How to Write a College Admission Essay That Really Works

Child writing in notebook
May 18, 2022
Purpose of College Admissions EssaysHow to Stand Out in Your EssaysHow to Structure a College Admissions EssayHow Long Should a College Admissions Essay Be?How to Pick Your Essay TopicTips for Writing a College Admissions EssayCollege Admission Essay FAQs

”Rohan

Reviewed by:

Rohan Jotwani

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 4/18/22

Read on to learn how to sturcuture, draft, write, and edit your college admisisons essays.

From drafting a personal statement to acquiring recommendation letters and seeking financial aid, applying for college can be a long, tedious task. One essential aspect of the admissions process is writing a stellar college admission essay; it allows students to add their own personal charm to their college application, one that goes beyond test scores and transcripts.

Writing a college admission essay can be a nerve-wracking challenge. To help you write a killer essay, we’ll cover how long your essay should be, expectations regarding its structure, and how to choose the ideal prompt to give you the best chance of admission. 

In this article, you will learn the standard rules and tips to help you write a good college admissions essay.

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Purpose of College Admissions Essays

Drafting a college admissions essay that is well-written and impactful can make a world of a difference in whether or not your application is accepted. When the admissions committee chooses between you and another applicant with similar credentials, a powerful essay can tip the balance in your favor. 

Through your college admissions essay, you can showcase your personality and demonstrate that you have thought carefully about why you would be a good match for the college you’re applying to. It illustrates your commitment to learning and eagerness to contribute to your dream school’s community. Along with provings your writing skills, your essay also allows your voice to shine through your application. 

Writing a good college admissions essay makes a strong impression on the admissions officers and can boost your chances of being accepted; all it takes is a piece of paper and a few hundred words to make that happen.

How to Stand Out in Your Essays 

Your college admissions essay showcases your way of thinking and personality; your essay should be as unique as you are. Instead of writing a dull, generic essay, write one that is true to who you are, one that will captivate the reader. Here are some tips to help make your college admissions essay stand out. 

Your First Paragraph Should Grab the Reader’s Attention

Arguably, the introduction is the most important part of your college admission essay because it sets the tone for the rest of your essay. Remember, first impressions matter. A well-crafted introduction will convince the admissions committee to continue reading the rest of your essay. If you are having trouble figuring out how to begin your college essay, here are some introductions you can use to grab the reader’s attention:  

Be Authentic, Not Generic

You’ve probably read a newspaper article at some point in your life. You will notice the writer fades their voice behind the facts, leaving you without any knowledge about the author of the piece. When writing your college admissions essay, you should do the exact opposite. You do not want to be one of the other thousands of applicants who fail to make an impression. 

Instead, you want the admissions officer to say: “this is an actual person who wrote this; someone with feeling and depth.” Being vulnerable and putting your personality into your essay is a great way to achieve this; be honest, personable, and stay true to your own authentic voice.

Be Exciting – Don’t Be Boring

Trying to act like an intellectual know-it-all is not only exhausting but a huge turn-off for college admissions. You need to be unique to get noticed. Write like you are a strong-minded individual. Use beautiful yet casual language. Put emotion into your words. Make your essay come alive.

Make Your Essay Beautiful

You should make your essay beautiful in terms of style and content. Use a reasonable font, one that is easy to read and professional-looking. Instead of cramming your main ideas in the first paragraph, balance your essay points throughout. 

Use soothing margins and declare the essay prompt and your answer in the introduction. Be consistent with spacing, indentation, and excellent spelling and punctuation. Be sure to follow citation rules as per the essay requirements (MLA, Chicago style, APA, etc.)

Approach the Essay Prompt From a Different Point of View

Seeing things from a different perspective is one way to help your essay stand out. Do not be afraid to answer your essay prompt in a way that is unconventional or unexpected.

One approach, for example, can involve creating a little mystery; do not answer the prompt immediately. Instead, try to captivate the reader until the big reveal in the end. What do you wish to study at your dream college? You can reveal that in the final sentence of your essay after dropping clues that are relevant to your area of study.

You might want to talk about growing up in your native society; talk about your experiences, positive or negative, the bonds you made, the support you received, and how it helped you grow. You can talk about how you were interested in societies and end it off by writing how you wish to study social sciences. 

How to Structure a College Admissions Essay

A college admissions essay does not necessarily have to follow the standard English essay format: five paragraphs, including an introduction and conclusion. However, any specific requirements might differ between each college. Below we’ll outline how a college admissions essay should typically be structured.

Titles

College admissions essays usually do not require a title. Some students, however, choose to include a title because it’s the first thing the admissions committee will read, and it’s another chance to capture interest, demonstrate personality, and reframe their essay as a whole. A title is purely optional. If you do choose to incorporate a title, however, here are some tips:

Make sure your title is evocative, something that could be humorous, a play on words, or retell a moment of your life. Ensuring your title is interesting can be an effective way to draw your reader’s attention and make them excited to read the rest of your essay. Avoid using vague language in your title to keep the reader engaged. If you can’t think of a gripping title, consider submitting your essay without one; you don’t want your title to take away from what you have written.

Number of Paragraphs

Unless otherwise noted from the college application requirements, the number of paragraphs is up to you. Some essays can be four paragraphs, while others use eight. However, your essay, just as every other essay you have written (and will write in college), will require an introduction and a conclusion. It must adhere to the word limit, which will be discussed below.

Essay Templates

Unfortunately, there are no one-size-fits-all templates that you can follow when writing your college admission essay. You are allowed, however, to use basic structures when writing your essay that can work for any prompt. It is a good thing because it teaches you how to style the prompt the way you want while telling your story the way you want.

How Long Should a College Admissions Essay Be? 

Instead of page limits, colleges provide candidates with a specific word count for their admission essays. Colleges do this to ensure there’s a standard length for all the admissions essays they receive, regardless of format or font type. If your prospective school does not specify how long your essay should be, you can always email the admissions committee to confirm before you start writing. 

While your essay can be close, it should not exceed the word limit. If possible, a standard practice to make sure you don’t exceed the word count is to aim to spare about 50 words from the total word limit. If an essay calls for a 600-word count, aim to cap it around 550-580 words. When given a range, you must always respect and stay in said range.

If you need to exceed the limit by maybe one to three extra words, you can definitely get away with that. Colleges will allow that, but you must be absolutely sure it is appropriate to do so. There’s a chance that if you have to copy-paste your essay into your application rather than upload it, the formatting can become skewed, and a few words at the end could be cut off.  

Keep in mind that if you exceed the limit in a glaringly obvious way, the admissions office will stop reading your essay past a certain point, which is not good for you. The word limit is like a small test for applicants – it is very important to follow the school’s rules, and they want to see who can make the best impression while following their specific rules and guidelines. 

Sometimes, colleges do not have a word limit for their admission essays. It can be difficult figuring out an appropriate length for your prompt, but they may offer additional components, such as including a writing sample from one of your classes. Colleges can provide a general guideline for writing samples, usually four to five pages demonstrating your writing and analytical abilities. It is not advised to provide a sample that exceeds ten pages.

How to Pick Your Essay Topic 

Colleges usually have one prompt for you to address in your personal statement or will give you the option to choose from a list. Having a variety of questions to choose from can come with its own difficulties; you may not know which question is best or how to approach it. Here is a short list of the most common essay prompts, as well as how to answer them.

Prompt #1: Share Your Story 

You can answer this prompt by reflecting on a hobby, a part of your personality, or a genuine experience that was meaningful to you. Your essay should make the reader feel connected to you, and your essay can do that by offering an honest, personal insight into who you are. Unless they are close to your heart, avoid talking about high school achievements in your prompt. Instead, talk about things that truly matter to you, like your love of nature, superheroes, special talents, or anything else that ties into who you are and what you believe. 

Prompt #2: Learning From Obstacles 

Showing your best self can include learning from past mistakes or obstacles you had to overcome. Talking about overcoming challenges can display your courage, perseverance, determination, and self-control. The conclusion is what really ties this prompt together; it allows you to explain how this obstacle changed your perspective on life and made you a stronger person.

Prompt #3: Challenging a Belief

This prompt requires you to answer by talking about a time you stood against the status quo or an experience that changed your view on a certain topic.

Only choose this prompt if you have a relevant, specific,experience you can recount. Discussing the lessons that you have learnt from this experience is a great way to conclude this essay.  Keep in mind that writing a vague essay about a hot button issue doesn’t tell the admissions committee anything useful about you. 

Prompt #4: Solving a Problem

This prompt is designed to allow readers to delve into the heart of how you think and what makes you tick. Present a situation, explain it in detail, and show steps toward the solution. Admissions officers want to learn more about  your thought process and the issues you deal with. Explain how you first became aware of the issue and how you tackled it while reiterating why the problem is important to you. Don’t forget to explain why the problem is important to you! 

Prompt #5: Describe a Person You Admire

Avoid the urge to write about a beloved figure like Princess Diana or Martin Luther King Jr. The admissions committee doesn't need to be convinced they are famous and influential people. Focus on yourself: Choose someone who has altered your behavior or your worldview, and write about how this person influenced you. This person could be a teacher, family member, or even a classmate that had an important impact on you.

Prompt #6: Discuss a Professional Experience or Extracurricular Activity That Has Been Meaningful to You

Take this opportunity to examine an experience that taught you something you didn't previously know about yourself, got you out of your comfort zone, or forced you to grow. Sometimes it's better to write about something hard because of the lessons learned rather than choosing to write about something easy. As with all essay questions, the most important thing is to tell a great story: how you discovered this activity, what drew you to it, and what it's shown you about yourself. 

Tips for Writing a College Admissions Essay

Even when you have the topic chosen and how you wish to address the topic set, it is still hard to know how to make an impactful essay. Here are some final tips to help get your creative juices flowing when preparing an outline for your college admission essay.

Read the Instructions Carefully

While this may seem redundant, keep in mind that you have to read the instructions carefully. If you do not follow the guidelines, it tells the admissions officer you are likely to disregard instructions in your classes once admitted. Always read the instructions carefully and make notes, so you are prepared to create your first draft.

Start With a Compelling Introduction

Writing is hard, but great writing is achievable if you follow the right path. Any journalist will tell you that the best way to get the readers’ attention is to have a great introduction. Admissions take a short time to review your essay, so make sure you start off with a vivid introduction to engage them.

Use Your Inner Voice 

Authenticity is greatly valued in post-secondary institutions, as it shows your quality of thinking. Avoid shaping your essay around popular phrases or ideas that have been used many times before; try to base it on your genuine beliefs. Connect it to your skills, ambitions, existing knowledge on the matter, and how it will help you in your future endeavors. 

Avoid Clichés

While you research your application essay, you will most likely get inspired by a few examples of great essays. While it can be a great way to help you write your own essays,  many students allow their responses to be influenced too much by examples, resulting in them using clichésas a way to appeal to the admission officers.

Remember that there are thousands of students applying to your desired university;  you need to make yourself stand out. Reread your essay, delete all the sentences that sound too common, and try to find a more original angle. 

Give Good Examples to Support Your Ideas

A college application essay is basically a glimpse into how your mind works and your view of the world. If you want your essay to be credible, you need to make sure everything you write supports that viewpoint. Spend some time figuring out how the essay question relates to your personal qualities, and then write from that approach.

That means that every time you want to express an idea,  don’t just simply state a fact; include specific details and examples to develop your ideas. You can do that by offering examples from your personal experiences and writing about what truly motivates you and how you developed a certain belief. 

Select a Prompt That Works in Your Favor

The Common Application, and a few schools, will give you a list of prompts to help you tell your own story. 

These prompts are useful starting off points and invite students to think about challenges they’ve overcome or experiences that have made them grateful. It’s an opportunity to display your growth, strength, and what makes a candidate who they are.

Tell Your Story

Remember that your college admissions essay should be all about you. Before you begin  writing your essay, admissions experts advise that you do a reflection exercise with yourself. Ask yourself questions like, “How do I tell my story?” 

Don’t Be Repetitive 

Your essay shouldn’t just repeat the points of your resume. Instead, it should highlight what makes you a fantastic candidate beyond grades, extracurricular activities, and test scores.

Edit. Then Edit Again

Once you’ve written your essay’s first draft, take a couple of days Before you reread it with fresh eyes to see if it flows and uses clear, specific language. Avoid writing in an overly formal academic tone; you should always aim to write in your own, authentic voice. Consult a trusted teacher, tutor, or counselor to review and edit your second draft. A second pair of eyes from someone who knows you well can ensure that your essay is written in your own style and is free of spelling and grammatical errors.

Take Advantage of Resources

Though developing a strong college essay can be a long, tedious process, you don’t have to go through it by yourself. . There is a wide range of online admission resources that you can access through various universities and nonprofit organizations. These help you make the best version of your prompt and enhance your chances of getting accepted.

Confirm Your Requirements and Deadlines

Treat the application process as a test run for college courses — you’ll have plenty of deadlines to meet for assignments and tests in your first semesters during college. Admissions officers recommend keeping a spreadsheet or document detailing the universities you’re applying to, along with a checklist of what you have completed keeping track of your progress.

College Admission Essay FAQs

Still have questions? Here are some FAQs that can help you give an appropriate insight into college essay writing:

1. Can I use the same essay for different schools?

Yes. You must first research each schools’ essay questions or prompts. Most schools use a common list of prompts, but others have their own application requirements. It would not hurt to tweak your essay for colleges based on the topics provided.

2. How can my essay stand out from everyone else’s?

Your essay provides an opportunity to help the admissions committee learn about you as a person, your interests, character traits, and factors that cannot be seen on the more formal parts of your applications. The topic you pick must shine a light on your strengths. Be personal, open a window for the admissions to delve into your mind, your world.

3. How personal should the Personal Essay be?

A good way to approach this would be to imagine you’re on a date with someone you have just met, and you want to instigate conversation. Which story would be the most appropriate for them? Would it succeed in growing the conversation and the bond between you two? While you should be honest, genuine, and vulnerable in your essays, avoid discussing anything that’s too personal just for the sake of appearing raw or gritty. 

4. Why shouldn't I write about my awards or accomplishments?

Your academic achievements and credentials will already show up in different parts of your applications, so relying on them in your essay would be redundant. Remember your essay must add insight to your application and reveal your thoughts, motivations, and who you are as a person. 

5. How important is it that my essay be polished?

Do not try to over-polish your essay; be authentic. It is much easier to write in your own voice than talk too formally and include overbearing language in an effort to impress the admissions committee.  With that said, it is important that your essay is free of grammatical errors, so it doesn’t hurt to proofread and check for any syntax errors so your best work is displayed.

6. When should I start planning my college essay? When should I write my college essay?

It is advised students should use the summer before their senior year to reflect on their experiences and determine what they would like to share with the admission committee. Ideally, you should complete the first draft of your essay by the start of school in September, which will allow you to focus on your senior year.

7. When is my college essay due?

The essay is due when the application and supporting documents are submitted. If you apply using the CommonApp or the Coalition Application, the essay will be submitted with the application.

Conclusion 

Writing a college admissions essay may be exhaustive, but if you plan ahead and keep making draft after draft, it will be a breeze by the time you submit your final copy. Colleges want to know the person applying for their school, and the essay is the best way to humanize you!

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