Writing College Essays

typingWriting a college essay can be a frustrating, challenging process, but this is your opportunity to put your best foot forward and show the colleges what makes you special. Ideally the college admissions and scholarship officers will learn something about you and see how well you write.

When colleges review your application they can read things like your grade point average and test scores, but they still want to know more about YOU – the person behind those grades, scores, and activities. This is your chance to communicate to the colleges who you are and how your mind works. It is important to remember that your essay will be one of hundreds, or more-likely thousands, that the admissions committee members will read. Try to interest them in what you have to say and be sure that it is written well so that it will stand out. Think of this as your opportunity to personally introduce yourself to the admissions and scholarship officers reading your application. Be open, honest and real.

One strategy is to think of your essay as a blind date. You are trying to make a positive impression on someone you don’t really know by showcasing who you are and all of the great things about you. You want them to walk away knowing that you are special. The best news of all though is that you don’t have to suffer from the nerves of making a silly mistake on this “blind date” – you can perfect your essay so that you can make sure you are putting forth a positive message with a good tone that also shows your ability to think and write clearly and logically.

When you have to write an essay you need to keep a few important points in mind:

Answer the question! 
When they give you a prompt or question – be sure that your essay is answering what they are asking! These are smart people – they know when you are just taking a different essay and trying to make it fit for their question. Put in the time to write an essay that answers the question they are asking. Also, be sure that you respond to all parts of the prompt.

Show me – Don’t tell me. 
Great, so you told me that you are organized and honest… good qualities for their future college students, but are you demonstrating that to them with your essay? Show them what you mean with vivid examples – that will usually be specific, concrete stories to illustrate your point.

Did I learn something about you? 
The whole point of these essays is so that the college admissions officers will learn something new about you. So, step back and look at your essay again – did they learn something about you that they wouldn’t have known prior to reading your essay?

The college admissions committees really do read the essays! Don’t think you can just throw something down on paper and have it be “good enough.” These are formal essays for an application to a college that will be the launching ground for the rest of your life. While that sounds intimidating, just relax and start writing – and editing – and then do some more writing and editing…

One of the biggest challenges as you write your essay is controlling the tone. You want to come across as confident but not boastful, self-assured but not aggressive, accomplished but not perfect. Try to avoid claiming that everything you've ever done has been unbelievably great. Don't be afraid to admit that you are human. Colleges want real, interesting people. Because it's so hard to control the tone of an essay about yourself, you will want to ask several people – teachers, friends, your parents, and your counselor – to read and respond to your essay. Get a variety of reactions, and then decide how you want to revise the essay. Remember, when getting help with essay revisions it is important to go into it with the thought that you want to get revisions so it can be the best possible essay (instead of going in hoping the editors will just say – good enough.) And yes, that also means you can’t procrastinate and put it off writing your essay until the last possible second.


The first step to selecting your topic is to think about what you want the college to know about you that will not be apparent in the rest of your application.  The reality is essay topics won't just "come" to you.  We have developed this essay brainstorming handout that you can use to help think of what you might want to tell about yourself to the college.  

Remember, it is worth putting time, energy and effort into picking a good and meaningful topic that is powerful for you because the passion you have for your topic will naturally convey itself in your writing. Additionally, many topics that come to mind immediately for you will also come to mind right away for hundreds of other students applying to college.  You don't want your essay to become just another typical essay that moves to the read pile without making you stand out and the reader to take notice.  You want to explore a new angle and show how you are different from everyone else. Try to think about what excites and interests you when picking your essay topic. Be careful though, this is not “true confessions” time.

If you are still struggling to come up with topics for your essay or how to go into depth on an essay topic idea, try to brainstorm on the following questions:

  • What do you want me to learn about you in the essay?
  • List your top 5 personality traits and how they have helped you in various situations.
  • What did you do?
  • Where did you do this?
  • What were your responsibilities?
  • What was your best memory or experience there?
  • What inspired you to get involved or how did you get involved?
  • What did you learn from the experience?
  • How have your experiences changed or impacted you?
  • Why was this experience meaningful?
  • How have your experiences shaped your character?
  • What is significant to you about being involved in these activities or receiving the honors or awards?
  • How have your activities or experiences impacted you personally?
  • What is your personal motto in life? How did you come to this?
  • What is the value of this experience to you?

If you are still completely stuck, go to your family members and friends and ask them to help you identify traits, stories and examples of “That is so YOU” moments. (Those stories that are so perfectly you that it is hard to imagine them fitting or applying to anyone else.)

If you are given multiple questions to select from, it is often helpful to work backwards and focus first on what you want to convey and then identify stories and examples that can illustrate your point. Next look at the various questions you can pick from and think about which of your anecdotal stories fits with the questions.


As you consider your purpose, you should focus on being creative and coming up with a plan for your writing so that you do not just ramble. Look back at the question again before you begin to make sure you are fulfilling what the college is asking you to do (list, define, explain, compare/ contrast, evaluate, etc.)

When you are writing your essay, get specific. It is often the small things or experiences in our lives that have the biggest impact on how we feel, think or act. Sharing a specific example that speaks to who you are by illustrating your character, values and background is much more powerful than offering sweeping generalizations about yourself.  You are trying to go beyond the "what" and dig into the "how" and "why."

One tip is to select a topic that allows you a more narrow response and then you can use your word count to provide details and depth. It can be helpful to describe the scene or the person with sharp nouns and active verbs or by using details that will invoke the senses. How did it look? feel? smell? sound? Don’t just say that "Uncle John was odd." Show us his dog, Bullseye, who smashed through closed windows and his unique decorating style of mixing plaid and polka dots.

Be sure to use your voice and stick to the word count. (Hint: it is always easier to cut words than to try to squeeze more in later, so answer the question fully before worrying too much about word count, but plan ahead enough so that you are at least in the ball park of your word limits.) This is a formal essay so you need to make sure that you are using proper grammar, punctuation and varying your sentence structure.

Whenever possible, start your essay with a catch – something that will engage the readers and compel them to continue reading. And I hope this goes without saying, but don’t lie. Do not make up stories that are not true or genuine. You are the best you there is and this essay is about you so show yourself off and just be careful on tone.

Don’t forget, if you are writing the main common app essay, do NOT tailor the essay to one particular college because all of the schools that you apply to will receive the same version of the main essay. Also, for what it is worth, when you are sending specific essays to individual colleges that are personalized, be sure to double check and make sure you are submitting the right essay to the appropriate college.


Give plenty of time to edit! I understand that this is different than most of the essays you have written in high school, but it is worth writing a draft, walking away from it for a few days and then coming back to read it again to take a fresh look. Many students are stunned at how the essay that they initially thought was great doesn’t meet their own expectations when they re-read it with fresh eyes. It can help to read your essay aloud and see if it feels natural and sounds like you. Time to edit and go through multiple drafts is a gift you can give yourself to drastically decrease your stress with the entire college application process.

When you begin reading through your essay again ask yourself:

  • Does it reveal who you are?
  • Does it represent your best academic ability?
  • Does it sound like you?

Look at the overall structure of the essay:

  • Does it make a stunning point at the beginning and then fizzle, or does it steadily build in interest and intensity?
  • Have you made clear the relationship between your ideas?
  • Is the essay well organized?

As you begin to get picky look at your word choice and make sure you are not overusing particular words. Pay careful attention to the verbs - they should give your reader a clear picture of you in action. Although the essay needs to be personal, you shouldn't overuse the pronoun "I."

The essay needs to read smoothly. As you revise and refine the piece, be sure that it has an attractive introduction, carefully crafted body paragraphs, and a confident conclusion. Look for clear transitions between paragraphs, and try to vary sentence length and structure.  

In the end, the goal is that you will have an interesting essay that only YOU could have written.

Print Email