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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Essay introduction analysis
Tell us about your experiences as a New American. Whether as an immigrant yourself, or as a child of immigrants, how have your experiences as a New American informed and shaped who you are and your accomplishments?
Feel free to discuss how individual people (such as family or teachers), institutions, aspects of law, culture, society or American governance made an impact on your life as an immigrant or child of immigrants. The program is especially interested in understanding and contextualizing your accomplishments, be they personal, professional, or academic.
Essay prompt impressions
This prompt seems almost as vague to me now as it did when I applied back in Fall 2009. My experiences as a New American? How they shaped who I am?
Once I took a step back, I realized that the vagueness of the prompt—and this is true of almost every college and scholarship essay prompt—presented a great opportunity. I could effectively write any essay and somehow link it to being a New American.
Before I show you my essay's introduction, let's take a look at an example of how most applicants would approach the prompt above:
Typical opening paragraph
Ever since I was young, I have been fascinated by mental health difficulties. This curiosity likely developed from my own experiences with Tourette Syndrome. Around the age of 9, I exhibited facial and bodily tics that concerned my parents. These tics also made me the laughing stock of my classmates, which ultimately made me embarrassed.
This opening is very straightforward and provides information without the reader having to envision anything. It barely appeals to emotions, and it seems very robotic. Let’s compare that to what I actually wrote.
My opening paragraph
Growing up in Los Angeles, I was quite the troublemaker. My parents often recall how I used to wreak havoc in and out of the house, hiding or misplacing important bills and cookware and playing in the dirt. However, their concern peaked when I was eight years old and unable to control my facial and bodily tics. Soon thereafter, I became the target of ridicule from classmates, who would stare and laugh at me while imitating my tics. My ability to stay focused in the classroom was greatly impaired, as my struggle was not limited to the impulse to tic but also to a lack of understanding about my disorder. Even my father contended that I was exhibiting signs of “mental retardation.”
Do you think committee members would be interested in an applicant who calls himself a troublemaker in the first sentence?
Probably! A bold sentence breaks up the monotony from the many essays committee members read in one sitting.
Your child will get bonus points just for ridding them of boredom. Committee members will also be eager to find out how your child was a troublemaker.
The second sentence provides some humor with hyperbole (imagine little me "wreaking havoc") and quickly juxtaposes one form of "problem" behaviors (e.g., hiding important bills) with truly concerning symptoms of Tourette Syndrome.
I could have started the essay by writing about "receiving a Tourette Syndrome diagnosis at a young age" and how that was difficult for my parents and me. Instead, I created images in the readers' minds of my youthful misbehavior, exhibiting tics and being laughed at. These real world examples appealed to the readers' emotions instead of making them yawn.
The first paragraph also kept the focus on me. Students very often start essays talking about others because they find it difficult to talk about themselves. Remember that the reader wants to know about your child. Your child will have opportunities to focus on others elsewhere in their essays and throughout their application.
Typical second paragraph
Despite the challenges my family and I faced, I decided then that I would channel my experiences with the disorder to positively influence the world. I had no specific plan at the time and was too busy focusing on how to fit in and achieve good grades.
The first sentence of this paragraph does a decent job transitioning from the previous one. However, rather than developing thoughts, building imagery, or demonstrating any qualities, the paragraph reads like a list. Contrast this with…
My second paragraph
I clearly remember the day my mother and I finally visited a pediatric neurologist when I was 11 years old. Within minutes, I was diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome (TS). At the time, my parents did not fully understand the effects this uncommon disability would have on our lives. Despite my youth, I somehow knew TS would significantly shape my world and future goals.
Again, I depicted a scene of my mother and me at the doctor's office receiving news about Tourette Syndrome and my reflections. This beats saying "I was eventually diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome.
My parents had a difficult time accepting the diagnosis, but I was relieved to know that I had a diagnosable medical condition." That would have just "told" the reader what happened, rather than painting a picture and creating a cliffhanger.
Typical third paragraph
My goals of fitting in and achieving good grades reflect the ideals my parents impressed upon my brother and me. Specifically, having fled war-torn Lebanon in 1977, they sought a more stable life in the United States. They believed we could achieve this through education. My hard work resulted in admission to UCLA as a premed student, putting me on track to fulfill my parents’ wishes.
I’ll keep this short because you’re probably starting to see the trend here.
All of these typically-written examples give the reader everything upfront.
Is this how captivating books are written?
Imagine if the Hunger Games trilogy were written like this: “The rich people in the capital oppressed everyone in the outside districts. This led to resentment and eventually to Civil War. Despite the Capital’s best efforts to overpower the masses, the rebellion proved to be successful. The End.”
Would the trilogy sell more than 65 million copies in the US alone?
My third paragraph
My parents fled Lebanon in 1977 and settled outside St. Louis, Missouri. After the harrowing experience of witnessing his mother’s death during a grenade attack on their home during the Lebanese Civil War, my father decided that the country was unsafe to start a family. Unfortunately, life in the United States was not without its difficulties. Features like my parents’ dark, thick hair, characteristic of many Armenians, made them targets for racial slurs and prejudices. For these reasons, my parents hoped that my brother and I would benefit from living relatively structured, stress-free lives. Having internalized my parents’ wishes, I attended the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) as a pre-med student.
Here, I begin to develop my story about my family background, how it influenced my parents' hopes for my brother and me in the United States, and one way in which it impacted my academic career.
This paragraph very specifically addresses the part of the prompt about "how individual people (such as family or teachers), institutions, aspects of law, culture, society or American governance made an impact on [my] life as an immigrant or child of immigrants."
The rest of my essay goes on to describe various academic and community experiences that steered me towards psychology, as well as serving underrepresented individuals.
The analyzed paragraphs provide concrete examples of how your child can write a compelling college essay by developing a story to demonstrate their positive qualities rather than listing attributes and achievements.
Many of my students feel that they don't have a good story to share or that they're not unique or special in any way.
The way I see it, every single person in this world is different from me, has experienced different things, and has interpreted these experiences in different ways.
Given how unique your child is, writing an interesting college essay has far less to do with what they've specifically experienced or accomplished. Rather, it has everything to do with how your child presents themselves.
In other words, your child is interesting, and they can write an interesting college essay.
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Finally, please contact me if I can ever support you or give a free presentation—in person or online—at your school or organization.