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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Google the phrase “college admissions essay,” and more than 6 million results come back. At the top you’ll find countless samples of “essays that worked” and all sorts of tips on what to do (and not do) in order to get that acceptance letter in the mail.
What if we were to tell you to ignore all of those confusing and contradictory tips and finely polished samples?
Scary? Yes. But that’s what we’re about to do.
What to write about in your college admission essay
Every student is different. What worked for one may not work for another. It’s vital that your personal essay reflects who you are, not who you think admissions officers want you to be. They’ve been doing this job for years; they’ve seen thousands of essays. They know a fake from the real deal. Don’t go there.
Lacy Crawford, who has spent more than 15 years assisting students in “figuring out how to write effectively about themselves” in a way that is compelling to admissions officers, says the college essay “is not a résumé; it’s five or 10 minutes inside a kid’s brain and inside their heart.” Crawford, author of Early Decision, a novel that focuses on the anxiety-riddled world of SATs, essays, and college applications, counsels that the most successful essays are those in which students “write who they are.”
But how does a high school student even know where to begin? Most teens are still finding out “who they are.” How do they choose a topic and then figure out how best to put that story across?
Contrary to what most students and their parents assume, emphasizing one’s strengths isn’t always the way to go: writing about why football is your life or how you came to love playing the violin is unoriginal and unimaginative. Crawford says schools are looking for candidates who are “able to think of themselves and write effectively about what matters. It’s more about, ‘who is this person?’” she says. And the first, most important step in answering that question is for students to open up, be honest about themselves, and convey what’s really going on inside their heads.
“Every single adolescent on earth – when you get them feeling safe, and they talk, it’s fantastic,” Crawford says. “They say great stuff. This is why everybody loves The Catcher in the Rye. We love hearing that voice, that honest kid voice. They are just on the cusp of adulthood, they’re full of dreams, full of passion; they love and hate themselves at the same time. If they can speak in that voice, it honestly does not matter what they say.”
Sometimes, Crawford, says, the perfect topic might be one the student never seriously considered. “When a student says, ‘I know I could never write about this but…’ 99 percent of the time, that’s what they should write about,” she says. Crawford remembers being contacted by an Asian immigrant who was stalled in the essay process. He told her a tale about well-meaning neighbors who gave his family a box of Christmas ornaments that turned out to be cat toys. “It wasn’t malicious but they carefully hung these cat toys on their Christmas tree. And he said, ‘You know what? We still do. We do it with pride and with humor, and this is how we hold who we are in this country.’ It was an amazing essay. He has a full ride at [his college] now.”
Writing the college admission essay
With the topic chosen, a student may feel compelled to go online or to the library and read essays that other students have written. Not always a good idea, says Crawford. “If they’re good, they make you feel horrible. If they’re bad, they’re misleading. Sometimes the better thing to do is read high-quality, first-person op-eds in top newspapers, not because you want to write an opinion piece but because they’re short, they’re tight, and they’re smart.”
Another must-avoid: Allowing one’s parents to edit or otherwise put their stamp on the essay. It’s fine to get advice and opinions (Crawford suggests asking English teachers to take a look at drafts); just don’t let the adult do any actual writing. “There are all of these hyper-polished essays where you can practically see where the dad was using his eraser,” Crawford says. “There are phrases that creep in there that simply aren’t in the vernacular of a young person. Admissions officers aren’t dumb.”
However, says Crawford, the student must understand that the essay is a well-established form of writing, and it can’t be sloppy – it may take from five to a dozen or more drafts until it’s ready to go into the envelope or be submitted to the college online. “This is not a text message. This is not a caption under an Instagram [photo],” she says. “It’s a form of communication, the essay, that has been practiced for hundreds of years. There’s a body of work, and you’re working in that tradition and you need to take that seriously.”
Not only will that commitment result in a better-written, more personalized college essay, but it could also change the student’s perception of the value and function of writing. Win-win.
Three things you need to know before writing a college admission essay
- When all is said and done, this essay has to be for you. Do not sell yourself out hoping that will get you in. Write an essay that you are proud of and that is true to who you are, and let the chips fall where they may.
- That doesn’t mean you don’t work your tail off. No first drafts, no third drafts.
- Admissions officers actually want to hear you think. They need to fill those classes, and they want to fill them with kids who are going to hit the ground running. Show them where your heart is and how you think about things and what you’re going to do.
Jeff Tamarkin is a freelance writer/editor. He lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, with his wife, novelist Caroline Leavitt.
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