Step-by-Step Guide on How to Write a College Essay

Guide on writing a college essay
April 25, 2024
8 min read
Expert Reviewed


Reviewed by:

Mary Banks

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 4/24/24

Learning how to write a college essay is crucial for the application process. Follow along to learn how to write a college admission essay.  how to write a college essay’

Writing a stellar college admission essay is essential for adding personal charm to your application and showcasing unique qualities beyond test scores and transcripts. Consider its length and structure when crafting an impactful essay. 

This can significantly increase your chances of admission, especially when competing with applicants of similar credentials. Your college essays should illustrate your personality, commitment to learning, and eagerness to contribute to the college community. 

Furthermore, it provides an opportunity to demonstrate soft skills such as compassion, leadership, and creativity, leaving a lasting impression on admissions officers.

How to Choose a Topic for an Essay?

Writing an essay can be difficult, especially if you don’t know what to write about. To help you choose a topic, there are a few things to keep in mind. 

Select a captivating topic that appeals to both you and the reader. Remember, your essay serves as a persuasive case for your admission, so it should address the key questions: why you're a strong candidate and the contributions you'll make to the campus and community.Write about something that compels you to be introspective and genuine.

A great essay unveils a personal revelation you've never shared before, revealing an authentic side of yourself.

Craft a narrative that reflects ongoing personal growth and learning; life is a continuing journey without a clear ending. The best college essays don't conclude but leave the reader wanting more.

Opt for a time-relevant theme. While you can touch on earlier life moments, it's essential to demonstrate how current events shape you. For example, the pandemic and social justice movements have profoundly impacted today's world. Ignoring these topics may convey a lack of awareness and sensitivity, which can deter admissions officers.

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, specific requirements differ between each college. Below we’ll outline how a college admissions essay should typically be structured.


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 choose to incorporate a title, 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 in your reader and make them excited to read 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.

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, like every other one 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 is no one-size-fits-all template 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. 

You should also pay attention to any college application essay formatting guidelines your school provides.

13 Tips to Write a College Admission Essay

Here are 13 tips for writing college essays to help you get admitted! These insider tips will help give you the competitive edge you need to write a stellar essay!

1. Read the Instructions Carefully

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

2. 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 start with a vivid introduction to engage them.

3. 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, and existing knowledge on the matter and how it will help you in your future endeavors. 

4. Avoid Clichés

Contrary to popular belief, the killer of an otherwise excellent essay is the famous quote. We get it; Winston Churchill is an excellent source of inspiration! However, you must understand the sheer volume of essays and repetitive themes that admissions committees are reading. Instead, consider your reader's perspective.

Ask yourself, what’s something the admissions committee has never seen before? You’re halfway there already because they have never met you! Your unique experiences and qualities make you stand out, so lean into your own words rather than someone else’s. 

5. Be Authentic, Not Generic

You’ve probably read a newspaper article at some point. You will notice that the writer fades their voice behind the facts, leaving you without any information on the author. 

When writing your college admissions essay, you should do the exact opposite. You do not want to be one of the 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 authentic voice. (Also, avoid cliches like famous quotes!)

6. Give Good Examples to Support Your Ideas

Ultimately, your college essay is a chance for admissions committees to understand the inner workings of your mind. While showcasing your soft skills, it can be challenging to sound credible. That’s why you need to support your story with anecdotal evidence. 

The idea here is to avoid simply stating how great you are. Instead, include details of your story and examples to develop your ideas. In other words: show, don’t tell! For instance, rather than stating, “I’m an excellent leader,” tell a story about a time you demonstrated leadership and express what you learned. 

7. 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 story. 

These prompts are useful starting 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.

8. Tell Your Story

Remember that your college admissions essay isn’t any ordinary paper, it’s a story. Be mindful of readability and construct your essay to maintain interest throughout the entire essay. Think of the classic methods of storytelling: your essay should have an intro, a body, a climax, and a clear conclusion without needing to explain over.

Most importantly, every good story has a message. For example, in the classic story of Cinderella, the main takeaway is that kindness (demonstrated through Cinderella’s actions) will be rewarded while selfishness (demonstrated through the evil stepmother and siblings) will not. 

What’s your takeaway? What’s important to you, and why? 

9. Be Exciting – Don’t Be Boring

Trying to act like an intellectual know-it-all is exhausting and 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, descriptive language mixed with your typical casual language. Then, put emotion into your words to make your essay come alive!

10. Don’t Be Repetitive 

Your admissions essay is the place to express yourself, not repeat the points of your resume that the admissions committee has already seen. Instead of repeating yourself, go deeper. 

Consider what makes you a great candidate beyond your grades. Are you a leader? Are you passionate about the school? Whatever it is, show it!

11. Use Proper Formatting

When it comes to how to format your essay, readability is key. Use a reasonable font, one that is easily legible and professional-looking. Instead of cramming your main ideas in the first paragraph, balance your essay points. 

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

12. Edit, Then Edit Again

Of course, it’s important to edit your essay repeatedly. Small grammar or spelling mistakes can be the difference between acceptance into a highly competitive program, so fire up the spell check!

You can also have a friend, parent, teacher, or even an expert help you before submitting your final version. The professionals at Quad Education Group are well-versed in editing essays to perfection!

13. Take Advantage of Resources

Though developing a strong college essay can be a long and tedious process, you don’t have to go through it alone. There is a wide range of online admission resources that you can access through various universities and nonprofit organizations. 

Examples of College Essays for Ivy League Schools

Here are two examples of college essays to help you write your essay. Do not use our samples as your essay; it is only meant to serve as inspiration.

For more samples of essays, click here for 30 sample college essays that worked!

Essay Example 1

“A Path Towards Environmental Stewardship: My Journey to Columbia University
The delicate balance of our planet's ecosystems has always fascinated me. Growing up, my father's research on global warming ignited my curiosity and awakened a passion within me to make a positive impact on the planet's future. Now, as I stand at the precipice of my college journey, I am certain that pursuing an Environmental Science major is the path I must tread.
My interest in environmental science began at home, witnessing my father's tireless efforts to understand and combat the pressing issue of global warming. As a geoscientist, his dedication to research and his unwavering commitment to finding sustainable solutions inspired me greatly. Through conversations with him, I developed a deep understanding of the urgency to protect our planet and a burning desire to be part of the solution.
My high school education exposed me to the power of scientific inquiry. Courses in biology, chemistry, and physics helped me appreciate the intricate mechanisms that sustain life on Earth. As I delved deeper into environmental science, I realized that my passion lies not only in the study of ecosystems but also in understanding the human impact on our planet. It became clear to me that, armed with scientific knowledge, I could effect meaningful change by promoting sustainability and inspiring others to adopt eco-conscious practices.
Columbia University has long been at the forefront of environmental science research and education. The university's commitment to creating sustainable solutions and addressing global environmental challenges resonates deeply with my aspirations. Columbia's interdisciplinary approach, combining the sciences, policy, and social impact, aligns perfectly with my desire to explore the multifaceted nature of environmental issues. I am eager to learn from esteemed faculty members, engage in cutting-edge research, and collaborate with passionate peers who share my vision.
Beyond its academic excellence, Columbia University offers a vibrant community that thrives on diversity, inclusivity, and intellectual curiosity. I am drawn to the opportunity to engage in meaningful discussions and debates with fellow students who come from various backgrounds and cultures. I believe that this diverse tapestry of perspectives will broaden my understanding of environmental challenges and enrich my overall college experience.
At Columbia, I envision myself not only as a student but also as an advocate for environmental stewardship. I am excited to take advantage of the university's extensive resources and extracurricular opportunities to actively contribute to the cause. Whether it is organizing awareness campaigns, participating in research initiatives, or collaborating with local communities, I am determined to make a tangible difference. I believe that Columbia University's platform will empower me to transform my passion for the environment into actionable solutions.
As I embark on my college journey, I am confident that pursuing an Environmental Science major at Columbia University is the perfect step towards realizing my aspirations. The opportunity to learn from distinguished faculty, immerse myself in a diverse and intellectually stimulating community, and contribute to solving environmental challenges fills me with anticipation. With my father's inspiration guiding my path, I am ready to embrace the educational and personal growth opportunities that Columbia offers, transforming my passion into a lifelong commitment to environmental stewardship. Together, we can create a sustainable future for generations to come.”

Why this essay works: The writer clearly highlights their passion, and immediately delves into the initial discovery of their interest. He takes the reader on a journey through time, beginning with witnessing his fathers impactful work and continuing through his high school education.

The writer also does an excellent job of including school-specific knowledge. He clearly highlights why he is interested in attending Columbia and notes how he will contribute to Columbia’s student culture. 

Finally, the applicant ends on a high note by affirming his interest in Columbia University and looking toward the future. Your essay should highlight where you intend to go after your degree to let the admissions committee know how serious you are about completing your education to the best of your ability. 

Essay Example 2

“Why do these academic areas appeal to you?”
“Following my call to public service which started when I first heard Barack Obama speak, I plan to run for office in the future, and the areas of ethics, politics, and economics plus political science will provide the quintessential lens through which I can prepare for becoming an elected official.
In today’s page of our proverbial history book, it’s critically important to study the voices of the unheard throughout history, as well as the laws that have enabled such structural violence - in order to ensure that it never happens again. To that end, I’m currently reading  “A Black Woman’s History of the United States.”
Beyond the borders of these United States, global affairs appeals to me because of the varied ways in which education is approached around the world. During high school, I interviewed 15 students from different areas worldwide - UK, India, and Vietnam - to learn about global educational differences. My conclusion? The rate-limiting factor for education is a hyperfocus on traditional Socratic rote memorization and testing rather than real-world application. In our digital world laden with mobile applications, perhaps the solution is technological implementation. Only time and further research opportunities (at Yale) will tell…”

Why this essay works: The writer uses a personal story to answer the prompt and relates it to their interests. They also use effective storytelling to guide the reader through their journey of developing their interest in public service without overdoing it. 

Access 185+ More Sample College Essays Here 

College Admission Essay Creation FAQs

Still have questions? Here are some answers to FAQs.

1. Can I Use the Same Essay for Different Schools?

Yes. You must first research each school’s essay questions or prompts. Most schools use a common list of prompts, but others have their application requirements. It would not hurt to tweak your essay for colleges based on the topics provided. For example, the length of college essays typically varies between schools.

2. Why Shouldn't I Write About My Awards Or Accomplishments?

Your academic achievements and credentials will appear 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. 

3. 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.

4. What Makes A Good College Essay?

A good college essay makes an impact on the reader. Your essay should demonstrate your unique personal experience, values, and perspective. Avoid cliches; the only way to write a memorable college essay is to maintain originality and authenticity. 

You can also use formatting tools to make your essay stand out, such as beginning the essay with a question or using descriptive language to paint a picture of a significant person, place, or thing. Just make sure whatever method you choose is compliant with the college application essay format rules outlined by your target schools

5. What Do Colleges Look For in Essays?

Your college essays aim to show who you are beyond your academic achievements. Colleges are looking for what makes you a great candidate and how you’ll add to their community, but mainly they want to get to know you! That’s why it’s important to be authentic and avoid listing achievements they’ve already seen. 

6. What Should I Avoid When I Write My College Essays?

When writing college essays, there are many things you should avoid, such as:

  • Cliches
  • Irrelevant information
  • Repetition
  • Poor grammar 

Tailor each essay to the specific college, avoid controversial topics, and be cautious with humor. Aim for a balanced, authentic writing style. 

7. How Long Should a College Application Essay Be? 

Colleges often specify a word count for admission essays. If not specified, you can inquire about the limit. It's generally good practice to stay within the word count. Slightly exceeding (one to three words) may be acceptable, but be cautious. 

Final Thoughts

Now that you know how to write a college essay, it will be a breeze. Colleges want to know the person applying for their school, and the essay is the best way to humanize you!

Access 190+ sample college essays here

Access 190+ sample college essays here

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