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Learning how to write a college essay is a crucial step along the path to college. Admissions officers take the college essay seriously, and this little piece of writing could make or break your application.
With the stakes this high, it can be extremely daunting to get started. Fortunately, there are strategies that will help you write an impressive college essay.
How to write a college essay that gets you accepted
Read on to learn how to write a college essay that will impress admissions officers and get you accepted to your top-choice school.
1. Take a deep breath
Let’s be real. Figuring out how to write a college essay is S-T-R-E-S-S-F-U-L.
There’s a lot riding on these 650 words. You’re somehow supposed to be honest and engaging, casual yet deep, thoughtful and a good storyteller. And this essay is supposed to sway admissions officers to accept you into their college.
That’s a lot to deal with. It’s enough to give anyone serious writer’s block.
So before you even start writing, take a few deep breaths. Try to put aside some of that pressure and stress. It’s not helping you be a better writer. In fact, it’s only getting in your way.
Maybe you can even forget what this essay is for and treat it like a journal entry. Let yourself play and experiment. Scribble a bunch of ideas, stream of consciousness style, and try not to evaluate if they’re good or bad.
There’s plenty of time for revision later. You might even scrap your first few drafts before you find the right one. For now, take a few deep breaths. Trust the process. You’ll get there eventually!
2. Read over the Common App essay prompts
If you’re applying to colleges through the Common App, you’ll be answering one of the Common App essay prompts.
Here are the seven Common App essay prompts for 2020-21:
- Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, 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?
- Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma — anything of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
- 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 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.
As you can see, these prompts are fairly broad and can be answered in any number of ways. If none of them resonate with you, you can also choose the last option, which is basically an invitation to write whatever you want.
Common App also suggests submitting an essay with a minimum of 250 words and a maximum of 650 words.
3. Brainstorm a bunch of ideas
Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the Common App essay prompts, it’s time for brainstorming. Grab a pen and paper or open up a Google doc. Take each prompt in turn and write down some memories that come to mind.
You could think about challenges you experienced in the past five years, failures that taught you a lesson, or achievements that fill you with pride. Sift through your memories, and locate specific events that stand out.
Try not to judge your ideas or reject them before they’ve had a chance to breathe. Even the most ordinary event can make a great college essay topic if you present it in an unusual way.
Try setting a timer for 20 minutes and write down every idea that pops into your head. You might consider a,
- Tough class
- Sports game
- Childhood friend
- Favorite pet
- Summer job
- Road trip
- Travel experience
- Community service
- Tough situation with friends or family
When the timer goes off, step away from your list and go do something else. Let the ideas settle so you can revisit them later with fresh eyes.
4. Choose an idea that packs a punch
Once you’ve come back to your list, read it over and see which ideas stand out. The best college essays have a narrow focus. They take one event describe it in detail. They often draw big lessons from small occurrences.
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 lingered in the back room, and the customer never got their coffee.
From this experience, this student realized how important it was to ask questions when he didn’t know something. He wouldn’t let his fear of looking foolish get in the way of learning new things. And he realized that if he has a question, a lot of other people probably have the same one.
From a summer job busing tables at a small Italian restaurant — and his failure to make a cappuccino — this student drew meaningful lessons and grew as a person.
If you can hone in on an idea that taught you something important, you have the makings of a great college admissions essay. Hopefully the topic also makes an engaging story for your reader.
If you’re having trouble deciding, you might ask for feedback from people you trust. But you should also trust your instincts here.
The essay is about sharing something that’s important to you. Only you can truly know what topic rings true.
5. Write an outline of your essay
In my opinion, outlining your essay before you start writing is a crucial step of the process. You don’t have to stick to your outline religiously, but it’s a great way to organize your thoughts and bring some structure to your ideas.
The college essay isn’t your typical academic paper, but it should have a clear structure. It should have an introduction, two to three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. The first paragraph should hook the reader with an intriguing anecdote or surprising statement.
There’s no one right way to structure an essay, but all essays should have a clear structure. By creating an outline, you’ll know how to order your ideas.
6. Write your first draft
Once you’re satisfied with your outline, it’s time to start drafting. Make sure your first paragraph has a hook that grabs the reader’s attention.
You could use dialogue or descriptive language and jump right into the action. Then, you can go on to discuss what lessons you drew from your experience.
Once you start drafting, let yourself get into a flow. Try to write without stopping; you can clean up mistakes later.
And don’t worry about the word count. It’s a lot easier to cut a piece of writing down than it is to make it longer.
7. Do a thorough edit
The idea that any writer sits down and knows how to write a college essay in one draft is a total myth. Even famous authors talk about how tough it is to get the words out at first. The art of writing lies in editing and revision.
Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.
— Ernest Hemingway, The Paris Review Interview, 1956
A few tips for editing:
- Eliminate wordiness. If you can say something concisely, do it. When it comes to writing, less is usually more.
- Replace adverbs with synonymous verbs. Don’t say “talked quietly” when you could say “whispered.” Verbs pack a stronger punch.
- Review your organization of ideas. Does each sentence follow logically, one after the other? Are there any spots where your reader could get lost?
- Use a variety of sentence structures. If three sentences in a row start with the word, “the,” mix up your word choice.
- Add vivid language. Good storytelling lies in descriptive details. Try appealing to one or more of the five senses (see, feel, hear, smell, and taste).
Don’t be afraid to make big changes. Your final version is sure to look very different from your first one.
8. Elicit feedback from people you trust
Once you’ve created a version you feel good about, consider sharing it with friends, family, or teachers. Ask for feedback from people you trust.
It’s tough to share personal writing with others, so make sure the people you ask will give you constructive feedback.
And remember you don’t have to make changes you don’t agree with. It’s your personal essay, after all.
9. Go through and revise again
Writing a college essay should involve several rounds of editing and revision. Along with revising word choice and sentence structure, make sure to comb through for any spelling or grammar mistakes.
One useful tool is the Hemingway App, a free editing tool that points out run-on sentences. It will also tell you if you used passive voice too many times.
Once you’ve quadruple-checked everything on your college essay, you’re all set to paste it into the Common Application.
Celebrate all your hard work
You’ve put the final touches on your essay — now go celebrate! Treat yourself. You deserve it.
The college essay isn’t the most difficult assignment you’ll ever get. You don’t have to do any extensive research or learn new information. You don’t even have to write very much — 650 words is only about a page and a half, double spaced.
But if you’re like most students, those 650 words have a lot of pressure riding on them. You only have one shot to share your story with admissions officers. You want to capture your unique voice and accomplish your goal of getting into college.
But maybe you can try putting aside all that pressure and stress for a moment. Try not to evaluate what you’re writing and just write.
Don’t think about whether your topic is good or bad, fascinating or boring. Let the ideas flow through you, and scribble down whatever pops into your head without judgment.
Above all, remember the power (and necessity) of editing. You can always clean up the messiness later.
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