How To Write A College Essay

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 at least 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. Always answer the question

Make sure you answer the question that you've chosen, and don't just re-use your answer to another essay. The admissions tutor will be able to see through this straight away, and won't earn you any brownie points!

Tutors only want to take on students that are going to put in the effort, starting with your admissions essay. If you can't be bothered to do this, then you're not the sort of student that tutors will want on their course.

4. 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.

5. Include something that's important to you

This might be a book, experience or event that had a significant impact on your life - as long as it's important, it's probably worth writing about!

By choosing something like this, it gives you something to focus on and provides a central point for you to build your essay around.

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. 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.

9. 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. A good essay structure allows your essay to be read and digested by the admissions tutors, so it's important to get this right.

10. Redraft and 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.

Try putting it aside for a few days and then try to see it from an admission tutor's point of view. Is it an interesting essay? Does it flow well and tell a story about you as an applicant? Is it written in your own voice? Does it sound unique and original?

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.

How long should my college essay be?

Though the Common App – which students can submit to multiple colleges – notes that "there are no strict word limits" for its main essay, it suggests a maximum of about 650 words.

"While we won't as a rule stop reading after 650 words, we cannot promise that an overly wordy essay will hold our attention for as long as you'd hoped it would," the Common App website states.

The word count is much shorter for institution-specific supplemental essays, which are typically around 250 words.

How do I choose a college essay topic?

The first and sometimes most daunting step in the essay writing process is figuring out what to write about.

There are usually several essay prompts to choose from on a college application. They tend to be broad, open-ended questions, giving students the freedom to write about a wide array of topics.

The essay, however, shouldn't become an autobiography.

Rather, you should narrow your focus and write about a specific experience, hobby or quirk that reveals something personal, like how they think, what they value or what your strengths are. You can also write about something that illustrates an aspect of their background. Even an essay on a common topic can be compelling if addressed correctly.

You also don't have to discuss a major achievement in your essay, which has become a common misconception. Admissions officers have stated that memorable essays usually focus on more mundane topics, such as fly-fishing, a basketball game, a student's commute to and from school and a family holiday.

What's most important is that a college essay is thoughtful and tells a story that offers insight into who a student is as a person, as mentioned earlier.

So, no matter what topic you choose, you'll ultimately be writing about yourself.

If you're struggling to think of potential topics, you can ask friends or family members for help, by asking them questions such as, "What do you think differentiates me?", "What are my positive attributes?" and "What are some of my best achievements?".

The essay should tell college admissions officers something they don't already know, and you should make sure you're writing about something that isn't mentioned elsewhere in their application, perhaps in the activities section, or expand greatly on the topic if it is noted elsewhere.

For answers to other commonly asked questions about the college essay, please see our FAQs.

Further information

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

External resources