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.
Here's the thing: 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. Write the story no one else can tell.
1. 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 question or essay prompt. When you are 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.
- Read the essay questions and/or prompts. Read them again. Then, read them one more time.
- Take some time to think about what is being asked and let it really sink in before you let the ideas flow.
- Before you can even start brainstorming, define what it is you’re trying to accomplish. Is this essay prompt asking you to inform? Defend? Support? Expand upon?
- If it doesn’t already, relate the question back yourself by asking, “How does this—or how could this—apply to me?”
- Avoid sorting through your existing English class essays to see if the topics fit the bill. These pieces rarely showcase who you are as an applicant.
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 are going with the topic.
- Reflect. You have years to draw from, so set aside time to mentally collect relevant experiences or events that serve as strong, specific examples. This is also time for self-reflection. “What are my strengths?” “How would my friends describe me?” “What sets me apart from other applicants?”
- Write any and all ideas down. There’s no technique that works best, but you’ll be thankful when you are able to come back to ideas you otherwise might have forgotten.
- Narrow down the options. Choose three concepts you think fit the college application essay prompt best and weigh the potential of each. Which idea can you develop further and not lose the reader? Which captures more of who you really are?
- Choose your story to tell. From the thoughts you’ve narrowed down, pick one. You should have enough supporting details to rely on this as an excellent demonstration of your abilities, achievements, perseverance, or beliefs.
3. Create an outline
Map out what you’re going to write by making an outline.
Architects use a blue print. A webpage is comprised of code. Cooks rely on recipes. What do they 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.
- All good stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Shape your story so that it has an introduction, body, and conclusion. Following this natural progression will make your essay coherent and easy to read.
- Strategize. How are you going to open your essay? With an anecdote? A question? Dialogue? Use of humor? Try to identify what the tone of your essay is going to be based on your ideas.
- Stick to your writing style and voice. It’s particularly important when writing a piece about yourself that you write naturally. Put the words in your own voice. By planning the layout of your essay ahead of time, you’ll avoid changing your writing style mid-story.
Related:College Application Essays: A Step-by-Step Example
4. Write the essay
Once you are satisfied with your essay in outline format, begin writing!
By now you know exactly what you will 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 will have told the story you outlined—and reached the necessary word count—and you will be happy you spent all that time preparing!
- Keep your essay’s focus narrow and personal. Don’t lose your reader. Start with your main idea, and follow it from beginning to end.
- Be specific. Avoid using clichéd, predictable, or generic phrases by developing your main idea with vivid and detailed facts, events, quotations, examples, and reasons.
- Be yourself. Admission officers read plenty of application essays and know the difference between a student’s original story and a recycled academic essay, or—worse—a piece written by your mom or dad or even plagiarized. Bring something new to the table, not just what you think they want to hear. Use humor if appropriate.
- Be concise. Don’t use 50 words if five will do. Try to only include the information that is absolutely necessary.
The last step is editing and proofreading your finished essay.
You have worked so hard up until this point, and while you might be relieved, remember: your essay is only as good as your editing. A single grammatical error or typo could indicate carelessness—not a trait you want to convey to a college admission officer.
- Give yourself some time. Let your essay sit for a while (at least an hour or two) before you proofread it. Approaching the essay with a fresh perspective gives your mind a chance to focus on the actual words, rather than seeing what you think you wrote.
- Don’t rely solely on the computer spelling and grammar check. Computers cannot detect the context in which you are using words, so be sure to review carefully. Don’t abbreviate or use acronyms or slang. They might be fine in a text message, but not in your college essay.
- Have another person (or several!) read your essay, whether it’s a teacher, guidance counselor, parent, or trusted friend. You know what you meant to say, but is it clear to someone else reading your work? Have these people review your application essay to make sure your message is on target and clear to any audience.
- Read your essay backwards. This may sound a bit silly, but when reading in sequential order, your brain has a tendency to piece together missing information, or fill in the blanks, for you. Reading each sentence on its own and backwards can help you realize not only typos and mistakes in grammar, but that you may have forgotten an article here and there, such as “a” or “the.”
- Read your essay out loud. This forces you to read each word individually and increases your chances of finding
- a typo. Reading aloud will also help you ensure your punctuation is correct, and it’s often easier to hear awkward sentences than see them.
- Check for consistency. Avoid switching back and forth from different tenses. Also, if you refer to a particular college in the essay, make sure it is the correct name and is consistent throughout the piece. You don’t want to reference two different schools in the same paper!
6. Tie up loose ends
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 e-mail account. Nothing is worse than trying to match an application essay with no name (or, worse, an e-mail address such as firstname.lastname@example.org) 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 are applying to received your essay. You don’t want all that hard work to go to waste!
Looking for more college application essay help? We have tons—tons—here, including lots of real-world examples!
P.S. What did you end up writing your college application essay about? We wanna know! Leave a comment or get in touch here.
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By Jon Fortenbury, USA TODAY College
College application essays scare most of us.
Even if you consider yourself a pretty good writer, the thought of cranking out an essay that will determine whether or not you’ll get into college can leave you in a cold sweat.
But writing that college application essay doesn’t have to be scary. In fact, you can be yourself -- relaxed and sincere. Keep in mind, though, that there are some things you definitely shouldn’t include in your essay.
1. Flat-out lies
This one seems obvious but has to be mentioned. While it’s true that there are a lot of facts about yourself you won’t include (such as all those Justin Bieber songs you have on your iPod), you need to accurately portray the ones you will include.
So, if you say you’ve escaped abject poverty and your high school transcript shows you went to some upper-class private school, college admissions officers are going to see right through that. Just be smart about it and honest, while still making yourself look awesome.
A friend of mine had a fellow creative writing classmate who was writing a memoir about being a waitress. While this might not be the typical dramatic memoir you would find in the best-sellers section of the bookstore, she made it interesting without having to appeal to small or big lies. It’s all in how you spin it.
2. Unnecessarily big words
There’s nothing wrong with big words. But using a word that even admission counselors have to look up in the dictionary is not impressive, it’s annoying. Don’t reach into the dictionary just to sound sophisticated. Use words that make the most sense and convey your message clearly and effectively.
It’s not just big words that will trip you up. I had a journalism professor who hated the word “utilize.” While I would argue there are rare cases where this word is necessary, he’s right: Using the word “use” makes more sense in most cases. Heed the favorite saying of English teachers everywhere: “Don’t use a 10-cent word when a five-cent word will do.”
To be on the safe side, especially for you non-writers, enlist an editor to look over the word choices in your essay before sending it off.
3. A voice that’s not your own
In my many years of helping friends write essays (including college application essays), I’ve noticed that they become a completely different person in their writing. Their writing voice is nowhere near their speaking voice.
Now, I’m not saying you should use slang or interject sentences with the word “umm,” but be yourself.
My sister, who I’ve helped with many of her high school and college essays, becomes almost a different person in writing, saying things like, “The indication of her rhetorical strategy…” when in real life she’d just say, “Her style of persuasion…”
Which sounds better and more likely to be the voice of an 18-year-old? They want to hear from you, not someone else.
4. Tiny examples to prove big points
Don’t say you’re a hard worker because you take out the trash whenever your parents ask you. Small examples and everyday anecdotes can be great, but don’t go too small.
The logic has to connect. Taking out the trash doesn’t equal hard worker. You could have been taking it out to get your parents off your back or because it stunk. What does equal hard worker is you tutoring disabled children at a local school. Then from there, get into small anecdotes, such as teaching a kid how to tie his shoes.
Take notes from President Obama. He mentions a bigger theme, such as unemployment, and pairs it with smaller examples, such as a struggling mother. This personalizes and drives his point home. You taking out the trash doesn’t connect to any grand, noble conclusion on its own.
5. A list of accomplishments
As mentioned in a recent USA TODAY College article, merely listing all of your accomplishments in your college application essay is a terrible use of your 500+ word limit. It’s boring and might lower your chances of acceptance into those universities in Chicago, New York or wherever you’re dying to go.
I once went to a group job interview where the CEO asked us why we wanted the job. One by one, we all made the mistake of listing our accomplishments. When I started out my answer with, “Well, I’ve been writing for so-and-so years,” he stopped me and said, “Jon, I know that. I have your resume. Just answer the question.”
The same idea applies here. Your GPA and extracurricular activities are well-documented elsewhere. This essay is your opportunity to go in-depth on maybe one or two of these accomplishments. Imagine that they’re allowing you to color in one or two paintings at the art gallery that is your life. Which is the most beautiful when painted with detail?
All in all, be yourself, be accurate and display truths and accomplishments you think are worth sharing.