When it comes time for application and admissions season, a lot of students suddenly realize they need to learn how to write a college application essay – and fast.
It’s one thing to check all the boxes of what your dream school is looking for, but it’s another to be able to write an outstanding college application essay that makes a big enough impression. Even if you’re applying to a smaller school, the admissions and application process is still going to be the same, and you still have to stand out in a pile of other applicants who all believe they are just as qualified as you are.
So, what does it take to really nail the application process and make yourself a shoo-in for your dream school? That’s what we’re here to help you do. In this article, we’re going to show you how to write a college application essay that will impress the admissions officer, your colleagues, and even yourself using some solid, foolproof tips.
Male student on his first day after succeeding in the college admissions process
First Impressions Are Extremely Important
The college admissions process can put a lot of pressure on a fresh new student because a college application essay is the first impression that you’re going to make on your potential future school. Living out your goal of attending your dream school often rests on your ability to hit that first impression out of the park.
Admissions officers only have so much time in their day, and they have to read piles of application essays before they can narrow down their choices. That means you only have a few minutes at most to make your impression and land that acceptance letter, so you have to be able to stand out in the pile of other applicants.
Typically, the application essay is just one step in the admissions process, but it’s the step that shows your dream school why you were made to be there. This is where you show off your personality and what makes you so unique. In fact, it’s the only part of the college application process that allows you to let your voice and personality shine.
Before you get too stressed, remember that we are going to walk you through the process of how to write a college application essay that will help you nail down that important first impression. You never have to do this alone, and with us in your corner, you’ll write with confidence and pride.
Closeup of feet and backpack of student who was accepted in the admissions process
How to Write a College Application Essay: 13 Tips to Make Sure You Stand Out
Learning how to write a college application essay is actually easier than learning how to write other types of essays, like argumentative essays or expository essays. That’s because it’s not necessarily structured the same way as an academic essay. You still need an introduction, body, and conclusion, but you don’t have to follow the 5-point essay structure you would in an academic essay. In other words, you’re usually working with a 500-word paragraph instead of a 5-paragraph essay.
Not every school will use the same type of prompt or essay topic for the admissions essay, but it will be something similar. Most of the time, the essay portion of your college application is designed for the school to get to know who you are as a person beyond your test scores and high school grades. For this reason, the prompt is usually a personal one.
Below, we’re going to share 13 tips and step by step guidelines on how to write a college application essay that will help you stand out.
1. Read All of the Instructions First
When you’re writing a college application essay, you’ll likely be given an essay prompt and a set of instructions. Before you do anything else, read those instructions very carefully at least twice over. Colleges get thousands of application essays every year, and one of the first things the admissions officer will look at is whether or not you followed the instructions.
For example, if the essay topic or prompt specifically asks you to explain why you want to go to this particular college, don’t start writing paragraph after paragraph about how you’re a star student and you get great marks or have a lot of great life experience. You may think this is helpful for the admissions officer to know, but this isn’t what the essay topic asked for and you will easily be ignored for not following instructions.
If you can’t follow these basic instructions before you even get into the school, they’re going to think you won’t be able to follow the instructions when it comes to your assignments and projects – and schools want future students who will get good grades and bring the college’s averages up.
While you’re writing, keep your instructions and/or the prompt where you can see them. It’s easy to get carried away with the highlights of your life, but you usually only have about 500 words and you need to make sure you stay on topic.
New freshman attending her first day of school after acing her college essay
2. Get Personal
The entire point of a college application essay is to tell your future school who you are and why you’d be a great student. That means you need to be able to write about yourself and the personal experiences that have shaped you into the person you are.
Here are some great ideas to include as long as they are on topic with the prompt:
● Challenges or hurdles in your life that you’ve overcome
● Successes you’ve had either personally, at school, or at work
● Personal accomplishments you’re proud of
● Examples of times when you showed great leadership skills, teamwork, problem solving, etc.
It’s important to remember that there’s a very fine line between sharing some examples of your experiences to express your original personality and over-sharing too much information. Stick to the most important details and don’t write anything that will make your admissions officer cringe.
3. Be Careful With Humour
This is another important thing you need to know when you’re learning how to write a college application essay. Humour is a great tool to use in your writing, but it’s also very difficult to use effectively. It’s also something that will only work when the context is right.
Humour has a lot of advantages. It can make your essay more interesting and keep your reader more engaged, and it can also help you talk about your personal accomplishments without coming across as arrogant or self-absorbed.
However, if you don’t use humour properly, it might appear forced. Both in and outside of your essay, if your jokes don’t land, you’re going to be facing crickets. Even worse, you might just cause confusion for your reader, which will make your writing look like it’s not up to par with your future school’s academic repertoire.
If you’re confident that you can pull humour off, go for a more witty angle. Don’t line your entire essay with jokes and puns to force a laugh. This may just tell the admissions officer that you aren’t taking the application seriously and not actually impress them. Witty humour, though, shows off your intelligence and makes your writing skills stand out.
Male college student attending his graduation ceremony after acing his admissions
4. Spend Extra Time on Your Introduction
If you want to learn how to write a college application essay, you’re also going to need to learn how to write a great introduction.
Like any essay, your college application essay needs to start strong and hook your reader right at the beginning. Admissions officers only have so much time to read thousands of application essays, so you want to make sure your opening lines keep them interested. Otherwise, you’ll lose their attention and they’ll glance over you for another candidate who keeps them more engaged.
Try opening your college application essay with an interesting fact or an anecdote or story about yourself (that is relevant to the essay topic). This will add a personal touch while also keeping the interest of the admissions officer or whoever else might be reading your essay.
For more help with this, check out our blogs on how to write an introduction and how to write an attention-grabbing opening hook.
5. Be Original
One of the common application mistakes people make is using generic, overused writing tactics such as cliches or quotes. This will make you appear unoriginal, which is something you do not want to convey when you’re trying to stand out from the crowd.
Ultimately, to really nail your college application essay, you want to show the admissions officer (and your future college) how creative, original, and unique you are. Using quotes, cliches, and other generic phrases will have the opposite effect and give them the impression that you can’t think for yourself. That’s a big red flag for a college or university.
On this note, try to avoid using the standard buzzwords you frequently hear when it comes to applications of any kind. For example, you may think saying you’re a “team player” is a great quality to showcase, and it is, but almost every other candidate likely has this same phrase on their application, too. Admissions officers get sick of seeing the same buzzwords over and over again, and this goes for job applications as well. Any time you want to use a strong word like this, try to find a more original way of saying it.
Working with the “team player” example, there are many other ways you can describe this that conveys the same message while avoiding generic and overused phrases. Personal examples are the key to this. Mention that you led your team to victory in a tournament, describe a time when you were on a team and utilized everyone’s abilities to succeed, or a project you collaborated on that went really well.
A group of college applicants stand outside on their future college campus
6. Have a Plan
In order for any essay to have the right flow and structure, you need to come up with a plan or an outline before you start writing. Taking the time to do this may seem like it’ll take twice as long, but in reality once you have your outline written all you have to do is fill in the gaps.
An essay outline serves as a step by step guide for your writing to follow. Not only does this help you stay organized, but it also helps you make sure you’ve hit the most important points you need to make. It also makes the writing process easier because it’s partly done for you.
While you’re not working with the 5-point academic essay structure you may be used to, you still have to have your admissions essay structured into an introduction, body, and conclusion. In your outline, you can make sure you cover all of these areas and that every main point is in the right place. The admissions officer will be looking to see how you’ve made your points flow together and how you’ve organized them in a way that’s easy to follow.
7. Stay on Point and be Direct
In most cases, you’re working with a pretty small word limit – often as low as 500 words. That’s not a lot of room to cover everything you think the admissions officer will want to know. But this is also the key: the admissions officer doesn’t necessarily want or need to know everything you think they need to know. All they need is the key points that show them you’re a good fit for their school.
When you’re writing about yourself, it’s really easy to get carried away or lost in a memory. Once you take that stroll down Memory Lane, it’s inevitable that you will likely write too much about it, and the next thing you know, you’ve maxed out your 500 word count talking about one thing.
The best way to keep yourself in check while you’re writing is to remember that a college application essay is not an autobiography. Choose a few relevant things to highlight about your background, your experiences, or anything else that you think would impress your future school.
8. Don’t Rehash Information From Tests, Resumes, and Forms
When you reach the point in the admissions process where it’s time to write your college application essay, your test scores and other documents will have already been submitted.
Don’t waste time on the essay component bringing up information that your potential school already has. Your goal with your essay is to add more to your application and fill in the gaps that haven’t been covered – or that can’t be covered with a test score.
Some schools have actually decided to forgo mandatory test scores on college applications entirely. The National Center For Fair and Open Testing (FairTest) reports that as of April 2021, 60% of bachelor-degree institutions in the United States dropped their requirements for high school seniors to submit their test scores on their applications. This was initially done as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but has remained in place for the 2022 school year because the colleges saw that they were receiving better quality applicants when ACT/SAT scores were not involved.
So, what exactly does this mean for you? It means that colleges in the United States are beginning to value students on their diversity and personal accomplishments instead of just test scores. Instead of worrying about those tests, focus on showing the admissions officer the amazing person you are.
9. If You Have to Cover Only One Example, Show What You Learned From it
In some cases, the application essay topic might ask you to focus on one specific event in your life instead of a glimpse of your overall personality. This may be a prompt such as, “share an example of a challenge you faced in your life and how you overcame it,” or, “talk about a time you showed good leadership skills.”
When you face this type of essay, it’s common to get caught up in describing the event itself and not what you learned from it. Describing the event is obviously important to add context for the admissions officer, but they care more about how the event shaped you than the event itself. Again, you only have so much room, so you need to get to the point as directly and efficiently as possible.
For these types of essay topics, focus on how that event changed you, what lessons you learned, how it impacted the way you handled other similar situations, and so on.
Future photography student writing about her passion in her college application essay
10. Don’t Start Every Sentence With “I”
While your application essay is typically meant to be a personal essay, try not to make every sentence begin with “I” or over-use first person language.
In a 2014 study, professors at the University of Texas at Austin reviewed 50,000 college application essays and compared them to the students who were granted admission to large colleges in the United States. They found that students who used more “categorical language,” such as the use of articles and prepositions, had higher admission rates than students who relied almost entirely on personal narratives that contained mostly “I” or “me” pronouns.
David Beaver, a professor of linguistics who co-authored the study, was quoted as saying, “Even when a college sets an essay title that seems to be asking for the applicants’ personal story, it’s a safe bet that the admissions officers (whether consciously or not) are looking for people who can put their own history in a broader context.”
Ultimately, it’s important to share your personal story – it is a personal essay, after all. However, try to find the broader context or meaning within your experiences and try to find a better way to tell your story than simply saying something like, “I did this and then I did this. I learned this from it.”
11. Always be Truthful
One big, major mistake some students make on their college applications is lying about their accomplishments or exaggerating things to make themselves seem like an ideal candidate. This is something you should absolutely never do, even if you think there’s no way you’ll get caught.
Here’s the thing: you won’t be the first student to lie, and you’re not going to be the last. Colleges can track almost everything, and they know what signs to look for when a student might not be completely truthful.
Most of the time, students feel the need to lie or exaggerate because they think they don’t really have anything substantial to write about. But if you’re passionate about getting into this school, and you’re confident in your writing skills, you can turn even something that seems mundane into a great piece of writing without a single lie.
Group of students helping each other with college essays at school outside
12. When in Doubt, Crowdsource Some Ideas
If you’re getting stuck on your essay trying to come up with something you should highlight about yourself, it never hurts to ask the people who know you best. Your family, friends, schoolmates, coworkers, and even acquaintances often see things in you that you might not see in yourself.
The great thing about doing this is you get a little bit of a confidence boost at the same time. Sometimes family members who live with you are great at pointing out something you never noticed before. Once you do notice it, you’ll start to connect the dots and realize how great you are.
Don’t be afraid to ask your friends and family what they think is your best quality, or what they think sets you apart from everyone else. Chances are, if it impresses them, it will impress the admissions officer, too. Just make sure they know to be honest with you.
13. Don’t Forget to Proofread
The final, yet most important, step in learning how to write a college application essay is the final proofreading and editing part. Don’t ever submit your first draft of a college application.
Take the extra time to look over your college essay more than once. It’s best if you can let it sit for a day or two, and then come back to it with fresh eyes. Chances are, you’ll find at least a few things that need to be fixed, but you won’t catch them as easily if you review your work as soon as you finish writing it because it’s still fresh in your mind.
It’s also very helpful to have someone else edit and proofread your essay. More often than not, a third party who is reading your work is going to catch any errors or issues that you might have overlooked. It’s easy to overlook these issues when you’re the writer. Just make sure you don’t take any criticism personally, and understand that if someone is pointing out an error they are doing so to help you strengthen your chances of acceptance.
On that note, you also have the option of hiring a professional editing service to look over your essay. A professional editor is highly skilled at finding even the smallest errors, and they do this professionally, which means they know exactly what to look for when it comes to the content of your essay. This can be a huge help to increase your chances of standing out.
Group of future college students completing their essays
10 College Essay Topic Examples and Ideas
If you’re getting stuck writing your essay trying to think about the events and experiences in your life that would relate to your college application, here are 10 quick examples you can use as a guideline. Remember, only use these examples if they actually apply to you.
1. If you moved here from a different country, talk about the challenges you faced learning a new language, adjusting to a new culture, and so on.
2. Talk about a successful project you completed and what you did to succeed.
3. Discuss a time you were part of a team and led that team to victory by capitalizing on each team member’s individual strengths.
4. Reflect on a time when your personal beliefs were challenged and how you handled the situation without compromising your beliefs.
5. Talk about a time when you solved a problem, how you solved it, and what you learned from it.
6. Discuss how you discovered your passion for the program you’re applying to, and what you plan to do with your education.
7. Reflect on a time in your life you underwent a period of personal growth, and how it has shaped you now.
8. Share an extracurricular activity you’re involved in and the life lessons and experiences you’ve gained from participating in it.
9. Talk about a cause that’s important to you, and what you do to help aid that cause. For example, do you volunteer for a charity or donate to the cause every so often?
10. If you feel comfortable with it, discuss a traumatic event that happened in your life and how you overcame the aftermath of it.
Your essay topic doesn’t always have to be something extremely substantial, either. Check out this example of an admissions essay that got a student accepted into Johns Hopkins University. You can hover over the dots in the example to see more details on why this essay worked so well. The essay is about something as simple as learning how to package items at a bakery, but it’s extremely well written and unique.
Female student at school getting ready for college admissions
Still Aren’t Sure How to Write a College Application Essay? Get a Professional to do it For You
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