How To Write A College Essay

Struggling to start writing that dreaded college essay? Unfortunately, not all colleges across the country are members of either the Common Application or the Universal College Application and instead ask you to submit a specific college essay on prompts that they set, rather than any standard ones.

Although this can be challenging, we’re here to offer a few hints and tips on essay prompts that may be asked about.

1. Start early

To do a great job of your college essay you're going to need time, so start early.

An essay that really reflects your talents and personality, will take at least 12 hours to complete, so making a start a few months before the deadline is advisable.

2. Do your homework

The first stop is to take a look at exactly what you are being asked to write about. You might recieve a strict set of instructions or prompts, or something that is a little more open.

Jot down some notes and ideas to give a starting point, and the most impactful essays aren't always the most fanciful; it's the memorable that very often makes more of an impression.

Your essay is an oppotunity to provide some insight into you as a learner, but also as a person, and how you'll fit into the college community.

3. It's all about what you say

An often overlooked aspect of writing a college essay, is the need to express who you are as well as what you know and your educational potential. So why write in a serious formal tone if this is not your normal personality?

Try to write in a tone that reflects you as person; it's not always what you write, but how you write it, that can give the biggest impact.

4. Explain why you want to study there

If a college wants a particular essay it’s likely they’ll ask you why you want to study with them.

This is where your research skills come into their own. Investigate their website in depth, download their prospectus, and check out their social media sites.

You’ll then gain a comprehensive understanding on what they offer, what their values and ethos are and find out what day to day college life is really like.

This will allow you to write an answer that is focused on your reasons for study but also embraces what rocks their boat.

For example, don’t say ‘I want to study with you because I think you’re a great college in a sunny climate.’ This is too generic and doesn’t highlight how unique you are and the talents you possess.

Instead a more rounded statement could be ‘I want to study architecture with you, because your commitment to sustainable technologies match mine (I regularly champion green issues at my high school) and you include them in my architecture course.’

Our library of college essay examples will help give you some good ideas on how you might put together this part of your essay.

5. Give examples of extra-curricular activities

If colleges ask this question it’s because they want to see examples of your team work, organization and initiative skills which are all key attributes needed to succeed at college.  

It doesn’t matter whether you’ve been volunteering at the local animal hospital or you’ve been working an after school job as a waitress/waiter at your local café, it’s about your experiences and how you’ve used them to develop yourself.

When writing about your activity, use a particular example that happened with a customer that shows your forward planning skills as well as your team work; don’t just say you work there.

Anecdotes help admissions officers gain a real understanding about you and you’ll stand out and be remembered. Check if you can include photos and videos which will bring your anecdote to live.

Again, our library of college essay examples will help give you some ideas on how to put together the extra-curricular part of your essay.

6. Include other aspects of your life

These can span a vast number of topics ranging from:

  • current event
  • personal achievements
  • key influencers
  • future plans
  • career goals
  • course topics.

Be as personal as you can in your essay, always being honest and using real-life anecdotes and experiences while trying to avoid generic statements. This will help make your college essay stand out from the crowd.

7. Be prepared

As Benjamin Franklin said ‘by failing to prepare you are preparing to fail’.  Don’t just start writing your essay and answering the college prompts without preparing beforehand. This prep can be broken down into several key sections:

  • Decide exactly what story you’re going to write about in your essay and make sure it matches the prompt. A real life example is best and one that you can talk (and therefore write) about extensively. It’s much better to be honest and highlight your key strengths than exaggerate your story
     
  • Before writing the detail, map out a few key sentences in chronological order which outline your story. Then take each of these key sentences separately and write a few more sentences to explain the detail behind your outline. You’ll now find you have the main part of your essay in the bag
     
  • Now write a conclusion to your essay which should sum up not only the ending to your story but also what you’ve learnt from it that you can build on in the future
     
  • Once you’ve written your essay and conclusion, you will find that setting the scene (i.e. the opening of your essay) is easier to write as you know the detail
     
  • When writing each essay paragraph, link the beginning back to the previous paragraph so it flows in a logical order.

8. Proofread

Phew! you’ve now written your college essay, surely that’s it finished? No. But you are on the home straight. You still need to allow yourself plenty of time to re-read, rewrite and rephrase your essay a few times until it’s the best it can be.

Then once you’re happy and confident with it, ask friends and/or family members to sense check and proof read it for you, and also ask a school teacher if they can do the same. Extra independent views will help improve your essay even further, so try to get as many people as you can to look at it.

With this amount of commitment and passion to your college essay, you’re giving yourself the best possible chance to be offered an interview for a place on your course.

Further information

For more tips and advice on applying to college in the U.S, please see: