Writing the College Essay

The essay is the college application piece where many students experience the most stress. College admission officers use your essay for evidence that you can write well and support ideas with logical arguments. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, grades, strength of curriculum, and admission test scores are the top factors in the college admission decision. However, a majority of schools view the essay with considerable importance in determining which students will attend their college or university. As College Board points out, “when all else is equal between competing applicants, a compelling essay can make the difference. A powerful, well-written essay can also tip the balance for a marginal applicant.”



To help you through this process, below are some suggestions and guidelines to keep in mind as you write your essay.


Types of Essay Prompts

  • Personal statement: “Tell us about yourself.”
  • Your favorite activity: “What’s your passion?”
  • How you fit in our school: “Why [insert school name]?”
  • Intellectual curiosity: “Reflect on an experience that has been important to your intellectual development.”


General Tips

  • Make it personal: This essay is about you. This is your chance to show the college or university who you are as a unique candidate.
  • Grab the reader’s attention early: Start out with something catchy. Avoid beginning with background information, long details, or anything else that will delay the interesting part of your essay.
  • Be unique–not big and fancy. Unique.
  • Be yourself. Be authentic. Use your “voice.”
  • Show rather than tell: Don’t say you were nervous; describe the feeling. Don’t say something was fun; show why it was fun.
  • Big words are overrated: You don’t need to impress the reader with your vocabulary. Use your voice.
  • Answer all the questions in the prompt: The questions are there for a reason–address them all. Do what the prompt asks!
  • Be concise, to the point
  • Proofread, proofread, and proofread. Read it outloud to “hear” the errors. Have a friend read it. Ask a teacher to read it.
  • 60% explanation; 40% story: Use a story to answer the prompt, but don’t stop there. Explain and connect the story.


What They Really Want to Know

  • Who are you?
  • Will you fit in on our campus?
  • Can you write well enough to be successful?


What They Do Not Want

  • Cliches
  • Sounding privileged
  • What you think they want (again, stick to the prompt)
  • Generic, dull, and overdone essays. Be unique.


Steps for Writing the Essay

1. Find your defining quality

2. Choose a moment that illustrates that quality (anecdote: a little story that grabs attention and makes a point); create a picture–40% of your essay

3. Explain/respond–60% of your essay

A. How did you handle the situation?

B. What did you learn?

4. Why does what you learned matter? Where have you applied that lesson? Where might you apply this lesson in the future?


“Do’s” Regarding Style

  • Vary sentence length and syntax
  • Don’t use 100 words when you could use 10–be concise
  • Use varied transitions
  • Have a conflict
  • Start at the peak of the action in the moment (like the Odyssey…in media res). Save the background for later.
  • If you use dialogue, make it short
  • Know your point

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