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How to Write a Stellar College Essay

Updated on June 2, 2022Students

Ready or not, if you’re a high school junior or senior, it’s time to get started on college applications. And that means you’re going to be writing essays—college admissions essays. 

Writing college essays can be more stressful than writing essays for class because these essays can make or break your acceptance into your preferred colleges. It’s a lot of pressure, we know. But don’t stress—we’re here to help you knock your college essay out of the park.  

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What is a college admissions essay?

A college admissions essay, often taking the form of a personal statement, is a brief document through which you demonstrate why you’re the right fit for admission to a particular college or university. Think of it as the cover letter to your college application—your transcript shows which courses you’ve taken and the grades you earned in them (just as a résumé shows your work history), and your personal statement communicates your strengths that can’t be quantified as easily. 

Generally, college admissions essays are between 400 and 600 words. Some colleges and programs require them to be shorter or longer, but typically, plan for your essay to be about this length.

A college admissions essay doesn’t necessarily follow the same essay structure you use when you’re writing essays for class. Instead of presenting and supporting an argument, your college essay tells a story that illustrates who you are as a person. 

If you find yourself procrastinating and drawing a blank every time you sit down to write your college essay, we get it . . . writing about yourself can be tough! Here’s the most important thing to keep in mind: With a college admissions essay, you aren’t really writing about yourself. Rather, you’re writing about how your unique personality and experiences make you well-suited to succeed in the college to which you’re applying. 

To do this successfully, keep the following tips in mind:

Choose the right topic

Some colleges and academic programs provide a topic for your college essay. Others don’t. When you’re required to respond to a specific prompt, your essay needs to respond to that prompt. Your college essay is not the place to “creatively” disregard the prompt; doing so can make it look like you didn’t read the instructions.

When you aren’t provided a specific topic, you need to choose one for yourself. Choose a topic that gives you enough room to articulate why and how you’re a strong candidate for the particular school you’re looking to enter. Generally, an effective essay prompt is structured like this: 

Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?”

This is one of the 2021–2022 essay prompts for the Common App. Notice how it asks multiple, consecutive questions, providing you a framework for your essay. If you need to develop your own topic for your essay, think along these lines instead of going with a one-note topic like “my favorite hobby” or “why I chose my major.” If you’re really hard-pressed to come up with an essay topic that will allow you to shine, do a quick internet search for common essay topics or ask a teacher to help you develop one. 

The Common App

If you’re applying through the Common App, an application accepted by more than 900 colleges and universities around the world, you’re given a list of approved essay topics for your application. There are seven prompts, one of which is open-ended and gives you the opportunity to use an essay you’ve already written or develop your own topic. 

Most students apply to more than one college. One of the most common questions students have about the Common App is whether they can submit different essays to different schools. The answer is yes. You can absolutely tailor your essay to different schools and even revise your essay before sending it along to a second school. 

Keep your reader in mind

When you’re writing your college admissions essay, remember that you’re writing it for an admissions department. They’re a whole lot less concerned about specific classes you took than they are about whether you’re a well-rounded individual who will fit into a diverse student body. You can absolutely mention the college by name, but don’t dwell on it in your essay. You aren’t begging for admission; you’re demonstrating your fitness for admission. Here’s how one Harvard student illustrated how they would be a good fit for the university:

“Using equipment that a high school student could only dream of using, I was able to map apoptosis (programmed cell death) versus necrosis (cell death due to damage) in HeLa cells, a cervical cancer line, after treating them with curcumin-bound nanoparticles. Using flow cytometry to excite each individually suspended cell with a laser, the scattered light from the cells helped to determine which cells were living, had died from apoptosis or had died from necrosis. Using this collected data, it was possible to determine if the curcumin and/or the nanoparticles had played any significant role on the cervical cancer cells. Later, I was able to image cells in 4D through con-focal microscopy. From growing HeLa cells to trying to kill them with different compounds, I was able to gain the hands-on experience necessary for me to realize once again why I love science.” (Shemmassian Consulting

You might be required to submit more than one college essay. This is often the case when a student applies to a specific academic program, like a specialized major or the honors college—you might need to write an essay for admission to the college, then an additional essay for admission to the program. When you write a college essay for a specific program, tailor it to that program. 

Here’s an excerpt from an essay a Duke applicant used to successfully get into a medical program:

“As soon as the patient room door opened, the worst stench I have ever encountered hit me square in the face. Though I had never smelled it before, I knew instinctively what it was: rotting flesh. A small, elderly woman sat in a wheelchair, dressed in a hospital gown and draped in blankets from the neck down with only her gauze-wrapped right leg peering out from under the green material. Dr. Q began unwrapping the leg, and there was no way to be prepared for what I saw next: gangrene-rotted tissue and blackened, dead toes.” (Shemmassian Consulting) 

Show, don’t tell

In the example above, the writer used descriptive language to grab their reader’s attention. Here’s another example of an essay that shows what the writer meant to communicate, rather than simply telling it: 

“It was through exploring cultures around the world that I first became interested in language.
It began with French, which taught me the importance of pronunciation. I remember once asking a store owner in Paris where Rue des Pyramides was. But when I pronounced it PYR–a–mides instead of pyr–A–mides, with more accent on the A, she looked at me bewildered.
In the eighth grade, I became fascinated with Spanish and aware of its similarities with English through cognates. Baseball in Spanish, for example, is béisbol, which looks different but sounds nearly the same. This was incredible to me as it made speech and comprehension more fluid, and even today I find that cognates come to the rescue when I forget how to say something in Spanish.” (College Essay Guy)

See how this student used words to paint a picture, rather than to describe their achievements? Give your reader the opportunity to infer things about you from your writing, rather than simply telling them about yourself. For example, if you want to communicate that you have leadership skills, your essay could discuss specific situations where you’ve taken the lead, rather than simply stating that you have leadership skills. 

If you’re having trouble writing an essay that shows, rather than tells, check out our guide to spicing up your writing

Always, always, always proofread

Proofreading is the last step of the writing process. After you’ve revised your first draft and reworked your content as necessary to make your essay as strong as it can be, proofread it to catch any spelling or grammar mistakes that might have slipped past you during editing. This is perhaps the easiest part of writing a college essay . . . and the easiest to overlook. Make it a priority to proofread every part of every application before you hit “send.” 

Above all, be authentic

Most importantly, your unique voice should shine through your college essay. After all, the entire purpose of writing it is to introduce yourself to each school and communicate the aspects of your personality that a transcript simply can’t. That’s not to say you should write your essay in the same tone you use to text your friends, but that you should avoid overly formal language that can obscure your personality and make your essay feel generic. Check out how this student’s personality shines through in their essay:

“Whether I was blowing out candles, writing a letter to Santa, or waiting for the clock to turn 11:11, my one wish growing up was not for something, but for someone. I wanted a sibling. I would always look to my friends and think how lucky they were to have brothers and sisters to play with, while I was stuck at home alone with my parents.
However, these sentiments soon changed and my life was transformed, when my parents came home with my new sister, Mia. And while Mia was a furry, Lhasa Apso dog, rather than the human baby sister or brother I dreamed of, she helped me accept and even cherish my life as an only child. I came to realize, however, that it would take much longer for me, and much more than a dog, to accept the other ways I felt alone within my group of friends and my community as a whole.” (Johns Hopkins)

Opt for a friendly, conversational tone that you would use when introducing yourself to a potential new employer or mentor. Grammarly can help with that by detecting all the tones present in your writing, showing you the most effective sentences in your work, and helping you edit the others to use the same tone. 

Remember, your college admissions essay is the place to showcase, not show off. There’s a fine line between confident and braggy, and submitting an essay with the latter style could undermine your application. You’re awesome, and you’re heading to college to become even more awesome. Your essay should communicate that. 

Don’t let an unpolished essay keep you out of your dream school

How do you lessen your likelihood of getting into your dream school? By submitting a college essay that’s riddled with spelling and grammar mistakes. After you’ve revised and proofread your essay, have Grammarly give it one last look to ensure that everything in it is mistake-free, engaging, and has a consistent tone.

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