to start; university is a great place to finish

loquat

One of the loquat trees around PSC campus.

Most of us go to college to get a degree so that we can have a career that will pay for that education.  However, if your sole objective is to get your degree and get the hell out, you’re missing out on everything else the community college experience has to offer.

Maybe this sounds idealistic or even naïve, but if you go to college solely for the degree, that’s almost as bad as going to work just for the paycheck.  

Though higher education is an expensive investment in oneself (timewise and moneywise), college has been proven to enhance critical thinking, oral and writing skills, abstract reasoning, and aid in the solidification of soft skills.  It also heightened my confidence and perspective.

What’s more, when you’re doing restaurant or retail work, you’re completing repetitious tasks, but in college, you’re advancing every four months to something more challenging (or at least different).  When you’re working for a boss, all they care about is that you get the job done; in college, most professors are interested in your success, provided that you care.  

One algebra professor gave us daily pep talks about practicing math and taught us that you don’t study math, you do it—sort of like brain surgery—and that “life is better with a degree.”  He admitted that Pizza Hut, where he worked so much harder for far less money, made him want to finish college.  He was interested in our minds, and, unlike a boss, wasn’t interested in keeping us there but wanted us to leave his class forever, and, if we must, “hate math again.”

I took him up on the latter, especially after I took Elementary Statistics, which was anything but elementary.

~

In college, you learn the answers to questions you didn’t know you had.  For example, this same math professor finally shed light on why we have to learn this “nonsense” (meaning algebra)—that it was to sharpen our attention to detail.  “Sometimes, we’re one keystroke from ruining somebody’s life,” he said, and so I could work on this nonsense with a newfound sense of purpose.

College gives you time to think, not just act, and will connect you to people you wouldn’t have crossed paths with otherwise.  

So, you watch Shark Tank and see the hustlers who never went to college (but who worked 24/7) and articles about people like Bill Gates being a college dropout, but a degree isn’t just a window of opportunity—it’s a door to experiences that are unique to the college life.  

The diversity of a community college makes everyone feel like it’s never too late to get an education, reinvent yourself, or launch a new career, so no matter your age or background, get involved in something outside the classroom. 

I did the newspaper and the literary arts journal.

Seek out internship (and work-study) opportunities as well, which you’re more likely to get as a college student, as you’re perceived as a serious individual.  Internships are the answer to that old dilemma about needing experience that no one will hire you without.

If you have the chance, take a few classes just because they interest you.  (Many people figure out what they want to do by getting a general studies degree.)  

College is a time of chrysalis:  I enrolled as a Health Information Technology major, so sure I wanted to be a medical biller and coder (to appease the introvert in me), and ended up graduating with a general studies degree in addition to that, because that was the degree I wanted to build on.

So, whether your passion is in STEM or the arts (STEAM is dumb because it leaves out writing), there is something for everyone at a liberal arts college.  

~

Now, I’m at university, studying Creative Writing.  This time, I know what I want to do.

I have experienced college life differently—as a thirtysomething with a family instead of a twentysomething living at home (or on campus).  I work two jobs, and so I don’t have time to hang out at the coffee shop (F.R.I.E.N.D.S. is a fantasy) or participate in clubs; when my friends and I get together, it is planned and deliberate, as we have jobs, kids, and other responsibilities.     

So, I will never know that twentysomething kind of college experience, but I feel like I am getting to know something better.  When I come home after a long day at school and then work at the Lab (where I concoct formulas containing commas and hypotheses based on Merriam-Webster), and the sky is just turning twilight, and the breeze through the window invigorates me, I pull up to my humble home, where, through the frosted oval glass in my front door, I see a little girl jumping, so excited to see me.  Behind that door, there is a husband who has missed me, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.  

Though I have a couple more years to go, I have lots to look forward to—an internship, a creative nonfiction writing class, and yes, even a grammar class, because I am just that nerdy.

The first two parts were originally published as “First Times and Second Chances” (with minor edits due to hindsight) in the September 2017 issue of The Corsair, Pensacola State College’s student newspaper.

Do what you love because you love doing it

Letter from our EIC

There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that’s all some people have? – Joel McCrea (as John Sullivan in Sullivan’s Travels).

My dream profession is to be a humor columnist or bestselling novelist.  I’m so glad that what I’m doing now is all writing-related, even if it’s just helping others with their writing (i.e., editing); however, I still make time for my own writing.  Every.  Day.  Writing keeps you creative; editing keeps your writing clean.   

A columnist position will be much heavier on writing and not on answering telephones (the latter of which is hard for someone who relies heavily on closed-captioning when watching movies); it will also be light on face-to-face customer service and autopilot office duties (e.g. filing and shredding).  The plummiest part about life as a columnist will be that I will not have to rely on other people to get quotes (opening the door for me to be accused of misquoting them) or grant me interviews (opening the door for me to be accused of misrepresenting their organization or not portraying it the way they would have).  This freedom is what makes the creative writing side of journalism much more attractive.  

Newspapers (not news) is dying, but I don’t blame the Internet (entirely).  What’s happening in Washington should be covered by the reporters in D.C.  When I open the local newspaper, I want to read about what’s going on in my town; I want to read about the people in my town.  D.C. will get covered no matter what.  After all, it’s lucrative political theatre—a 3-ring circus with elephants, donkeys, and a slew of other political animals slinging mud and eating each other up (like the gingham dog and the calico cat in Eugene Field’s poem, The Duel).  

If you’re thinking of pursuing a career in communications, you must be patient.  You might have to write about things that do not interest you (e.g. zoning, sewers, school board and city council meetings, etc.), but that’s okay, because that’s just more writing experience.  Every writing assignment I’ve ever been given I’ve treated like it was the most important story I was writing.  

Even though I enjoy writing for newspapers, I prefer more time to polish my pieces, which is why having a weekly column would bridge my fiction and nonfiction writing worlds.  Furthermore, a columnist position will not be so emotionally draining that by the time I get home, my well is too dry to work on my own writing (e.g. blog, novel, etc.).

For now, I am happily pursuing my B.A. in English (with a concentration in Creative Writing), knowing that the real money (and job security) is in technical and business writing—not in creative writing (unless you become the next Stephen King or Mary Higgins Clark, who are the exceptions rather than the rule), so I may go for the Technical Writing certification, as I’ve already taken Professional and Technical Writing, which I highly recommend, as an elective.

We shall see.  

For Her

In Spain, surrounded by toys.jpg

For the child whose mother served her country
& whose dad served her burnt meals,
winning the genetic lottery
meant being born to parents who loved her.
For the young woman who retired early,
sleep was neither a waste of time nor a pastime—
it was what made wake time better.
For the gainfully unemployed,
work was not just about doing what she loved,
but about what she had to give to it.
For the artiste & poetess,
education wasn’t just STEM,
but about the humanities that humanized society—
the creativity & imagination that enhanced the earthly existence.
For the wife who was still in love with her husband,
a soul-mate wasn’t someone who always understood her,
but was someone who loved her
despite not always understanding her.
For the college mom who turned down the chance to study abroad,
children were blessings that did not come
without sacrificing a selfish part of themselves—
sacrifice that was without regret.
For the middle-aged widow staring at a stack of bills,
being rich meant having everything she needed,
& a little bit more.
For the elderly lady who was healed,
health was the most precious wealth,
for with vibrant health,
she had the wherewithal to do all things.