How to Write a Killer College Application Essay

How to Write a Killer College Application Essay
Barry Lenson

In future posts, we’ll cover strategies for writing different kinds of essays – SAT essays, essays on tests, and more. Today, we’ll cover the college application essay.

There are actually two kinds of college application essays . . .

1)      The writing sample that you include in the common application online.

2)      An essay that is required as part of the application for colleges where you are applying.

Today, we’ll cover the second kind of essay. Here are some strategies to apply.

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First, understand why the college wants you to write an essay.

The purpose of application essays is to determine what you would bring to the college community. That presents an interesting writing challenge, because you have to demonstrate two seemingly opposite traits:

1)      You have to show that you will fit into the culture of the school.
2)      You have to show that you will stand out because you are exceptional in some way.

How can you hit both those targets? The best strategy is to write about something that fits with the culture of the college and the campus – be it environmentalism, entrepreneurship, social activism, technological innovation, or something else.  If you’re applying to an engineering school, for example, write about how you perfected the brakes on the go-kart that you built in your garage when you were in middle school. If you are applying to a school where you will study business, write about a company that you started while you were in high school. As you write, don’t brag about how brilliant you were when you did those things. Bragging will make you seem like someone with a big ego. Instead, write with a bit of self-deprecating humor.  Remember, schools want students who will fit in, not alienate other students.

Second, pick the right essay prompt and stick to it.

The University of Georgia, for example, offers a choice of four different essay prompts.  One of them is:

  1. Choose an intellectual or creative opportunity (for example, community involvement, a summer program, a unique project, travel abroad, etc.) from your high school years that you have enjoyed and highlight how you have grown personally because of the experience.

If that’s the prompt that you choose, be sure to stick to it and not use it as a point of departure for some other topic that you’d prefer to write about. Read the prompt carefully – it wants you to write about an activity and explain how you have “grown personally” from it. If you don’t hit those targets, your essay won’t pass muster.

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Third, pick the right essay format to use.

For college application essays, the right form should be one of these two:

  1. A narrative. This is a story that you tell in chronological format. To write a good essay in this format, start out by describing one experience that demonstrates what the prompt requires. When you were in your early teens, perhaps you helped the victims of a car accident and that sparked your interest in becoming a nurse or a physician. Or when you visited a handicapped relative, you realized that she could benefit from a computer with voice-activated commands, so you set one up for her and discovered how technology can help people with special challenges. In two or three following paragraphs, write about what you later did because of the experience that you described in paragraph one.
  2. An expository essay. This essay requires you to state a position about something and then logically support your position in succeeding paragraphs. Here’s a sample prompt that a college used a few years ago:

“Sartre said `Hell is other people,’ while Streisand sang, `People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.’ With whom do you agree?”

The strategy here is to state your position or opinion clearly in your first paragraph, and then follow with two or three paragraphs in which you support your position. In those paragraphs you can write about a lot of different things that support your position: personal experiences, the lives of famous people, movie characters and plots, recent news events, etc. But whatever you write about, it should have a clear connection to the position that you took in your first paragraph. You can write about a humanitarian like Albert Schweitzer and say that his life shows that people should help others, for example. Or you can write about the plot of a movie like Forrest Gump to illustrate the power of kindness.

Fourth, show your essay to a few people before you submit it.

They could be your friends, parents, favorite teachers – anyone whose opinion you trust. Ask them to tell you frankly if your essay makes you sound like you are bragging or are cocky. Unfortunately, many of us sound that way when we are writing about ourselves.

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4 thoughts on “How to Write a Killer College Application Essay”


    Interesting strategy. First of all, we must be truthful. Do not be afraid to be creative and express your thoughts. Thanks for the useful article. I am sure that many young people it will be useful.

  • Mathew

    Hi Barry, really very useful information shared regarding college application essay. Ya, writing a college application essay is an important part for getting through the college admission process. Thanks for sharing this useful information.

  • Jean-Pierre

    Very useful information indeed!

  • […] Straighterline reminds students that there are two acceptable forms in which to craft your college essay. The first is a narrative essay. Essays written in this form are written in “chronological format.” As the article describes, narrative essays start with an event (related to the “prompt”) and then discuss how this event shaped your future experiences, actions and decisions. […]

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