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 email@example.com) 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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I remember writing my first essay in university. It was a critical analysis of promises made to underdeveloped countries by nongovernmental organizations. My professor was an internationally respected humanitarian who had done the bulk of her research in Tanzania.
The woman even had her own Wikipedia page.
I knew she'd be tough with her marking pen and that her eager-to-prove-themselves teaching assistants would be even tougher. I was terrified.
I can almost smell the musty days of research in my Hogwarts-esque school library. I spent those days hunched over an obnoxiously tall stack of books next to the cathedral windows, shooting glares every time somebody's Blackberry buzzed and trying to ignore the couple kissing in the reading nook behind me.
I stayed up all night with my first pack of energy drinks (I bought the ones that come in pink cans because they looked less likely to lead to a heart attack than the radioactive-green variety), reading and re-reading my paragraphs until my eyes were more red than blue.
My head swam with warnings from my high school teachers, who had prophesied doom from behind their cluttered desks: "You can't write like you're in high school once you reach university. All of you will fail your first paper. You just have to deal with it and move on."
I followed writing that essay with a nap that bordered on a full two-day sleep and a celebratory Chinese takeout feast washed down with Pepto-Bismol.
In the end? I got an A+.
Because writing essays in undergrad is based more on common sense and structure than you'd think. Too many of my peers (and, I suspect, high school teachers) made the mistake of thinking they could get away with sloppy construction or borrowed work if their ideas were flashy enough.
Especially in your first year of college or university, your professors aren't looking for groundbreaking discoveries—that's what a PhD is for. Freshman papers serve to show your professors that you can write, that you can follow instructions correctly, conduct intelligent research, draw your own conclusions (but not make the mistake of thinking your ideas are NEW), and use logic when constructing your essay.
Getting over that first essay hurdle is less of an obstacle than you might think. Here's how to do it.
Nothing will frustrate your grader faster than a vague thesis and rambling points. Make your arguments clear and your supportive evidence precise.
. . . But don't pretend to be an expert.
This is your first post-secondary paper. Everyone knows you didn't write the books on forensic geology in the 1800s or social dichotomies in British colonial India. Assert your points with confidence but back them up with authoritative sources.
Cite your sources.
And on that note, make sure you're citing your sources properly. Academic writing is all about factual support; even if you thought of an idea independently, if one of your reference materials says the same thing, source it. A boost to your ego isn't worth getting slapped with a plagiarism charge.
Familiarize yourself, too, with the different forms of plagiarism—they may surprise you. Did you know, for example, that referencing work you've done for another class is called self-plagiarism?
You've put the time into your research and have an impressive arsenal of support for your main thesis, but you need to make these connections explicit. Use transition sentences at the beginning and end of each paragraph to show how your thoughts progress, while constantly reminding the reader how these points relate to your thesis.
Take the extra time to make sure you've followed all the technical style guidelines requested by your professor or institution. You may have single-handedly solved the Israel–Palestine dispute, but if your references section isn't in the proper format, your final grade will suffer for it.
Use proper spelling and grammar.
Finally, for the love of all that is good and true, don't hand in something with typos. Proofread your work, run your word processor's spell-checker, and, most importantly, have someone else read your paper. The mistakes that have become invisible to you (as well as those you don't even realize are mistakes) will pop out to a new set of eyes.
While you're in the process of making your paper mechanically sound, resist the temptation to default to the all-too-common sneaky tactics that many students think their professors won't pick up on.
News to the not-so-wise: everyone and their brother's neighbor's babysitter's uncle have tried adding fluff to boost word count; adjusted margins, font size, and spacing after periods to make text expand over more pages; and concocted excuses to get a deadline extension. Your professors won't fall for it.
Successfully writing an essay isn't just for brainiacs; even a genius can get stuck with a lower grade because of mechanical errors.
Follow your style guidelines to a T, keep your writing free of fluff, include logical transitions between paragraphs that connect to your thesis, cite your information properly, and have your paper proofread.
It really is that simple.
Image sources: DavidPinoPhotography/Shutterstock.com, Dragon Images/BigStockPhoto.com
You've created the blueprint for a perfect paper: outlined the framework, devised a great thesis statement and located enough evidence to support your argument. What remains to be done, is to analyze those facts in original and intriguing ways.
You've come up with the perfect thesis or essay topic, you've done plenty of research, and know everything that there is to know about your topic, and yet you can't seem to put pen to paper. This is where an outline comes in.
It's the end of the first day of classes, and the enthusiasm you initially felt for the new school year has given way to a growing sense of apprehension. This is post-secondary education and you are not entirely sure you can handle it. In addition to a vastly greater academic workload than you may have been accustomed to, college and university will present an array of other challenges.
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