How to write a college essay

The college essay can make or break your application. It’s your chance to provide personal context, communicate your values and qualities, and set yourself apart from other students.

A standout essay has a few key ingredients:

  • A unique, personal topic
  • A compelling, well-structured narrative
  • A clear, creative writing style
  • Evidence of self-reflection and insight

To achieve this, it’s crucial to give yourself enough time for brainstorming, writing, revision, and feedback.

In this comprehensive guide, we walk you through every step in the process of writing a college admissions essay.

Why do you need a standout essay?

While most of your application lists your academic achievements, your college admissions essay is your opportunity to share who you are and why you’d be a good addition to the university.

Your college admissions essay accounts for about 25% of your application’s total weight一and may account for even more with some colleges making the SAT and ACT tests optional. The college admissions essay may be the deciding factor in your application, especially for competitive schools where most applicants have exceptional grades, test scores, and extracurriculars.

What do colleges look for in an essay?

Admissions officers want to understand your background, personality, and values to get a fuller picture of you beyond your test scores and grades. Here’s what colleges look for in an essay:

  • Demonstrated values and qualities
  • Vulnerability and authenticity
  • Self-reflection and insight
  • Creative, clear, and concise writing skills

Start organizing early

It’s a good idea to start organizing your college application timeline in the summer of your junior year to make your application process easier. This will give you ample time for essay brainstorming, writing, revision, and feedback.

While timelines will vary for each student, aim to spend at least 1–3 weeks brainstorming and writing your first draft and at least 2–4 weeks revising across multiple drafts. Remember to leave enough time for breaks in between each writing and editing stage.

Create an essay tracker sheet

If you’re applying to multiple schools, you will have to juggle writing several essays for each one. We recommend using an essay tracker spreadsheet to help you visualize and organize the following:

  • Deadlines and number of essays needed
  • Prompt overlap, allowing you to write one essay for similar prompts

You can build your own essay tracker using our free Google Sheets template.

College essay tracker template

Choose a unique topic

Ideally, you should start brainstorming topics the summer before your senior year. Keep in mind that it’s easier to write a standout essay with a unique topic.

If you want to write about a common essay topic, such as a sports injury or volunteer work overseas, think carefully about how you can make it unique and personal. You’ll need to demonstrate deep insight and write your story in an original way to differentiate it from similar essays.

What makes a good topic?

  • Meaningful and personal to you
  • Uncommon or has an unusual angle
  • Reveals something different from the rest of your application

Brainstorming questions

You should do a comprehensive brainstorm before choosing your topic. Here are a few questions to get started:

  • What are your top five values? What lived experiences demonstrate these values?
  • What adjectives would your friends and family use to describe you?
  • What challenges or failures have you faced and overcome? What lessons did you learn from them?
  • What makes you different from your classmates?
  • What are some objects that represent your identity, your community, your relationships, your passions, or your goals?
  • Whom do you admire most? Why?
  • What three people have significantly impacted your life? How did they influence you?

How to identify your topic

Here are two strategies for identifying a topic that demonstrates your values:

  • Start with your qualities: First, identify positive qualities about yourself; then, brainstorm stories that demonstrate these qualities.
  • Start with a story: Brainstorm a list of memorable life moments; then, identify a value shown in each story.

Outline your essay

After choosing your topic, organize your ideas in an essay outline, which will help keep you focused while writing. Unlike a five-paragraph academic essay, there’s no set structure for a college admissions essay. You can take a more creative approach, using storytelling techniques to shape your essay.

Two common approaches are to structure your essay as a series of vignettes or as a single narrative.

Vignettes structure

The vignette, or montage, structure weaves together several stories united by a common theme. Each story should demonstrate one of your values or qualities and conclude with an insight or future outlook.

This structure gives the admissions officer glimpses into your personality, background, and identity, and shows how your qualities appear in different areas of your life.

Example outline for vignette essay

Topic: Museum with a “five senses” exhibit of my experiences

  • Introduction: Tour guide introduces my museum and my “Making Sense of My Heritage” exhibit
  • Sight
    • Story: Racial discrimination with my eyes
    • Lesson: Using my writing to document truth
  • Sound
    • Story: Broadway musical interests
    • Lesson: Finding my voice
  • Smell
    • Story: Smells from family dinner table
    • Lesson: Appreciating home and family
  • Touch
    • Story: Washing dishes
    • Lesson: Finding moments of peace in busy schedule
  • Taste
    • Story: Biking with Ava
    • Lesson: Finding pleasure in job well done
  • Conclusion: Tour guide concludes tour, invites guest to come back for “fall College Collection,” featuring my search for identity and learning.

Single story structure

The single story, or narrative, structure uses a chronological narrative to show a student’s character development over time. Some narrative essays detail moments in a relatively brief event, while others narrate a longer journey spanning months or years.

Single story essays are effective if you have overcome a significant challenge or want to demonstrate personal development.

Example outline for narrative essay

Topic: Sports injury helps me learn to be a better student and person

  • Situation: Football injury
  • Challenge: Friends distant, teachers don’t know how to help, football is gone for me
  • Turning point: Starting to like learning in Ms. Brady’s history class; meeting Christina and her friends
  • My reactions: Reading poetry; finding shared interest in poetry with Christina; spending more time studying and with people different from me
  • Insight: They taught me compassion and opened my eyes to a different lifestyle; even though I still can’t play football, I’m starting a new game

Brainstorm creative insights or story arcs

Regardless of your essay’s structure, try to craft a surprising story arc or original insights, especially if you’re writing about a common topic.

Never exaggerate or fabricate facts about yourself to seem interesting. However, try finding connections in your life that deviate from cliché storylines and lessons.

Common insight Unique insight
Making an all-state team → outstanding achievement Making an all-state team → counting the cost of saying “no” to other interests
Making a friend out of an enemy → finding common ground, forgiveness Making a friend out of an enemy → confront toxic thinking and behavior in yourself
Choir tour → a chance to see a new part of the world Choir tour → a chance to serve in leading younger students
Volunteering → learning to help my community and care about others Volunteering → learning to be critical of insincere resume-building
Turning a friend in for using drugs →  choosing the moral high ground Turning a friend in for using drugs →  realizing the hypocrisy of hiding your secrets

Start with a memorable introduction

Admissions officers read thousands of essays each year, and they typically spend only a few minutes reading each one. To get your message across, your introduction, or hook, needs to grab the reader’s attention and compel them to read more..

Avoid starting your introduction with a famous quote, cliché, or reference to the essay itself (“While I sat down to write this essay…”).

While you can sometimes use dialogue or a meaningful quotation from a close family member or friend, make sure it encapsulates your essay’s overall theme.

Find an original, creative way of starting your essay using the following two methods.

Option 1: Start with an intriguing hook

Begin your essay with an unexpected statement to pique the reader’s curiosity and compel them to carefully read your essay. A mysterious introduction disarms the reader’s expectations and introduces questions that can only be answered by reading more.

Example
Welcome to The Rose Arimoto Museum. You are about to enter the “Making Sense of My Heritage” collection. Allow me to guide you through select exhibits, carefully curated recollections from Rose’s sensory experiences.

Option 2: Start with vivid imagery

Illustrate a clear, detailed image to immediately transport your reader into your memory. You can start in the middle of an important scene or describe an object that conveys your essay’s theme.

Example
As I step out of bed, the pain shoots through my foot and up my leg like it has done every morning since “the game.” That night, a defensive linebacker tackled me, his 212 pounds landing decidedly on my ankle. I heard the sound before I felt it.

Write like an artist

A college application essay allows you to be creative in your style and tone. As you draft your essay, try to use interesting language to enliven your story.

Show, don’t tell

“Tell” in writing means to simply state a fact: “I am a basketball player.” “Show” in writing means to use details, examples, and vivid imagery to help the reader easily visualize your memory: “My heart races as I set up to shoot一two seconds, one second一and score a three-pointer!”

First, reflect on every detail of a specific image or scene to recall the most memorable aspects.

  • What are the most prominent images?
  • Are there any particular sounds, smells, or tastes associated with this memory?
  • What emotion or physical feeling did you have at that time?
Example
The sweet scent of candied yams, fun see, and Spam musubi wafts through the room as we sit around the table. My Pau Pau presents an aromatic melange of American, Chinese, and Japanese cuisine for our Thanksgiving feast. My favorite is cha siu bau, with its soft, pillowy white exterior hiding the fragrant filling of braised barbecue pork inside. Only the family prayer stands between me and the chance to indulge in these delicious morsels, comforting me with their familiar savory scents.

Be vulnerable to create an emotional response

You don’t have to share a huge secret or traumatic story, but you should dig deep to express your honest feelings, thoughts, and experiences to evoke an emotional response. Showing vulnerability demonstrates humility and maturity. However, don’t exaggerate to gain sympathy.

Example
My broken ankle broke my spirit. My friends steered clear of me as I hobbled down the halls at school. My teachers tried to find the delicate balance between giving me space and offering me help. I was as unsure how to deal with myself as they were.

Use appropriate style and tone

Make sure your essay has the right style and tone by following these guidelines:

  • Use a conversational yet respectful tone: less formal than academic writing, but more formal than texting your friends.
  • Prioritize using “I” statements to highlight your perspective.
  • Write within your vocabulary range to maintain an authentic voice.
  • Write concisely, and use the active voice to keep a fast pace.
  • Follow grammar rules (unless you have valid stylistic reasons for breaking them).

Craft a strong conclusion

Your essay should conclude with a deep insight or creative ending to leave the reader with a strong final impression. Your college admissions essay should avoid the following:

  • Summarizing what you already wrote
  • Stating your hope of being accepted to the school
  • Mentioning character traits that should have been illustrated in the essay, such as “I’m a hard worker”

Here are two strategies to craft a strong conclusion.

Option 1: Full circle, sandwich structure

The full circle, or sandwich, structure concludes the essay with an image, idea, or story mentioned in the introduction. This strategy gives the reader a strong sense of closure.

In the example below, the essay concludes by returning to the “museum” metaphor that the writer opened with.

Example
Thank you for your attention. This completes our tour. I invite you to rejoin us for next fall’s College Experience collection, which will exhibit Rose’s continual search for identity and learning.

Option 2: Revealing your insight

You can use the conclusion to show the insight you gained as a result of the experiences you’ve described. Revealing your main message at the end creates suspense and keeps the takeaway at the forefront of your reader’s mind.

Example
I still limp down the halls at school, but I don’t seem to mind as much these days. My friends don’t steer clear anymore, and I have a lot more of them. My teachers continually invite me to learn more and do my best, excited by my newfound interest in learning. Football is still on hold, but I feel like I’m finally playing a game that matters.

My broken ankle broke my spirit. Then, it broke my ignorance.

Revise and receive feedback

Revise your essay before submitting it to check its content, style, and grammar. Get feedback from no more than two or three people.

It’s normal to go through several rounds of revision, but take breaks between each editing stage.

Respect the word count

Most schools specify a word count for each essay, and you should stay within 10% of the upper limit.

Remain under the specified word count limit to show you can write concisely and follow directions. However, don’t write too little, which may imply that you are unwilling or unable to write a thoughtful and developed essay.

Check your content, style, and grammar

  • First, check big-picture issues of message, flow, and clarity.
  • Then, check for style and tone issues.
  • Finally, focus on eliminating grammar and punctuation errors.

Get feedback

Get feedback from 2–3 people who know you well, have good writing skills, and are familiar with college essays.

  • Teachers and guidance counselors can help you check your content, language, and tone.
  • Friends and family can check for authenticity.
  • An essay coach or editor has specialized knowledge of college admissions essays and can give objective expert feedback.

The checklist below helps you make sure your essay ticks all the boxes.

College admissions essay checklist

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Frequently asked questions

Why do colleges ask for an essay?

Colleges want to be able to differentiate students who seem similar on paper. The college application essay is a great way for them to understand each applicant’s unique personality and experiences.

Why is it so important to have a standout college essay?

Your college essay accounts for about 25% of your application’s weight. It may be the deciding factor in whether you’re accepted, especially for competitive schools where most applicants have exceptional grades, test scores, and extracurricular track records.

What are the components of a great college admissions essay?

A standout essay has several key ingredients:

  • A unique, personally meaningful topic
  • Original story arcs or interesting insights
  • A memorable introduction with vivid imagery or an intriguing hook
  • Stories and language that show instead of telling
  • Vulnerability that’s authentic but not aimed at soliciting sympathy
  • Clear writing in an appropriate style and tone
  • A conclusion that offers deep insight or a creative ending
How long does it take to write a college essay?

While timelines will differ depending on the student, plan on spending at least 1–3 weeks brainstorming and writing the first draft of your college admissions essay, and at least 2–4 weeks revising across multiple drafts. Don’t forget to save enough time for breaks between each writing and editing stage.

You should already begin thinking about your essay the summer before your senior year so that you have plenty of time to try out different topics and get feedback on what works.

How long should a college essay be?

Most college application portals specify a word count range for your essay, and you should stay within 10% of the upper limit to write a developed and thoughtful essay.

You should aim to stay under the specified word count limit to show you can follow directions and write concisely. However, don’t write too little, as it may seem like you are unwilling or unable to write a detailed and insightful narrative about yourself.

If no word count is specified, we advise keeping your essay between 400 and 600 words.

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