You already know how to write an academic essay: you start with an introduction, throw in a thesis statement, find about three paragraphs’ worth of evidence, and wrap it all up with a tidy conclusion…
Now forget all that, because a successful college application essay is totally different.
Here's the thing: your college application essay needs to breathe life into your application. It should capture your genuine personality, explaining who you are beyond a series of grades, test scores, and after-school activities. But that’s not nearly as scary as it seems, because you get to choose what to share and how to share it.
Take a minute and think about the college or university admission officers who will be reading your essay. How will your essay convey your background and what makes you unique? If you had the opportunity to stand in front of an admission committee to share a significant story or important information about yourself, what would you say? The college application essay is your chance to share your personality, goals, influences, challenges, triumphs, life experiences, or lessons learned. Not to mention why you're a good fit for the college or university—and why it's a good fit for you. These are the stories behind the list of activities and leadership roles on your application.
One of the most common struggles students encounter is resisting the urge to squeeze everything they’ve seen, done, and heard into their essay. But your application essay isn’t your life story in 650 words. Instead, pick one moment in time and focus on telling the story behind it.
Admission officers realize that writing doesn’t come easily to everyone, but with some time and planning, anyone can write a college application essay that stands out. One way to do that is to work step-by-step, piece-by-piece. The end result should be a carefully designed, insightful essay that makes you proud. Take advantage of being able to share something with an audience who knows nothing about you and is excited to learn what you have to offer. Brag. Write the story no one else can tell.
1. Get to know your prompt
Ease yourself into the essay-writing process. Take time to understand the question or prompt being asked.
The single most important part of your essay preparation may be simply making sure you truly understand the question or essay prompt. When you are finished writing, you need to make sure that your essay still adheres to the prompt.
College essay questions often suggest one or two main ideas or topics of focus. These can vary from personal to trivial, but all seek to challenge you and spark your creativity and insight.
- Read the essay questions and/or prompts. Read them again. Then, read them one more time.
- Take some time to think about what is being asked and let it really sink in before you let the ideas flow.
- Before you can even start brainstorming, define what it is you’re trying to accomplish. Is this essay prompt asking you to inform? Defend? Support? Expand upon?
- If it doesn’t already, relate the question back yourself by asking, “How does this—or how could this—apply to me?”
- Avoid sorting through your existing English class essays to see if the topics fit the bill. These pieces rarely showcase who you are as an applicant.
Get your creative juices flowing by brainstorming all the possible ideas you can think of to address your college essay question.
Believe it or not, the brainstorming stage may be more tedious than writing the actual application essay. The purpose is to flesh out all of your possible ideas so when you begin writing, you know and understand where you are going with the topic.
- Reflect. You have years to draw from, so set aside time to mentally collect relevant experiences or events that serve as strong, specific examples. This is also time for self-reflection. “What are my strengths?” “How would my friends describe me?” “What sets me apart from other applicants?”
- Write any and all ideas down. There’s no technique that works best, but you’ll be thankful when you are able to come back to ideas you otherwise might have forgotten.
- Narrow down the options. Choose three concepts you think fit the college application essay prompt best and weigh the potential of each. Which idea can you develop further and not lose the reader? Which captures more of who you really are?
- Choose your story to tell. From the thoughts you’ve narrowed down, pick one. You should have enough supporting details to rely on this as an excellent demonstration of your abilities, achievements, perseverance, or beliefs.
3. Create an outline
Map out what you’re going to write by making an outline.
Architects use a blue print. A webpage is comprised of code. Cooks rely on recipes. What do they have in common? They have a plan. The rules for writing a good essay are no different. After you brainstorm, you’ll know what you want to say, but you must decide how you’re going to say it. Create an outline that breaks down the essay into sections.
- All good stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Shape your story so that it has an introduction, body, and conclusion. Following this natural progression will make your essay coherent and easy to read.
- Strategize. How are you going to open your essay? With an anecdote? A question? Dialogue? Use of humor? Try to identify what the tone of your essay is going to be based on your ideas.
- Stick to your writing style and voice. It’s particularly important when writing a piece about yourself that you write naturally. Put the words in your own voice. By planning the layout of your essay ahead of time, you’ll avoid changing your writing style mid-story.
Related:College Application Essays: A Step-by-Step Example
4. Write the essay
Once you are satisfied with your essay in outline format, begin writing!
By now you know exactly what you will write about and how you want to tell the story. So hop on a computer and get to it. Try to just let yourself bang out a rough draft without going back to change anything. Then go back and revise, revise, revise. Before you know it, you will have told the story you outlined—and reached the necessary word count—and you will be happy you spent all that time preparing!
- Keep your essay’s focus narrow and personal. Don’t lose your reader. Start with your main idea, and follow it from beginning to end.
- Be specific. Avoid using clichéd, predictable, or generic phrases by developing your main idea with vivid and detailed facts, events, quotations, examples, and reasons.
- Be yourself. Admission officers read plenty of application essays and know the difference between a student’s original story and a recycled academic essay, or—worse—a piece written by your mom or dad or even plagiarized. Bring something new to the table, not just what you think they want to hear. Use humor if appropriate.
- Be concise. Don’t use 50 words if five will do. Try to only include the information that is absolutely necessary.
The last step is editing and proofreading your finished essay.
You have worked so hard up until this point, and while you might be relieved, remember: your essay is only as good as your editing. A single grammatical error or typo could indicate carelessness—not a trait you want to convey to a college admission officer.
- Give yourself some time. Let your essay sit for a while (at least an hour or two) before you proofread it. Approaching the essay with a fresh perspective gives your mind a chance to focus on the actual words, rather than seeing what you think you wrote.
- Don’t rely solely on the computer spelling and grammar check. Computers cannot detect the context in which you are using words, so be sure to review carefully. Don’t abbreviate or use acronyms or slang. They might be fine in a text message, but not in your college essay.
- Have another person (or several!) read your essay, whether it’s a teacher, guidance counselor, parent, or trusted friend. You know what you meant to say, but is it clear to someone else reading your work? Have these people review your application essay to make sure your message is on target and clear to any audience.
- Read your essay backwards. This may sound a bit silly, but when reading in sequential order, your brain has a tendency to piece together missing information, or fill in the blanks, for you. Reading each sentence on its own and backwards can help you realize not only typos and mistakes in grammar, but that you may have forgotten an article here and there, such as “a” or “the.”
- Read your essay out loud. This forces you to read each word individually and increases your chances of finding
- a typo. Reading aloud will also help you ensure your punctuation is correct, and it’s often easier to hear awkward sentences than see them.
- Check for consistency. Avoid switching back and forth from different tenses. Also, if you refer to a particular college in the essay, make sure it is the correct name and is consistent throughout the piece. You don’t want to reference two different schools in the same paper!
6. Tie up loose ends
Celebrate finishing what you started.
Writing the college essay takes time and effort, and you should feel accomplished. When you submit your essay, remember to include your name, contact information, and ID number if your college provided one, especially if you send it to a general admission e-mail account. Nothing is worse than trying to match an application essay with no name (or, worse, an e-mail address such as email@example.com) to a file. Make sure to keep copies of what you sent to which schools and when—and follow up on them! Be certain the college or university you are applying to received your essay. You don’t want all that hard work to go to waste!
Looking for more college application essay help? We have tons—tons—here, including lots of real-world examples!
P.S. What did you end up writing your college application essay about? We wanna know! Leave a comment or get in touch here.
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Here’s a tip: Choose a topic you really want to write about. If the subject doesn’t matter to you, it won’t matter to the reader. Write about whatever keeps you up at night. That might be cars, or coffee. It might be your favorite book or the Pythagorean theorem. It might be why you don’t believe in evolution or how you think kale must have hired a PR firm to get people to eat it.
A good topic will be complex. In school, you were probably encouraged to write papers that took a side. That’s fine in academic work when you’re being asked to argue in support of a position, but in a personal essay, you want to express more nuanced thinking and explore your own clashing emotions. In an essay, conflict is good.
For example, “I love my mom. She’s my best friend. We share clothes and watch ‘The Real Housewives’ of three different cities together” does not make for a good essay. “I love my mom even though she makes me clean my room, hates my guinea pig and is crazy about disgusting food like kale” could lead somewhere
While the personal essay has to be personal, a reader can learn a lot about you from whatever you choose to focus on and how you describe it. One of my favorites from when I worked in admissions at Duke University started out, “My car and I are a lot alike.” The writer then described a car that smelled like wet dog and went from 0 to 60 in, well, it never quite got to 60.
Another guy wrote about making kimchi with his mom. They would go into the garage and talk, really talk: “Once my mom said to me in a thick Korean accent, ‘Every time you have sex, I want you to make sure and use a condo.’ I instantly burst into laughter and said, ‘Mom, that could get kind of expensive!’ ” A girl wrote about her feminist mother’s decision to get breast implants.
A car, kimchi, Mom’s upsizing — the writers used these objects as vehicles to get at what they had come to say. They allowed the writer to explore the real subject: This is who I am.
Don’t brag about your achievements. Instead, look at times you’ve struggled or, even better, failed. Failure is essayistic gold. Figure out what you’ve learned. Write about that. Be honest and say the hardest things you can. And remember those exhausted admissions officers sitting around a table in the winter. Jolt them out of their sugar coma and give them something to be excited about.
10 Things Students Should Avoid
REPEATING THE PROMPT Admissions officers know what’s on their applications. Don’t begin, “A time that I failed was when I tried to beat up my little brother and I realized he was bigger than me.” You can start right in: “As I pulled my arm back to throw a punch, it struck me: My brother had gotten big. Bigger than me.”
LEAVE WEBSTER’S OUT OF IT Unless you’re using a word like “prink” (primp) or “demotic” (popular) or “couloir” (deep gorge), you can assume your reader knows the definition of the words you’ve written. You’re better off not starting your essay with “According to Webster’s Dictionary . . . .”
THE EPIGRAPH Many essays start with a quote from another writer. When you have a limited amount of space, you don’t want to give precious real estate to someone else’s words.
YOU ARE THERE! When writing about past events, the present tense doesn’t allow for reflection. All you can do is tell the story. This happens, then this happens, then this happens. Some beginning writers think the present tense makes for more exciting reading. You’ll see this is a fallacy if you pay attention to how many suspenseful novels are written in past tense.
SOUND EFFECTSOuch! Thwack! Whiz! Whooooosh! Pow! Are you thinking of comic books? Certainly, good writing can benefit from a little onomatopoeia. Clunk is a good one. Or fizz. But once you start adding exclamation points, you’re wading into troubled waters. Do not start your essay with a bang!
ACTIVE BODY PARTS One way to make your reader giggle is to give body parts their own agency. When you write a line like “His hands threw up,” the reader might get a visual image of hands barfing. “My eyes fell to the floor.” Ick.
CLICHÉS THINK YOUR THOUGHTS FOR YOU Here’s one: There is nothing new under the sun. We steal phrases and ideas all the time. George Orwell’s advice: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”
TO BE OR NOT TO BE Get rid of “to be” verbs. Replace “was” in “The essay was written by a student; it was amazing and delightful” and you’ll get: “The student’s essay amazed and delighted me.” We’ve moved from a static description to a sprightlier one and cut the word count almost in half.
WORD PACKAGES Some phrases — free gift, personal beliefs, final outcome, very unique — come in a package we don’t bother to unpack. They’re redundant.
RULES TO IGNORE In English class, you may have to follow a list of rules your teacher says are necessary for good grammar: Don’t use contractions. No sentence fragments. It’s imperative to always avoid split infinitives. Ending on a preposition is the sort of English up with which teachers will not put. And don’t begin a sentence with a conjunction like “and” or “but” or “because.” Pick up a good book. You’ll see that the best authors ignore these fussy, fusty rules.Continue reading the main story