Application essays are personal statements that you write as part of your college application. They provide the admissions committee with more information than what’s included in your academic transcripts and test scores. They allow you to explain how the college is a good fit for you and how you can contribute to the campus community if admitted.
You may also be asked to write other types of personal essays, such as a College Essay. These are usually short-form narratives on specific topics or themes (e.g., “Write about a time when you overcame a challenge”). Below, we will share 13 tips on how to write a college application essay that will help you stand out.
1. Read the instructions carefully
- Read the instructions carefully. You may think you know what you’re being asked to write about. Still, if you don’t read the essay prompt carefully and answer it with honesty and enthusiasm, your application will not make a good impression on admissions committees. Most importantly, pay attention to the word count limit indicated in the instructions. Nothing makes an admissions committee cringe more than an overlong essay (unless it’s an essay that doesn’t address their prompt).
- Follow instructions. This seems obvious, right? But it is so tempting to write off-topic college essays when applying to school — especially when you’re frustrated trying to figure out how to write about yourself in a way that demonstrates both enthusiasms for your accomplishments and humility for your mistakes. If the question asks for 300 words and you send in 3,000 words, this will count against you unless there are extenuating circumstances that would make a longer response appropriate (which is unlikely).
- If the instructions are unclear or seem contradictory, check with your teacher or guidance counselor before sending in your application. There are many different types of college applications; each college has its own set of guidelines for how they want prospective students to apply for admission. The last thing you want is your application to get thrown out because of a technicality!
2. Be personal
When you write, don’t overthink it. Don’t try to sound like someone else. Be yourself! The best essays are the ones where I feel like I am getting to know the writer—where I feel there is a person behind the words, not just a generic “smart teenager” or “passionate community leader.” Write about what you care about; use your voice and your own experiences to tell us what makes you unique and awesome. What do you care about? What do you love? What has shaped your life? What beliefs and values guide who you are as a person? In your college essay, these are all questions that you can tackle (sometimes in unexpected ways).
If you are writing about something that happened in school or an extracurricular activity, make sure it is somehow linked to who you are now and how that experience has shaped who you will be going forward (and make sure this isn’t something they can find on your résumé either). Share some of yourself with us—your interests, your values, what matters to you—but always focus on how those stories have helped define who you are today and how they will continue to influence the person you will become tomorrow.
3. Be careful with humor
Humor can be a great way to stand out, but it’s important to remember that it doesn’t work for everyone. Humor is subjective, and even if something seems funny to you, it doesn’t mean that others will see it the same way. Be mindful of your approach with humor; tell yourself that if you were reading the essay instead of writing it, would you find the joke funny? Would you get the joke? Would the essay lose its impact if you took out a joke? If so, take out the jokes.
A good rule of thumb is this: if there are any jokes in your college application essay, make sure that they’re intentional and don’t go past two or three. The admissions counselors want to be entertained by your writing; they don’t want to feel like they’re being laughed at.
4. Spend extra time on your introduction
Do spend time on your introduction. First impressions are important. An engaging introduction might include a question or quote, an anecdote, or a summary of what you will say in the essay. You want the reader to see and feel that you’re passionate about the topic! A strong intro also can provide a “hook” to get them interested. Don’t stray too far from your main point; otherwise, you’ll wander into “rabbit hole” territory and lose the reader’s attention.
5. Be original
Here’s the deal: if you want to get into a top university, you need to be different from the other applicants. It would help if you stood out in a crowd of thousands of students who have similar high school grades and test scores to yours.
Don’t worry, though—you’re already unique! And that’s your advantage. Nobody has lived your life or learned the lessons you have—so show them off in your essay by being authentic, honest, and brave. Don’t be afraid to write about something that matters to you, whether it’s an experience, a person in your life, or a book that helped you become the person you are today! After all, college is about taking risks and finding new things that make us excited and interested.
6. Have a plan
Planning your essay helps ensure that you take advantage of all available space and communicate everything you want. Having a plan will also help keep you organized, a key component of writing an effective essay.
Before you start working on the actual essay, it is important to plan out your finished product. First, think about the main idea of your essay. This should be something specific that sets you apart from other applicants. Then, decide on the key points you want to express throughout your document.
Next, determine in what order you will present these points in your essay. The best essays are usually written in chronological order (as they happened). Still, sometimes it can make sense for the author to work in reverse chronological order (from the most recent event to one farthest back in time).
7. Stay on point and be direct
This is college, not high school. Stay on point and be direct. The person reading your essay is likely to have many more like it to read in a day—thousands, perhaps thousands, of others. Make sure that yours stands out in the crowd and gets noticed.
- Use active voice: “I helped organize a charity event” rather than passive voice: “I organized a charity event.”
- Stay focused on the topic at hand—this will require some editing and rewriting
- Check that your essay answers the question you were asked – in other words, make sure it addresses what admissions officers want to know about you
- Avoid wordiness—use active phrases instead of passive phrases; avoid redundant language (“free gift,” “result”); use specific terms rather than flowery language
8. Don’t rehash information from tests, resumes, and forms
Finally, don’t repeat information that’s already on your application form. Don’t talk about your scores and grades or how you want to go to a school because of a famous professor. Please don’t talk about what your major is (unless it’s directly related to the essay). Don’t talk about what that college can do for you. Colleges care much more about who you are than what they can do for you. Make sure the college knows who you are in your essay!
9. If you have to cover only one example, show what you learned from it
Don’t just state what you did; say what this experience meant to you. Maybe it taught you the importance of friendship or picking up a hobby. Colleges are interested in seeing your maturity, growth, and development throughout the experiences in which you participate. Whatever the situation is, explain how it changed you and made you more aware of yourself and your surroundings.
10. Don’t start every sentence with “i.”
You’re trying to write a college application essay, so you want to come off as likable and relatable. To do this, use personal stories in your writing. However, this is not an invitation to write every sentence with the word “I” at the beginning. Instead of starting every sentence with the word “I,” try using synonyms such as “me,” “myself,” or simply start sentences with a noun like “My mother…” or “That summer….”
11. Always be truthful
It would help if you always were truthful in a college admissions essay. If you are caught lying, you will likely throw your application out of consideration. Avoid fluffing up your achievements or trying to exaggerate what you have done. College admissions counselors see through fluff and exaggerations.
Being authentic is essential as well. Don’t try to be something you are not just to impress the admissions counselors. Colleges want students to contribute something unique and valuable to the campus community. They want students who will draw on their own life experiences while they learn at school and prepare for their futures after college graduation occurs.
12. Don’t forget to proofread
Proofreading your essay is an important final step. After all, you don’t want to miss out on an excellent opportunity for the sake of one silly typo.
Many free tools online can help you proofread your essays, like Grammarly and Hemingway. Some people even make a living from editing other people’s work, so if you’re pressed for time, this might be worth looking into.
13. When in doubt, crowdsource some ideas
If you’re still unsure which approach to take, why not crowdsource some ideas? Ask friends and family what they would want to read in this essay. You’ll learn a lot about yourself and your experiences as they’re reflected through other people’s eyes.
By the end of this process, you should have a much better sense of how to write your college application essay than when you started. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you need any help.
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In this article, you’ve learned:
- Not be afraid to stand out and showcase your personality. Your essay is prime real estate to show the admissions committee who you are.
- How to write an essay that shows colleges who you are through a personal story
- Using storytelling techniques to ensure your essay is memorable and engaging (even if it’s about a mundane or boring topic!)
- How to edit your work for the best possible final product!
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Frequently Asked Questions
How do you start a college application essay?
The introduction has to reveal to the reader what your essay is about and catch their attention. You could open with an anecdote or an interesting story that will show some of the best parts of your personality and character, offering an insight that will help the admission officers get to know who you are.
What is a good essay for college application?
A good college essay has several key ingredients: A unique, personally meaningful topic. A memorable introduction with vivid imagery or an intriguing hook. Specific stories and language that show instead of telling.
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