The Ultimate Guide to Writing a College Application Essay

Here’s a guide on how to organize all application materials, prepare and write an effective essay.

Essay Preparation

1. Start early on your college applications and application essays.

This is a lengthy, involved process in which many colleges require multiple essays and supplemental forms. Seniors, first fill in all the requested information on paper copies of applications.

After the paper applications are completed by hand and your application essays are finalized, you will submit applications electronically to each college by typing-in the information from your paper applications and pasting your essays into spaces provided.

2. Essays are the most time consuming part of the application process.

Start to think about your essay subjects and begin writing essay rough drafts as soon as possible. Remember, you may be writing separate essays for each of your selected 7 colleges and universities. It will take longer than you think to write, proof read, rewrite, proof read, have parents and/or teachers proof read, make suggested changes, and finalize all your essays.

3. Develop a list of essay questions/prompts from all your college and university applications.

See if any essay questions/prompts are duplicates or if any of the questions are so similar you can effectively reuse the same essay with only slight modifications.

Be sure to use filing systems to organize all application forms, essays, and other documents.

Essay Advice

There are numerous sources of information and advice regarding how to write the best college application essays. These include websites, books, and writing consultants that will edit your essays online or in-person. The advice below is not detailed and simply includes some “big picture” ideas and rules for you to remember.

Write original essays

Don’t reuse old high school essays you are trying to force-fit into a college essay. Tailor each essay to the question asked on the college application. You should write about the most thought-provoking and stimulating subject that has meaning to you; something you are passionate about. Don’t write an essay about something foreign to you (something you know very little about) because you think it’s a subject admission officers want to read about it. If you write about something you don’t care about, it will come through in your writing.

Be sure to maintain your individual voice

The essay is the best opportunity to reveal your character, interests, philosophy, ability to learn from life experiences, and your ability to write. Remember, the best admission applications are the ones that college admission officers get to know the student and your essay is the best opportunity to reveal yourself. Present yourself as original, creative and enthusiastic about learning and about life.

“Show” Your Essays

Make your essays come to life by showing your story, not just telling it. Involve the reader to make you essay more interesting. Don’t just write a report on a life event; instead, discuss your dreams, inspirations, and opinions. Try to seize the admission officer’s attention and hold it with something special, unique and personal about you. Pull readers into your essay and make your experiences and emotions come alive. Remember, each admissions office is trying to build a college community filled with diverse and interesting students; by revealing who you are in your essay, admission officers will be able to see where you fit in their campus community.

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Make your essay specific and interesting.

Winning Essay

To write a “winning essay”, you can use:

Detailed descriptions

Detailed descriptions include details that make admission officers say, “I want to have this kid over for lunch” or ”I want to have this kid in my class.” Your essays should have solid details about the writing topic – the who, what, where and when.

For example, if during your volunteer activities, you buy ice cream for your favorite elementary school student that you’re tutoring, don’t say, “I buy ice cream for one of my students.” Instead, make your essay come alive by writing, “About once a month I treat Johnny to the local ice cream shop after our afternoon tutoring session. Johnny is usually tired after our session but is always excited to take a stroll to the 31 Flavors™ to get his favorite mint chip ice cream cone. We talk along the way and we get to know each other a little better each time we share some cold, tantalizing ice cream. It is definitely a fun and rewarding outing, and I think it helps me communicate with Johnny during our academic lessons.”

Winning essays involve the reader.

Step-By-Step Actions

Describing the step-by-step actions leading to the main event or thesis of your essay builds readers’ interest in your essay.

For example, if you write about walking to the mailbox in anticipation of receiving an acceptance letter from one of your universities, describe details about events leading to opening the letter – walking out the front door of your house, the jingle of the mailbox key against the coins in your pocket as you walk hurriedly down the sidewalk to the mailbox, anxiously pulling out the key and nervously inserting it into the lock to open the mailbox door, the faint squeak of the small metal door as it opens and the nervous excitement of seeing several letters in the mailbox, pulling out and frantically sifting through the envelopes to find the letter from your university, nervously opening the letter, and the joy and relief of finding out you’re accepted.

Write step-by-step actions with fascinating details to make your essay outstanding. Have readers live the experience with you – have them feel the anxiety, nervousness, excitement and thrill of the event you’re describing!

Conversation Quotes

Using a conversation with quotes from people in a dialogue draws readers into your essay.

For example, you might write a dialogue between you and a very influential person in your life. This person could be sharing his/her life experiences, opinions, wisdom and thoughts to raise your awareness of important issues or events. Bring to life the ideas discussed and their importance to you through a vivid conversation. Use quotes to allow readers to “step into” the discussion and be part of the conversation.

I said, “ . . . ”

Mr. Smith replied, “ . . . “

I exclaimed, “ . . . “

Mr. Smith calmly clarified his point, “. . . “

I understood and nodded. I asked him, “Mr. Smith, tell me . . . “


Don’t be overly emotional or sarcastic. Don’t try to be funny unless you’re absolutely sure readers will appreciate the context of your essay. Admission officers view humor that fails in a very poor light.

Answer the “Why?”

The most important part of your essay is the analysis of the essay subject; be sure to answer “why” the essay subject is important to you and what you learned from it. How have the events or subjects written in your essay changed your perspective and made you a better, wiser person? How has the experience or events in your essay changed how you do things now or in the future? This is what college admissions officers want to read. If you write about events or experiences without concluding your essay with an analysis of why this is important to you and what impact it had on you as a person, the admission officer will most likely read your essay and be unimpressed and disappointed.

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For example, if you write about experiences with your grandmother, conclude your essay with profound insight and awareness. Also, use the methods discussed in the “”Show” your essays” section to make your writing come alive. After writing about your grandmother, you might conclude your essay with something like:

“Grandma Martha is a window to the past and a door to the future for me. Through the years, she has given me the opportunity to see the elderly in a most revealing light. The history and insights she shares through her stories can only be earned with age and I am awed by her life experiences and wisdom, her kind nature and fragile physical condition. I have a deeper respect for the elderly after experiencing Grandma Martha. The elderly deserve extra patience, kindness and respect and I am one person that will provide these virtues to the elderly citizens I meet in the future.”

Use the experiences in your essay as a background setting for your analysis of why the experiences you have chosen to write about are meaningful to you and what you’ve learn from them. Give personal insight into your opinions and what you really think about your essay subject. Let admission officers learn your attitude and ambitions. Use real examples from your life experiences to support your ideas and opinions.

NOTE: Be sure to emphasize the positive outcome of your essay subject. If you’re writing about a shocking or troubling experience, write about how the experience changed you for the better and the positive things you learned from it.

Support Your College Application Strategy

Your essay is a real opportunity to support and enhance your student personality and character as part of your application strategy . Use your essay to present and discuss the personal traits you are trying to emphasize throughout your college application materials. This will enhance your overall application and help admissions officers understand the strengths you will bring to their college community.

For example, if you plan to major in biology, you should try to convey your interest in biology (or science in general). If you tutor elementary school students as part of your community service activities, you can write about how you help kids with their science homework and how you enjoy teaching students the ways of science and biology.

For example:

“Sometimes it is a real effort for me to take the time on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons to tutor Johnny. But when I arrive at the tutoring center after school, he sees me and lights up in a way that sends a clear message of my purpose. We sit and go over his science homework and we work together to answer the homework questions. I enjoy showing Johnny how science works and when I explain a scientific concept like photosynthesis and how plants need sunlight to grow, I get enthusiastic about my understanding of biology and the opportunity to share my knowledge to help others.”

In the above paragraph, the writer shows a love of biology and a caring attitude and willingness to help others.

Brainstorming and Writing

The first step to writing an essay is to brainstorm. This step involves quickly writing out ideas and thoughts without regard to any organization. Get down ideas so you don’t forget anything. There will be time later for editing; brainstorming just gets everything out of your head and onto paper.

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Start brainstorming ideas for essay topics, and then ask yourself, “What is the most important thing I want readers to learn from my essay?” “Does my essay topic reveal my most compelling character traits?” Focus your essay on these ideas to drive home a wonderful, well written story and conclude by answering the “Why?”

In addition, the superior essay is one that shares a unique and memorable story to readers. The story should bring to life the essay topic and reinforce the beliefs and values you want to communicate.

Write an outline of ideas and thoughts you want to convey in your essay. Having an outline will help organize your thoughts and prepare you for the actual writing.

Use original essays; don’t reuse old high school essays you are trying to “force-fit” into a college essay. Tailor each essay to the question or prompt in the application. Try to write a story only you can write from your unique experiences and perspective.

Don’t write about a subject you really don’t care about but think admission officers want to read. If you think a topic is boring, so will the admissions officer reading your essay.

WARNING! Make Sure Your Essay is Yours

BEWARE! Some college admissions officers look at the writing sample from your SAT® or ACT® as more representative of your writing abilities than the college application essay. Do not have an older sibling, counselor, or writing consultant make so many changes to your essay that it seems impossible that you wrote it.

Likewise, some parents are overly helpful with their student’s essay and make so many edits that they end up almost writing the entire essay themselves. This must be avoided! College admission officers see thousands of essays and are able to spot essays composed by parents. Essays written by parents use a style and language that is unmistakably NOT written by a teenage student.

If admission officers think someone else wrote your essay, your acceptance to that college or university will be in serious jeopardy.

Online Essay Assistance

Many colleges and universities ask students to write a personal statement. Here’s a comprehensive guide for writing an excellent personal statement.

Summary of Essay Guidelines

Here are some important guidelines:

  1. Write an original essay.
  2. Be the author. Don’t let someone else write your essay.
  3. Review the recommended essay format provided in this guide.
  4. The opening sentence and introductory paragraph must be interesting and capture readers’ attention.
  5. Show your essay, don’t just tell it. Use detailed descriptions, step-by-step actions leading up to the main subject/thesis of your essay, or conversations with actual quotes from people in the conversation.
  6. Analyze the events and experiences you write about and tell what impact they had on you and how you are a better, wiser person as a result.
  7. Stick to the assigned word limit in each essay.

Be sure to:

  1. Check spelling and grammar.
  2. Use clear organization.
  3. Be descriptive – use vivid details that really illuminate the subject matter.
  4. Don’t be afraid to describe your thoughts, feelings and emotions.
  5. Be honest.