The college admissions essay is perhaps the most dreaded part of the college application process.
The essay creates frustration for students, stress for parents, and an overall feeling of dread as the deadline for submission approaches. The essay, however, doesn’t have to be an insurmountable project. With the right information, realistic time management and good proofing and editing, it should be easy to write the best college essay you can.
These FAQs about the college application essay should help you tell your story with an end goal of making a good impression on a college admissions officer.
What do admissions officers look for in the best college application essays?
Quite simply, the best college essays make a personal statement and give admissions officers a window into your soul. Many students write essays that are too clichéd or shallow, or too impersonal and uninformative. For some students, the essay itself will be cause for rejection.
So how do you make your college essay stand out?
Admissions officers look for these five things:
Can the applicant write?
What does the essay say about the applicant?
Are there authentic personal reflections?
What will the applicant bring to the college community?
Do the qualities represented in the essay resonate with the rest of the application?
What are the best essay topics?
Most students apply using the Common Application, which provides specific essay prompts. It’s up to the student to personalize the essay topics and make them unique and memorable. The 2016-2017 essay prompts are as follows:
Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma - anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community or family.
What Common App prompt should you choose?
Ethan Sawyer, a college essay advisor, says the first prompt is the best because it’s the basic “tell us your story.” He recommends this prompt because it’s the most open-ended and is easy to personalize. His second favorite is the fourth prompt: Describe a problem that must be solved. He gives an example of this type of essay on his website, “I Shot My Brother.”
But the best way to choose a topic is to brainstorm with a parent, teacher, advisor or friend what would make the most interesting story for you to tell and give an admissions officer the most insight. Brainstorming should be imaginative and free-wheeling. You don’t have to commit to anything yet; you can always rein it in later. Think about the moments in your life that had the most drama, conflict or humor. What moment would tell an admissions officer the most about how you would contribute to the college community?
You could “draw” your essay as an infographic or word map or even as a graphic novel. Do what you need to do to imagine the story in your own head. Then, you can start translating it into a more polished form.
Writer Anne Lamott refers to the (expletive) first draft, or the “child’s draft,” where “you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.” So play with your first few drafts. Not even famous writers get it right the first time.
What is the best way to start a college essay?
You want to grab readers from the first paragraph. You can do this by using some classic writing techniques:
Story hook. Jump into the story immediately. Use what might be a second paragraph as in introductory paragraph. Instead of starting with, “I want to study history because …,” use an imaginative hook ... “If I could have dinner with Napoleon….”
Originality. Start with an unconventional statement or event. “That day at the airport, I decided I never wanted to be a superhero.”
Visual description. Start with a vivid description of an image or event that pulls the reader in a scene. Don’t “tell” readers your room is plastered with posters of violinists. Show them. “In my room, Mark O’Connor hangs next to Itzhak Perlman…..
Solve a problem. Show how you used creativity and resolve to find a solution for yourself or someone else. “Serving dinner at the dorm, I realized how much food was going to waste. So I contacted the shelter.…”
Create mystery. Make your essay start with a puzzle and keep readers engaged to find out more. “Who had my father been in China? It was only standing in a small village I understood how his struggle had made me who I am.”
Whichever introduction you use, stay away from the conventional statement: “I want to go to this college because....” Any admissions officer will disregard what comes next and place your college application at the bottom of the pile.
What is the best format or structure for a college essay?
There all kinds of ways to write a college essay and there is no perfect form as long as your piece is engaging, logical, revealing … and answers the prompt.
The classic essay starts with an introductory statement that hooks the reader and continues with a strong topic sentence. It ends with a strong closing paragraph or summation. The body of the essay is where you make the sale that your thesis is true.
That might be a good form for you if, for example, you were trying to convince a school that your summer job working on a landscaping team taught you a lot about chemistry, your chosen major.
But you can also write about yourself in a short story style, with a beginning, end and dramatic arc. If you aren’t a natural story teller, imagine how you might film your story or draw it. What specific scenes would be needed to describe, for example, how you saved a friend from making a bad mistake?
If you’re having trouble organizing your piece, try talking it out with someone, writing it a few sentences, creating it as an infographic or even a graphic novel - whatever helps you see it. Then, try writing it in a more traditional format.
No matter the style, in the body of your piece you need to answer some important questions, such as, so what? Why should the reader care? What is the impact on you or on the greater good?
And pay close attention to your transitions from one section to the next. You don’t want your essay to read like a list. Transitions should give information, not just be links. Beware of words like “but” or “meanwhile” as transitions.
Ask someone to help you proofread for spelling and grammar. Don’t rely on spellcheck! And be you follow the essay guidelines as far as word count and topic are concerned. This is a test. The college wants to know if you can follow directions and how creative you can be within set limitations.
How do you make a college essay creative?
The best way to make your essay creative is to brainstorm with a friend, teacher or parents. You can also use this technique if you encounter writer’s block. Don’t just write down essay ideas, but make a list of everything about yourself. Think outside the box. Make a list of your likes, dislikes and/or achievements. You are searching for a unique topic that will catch your reader’s attention. Start with easy prompts, and see where they lead. Such as:
What is your favorite movie and why?
If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
What class in school inspires you and why?
Where would you never go again and why?
How did you and your best friend meet?
What object/person is important to you and why?
What is your favorite/least favorite food and why?
You get the picture. You are creating a guideline of ideas and topics to choose from that are uniquely tied to your life.
It is important to think deeply about the meaning of things in your life. Determine what about your experience is unique to you. That’s what will make your story different from the next essay in the pile.
Where do I find examples of colleges essays that worked?
Some schools and some college advisors post good essays on the web.
Many colleges, including Johns Hopkins University and the University of Connecticut post “essays that worked” going back several years.
Big Future, run by the College Board, has sample essays and tips.
The New York Times college blog, The Choice, has essays that worked and some that didn’t. (this blog is old. Are you sure you want to use it as a resource?)
Some college advisors, such as The College Essay Guy and Essay Hell post winners.
Your college advisor or English teacher should have examples.
How do I avoid college essay plagiarism?
It’s acceptable to look at someone else’s essay as a sample and a creative tool. It is not OK to copy it or to excerpt anything without proper credit. That’s plagiarism. And don’t even think about having someone else - parent, friend, tutor or writing service – create your essay for you. This is your story, your statement. Admissions officers have seen it all. They will know.
The best way to avoid plagiarism is to make the essay personal. If it’s your story, your ideas, your thoughts and actions, you won’t be at risk of plagiarizing. Once your essay is complete, a plagiarism checker like this one from Grammarly just to make sure you were paying attention.
Are there tools that will help with college essay checking or editing?
There are numerous tools available to help with spelling and grammar along with editing. Of course, you can use a word processing program with spell check and grammar check. Also, find a proofreader: parent, teacher or mentor.
If you are looking for other online tools to help turn your rough draft into a polished essay free from spelling or grammar errors, here are a few:
How do I find a college essay writing workshop, college essay tutor or get help with a college essay?
Many high schools and libraries offer writing workshops for college applicants. Your counselor should be a good resource for these. Use social media when searching as well: type in #collegeessays on Twitter and search the results for coaches and workshops. You can find college advisors and tutors on the TeenLife website as well.
Are there good books/websites on college essays?
There are also books (both paperback and ebooks) that can guide you through the essay process. Here are my top picks:
College Essay Essentials by Ethan Sawyer
On Writing the College Application Essay by Harry Bauld
Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps by Alan Gelb
The best advice I can give when writing the successful college essay is: Be yourself.
Give the admissions officer a picture of who you are and the type of college student you would be if they offer admission. The essay should be more than words on paper or a glowing example of writing skills; it should be your story.
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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