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  • Writer's pictureTrudy Horsting

How to Write a Stellar College Application Essay

The vast majority of colleges require applicants to write an essay as a part of their application. In fact, many require that you write more than one essay.

There are many reasons for the application essay. First, they are an opportunity for students to articulate strengths which aren’t captured in other parts of the application. Students may discuss community activities, skills they’ve developed, and leadership roles they’ve held. They may discuss life experiences or other events which shaped them as a person but didn’t fit elsewhere on the application.

Another advantage of the personal essay is that it allows admissions committees to understand your writing proficiency. Many college courses are writing intensive and it’s critical that the committee understands your writing skill.

Although the essay is not necessarily the most critical component of the application, it can set you apart from other applicants who are otherwise identical to you.

Below, we offer some suggestions regarding how to get started with the writing process.

Start Early

First, it's important not to put off working on your essay. It’s easy to get distracted with all of the other components of the application. There are a million things to think about as you are applying for colleges. However, the essay can take longer than expected. It’s important to allot sufficient time to get it done.

Typically, it is advised to start working on the first draft of your essays the summer before your senior year of high school. This will allow plenty of time to write and edit your essays, regardless of when your admissions deadlines are.

Although topics may vary by school, they are typically similar enough that you can edit one essay into different versions instead of starting from scratch. That said, some applications will require multiple essays. It’s important to allot time for these accordingly. Take a moment to organize the essay topics for the different schools you are applying to and plan your time as necessary.

The First Draft

The next step is to write. It can be hard to get started, but often as soon as you have a rough draft (regardless of how rough it is), it is easier to move forward.

For many students, it is easier to start with an outline. This can help ensure you touch on every topic that you want to cover and think through the flow of your essay before you begin. Most application essays have a word count requirement. There isn’t all that much space to document what you want to include. Outlining can help ensure your writing is concise and includes exactly what you want it to.

It can also be helpful to continuously reference the prompt as you write. It’s critical that you answer exactly what it is that you are asked. Try to think critically about what the committee is hoping to learn about you through the prompt. Generally, admissions officers want to know what you could bring to the college and why the college would be a particularly good fit for you. They want to know what makes you unique as a scholar and what your unique life experiences could bring to the community on campus. This is your opportunity to paint a vivid picture of yourself.

Remember that the first draft does not need to be perfect. Allow yourself to write anything that comes to mind. There will be plenty of time to edit later.

The first draft also doesn’t need to be written at one time. Take breaks as you need them and when inspiration strikes, sit back down at your laptop.

The Content

Remember that the goal of your essay is to sell yourself to the admissions committee by providing more detailed information about who you are as a person. Use this space to discuss what you weren’t able to cover in other parts of your application.

It can be helpful to discuss specific experiences, but be sure not to stray from the truth. Don’t exaggerate what you have experienced, but speak honestly about the details of your life which shaped you as a person.

Many prompts are vague, allowing you to pick exactly what you want to share. For instance, a Common Application essay prompt in 2015 stated, “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.” A student could answer this prompt in any number of ways.

Try not to reiterate what is on your resume or in other aspects of your application. You also don’t need to share your full life story. There simply isn’t space for that. Think about what has made you, you. If you’re having trouble knowing what to include, ask those close to you what makes you unique. Sometimes, having an outside perspective can help us understand ourselves a bit better.

The essay is a chance to showcase your personality. Try to grab the reader’s attention by describing a unique experience. You don’t need to talk about the most impressive thing you have accomplished. In fact, discussing a less-impressive event that was incredibly meaningful to you can be the most impactful way to draw a reader in. Be specific and be personal. Don’t simply describe an event, but explain how you reacted to it, grew from it, or how it shaped you. Share how you have reflected on your experiences and grown from them.

Remember, this is your chance to speak directly to those who make the decision regarding your admissions status. What do you want them to know about you?


After you have written your first draft, take some time away from your essay. Often, when you come back to the draft, you will see things you want to adjust that you hadn’t seen upon first reading.

It’s also helpful to have a fresh set of eyes on your essay. Ask someone you trust to read it over and give you some feedback. That said, it is important to maintain your own voice in your writing. Make sure that, regardless of how many outside eyes you have on your essay, you maintain your own personality in your writing.

A great way to edit your own essay is to read it outloud. This can help you catch errors you might not have otherwise noticed and allows you to ensure your voice comes across the way you want it to.

Remember, at the end of the day, the application essay is not the only, nor is it necessarily the most important aspect of your application. Work hard to ensure that you are proud of the essay you write, but don’t forget that your application will be evaluated comprehensively.


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