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How to Write a College Essay | A Complete Guide & Examples

The college essay can make or break your application. It’s your chance to provide personal context, communicate your values and qualities, and set yourself apart from other students.

A standout essay has a few key ingredients:

To achieve this, it’s crucial to give yourself enough time for brainstorming, writing, revision, and feedback.

In this comprehensive guide, we walk you through every step in the process of writing a college admissions essay.

Table of contents

Why do you need a standout essay, start organizing early, choose a unique topic, outline your essay, start with a memorable introduction, write like an artist, craft a strong conclusion, revise and receive feedback, frequently asked questions.

While most of your application lists your academic achievements, your college admissions essay is your opportunity to share who you are and why you’d be a good addition to the university.

Your college admissions essay accounts for about 25% of your application’s total weight一and may account for even more with some colleges making the SAT and ACT tests optional. The college admissions essay may be the deciding factor in your application, especially for competitive schools where most applicants have exceptional grades, test scores, and extracurriculars.

What do colleges look for in an essay?

Admissions officers want to understand your background, personality, and values to get a fuller picture of you beyond your test scores and grades. Here’s what colleges look for in an essay :

It’s a good idea to start organizing your college application timeline in the summer of your junior year to make your application process easier. This will give you ample time for essay brainstorming, writing, revision, and feedback.

While timelines will vary for each student, aim to spend at least 1–3 weeks brainstorming and writing your first draft and at least 2–4 weeks revising across multiple drafts. Remember to leave enough time for breaks in between each writing and editing stage.

Create an essay tracker sheet

If you’re applying to multiple schools, you will have to juggle writing several essays for each one. We recommend using an essay tracker spreadsheet to help you visualize and organize the following:

You can build your own essay tracker using our free Google Sheets template.

College essay tracker template

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Ideally, you should start brainstorming college essay topics the summer before your senior year. Keep in mind that it’s easier to write a standout essay with a unique topic.

If you want to write about a common essay topic, such as a sports injury or volunteer work overseas, think carefully about how you can make it unique and personal. You’ll need to demonstrate deep insight and write your story in an original way to differentiate it from similar essays.

What makes a good topic?

Brainstorming questions

You should do a comprehensive brainstorm before choosing your topic. Here are a few questions to get started:

How to identify your topic

Here are two strategies for identifying a topic that demonstrates your values:

After choosing your topic, organize your ideas in an essay outline , which will help keep you focused while writing. Unlike a five-paragraph academic essay, there’s no set structure for a college admissions essay. You can take a more creative approach, using storytelling techniques to shape your essay.

Two common approaches are to structure your essay as a series of vignettes or as a single narrative.

Vignettes structure

The vignette, or montage, structure weaves together several stories united by a common theme. Each story should demonstrate one of your values or qualities and conclude with an insight or future outlook.

This structure gives the admissions officer glimpses into your personality, background, and identity, and shows how your qualities appear in different areas of your life.

Topic: Museum with a “five senses” exhibit of my experiences

Single story structure

The single story, or narrative, structure uses a chronological narrative to show a student’s character development over time. Some narrative essays detail moments in a relatively brief event, while others narrate a longer journey spanning months or years.

Single story essays are effective if you have overcome a significant challenge or want to demonstrate personal development.

Topic: Sports injury helps me learn to be a better student and person

Brainstorm creative insights or story arcs

Regardless of your essay’s structure, try to craft a surprising story arc or original insights, especially if you’re writing about a common topic.

Never exaggerate or fabricate facts about yourself to seem interesting. However, try finding connections in your life that deviate from cliché storylines and lessons.

Admissions officers read thousands of essays each year, and they typically spend only a few minutes reading each one. To get your message across, your introduction , or hook, needs to grab the reader’s attention and compel them to read more..

Avoid starting your introduction with a famous quote, cliché, or reference to the essay itself (“While I sat down to write this essay…”).

While you can sometimes use dialogue or a meaningful quotation from a close family member or friend, make sure it encapsulates your essay’s overall theme.

Find an original, creative way of starting your essay using the following two methods.

Option 1: Start with an intriguing hook

Begin your essay with an unexpected statement to pique the reader’s curiosity and compel them to carefully read your essay. A mysterious introduction disarms the reader’s expectations and introduces questions that can only be answered by reading more.

Option 2: Start with vivid imagery

Illustrate a clear, detailed image to immediately transport your reader into your memory. You can start in the middle of an important scene or describe an object that conveys your essay’s theme.

A college application essay allows you to be creative in your style and tone. As you draft your essay, try to use interesting language to enliven your story and stand out .

Show, don’t tell

“Tell” in writing means to simply state a fact: “I am a basketball player.” “ Show ” in writing means to use details, examples, and vivid imagery to help the reader easily visualize your memory: “My heart races as I set up to shoot一two seconds, one second一and score a three-pointer!”

First, reflect on every detail of a specific image or scene to recall the most memorable aspects.

Be vulnerable to create an emotional response

You don’t have to share a huge secret or traumatic story, but you should dig deep to express your honest feelings, thoughts, and experiences to evoke an emotional response. Showing vulnerability demonstrates humility and maturity. However, don’t exaggerate to gain sympathy.

Use appropriate style and tone

Make sure your essay has the right style and tone by following these guidelines:

You should end your college essay with a deep insight or creative ending to leave the reader with a strong final impression. Your college admissions essay should avoid the following:

Here are two strategies to craft a strong conclusion.

Option 1: Full circle, sandwich structure

The full circle, or sandwich, structure concludes the essay with an image, idea, or story mentioned in the introduction. This strategy gives the reader a strong sense of closure.

In the example below, the essay concludes by returning to the “museum” metaphor that the writer opened with.

Option 2: Revealing your insight

You can use the conclusion to show the insight you gained as a result of the experiences you’ve described. Revealing your main message at the end creates suspense and keeps the takeaway at the forefront of your reader’s mind.

Revise your essay before submitting it to check its content, style, and grammar. Get feedback from no more than two or three people.

It’s normal to go through several rounds of revision, but take breaks between each editing stage.

Also check out our college essay examples to see what does and doesn’t work in an essay and the kinds of changes you can make to improve yours.

Respect the word count

Most schools specify a word count for each essay , and you should stay within 10% of the upper limit.

Remain under the specified word count limit to show you can write concisely and follow directions. However, don’t write too little, which may imply that you are unwilling or unable to write a thoughtful and developed essay.

Check your content, style, and grammar

Get feedback

Get feedback from 2–3 people who know you well, have good writing skills, and are familiar with college essays.

The checklist below helps you make sure your essay ticks all the boxes.

College admissions essay checklist

I’ve organized my essay prompts and created an essay writing schedule.

I’ve done a comprehensive brainstorm for essay topics.

I’ve selected a topic that’s meaningful to me and reveals something different from the rest of my application.

I’ve created an outline to guide my structure.

I’ve crafted an introduction containing vivid imagery or an intriguing hook that grabs the reader’s attention.

I’ve written my essay in a way that shows instead of telling.

I’ve shown positive traits and values in my essay.

I’ve demonstrated self-reflection and insight in my essay.

I’ve used appropriate style and tone .

I’ve concluded with an insight or a creative ending.

I’ve revised my essay , checking my overall message, flow, clarity, and grammar.

I’ve respected the word count , remaining within 10% of the upper word limit.


It looks like your essay ticks all the boxes. A second pair of eyes can help you take it to the next level – Scribbr's essay coaches can help.

Colleges want to be able to differentiate students who seem similar on paper. In the college application essay , they’re looking for a way to understand each applicant’s unique personality and experiences.

Your college essay accounts for about 25% of your application’s weight. It may be the deciding factor in whether you’re accepted, especially for competitive schools where most applicants have exceptional grades, test scores, and extracurricular track records.

A standout college essay has several key ingredients:

While timelines will differ depending on the student, plan on spending at least 1–3 weeks brainstorming and writing the first draft of your college admissions essay , and at least 2–4 weeks revising across multiple drafts. Don’t forget to save enough time for breaks between each writing and editing stage.

You should already begin thinking about your essay the summer before your senior year so that you have plenty of time to try out different topics and get feedback on what works.

Most college application portals specify a word count range for your essay, and you should stay within 10% of the upper limit to write a developed and thoughtful essay.

You should aim to stay under the specified word count limit to show you can follow directions and write concisely. However, don’t write too little, as it may seem like you are unwilling or unable to write a detailed and insightful narrative about yourself.

If no word count is specified, we advise keeping your essay between 400 and 600 words.

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College admissions experts offer tips on selecting a topic as well as writing and editing the essay.

A front view of a young teenage girl in her bright bedroom surrounded by notes and homework she is looking down at her computer taking part in virtual and E-Learning to help with her studies during the lockdown.

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

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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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.

Pamela Reynolds

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.

Be Authentic

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.

Don’t Repeat

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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About the Author

Pamela Reynolds is a Boston-area feature writer and editor whose work appears in numerous publications. She is the author of “Revamp: A Memoir of Travel and Obsessive Renovation.”

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6 Steps To Drafting The Perfect College Admissions Essay

A young woman with brown skin and brown hair sits at a laptop.

So, you’re stuck writing your college essay . I’m assuming that’s why you stumbled upon this blog post and decided to read it.

Now, if you’re anything like I was in high school, you’re freaking out. You’re breaking down because you think that everyone else in the world has it together and knows what they’re doing. Except for you.

Trust me, though–coming from someone who’s been in your exact shoes–you’re not the only one feeling this way. In fact, it’s completely normal to feel lost at this stage.

There really hasn’t ever been a time where you’ve been asked to write an essay that seems like it could dictate your future–that could dictate your college, your job, and maybe even your happiness later in life.

It’s only understandable that you feel this way. Popular culture has definitely exaggerated the role of the essay in the college admissions process .

You may have heard the phrase, “It’’s the most important part of the college application.” It’s where you show your voice , they tell you. It’s the only place to show your character , they say. It’s the only part that really matters , you might have heard. 

Phrases like these are the exact reason that the essay may seem daunting at first: the reason you might be freaking out, breaking down, or a combination of the two.

The first step to writing your essay is to let go of this misconception! Remind yourself that the essay is not the only factor dictating your admission into college. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself, because that might end up hurting you more than helping.

Studies have repeatedly shown that stressing out actually negatively impacts your performance. So let’s take a deep breath, tell ourselves that the essay, contrary to popular belief, isn’t the only factor dictating your admission, and move onto step one.

Step One: Choose Your Topic

One of the biggest mistakes you can make on your college essay is starting too early. Don’t feel rushed to “jump right in,” or “get started right away.” Arguably the most important part of the college essay is actually brainstorming beforehand.

A great writer can be bogged down by a difficult writing topic and a poor writer can write an amazing piece with a good one. Take your time to think of a good topic to write about; you’ll thank yourself later.

How do you choose ‘the right’ topic? We’ll, that’s the hard part. Ask the college admissions officers, who’ve seen essays about topics ranging from a major death in the family to Costco samples.

Luckily, though, there are some general tips that can guide you in the process of choosing a topic . Let’s go through them below. 

1. Choose something substantial

This one’s crucial. You know the Costco sample essay that I mentioned earlier? The reason it worked is because the student who wrote it was able to tie the theme of the essay into a larger meaning: a bigger purpose statement about who they are and what they wanted out of the experience.

A good rule of thumb to go by is that your topic must be something that you have lots of experience with: something that you can talk about at lengths without boring the reader (or yourself). 

2. Don’t choose something too depressing

This is a HUGE misconception: a misconception that I too had when I was writing my essay. A lot of students tend to think that sob stories are what get you accepted. The sadder the story, the higher the chances of acceptance, right? 

Not really. As we can tell by the hundreds of essays about things like pizza, Costco, video games, and more; colleges like a playful, light topic just as much, and maybe even more, than they do an overly sad story.

Remember: the people reading your essays are real people with real emotion. The last thing they want to do is read stories all day about depressing topics. So use them sparingly, if at all.

3. Show your personality!

This is the last tip I’ll give you about choosing a topic since the idea should come from you. Let your strengths shine through in what you’re writing.

For example, if you’re naturally a funny person, consider a comedic topic that’ll get the admissions team laughing. If your friends would describe you as a naturally quirky person, write your essay about something quirky. Maybe there’s a food you really like or a place you’ve always enjoyed visiting. 

Other than those general guidelines, the world of college essay topics is an endless one. Let’s stop here and think long and hard about the statement you want to make with our essay. 

Step 2: Write the Introduction

Now that we’ve chosen a topic, we can move onto the fun part: writing! Let’s start with the introductory paragraph . This paragraph should be short but carry value.

The introductory paragraph is probably one of the most important ones in the whole essay. Why? It’s the first thing that the college admissions panel is going to read.

They’ve already seen your stellar grades, looked at your amazing standardized test scores, and gone through all your special extracurriculars. But this is the first thing that they read that shows them YOU.

This is their first impression of you beyond just numbers and lists. Make it count.

How do you do that? Write something that will immediately catch the panel’s attention: something that will make them want to keep reading. 

One way to do this is by using a strategy called “en media res.” This phrase, which literally translates to “in mid-story,” refers to the writing technique of starting your piece in the middle of a story. Consider this example: 

“Fred lay unconscious on the bed. Nurses called his name helplessly, waiting for him to wake up. His wife sobbed loudly in the corner, pleading the doctor to save him. The doctor shook his head in failure and looked down at the floor in disappointment.”

Pretty effective start to an essay, right? If you were the admissions officer reading this paragraph, chances are that you would want to keep reading.

We want to know who Fred is. We want to know what the narrator is doing in the room. We want to know what happened to Fred. Will he survive?

Here’s another example:

“The shapes in my surroundings slowly blend into smudges. My head feels dizzy. I grab the closest chair and sit down. I see eyes. People turn their heads to stare at me. I don’t like the attention. I want it to stop. Faint voices call my name I’m the background. They get quieter and quieter until I don’t hear them anymore. The world goes blank, and that’s the last thing I remember.”

This introductory paragraph also does a good job of drawing the reader in. After reading this introduction, we’re left with a lot of similar questions.

Who is the narrator of the story? Why is the world around them metamorphosing? Are they okay? What happened to them at the end?

These are all questions that we will hopefully get answers to if we keep reading.

That’s one way to get your reader’s attention. Start with a story that will have them on the edge of their seat. Remember, what’s the point of writing a whole essay that the reader doesn’t want to keep reading? There is none.

Let’s take a minute to stop here and draft an introduction. Remember to make sure that it has the reader questioning. An introduction that doesn’t leave the reader thirsty and seeking more answers probably isn’t the best one.

Step 3: Writing the Body

Now that you’ve written your introductory paragraph, it’s time to move onto the body of the essay. In these paragraphs, we want to explain what we spoke about in the introduction.

Perhaps for the first example we looked at above, the narrator is a medical assistant in the emergency department. They could lead off of the introduction with a statement like:

“This was my very first experience in the emergency department as a medical assistant. And it is one I’ll never forget. Fred passed away that day, but life in the emergency room continued. I continued to trail behind the physician; documenting notes, taking vitals, and most importantly, observing his work.” 

See how we are given answers to our questions in this short body paragraph? The writer does a good job here of tying what they described in the introduction into what they’ll be talking about in the rest of the essay, which we can guess will be their experiences as a medical assistant.

That’s exactly what these body paragraphs should do. Take what you described in the introduction and tie it into your topic. Think of the introductory paragraph as a teaser of sorts.

All you’re doing here is drawing the reader in and capturing their attention. The body is where the real substance is.

Let’s look at an example of a body paragraph suitable for the second example we gave earlier. 

“The next thing I remember is being in the nurse’s office. She let out a surprised gasp as my eyes barely opened. I swallowed. ‘What happened?’ I managed to groan. The nurse took a deep sigh. ‘It’s the football,’ she said. ‘It’s too much for you.’ This only made me want to keep playing. My mom, my dad, my friends, and many others tried to stop me after this incident. They told me I wasn’t  built for it: that I wasn’t strong enough. But that didn’t stop me.”

In this example we can see that the author electively ties his introductory paragraph into the rest of his essay, which we can tell will be about his love for football. 

Just like the authors of these two examples, it’s important that you don’t have an out of place introduction with no ties to your topic. Like any good essay, the topic should flow smoothly from one paragraph to the next.

Use the body paragraphs to tell the reader more about you, whether it’s about your dedication to the emergency department or your love for football.

This will probably be the most time-consuming part of actually writing your essay. Make sure you give yourself enough time to do this. Even if it’s just one paragraph every one or two days, give this section some thought.

Think, write, and then re-write. Ideally, you should have one or two paragraphs in the body with some solid content. Be descriptive, but don’t extend your essay TOO long. The worst impression you can make on your reader is one of boredom.

Step 4: Conclusion 

Now comes the conclusion. What was the point of writing the essay or telling the story you just did? We can tell the reader here.

The concluding paragraph should really hone in on what you want the admissions committee to know about you. Here’s your chance to tell them why your story matters: how it has impacted who you are as a person and what you stand for today.

Let’s look at the emergency department student. Here’s an example of what they might say in their conclusion:

“Every day I met hundreds of patients like Fred. I got to know patients with terminal illnesses, I comforted patients who had no other family, and I held patients’ hands as they breathed their last breath. It was in that same room—the same room in which Fred passed—that I realized the emergency room is where I wanted to spend the rest of my life. After some reflection, I now realize I want to dedicate my life to helping those like Fred. I want to be the one to give patients advice, to give them hope, and to give them support when there’s nobody else available to do so. I see my future as an emergency physician: a future that I will someday pursue.”

The author of this essay is trying to communicate one main point to the admissions committee: their hopes to be a future physician. Through the concluding paragraph, they tie in both the introductory and body paragraphs to make a statement about themselves.

They do a pretty good job, in fact, of conveying themselves as a passionate, determined, and caring student. These are all qualities that an admissions committee would love to have at their school.

This general rule of using the concluding paragraph to communicate character and growth to the admissions committee can be applied to any topic, really!

Let’s look at what the second student (the football player) might write for a conclusion. 

“Through the highs and lows of high school, football transformed itself into my best companion. I often look back on that one period, when everyone in my life was discouraging me from playing, and question what would have happened if I had given up. I wonder how my life would’ve been different. Whether it was early-morning drills on the field, late-night gatherings with the team, or just deep pep talks from my coach, football is something I can’t live without. I learned that only recently.”

This essay conclusion also does its job of driving home the point that the author was trying to make all along: his love for football. Through the thoughtful wording and language, he is able to sell himself to the admissions committee as a mature, driven, talented, and committed student. What college wouldn’t want such a student on their campus?

Now it’s time to write yours. Take a moment to really think about what qualities you want the admissions committee to notice in you.

If you’ve always been a super driven student, tell them that! If you are described by all your friends as compassionate and caring, make sure the admissions committee knows that! If you’ve been completely committed to one thing your entire four years of high school, make sure the admissions committee gets that.

Remember, this is the last real paragraph that you get to make a lasting impact on the admissions committee. Think from their perspective about why they would want YOU out of thousands of other applicants on their campus. Make sure you get that star quality across, because this might be your last chance to do so.

One final piece of advice about the concluding paragraph: it’s always best to stick by the general rule “show, not tell.” You might have heard this phrase thrown around and have maybe even been told to implement it in your writing before.

If you’re still a little confused as to what it means, here’s an example to help.

Telling the admissions committee that you are a dedicated student would look something like this:

“I am a dedicated student, who puts utmost effort into everything that I do. That is what got me on to the junior varsity basketball team.”

Pretty solid end to an essay, right? You’ve told the admissions committee that you’re a dedicated student. That’s what they’re looking for, right? A job well done?

Well, maybe. There’s a more effective way to conclude this essay that will still allow the author to SHOW the readers that they are a dedicated student. This way is much more effective than the first. Let’s take a look at an example:

“And that’s why, through the 365 days of the year, I never stopped trying. I woke up in the morning and practiced on the court. I spent my evenings at the gym, lifting weights. I lay in bed at night, reciting all the drills in my head. It was as if my life was a broken record, repeating itself day by day. But as the lore has it, all hard work pays off. As a student on the Varsity basketball team 4 years later, I won’t once say that I regret it. Not once do I wish I could choose a different–or easier–path. As they say, practice truly does make perfect. I am a living example of that.”

Wow! That made a huge difference, didn’t it? In both the above paragraphs, the author is communicating to us that he is a dedicated student. In both the paragraphs, the admissions committee will have the same exact takeaway: the writer is dedicated.

What’s the difference, then? Well, in the first, the student is TELLING us that he is a dedicated person. In the second he is SHOWING us. And it makes a world of difference, as you can see. 

Step 5: Extensions

Alas, we come to the final paragraph of your college essay: the extension paragraph. If your high school English teachers taught you anything like mine, you were told that the concluding paragraph is the last: that it closes out the essay and leaves the reader with some final thoughts.

A good college essay is structured a little bit differently. How? Well, usually, in your college essay, you want to say something specific about the school you’re applying to: a few lines that show the admissions committee that you’ve done your research about their school and aren’t just applying for the name prestige or because your best friend told you to.

In other words, you should use the extension paragraph to tie everything you just talked about in the intro, body, and concluding paragraphs into why you want to go specifically to that school. 

An important factor (that’s only becoming more important in the college decisions process) that dictates whether you get accepted into a school or not is fit. The admissions committee is not only looking to decide whether or not they want you at the school, but they’re also looking to figure out whether you want yourself there.

Realistically, college admissions officers know you’ve applied to other schools. They want students who see that school as their number one choice. They want students who will attend that school over any of the other schools they applied to.

The strategy here is simple. Show the college that you’ve done your research about the school and that you have a vision for yourself there.

Mention some student organizations, clubs, or events that you see yourself participating in at school X, and tie those organizations, clubs, or events into the content of the rest of your essay.

It may sound difficult at first, but it’s easy once you’ve done your preliminary research!

Let’s look at what the pre-med applicant may write in this section of the essay:

“College X is where I see myself starting this long, but rewarding pathway to medicine. Taking classes like class Z with Dr.Y will allow me to begin exploring my passion for micromedicine, and learning about the techniques that I too will someday use in my physician’s practice. I also would like to meet students with similar interests as me in organizations like X, which will allow me to be inspired by the ideas and innovations of others. As a world-class research facility, I also hope that college X will give me the scientific inquiry skills that I will someday use in my own practice. Through an intellectual, collaborative, and research-driven environment, I am sure that College X is the place for me to jump-start my career in medicine.”

See how this student put together everything they talked about in her essay and matched it to opportunities that they found on the campus? This shows the admissions committee that they have a solid reason for wanting to come there. They know what they’re talking about, and it shows in the essay. 

A shorter but just as effective version of the extension paragraph written by the football player is given below:

“With a world class football team, I’ve had my eye set on college X since the day I stepped back into the locker room after my accident. From the supportive coaches to the amazing camaraderie between teammates to the general culture school X has built around sports, I see myself thriving at college X for the next four years.”

Once again, this student shows the college that he has a solid reason for wanting to attend the university he is applying to. More than the prestige or name brand, he’s attracted to the opportunities that the college will provide him with. And that’s what colleges want to see.

Step 6: Proofread, proofread, PROOFREAD!

Finally, we’ve arrived at the end of the essay. Hopefully, you now have a solid draft that you are proud of. 

But, wait! We’re not done yet. Actually, not even close. It turns out one of the most important steps of the essay awaits us ahead.

Besides the brainstorming part, this is probably the most important part of the entire process of writing the college essay. As in any essay, you must proofread.

As a general rule of thumb, read over your own essay first, at least twenty times before showing it to other people. This first round of proofreading mainly acts as a general safety net to catch any grammar errors, spelling mistakes, or redundant phrases that seem to have slipped into your essay.

Each time you read through, make sure to read slowly and read as if you are a neutral third party audience who is reading the essay for the first time. This makes you much more likely to catch mistakes and/or errors in phrasing.

Also make sure that wherever you can, you’re showing, not telling . You would be surprised at how big of a difference that can make in the final results.

Now, we can move on to running the essay by other people. Have parents, teachers, other students, and even older alumni from the school you are applying to read over your essay. This is vital!

Often, since you’re the one who wrote the essay in its entirety, you become blind to the mistakes and errors in your writing. Reading over something so many times can make it harder to pick out specific sections that need improvement in your writing.

By showing it to people you trust, you’re getting multiple opinions on what can be changed, tweaked, or even completely omitted from your essay. The more opinions you can get, the better.

Once you’ve had at least 5 to 10 people read over your essay, congrats! You’re done with the most daunting part of the college application. Take a moment to pat yourself on the back, and turn your application in with confidence.

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Author: Anisha Holla

Anisha Holla graduated as the valedictorian of her high school, and has since been named a National Merit Scholar, a National AP Scholar and a Coca-Cola Scholar. She is currently one of 20 Eugene McDermott Scholars at the University of Texas at Dallas, where she studies Psychology on the pre-med track. She loves to play her piano, flute and guitar; and one of her favorite hobbies is trying out new food places in the area. Holla is fluent in Spanish, Hindi and Kannada, and newly conversational in Mandarin. After graduation, she plans to either pursue a career in psychiatry or an MBA .

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How to Write a Great Admission Essay, Step-by-Step

You already know how to write an academic essay. Now forget all that, because learning how to write the college application essay is totally different.

by Lori Greene Vice President of Enrollment Management, Butler University

Last Updated: Nov 11, 2021

Originally Posted: Sep 1, 2016

You already know how to write an academic essay: you start with an introduction, throw in a thesis statement, find about three paragraphs’ worth of evidence, and wrap it all up with a tidy conclusion…Now forget all that, because a successful college application essay is totally different.

The purpose of the admission essay

Your college application essay needs to breathe life into your application. It should capture your genuine personality, explaining who you are beyond a series of grades, test scores, and after-school activities. But that’s not nearly as scary as it seems, because you get to choose what to share and how to share it. Take a minute and think about the college or university admission officers who will be reading your essay. How will your essay convey your background and what makes you unique? If you had the opportunity to stand in front of an admission committee to share a significant story or important information about yourself, what would you say? The college application essay is your chance to share your personality, goals, influences, challenges, triumphs, life experiences, or lessons learned. Not to mention why you're a good fit for the college or university—and why it's a good fit for you. These are the stories behind the list of activities and leadership roles on your application.

One of the most common struggles students encounter is resisting the urge to squeeze everything they’ve seen, done, and heard into their essay. But your application essay isn’t your life story in 650 words. Instead, pick one moment in time and focus on telling the story behind it . Admission officers realize that writing doesn’t come easily to everyone, but with some time and planning, anyone can write a college application essay that stands out. One way to do that is to work step-by-step, piece-by-piece. The end result should be a carefully designed, insightful essay that makes you proud. Take advantage of being able to share something with an audience who knows nothing about you and is excited to learn what you have to offer. Brag ( without being overly boastful ). Write the story no one else can tell.

Get to know your prompt

Ease yourself into the essay-writing process. Take time to understand the question or prompt being asked. The single most important part of your essay preparation may be simply making sure you truly understand the essay prompt . When you're finished writing, you need to make sure that your essay still adheres to the prompt. College essay questions often suggest one or two main ideas or topics of focus. These can vary from personal to trivial, but all seek to challenge you and spark your creativity and insight.

Brainstorm topic ideas

Get your creative juices flowing by brainstorming all the possible ideas you can think of to address your college essay question. Believe it or not, the brainstorming stage may be more tedious than writing the actual application essay. The purpose is to flesh out all of your possible ideas so when you begin writing, you know and understand where you're going with the topic.

Related: 5 Ways to Brainstorm Your College Essays

Create an outline

Map out what you’re going to write by making an outline. Architects use a blue print. A web page is comprised of code. Cooks rely on recipes. What do they all have in common? They have a plan. The rules for writing a good essay are no different. After you brainstorm, you’ll know what you want to say, but you must decide how you’re going to say it. Create an outline that breaks down the essay into sections.

Write the essay

Once you're satisfied with your essay in outline format, start writing! By now you know exactly what you'll write about and how you want to tell the story. So hop on a computer and get to it. Try to just let yourself bang out a rough draft without going back to change anything. Then go back and revise, revise, revise. Before you know it, you'll have told the story you outlined—and will have reached the necessary word count—and you'll be happy you spent all that time preparing! Here are some points to focus on as you write for better work . 

Related: How to "Show, Don't Tell" to Boost Your Writing

Proofread and edit

The last step is editing and proofreading your finished essay. You've worked so hard up until this point, and while you might be relieved, remember: your essay is only as good as your editing. Grammatical errors or typos could indicate carelessness—not a trait you want to convey to a college admission officer.

Related: College App Proofreading Tips From an Editor-in-Chief

Celebrate finishing what you started

Writing the college essay takes time and effort, and you should feel accomplished. When you submit your essay, remember to include your name, contact information, and ID number if your college provided one, especially if you send it to a general admission email account. Nothing is worse than trying to match an application essay with no name (or, worse, an email address such as [email protected]) to a file. Make sure to keep copies of what you sent to which schools and when—and follow up on them! Be certain the college or university you're applying to received your essay. You don’t want all that hard work to go to waste.

Looking for more college application essay help?  You can check out Our Best Advice for College Application Essays all in one convenient place!

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how to write the perfect college essay for admission


Choose Your Test

Sat / act prep online guides and tips, how to write a perfect "why this college" essay.

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College Essays


Did you think you were all done pouring out your blood, sweat, and tears in written form for your personal statement , only to be faced with the "why this college" supplemental essay? This question might seem simple but is in fact a crucial and potentially tricky part of many college applications. What exactly is the "why us" essay trying to understand about you? And how do you answer this question without falling into its many pitfalls or making any rookie mistakes?

In this article, I'll explain why colleges want you to be able to explain why you are applying. I'll also discuss how to generate and brainstorm topics for this question and how to make yourself sound sincere and committed. Finally, we'll go over some "why this school" essay do's and don'ts.

This article is pretty detailed, so here's a brief overview of what we'll be covering:

Why Do Colleges Want You to Write a "Why Us" Essay?

2 types of "why this college" essay prompts, step 1: research the school, step 2: brainstorm potential essay topics, step 3: nail the execution, example of a great "why this college" essay.

College admissions officers have to read an incredible amount of student work to put together a winning class, so trust me when I say that everything they ask you to write is meaningful and important.

The purpose of the "why us" essay goes two ways. On the one hand, seeing how you answer this question gives admissions officers a sense of whether you know and value their school.

On the other hand, having to verbalize why you are applying gives you the chance to think about what you want to get out of your college experience, and whether your target schools fit your goals and aspirations.

What Colleges Get Out Of Reading Your "Why This College" Essay

Colleges want to check three things when they read this essay.

First, they want to see that you have a sense of what makes this college different and special.

Second, they want proof that you will be a good fit for the school.

And third, they want to see that this school will, in turn, be a good fit for you.

What You Get Out Of Writing Your "Why This College" Essay

Throughout this process of articulating your answers to the questions above, you will also benefit in a couple of key ways:

It Lets You Build Excitement About the School

Finding specific programs and opportunities at schools you are already happy about will give you a grounded sense of direction for when you start school. At the same time, by describing what is great about schools that are low on your list, you'll likely boost your enthusiasm for these colleges and keep yourself from feeling that they're nothing more than lackluster fallbacks.

It Helps You Ensure That You're Making the Right Choice

Writing the "why us" essay can act as a moment of clarity. It's possible that you won't be able to come up with any reasons for applying to a particular school. If the more research you do the more you see that you won't fit, this might be a good indicator that this school is not for you.


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Your dedicated PrepScholar Admissions counselor will craft your perfect college essay, from the ground up. We'll learn your background and interests, brainstorm essay topics, and walk you through the essay drafting process, step-by-step. At the end, you'll have a unique essay that you'll proudly submit to your top choice colleges.

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Craft Your Perfect College Essay

The "why this college" essay is best thought of as a back and forth between you and the college. This means that your essay will really be answering two separate, albeit related, questions:

Colleges usually use one of these approaches to frame this essay, meaning that your essay will lean heavier toward whichever question is favored in the prompt. For example, if the prompt is all about "why us?" you'll want to put your main focus on praising the school. If the prompt instead is mostly configured as "why you?" you'll want to dwell at length on your fit and potential.

It's good to remember that these two prompts are simply two sides of the same coin. Your reasons for wanting to apply to a particular school can be made to fit either of these questions.

For instance, say you really want the chance to learn from the world-famous Professor X. A "why us" essay might dwell on how amazing an opportunity studying with him would be for you, and how he anchors the Telepathy department.

Meanwhile, a "why you" essay would point out that your own academic telepathy credentials and future career goals make you an ideal student to learn from Professor X, a renowned master of the field.

Next up, I'll show you some real-life examples of what these two different approaches to the same prompt look like.


"Why Us" Prompts

Below are some examples of actual "why us" college essay prompts:


"Why You?" Prompts

Here are some examples of the "why you" version of the college essay:


No matter how the prompt is worded, this essay is a give-and-take of what you and the college have to offer each other. Your job is to quickly zoom in on your main points and use both precision and detail to sound sincere, excited, and authentic.

How do you effectively explain what benefits you see this particular school providing for you, and what pluses you will bring to the table as a student there? And how can you do this best using the small amount of space that you have (usually just one to two paragraphs)?

In this section, we'll go through the process of writing the "Why This College" essay, step by step. First, I'll talk about the prep work you'll need to do. Next, we'll go through how to brainstorm good topics (and touch on what topics to avoid). I'll give you some tips on transforming your ideas and research into an actual essay. Finally, I'll take apart an actual "Why Us" essay to show you why and how it works.

Before you can write about a school, you'll need to know specific things that make it stand out and appeal to you and your interests . So where do you look for these? And how do you find the detail that will speak to you? Here are some ways you can learn more about a school.

In-Person Campus Visits

If you're going on college tours , you've got the perfect opportunity to gather information about the school. Bring a notepad and write down the following:

Try to also connect with students or faculty while you're there. If you visit a class, note which class it is and who teaches it. See whether you can briefly chat up a student (e.g., in the class you visit, around campus, in a dining area, etc.) and ask what he or she likes most about the school or what has been most surprising about being there.

Don't forget to write down the answer! Trust me, you'll forget it otherwise—especially if you do this on multiple college visits.

Virtual Campus Visits

If you can't get to the campus of your target school in real life, the next best thing is an online tour, either from the school's own website or from other websites, such as YOUniversityTV , CampusTours , or YouTube (search "[School Name] + tour").

You can also connect with students without visiting the campus in person. Many admissions websites list contact information for currently enrolled students you can email to ask one or two questions about what their experience of the school has been like.

Or if you know what department, sport, or activity you're interested in, you can ask the admissions office to put you in touch with a student who is involved with that particular interest.


Alumni Interview

If you have an interview , ask your interviewer questions about his or her experience at the school and about what going to that school has done for him or her since graduation. As always, take notes!

College Fairs

If you have a chance to go to a college fair where your target college has representatives, don't just come and pick up a brochure. Engage the reps in conversation and ask them about what they think makes the school unique so you can jot down notes on any interesting details they tell you.

The College's Own Materials

Colleges publish lots and lots of different kinds of things—and all of these will be useful for your research. Here are some suggestions for what you can use. (You should be able to find all of the following resources online.)

Brochures and Course Catalogs

Read the mission statement of the school—does its educational philosophy align with yours? You should also read through its catalogs. Are there any programs, classes, departments, and/or activities that seem tailor-made for you in some way?

Pro Tip: These interesting features you find should be unusual in some way or different from what other schools offer. For example, being fascinated with the English department isn't going to cut it unless you can discuss its unusual focus, its world-renowned professors, or the different way it structures the major that appeals to you specifically.

Alumni Magazine

Are any professors highlighted? Does their research speak to you or connect with a project you did in high school or for an extracurricular?

Sometimes alumni magazines will highlight a college's new focus or new expansion. Does the construction of a new engineering school relate to your intended major? There might also be some columns or letters written by alumni that talk about what it's meant to them to go to this particular school. What stands out about their experiences?

School/Campus Newspaper

Students write about the hot issues of the day, which means that the articles will be about the best and worst things on campus. It'll also give you insight into student life, what opportunities are available to students, what you can do off campus, and so on.

The College's Social Media

Your target school is most likely on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media. Follow the school to see what it's posting about. Any exciting new campus developments? Professors in the news? Interesting events, clubs, or activities?


Wikipedia is a great resource for learning basic details about a college's history, traditions, and values. I also recommend looking for forums on College Confidential that specifically deal with the school you're researching.

Another option is to search on Google for interesting phrases, such as "What students really think about [School Name]" or "[School Name] student forum." This will help you get detailed points of view, comments about specific programs or courses, and insight into real student life.

So what should you do now that you've completed a bunch of research? Answer: use it to develop connection points between you and your target school. These connections will be the skeleton of your "why this college" essay.

Find the Gems in Your Research

You have on hand all kinds of information, from your own personal experiences on campus, to your conversations with people affiliated with your target school, to what you've learned from campus publications, to tidbits gleaned from the web.

Now, it's time to sift through all of your notes to find the three to five things that really speak to you. Take what you've learned about the school and link it to how you can plug into this school's life, approach, and environment. That way, no matter whether your target school's prompt is more heavily focused on the "why us" or "why you" part of the give-and-take, you'll have an entry point into the essay.

But what should these three to five things be? What should you keep in mind when you're looking for the gem that will become your topic?

Here are some words of wisdom from Calvin Wise , Director of Recruitment and former Associate Director of Admissions at Johns Hopkins University (bold emphasis mine):

" Focus on what makes us unique and why that interests you. Do your research, and articulate a multi-dimensional connection to the specific college or university. We do not want broad statements (the brick pathways and historic buildings are beautiful) or a rehash of the information on our website (College X offers a strong liberal arts curriculum). All institutions have similarities. We want you to talk about our differences. "


Check Your Gems for Color and Clarity

When I say "check your gems," I mean make sure that each of the three to five things you've found is something your target school has that other schools don't have.

This something should be seen from your own perspective. The point isn't to generically praise the school but instead to go into detail about why it's so great for you that they have this thing.

This something you find should be meaningful to the school and specific to you. For example, if you focus on academics (such as courses, instructors, opportunities, or educational philosophy), find a way to link them either to your previous work or to your future aspirations.

This something should not be shallow and non-specific. Want to live in a city? Every city has more than one college in it. Find a way to explain why this specific college in this specific city calls to you. Like pretty architecture? Many schools are beautiful, so dwell on why this particular place feels unlike any other. Like good weather, beach, skiing, or some other geographical attribute? There are many schools located near these places, and they know that people enjoy sunbathing. Either build a deeper connection or skip these as reasons.

Convert Your Gems Into Essay Topics

Every "why this college" essay is going to answer both the "why us" and the "why you" parts of the back-and-forth equation. But depending on which way your target school has worded its prompt, you'll lean more heavily on that part. This is why I'm going to split this brainstorming into two parts—to go with the "why us" and "why you" types of questions.

Of course, since they are both sides of the same coin, you can always easily flip each of these ideas around in order to have it work well for the other type of prompt. For example, a "why us" essay might talk about how interesting the XYZ interdisciplinary project is and how it fits well with your senior project.

By contrast, a "why you" essay would take the same idea but flip it to say that you've learned through your senior project how you deeply value an interdisciplinary approach to academics, making you a great fit for this school and its commitment to such work, as evidenced by project XYZ.


Possible "Why Us" Topics


Possible "Why You" Topics


Possible Topics for a College That's Not Your First Choice

Topics to Avoid in Your Essay


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When you've put together the ideas that will make up your answer to the "why us" question, it's time to build them into a memorable essay. Here are some tips for doing that successfully:

For more tips, check out our step-by-step essay-writing advice .


At this point, it'll be helpful to take a look at a "why us" essay that works and figure out what the author did to create a meaningful answer to this challenging question.

Here is a "Why Tufts" Essay from James Gregoire '19 for Tufts University :

It was on my official visit with the cross country team that I realized Tufts was the perfect school for me. Our topics of conversation ranged from Asian geography to efficient movement patterns, and everyone spoke enthusiastically about what they were involved in on campus. I really related with the guys I met, and I think they represent the passion that Tufts' students have. I can pursue my dream of being a successful entrepreneur by joining the Tufts Entrepreneurs Society, pursuing an Entrepreneurial Leadership minor, and taking part in an up-and-coming computer science program.

Here are some of the main reasons this essay is so effective:

You can see more great "why this school" essays for Tufts by visiting the Tufts website .

The Bottom Line: Writing a Great "Why This College" Essay

The prompt may be phrased in one of two ways: "Why us?" or "Why you?" But these are sides of the same coin and will be addressed in your essay regardless of the prompt style.

Writing the perfect "why this school" essay requires you to first research the specific qualities and characteristics of this school that appeal to you. You can find this information by doing any or all of the following:

To find a topic to write about for your essay, find the three to five things that really speak to you about the school and then link each of them to yourself, your interests, your goals, and/or your strengths.

Avoid using clichés that could be true for any school, such as architecture, geography, weather, or sports fandom. Instead, focus on the details that differentiate your target school from all the others.

What's Next?

Are you also working on your personal statement? If you're using the Common App, check out our complete breakdown of the Common App prompts and learn how to pick the best prompt for you .

If you're applying to a University of California school, we've got an in-depth article on how to write effective UC personal statements .

And if you're submitting ApplyTexas applications, read our helpful guide on how to approach the many different ApplyTexas essay prompts .

Struggling with the college application process as a whole? Our expert guides teach you how to ask for recommendations , how to write about extracurriculars , and how to research colleges .

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

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Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.

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How to Write the Perfect College Admission Essay

BestValueSchools.com Staff

Contributing Writer

Learn about our editorial process .

Updated November 29, 2022

BestValueSchools.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Are you ready to discover your college program?

When applying for college , every aspect of your college application is important. However, a strong college admission essay is one of the most important elements of the application. Not only does this essay allow you to showcase your personality and other qualities you can bring to the school, but it is one of the final pieces of information that can influence admissions decisions. It's also the only part of your application that is totally within your control.

While many other students will have similar GPAs to yours, or maybe even nearly identical transcripts or the same extracurricular activities as you have, the reality is that no one will have an essay like yours. But beyond helping you get in to school, a well-written college admission essay can help you get offered scholarships, grants and other financial aid that you may not have expected.

Investing the time to learn how to create a memorable essay can pay rich dividends, both in your admission to the school and your college financials, so it's important to spend as much time as you need to get your essay right. So, if you want to impress the admissions committee at the schools you're applying for, here's how you can create the perfect admission essay.

Give Yourself Time

You may think you work better under pressure, but that isn't always the case. Don't wait until the last minute to start writing. There's no reason to rush your essay, nor is there any reason to drag your feet on starting the process . Give yourself the time you need to write, revise, and revise some more. That's how good work happens.

The reality is that you won't score extra points with the admissions department for finishing your essay in an hour — nor will you churn out the best essay you can in that time frame. Unless you helped write the State of the Union, your admissions essay will likely be the most influential essay you've written so far, at least as it relates to your own life, so give yourself a realistic timeline to complete it.

In most cases, you should take at least a week to compose your essay. That time frame gives you enough time to rework any weak spots, revise your ideas so that they flow better, and lets you look it over time and again until you're confident that it's the best work you can put out.

Start With a Template

There are few things that feel as intimidating and insurmountable as a blank page when you're writing. Luckily, there are templates that can give you a good starting point for your college admissions essay.

You can browse the Internet to find templates and sample essays to help your ideas begin to take shape. Templates can also give you an idea of how to create a solid college admission essay format, which can help streamline your ideas even more. For example, you may want to include a heading with the name and address of the person who will be receiving your letter — and a template could suggest little fixes like that for you to use.

That said, you shouldn't rely on templates too heavily to get the job done. A template is an aid to your creativity, not to become a restriction or hindrance to your writing. Rather than following the exact template format, use the sample college admission essay template as a scaffolding to build your essay from the ground up.

College admissions officers see hundreds of essays every year, and you do yourself no favors if you adhere too closely to a template that they've seen time and again. Depart from the sample essay for college admission whenever you feel that it would improve your essay, and remember that creativity and ingenuity in your writing can do a lot more for you than a template can — if you spend enough time on your work to get the formula right.

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Consider each option (and brainstorm!)

Before you start writing your essay, you need to take the time to brainstorm some ideas. In most cases, the college or university you're applying to will have given you a prompt or a choice of prompts to write about. Take your time to carefully consider each option.

If you feel drawn to a particular prompt, think about why it interests you and what you can do with it to stand out . Reflect on your life to find any personal anecdotes that work well with that prompt. If you can't find any personal connection to it, you may want to heavily weigh the other options.

And, even if you can list a personal connection or two to the topic, you should still spend some time thinking about the other choices. Deeper reflection can help you find what would be best to write on, so don't marry your first impulse. Use outlines, word clouds or free association to help you come up with material for each of the different prompts and then choose the one that best fits with what you can relate to. That's how good essays are created.

Show Your Personality

Most of your application consists largely of measurable metrics, like grades and test scores, which are weighed against admissions requirements and the grades and scores of other students who apply.

Your application essay, on the other hand, allows you to showcase what makes you unique as both a student and a person. Don't squander that opportunity; use it to your advantage instead. Your essay can help fill in the gaps and make you a more competitive candidate, but only if you get it right.

If you want to blow the socks off the admissions committee, use your own voice and your own stories to illustrate why you would be an asset to the school. Don't fall into the trap of trying to mold your speech and your opinions to fit what you think they're looking for. You need to use proper spelling and grammar, of course, but your college essay is a perfect place for creative metaphors, witty turns of phrase and humor if you can fit it into the topic at hand.

It's also a great way to explain any hurdles you've faced or challenges you've met to help show your resilience and ability to overcome tough situations. Be real, be honest and be thoughtful about what you talk about and why. But whatever you do, don't try to crack the code to the admissions committee. There isn't a formula for figuring that out, and you'll be doing yourself a disservice if you spend time worrying about it.

Stay Away From the Thesaurus

You may think that using big words in your essay will work to your advantage, but that isn't usually the case. In most situations, trying to use words in your essay that you wouldn't use in your daily conversations can end up sounding awkward and forced.

Words have nuances to them, and simply inserting a word from the thesaurus into your essay is a great way to detract from your overall message. Plus, this type of thesaurus abuse is a trick that's easy to spot, and seasoned admissions officers will see right through it.

If you feel that you're overusing a particular word, try to think of alternatives without consulting a thesaurus. Natural language can work to your advantage when you're writing, and using words that you're familiar with will help you avoid misusing them. It's a win-win.

Focus on Your Grammar and Spelling

Your college essay should reflect your authentic speaking voice, but that doesn't mean you should write it like a lengthy text message. You need to avoid any major grammatical or spelling errors in your essay. This will showcase your attention to detail and the time and care you put into crafting your work.

After you've completed your essay, go over it with a fine-toothed comb to look for any technical errors. Make sure to also take the time to read your essay aloud. Certain phrases may sound fine in your head, but hearing them spoken can highlight awkward phrasing or unclear wording. If you spot some weaknesses in your writing or phrasing but can't figure out the right wording or punctuation, you may want to rewrite it to avoid the thorny issue.

Once you've done your own thorough evaluation of your essay, you should also ask at least one other person to look it over, too. It's easy to overlook your own mistakes, and a second set of eyes can be essential in pinpointing any issues or trouble spots.

Share a Personal Story

Sharing a personal story that's relevant to the prompt is an excellent way to make your essay stand out from the crowd. You don't have to pick a school-related story for your essay, either. College admissions boards care about who you are outside of school as well as your academic history.

That said, remember that your story exists to serve your prompt. Choose incidents that allowed you to learn and grow from them. Don't be afraid to use a failure in your story, either. Colleges know that students are humans and that failure is a natural part of life.

Use Specific Examples

Writers are supposed to show, not tell. Simply asserting that you have what the university is looking for is not convincing.

Stating that you believe in integrity, for example, is an easy claim to make, but it's much more useful to illustrate how you embody integrity. If you want to demonstrate your integrity, share a story that illustrates how you passed up an opportunity to exploit an advantage that was unfairly gained.

Claiming that you have good study habits is another empty claim that you may be tempted to make. Opt out of just claiming good study habits and detail the exact study habits that have helped you succeed in school instead. You can back up your claims with the GPA on your application, which carries much more weight.

Although you need to be creative while writing your essay, you should resist the urge to get creative with the facts.

Don't exaggerate your own accomplishments to make yourself look better. You don't need to lay out a long list of all your shortcomings, but acknowledging weaknesses and misjudgments can demonstrate authenticity and give your legitimate accomplishments greater credibility.

Admissions officers don't expect you to be perfect, so don't make your essay unbelievable by trying to pretend that you are.

Don't Shy Away From a Rewrite

No matter how well-written your first draft is, there's always room for improvement. After your initial draft is complete, put it away and let it sit for at least a day. With some time, you'll be able to view your essay objectively and have better luck finding the flaws.

After polishing it up, let it sit again and then clean it up some more before showing it to your proofreaders. The best college admission essays will go through several drafts before they're finished, so don't be afraid to rewrite your essay as many times as needed.

Take a Break

If you're starting to feel frustrated or overwhelmed by your essay, take a break and do something else instead. A short walk around your neighborhood can clear your mind and help you brainstorm new ideas. If you're still feeling overwhelmed, do something completely unrelated to your essay and forget about it for a while. If you try to work through the stress, you may end up producing subpar work.

Read Other Essays for Inspiration

Reading the essays written by other students who successfully got into the college of their choice is a good way to source inspiration for your own work. Look for common patterns in college admission essay samples, such as personal stories or a touch of humor. You might also find some good ideas for structuring your essay to give it a breath of fresh air.

Ask for College Essay Help

Asking someone with a good grasp of writing or college admissions to read your essay is one of the best ways to get useful feedback. Ask your proofreaders to specifically look for grammar and spelling errors or other obvious flaws.

Ask for suggestions on the content, too, such as areas that need more detail or places where you could cut down or revise your wording. Parents and teachers are good candidates for this task, but you can also make use of a college consultant with specialized knowledge of the admissions process.

Don't Let Anyone Else Write It

Don't give in to temptation and let someone else write your essay. Your essay is a unique reflection of who you are as a person. Your own words are the best to convey who you are as a student and a person. Using someone else's words won't give your essay an authentic voice.

And, if you're caught letting someone else write your essay, you may be automatically disqualified from admission. That's exactly the kind of college application help you don't need.

In the sea of applicants, your college application essay gives you a chance to show why you deserve a coveted spot at your preferred college or university. Give yourself plenty of time, focus on the specific details of your life, and showcase your unique personality. A strong essay can give you the best chance to get into the school of your dreams, and focusing on creating one that speaks to who you are is the key to getting it right.

Additional Resources:

College Admissions Library Do I Need a College Counselor? Do I Need College Consulting? How to Apply for College

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    Reading the essays written by other students who successfully got into the college of their choice is a good way to source inspiration for your own work. Look for common patterns in college admission essay samples, such as personal stories or a touch of humor.