How to Write an Essay for Your College Application

5 min to read
A high school student practicing writing for her college application

Writing an essay for a college application can feel nerve-wracking and overwhelming. It also can be difficult even to know where to begin. 
College essays are meant to give students the opportunity to show: 

  • why the student is interested in that college 
  • how well the student can write 
  • who the student is as an individual
  • what the student’s long-term goals are 
  • what experiences and talents the student possesses that will help them be successful in their chosen major, career field, and desired college 

The college essay is a chance for students to tell admissions committees anything about themselves that may not be readily apparent from reading the student’s other application materials.  
As colleges increasingly take a holistic approach toward the admissions process, they're looking for a full picture of the applicant as an individual; therefore, the college essay has become an essential component in getting a student to stand out. When you consider how to write a college application essay, here are some tips that will help you shine: 

1. Showcase an experience that highlights your uniqueness.

Whether the essay is based on a given prompt or is open-ended, you should use a specific experience to show your uniqueness as an individual. What is an interesting or meaningful experience that you’ve had, a unique event you’ve attended, or a special passion that you’ve explored? What did the experience show you about yourself? Did it reveal your values, your talents, or your calling in life? 

Focus on one experience.

Whatever you choose, focus on just one experience, as you often don’t have room to talk about more than one moment effectively.

Use a linear format.

Think about the general college essay format in terms of explaining the experience while also weaving your emotions and thoughts throughout the story. Then, explain how that moment impacted you. Discuss what you learned, how you grew from that experience, and why those lessons make you someone who will succeed at that school and in your chosen career.

Brainstorm with others.

If you are having trouble deciding what to write about, talk with someone you trust, such as your Learning Coach. Together, write down moments that helped to make you who you are today and that have shaped who you hope to become.

Some places to begin are: 

  • achievements or failures 
  • sports, clubs, or hobbies 
  • influential family members or friends 
  • moments of realization or inspiration 
  • academic, personal, or health challenges   

You can also look to college application essay examples for inspiration. Whatever the topic, make sure that it is personal, important to you, and helps you stand out from other applicants. 

2. Shine the light on you.

Some students get so wrapped up in writing about their chosen experience that they end up forgetting about themselves. Talking about yourself may feel uncomfortable, but that is the point of the college essay—to show the committee who you are and why you will thrive at their school.   

Colleges, particularly Ivy League schools, want students who are unique and stand out in character, values, academics, commitment, and responsibilities. All of this necessitates that you talk about you.   

Regardless of what you write about, make sure that it is a springboard to talking about you as a student, as a human, and as someone who has distinctive qualities. 

An online student researching how to write a college application essay.

3. Create an engaging story.

People enjoy reading engaging stories, and a college application essay isn’t any different in this regard. Crafting an engaging story will help you stand out amongst the other applicants, showcase your personality to the committee, and help them remember you.

It’s all in the details.

You can craft an engaging college essay by providing details that paint a picture for readers, particularly if you use sensory detail. They also enable you to show, rather than tell, readers who you are; and showing is frequently more engaging and effective than telling.  

Bring on the action verbs.

Another way to create an engaging story is to use action verbs, which are words that indicate that someone/something is doing something.

4. Use your (writer’s) voice.

Part of showing the admissions committee who you are is writing in your voice. A writing voice is the combination of words, sentence structures, and tone that is specific to each writer. It’s what makes you sound like you in an essay. 

You can achieve this “voice” by writing how you talk. How would you tell this story to a friend? Try recording yourself telling the story and then write down what you said and how you said it. 

There may be a feeling that you need to sound detached in your application essay and use big, fancy words in order to be taken seriously, but that’s not what colleges want. They want to hear you—not a nameless, faceless writer. 

An online high school student writing a college application essay with templates.

5. Follow directions and proofread.

Following directions and having error-free writing will increase the chances that your essay will be positively remembered by admissions committees.

Follow the prompt.

Recheck the prompt. Did you answer the question that was asked? Or, did you address a different topic?

Watch the word count.

Stick to the word count. You don’t want to give committees an easy way to say, “no” by going over or under the word count.

Proofread and read your essay aloud.

Avoid these common proofreading errors: 

  • repetition of ideas or words 
  • misspelled or misused words 
  • punctuation errors 
  • a lack of paragraph breaks 
  • a choppy flow caused by a lack of transitions.   

Once you have proofread your college essay, make sure to read it aloud or ask someone to read it aloud to you. The brain often corrects errors in writing, but the mouth will trip over these errors. Also, notice where you pause or have trouble when reading your essay aloud. This will likely draw your attention to areas for improvement.

These tips will help guide you to writing a college application essay that showcases your individuality and your uniqueness. You can also reach out to a Connections Academy® counselor for more guidance through the college application process. 

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