A step by step guide to writing a great college essay
The college essay is one of the most important (and daunting) parts of your college application, and it’s easy to see why. When reviewing applications, colleges and universities are looking at two main things- who you are as a student, and who you are as a person. The college essay allows you to present yourself both personally and academically to the admissions officer.
No wonder people feel stressed out about their college essays! Not only should it be a great piece of writing, but it needs to express who you are in just the right way If you’re gearing up to write your college essay, here is a step by step guide to get you through the process.
Before You Sit Down to Write Your College Essay, Come Up with a Few Possible Topics
It can be hard to choose what to talk about in your college essays. In addition to this, the schools that you’re applying to may have different prompts – which could mean having to write multiple essays. This is why we recommend sitting down and coming up with a few different topics to consider.
Two rules for essay topics: be honest, and be original.
Whether you’re prompted to write about a formative experience, why you think you’d be a good fit for the university or about a person who has influenced you greatly, answer the question honestly. Don’t just write what you think the admissions office wants to hear. Very often they are inundated with essays that cater to “what they want to hear,” making such essays exactly what they don’t want to hear.
Next, be original. I don’t think that originality should come at the expense of honesty. If you’re worried that your essay topic is a bit run-of-the-mill, you have two options. The first is to find another topic that feels authentic to you. The second is to find a unique angle within the topic.
Sure, many people might write about their mother as the most influential person in their life. But fewer people will write about the time their mother saved them from a lion on a safari in Africa. Write down three or four possible essay topics that meet these criteria of honesty and originality and then you’ll be ready for the next step
2. Free Write Some College Essays Before You Write the Final Draft
Your essay may be the ultimate product, but before you start worrying about the final edition you’ll send off to colleges, take some time to work on the process. Free-writing will help you hone your skills and practice for the real thing.
Free writing, ideally done with pen and paper instead of on the computer, is an exercise in opening the creative mind and letting ideas flow. Your free writing is NOT your college essay. You will not submit it. Knowing this, you will be more relaxed and inspired as you write.
Take a notebook and write a page or two on each of your possible subjects. Which ones felt easiest to write? Where were the ideas pouring out and where were they feeling stuck? Let this exercise be the compass that points you in the direction of your topic.
3. Make an Outline for Your College Essay
Now that you’ve done your freewriting, it’s time to get serious about putting this essay together. You have a topic and some ideas that you’ve jotted down during your free writing. This is a great time to create an outline. College essays are allowed to be a bit formulaic. You should stick to the basic format of essays that you learned in high school: introduction paragraph, three body paragraphs, conclusion paragraph.
Make an outline in three sections with horizontal lines. The top section is your introduction, the middle section is the body, and the lower section is the conclusion. Write bullet points for what you want to include in each section.
The introduction needs to set up the whole essay. It should establish for the reader a sense of expectation for what’s to come without giving it all away.
The body is for your main points and narrative. The outline is not for writing perfect sentences but rather for putting your ideas in the right sequence. Make sure you arrange your thoughts so that they make sense and lead one into the other.
The conclusion finishes off the whole essay by nodding towards what came before without being repetitive and summarizing the takeaway.
4. Draft Your College Essay and Put It in a Drawer
Now it’s time to write your first draft of your essay. You have your outline, so now your goal is to translate this into an essay with voice. Here are a few tips for making your essay pack a punch:
The first sentence should hook the reader. If the prompt of the essay was “Who is the most influential person in your life and why?” don’t start the essay with “The most influential person in my life is…” It’s dull and the admissions office created the prompt, so it’s telling them the info they already know.
What’s an exciting way to start the essay? Writers live by the rule of “in medias res,” or starting in the middle.
Rather than overexplaining at the start, begin at an exciting moment: “We didn’t see the lion right away. What we heard first was a crunch of leaves, and the sound of a creature licking its lips.”
Once you’ve hooked the reader, switch gears a little to set up the essay in a way appropriate for an introduction.
“We didn’t see the lion right away. What we heard first was a crunch of leaves and the sound of a creature licking its lips. Two months earlier, I would have laughed if you had told me that I would ever be in this situation, but I’ve learned that when you live with someone like my mother, you can never tell what adventure is hiding in wait. If it had been up to me, I would have spent the winter break catching up on reading and celebrating the holidays at home – but my mother had bigger plans, coming home with a huge grin one day and dropping brochures for a safari on the desk in front of me. It was that grin I remembered as the lion pushed its way through the brush to confront us.”
An introduction like this is colorful and intriguing. It gives the reader a sense of expectation and excitement, without giving too much away from the beginning.
The body paragraphs that follow will go into more depth and take the essay into a new direction.
The first paragraph might jump back and talk about the past.
The second might go into more detail about the trip to Africa.
The third might then provide an end to the essay’s narrative frame: the encounter with the lion.
Now it’s time for the conclusion, which will knit all the different points and stories of the body paragraphs into something that is coherent and meaningful, as well as showing what the described experience taught you or how it changed you.
After you’re finished with your draft, put it in a drawer and forget about it. Don’t take it out until two days have passed. After this, you will have more perspective. Reread your draft aloud and make notes on it. Then you can create a second draft.
5. Get Some Outside Perspective on Your College Essay
Once you have a revised draft of your college essay, call in your friends and family to take a look. Have them give you comments and encourage them to be honest.
Writers often know inherently where they are having trouble with their work, but they aren’t always able to see what to change, what to keep, and what to take out.
Hearing other people’s comments, you’ll notice that some of them really resonate. Take these into serious consideration.
You don’t have to make changes based on everyone’s comments, but give them all some careful thought and try to imagine how the essay would look if you made each change.
6. Finish Your Essay
As you put together your final draft, make use of the resources at your disposal.
Grammarly is a great tool for checking spelling, grammar, and scanning for plagiarism (which will get your essay tossed in the rejected pile faster than you can write a comma).
Check out online resources with helpful tips. There is one on collegeboard.com and another helpful post from MIT, which offers an especially helpful list of writing tips from author Kurt Vonnegut:
- Find a subject you care about.
- Do not ramble, though.
- Keep it simple.
- Have the guts to cut.
- Sound like yourself.
- Say what you mean to say.
- Pity the readers.