Many writing guides, in print or online, provide fairly good advice about writing admission essays. You do not, however, need to read every page of a guide. The following principles help you find and make wise use of the advice you will find here and elsewhere.
1. Use a writing guide to get into the culture of excellent essay writing. Admissions officers read and discuss thousands of essays with one another. They develop a highly refined sense of taste for what makes an excellent essay. Develop this taste for yourself using these three methods:
a. Experience a lot of sample essays. You can read through a lot of college essay samples in an hour; graduate admission essays will take longer. After internalizing some principles and analyzing particular essays (see below), go back and read some more samples. Make sure that you choose a guide with enough samples. See, for example, GradeSaver's 150+ samples of successful admission essays.
b. Internalize the principles that those essays express. You often can find these principles stated just before each example. Become able to state the principles in your own words.
c. Analyze essays according to the principles. Become able to explain why an essay is so good--specifically, what it does for the reader, what purposes it accomplishes, and what it signals about the writer.
2. Pay particular attention to the section headings within each chapter, as well as the chapter titles. Too many readers only glance at the headings and then jump straight to the text. (High school and college students might consider skimming quickly through Mortimer Adler's instructive How to Read a Book.) Use these headings to focus on the topics that you should be learning. Besides, you often can distinguish the better guides in a bookstore by their use of meaningful section headings.
3. Make contact with other applicants who are reading either the same guide or another guide. You don't need a formal reading group. But it will help you to talk through with others (1) the topics you are learning, (2) your own ideas for essay topics, (3) other people's essay topics (it can be easier to develop the skills of critique and improvement when someone else's essay is on the table), and later on, (4) actual drafts of your essay.