How to Write a College Application Essay

Putting together a college application can feel like an impossible task. After all, this is your future we’re talking about. There’s a lot at stake here.

But here’s the good news: you’re more prepared than you may think. All of those writing assignments you completed throughout high school have provided you with the experience and skills needed to write a killer essay. More than that, these past writing tasks have likely introduced you to an abundance of tools and resources to support you along the way.

So before you go off into full panic mode, take a deep breath. You’ve got this. Here we’ll introduce you to a few tips and tricks to help you get started on a stellar college application essay.

Choosing Your Topic

Keep in mind that college application essays should be personal. Admissions offices want to hear about you; they want to get a better understanding of your personality, your goals, and any challenges you’ve faced so far.

But before you begin typing up your life’s story, make sure to check for any special instructions or requirements stated before or within the essay prompt. Failing to include these in your essay can lead to it being immediately disqualified. You don’t want your work to be ignored over a technicality, so read the instructions carefully for every school you’re applying to!

In many cases, there will be a prompt or question you’re expected to cover. Be sure to answer it fully; however, don’t be afraid to use a little creativity in doing so. This will help your essay stand out. Remember, the admissions people are likely reading through thousands of essays, so it’s a good idea to put a unique twist on yours.

If a prompt isn’t provided for you, it’s time to start brainstorming. There are many ways to develop an essay topic. First, create a list of any ideas that come to mind after reading the prompt. Write down anything and everything you can think of, no matter how silly or stupid it may seem. Be sure to include any personal stories, experiences, moments where you’ve learned something of value, and anything else you can think of. This stage is about opening your mind up to creative thinking. And who knows? One of your silly ideas might lead you to a stronger topic later on.

If you find yourself with a case of mental block, trying heading over the endless outside source: the Internet. Try researching a few college essay prompts and look through some essay examples to help you spark some ideas.

Sites that make for fantastic brainstorming tools include AnswerthePublicGoogle Trends, and Kibin.

Finally, don’t forget that the people around you can be an invaluable resource at this stage. Parents, teachers, and friends may be able to provide some insight on which direction you should take on your essay.

Once you do finally land on your topic of choice, the next step will be to develop an outline. This will help you make sure you’ve included all the required factors, and show what gaps you need to fill with more information or even research. After that, it’s time to start writing!

Building Your Application Essay

The good news about a college application essay is that there’s a lot of freedom in how you put it together. This is really a chance to tell your story, your way. With that said, there are a few items that must be included in your essay. For instance, every essay needs to have an introduction, a body, and a conclusion.

A key piece of the introduction paragraph should be your thesis statement. At this point, you have surely learned about the importance of a strong thesis in your high school classes. For your essay, your thesis should typically have the direct answer to the prompt given, and provide the reader with your essay’s main idea.

The body of your essay should break down your main idea into smaller pieces, including very specific examples. Ensure that your body paragraphs are organized very clearly, in a way that your reader can easily follow along. Finally, don’t forget about a conclusion. This is an essential piece of your essay that helps bring the reader back to the main idea that you started with.

Once your paper is written, it is critical that it is free of grammar and spelling mistakes. In the editing phase, make sure to look back through the essay instructions to see if there’s a note of formatting requirements such as MLA or APA. Be sure to read carefully through any requests such as “no contractions” or “Must be written in the first person”. Again, you don’t want your essay pushed to the side simply because you didn’t read the instructions carefully enough.

Since this application essay is a very important step in your admissions and academic career, it is highly recommended that you have someone else edit your paper. Someone with extensive knowledge in all aspects of writing and grammar, such as an English teacher, will usually be more than willing to help. Older students who have already successfully submitted a college application essay are another great resource.

If you can’t find anyone in person who can help, there are several online editing resources. In addition to full proofreading services, these sites often have tips to help you organize and write your essay.

What Not To Do

So far, we’ve focused on elements to include and actions you should take in order to write an outstanding college essay. But now, it’s time to take a quick look at the things you should avoid during this process:

  • Do not fail to plan ahead. Deadlines creep up quicker than expected, and there is quite a bit of work that goes into a formal college application essay. Don’t underestimate the amount of planning and time needed to finish the full process. Get started early, so you don’t send yourself into a panic.
  • Do not make your essay impersonal. These colleges are wanting to learn about you and how you would answer their prompt. Make your essay unique, add your own twist, include your own personal anecdote. Do anything you can do make your paper specific to just you.
  • Do not copy an idea. We have listed some great online sources that you can use to help inspire your essay and help you with revisions. However, do not take advantage of this. There are many application essay prompts that are used again and again, so there is a good chance similar essays can be found online. But that means professors and admissions have found them online too, so even if you aren’t copying and pasting the entire paper. Make sure you aren’t stealing someone’s unique idea either.
  • Do not fail to have someone else read your essay. It is also necessary to have a fresh pair of eyes read your paper, as they will almost always catch something that you did not see after reading the same words for the 50th time. You wouldn’t want your hard work to be discredited by a bunch of typos or grammar mistakes. This element is critical.

All in all, the most important tip is this: do not panic. You have written plenty of essays in your academic career so far. Brainstorm ideas, write a draft, have someone revise it, and polish a brilliant final copy. Remember, colleges want to know about you. Reflecting who you are and your personal (yet still grammatically correct) writing style is the most important thing.

Contributing Editor: Jennifer Miles



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