7 Tips for Writing an Amazing College Application Essay

 March 31, 2021
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Writing your personal essay for college can be a daunting task. Not only are you dealing with the pressure of getting into college, but you might also have trouble narrowing down your ideas or choosing the right college essay prompt.

Before you start drafting, it can be helpful to read some college application essay examples. You can also learn about the tried-and-true strategies you can use to make your writing shine.

As a former college counselor, I want to share seven tips on writing an outstanding college application essay that will impress an admissions officer and hopefully, get you into your dream school:

1. Read college application essay examples
2. Choose a prompt that resonates with you
3. Select a meaningful (and specific) anecdote
4. Start ‘in media res’
5. Show, don’t tell
6. Edit, edit and edit some more
7. Share your authentic voice

1. Read college application essay examples

Before you start drafting your college application essay, take some time to read samples of successful applications.

Many colleges publish student essays on their websites. For instance, check out these samples on the Johns Hopkins University website, or these from Tufts University. You can also find college application essay examples with a simple Google search.

By reading these samples, you’ll have a much clearer sense of what makes a college essay stand out. You’ll also see how college essays differ from academic papers you write in English or History class — they’re much more personal, sometimes even casual.

Your essay should reveal something about your personality and the way you think about the world. There are no limits when it comes to college essay topics, and sometimes a seemingly insignificant experience can turn into a great essay, if treated the right way.

While you read samples, pay close attention to what made these essays exceptional. And if ideas for potential college essay topics pop into your head, be sure to jot them down.

2. Choose a prompt that resonates with you

If you’re applying via the Common Application, you’ll have seven college essay prompts to choose from. As an example, here are the prompts for the 2021-2022 school year:

  • Some students have a background, identity, interest or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  • The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  • Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  • Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
  • Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  • Describe a topic, idea or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  • Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt or one of your own design.

All of these college essay prompts are fair game, but you should choose one that resonates with you. Take some time to brainstorm ideas for all of them, and figure out which one you’d be most excited to write about.

“Be sure to choose a topic that you are emotionally connected to,” advised Jennifer Finetti, an admissions counselor at ScholarshipOwl. “Demonstrate that connection with examples from your personal experience.”

And if none of the college essay topics seem like the right fit, consider going with the last prompt on a “topic of your choice.” Note that these essays don’t have a strict word limit, but the Common Application suggests a maximum of 650 words.

3. Select a meaningful (and specific) anecdote

College essays don’t share your whole life story. Instead, they highlight a specific experience or moment in time.

For example, I remember a student who wrote about his summer job as a busboy in a restaurant. When a waiter asked him to make a cappuccino, he felt too intimidated to admit he didn’t know how. He hid in the back room, and the customer never got their coffee.

From this experience, this student realized he was letting his fear of looking foolish get in the way of learning. He saw how important it was to ask questions when he didn’t know something. From his failure to make a cappuccino at a small Italian restaurant, this student drew meaningful lessons that he’d carry with him into college and beyond.

As you can see, even seemingly mundane experiences can make an excellent topic if they were meaningful to you. (For another example, check out this successful essay on a student’s thoughts on potatoes.) Focus on a moment, event or experience that taught you a lesson or that revealed something important about your personality.

4. Start ‘in media res’

One effective technique for college application essays involves starting “in media res,” or in the middle of the action. With this approach, you jump into your story right away.

Consider how one student achieved this in his essay, “Rock Climbing as a Second Language,” one of the sample “essays that worked” for Johns Hopkins University:

“There I was, hanging from the precipice, muscles trembling, fingers aching, sweat dripping onto my spotter 20 feet below. He could see I was struggling, and shouted words of encouragement, but my head was pounding too loudly to make out the words.”

The writer grabs the reader’s attention by bringing them right into a dramatic moment with no preamble. Then, he uses the rest of the essay to draw meaningful lessons from his experience.

5. Show, don’t tell

Admissions officers read hundreds, if not thousands of essays. How can you make yours stand out and catch their attention? One way is to make sure you “show, don’t tell” in your writing.

When you “show,” you appeal to the reader’s senses, helping them feel as if they’re experiencing a moment along with you (as in the rock climbing example above). Consider these two approaches to the same anecdote:

  • “I was sad when I traveled away from home for the first time.” This line “tells” the reader about an experience, but it doesn’t transport them to the moment itself.
  • “Tears swam in my eyes as I took my first solo steps onto the Boeing 747.” This line “shows” the reader the event, and it helps them feel as if they were there, making the narrative more interesting.

To make your writing come alive, try incorporating sensory details and action verbs. Dull writing can make your college essay forgettable, so do what you can to make your writing dance for your reader.

6. Edit, edit and edit some more

It’s easy to get overwhelmed when writing your college essay, especially because so much pressure rides on it. But remember, even professional authors write bad first drafts.

Your essay won’t be in great shape at first, but you can polish your writing and ideas through proofreading and editing.

“Do not expect your first draft to be good,” said Benjamin Caldarelli, co-founder of Princeton College Consulting. “Give yourself permission for it to be downright awful, and you will take a lot of pressure off. Revising is not anathema to authenticity — it is actually required. Make sure you give yourself time to go through the writing process and find your story and voice.”

In the first-draft stage, just let your ideas flow out onto the paper — you can clean everything up later. And make sure to watch out for any grammatical or spelling mistakes, as you want to ensure your essay is in its best form before sending it off to colleges.

7. Share your authentic voice

Admissions officers use the personal essay as a way to get to know applicants and see whether they’d fit into their campus community. Because of this, it’s vital that your authentic voice shines through in your writing.

While asking friends and family to read over your essay can be helpful, don’t let your parents choose your college essay topic or write your essay for you.

“You need your personal statement to be in your voice, and it must be genuine,” said Kevin Ladd, COO of Scholarships.com. “You can ask for some editorial assistance and guidance, but ultimately, it is important to write it yourself.”

Similarly, avoid stuffing your essay with big words you found in a thesaurus. The best essays use simple, clear writing in a powerful way. You don’t need to incorporate a bunch of obscure words to impress an admissions officer, especially if doing so means your genuine voice gets lost.

Choose a college essay topic that shines a light on your unique personality

Since the Common Application’s college essay prompts are so general, you can pretty much write about anything you want. But your college essay topic should be meaningful, and it should reveal something about your personality and the way you reflect on your experiences.

Accomplishing all this in 650 words or less can be a big challenge, so give yourself several weeks — if not a few months — to brainstorm, write and refine your essay. Remember that the writing process takes time, and you’ll likely have to go through many drafts before your essay is ready.

Once you’re satisfied with your college essay, learn how to write a scholarship essay that will win you money for school.

Christy Rakoczy contributed to this report.

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