How to Write Your College Application Essay: College Essay Tips

Learn the best ways to approach writing your college application essay and how to make it stand out from the rest.

How to Write Your College Application Essay: College Essay Tips

The personal essay you write for college admissions says a lot about you that grades, test scores, and your GPA cannot. It should work in your favor to show college admissions boards what sets you apart from other candidates, and it may be the deciding factor for the college committee. However, while a lot of emphasis is put on students to compose a perfect college entrance essay, a sincere and personal composition will beat out most formal and impersonal ones.

Read on for some essential college essay tips for writing your college admission essay.

How to Start a College Essay for Your Application

When it comes to timing, it’s advisable for high school students to start working on their college application essays during the summer before senior year. In the summer, students are free from homework and school-related extracurricular activities consuming time and energy that could be spent on their college application essay.

A big reason for getting an early start on your college application essay is to provide students as much time as possible to write, edit, and rewrite multiple drafts of their essay before applying to college and the application deadline. Working on your college application essay during the summer is especially critical if you plan on applying for early decision or early action at a college, which typically has deadlines in the coming autumn.

To find out requirements for a college admission essay, high school students can go online and review what the colleges ask for in their college application essays. Many colleges may provide topics or prompts you have to address and/or word limits to abide by. A common place for high school students to start when figuring out how to write a college essay is by reviewing the Common App, which is a college application platform accepted by nearly 1,000 colleges and universities.

It is not uncommon for some colleges to require students to submit one or more additional writing samples on top of their main college application essay. For these supplemental essays, students are frequently asked to lay out the reasons why they are interested in a specific school or field of study. The good news is that these supplemental writing samples are usually shorter than the main college application essay.

Now, we’ll go over the steps involved in how to write a college essay for applications.

Step 1: Brainstorming

The first step to any good application essay is brainstorming important points you would like to highlight in your personal statement. Think about yourself, and any personality traits and characteristics you would like to make known. What would your friends say about you? Your family? Are there any internal conflicts, triumphs, or epiphanies you think have helped make you the person you are today? What are your favorite books, movies, plays, etc. and how have they influenced you? Have you experienced an interesting, life-changing event that changed your perspective on the world? 

Next, think about things you have accomplished. Make sure you focus on what you are most proud of and the struggles you had to go through to succeed. Think of things you do outside of the classroom and explain why you do them and how they make you feel. Is there something you are most interested in beyond anything else? Make sure you explain why it interests you and how your interest developed. You may even want to add things you struggled to succeed in and ultimately failed at. Make sure to add a brief explanation as to the why’s and how’s of each point you jot down. 

Finally, focus on your future. What are your ultimate goals in the distant future, and what are your goals for the near future? Make sure to add both large and small goals and explain how the school you are applying to fits into the picture of you fulfilling these dreams.

Step 2: Choose Your Topic

Some colleges ask for answers to specific essay questions, while others are very broad. The key here is to focus your topic around one theme, whether it be a trip to a third-world country, your role model, or any life changing experience. However, try to avoid overly sensitive subjects, as the admissions essay is not the appropriate place to reveal extremely personal issues. The essay should not focus on the broad spectrum of your entire life — most essays are about 500 words — but rather the details of a single important moment.

If the college application essay isn’t an open topic, then there are typically several essay prompts to choose from. These college application essay prompts tend to be wide-ranging, open-ended questions, allowing students the latitude to write about a broad range of topics. Whether or not there are specific topics and prompts or more open ones, students should make sure to limit their focus and write about a specific experience, passion, hobby, or peculiar trait that reveals something personal about them. This kind of focus can convey to the college admissions board how you think, what you value, what you hope to achieve, or what your strengths, and even weaknesses, are. Although your college application essay is not supposed to be your autobiography, you can also write about an experience or anecdote that reveals a key aspect of your background. 

The most important part of writing your college admission essay is that it’s thoughtful and gives the readers an image and a story that provides insight into who you are as a person and college candidate. Outlining and tallying up major achievements is not the most important part of writing your college application essay, despite what many people assume. Indeed, this misconception is so common that college admissions officers have become jaded and uninterested in such college application essays, to the detriment of the applying student.

Since college admissions people already have your grades, your extracurriculars, and other standard information, your college application essay should show college admissions board members aspects of your character they are not already aware of. You should make sure that your college admission essay conveys information and a narrative that isn't stated elsewhere in your application.

Step 3: Writing the College Application Essay

Begin by creating an outline, which is almost always a good first step for any essay. A well-organized and flowing college application essay will prove that you have writing skills and the ability to organize your thoughts. The most important thing to do here is answer the questions correctly. You may write an impressive essay, but if it does not answer the question they are asking, you’ve wasted your time. Be sure that you include specific events that illustrate your points. You want the story to be colorful and interesting. 

Secondly, begin your first draft. Don’t stray too much from your outline, as you want your focus to be narrow and specific. Make sure your introduction is strong and compelling, and it makes the reader want to learn more about you. The conclusion should tie the story into why you want to attend this specific college. Remember that this is just a rough draft, and expressing your ideas is more important than reaching perfection.

If you’re having a difficult time getting started on writing your college admission essay, try focusing on your opening sentence. Writing out your opening sentence can help you frame how to tell your story and provides the opportunity to create a great “hook” to grab the reader’s attention. Obviously, however, you shouldn’t obsess on perfecting the ultimate opening sentence, just like movie directors shouldn’t focus on creating the best, most explosive opening scene in a movie. Your whole college application essay needs to be strong and convey clearly who you are, so having a great opening hook but then a mediocre body for your college application essay won’t do you any service. 

Step 4: Editing and Refining Your College Application Essay

College admissions people are trying to learn about you as a candidate through your essay, but they’re also assessing your writing skills. Thus, you’ll want to make sure you’re submitting your best work. One of the more timeless and universally relevant tips when it comes to any form of writing — both fiction and nonfiction — is to make sure your writing is “showing, not telling.” What this means is that you should illustrate for your readers examples that show that you personify particular values, beliefs, or traits, instead of merely stating that you do.

Once you’re done with the first draft of your college admission essay, have at least two people proofread your essay and accept constructive criticism from them. Choose people you trust to help you create a more solid essay and give them plenty of time to review it carefully.

Once you’ve had your first round of peer proofreading, it’s time to begin your second draft. Try to focus on using adjectives and detail to illustrate your story, without using overly flowery language. Then go over it yourself for spelling and grammar errors before letting a few others review it. You can ask your teachers, especially English instructors, to help you refine and edit your college application essay. You just, of course, can’t ask them to write it for you.

Now for the final draft. Your essay should be free of all spelling and grammatical errors. Have at least one person check it over quickly before sending it in. Make sure it’s a work you can be proud of, rather than viewing it as a mere formality. Remember that you are trying to prove to admissions that you are a unique and outstanding individual. While they already have your grades and resume in front of them, they have yet to see the details of your personal life that shape who you are as an individual character.

Step 5: Submitting Your College Application Essay

When your college admission essay has been written, edited, rewritten, refined, and given the works, you will usually submit it online along with the rest of your college application. For example, with the Common App, high school students simply copy and paste their essay into a text box. Other colleges, with their own particular college applications, usually still have an online portal designated for submitting your college admission essay. 

The Bottom Line on College Application Essay

Though striving for perfection on your college admission essay is only natural, just remember that it is one part of a larger whole. College admissions are based on a collection of factors, with your college application essay being one among many. You should definitely aim to craft a stellar college application essay, but you also shouldn’t stress yourself out so much that you burn out and get depressed. The main points to remember when it comes to how to write a college essay well is to avoid an essay that’s merely a list of all your impressive achievements and avoid being too general or too autobiographical. Instead, you should narrow your focus and find an overriding theme to write about, one that reveals a unique side to your character and who you are as a person that cannot be conveyed in your GPA, extracurriculars, or other parts of your college application.

Andrew DePietro

Author: Andrew DePietro

Senior Researcher, and Content Strategist

Andrew DePietro is a finance writer covering topics such as entrepreneurship, investing, real estate and college for BrokeScholar, Forbes, CreditKarma, and more.