How to Write a Powerful College Application Essay

How to Write a Powerful College Application Essay

Five years ago, I vigorously worked on my college applications. I stayed up late for countless nights and met with my English teacher to review my personal essay. Luckily for me—and a testament to my hard work—my college admissions process ended with an acceptance to my dream school. 

For better or for worse, the college admissions process hasn’t changed much in the past five years. Teenagers still stay up too late and stress out too much about which adjectives describe them. Luckily, the permanence of the college essay gives me the opportunity to share some tips and tricks with you! 

Most college applications include a supplemental essay that offers the opportunity to understand each applicant on a more qualitative level. The essay section asks about each student’s life experiences and goals with the aim to learn more about them. Colleges include the application process because the admissions board knows that applicants are more than just a GPA, extracurriculars, and test scores. These essays give applicants the chance to showcase their thinking process, resilience, and communication skills. The Princeton Review writes, “Colleges are looking for thoughtful, motivated students who will add something to the first-year class,” and the essays are the perfect opportunity to showcase that.

For many, the essay section is the most exciting and most stressful part of the college admissions process. It offers students the opportunity to show off what makes them unique and creative. However, most students have little experience writing personal essays. They are unaware that writing a personal essay will take just as much time, if not more than any academic paper. It requires self-reflection, articulation, and a whole lot of editing. Instead of focusing on getting into the school of your dreams, try to craft a story that you could read back in five years with pride.

Why College Admissions Boards Want College Application Essays

Before starting the writing process, it’s important to review and address why college admissions boards want college application essays in the first place. The supplemental essays provide the opportunity to let the admissions boards know about unique traits that they can’t read in the general application. Each essay is a chance for every applicant to speak directly to the admissions board and let them know their unique story.

For instance, if a student has few extracurriculars, they might use the essay to explain that they used that time to work a minimum wage job to finance a college fund. Maybe a student’s GPA dropped drastically during one semester because of a life-altering event, a student’s—the essay is an opportunity to discuss how that event may have dropped their grades but tremendously shifted their perspective of life.

Admissions boards are looking for students that are able to communicate about their life, work, and learning philosophies effectively. This helps the board get to know each applicant as both a student and a human, and it can help them determine if each student is a good fit for the university or college.

As the College Board says, “Colleges want to see that prospective students can write well and build a logical argument with supporting ideas. Some colleges also use the essay to help them determine whether an applicant is a good fit.”

So what’s the best approach to writing college essays? The list below outlines a tried and true approach for tackling the college application essay. (Don’t worry, each section will be explored more in-depth later in this article.)

An Overview of the Process of Writing a College Application Essay

  1. Research schools for their values, culture, and vision: It’s crucial for applicants to understand the values, culture, and vision of the schools where they plan on applying. Many applicants have probably already taken this step when deciding where they want to apply, but now is the time to dive deeper. Look into how the schools invest in education, what campus life looks like, and what the cultural makeup of the surrounding community is. This research will show admissions boards that an applicant is serious about applying to their school.
  2. Brainstorm significant moments with life-changing implications: Next, every applicant should brainstorm anything in their life about which they could write a substantial statement. It could be as simple as the recurring meal with a grandmother or as disruptive as an international move. No matter what each applicant chooses, it’s important to brainstorm stories that are unique to their life and present their world view.
  3. Start writing! Start EARLY: Arguably, the most important step of the process is the writing portion! A student might not feel confident in their topic, and that’s okay. Throughout the process, the essay will be revised and edited numerous times and a topic might even completely change (multiple times). Every applicant should just start that first draft to help get over the tallest hurdle. 
  4. Evaluate the first draft and consider the strongest pieces: Once that first draft is done, sit with it for a while and find the best parts. Remember to focus on what works in the essay and move forward positively with the upcoming drafts. If an applicant beats themself up over the parts that didn’t work, they won’t be a very productive writer. Take note of the strongest aspects of the paper and work on highlighting and incorporating them in the next draft.
  5. Revise, edit, and rewrite to a point of comfort: Next comes the opportunity to revise, edit, and rewrite. Just to be clear, revising is the process of re-examining the work and making changes. Editing means choosing which elements can be cut out to make the work more clear and concise. Rewriting requires trucking along and writing each new next draft.
  6. Share with others for their review”: It’s imperative to let a fresh set of eyes read the essay to help with the revision process. By this portion of the writing process, the author has already spent hours trapped in their own head, so invite a trusted friend, family member, or adult to read and critique the essay to help it stay honest and aligned with each student’s individuality.
  7. Revise, edit, and rewrite again until you land on a final draft that you love: Keep on at those last couple of steps until the piece feels finished. There will always be things to improve, but eventually, the essay will reach a point of satisfaction. Then each student can focus on celebrating the beautiful essay they wrote and can leave the writing anxiety at the door.

Let’s dive into the details. 

Where to Start Writing a College Application Essay

The most daunting aspect of the college application essay process for many applicants is writing the first draft. They might have a million thoughts running through their head about what they want to write about, or fancy hooks they’re excited to try. Maybe, they’re overwhelmed at the idea of writing about themselves and can’t even start to think about writing. The personal essay is a writing assignment that many high schools never assign, so the opportunity to write a personal story comes with a lot of stress. It’s important to take a deep breath, step back, and plan how to tackle the assignment.

As mentioned above, before beginning the writing process, the applicant should make sure that the school aligns with their values. The XQ College Pathfinder is an amazing tool to help redirect distracted minds back to the college selection process. The guide provides a few questions that help students familiarize themselves with each of their selected schools. Reference these questions throughout the research process:

  • What is each school’s mission statement? How do they carry this out on their campuses?
  • What is each school’s vision for its students? What key values do they incorporate into life on campus?
  • What aspects drew you to the school? What aspect of each school landed them on your application list?
  • How does each school interact with its surrounding community?
  • How might you get involved in student life? Are there clubs, Greek life, campus events? What do students do for fun?

Now that students have gotten to know more about each school’s mission and about the school’s student body. Think of each school as a persona and how would a prospective student befriend them. What interests do they have in common? Now think about how to incorporate that into the college essay.

Tell a Story in the College Application Essay

Whether or not an applicant ends up getting accepted to the university, their story is important. The importance of the college application essay extends further than its role in the admissions process.

Each applicant has a story worth being told and each applicant deserves the chance to tell it. If they’re feeling stuck choosing which story they’d like to tell, be sure to check out this Rethink Together post about student stories that matter or this article about what students have written about in the past.

An applicant may be asking themself, “What should I write about for my college essay?” The opportunities may feel overwhelmingly abundant or quite bare. An applicant’s best bet is to focus on significant moments that helped reshape their perspective. Here are some brainstorming tips and tools to help get the ball rolling:

  • Exploring identity: XQ’s series with Ashanti Branch is a great way to help applicants explore their identity by touching on who they are, whom they are listening to, and where they are going.
  • Use a strengths quiz: A strengths quiz is a great way to figure out an applicant’s natural skills and how to highlight these traits in an essay. An applicant should identify what their strengths are and take a stab at brainstorming some events in their life that have relied on those strengths. Each applicant’s combination of strengths is unique, so each applicant should be sure to think of a story that is unique to them.
  • Ask close friends or family members to help: Every applicant should poll their circles to find the adjectives that describe. They should ask their close friends and family members to offer three adjectives that describe their best traits and select the traits used most frequently. It’s always helpful to understand why the respondents chose those words, so don’t be afraid to ask them. This process may help applicants by sparking similar stories that they can speak to in their essays. 
  • Mindmap big events/memorable moments: Take the brainstorming process to paper by creating a web of monumental events that may have impacted an applicant’s perspective. An applicant should try to branch out as far as they can so that they can look back and identify the moments that affected them. Take a shot at freewriting about each of the four most important events and see which ones work best. 

Applicants should remember to keep their topics highly specific to them. If they choose to write about an experience with a family member, they should focus on how it helped shape. Jeff Brenzel, the former dean of Yale University’s undergraduate admissions says, “presenting yourself as you are is your best bet in the college admissions process.”

Applicants should try to consider events that are unique to them. There might be life-changing events that they want to write about—like a mission trip or a family vacation—that were particularly meaningful to them. But many other applicants may have similar experiences. That doesn’t mean an applicant can’t write about those experiences, but it does mean they should be specific. If they keep their focus on specific instances in their life, it will tell the admissions board more about who they are as a person as opposed to what they’ve done.

Types of College Application Essays

Each school has its own application process. Over 800 colleges and universities accept a general application system called the Common App. The Common App helps administer the materials and keep track of your progress, but each school’s specific requirements are different.

Typically the essay portion is broken down into a few short supplemental essays addressing specific questions, and then one longer personal statement. For examples of supplemental essay prompts, check out this Supplemental College Essay Guide. The personal statement is generally the same across all applications and the prompts are available to view here.

Each college essay will generally answer the same types of prompts. The prompts are grouped into three categories, the “You” prompts, the “Why Us” prompts, and the “Creative” prompts. Check out the table below to learn more about each category:

TypePrompt ExamplesConsiderations
YouSome students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea.Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve.Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging it makes you lose all track of time.These prompts are an opportunity to show your unique thought process.These prompts are a chance to tell the admission board something that the general application didn’t ask.Think of these prompts as a written interview. What would you want the board to know if you could speak to them?
Why UsWhy are you applying to this school?What are you intending to major in and why?What are you looking to get out of our education system?Take the time to do your research so that you understand the school’s mission and vision well.Click through the school’s website/blog/articles to learn about what students and staff value.Get in touch with a current student to learn more about their experience at the school.
CreativeWhat book has shaped who you are today? Why?If you could be any animal in recorded history, which would you be and why?Write about an invention in history that has negatively impacted our world and describe why you are against it.These prompts are more about thinking and imaginative analysis than the answer itself.Focus on how you came to the decision you did and what it means to you.These prompts are a chance to show the admission board how you think outside of the box apart from the typical structure of school.

How to Write a College Application Essay

When it comes to the actual writing, there are a lot of aspects to consider. A well-written essay must have a clear logical flow and a key message that it is trying to communicate. There should be a common theme that keeps the essay relevant and a thesis that keeps things on track. This video from College Essay Advisors provides a few relevant tips to consider when writing the college essay: make it memorable, keep it unique, and more.

What should an applicant include in a college essay?

If an applicant finds themself asking this question follow this general format: 

  1. Strong Hook: Start off with a strong hook; something that grabs the reader’s attention and gets them excited to read. These first few words are how an applicant initially tells the board they’re different and a breath of fresh air.
  2. Unique experiences: Spend the next few paragraphs describing the influential event. Don’t spend too much of the word count on the retelling of the event. Remember, each word in this short essay is valuable.
  3. Things learned and growth: Spend a good portion of the word count on this section. It’s important to hone in on what was learned but remember show, don’t tell. Take the most real estate of the essay to talk about how the event promoted growth. This is a great space to express resiliency, openness to growth, and the ability to overcome challenges.
  4. How these new skills will positively impact the school:  Transitioning to the conclusion, spend some of the word count discussing how these strengths will positively impact the college. The entire point of writing this essay is to gain admission into college, so keep the essay relevant for the admissions board. This shouldn’t be a long section, just a couple of sentences that transition into the conclusion.
  5. Drive it home with the conclusion: Just like the strong hook, end the essay with a bang! Focus on creating a memorable ending that will leave the board to remember the essay. The admissions board reads countless applications, so try to end on an unforgettable note.
  6. Remember to adhere to basic requirements (length, addresses prompt, research on the school, etc.): Of course, an applicant needs to make sure that they’re meeting the basic requirements of the essay. Double-check the word count, make sure the essay answers the prompt, and keep it relevant to the school. It may be tempting to take a risky approach to the essay by formatting it in a physical shape or repeating the same word 600 times, but at the end of the day, those tactics are gimmicky and might even end up annoying the admissions board. It’s generally better to follow a traditional format and let your content shine.

Consider these questions when writing the essay:

  • How can I make this essay sound more like myself?
  • How am I incorporating creative writing styles into my piece?
  • Am I telling my own story?
  • What significance does this topic have to me?
  • Would I be interested in reading this if I didn’t write it?

After hitting all the basic requirements of a good college admissions essay, remember to keep it creative and engaging. There are plenty of ways to accomplish this. One of my favorite tips is to stray away from academic prose and to focus on sounding like a human by finding a unique voice. Here are some more generally engaging and creative writing tips:

  • Show, don’t tell
  • Establish a clear writing style
  • Avoid passive voice
  • Keep the topic focused
  • Be concise
  • Use a unique voice, not a thesaurus
  • Highlight you, not the other subjects
  • Play with rhetorical devices

Revise the College Application Essay

Once the first draft is finished, the next step is revision. Revision is crucial to improving each draft and creating the best possible final essay. Sometimes it can feel embarrassing to read back old work, but it’s better to go through that process to end up with a final essay that’s strong. 

One tried and true method of revision is to read back the essay aloud. This strategy works to help catch any wording or grammar that isn’t natural. If the essay doesn’t flow when reading it aloud, then the admissions board member may have trouble reading it as well. Reading the essay aloud will ensure it’s written in a unique voice as well.

Another method of revision is asking for a peer review. Invite a friend, family member, or trusted adult to read and critique the work. Ask them to look out for any grammatical errors, but also ask them to make sure that the argumentative flow makes sense. If the reviewer says that they don’t hear a strong voice in the paper, then it’s time to write a new draft that’s more genuine and authentic.

During the revision process, consider answering the following questions:

  1. Does this essay meet the basic requirements?
  2. Does this essay sound like me?
  3. Does this essay tell the board something that the rest of the application doesn’t?
  4. Does this essay let the board know how I think?
  5. Does this essay let the board know what I value?
  6. Does this essay let the board know how I will contribute to their campus?
  7. Does this essay let the board know how I want to grow?

Examples of Good College Essay Writing

Finally, if an applicant is still having trouble writing their essay, take a look at the examples in the table below for well-written, engaging student essays.

EssayWhat Works
Do Not Underestimate an ImmigrantA clearly defined hook that introduces the reader to the topic of the essayA succinct review of the challenges of being an immigrant Wraps up the essay with a strong message about patiently growing and gaining confidenceFinishes with a clear call to actionKeeps language and tone simple, personal, and concise
Student-Led Gun ProtestThe essay clearly focuses on the author and her accomplishmentsKeeps the tone consistent and realUses emotion to keep the reader engagedIncludes a clear call to action in the conclusion
How One School Program Transformed a Student’s Perspective on EducationStrong hook uses dialogue to set the sceneGives a brief summary of where she was in life and focuses most of the essay on how the program helped her growExplains how her experience can help tackle a larger world issue

Now, go into writing the essay with confidence. Remember that student voices are important now more than ever and this essay is a chance to be heard. If an applicant does their research, addresses the prompt, and tells their story, they are sure to have a good shot at impressive admission boards with their application. Have fun with this essay and keep it authentic!

Want more resources to help in the college application process? Check out our comprehensive guide to prepare and succeed in college.

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