Writing a College Application Essay: Table of Contents
Don’t Be Worried, Be Prepared
When it comes to writing a college application essay (also referred to as a college admission essay), it’s okay to be nervous.
Whether writing is your strength or your weakness, it’s normal to have worries, doubts, or questions about writing one of these essays. After all, it’s your one opportunity to show who you are beyond your grades, test scores, and academic achievements.
But truth be told, worrying won’t help you compose an acceptance-letter-worthy essay—only preparation will.
That being said, this blog post will provide everything you need to write a compelling college application essay, from helpful tips to straightforward steps to follow.
Do College Application Essays Really Matter?
Here’s the deal: If you begin writing with the mindset that the college application essay isn't even important, then you’re bound to write a lackluster piece. Set yourself up for success by understanding why college application essays are essential to begin with.
So, you may be asking yourself, “Why are college application essays important?” Because they give you a chance to show the college admissions office who you are as a human beyond your academic record.
In other words, it’s the one opportunity you have to write about something meaningful to you that might not be related to grades and standardized tests. You can write about things that are valuable to you that your transcript may not be able to show: your creative pursuits, your leadership in sports, your values and beliefs, or a personal challenge that helped you grow.
While your grades demonstrate how diligent you were (or weren’t) at school, the college application essay lets you display other qualities about yourself that are just as important.
Tips to Keep in Mind While Writing
Now that you understand the significance of a college application essay, let’s go over a few tips you should keep in mind.
You simply cannot write a powerful, compelling, and well-written essay if you start at the last possible minute. Good writing takes time, and that’s no different for a college application essay.
If you’re in high school, it’s suggested that you start writing your essay during the summer before your senior year. That may sound excessive, but think about just how much you have to do during your last year of high school. Now imagine writing one of the most important essays of your life at the same time. Hectic, right?
If you’re no longer in high school, consider starting the essay months in advance. Keep in mind that it’s easy to spot writing that was rushed through, and that’s the last thing you want to show a college admissions officer.
Keep the Reader in Mind
Whether it’s the Dean of Admissions, an admissions officer, or any other staff member, consider the hundreds and hundreds of essays they have to read.
Put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself, “What would stand out to me right now?” or “After reading essay after essay, what would I like to read?” Keeping this in mind will help you avoid writing an unoriginal and boring essay.
Don’t focus on trying to sound intelligent by using unnecessarily long words or complex sentences. Doing so might actually serve as a point against you. Instead, your focus should be on showing other qualities that your transcript may not be able to demonstrate.
Another important note: don’t rely on artificial intelligence to write your entire essay. First, there is technology that can detect the use of AI. Second, a completely AI-written essay stands out, especially to someone who reads countless essays every day.
Instead, you can use AI to inspire you or to help you paraphrase sentences to achieve a desired tone, rather than generating an entire essay for you.
Be Vulnerable and Honest
Again, the point of a college application essay is to showcase human qualities that can’t be seen in a transcript alone. And part of being human is having flaws and making mistakes. Instead of trying to curtail them, consider writing about how they have helped you grow.
How To Write a College Application Essay in Seven Steps
With these tips in mind, it’s time to start writing your essay.
Keep In Mind
The application process may differ slightly based on the specific colleges and universities you are applying to. While some accept applications via third-party apps, like Common App, others do not.
Similarly, the topics you can write about vary depending on where you are applying—some schools have a list of topics for you to choose from, while others allow you to choose your own. That being said, you must do your due diligence and follow the application instructions of every school you’re applying to.
1. Choose a Topic
Whether you’re choosing from a list or deciding on a topic yourself, you must choose one that you’re passionate about, that evokes strong feelings, or that has made the biggest impact in your life.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself that can help you choose or decide on a topic:
- Is there someone or something that has helped me become who I am today? If so, what was it that so greatly impacted me?
- What are my values and beliefs, and how have they shaped who I am and how I see the world today?
- Are there any challenges or obstacles that I had to overcome, and what did I learn from them?
- Which aspects of myself—whether my background, identity, or experiences—do I want to highlight to the admissions office?
- Have I experienced any significant moments of self-discovery or personal growth?
Remember, the college application essay is a chance to show the admissions office who you are. Decide on a topic that can help showcase authentic and significant aspects of yourself.
Do not write about a topic that is too broad! Narrow the scope of your subject. Otherwise, you risk writing an essay that is too long and complex.
2. Brainstorm and Write an Outline
You’ve decided on a topic. Great! Now what?
As with any work of writing, you must prepare for your college application essay. Do this by brainstorming and jotting down ideas, scenarios, and points that can help you convey your message.
Once you have everything written down, it’s time to write an outline. That’s when you get all the notes you’ve written down and organize them into a logical flow that serves as the blueprint for your final text.
An outline is not a rigid plan, so don’t feel forced to follow it exactly when writing your essay. Keep a flexible mind and make changes when necessary.
3. Start Strong
It’s not hyperbolic to say that the introduction is the most important part of your essay. Remember, admissions officers read hundreds and hundreds of essays.
When writing an introduction, put yourself in their position and ask yourself, “Is this introduction wow-worthy? Would I keep reading begrudgingly, or because I’m sincerely curious to read the rest?”
The Body Keeps the Score is a good book and one that had a profound impact on my life. This essay aims to explain how this book positively impacted me.
The dark days seemed never-ending, but then they turned to light. And it wasn’t a parent, a counselor, a friend, or a teacher who saved me. It was a book: The Body Keeps the Score.
Which introductory sentence makes you want to keep reading? Odds are that you find the first one too formulaic, and the second one more emotive. Use the introduction paragraph to hook the reader.
4. Write Multiple Drafts
As we’ve already stated, good writing takes time. Think about the number of prospective students who are vying for the same thing you are—an acceptance letter. A rushed-through essay is not enough to stand out. Write a first draft and then rewrite it until you believe it’s of the highest quality possible. Also, when writing different drafts, it’s a good idea to try different flows and perspectives.
5. Have Several People Read Your Essay
Your parents or guardians have different views of you than your friends would. Similarly, your coach may have a different perspective than your parents and teachers. Your friends and teammates may know you differently than anyone else.
That’s why it’s crucial to ask several people in different positions to read and review your essay. They may be able to add valuable insight that you may not see yourself.
6. Bring Everything Together in Your Conclusion
Bring everything together in your conclusion. People appreciate closure, and you can provide them with this by circling back to your introduction. A well-written conclusion is crucial, as it’s the piece of writing that will stick with the reader the most.
Here are a few tips to help you write an effective conclusion:
- Avoid simply restating everything you mentioned in the body paragraphs. Instead, provide insight.
- Make the final connections between your supporting points and the main idea.
- Do not add new information or opinions.
- Remain consistent in tone and style.
7. Proofread for Grammar, Spelling, and Punctuation Errors
You can follow the six steps above meticulously, but if your essay has grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors, then all your hard work will have been in vain. Yes, the essay is an opportunity for you to display other important qualities about yourself that transcend academics, but the admissions officer still wants to know that you have a basic grasp of spelling and grammar.
Don’t be disconcerted if writing isn’t your strong suit. By using LanguageTool as your writing assistant, you can be sure that your written work is free of errors. What’s more, this free and multilingual tool can also provide high stylistic standards by offering suggestions to improve your tone, style, and flow.
Writing a College Application is a Great Opportunity
Writing an essay for your college application is truly a valuable opportunity to explain to the school’s admissions office what makes you great. Don’t rush through this part of the college application process. Take your time, follow the seven steps listed above, and show the colleges and universities you’re applying to what makes you a unique and special human being.
Harvard Summer School. “12 Strategies to Writing the Perfect College Essay - Harvard Summer School,” July 26, 2022. https://summer.harvard.edu/blog/12-strategies-to-writing-the-perfect-college-essay/.
Harvard Business Review. “How to Write a Personal Essay for Your College Application,” December 14, 2021. https://hbr.org/2021/12/how-to-a-personal-essay-for-your-college-application.
Crafting an Unforgettable College Essay | The Princeton Review. “Crafting an Unforgettable College Essay,” n.d. https://www.princetonreview.com/college-advice/college-essay.