How to Write Your College Application Essay in 5 Steps, Plus Application Essay Examples

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 in 5 Steps, Plus Application Essay Examples

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.

Table of Contents

How to Start a College Application Essay

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. 

College Application Essay Examples

Below we decidedly to include a few college application essay examples to help give an idea of what the finished product may look like. Of course, your college application essay will be your own and quite different, these examples can be useful jumping off points.

  • Title: Finding My Voice Through Silence

    In the heart of Mumbai, where the cacophony of bustling streets and boisterous vendors becomes a symphony of everyday life, I discovered the power of silence.

    Growing up in a city known for its pulsating energy, I became accustomed to constant noise. The honks of auto-rickshaws, the distant hum of local trains, the endless chatter of neighbors; these sounds were the backdrop of my life. But it was in this landscape of ceaseless sound that I found my sanctuary of silence: my grandfather's old library.

    The room, with its dusty shelves and worn-out armchair, was a stark contrast to the world outside. Here, time seemed to pause. Every book I picked up whispered tales from worlds unknown, teaching me about love, bravery, sacrifice, and more. They spoke, and I listened intently, but not with my ears; I listened with my heart and my soul.

    One day, I stumbled upon a battered copy of "Walden" by Henry David Thoreau. Intrigued by the serenity of the cover, depicting a quiet pond surrounded by woods, I began reading. Thoreau's reflections on simple living in natural surroundings resonated with me deeply. He wrote about the beauty of silence, of being able to sit still and let the world reveal itself. This philosophy of introspection and mindful presence was something I had unconsciously adopted in the library.

    Inspired by Thoreau's wisdom, I sought to create oases of silence in the midst of Mumbai's chaos. With a small group of friends, I started 'Silent Spaces', an initiative to identify and rejuvenate abandoned areas in our city. We transformed vacant rooftops, deserted courtyards, and neglected parks into quiet retreats for anyone seeking a moment of calm. These spaces became refuges for meditation, reading, or simply sitting in quiet contemplation.

    'Silent Spaces' started small, but as word spread, it grew. We received support from local businesses and community leaders. Schools approached us to create silent corners for students. We organized silent walks, promoting mindfulness and encouraging participants to absorb the beauty around them without uttering a word. This journey taught me the importance of community, collaboration, and the profound impact silence can have on our well-being.

    As I apply to [University Name], I carry with me this profound lesson from my city – that in the midst of noise, there is always an opportunity to find silence, to introspect, and to connect deeply with the world and oneself. I aspire to contribute to the [University Name] community by sharing the essence of what I've learned, by creating pockets of tranquility, and by encouraging introspection and mindful living among my peers.

  • Essay Prompt: What is the main reason you love learning?

    From a young age, I found solace in the pages of books and the wisdom of teachers. At seven, I was the child who eagerly anticipated library trips and raised her hand to answer every question. By thirteen, I had a journal filled with "Did You Know?" facts. Today, as I stand on the precipice of my collegiate journey, I've come to realize that the main reason I love learning is the way it continually reshapes my perspective and role within our vast universe.

    I used to think of learning as the process of absorbing facts. "The capital of France is Paris," or "Water boils at 100 degrees Celsius." But, as years passed, I understood that true learning wasn’t just about memorizing facts—it was about connecting them. The capital of France wasn’t just a location on a map; it was a city with deep historical roots, diverse cultures, and revolutionary ideas that influenced the world. Water’s boiling point wasn’t just a number; it symbolized the delicate balance of conditions that sustain life on our planet.

    My epiphany came during a physics lesson on the theory of relativity. As my teacher eloquently explained Einstein’s groundbreaking thoughts on time and space, I suddenly saw the universe not just as an expanse of stars and planets, but as a vast tapestry of interwoven stories and mysteries. It became clear that every fact I'd learned wasn’t an isolated piece of information, but a part of a grand puzzle. And with each new thing I learned, another piece of the puzzle fell into place.

    This interconnectedness of knowledge fuels my passion. I love learning because it reminds me that everything is connected in a beautiful, intricate dance. It shows me that the history of a far-off nation can influence modern political movements, that art can reflect societal values, that equations can describe nature's wonders, and that literature can capture the essence of the human experience. Every subject and every fact tells a story of who we are, where we've come from, and where we might be headed.

    Moreover, learning has taught me humility. The more I uncover about our universe, the more I realize how much there still is to know. This endless journey of discovery is both humbling and exhilarating. It reminds me to approach life with an open mind and an insatiable curiosity.

    As I look forward to my college years, I am excited not just for the degree or the accolades, but for the perspectives yet to be shifted, the connections yet to be made, and the vastness yet to be explored. My love for learning isn't just about acquiring knowledge; it’s about understanding our place in the universe and marveling at its endless wonders. And that, for me, is a journey without an end.

  • Essay Prompt: What is it about engineering that interests you the most?

    As a child, I often spent my weekends constructing intricate LEGO models. From towering skyscrapers to mobile cranes, my bedroom floor was a canvas of innovation. It wasn’t just about connecting bricks—it was about seeing a structure evolve from a mere idea. Years later, when I discovered the term "engineering," I realized there was an entire profession dedicated to that very principle: turning imaginative concepts into tangible realities. What fascinates me most about engineering isn't just its emphasis on creation, but its capacity to better the world around us.

    One afternoon, while working on a solar-powered vehicle for a school project, I stumbled upon an article about engineers who were developing affordable solar-powered water purification systems for communities lacking clean water. I was struck by the transformative power of engineering. It wasn't merely about constructing impressive structures or designing cutting-edge gadgets; at its core, engineering was about solving real-world problems. It offered a fusion of creativity, innovation, and profound social impact.

    My interest deepened when I delved into the realm of bioengineering during a summer internship. There, I witnessed how the fusion of biology and engineering held the promise to revolutionize medicine. From creating prosthetic limbs that could simulate real-time sensory feedback, to designing tissues that could potentially replace damaged organs, the possibilities seemed boundless. Engineering had the power to not only improve lives but to redefine the very boundaries of human potential.

    Yet, while the vast scope of engineering's applications intrigues me, it's the iterative process of problem-solving that truly captivates my interest. Engineers are perennial learners. They iterate, fail, learn, and iterate again. To engineer is to constantly seek improvement, to challenge the status quo, and to drive forward in the face of adversity. This mindset resonates deeply with my personal philosophy. Like engineering, life is filled with challenges that require resilience, adaptability, and a willingness to learn from failures.

    As I anticipate my college journey, I look forward to diving deeper into the world of engineering, not just to satiate my curiosity or to achieve personal milestones, but to harness its potential for societal change. I envision a future where I'm not just building with LEGO bricks on my bedroom floor, but collaborating with global teams, using engineering principles to tackle some of the world's most pressing challenges.

    For me, engineering isn't just a field of study—it's a lens through which we can reimagine and reconstruct the world for the better. And that potential for positive change is what interests me the most.

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.