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How to Write a College Essay

A person's hands holding a pen and typing on a laptop computer and the text What are good topics for a college essay?

Writing a college essay is a rite of passage for many students applying to attend a college or university in the United States.

Although each institution has its own application requirements, most typically ask for a student’s academic transcripts, official scores from entrance exams or other standardized tests, plus a list of honors, distinctions, activities or experiences. Yet college admission counselors know that these grades, numbers, and lists don’t always tell the whole story about a person.

“A transcript offers us insight into a student’s overall academic performance, but it does not often shed much light onto who the student is as a person,” said Jackie Tremblay, senior assistant director of freshman admission at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). “So, while academics are certainly the focal point of an application, we do take a holistic approach to the reviewing process.”

Jackie Tremblay and the texxt Jackie Tremblay.To get a better or fuller picture of an applicant, college applications today will ask applicants to provide an essay, variously called a college essay, application essay, personal essay, personal statement or something similar.

At a basic level, this college application essay functions as a writing sample, showcasing the individual's grasp of written communication skills. But more importantly, according to Tremblay, the essay lets people differentiate themselves from the hundreds or thousands of other applicants by providing a snapshot into their circumstances, passions, motivations and goals.

When and How Should You Start a College Essay?

“In my opinion, the earlier, the better,” said Tremblay. “Being proactive in the college essay writing process allows students to really think through their topic and also seek out additional feedback.”

In reality, this means giving yourself months or weeks – not just days or hours – to work on your college essay before the application is due. That’s because you need time to:

  1. Review the essay requirements. Is there a minimum or maximum word count to consider? Do you need to type your essay directly into an online form or upload it in a specific file format? Are there any prompts or guidelines to follow? Some applications let you write an essay on a topic of your choice, while others ask you to respond to a prompt.
  2. Brainstorm essay ideas. Think about your unique perspective, experiences and circumstances, and then jot down a few potential topics. For each of the most promising topics you’ve identified, briefly outline the main points, critical background information, key players, obstacles overcome, big takeaways, major milestones, memorable quotes or other relevant details. “This way, when narrowing down your final focus, you’ll have some concrete examples at your disposal,” said Tremblay.
  3. Write the first draft. Once you’ve selected a topic, use the notes from your brainstorming session to help shape your essay. Remember, a good essay – like any good story – should have a beginning, middle and end. It should also hook the reader from the first sentence. This is important since admissions counselors can read hundreds of college essays in a single admissions cycle, according to Tremblay.
  4. Refine the draft. Edit the draft, then set it aside for a day or two. Come back to it with fresh eyes and continue to make changes and refinements. Check to make sure you’ve taken into account any specific guidelines. For example, the Common Application requires that essays be no shorter than 250 words and no longer than 650 words; meanwhile, the Coalition Application states, “While there is no perfect length for an essay, we recommend that you aim for 500 to 550 words.”
  5. Circulate a polished draft. Now that you have a solid working draft, it’s time to get input. “Teachers, guidance counselors and other trusted adults can provide valuable tips, feedback and corrections prior to submitting the essay and the application,” Tremblay said. “Plus, it never hurts to have a second set of eyes review your work.”
  6. Incorporate any relevant feedback and changes. But know that you don’t have to make all of the changes that everyone suggests.
  7. Proofread the final draft. You can use a free online grammar checker like Grammarly to double-check your grammar, spelling and punctuation.
  8. Include the final version with your application materials.

According to Tremblay, “The most important thing to remember when writing your college essay is that you can always start again. If you feel that your first draft is not authentic or does not portray what you were hoping to, make additional edits or try out a new topic.”

Some people might not be comfortable making themselves the main focus of the essay. In that case, “Consider writing about someone who has played a significant role in your life and what impact the person had,” Tremblay said. She recalls an essay in which a prospective student wrote about growing up with a brother on the Autism spectrum. The student detailed how this affected her family dynamic, taught her patience and sparked her interest in the special education field.

“While this essay did not encompass the entire range of her accomplishments,” said Tremblay, “it did provide valuable insight into her professional goals and the experiences she has encountered that related to these ambitions.”

What Are Good Topics for a College Essay?

You generally have flexibility when it comes to choosing your college essay topic. As noted above, you may be asked to write on a topic of your choice or to respond to one of several prompts, which are meant to help kickstart the brainstorming and writing process. Recent examples of prompts from the Common Application and Coalition Application include the following:

  • “Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.”
  • “Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?”
  • “Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?”

“There is truly no one-size-fits-all approach to crafting the perfect college essay,” Tremblay said. “The best topic to choose is the one that most resonates with you and lets you share any passions or experiences that have impacted you. This will vary depending on what you’re comfortable sharing.”

Some students use the essay portion of their application to discuss any fluctuations in academic performance or other factors that have impacted their grades. “This additional context is certainly taken into account when reviewing any students who may not meet our traditional academic requirements,” according to Tremblay.

Other essay topics she has encountered over the years include:

  • How a student’s encounters at an after-school job inspired their future career path
  • How a church-sponsored service trip inspired a student to give back
  • How the loss of a loved one impacted a student
  • How being a woman interested in a predominantly male professional field shook a student’s confidence

“Ultimately, the most memorable college essays are those that break the traditional mold and provide insight into the student’s passions, shortcomings and defining moments. Memorable college essays make us want to know more about the student and have the ability to foreshadow a great future fit, should the student decide to enroll,” she said.

What Should You NOT Write in a College Essay?

While it may seem obvious, Tremblay said it’s a safe bet to avoid using expletives in a college essay.

In addition, she suggested thinking beyond obvious or overly generic essay topics. For example, she has read more than her fair share of essays recapping athletic accomplishments, reiterating extracurricular activities or recounting class projects.

That said, it is possible to take a seemingly generic essay topic and make it more compelling. The key is to share what you took from that experience. “Each person’s reaction to setbacks and their subsequent personal growth story will vary. Including this information helps better tailor an essay topic to the individual,” she said.

Finally, avoid spelling and grammar mistakes in your college essay. “The essay is our way of gauging your writing ability and ensuring that you are up for the challenge of college-level academics,” she said. “So, take the additional time to read over your work and check for any errors. Have others read over your work, too.”

College Essays: One Piece of the College Search Puzzle

“Overall academic performance will always be the main consideration when assessing whether or not a student is admissible,” according to Tremblay. However, the college essay is a unique opportunity to provide context beyond the applicant for admissions counselors.

The application stage – and the college essay – is just one piece of the overall college search process, said Tremblay. “As admission counselors, we build and foster relationships with prospective students throughout the duration of their senior year, and even beyond in some cases. The more information we have about them, the better able we are to serve them as they narrow down their college search and determine which institution is the best fit.”

Sofia Tokar is a freelance copywriter and editor in higher education. Follow her on Twitter @stokar or connect on LinkedIn.

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