How to Write a College Application Essay

How to Write a College Application Essay

10 minute read

Applying to college can be confusing and overwhelming, whether you’re a high school student preparing for college, a transfer student looking for a new school, or an adult looking to complete a degree. There are so many things to consider to ensure that your application stands out and gets you that all-important acceptance letter. 

A standard part of the college application process is writing an essay. Learn more about this essential part of your application and follow our tips for how to write a college application essay that gets you noticed.

What Is a College Application Essay?

Many colleges and universities require an essay or personal statement as part of their application process. This has been part of applying to college for years, so there’s plenty of helpful information to get you started writing a high-quality essay. 

Essays are often used — along with personal recommendations and extracurricular activities — to help students stand out from other applicants with similar test scores and grades.

If you’re filling out the Common App for several schools, you can use the same essay for each school. This means you only need to write your essay once, though some schools may have additional essay questions.

If you still want to make changes to your essay after you’ve submitted your Common App, you can do so; however, applications you’ve already submitted will not change. In other words, this only works if you need to change your essay when applying to additional schools.

What’s the Difference Between a College Application Essay and a Personal Statement?

Generally speaking, a personal statement is, as the name suggests, a personal piece of writing that allows you to show admissions officers who you are. They’re generally more common for graduate school applications. For undergraduate admissions, essays usually include a prompt and should be more structured. Some schools require one or the other, some require both, and some require neither. 

For our purposes, we’ll discuss undergraduate college application essays, but this advice can apply to personal statements as well.

How Important Is a College Application Essay?

Many schools have started to implement a “test-blind” admissions process by either excluding test scores or giving them less weight in their analysis of your application. Those schools rely on essays more and more every year. This means it’s vital to really focus on your application essay.

That said, writing your college application essay shouldn’t be an overly stressful process. With the guidance below, anyone can get started on writing a quality college application essay that will stand out. Breaking the process down into easy-to-follow steps can be really helpful, even for those who aren’t used to writing essays.

How to Start a College Application Essay

The first step in writing a fantastic college essay is to choose your prompt. There may be a selection of prompts to choose from, or there may be only one. Or, you may have to come up with your own prompt. 

How to Choose an Essay Prompt

If given a choice of prompts, choose one that feels authentic to you and will allow you to really connect with admissions counselors. Try to avoid writing about something you know nothing about just because you think it’ll impress the admissions staff. The key here is sincerity.

How to Create an Essay Prompt

In some cases, you won’t be given a prompt and will need to come up with one on your own. Some tips for creating a prompt include:

  • Avoiding negative topics such as personal weaknesses or negative experiences unless you’re using them as the jumping-off point to illustrate personal growth and lessons learned.
  • Choosing a topic that will reflect positively on you.
  • Narrowing down your choices to a single inspiring person, event, or moment that you feel had the most significant impact on you.
  • Choosing something you’re passionate about, including uncommon hobbies or activities that will help you stand out.

How to Write a College Application Essay: 6 Key Steps

Once you have your topic, it’s time to sit down and turn it into a college application masterpiece.

1. Create an Outline

An outline is a great way to start the writing process because it allows you to “brain dump” your ideas into words and see how they fit together. You don’t have to write your outline in the order of the essay, and it’s okay to jump around as ideas occur to you. The point of the outline is to sort what you’re trying to say into a single, cohesive structure that will form the “bones” of your essay.

2. Write a First Draft

Like an outline, this step is purely to help you organize your thoughts and see how everything looks when written out. Some tips for your first draft include:

Show, Don’t Tell

The phrase “show, don’t tell” means immersing your readers in the story so they feel like they’re really there. In other words, don’t just make a list of reasons why you enjoyed a trip you took with your family. Add sensory details: what did you smell? What time of day was it? Was it loud? Be sure to write in active voice, as well: “I smelled my grandmother’s perfume,” rather than, “My grandmother’s perfume was smelled by me.”

Stay on Topic

The purpose of the essay is to answer a question or a prompt. Minor sidebars might be appropriate, but the overall flow should stick to the topic. A college essay should have a clear beginning, middle, and end that make sense. Like any other type of story, there should be a logical flow to what happens, and the ending should make sense and feel good.

Write From the Heart

Your application essay isn’t a thesis that requires research and analysis. Rather, it’s a chance to open up and share an important part of yourself with people who look at thousands of college applications every year. Connect your experiences to deeper themes, such as why you’re passionate about a particular hobby and how it creates a positive effect on the rest of your life.

Be Specific

Choose something specific to write about. For example, write about how a particular encounter on a study abroad program changed your whole perspective on your adopted culture, rather than talking about why study abroad programs are great.

Finish Strong

Your essay should “finish strong” with a reflection about the lessons you learned or how everything ties together. Note that this doesn't mean ending with a “twist” that you think the reader didn’t expect. Instead, this part should be heartwarming and memorable.

3. Check for Plagiarism

While it’s totally fine and expected that you go online for inspiration, it can be easy to plagiarize without realizing you’re doing it. Make use of at least one free online plagiarism checker after completing your first draft.

4. Edit and Proofread

Now, go back and read the first draft of your essay. At this stage, focus on any glaring errors, missing elements, sections that can be cut, and overall flow.

Once that’s done, give your essay to someone you trust who can read it and make helpful suggestions. It’s always good to have another set of eyes on your writing because sometimes your message may not come across the way you intended. When it comes to college applications, do your best to avoid confusion or misunderstandings.

Remember that feedback is not necessarily criticism. It should help you become a better writer and make your essay shine. Edits and rewrites are part of the process for every writer.

5. Rewrite

Rewrites often happen in stages. Even for seasoned writers, it usually takes more than a single rewrite to get your work to the best version of itself.  You may want to have someone read a new draft to see if it’s any better than the original.

There will come a point at which the essay is as good as it can be. This is important for those who consider themselves “perfectionists” because there will be a deadline, and at that point, you’ll have to submit your essay even if you feel like it could use another ten revisions.

6. The Final Polish

Before you hit that submit button, give your essay one last look to check for silly mistakes, grammatical errors, and typos that may have fallen through the cracks during revisions. Keep in mind that sometimes you can read your work too many times and no longer “see” what might be obvious mistakes. Therefore, do a final polish when you feel rested and can focus on the task.

How Long Should a College Application Essay Be?

Look at word counts in your application instructions and follow them closely. If a word count is listed at 400-600 words, write a bare minimum of 400 words and stop before the 600-word mark. Your ability to follow directions is an essential part of applying to college.

If there’s no stated word count, the average length of a college essay is usually around 650 words.

What to Avoid in Your College Essay

While writing a college essay is a chance for you to show off who you are beyond grades and test scores, it’s also an important part of the application that should be taken seriously. Therefore, try to avoid:

  • Off-color humor (keep in mind that humor in general is very subjective, and what you find funny, someone else might not “get” — remember what we said about avoiding confusion and misunderstandings)
  • Repeating your list of amazing grades, extracurriculars, or test scores
  • Comparing yourself to epic historical figures (though it’s fine to use them as inspirational figures)
  • Being too generic
  • Showing off a life of privilege
  • Waiting until the last minute to write your essay
  • Writing about how much you love your pet
  • Any criminal or illicit activities in your background
  • Starting with a famous quote, especially one that’s been used a million times (“Knowledge is power,” for example)
  • Threats or bribes, even as a joke
  • Submitting your essay without thorough editing, including having someone else look at it

Courses With StraighterLine Look Great on Applications

Take college-level courses with StraigherLine to show colleges you can handle college-level coursework. Our affordable online classes are designed to work around your schedule so you can sharpen your writing and communication skills and craft that perfectly polished, outstanding college essay. As a bonus, you’ll earn some college credit along the way!

Sign up for one of our classes today to start impressing colleges tomorrow!

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