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Most selective colleges require you to submit an essay or personal statement as part of your application.
It may sound like a chore, and it will certainly take a substantial amount of work. But it's also a unique opportunity that can make a difference at decision time. Admissions committees put the most weight on your high school grades and your test scores . However, selective colleges receive applications from many worthy students with similar scores and grades—too many to admit. So they use your essay, along with your letters of recommendation and extracurricular activities , to find out what sets you apart from the other talented candidates.
Telling Your Story to Colleges
So what does set you apart?
You have a unique background, interests and personality. This is your chance to tell your story (or at least part of it). The best way to tell your story is to write a personal, thoughtful essay about something that has meaning for you. Be honest and genuine, and your unique qualities will shine through.
Admissions officers have to read an unbelievable number of college essays, most of which are forgettable. Many students try to sound smart rather than sounding like themselves. Others write about a subject that they don't care about, but that they think will impress admissions officers.
You don't need to have started your own business or have spent the summer hiking the Appalachian Trail. Colleges are simply looking for thoughtful, motivated students who will add something to the first-year class.
Tips for a Stellar College Application Essay
1. write about something that's important to you..
It could be an experience, a person, a book—anything that has had an impact on your life.
2. Don't just recount—reflect!
Anyone can write about how they won the big game or the summer they spent in Rome. When recalling these events, you need to give more than the play-by-play or itinerary. Describe what you learned from the experience and how it changed you.
3. Being funny is tough.
A student who can make an admissions officer laugh never gets lost in the shuffle. But beware. What you think is funny and what an adult working in a college thinks is funny are probably different. We caution against one-liners, limericks and anything off–color.
4. Start early and write several drafts.
Set it aside for a few days and read it again. Put yourself in the shoes of an admissions officer: Is the essay interesting? Do the ideas flow logically? Does it reveal something about the applicant? Is it written in the applicant’s own voice?
5. No repeats.
What you write in your application essay or personal statement should not contradict any other part of your application–nor should it repeat it. This isn't the place to list your awards or discuss your grades or test scores.
6. Answer the question being asked.
Don't reuse an answer to a similar question from another application.
7. Have at least one other person edit your essay.
A teacher or college counselor is your best resource. And before you send it off, check, check again, and then triple check to make sure your essay is free of spelling or grammar errors.
Read More: 2018-2019 Common Application Essay Prompts (and How to Answer Them)
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- How to Write a College Essay
College admissions experts offer tips on selecting a topic as well as writing and editing the essay.
Students can go online to review essay requirements for the colleges they want to apply to, such as word limits and essay topics. Many students may start with the Common App, an application platform accepted by more than 900 schools. (Getty Images)
Not only is the college essay a place to showcase writing skills, it's one of the only parts of a college application where a student's voice can shine through.
Unlike test scores and transcripts, the college admissions essay offers students a chance to showcase their personality.
"The essays are important in part because this is a student's chance to really speak directly to the admissions office," says Adam Sapp, assistant vice president and director of admissions at Pomona College in California.
Prospective college students want their essay, sometimes called a personal statement, to make a good impression and boost their chances of being accepted, but they have only several hundred words to make that happen.
This can feel like a lot of pressure.
"I think this is the part of the application process that students are sometimes most challenged by," says Niki Barron, associate dean of admission at Hamilton College in New York, "because they're looking at a blank piece of paper and they don't know where to get started."
That pressure may be amplified as many colleges have gone test-optional in the past year, meaning that ACT and SAT scores will be considered if submitted but are not required. Other schools have gone test-blind and don't consider such scores at all. In the absence of test scores, some admissions experts have suggested that more attention will be paid to other parts of an application, such as the essay.
But just as each applicant is unique, so are college admissions policies and priorities.
"Being test optional hasn't changed how we use essays in our selection process, and I wouldn't say that the essay serves as a substitute for standardized test scores," Barron wrote in an email. "A student's academic preparation for our classroom experience is always front and center in our application review process."
Essay writing tips offered by experts emphasize the importance of being concise, coherent, congenial, honest and accurate. An applicant should also flex some intellectual muscle and include vivid details or anecdotes.
From brainstorming essay topics to editing the final draft, here's what students need to know about crafting a strong college essay.
Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a College Application Essay
- 1. Explore essay prompts and select a topic.
- 2. Start your college essay outline before jumping in.
- 3. Write the essay and leave time for multiple drafts.
- 4. Edit and proofread your essay.
- 5. Submit your essay.
Getting Started on the College Essay
A good time for students to begin working on their essays is the summer before senior year, experts say, when homework and extracurricular activities aren't taking up time and mental energy.
Starting early will also give students plenty of time to work through multiple drafts of an essay before college application deadlines, which can be as early as November for students applying for early decision or early action .
Students can go online to review essay requirements for the colleges they want to apply to, such as word limits and essay topics. Many students may start with the Common App , an application platform accepted by more than 900 schools.
In addition to the main essay, some colleges ask applicants to submit one or more additional writing samples. Students are often asked to explain why they are interested in a particular school or academic field in these supplemental essays , which tend to be shorter than the main essay.
Students will want to budget more time for the writing process if the schools they're applying to ask for supplemental essays.
"Most selective colleges will ask for more than one piece of writing. Don't spend all your time working on one long essay and then forget to devote energy to other parts of the application," Sapp says, noting there may be additional questions on an application requiring thoughtfully written responses.
How Long Should a College Essay Be?
Though the Common App – which students can submit to multiple colleges – notes that "there are no strict word limits" for its main essay, it suggests a cap of about 650 words.
"While we won't as a rule stop reading after 650 words, we cannot promise that an overly wordy essay will hold our attention for as long as you'd hoped it would," the Common App website states.
The word count is much shorter for institution-specific supplemental essays, which are typically around 250 words.
How to Pick a College Essay Topic
The first and sometimes most daunting step in the essay writing process is figuring out what to write about.
There are usually several essay prompts to choose from on a college application. They tend to be broad, open-ended questions, giving students the freedom to write about a wide array of topics, Barron says.
The essay isn't a complete autobiography, notes Mimi Doe, co-founder of Top Tier Admissions, a Massachusetts-based advising company. "It's overwhelming to think of putting your whole life in one essay," she says.
Rather, experts say students should narrow their focus and write about a specific experience, hobby or quirk that reveals something personal, like how they think, what they value or what their strengths are. Students can also write about something that illustrates an aspect of their background. Even an essay on a common topic can be compelling if done right.
Students don't have to discuss a major achievement in their essay, a common misconception. Admissions officers who spoke with U.S. News cited memorable essays that focused on more ordinary topics, including fly-fishing, a student's commute to and from school and a family's dining room table.
What's most important, experts say, is that a college essay is thoughtful and tells a story that offers insight into who a student is as a person.
So, no matter what topic students choose, they'll ultimately be writing about themselves, says Ethan Sawyer, founder of the College Essay Guy website, which offers free and paid essay-writing resources. "What we think of as the topic is just the frame or the lens that we're using to get into other parts of you."
If students are having trouble brainstorming potential topics , they can ask friends or family members for help, says Stephanie Klein Wassink, founder of Winning Applications and AdmissionsCheckup, Connecticut-based college admissions advising companies. Wassink says students can ask peers or family members questions such as, "What do you think differentiates me?" Or, "What are my quirks?"
The essay should tell college admissions officers something they don't already know, experts say. Students should ensure they're writing about something that isn't mentioned elsewhere in their application, perhaps in the activities section, or expand greatly on the topic if it is noted elsewhere.
Writing the College Essay
Some experts encourage students to outline their essay before jumping into the actual writing.
But there isn't one correct way of doing things, says Sara Newhouse, senior consultant at Enrollment Research Associates and former vice president for admission and financial planning at Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama.
"Your writing process is your own," she says. Newhouse encourages students to use whatever process worked for them in the past when they completed writing assignments for English and other high school classes.
The first draft of an essay doesn't need to be perfect. "Just do a brain dump," Doe says. "Don't edit yourself, just lay it all out on the page."
If students are having a hard time getting started, they should focus on their opening sentence, Doe suggests. She says an essay's opening sentence, or hook, should grab the reader's attention.
Doe offered an example of a strong hook from the essay of a student she worked with:
"I first got into politics the day the cafeteria outlawed creamed corn."
"I want to know about this kid," she says. "I’m interested."
But Sawyer cautions that students shouldn't get so caught up in writing the perfect hook that they neglect the rest of their essay. He also says he's read some essays that were excellent overall, even though they had what he would consider mundane hooks.
Editing and Submitting the College Essay
While admissions officers try to learn about students via the essay, they are also gauging writing skills, so students want to make sure they submit top-notch work.
"The best writing is rewriting," Sapp says. "You should never be giving me your first draft."
When reviewing a first essay draft, students should make sure their writing is showing, not telling, Doe says. This means students should show their readers examples that prove they embody certain traits or beliefs, as opposed to just stating that they do.
After editing their essay, students should seek outside editing help, experts recommend. While there are individuals and companies that offer paid essay help – from editing services to essay-writing boot camps – students and families may not be able to afford the associated fees.
However, there may be options to defray the costs. Sawyer, for example, says he offers scholarships to students from low-income families that cover the cost of one-on-one essay consultations.
The availability of and level of feedback from free essay advising services vary. Some college prep companies offer brief consultations at no charge. Free essay workshops may also be available through local high schools, public libraries or community organizations. Khan Academy, a free online education platform, also offers a series of videos and other content to guide students through the essay writing process.
Colleges themselves may also have resources, Barron notes, pointing to pages on Hamilton's website that offer writing tips as well as examples of successful admissions essays. Likewise, Hamilton also holds virtual panel discussions on writing admissions essays.
Students have other options when it comes to essay help. They can ask peers, teachers, school counselors and family members for help polishing an essay.
Newhouse says it works well to have other people proofread an essay in two stages. The first stage focuses on content. Readers should look for information gaps in the essay – anything they are confused about. Once the content is nailed down, the second proofing stage focuses on style, including grammar, punctuation and spelling.
But proofreaders should not change the tone of the essay. "Don't let anyone edit out your voice," Doe cautions.
And while proofreading is fair game, having someone else rewrite your essay is not.
When an essay is ready to go, students will generally submit it online along with the rest of their application. On the Common App, for example, students copy and paste their essay into a text box.
Sapp says even though students often stress about the essay in particular, it's not the only thing college admissions officers look at. "The essay is the window, but the application is the house," he says. "So let's not forget that an application is built of many pieces."
Strong College Essay Examples
Below are two examples of strong essays written by students accepted into Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.
"This is a personal statement, so what works in these essays works because of who the student is and how it fits into the rest of his or her application," notes Ellen Kim, dean of undergraduate admissions at Johns Hopkins.
Hover over the circles along the sides of the letters to read more about what worked.
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10 Ways to Discover College Essay Ideas
- See College Essay Examples
- Colleges Weigh in on Common Essay Topics
- College Supplemental Essay Tips
- Read 2 Transfer Essays That Worked
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How to Write a Great College Application Essay
By manuela florea
You’ve completed all the application forms, taken all the tests, and now it’s finally time to impress your university’s admission officers with a great college application essay.
A college application essay is usually around 500 words, and those words can mean the difference between acceptance and rejection. You will spend many days researching and crafting your essay, but admissions officers will only have a few minutes to actually read it, so you need to get their attention.
However, if you are the type of person who likes to start with the don’ts, check out our blog post on How Not to Write a University Application Essay .
1. Read the instructions carefully
They say starting the essay is the hardest part. You may think it’s redundant to mention that you need to read the instructions carefully, but with all the excitement and stress that characterizes this period of your life, it needs to be highlighted.
If you don’t follow the application essay guidelines, the admissions officer may assume that you won’t be able to follow the directions of the university’s program. Page and word limits are mentioned for a reason and you must be able to organize your submission by following the rules.
After you’ve read through the instructions a few times and gathered your notes, you can start creating an outline to organize your essay and decide what message you want to send. Now you're ready to write your first draft.
2. Start with a compelling introduction
Great writing is hard to achieve, but it’s possible if you’re smart about it. Anyone who works in journalism will tell you that you can catch any reader’s attention as long as you deliver a great introduction.
The admissions officers will only spend a brief amount of time reviewing your essay, so you need to start with a vivid paragraph that will keep them engaged. The introduction has to reveal to the reader what your essay is about and catch their attention. You could open with an anecdote or an interesting story that will show some of the best parts of your personality and character, offering an insight that will help the admission officers get to know who you are.
3. Use your inner voice
Universities are looking for authenticity and quality of thinking, so don’t try to shape your essay around phrases or ideas that people have used many times before, but base it on your genuine beliefs.
The application essay is your opportunity to impress an admissions officer with your determination and existing knowledge of your chosen subject. Make sure it reflects all of your skills and ambitions, and show how your chosen program will help you achieve future goals.
4. Avoid clichés
While you research your application essay, you will be encouraged to check out some examples of great essays and get inspired. While this is a great exercise, many students allow themselves to be influenced too much by the examples, and use lots of clichés in their desire to impress the admission officers.
Remember that there are thousands of others students applying to your desired university, and you need to distinguish yourself. Re-read your essay, delete all the sentences that sound like a cliché, and try to find a more original angle.
Admissions officers go through thousands of applications a year, so it’s only logical that they will notice those that bring a unique personality to life. Let them discover that!
5. Give good examples to support your ideas
A college application essay is basically a glimpse into how your mind works and how you view the world. If you want your essay to be credible, you need to make sure everything you write supports that viewpoint. Spend some time figuring out how the essay question relates to your personal qualities and then write from a specific angle.
That means that every time you want to express an idea, you don’t simply state a fact, but you also include specific details and examples to develop your ideas. You can do that by offering examples from your personal experiences and writing about what truly motivates you and how you developed a certain belief.
6. Stick to a clear essay plan
Creativity is an aspect very much appreciated in writing, but don’t assume that a creative essay is not also an organized one. Obviously, you don't want to write a bunch of words without meaning, so make sure you write about just one subject at a time.
You will have a maximum number of words, so the secret is not to try to cover everything in your essay. Create a plan before you actually start writing, organize your essay in three parts (introduction, body and conclusion), and decide on the main ideas you want to express.
7. Ask someone to proofread your work
You want to create a great college application, so you will probably read it over and over again in order to make sure there are no typos and spelling and grammar errors. But after a while, you might need a fresh perspective. It's best to ask someone who hasn't seen it yet to take a look, as they're likely to see mistakes you won't catch.
If you ask a teacher or parent to proofread your essay, they will be able not only to catch mistakes, but also to check if the writing sounds like you. After reading so many examples and following all those instructions, it’s hard to tell if what you just wrote is a statement of who you really are or not. Enlist the help of others to make sure that your essay is immaculate.
Now start writing and craft an extraordinary essay!
This article was originally published in January 2016 . It was last updated in September 2022
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Manuela is passionate about education and evolution and wishes to collect enough information in order to help students from all corners of the world take the big step towards their incredible future.
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Tips for Writing an Effective Application Essay
How to Write an Effective Essay
Writing an essay for college admission gives you a chance to use your authentic voice and show your personality. It's an excellent opportunity to personalize your application beyond your academic credentials, and a well-written essay can have a positive influence come decision time.
Want to know how to draft an essay for your college application ? Here are some tips to keep in mind when writing.
Tips for Essay Writing
A typical college application essay, also known as a personal statement, is 400-600 words. Although that may seem short, writing about yourself can be challenging. It's not something you want to rush or put off at the last moment. Think of it as a critical piece of the application process. Follow these tips to write an impactful essay that can work in your favor.
1. Start Early.
Few people write well under pressure. Try to complete your first draft a few weeks before you have to turn it in. Many advisers recommend starting as early as the summer before your senior year in high school. That way, you have ample time to think about the prompt and craft the best personal statement possible.
You don't have to work on your essay every day, but you'll want to give yourself time to revise and edit. You may discover that you want to change your topic or think of a better way to frame it. Either way, the sooner you start, the better.
2. Understand the Prompt and Instructions.
Before you begin the writing process, take time to understand what the college wants from you. The worst thing you can do is skim through the instructions and submit a piece that doesn't even fit the bare minimum requirements or address the essay topic. Look at the prompt, consider the required word count, and note any unique details each school wants.
3. Create a Strong Opener.
Students seeking help for their application essays often have trouble getting things started. It's a challenging writing process. Finding the right words to start can be the hardest part.
Spending more time working on your opener is always a good idea. The opening sentence sets the stage for the rest of your piece. The introductory paragraph is what piques the interest of the reader, and it can immediately set your essay apart from the others.
4. Stay on Topic.
One of the most important things to remember is to keep to the essay topic. If you're applying to 10 or more colleges, it's easy to veer off course with so many application essays.
A common mistake many students make is trying to fit previously written essays into the mold of another college's requirements. This seems like a time-saving way to avoid writing new pieces entirely, but it often backfires. The result is usually a final piece that's generic, unfocused, or confusing. Always write a new essay for every application, no matter how long it takes.
5. Think About Your Response.
Don't try to guess what the admissions officials want to read. Your essay will be easier to write─and more exciting to read─if you’re genuinely enthusiastic about your subject. Here’s an example: If all your friends are writing application essays about covid-19, it may be a good idea to avoid that topic, unless during the pandemic you had a vivid, life-changing experience you're burning to share. Whatever topic you choose, avoid canned responses. Be creative.
6. Focus on You.
Essay prompts typically give you plenty of latitude, but panel members expect you to focus on a subject that is personal (although not overly intimate) and particular to you. Admissions counselors say the best essays help them learn something about the candidate that they would never know from reading the rest of the application.
7. Stay True to Your Voice.
Use your usual vocabulary. Avoid fancy language you wouldn't use in real life. Imagine yourself reading this essay aloud to a classroom full of people who have never met you. Keep a confident tone. Be wary of words and phrases that undercut that tone.
8. Be Specific and Factual.
Capitalize on real-life experiences. Your essay may give you the time and space to explain why a particular achievement meant so much to you. But resist the urge to exaggerate and embellish. Admissions counselors read thousands of essays each year. They can easily spot a fake.
9. Edit and Proofread.
When you finish the final draft, run it through the spell checker on your computer. Then don’t read your essay for a few days. You'll be more apt to spot typos and awkward grammar when you reread it. After that, ask a teacher, parent, or college student (preferably an English or communications major) to give it a quick read. While you're at it, double-check your word count.
Writing essays for college admission can be daunting, but it doesn't have to be. A well-crafted essay could be the deciding factor─in your favor. Keep these tips in mind, and you'll have no problem creating memorable pieces for every application.
What is the format of a college application essay?
Generally, essays for college admission follow a simple format that includes an opening paragraph, a lengthier body section, and a closing paragraph. You don't need to include a title, which will only take up extra space. Keep in mind that the exact format can vary from one college application to the next. Read the instructions and prompt for more guidance.
Most online applications will include a text box for your essay. If you're attaching it as a document, however, be sure to use a standard, 12-point font and use 1.5-spaced or double-spaced lines, unless the application specifies different font and spacing.
How do you start an essay?
The goal here is to use an attention grabber. Think of it as a way to reel the reader in and interest an admissions officer in what you have to say. There's no trick on how to start a college application essay. The best way you can approach this task is to flex your creative muscles and think outside the box.
You can start with openers such as relevant quotes, exciting anecdotes, or questions. Either way, the first sentence should be unique and intrigue the reader.
What should an essay include?
Every application essay you write should include details about yourself and past experiences. It's another opportunity to make yourself look like a fantastic applicant. Leverage your experiences. Tell a riveting story that fulfills the prompt.
What shouldn’t be included in an essay?
When writing a college application essay, it's usually best to avoid overly personal details and controversial topics. Although these topics might make for an intriguing essay, they can be tricky to express well. If you’re unsure if a topic is appropriate for your essay, check with your school counselor. An essay for college admission shouldn't include a list of achievements or academic accolades either. Your essay isn’t meant to be a rehashing of information the admissions panel can find elsewhere in your application.
How can you make your essay personal and interesting?
The best way to make your essay interesting is to write about something genuinely important to you. That could be an experience that changed your life or a valuable lesson that had an enormous impact on you. Whatever the case, speak from the heart, and be honest.
Is it OK to discuss mental health in an essay?
Mental health struggles can create challenges you must overcome during your education and could be an opportunity for you to show how you’ve handled challenges and overcome obstacles. If you’re considering writing your essay for college admission on this topic, consider talking to your school counselor or with an English teacher on how to frame the essay.
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12 Strategies to Writing the Perfect College Essay
College admission committees sift through thousands of college essays each year. Here’s how to make yours stand out.
When it comes to deciding who they will admit into their programs, colleges consider many criteria, including high school grades, extracurricular activities, and ACT and SAT scores. But in recent years, more colleges are no longer considering test scores.
Instead, many (including Harvard through 2026) are opting for “test-blind” admission policies that give more weight to other elements in a college application. This policy change is seen as fairer to students who don’t have the means or access to testing, or who suffer from test anxiety.
So, what does this mean for you?
Simply that your college essay, traditionally a requirement of any college application, is more important than ever.
A college essay is your unique opportunity to introduce yourself to admissions committees who must comb through thousands of applications each year. It is your chance to stand out as someone worthy of a seat in that classroom.
A well-written and thoughtful essay—reflecting who you are and what you believe—can go a long way to separating your application from the slew of forgettable ones that admissions officers read. Indeed, officers may rely on them even more now that many colleges are not considering test scores.
Below we’ll discuss a few strategies you can use to help your essay stand out from the pack. We’ll touch on how to start your essay, what you should write for your college essay, and elements that make for a great college essay.
More than any other consideration, you should choose a topic or point of view that is consistent with who you truly are.
Readers can sense when writers are inauthentic.
Inauthenticity could mean the use of overly flowery language that no one would ever use in conversation, or it could mean choosing an inconsequential topic that reveals very little about who you are.
Use your own voice, sense of humor, and a natural way of speaking.
Whatever subject you choose, make sure it’s something that’s genuinely important to you and not a subject you’ve chosen just to impress. You can write about a specific experience, hobby, or personality quirk that illustrates your strengths, but also feel free to write about your weaknesses.
Honesty about traits, situations, or a childhood background that you are working to improve may resonate with the reader more strongly than a glib victory speech.
Grab the Reader From the Start
You’ll be competing with so many other applicants for an admission officer’s attention.
Therefore, start your essay with an opening sentence or paragraph that immediately seizes the imagination. This might be a bold statement, a thoughtful quote, a question you pose, or a descriptive scene.
Starting your essay in a powerful way with a clear thesis statement can often help you along in the writing process. If your task is to tell a good story, a bold beginning can be a natural prelude to getting there, serving as a roadmap, engaging the reader from the start, and presenting the purpose of your writing.
Focus on Deeper Themes
Some essay writers think they will impress committees by loading an essay with facts, figures, and descriptions of activities, like wins in sports or descriptions of volunteer work. But that’s not the point.
College admissions officers are interested in learning more about who you are as a person and what makes you tick.
They want to know what has brought you to this stage in life. They want to read about realizations you may have come to through adversity as well as your successes, not just about how many games you won while on the soccer team or how many people you served at a soup kitchen.
Let the reader know how winning the soccer game helped you develop as a person, friend, family member, or leader. Make a connection with your soup kitchen volunteerism and how it may have inspired your educational journey and future aspirations. What did you discover about yourself?
Show Don’t Tell
As you expand on whatever theme you’ve decided to explore in your essay, remember to show, don’t tell.
The most engaging writing “shows” by setting scenes and providing anecdotes, rather than just providing a list of accomplishments and activities.
Reciting a list of activities is also boring. An admissions officer will want to know about the arc of your emotional journey too.
Try Doing Something Different
If you want your essay to stand out, think about approaching your subject from an entirely new perspective. While many students might choose to write about their wins, for instance, what if you wrote an essay about what you learned from all your losses?
If you are an especially talented writer, you might play with the element of surprise by crafting an essay that leaves the response to a question to the very last sentence.
You may want to stay away from well-worn themes entirely, like a sports-related obstacle or success, volunteer stories, immigration stories, moving, a summary of personal achievements or overcoming obstacles.
However, such themes are popular for a reason. They represent the totality of most people’s lives coming out of high school. Therefore, it may be less important to stay away from these topics than to take a fresh approach.
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Write With the Reader in Mind
Writing for the reader means building a clear and logical argument in which one thought flows naturally from another.
Use transitions between paragraphs.
Think about any information you may have left out that the reader may need to know. Are there ideas you have included that do not help illustrate your theme?
Be sure you can answer questions such as: Does what you have written make sense? Is the essay organized? Does the opening grab the reader? Is there a strong ending? Have you given enough background information? Is it wordy?
Write Several Drafts
Set your essay aside for a few days and come back to it after you’ve had some time to forget what you’ve written. Often, you’ll discover you have a whole new perspective that enhances your ability to make revisions.
Start writing months before your essay is due to give yourself enough time to write multiple drafts. A good time to start could be as early as the summer before your senior year when homework and extracurricular activities take up less time.
Read It Aloud
Writer’s tip : Reading your essay aloud can instantly uncover passages that sound clumsy, long-winded, or false.
If you’ve mentioned an activity, story, or anecdote in some other part of your application, don’t repeat it again in your essay.
Your essay should tell college admissions officers something new. Whatever you write in your essay should be in philosophical alignment with the rest of your application.
Also, be sure you’ve answered whatever question or prompt may have been posed to you at the outset.
Ask Others to Read Your Essay
Be sure the people you ask to read your essay represent different demographic groups—a teacher, a parent, even a younger sister or brother.
Ask each reader what they took from the essay and listen closely to what they have to say. If anyone expresses confusion, revise until the confusion is cleared up.
Pay Attention to Form
Although there are often no strict word limits for college essays, most essays are shorter rather than longer. Common App, which students can use to submit to multiple colleges, suggests that essays stay at about 650 words.
“While we won’t as a rule stop reading after 650 words, we cannot promise that an overly wordy essay will hold our attention for as long as you’d hoped it would,” the Common App website states.
In reviewing other technical aspects of your essay, be sure that the font is readable, that the margins are properly spaced, that any dialogue is set off properly, and that there is enough spacing at the top. Your essay should look clean and inviting to readers.
End Your Essay With a “Kicker”
In journalism, a kicker is the last punchy line, paragraph, or section that brings everything together.
It provides a lasting impression that leaves the reader satisfied and impressed by the points you have artfully woven throughout your piece.
So, here’s our kicker: Be concise and coherent, engage in honest self-reflection, and include vivid details and anecdotes that deftly illustrate your point.
While writing a fantastic essay may not guarantee you get selected, it can tip the balance in your favor if admissions officers are considering a candidate with a similar GPA and background.
Write, revise, revise again, and good luck!
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How to Write a Personal Essay for Your College Application
What does it take to land in the “accept” (instead of “reject”) pile?
How can you write an essay that helps advance you in the eyes of the admissions officers and makes a real impression? Here are some tips to get you started.
- Start early. Do not leave it until the last minute. Give yourself time when you don’t have other homework or extracurriculars hanging over your head to work on the essay.
- Keep the focus narrow. Your essay does not have to cover a massive, earth-shattering event. Some people in their teens haven’t experienced a major life event. Some people have. Either way, it’s okay.
- Be yourself. Whether writing about a painful experience or a more simple experience, use the narrative to be vulnerable and honest about who you are. Use words you would normally use. Trust your voice and the fact that your story is interesting enough in that no one else has lived it.
- Be creative. “Show, don’t tell,” and that applies here — to an extent. The best essays typically do both. You can help your reader see and feel what you are describing by using some figurative language throughout your piece.
- Make a point. As you finish your final body paragraphs ask yourself “So what?” This will help you hone in on how to end your essay in a way that elevates it into a story about an insight or discovery you made about yourself, rather than just being about an experience you had.
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We’ve all heard about the dreaded “college essay,” the bane of every high school senior’s existence. This daunting element of the college application is something that can create angst for even the most accomplished students.
What exactly goes into writing a great college essay, and more importantly, what does it take to write one that stands out from thousands of others, landing itself in the “Accept” vs. “Reject” pile?
Breaking Down the College Essay
Let’s start by breaking it down into manageable parts and examining the required elements.
What’s the point of the college essay?
Almost every standard college application requires first-year applicants to submit a personal essay. If you are one of these applicants, you may be wondering, what’s the point?
With so many colleges deciding to go test-optional, (many do not require standardized tests and instead focus solely on your transcripts, essay, and recommendations), the essay is the one place in your application where you can illuminate your character in words and ideas, rather than in numbers and percentages. It is your chance to show schools who you are, what makes you tick, and why you stand out from the crowd.
Admissions counselors will read your essay and try to determine whether or not they want you at their school. While reading, they will be asking themselves, “What will this person bring to our community? Will they make our school a more valuable place?”
What are the prompts?
There are seven personal essay prompts in the Common Application. You may choose to write about obstacles you’ve encountered, your accomplishments and realizations, moments when you experienced extreme gratitude, or select your own topic.
No one prompt is considered “better” than another, but they can vary slightly from year to year, so be sure to read through all of them for your application cycle. At the end of the day, if there is something you feel really passionate about, you can likely adapt it to fit a prompt.
How long should your essay be?
The essay should be 650 words, which might sound like a lot at first, but you will be surprised by how quickly you reach that limit once you get going. Most of the students I work with end up making cuts to shorten their essays before submitting. The word limit is non-negotiable. You will not be able to submit an essay that’s even one word over the limit.
Writing the College Essay
Your parents, teachers, and guidance counselors know what they are talking about when they tell you to get started on the essay during the summer before your senior year. Don’t leave it until the last minute. Once senior year starts, life is a whirlwind. Give yourself time when you don’t have other homework or extracurriculars hanging over your head to work on the essay. Aim to start in July or August before senior year.
Starting can be as easy as creating a document where you generate an ongoing list of potential topics. You will want to draft your essay in a separate document anyway. You can copy and paste it over into the Common Application once you have a final, edited version.
Additionally, starting doesn’t always mean sitting down in front of a computer and typing. Talk about topic ideas out loud with anyone who will listen. Discuss ideas for topics with your family members over dinner or on car rides with friends. Think about ideas when you are out for a run or bike ride. Almost all colleges and universities have samples of “College Essays That Worked” in the admissions section of their websites. Reading through these may inspire you.
Keep the focus narrow.
Do not think too big. Your essay does not have to cover a massive, earth-shattering event. Some people in their teens haven’t experienced a major life event. Some people have. Either way, it’s okay.
That leads to another suggestion: Don’t write about Covid-19. Your essay might touch on something that’s an offshoot of your time spent in quarantine or a loss connected to Covid, but it should not be about the pandemic specifically. There’s no question Covid-19 had, and still has, a major impact on all of us, but that topic has been written about by many students from every angle possible. Colleges want to read something different.
The Common Application has added an optional question that gives all applicants a place to address the impact that Covid has had on them personally and educationally. If you feel you have a story you must tell connected to the pandemic, this is the place to share it.
So, what should you write about?
When brainstorming topics, think about challenges you have faced and how you’ve handled them. You can also ask people who know you best how they would describe you in a few words and why. Their responses can be great jumping off points for writing your essay.
Some students choose to write about seemingly small, ordinary topics that illuminate their character beautifully, and are both poignant and thought-provoking. One student I worked with wrote about growing up hiking with her parents from the time when she was a baby in a backpack carrier, to a grumpy middle schooler, to an appreciative, nature-loving young adult who found outdoor experiences were an essential part of who she was at her core.
Other students choose to describe major life events, or especially challenging experiences that have impacted them deeply. An essay that comes to mind is one written by a student who battled loneliness and isolation due to anxiety and depression, and ultimately found invaluable reprieve in the arts, a passion that they hoped to continue to pursue at the college level.
Whether writing about a painful experience or a more simple experience, be sure the essay rises above a strict recounting of a story. Instead, use the narrative to reveal your true self. It’s okay to be vulnerable and honest; in fact, it’s critical you do so. Admissions counselors will not judge you negatively for depicting moments of weakness or fear, or for having different politics than they might. More likely, they will be impressed by your level of self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and introspection.
Admissions counselors want value-adders. What adds value to a college campus? Students who display energy, resilience, leadership, passion, inclusivity, unique outlooks, and people who can inspire others. Your essay should tell a story that highlights traits like these. No one else has lived your life or experienced what you have in the way that you have; tell your unique story. Use a voice that’s real to you.
This is not the time to experiment with overly formal academic nor romantic, flowery language. Use words you would normally use and show the reader what makes you, you. There is no need to over-inflate things. Trust your voice and the fact that your story is interesting enough in that no one else has lived it.
The college essay is not like a typical English paper. It’s a true blend of the creative and the literary. In creative writing classes you often hear the advice, “Show, don’t tell,” and that applies here — to an extent. The best essays typically do both. You can help your reader see and feel what you are describing by using some figurative language throughout your piece. Describe sights, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, and sounds as you write.
That said, just because you are being creative does not mean your essay should lack structure. This is not the time to experiment with a completely outlandish form. You don’t want to make your readers work to understand what you are trying to say. You want them to be entirely absorbed in the story you are telling. The easiest way to do this is by making your essay easy to read.
Think of the typical five paragraph structure for English papers. Your essay should have an introductory paragraph with a thesis/hook, supporting body paragraphs, and a conclusion that ties everything together. Your story might lend itself to six or seven paragraphs instead of five, depending on where the natural narrative breaks lie, and that’s fine. Just make sure it has a clear beginning, middle, and end.
Your essay should not have any spelling, formatting, or grammatical errors. Mistakes do not put your best foot forward to admissions counselors, and they are distracting.
Be sure to read, re-read, and share your submission with others to prevent the possibility of mistakes. Use tools like spell and grammar check, and ask at least two other people to read your essay and offer feedback. You can ask a trusted family member to take a look, or even reach out to a friend with exceptionally good writing skills. We often get so close to our own words that we miss obvious errors. Even the best writers in the world rely on editors to help catch mistakes.
Another option is to ask your English teacher or guidance counselor to review your essay. In some schools, students will work on the college essay in English class during the fall of their senior year. This gives them a chance to receive both teacher and peer feedback, which can be incredibly valuable.
Finally, read your essay aloud before hitting submit. It may feel silly, but you will be amazed at the errors you will catch this way.
Make a point.
By the time you reach your conclusion, be sure your essay makes some sort of point. This is what will separate it from the competition. Ask yourself what you want your reader to walk away thinking and knowing about you, and allude to that in your final sentences. A strong conclusion that helps tie the entire essay together, and also points to the bigger picture, is key.
To achieve this, as you finish your final body paragraphs ask yourself “So what?” This will help you hone in on how to end your essay in a way that elevates it into a story about an insight or discovery you made about yourself, rather than just being about an experience you had. Above all, remember that the conclusion should not be an afterthought, nor should it simply summarize the previous few paragraphs.
In many ways, the conclusion is the most important part of your essay as it’s the last thing people will read. Be sure to give it the time, effort, and energy it deserves. You want your readers to pause and reflect at the end of your essay. You want them to feel something, versus just moving on to the next essay on their list.
While some students are able to afford pricey college counselors to help guide them through the application process, at the end of the day, there is no magic formula that someone can pay thousands of dollars for when it comes to writing the college essay. Everyone has a unique story to tell and that is priceless. As long as you give yourself the time to brainstorm, and write and then rewrite, as well as ask for feedback from others along the way, you can end up with a solid final product.
One lesson you will learn at college is that the world is full of a wide array of brilliant, interesting, diverse individuals who all have unique life experiences. You are one of those people. Enjoy the process of telling your story, and then relish the opportunity you will have to create more stories as you move onto the next chapter of your life.
- AA Amy Allen is a writer, educator, and lifelong learner. Her freelance writing business, All of the Write Words , focuses on providing high school students with one-on-one feedback to guide them through the college application process and with crafting a thoughtful personal essay. A dedicated poet, Amy’s work has also been published in several journals including Pine Row Press , Months to Years, and Atlanta Review .
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How to write a college admission essay that really works.
Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University
Read on to learn how to sturcuture, draft, write, and edit your college admisisons essays.
From drafting a personal statement to acquiring recommendation letters and seeking financial aid, applying for college can be a long, tedious task. One essential aspect of the admissions process is writing a stellar college admission essay; it allows students to add their own personal charm to their college application, one that goes beyond test scores and transcripts.
Writing a college admission essay can be a nerve-wracking challenge. To help you write a killer essay, we’ll cover how long your essay should be, expectations regarding its structure, and how to choose the ideal prompt to give you the best chance of admission.
In this article, you will learn the standard rules and tips to help you write a good college admissions essay.
BEFORE you submit: Get a free essay review from a former Ivy League admissions officer.
Purpose of college admissions essays.
Drafting a college admissions essay that is well-written and impactful can make a world of a difference in whether or not your application is accepted. When the admissions committee chooses between you and another applicant with similar credentials, a powerful essay can tip the balance in your favor.
Through your college admissions essay, you can showcase your personality and demonstrate that you have thought carefully about why you would be a good match for the college you’re applying to. It illustrates your commitment to learning and eagerness to contribute to your dream school’s community. Along with provings your writing skills, your essay also allows your voice to shine through your application.
Writing a good college admissions essay makes a strong impression on the admissions officers and can boost your chances of being accepted; all it takes is a piece of paper and a few hundred words to make that happen.
How to Stand Out in Your Essays
Your college admissions essay showcases your way of thinking and personality; your essay should be as unique as you are. Instead of writing a dull, generic essay, write one that is true to who you are, one that will captivate the reader. Here are some tips to help make your college admissions essay stand out.
Your First Paragraph Should Grab the Reader’s Attention
Arguably, the introduction is the most important part of your college admission essay because it sets the tone for the rest of your essay. Remember, first impressions matter. A well-crafted introduction will convince the admissions committee to continue reading the rest of your essay. If you are having trouble figuring out how to begin your college essay, here are some introductions you can use to grab the reader’s attention:
- Ask a thought-provoking question.
- Begin with a bold statement
- Use a famous/interesting quote.
- Challenge the reader as if speaking directly to them directly
- Begin with a one-word sentence; if executed correctly, it could spark the reader’s curiosity.
Be Authentic, Not Generic
You’ve probably read a newspaper article at some point in your life. You will notice the writer fades their voice behind the facts, leaving you without any knowledge about the author of the piece. When writing your college admissions essay, you should do the exact opposite. You do not want to be one of the other thousands of applicants who fail to make an impression.
Instead, you want the admissions officer to say: “this is an actual person who wrote this; someone with feeling and depth.” Being vulnerable and putting your personality into your essay is a great way to achieve this; be honest, personable, and stay true to your own authentic voice.
Be Exciting – Don’t Be Boring
Trying to act like an intellectual know-it-all is not only exhausting but a huge turn-off for college admissions. You need to be unique to get noticed. Write like you are a strong-minded individual. Use beautiful yet casual language. Put emotion into your words. Make your essay come alive.
Make Your Essay Beautiful
You should make your essay beautiful in terms of style and content. Use a reasonable font, one that is easy to read and professional-looking. Instead of cramming your main ideas in the first paragraph, balance your essay points throughout.
Use soothing margins and declare the essay prompt and your answer in the introduction. Be consistent with spacing, indentation, and excellent spelling and punctuation. Be sure to follow citation rules as per the essay requirements (MLA, Chicago style, APA, etc.)
Approach the Essay Prompt From a Different Point of View
Seeing things from a different perspective is one way to help your essay stand out. Do not be afraid to answer your essay prompt in a way that is unconventional or unexpected.
One approach, for example, can involve creating a little mystery; do not answer the prompt immediately. Instead, try to captivate the reader until the big reveal in the end. What do you wish to study at your dream college? You can reveal that in the final sentence of your essay after dropping clues that are relevant to your area of study.
You might want to talk about growing up in your native society; talk about your experiences, positive or negative, the bonds you made, the support you received, and how it helped you grow. You can talk about how you were interested in societies and end it off by writing how you wish to study social sciences.
How to Structure a College Admissions Essay
A college admissions essay does not necessarily have to follow the standard English essay format: five paragraphs, including an introduction and conclusion. However, any specific requirements might differ between each college. Below we’ll outline how a college admissions essay should typically be structured.
College admissions essays usually do not require a title. Some students, however, choose to include a title because it’s the first thing the admissions committee will read, and it’s another chance to capture interest, demonstrate personality, and reframe their essay as a whole. A title is purely optional. If you do choose to incorporate a title, however, here are some tips:
Make sure your title is evocative, something that could be humorous, a play on words, or retell a moment of your life. Ensuring your title is interesting can be an effective way to draw your reader’s attention and make them excited to read the rest of your essay. Avoid using vague language in your title to keep the reader engaged. If you can’t think of a gripping title, consider submitting your essay without one; you don’t want your title to take away from what you have written.
Number of Paragraphs
Unless otherwise noted from the college application requirements, the number of paragraphs is up to you. Some essays can be four paragraphs, while others use eight. However, your essay, just as every other essay you have written (and will write in college), will require an introduction and a conclusion. It must adhere to the word limit, which will be discussed below.
Unfortunately, there are no one-size-fits-all templates that you can follow when writing your college admission essay. You are allowed, however, to use basic structures when writing your essay that can work for any prompt. It is a good thing because it teaches you how to style the prompt the way you want while telling your story the way you want.
How Long Should a College Admissions Essay Be?
Instead of page limits, colleges provide candidates with a specific word count for their admission essays. Colleges do this to ensure there’s a standard length for all the admissions essays they receive, regardless of format or font type. If your prospective school does not specify how long your essay should be, you can always email the admissions committee to confirm before you start writing.
While your essay can be close, it should not exceed the word limit. If possible, a standard practice to make sure you don’t exceed the word count is to aim to spare about 50 words from the total word limit. If an essay calls for a 600-word count, aim to cap it around 550-580 words. When given a range, you must always respect and stay in said range.
If you need to exceed the limit by maybe one to three extra words, you can definitely get away with that. Colleges will allow that, but you must be absolutely sure it is appropriate to do so. There’s a chance that if you have to copy-paste your essay into your application rather than upload it, the formatting can become skewed, and a few words at the end could be cut off.
Keep in mind that if you exceed the limit in a glaringly obvious way, the admissions office will stop reading your essay past a certain point, which is not good for you. The word limit is like a small test for applicants – it is very important to follow the school’s rules, and they want to see who can make the best impression while following their specific rules and guidelines.
Sometimes, colleges do not have a word limit for their admission essays. It can be difficult figuring out an appropriate length for your prompt, but they may offer additional components, such as including a writing sample from one of your classes. Colleges can provide a general guideline for writing samples, usually four to five pages demonstrating your writing and analytical abilities. It is not advised to provide a sample that exceeds ten pages.
How to Pick Your Essay Topic
Colleges usually have one prompt for you to address in your personal statement or will give you the option to choose from a list. Having a variety of questions to choose from can come with its own difficulties; you may not know which question is best or how to approach it. Here is a short list of the most common essay prompts, as well as how to answer them.
Prompt #1: Share Your Story
You can answer this prompt by reflecting on a hobby, a part of your personality, or a genuine experience that was meaningful to you. Your essay should make the reader feel connected to you, and your essay can do that by offering an honest, personal insight into who you are. Unless they are close to your heart, avoid talking about high school achievements in your prompt. Instead, talk about things that truly matter to you, like your love of nature, superheroes, special talents, or anything else that ties into who you are and what you believe.
Prompt #2: Learning From Obstacles
Showing your best self can include learning from past mistakes or obstacles you had to overcome. Talking about overcoming challenges can display your courage, perseverance, determination, and self-control. The conclusion is what really ties this prompt together; it allows you to explain how this obstacle changed your perspective on life and made you a stronger person.
Prompt #3: Challenging a Belief
This prompt requires you to answer by talking about a time you stood against the status quo or an experience that changed your view on a certain topic.
Only choose this prompt if you have a relevant, specific,experience you can recount. Discussing the lessons that you have learnt from this experience is a great way to conclude this essay. Keep in mind that writing a vague essay about a hot button issue doesn’t tell the admissions committee anything useful about you.
Prompt #4: Solving a Problem
This prompt is designed to allow readers to delve into the heart of how you think and what makes you tick. Present a situation, explain it in detail, and show steps toward the solution. Admissions officers want to learn more about your thought process and the issues you deal with. Explain how you first became aware of the issue and how you tackled it while reiterating why the problem is important to you. Don’t forget to explain why the problem is important to you!
Prompt #5: Describe a Person You Admire
Avoid the urge to write about a beloved figure like Princess Diana or Martin Luther King Jr. The admissions committee doesn't need to be convinced they are famous and influential people. Focus on yourself: Choose someone who has altered your behavior or your worldview, and write about how this person influenced you. This person could be a teacher, family member, or even a classmate that had an important impact on you.
Prompt #6: Discuss a Professional Experience or Extracurricular Activity That Has Been Meaningful to You
Take this opportunity to examine an experience that taught you something you didn't previously know about yourself, got you out of your comfort zone, or forced you to grow. Sometimes it's better to write about something hard because of the lessons learned rather than choosing to write about something easy. As with all essay questions, the most important thing is to tell a great story: how you discovered this activity, what drew you to it, and what it's shown you about yourself.
Tips for Writing a College Admissions Essay
Even when you have the topic chosen and how you wish to address the topic set, it is still hard to know how to make an impactful essay. Here are some final tips to help get your creative juices flowing when preparing an outline for your college admission essay.
Read the Instructions Carefully
While this may seem redundant, keep in mind that you have to read the instructions carefully. If you do not follow the guidelines, it tells the admissions officer you are likely to disregard instructions in your classes once admitted. Always read the instructions carefully and make notes, so you are prepared to create your first draft.
Start With a Compelling Introduction
Writing is hard, but great writing is achievable if you follow the right path. Any journalist will tell you that the best way to get the readers’ attention is to have a great introduction. Admissions take a short time to review your essay, so make sure you start off with a vivid introduction to engage them.
Use Your Inner Voice
Authenticity is greatly valued in post-secondary institutions, as it shows your quality of thinking. Avoid shaping your essay around popular phrases or ideas that have been used many times before; try to base it on your genuine beliefs. Connect it to your skills, ambitions, existing knowledge on the matter, and how it will help you in your future endeavors.
While you research your application essay, you will most likely get inspired by a few examples of great essays. While it can be a great way to help you write your own essays, many students allow their responses to be influenced too much by examples, resulting in them using clichésas a way to appeal to the admission officers.
Remember that there are thousands of students applying to your desired university; you need to make yourself stand out. Reread your essay, delete all the sentences that sound too common, and try to find a more original angle.
Give Good Examples to Support Your Ideas
A college application essay is basically a glimpse into how your mind works and your view of the world. If you want your essay to be credible, you need to make sure everything you write supports that viewpoint. Spend some time figuring out how the essay question relates to your personal qualities, and then write from that approach.
That means that every time you want to express an idea, don’t just simply state a fact; include specific details and examples to develop your ideas. You can do that by offering examples from your personal experiences and writing about what truly motivates you and how you developed a certain belief.
Select a Prompt That Works in Your Favor
The Common Application, and a few schools, will give you a list of prompts to help you tell your own story.
These prompts are useful starting off points and invite students to think about challenges they’ve overcome or experiences that have made them grateful. It’s an opportunity to display your growth, strength, and what makes a candidate who they are.
Tell Your Story
Remember that your college admissions essay should be all about you. Before you begin writing your essay, admissions experts advise that you do a reflection exercise with yourself. Ask yourself questions like, “How do I tell my story?”
Don’t Be Repetitive
Your essay shouldn’t just repeat the points of your resume. Instead, it should highlight what makes you a fantastic candidate beyond grades, extracurricular activities, and test scores.
Edit. Then Edit Again
Once you’ve written your essay’s first draft, take a couple of days Before you reread it with fresh eyes to see if it flows and uses clear, specific language. Avoid writing in an overly formal academic tone; you should always aim to write in your own, authentic voice. Consult a trusted teacher, tutor, or counselor to review and edit your second draft. A second pair of eyes from someone who knows you well can ensure that your essay is written in your own style and is free of spelling and grammatical errors.
Take Advantage of Resources
Though developing a strong college essay can be a long, tedious process, you don’t have to go through it by yourself. . There is a wide range of online admission resources that you can access through various universities and nonprofit organizations. These help you make the best version of your prompt and enhance your chances of getting accepted.
Confirm Your Requirements and Deadlines
Treat the application process as a test run for college courses — you’ll have plenty of deadlines to meet for assignments and tests in your first semesters during college. Admissions officers recommend keeping a spreadsheet or document detailing the universities you’re applying to, along with a checklist of what you have completed keeping track of your progress.
College Admission Essay FAQs
Still have questions? Here are some FAQs that can help you give an appropriate insight into college essay writing:
1. Can I use the same essay for different schools?
Yes. You must first research each schools’ essay questions or prompts. Most schools use a common list of prompts, but others have their own application requirements. It would not hurt to tweak your essay for colleges based on the topics provided.
2. How can my essay stand out from everyone else’s?
Your essay provides an opportunity to help the admissions committee learn about you as a person, your interests, character traits, and factors that cannot be seen on the more formal parts of your applications. The topic you pick must shine a light on your strengths. Be personal, open a window for the admissions to delve into your mind, your world.
3. How personal should the Personal Essay be?
A good way to approach this would be to imagine you’re on a date with someone you have just met, and you want to instigate conversation. Which story would be the most appropriate for them? Would it succeed in growing the conversation and the bond between you two? While you should be honest, genuine, and vulnerable in your essays, avoid discussing anything that’s too personal just for the sake of appearing raw or gritty.
4. Why shouldn't I write about my awards or accomplishments?
Your academic achievements and credentials will already show up in different parts of your applications, so relying on them in your essay would be redundant. Remember your essay must add insight to your application and reveal your thoughts, motivations, and who you are as a person.
5. How important is it that my essay be polished?
Do not try to over-polish your essay; be authentic. It is much easier to write in your own voice than talk too formally and include overbearing language in an effort to impress the admissions committee. With that said, it is important that your essay is free of grammatical errors, so it doesn’t hurt to proofread and check for any syntax errors so your best work is displayed.
6. When should I start planning my college essay? When should I write my college essay?
It is advised students should use the summer before their senior year to reflect on their experiences and determine what they would like to share with the admission committee. Ideally, you should complete the first draft of your essay by the start of school in September, which will allow you to focus on your senior year.
7. When is my college essay due?
The essay is due when the application and supporting documents are submitted. If you apply using the CommonApp or the Coalition Application, the essay will be submitted with the application.
Writing a college admissions essay may be exhaustive, but if you plan ahead and keep making draft after draft, it will be a breeze by the time you submit your final copy. Colleges want to know the person applying for their school, and the essay is the best way to humanize you!
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How to write your best college application essay
University of Rochester dean of undergraduate admissions offers college applicants some dos and don’ts in writing the personal statement.
By robert alexander, the dean of undergraduate admissions, financial aid, and enrollment management for arts, sciences & engineering, university of rochester..
Many universities ask applicants to include a college application essay—usually a personal statement or similar essay—along with their application materials. With more students applying to selective colleges than ever, and with many of those colleges placing less emphasis on standardized test scores, the admissions essay can be a crucial component of the applicant’s file.
We’ve made that shift in emphasis away from testing at the University of Rochester . As a selective private research university with programs in the liberal arts, sciences, and engineering, the undergraduate college draws from a global pool of high-achieving students. Since nearly all of those candidates are at or near the top of their class, we use a holistic approach to select those with strong ethical character who align with our institutional values. So, as an applicant, how can you distinguish yourself?
One of the most important ways is through your college application essay.
Many students may dread this part of the process. Yet with the right attitude and strategy, you can write an essay that will improve your candidacy for admission. A good college application essay will not overcome poor grades for a student at the lowest end of a school’s applicant pool, but it can help a qualified candidate stand out from the crowd.
Tackle the college essay topic
The traditional college application essay usually requires an open-ended personal statement in response to broad or general prompts that might have you share a story, reflect on an event, or discuss a topic. The Common Application, Coalition for College Application, and other online college application forms typically provide a set of options from which you can choose.
Of course, some college and universities require you to respond to a specific prompt or question. In that case, you want to make sure to answer that prompt or question clearly and directly.
Whether the guidelines are open-ended or specific, the topic itself is less important than how you express yourself.
And above all: Don’t write an admissions essay about something you think sounds impressive or that you think the admissions officer wants to read. While it’s fine to look at college application essay examples, don’t simply mimic one. Write about something truly important to you.
Breadth versus depth?
- Dig deep into one aspect of your topic instead of trying to cover many aspects superficially in your college essay. Be brief in explaining who, what, and where; leave plenty of room for why and how .
→ For example : If you’re writing about a life-changing trip, don’t spend six paragraphs on where you traveled, how long it took to get there, and the weather. We want to know why you went and why the experience was meaningful. How are you different now because of it?
Details bring your application essay to life
- Be specific. It’s the details, rather than any general statements, that bring your essay—and hence, you—to life for an admissions officer who is reading hundreds of personal statements.
→ For example : If you’re writing about how much you loved playing your high school sport, tell a story about a specific game-winning play (or a devastating loss), how you felt, and what you learned.
Writing a college application essay: dos and don’ts
Here are a few guidelines for crafting a college application essay that effectively conveys who you are while also helping you stand out from the thousands of other applicants.
- Present yourself in a dimension that reaches beyond grades, recommendations, and test scores. Think of the things that built your character—maybe a special relationship in your life, your most meaningful extracurricular activity, or a class or idea that changed the way you think. We want to know what makes you tick, how you might fit into our community, and how your distinctive qualities and experiences would contribute to our interesting and dynamic campus.
- Be sure your essay reflects you. Ask yourself: Am I the only person who could have written this essay? Or could everyone else in my senior class have written it?
- Tell a story about yourself with a beginning, middle, and end. Hook the reader with a compelling opening paragraph—surprise us, teach us something we didn’t know, or share something vulnerable and make us curious to read more. Close with a clear ending that ties back to your opening or provides a captivating conclusion to your story.
- Ask someone to proofread your essay or to offer feedback—but be sure your essay is written in your own voice and style. It won’t serve you well for someone else to write your essay for you!
- Stay within the required—or suggested—length. Usually it is about 650 words. This shows that you can follow directions. Plus, good writers can adhere to a word limit and still get their point across.
- Pay attention to formatting. If you compose your essay in a word processing software program (like Microsoft Word or Google Docs) in order to use spellcheck or other features, be sure to review it again after copy-and-pasting into the application itself. Some of the original formatting might be lost because different combinations of word processing and web browsers can cause errors. Double-check before clicking “submit”!
And a few don’ts:
- Humor and creativity can work, provided they are not taken to an extreme. Remember: You don’t know your reader’s sense of humor—and it might not be the same as yours.
- Don’t be controversial or sensational for its own sake; but it’s OK to take a risk if you’re sharing a unique viewpoint or a particularly strong conviction that you hold dear.
- You’re not writing a legal brief for the Supreme Court or trying to sway the audience to your side of an argument. Instead, you’re attempting to share something of yourself with the admissions committee.
- Avoid using words that are not in your regular vocabulary. Again, be yourself.
- Don’t repeat information available in other parts of your application, unless you’re using your college admissions essay to expand upon an activity or academic opportunity that was particularly meaningful to you.
- Avoid regurgitating your resume or writing about your entire life’s history. Listing every award and semester you made honor roll is unnecessary, but sharing how you felt when a beloved yet demanding English teacher said you were his best student has more potential.
Ultimately, your college application essay is a chance to tell the admissions committee who you are and what is important to you. We want to know: What are your values?
At the University of Rochester, for example, we have a motto: Meliora, meaning “ever better.” So, it stands to reason that when we read an application essay, we want to know: How will you make yourself, your community, or the world better?
Tell us your story. This may be your best chance to come through as an individual, so make the most of this opportunity!
About Robert Alexander
Robert Alexander, the dean of undergraduate admissions, financial aid, and enrollment management for Arts, Sciences & Engineering at the University of Rochester, has more than 22 years of enrollment management experience in higher education. He joined Rochester in June 2020 and previously served in senior admissions, enrollment, and communications roles at Millsaps College, University of the Pacific, and Tulane University.
Rochester’s dean of undergraduate admissions offers advice on which courses to take, and why.
Grades. Clubs. Scores. Essays. Interviews. We’ve culled the advice of seasoned admissions professionals from the University of Rochester for a roadmap of what to do—and what to avoid.
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How to Write a College Admission Essay
Jul 12, 2021
Do’s & Don’ts of Writing a College Admission Essay
After three years of high school, you would probably be glad to never write an essay again. If you plan on going to college, however, you should know that essay writing is one of the more important things you need to get out of your high school experience. Simply put, you can't get through college without it.
If you are wondering how to get into college, you should know that a great college essay is one of the most important parts of your application. Yes, it's a lot of work, but it's not all bad news. A college admissions essay or personal statement gives you the chance to tell your story. The decision the admissions office must make is about more than just your grades and your extracurricular activities. They want to know about your interests, your values, and your character. They have to decide whether you are a good fit for their school and its community.
You must have other things on your mind besides your essay with college on the horizon. We have inside information to help you with those matters, too. You could be working on your college application checklist, wonder how to apply for fafsa , or when college applications are due . Or you may be nervous about your last year of high school—which is why we offer advice for high school seniors : keep your head up!
So, for now, need to know how to write a college admission essay, personal essay, common app essay, or whatever you need to write to get in? These tips will get you most of the way there—you’ll just have to come up with the exact words.
How do you write a college admission essay?
The hardest part is the first part. Starting early is key to writing a college essay, so you should get started the summer before your senior year.
Worry about the college essay length and word limit later. If you can get your essay finished during this summer, you’ll have plenty of time to adjust it or rewrite it, as well as to get started on other college admission essays, as well. Plus you’ll be in a position to apply for early decision deadlines by the winter, which is always a good idea.
Find a topic and answer the question
College application essays tend to be a source of hesitation more than inspiration. Most colleges, as well as the Common Application, will have the topics for their essays available online.
Look them up, and then start looking anywhere and everywhere for ideas. You can also look forward to college essay examples online, just to get you started. It’s always good to pull ideas from your own experiences. Think about what you’ve accomplished and what you feel defines you.
Think about parts of your background that have shaped your life. Ultimately, every application essay you write will be about you, as it should be the easiest thing to write about, and it will give admissions officers an idea of who you are.
If you’re stumped, don’t be afraid to ask for help. You can start with the closest sources, like friends and family, and don’t forget about your teachers, either. If you’ve written essays for them before, they’ll know your strengths and weaknesses and can steer you towards essay topics they know will work for you.
Create a strategy
It may be tempting to dive in and write, like pulling off a bandage. The smarter move, however, is to strategize. Be sure you have a main idea you want to get across and that it’s present throughout the essay.
What is the point of your story; what one thing do you want to make sure the reader gets from the piece? So, how long is a college essay? Most college admission or college application essays are required to be pretty short, anywhere from 200 to 900 words. You want to make the best use of that limited number of words, so you should map out what you want your essay to look like in some form. That may be a traditional outline, or it may be just a matter of breaking the essay into pieces and working on it one section at a time.
U.S. News & World Report says, “If the student is having a hard time getting started, they should focus on their opening sentence … an essay's opening sentence, or hook, should grab the reader's attention.” You should also plan to write multiple drafts. Going with your instincts is good, especially because you are the subject of the essay, but you owe it to yourself to evaluate your drafts and rewrite them, even if it’s just to prove to yourself the first round was best. Build time into your plan for that process.
What should be included in a college essay?
Answer the question.
This sounds obvious, but it can be easy to forget. Because personal essays are about you, you may find yourself on a roll re-living your memories. Your personal reflections are the key to keeping the reader invested, but don’t let them carry you away.
Stay focused on the essay prompt—for example, an essay question about an experience outside the classroom that shaped who you are. Make what you write about what you learned from the experience, not the exact details or context of the story.
Remember, this is more of a written job interview than a first date in paragraph form.
Focus on the topic
Everything is significant when it comes to telling your own story. It doesn’t matter where you’ve been or what you’ve seen, and this is not a time where a reader is judging your list of achievements.
The most crucial factor of your college admissions essay is that you’re writing about what’s truly important to you. Have confidence in your own choices—what music is special to you, the authors you most value, the extracurricular activities you participate in.
Your enthusiasm for wood carving, slam poetry, Coen Brothers movies, or whatever, is what will jump off the page. You can’t make up that passion, and you shouldn’t try.
Edit and proofread your essay
You need to check, double-check, sit for a while and check again to make sure your college admissions essay is as polished as possible. Basic grammar is really, really, important; it won’t get you into a school on its own, but without it, you could cost yourself a spot. You can ask other people to proofread your work. It always helps to have another pair of eyes to spot mistakes you may have missed.
Making sure you have the right punctuation in the right place and using active voice over passive is vital. That said, make sure your good grammar doesn’t keep the essay from sounding like you.
Don’t push to use fancier language or longer sentences than you normally would. Use the simplest word you need to get the point across—every time. Sell yourself as you really are, so that reading your writing and having a conversation with you both feel like meeting the same person.
What should you not do in a college essay?
Not only do we mean not exaggerating stories about yourself. We mean don’t fudge the details. If you don’t have a black belt in Muay Thai kickboxing, don’t say you do in your essay.
As compelling as someone else’s life story may be, it’s not for you to use. You can quote someone in your writing, and if there are quotes that are meaningful to you, you should. But don’t go overboard.
Everything you write should be true, with evidence to back it up, and the vast majority of what you write should be your own words. Do you know how easy it is to find out the truth about other people from their social media profiles? A college admissions officer or the school's admission office can fact-check you just as easily.
You’d be right to think that after working their way through a big pile of essays, the people reading yours could use a good laugh. That said, humor is tough in this kind of essay.
You know next to nothing about who will read it, let alone their senses of humor. As the Princeton Review warns, “What you think is funny and what an adult working in a college thinks is funny are probably different.” Even if you are highly confident in your humor, joking too much in this situation may give the wrong impression.
You don’t want a college to think you are too focused on education and that you can’t have fun. But they also need to know you will be taking your education seriously. One simple joke at the start or end of your essay is more than enough. Beyond that, keep things clean and businesslike.
Focus on relevant activities
Remember that your reader will have your transcripts and the rest of your application to tell them what your grades are as well as the list of clubs, sports teams, musical groups and volunteer organizations you belong to. Try very hard not to dump your entire life story or all your finer points into the essay.
Focus on singular moments or activities—pick the ones that stand out. And be specific. According to College Board , “Don’t simply state a fact to get an idea across, such as ‘I like to surround myself with people with a variety of backgrounds and interests.’
Do include specific details, examples, reasons and so on to develop your ideas.” Pick what’s best and most important about you and leave the rest out of the essay.
At the same time, don’t go against what you’ve written on the rest of your application. Keep the details straight, and if there’s something you want to reveal in the essay, just be sure it’s about your thoughts and feelings, not an important fact you left out elsewhere.
How do I make my college essay stand out?
Give them a different perspective.
Stand out from any common application essay. We mentioned above that college admissions officers or the admissions counselor appreciates anything that will break up the boring application process and reading hundreds of these essays. While an inappropriate joke isn’t the best way to do it, it’s still worth doing.
So once you’ve got the basics of what you want to say set in your mind, try delivering them from a different angle. Collegebasics.com suggests that, rather than answering an essay prompt directly, you answer it in the negative: tell the reader what you’re not going to do with the essay before telling them what you will do.
If the question asks what your ambitions for the future are, instead answer with what you don’t aspire to, and what that says about you.
Collegebasics.com goes on to suggest that you can make an admissions essay interesting by writing it like a piece of fiction or an autobiography.
“Try starting with a question. Challenge the reader by speaking directly to him/her. (Or) put the reader in media res, that is, in the middle of things. Place the reader in the middle of something happening or in the middle of a conversation.”
So, for example, if you want to tell the story of a piano recital, start with “So there I was, in front of a thousand people, and my hands were shaking so much I could barely touch the keys.”
Then fill in how you got to that point and what it says about you. If what you write is logical, easy to follow, and phrased correctly, you can afford to experiment with your delivery. Your reader will appreciate your mixing things up.
Proofread your essay
It should go without saying, but too many people make the mistake. So we’re saying it twice. Always read what you’ve written carefully, and multiple times.
It is very easy to miss simple mistakes while you’re during the writing process, so be sure to stop for a while so you can look at your essay with fresh eyes. But don’t just look for grammatical errors or misspellings.
Read your essay out loud so you can hear how it sounds. If sentences are too long, don’t make sense, or just don’t sound interesting enough, cut them, rephrase them or take them out.
Editing is just as important as writing, and it is the only proven way to get the best product. Along with reading your essay out loud, try reading it backwards, starting with the last section first.
As Lori Greene of Collegeexpress.com explains, “This may sound a bit silly, but when reading in sequential order, your brain tends 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.’”
Seek professional (or at least qualified) help
The problem with spending so much time on what can be a relatively short essay is that you look at it so much it starts to lose its meaning for you. So for the same reason you should read your work out loud or backwards, you have to get another pair of eyes and ears working on it, as well.
A fresh perspective can make all the difference and keep you from settling for something terrible. A good friend, parent, or better yet, a teacher can read what you’ve written and give you a reality check.
Encourage them to be constructive—it’s okay if they tell you what you’ve come up with is no good, as long as they can offer some feedback to help make it better. Ask them to judge whether the writing really sounds like you are talking.
And don’t let them get away with saying your essay is just “good,” either. Don’t leave them alone until they’ve told you at least one thing you can improve, or at least specific aspects they liked.
For more information on how to apply for college and make your application look as good as possible, visit northcentralcollege.edu/apply .
Jacob Imm is a communications specialist in the North Central College Office of Marketing and Communications. He has 10 years of collegiate communications experience and has worked with hundreds of college students. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University.
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Good college essay topics enable concise, transparent, honest, and meaningful writing. Because personal statements should differentiate applicants from their
Your essay should have an introductory paragraph with a thesis/hook, supporting body paragraphs, and a conclusion that ties everything together.
A college application essay is basically a glimpse into how your mind works and your view of the world. If you want your essay to be credible
The traditional college application essay usually requires an open-ended personal statement in response to broad or general prompts that might
Most college admission or college application essays are required to be pretty short, anywhere from 200 to 900 words. You want to make the best