Students prepare for applying to selective colleges by taking rigorous courses, participating in extracurricular activities, studying for standardized tests, and more. All of this preparation, however, can distract attention from one of the most notorious sections of the college application: the essays.
The essay is both the most and the least visible part of the competitive admissions process. Everyone knows that the essay is critical, but few actually get to see what “successful” essays look like. Some online resources, like The College Board, post examples of college application essays, but they often lack the necessary context for a reader to truly assess how accurately that essay conveys a student’s personality and interests.
When choosing a topic for an essay, students need to consider what the essay prompt is asking, the universities to which they’re applying, their goals, and, ultimately, what the essay says about them as a student and as a person.
Why the Essay Matters
Before you can choose a compelling essay topic, you first need to understand why there’s an essay in the first place. When evaluating college applications, most colleges use a “reading rubric” to evaluate the different components of each application. Aside from the “hard factors,” like grades, GPA, and test scores, colleges also look at the “soft factors,” such as extracurriculars, recommendation letters, demonstrated interests, and essays. The point of evaluating all these factors is to enable colleges to holistically build a well-rounded class of specialists. The essay (or essays) is a great way to learn more about an applicant, her motivations, life experiences, and how she can contribute to the campus community.
According to NACAC, 83 percent of colleges assign some level of importance to the application essay, and it’s usually the most important “soft factor” that colleges consider. The essay is important because it gives students the chance to showcase their writing and tell the college something new. It also allows admissions officers to learn more about students and gain insight into their experiences that other parts of the application do not provide. Just like any other admissions factor, a stellar essay isn’t going to guarantee admission, but students do need to craft compelling and thoughtful essays in order to avoid the “no” pile.
Related: How a Great College Essay Can Make You Stand Out
Types of Essays
Let’s talk about the different types of essays that a college may require applicants to submit. Over 500 colleges and universities use the Common Application, which has one required essay, called the personal statement. There are five new prompts to choose from, and this essay can be used for multiple colleges.
Related: Why I Love the New Common Application Essay Prompts
Beyond the Common Application essay, many colleges also have supplements that ask additional, university-specific questions which applicants must respond to with shorter-form essays. While topics vary from supplement to supplement, there are a few standard essay formats that many colleges use:
This is the most common essay and is used for the main Common Application essay. In this essay, the applicant talks about a meaningful life experience that helped shape who she is today. The book “Admission Matters: What Students and Parents Need to Know About Getting into College” has a great section on the personal statement and how students can craft effective essays.
“Why This College?” Essay
Many colleges, including Columbia University and Duke University, use the supplement to ask applicants to explain why they have chosen to apply to this particular college. In this essay, students need to be detailed and offer specific examples for wanting to attend this school. Not only does it help students reiterate their passions, it also serves as a gauge for demonstrated interest and a vehicle for students to better articulate how they will contribute to the campus environment.
In this essay, students write about an extracurricular activity or community service project that was especially meaningful to them. This essay was previously on the standard Common Application, but was removed starting in the 2014–15 application season. Instead, some colleges, like Georgetown University, choose to include a variation of this essay among their supplements by asking students to discuss an activity and its significance to their life or course of study. In this essay, students should choose an activity they’re most passionate about and include details about how they expect to continue this activity at the particular college.
Related: Using Your High School Internship as Inspiration for Your College Essay
In an effort to challenge students to think creatively, some colleges include short, “quick take” prompts that require only a few words or sentences for the response. Some examples include University of Southern California’s “What’s the greatest invention of all time?” and University of Maryland’s sentence completion prompts like “My favorite thing about last Wednesday…”
What NOT to Write About
In order to stand out, it’s important to realize that there are a number of essay topics that are cliché and overused. Avoid writing about things like scoring the winning goal, topics of public consciousness like natural disasters, or something that happened to you in middle school. Also, avoid gimmicks like writing in a different language, presenting your essay as a poem, or anything else that is stylistically “out of the box.” Your focus should be on the message rather than the presentation.
It’s also important to avoid inappropriate or uncomfortable topics. Some students choose to write about things like sex or romantic relationships in order to stand out; yet, these topics fail to add substance or depth to an application. There’s a fine line between interesting and trite — don’t stand out for the wrong reasons.
Successful Essay Topics
A successful essay will reveal something about you that the admissions reader may not have already known, and will show how you interact with family and friends and demonstrate your beliefs or explore your passions. This doesn’t mean you have to regurgitate your resume — in fact, you definitely shouldn’t.
For example, a student whose number one extracurricular activity is swimming should not write an essay about “the big meet.” Instead, she could explore a more personal topic, such as something she is learning in class that conflicts with her religious beliefs. She can discuss the intersection of religion and education in her life and how she reconciled the differences — or didn’t.
A great essay also provides readers with a vivid picture. When crafting an essay, think of it as offering admissions readers a window into a certain event or story. Focus on the most meaningful moments, not the irrelevant background details.
For example, a student once wrote an essay about feeling out of place culturally during an internship. Instead of giving a general description of the internship and his conflicts, he opened the essay with a vivid description of what he saw when he first arrived, and used this scene to frame the feelings of alienation he underwent — giving the reader a striking image of his experience in great detail.
Remember, your college application essay is about you. There’s a lot of pressure to be “unique” and “interesting,” but at the end of the day, the key to standing out is to just be yourself. Admissions officers can tell when students are embellishing or being insincere in their essays, so it’s best to keep it simple and tell a story about you and the person you are today. In the end, with careful planning, research, and a thoughtful essay, you’ll get into the best-fit college for you!
For further guidance and examples, check out Noodle's collection of expert advice about college essays.
You already know how to write an academic essay: you start with an introduction, throw in a thesis statement, find about three paragraphs’ worth of evidence, and wrap it all up with a tidy conclusion…
Now forget all that, because a successful college application essay is totally different.
Here's the thing: your college application essay needs to breathe life into your application. It should capture your genuine personality, explaining who you are beyond a series of grades, test scores, and after-school activities. But that’s not nearly as scary as it seems, because you get to choose what to share and how to share it.
Take a minute and think about the college or university admission officers who will be reading your essay. How will your essay convey your background and what makes you unique? If you had the opportunity to stand in front of an admission committee to share a significant story or important information about yourself, what would you say? The college application essay is your chance to share your personality, goals, influences, challenges, triumphs, life experiences, or lessons learned. Not to mention why you're a good fit for the college or university—and why it's a good fit for you. These are the stories behind the list of activities and leadership roles on your application.
One of the most common struggles students encounter is resisting the urge to squeeze everything they’ve seen, done, and heard into their essay. But your application essay isn’t your life story in 650 words. Instead, pick one moment in time and focus on telling the story behind it.
Admission officers realize that writing doesn’t come easily to everyone, but with some time and planning, anyone can write a college application essay that stands out. One way to do that is to work step-by-step, piece-by-piece. The end result should be a carefully designed, insightful essay that makes you proud. Take advantage of being able to share something with an audience who knows nothing about you and is excited to learn what you have to offer. Brag. Write the story no one else can tell.
1. Get to know your prompt
Ease yourself into the essay-writing process. Take time to understand the question or prompt being asked.
The single most important part of your essay preparation may be simply making sure you truly understand the question or essay prompt. When you are finished writing, you need to make sure that your essay still adheres to the prompt.
College essay questions often suggest one or two main ideas or topics of focus. These can vary from personal to trivial, but all seek to challenge you and spark your creativity and insight.
- Read the essay questions and/or prompts. Read them again. Then, read them one more time.
- Take some time to think about what is being asked and let it really sink in before you let the ideas flow.
- Before you can even start brainstorming, define what it is you’re trying to accomplish. Is this essay prompt asking you to inform? Defend? Support? Expand upon?
- If it doesn’t already, relate the question back yourself by asking, “How does this—or how could this—apply to me?”
- Avoid sorting through your existing English class essays to see if the topics fit the bill. These pieces rarely showcase who you are as an applicant.
Get your creative juices flowing by brainstorming all the possible ideas you can think of to address your college essay question.
Believe it or not, the brainstorming stage may be more tedious than writing the actual application essay. The purpose is to flesh out all of your possible ideas so when you begin writing, you know and understand where you are going with the topic.
- Reflect. You have years to draw from, so set aside time to mentally collect relevant experiences or events that serve as strong, specific examples. This is also time for self-reflection. “What are my strengths?” “How would my friends describe me?” “What sets me apart from other applicants?”
- Write any and all ideas down. There’s no technique that works best, but you’ll be thankful when you are able to come back to ideas you otherwise might have forgotten.
- Narrow down the options. Choose three concepts you think fit the college application essay prompt best and weigh the potential of each. Which idea can you develop further and not lose the reader? Which captures more of who you really are?
- Choose your story to tell. From the thoughts you’ve narrowed down, pick one. You should have enough supporting details to rely on this as an excellent demonstration of your abilities, achievements, perseverance, or beliefs.
3. Create an outline
Map out what you’re going to write by making an outline.
Architects use a blue print. A webpage is comprised of code. Cooks rely on recipes. What do they have in common? They have a plan. The rules for writing a good essay are no different. After you brainstorm, you’ll know what you want to say, but you must decide how you’re going to say it. Create an outline that breaks down the essay into sections.
- All good stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Shape your story so that it has an introduction, body, and conclusion. Following this natural progression will make your essay coherent and easy to read.
- Strategize. How are you going to open your essay? With an anecdote? A question? Dialogue? Use of humor? Try to identify what the tone of your essay is going to be based on your ideas.
- Stick to your writing style and voice. It’s particularly important when writing a piece about yourself that you write naturally. Put the words in your own voice. By planning the layout of your essay ahead of time, you’ll avoid changing your writing style mid-story.
Related:College Application Essays: A Step-by-Step Example
4. Write the essay
Once you are satisfied with your essay in outline format, begin writing!
By now you know exactly what you will write about and how you want to tell the story. So hop on a computer and get to it. Try to just let yourself bang out a rough draft without going back to change anything. Then go back and revise, revise, revise. Before you know it, you will have told the story you outlined—and reached the necessary word count—and you will be happy you spent all that time preparing!
- Keep your essay’s focus narrow and personal. Don’t lose your reader. Start with your main idea, and follow it from beginning to end.
- Be specific. Avoid using clichéd, predictable, or generic phrases by developing your main idea with vivid and detailed facts, events, quotations, examples, and reasons.
- Be yourself. Admission officers read plenty of application essays and know the difference between a student’s original story and a recycled academic essay, or—worse—a piece written by your mom or dad or even plagiarized. Bring something new to the table, not just what you think they want to hear. Use humor if appropriate.
- Be concise. Don’t use 50 words if five will do. Try to only include the information that is absolutely necessary.
The last step is editing and proofreading your finished essay.
You have worked so hard up until this point, and while you might be relieved, remember: your essay is only as good as your editing. A single grammatical error or typo could indicate carelessness—not a trait you want to convey to a college admission officer.
- Give yourself some time. Let your essay sit for a while (at least an hour or two) before you proofread it. Approaching the essay with a fresh perspective gives your mind a chance to focus on the actual words, rather than seeing what you think you wrote.
- Don’t rely solely on the computer spelling and grammar check. Computers cannot detect the context in which you are using words, so be sure to review carefully. Don’t abbreviate or use acronyms or slang. They might be fine in a text message, but not in your college essay.
- Have another person (or several!) read your essay, whether it’s a teacher, guidance counselor, parent, or trusted friend. You know what you meant to say, but is it clear to someone else reading your work? Have these people review your application essay to make sure your message is on target and clear to any audience.
- Read your essay backwards. This may sound a bit silly, but when reading in sequential order, your brain has a tendency to piece together missing information, or fill in the blanks, for you. Reading each sentence on its own and backwards can help you realize not only typos and mistakes in grammar, but that you may have forgotten an article here and there, such as “a” or “the.”
- Read your essay out loud. This forces you to read each word individually and increases your chances of finding
- a typo. Reading aloud will also help you ensure your punctuation is correct, and it’s often easier to hear awkward sentences than see them.
- Check for consistency. Avoid switching back and forth from different tenses. Also, if you refer to a particular college in the essay, make sure it is the correct name and is consistent throughout the piece. You don’t want to reference two different schools in the same paper!
6. Tie up loose ends
Celebrate finishing what you started.
Writing the college essay takes time and effort, and you should feel accomplished. When you submit your essay, remember to include your name, contact information, and ID number if your college provided one, especially if you send it to a general admission e-mail account. Nothing is worse than trying to match an application essay with no name (or, worse, an e-mail address such as email@example.com) to a file. Make sure to keep copies of what you sent to which schools and when—and follow up on them! Be certain the college or university you are applying to received your essay. You don’t want all that hard work to go to waste!
Looking for more college application essay help? We have tons—tons—here, including lots of real-world examples!
P.S. What did you end up writing your college application essay about? We wanna know! Leave a comment or get in touch here.
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