Wednesday, July 28, 2021

How to Write a Killer College Essay: A Step-by-Step Guide

When it comes to writing your college essay (or personal statement), it doesn’t matter whether you aced your SAT or failed your Algebra II class this is where college admissions committees look beyond the numbers.

The college essay provides students an opportunity to impress admissions officers by showing who they are and what they can bring to the table. Now, the question is: how do you write an unforgettable essay that will impress admissions?

Here’s everything you need to know about making your college essay perfect. 

What Colleges Want to See in Your Essay

The goal of your college essay is for it to be so compelling admissions officers remember you even after they’ve gone through hundreds, if not thousands, of applications. Colleges want to see you your personality, drive, and what makes you the best choice for the school.

Admissions committees are looking for examples of your academic curiosity and initiative. They’re eager to know your views on learning, your desired major, and how you’ve impacted clubs, groups, internship programs, or other activities you participated in.

They also want to see how you transform your opinions, thoughts, and beliefs into a well-written message. The college essay is where you have the chance to show originality, depth, and your brand of creativity.

Female college students looking at a laptop, doing some work together on campus
Getting a friend’s unfiltered opinion on your college essay is a great way to improve further. Photo: SingingMedia/Shutterstock

Step-by-Step: How to Write Your College Essay

Writing a good college essay comes with a lot of pressure. You have to choose a suitable topic, navigate the limited word count, and make sure there are no grammatical errors. On top of that, you’ll probably need to write more than one piece.

But there’s no need to panic we’ve broken down the whole writing process into nine simple steps.

1. Read All of the Instructions

Before you start typing away, study the essay instructions carefully. It may seem like a no-brainer, but you certainly won’t make a good impression on the admissions committee if you don’t follow the guidelines. Even worse, they may not even read your essay.

College essay instructions will vary, but you can expect to see guidelines around word or page count, along with a writing prompt. Once you’re sure you understand, you can start racking your brain for a topic that will hit the spot! 

Take a look at the writing prompts released by Common App to give you an idea of what to expect:

    • Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
    • The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
    • 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?
    • Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
    • Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

2. Brainstorm Your College Essay Topic 

Your topic is the most fundamental element of your college essay, but figuring out what to write about can be tricky. Brainstorming is about finding the essay topic that captures the best version of you and shows colleges you’re the right choice.

Think about narrowing your focus to an experience, athletic or artistic ability, or an interesting personal quirk. If you still don’t have a clue, ask your parents, friends, or teachers what they find most admirable or interesting about you. They might have a favorite story that perfectly portrays your college-worthy character.

If a prompt asks you to share a time you’ve challenged certain beliefs, talk about how you opposed the status quo in your own way. Maybe you stood up to a bully for a friend or had to let go of a friendship because they were a bully.

3. Create Your Outline

Once you have a clear vision of what you’ll write about, start shaping your outline. A well-organized structure will help you build a strong beginning, middle, and end.

For starters, consider points to include that support your thesis (main idea). If you follow our prompts above, an example of the main idea can be the importance of mental health in the pursuit of academic excellence.  

Then visualize the relationships between your arguments and determine the order of ideas that tells the story in the clearest, most effective manner.

Here’s a basic breakdown of what your outline will need. 

A. Introduction

      • Open with an attention-grabbing line.
      • Give a brief overview of the essay.
      • End with your thesis statement.

B. Body

      • Present the main points — usually two or three ideas, each with its own paragraph.
      • Give relevant examples and details for each point. 

C. Conclusion

      • Echo your thesis statement.
      • Summarize your main points.
      • End with a strong, memorable line.

Sound familiar? That’s because the structure for your college essay is no different from the essays you’ve been writing in your high school English classes. With a great outline in place, all that’s left is to fill in the gaps and hone your message to excellence. 

4. Hook Your Readers With a Killer Introduction

To write an outstanding college essay, you’ve got to nail your opening statement. An engaging introduction sets the stage for the rest of the essay, so secure your reader’s interest within the first few lines.

graphic-of-how-long-a-college-admissions-officer-looks-at-college-essay-4-6-minutes
A great first impression in your college essay is important. Graphic: The College Post

A unique opening sentence will pique your reader’s curiosity and keep them engaged to find out more. Using an anecdote, quote, or question related to your topic can be a great place to start.

Play around with different ways of making your opening hook witty, intriguing, memorable, or out of the ordinary. But don’t get too stuck on writing your introduction. If it doesn’t come to you right away, move on, and return to it later with a fresh perspective.

5. Support Your Ideas With Examples

Supporting your ideas is crucial for your essay’s credibility. When writing, don’t simply state a fact. For your essay to appear honest and reliable, include specific details and examples that substantiate your points.

For example, if you’re writing about how you thrive under pressure, share an experience that demonstrates that. You could talk about how you managed overlapping deadlines for research papers and class presentations on top of your rigorous extracurricular schedule. 

By backing up your claims with examples, you show the admissions committee your strengths and achievements in real-life situations, giving you a more memorable edge.

6. Use Your Voice and Allow Your Personality to Shine

Your essay must remain authentic and true to your personality. This will help admissions officers develop an accurate impression of you.

If you’re looking for inspiration, college essay examples can be valuable resources but avoid imitating their tone, writing style, and format too closely. Use your own voice and personal beliefs to shape your essay. After all, you’re showing them who you are, so stick to your style and experience. As long as you remain polite and grammatically correct, you can write similar to how you speak.

Keep in mind that even if you have an excellent sense of humor, jokes don’t always translate well onto paper, and you can’t count on the admissions officers sharing your comedic sensibilities. Rule of thumb: if you have to ask whether something is appropriate, it’s probably not.

7. Stay Focused on Your Message

When writing a college essay, remember that every word counts. You only have several hundred words to make an impact on the admissions committee, so use them wisely.

Stay on topic and don’t add anything that distracts from the overall message. By including unnecessary details, you risk confusing the reader or losing their interest altogether. So stick to your outline, and make sure every word is supporting your main arguments.

8. Revise, Revise, and Revise Some More

You won’t be able to write a masterpiece in just one sitting. Set your draft aside and wait for a day or two before rereading it. 

This way, you can spot grammatical errors and assess whether your essay is sending the message you want. Ask yourself: is it compelling? Is my structure solid? Does this sound like me?

Colleges use the essay to learn about you and your writing skills, so give them your best and don’t submit your first draft!

9. Ask Someone to Proofread Your College Essay

Having someone else proofread your essay is imperative for achieving your best results. Ask for feedback — whether from a family member, a fellow student, or a favorite teacher — since their fresh eyes can spot errors or inconsistencies. Their perspective can help you improve your essay in ways you may not have considered.

graphic-of-hard-soft-factors-college-admissions
Your essay isn’t the only thing taken into account when applying for college. Image: The College Post


Pro Writing Tips for Crafting a Great College Essay

✔️ Write About What’s Important to You 

When you write about something that made an actual impact on your life, your essay is more authentic and easier to write.

✔️ Don’t Waste the Reader’s Time 

Make sure your work gets to the point and stays on-topic.  

✔️ Balance Your Tone With Your Audience in Mind 

It’s essential to come across as authentic but don’t drown your essay with too much sarcasm, humor, or cynicism. Consider your audience — is this the tone you would want to use if you spoke to them in person?

✔️ Omit Unnecessary Words to Improve Readability

When a sentence works without that added adjective or phrase, you might not need it. Brevity provides clarity. It also makes your words more impactful.

✔️ Show, Don’t Tell 

Your essay will be more memorable if you use descriptive language to help immerse your reader rather than simply describing what happened. Instead of saying, “I was excited,” why not talk about how you felt the uncontrollable urge to smile as you heard the good news?  

✔️ Avoid Repeating Achievements Already Found on Your Resume 

The essay should show your personal qualities, such as leadership, willingness to take risks, individual growth, teamwork, and anything else that’s not already in your application.

✔️ You Don’t Always Have to Use the Thesaurus 

Use language that sounds natural and conveys your message clearly and directly. Don’t assume that big words will make for a better essay. The more complex your wording is, the more your message gets buried.  

✔️ Highlight the Positives but Leave Your Ego Behind 

Draw attention to your strengths and all the good you’ve done but be careful not to brag or put anyone down.

✔️ Give Yourself Time to Write 

Start early so that you have time to work on multiple drafts before the deadline. Try online study tools to help you set manageable targets and increase productivity. Good writing takes time, so plan for it.


High school transcripts and SAT and ACT scores certainly hold weight in your application. But the college essay offers a sneak peek into your world that doesn’t show up in grades and scores.

Even if you weren’t the perfect student in high school, that’s okay. What colleges often desire more is a student who can make a difference in their campus and community; the straight As can come later.

A college essay that celebrates your true strengths could be your ticket to the school of your dreams. Now get writing! 💪

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