- How to Write a College Essay
College admissions experts offer tips on selecting a topic as well as writing and editing the essay.
Students can go online to review essay requirements for the colleges they want to apply to, such as word limits and essay topics. Many students may start with the Common App, an application platform accepted by more than 900 schools. (Getty Images)
Not only is the college essay a place to showcase writing skills, it's one of the only parts of a college application where a student's voice can shine through.
Unlike test scores and transcripts, the college admissions essay offers students a chance to showcase their personality.
"The essays are important in part because this is a student's chance to really speak directly to the admissions office," says Adam Sapp, assistant vice president and director of admissions at Pomona College in California.
Prospective college students want their essay, sometimes called a personal statement, to make a good impression and boost their chances of being accepted, but they have only several hundred words to make that happen.
This can feel like a lot of pressure.
"I think this is the part of the application process that students are sometimes most challenged by," says Niki Barron, associate dean of admission at Hamilton College in New York, "because they're looking at a blank piece of paper and they don't know where to get started."
That pressure may be amplified as many colleges have gone test-optional in the past year, meaning that ACT and SAT scores will be considered if submitted but are not required. Other schools have gone test-blind and don't consider such scores at all. In the absence of test scores, some admissions experts have suggested that more attention will be paid to other parts of an application, such as the essay.
But just as each applicant is unique, so are college admissions policies and priorities.
"Being test optional hasn't changed how we use essays in our selection process, and I wouldn't say that the essay serves as a substitute for standardized test scores," Barron wrote in an email. "A student's academic preparation for our classroom experience is always front and center in our application review process."
Essay writing tips offered by experts emphasize the importance of being concise, coherent, congenial, honest and accurate. An applicant should also flex some intellectual muscle and include vivid details or anecdotes.
From brainstorming essay topics to editing the final draft, here's what students need to know about crafting a strong college essay.
Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a College Application Essay
- 1. Explore essay prompts and select a topic.
- 2. Start your college essay outline before jumping in.
- 3. Write the essay and leave time for multiple drafts.
- 4. Edit and proofread your essay.
- 5. Submit your essay.
Getting Started on the College Essay
A good time for students to begin working on their essays is the summer before senior year, experts say, when homework and extracurricular activities aren't taking up time and mental energy.
Starting early will also give students plenty of time to work through multiple drafts of an essay before college application deadlines, which can be as early as November for students applying for early decision or early action .
Students can go online to review essay requirements for the colleges they want to apply to, such as word limits and essay topics. Many students may start with the Common App , an application platform accepted by more than 900 schools.
In addition to the main essay, some colleges ask applicants to submit one or more additional writing samples. Students are often asked to explain why they are interested in a particular school or academic field in these supplemental essays , which tend to be shorter than the main essay.
Students will want to budget more time for the writing process if the schools they're applying to ask for supplemental essays.
"Most selective colleges will ask for more than one piece of writing. Don't spend all your time working on one long essay and then forget to devote energy to other parts of the application," Sapp says, noting there may be additional questions on an application requiring thoughtfully written responses.
How Long Should a 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 cap 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 to Pick 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, Barron says.
The essay isn't a complete autobiography, notes Mimi Doe, co-founder of Top Tier Admissions, a Massachusetts-based advising company. "It's overwhelming to think of putting your whole life in one essay," she says.
Rather, experts say students should narrow their focus and write about a specific experience, hobby or quirk that reveals something personal, like how they think, what they value or what their strengths are. Students can also write about something that illustrates an aspect of their background. Even an essay on a common topic can be compelling if done right.
Students don't have to discuss a major achievement in their essay, a common misconception. Admissions officers who spoke with U.S. News cited memorable essays that focused on more ordinary topics, including fly-fishing, a student's commute to and from school and a family's dining room table.
What's most important, experts say, is that a college essay is thoughtful and tells a story that offers insight into who a student is as a person.
So, no matter what topic students choose, they'll ultimately be writing about themselves, says Ethan Sawyer, founder of the College Essay Guy website, which offers free and paid essay-writing resources. "What we think of as the topic is just the frame or the lens that we're using to get into other parts of you."
If students are having trouble brainstorming potential topics , they can ask friends or family members for help, says Stephanie Klein Wassink, founder of Winning Applications and AdmissionsCheckup, Connecticut-based college admissions advising companies. Wassink says students can ask peers or family members questions such as, "What do you think differentiates me?" Or, "What are my quirks?"
The essay should tell college admissions officers something they don't already know, experts say. Students should ensure they'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.
Writing the College Essay
Some experts encourage students to outline their essay before jumping into the actual writing.
But there isn't one correct way of doing things, says Sara Newhouse, senior consultant at Enrollment Research Associates and former vice president for admission and financial planning at Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama.
"Your writing process is your own," she says. Newhouse encourages students to use whatever process worked for them in the past when they completed writing assignments for English and other high school classes.
The first draft of an essay doesn't need to be perfect. "Just do a brain dump," Doe says. "Don't edit yourself, just lay it all out on the page."
If students are having a hard time getting started, they should focus on their opening sentence, Doe suggests. She says an essay's opening sentence, or hook, should grab the reader's attention.
Doe offered an example of a strong hook from the essay of a student she worked with:
"I first got into politics the day the cafeteria outlawed creamed corn."
"I want to know about this kid," she says. "I’m interested."
But Sawyer cautions that students shouldn't get so caught up in writing the perfect hook that they neglect the rest of their essay. He also says he's read some essays that were excellent overall, even though they had what he would consider mundane hooks.
Editing and Submitting the College Essay
While admissions officers try to learn about students via the essay, they are also gauging writing skills, so students want to make sure they submit top-notch work.
"The best writing is rewriting," Sapp says. "You should never be giving me your first draft."
When reviewing a first essay draft, students should make sure their writing is showing, not telling, Doe says. This means students should show their readers examples that prove they embody certain traits or beliefs, as opposed to just stating that they do.
After editing their essay, students should seek outside editing help, experts recommend. While there are individuals and companies that offer paid essay help – from editing services to essay-writing boot camps – students and families may not be able to afford the associated fees.
However, there may be options to defray the costs. Sawyer, for example, says he offers scholarships to students from low-income families that cover the cost of one-on-one essay consultations.
The availability of and level of feedback from free essay advising services vary. Some college prep companies offer brief consultations at no charge. Free essay workshops may also be available through local high schools, public libraries or community organizations. Khan Academy, a free online education platform, also offers a series of videos and other content to guide students through the essay writing process.
Colleges themselves may also have resources, Barron notes, pointing to pages on Hamilton's website that offer writing tips as well as examples of successful admissions essays. Likewise, Hamilton also holds virtual panel discussions on writing admissions essays.
Students have other options when it comes to essay help. They can ask peers, teachers, school counselors and family members for help polishing an essay.
Newhouse says it works well to have other people proofread an essay in two stages. The first stage focuses on content. Readers should look for information gaps in the essay – anything they are confused about. Once the content is nailed down, the second proofing stage focuses on style, including grammar, punctuation and spelling.
But proofreaders should not change the tone of the essay. "Don't let anyone edit out your voice," Doe cautions.
And while proofreading is fair game, having someone else rewrite your essay is not.
When an essay is ready to go, students will generally submit it online along with the rest of their application. On the Common App, for example, students copy and paste their essay into a text box.
Sapp says even though students often stress about the essay in particular, it's not the only thing college admissions officers look at. "The essay is the window, but the application is the house," he says. "So let's not forget that an application is built of many pieces."
Strong College Essay Examples
Below are two examples of strong essays written by students accepted into Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.
"This is a personal statement, so what works in these essays works because of who the student is and how it fits into the rest of his or her application," notes Ellen Kim, dean of undergraduate admissions at Johns Hopkins.
Hover over the circles along the sides of the letters to read more about what worked.
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10 Ways to Discover College Essay Ideas
- See College Essay Examples
- Colleges Weigh in on Common Essay Topics
- College Supplemental Essay Tips
- Read 2 Transfer Essays That Worked
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How to Write a Personal Essay for Your College Application
What does it take to land in the “accept” (instead of “reject”) pile?
How can you write an essay that helps advance you in the eyes of the admissions officers and makes a real impression? Here are some tips to get you started.
- Start early. Do not leave it until the last minute. Give yourself time when you don’t have other homework or extracurriculars hanging over your head to work on the essay.
- Keep the focus narrow. Your essay does not have to cover a massive, earth-shattering event. Some people in their teens haven’t experienced a major life event. Some people have. Either way, it’s okay.
- Be yourself. Whether writing about a painful experience or a more simple experience, use the narrative to be vulnerable and honest about who you are. Use words you would normally use. Trust your voice and the fact that your story is interesting enough in that no one else has lived it.
- Be creative. “Show, don’t tell,” and that applies here — to an extent. The best essays typically do both. You can help your reader see and feel what you are describing by using some figurative language throughout your piece.
- Make a point. As you finish your final body paragraphs ask yourself “So what?” This will help you hone in on how to end your essay in a way that elevates it into a story about an insight or discovery you made about yourself, rather than just being about an experience you had.
Where your work meets your life. See more from Ascend here .
We’ve all heard about the dreaded “college essay,” the bane of every high school senior’s existence. This daunting element of the college application is something that can create angst for even the most accomplished students.
What exactly goes into writing a great college essay, and more importantly, what does it take to write one that stands out from thousands of others, landing itself in the “Accept” vs. “Reject” pile?
Breaking Down the College Essay
Let’s start by breaking it down into manageable parts and examining the required elements.
What’s the point of the college essay?
Almost every standard college application requires first-year applicants to submit a personal essay. If you are one of these applicants, you may be wondering, what’s the point?
With so many colleges deciding to go test-optional, (many do not require standardized tests and instead focus solely on your transcripts, essay, and recommendations), the essay is the one place in your application where you can illuminate your character in words and ideas, rather than in numbers and percentages. It is your chance to show schools who you are, what makes you tick, and why you stand out from the crowd.
Admissions counselors will read your essay and try to determine whether or not they want you at their school. While reading, they will be asking themselves, “What will this person bring to our community? Will they make our school a more valuable place?”
What are the prompts?
There are seven personal essay prompts in the Common Application. You may choose to write about obstacles you’ve encountered, your accomplishments and realizations, moments when you experienced extreme gratitude, or select your own topic.
No one prompt is considered “better” than another, but they can vary slightly from year to year, so be sure to read through all of them for your application cycle. At the end of the day, if there is something you feel really passionate about, you can likely adapt it to fit a prompt.
How long should your essay be?
The essay should be 650 words, which might sound like a lot at first, but you will be surprised by how quickly you reach that limit once you get going. Most of the students I work with end up making cuts to shorten their essays before submitting. The word limit is non-negotiable. You will not be able to submit an essay that’s even one word over the limit.
Writing the College Essay
Your parents, teachers, and guidance counselors know what they are talking about when they tell you to get started on the essay during the summer before your senior year. Don’t leave it until the last minute. Once senior year starts, life is a whirlwind. Give yourself time when you don’t have other homework or extracurriculars hanging over your head to work on the essay. Aim to start in July or August before senior year.
Starting can be as easy as creating a document where you generate an ongoing list of potential topics. You will want to draft your essay in a separate document anyway. You can copy and paste it over into the Common Application once you have a final, edited version.
Additionally, starting doesn’t always mean sitting down in front of a computer and typing. Talk about topic ideas out loud with anyone who will listen. Discuss ideas for topics with your family members over dinner or on car rides with friends. Think about ideas when you are out for a run or bike ride. Almost all colleges and universities have samples of “College Essays That Worked” in the admissions section of their websites. Reading through these may inspire you.
Keep the focus narrow.
Do not think too big. Your essay does not have to cover a massive, earth-shattering event. Some people in their teens haven’t experienced a major life event. Some people have. Either way, it’s okay.
That leads to another suggestion: Don’t write about Covid-19. Your essay might touch on something that’s an offshoot of your time spent in quarantine or a loss connected to Covid, but it should not be about the pandemic specifically. There’s no question Covid-19 had, and still has, a major impact on all of us, but that topic has been written about by many students from every angle possible. Colleges want to read something different.
The Common Application has added an optional question that gives all applicants a place to address the impact that Covid has had on them personally and educationally. If you feel you have a story you must tell connected to the pandemic, this is the place to share it.
So, what should you write about?
When brainstorming topics, think about challenges you have faced and how you’ve handled them. You can also ask people who know you best how they would describe you in a few words and why. Their responses can be great jumping off points for writing your essay.
Some students choose to write about seemingly small, ordinary topics that illuminate their character beautifully, and are both poignant and thought-provoking. One student I worked with wrote about growing up hiking with her parents from the time when she was a baby in a backpack carrier, to a grumpy middle schooler, to an appreciative, nature-loving young adult who found outdoor experiences were an essential part of who she was at her core.
Other students choose to describe major life events, or especially challenging experiences that have impacted them deeply. An essay that comes to mind is one written by a student who battled loneliness and isolation due to anxiety and depression, and ultimately found invaluable reprieve in the arts, a passion that they hoped to continue to pursue at the college level.
Whether writing about a painful experience or a more simple experience, be sure the essay rises above a strict recounting of a story. Instead, use the narrative to reveal your true self. It’s okay to be vulnerable and honest; in fact, it’s critical you do so. Admissions counselors will not judge you negatively for depicting moments of weakness or fear, or for having different politics than they might. More likely, they will be impressed by your level of self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and introspection.
Admissions counselors want value-adders. What adds value to a college campus? Students who display energy, resilience, leadership, passion, inclusivity, unique outlooks, and people who can inspire others. Your essay should tell a story that highlights traits like these. No one else has lived your life or experienced what you have in the way that you have; tell your unique story. Use a voice that’s real to you.
This is not the time to experiment with overly formal academic nor romantic, flowery language. Use words you would normally use and show the reader what makes you, you. There is no need to over-inflate things. Trust your voice and the fact that your story is interesting enough in that no one else has lived it.
The college essay is not like a typical English paper. It’s a true blend of the creative and the literary. In creative writing classes you often hear the advice, “Show, don’t tell,” and that applies here — to an extent. The best essays typically do both. You can help your reader see and feel what you are describing by using some figurative language throughout your piece. Describe sights, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, and sounds as you write.
That said, just because you are being creative does not mean your essay should lack structure. This is not the time to experiment with a completely outlandish form. You don’t want to make your readers work to understand what you are trying to say. You want them to be entirely absorbed in the story you are telling. The easiest way to do this is by making your essay easy to read.
Think of the typical five paragraph structure for English papers. Your essay should have an introductory paragraph with a thesis/hook, supporting body paragraphs, and a conclusion that ties everything together. Your story might lend itself to six or seven paragraphs instead of five, depending on where the natural narrative breaks lie, and that’s fine. Just make sure it has a clear beginning, middle, and end.
Your essay should not have any spelling, formatting, or grammatical errors. Mistakes do not put your best foot forward to admissions counselors, and they are distracting.
Be sure to read, re-read, and share your submission with others to prevent the possibility of mistakes. Use tools like spell and grammar check, and ask at least two other people to read your essay and offer feedback. You can ask a trusted family member to take a look, or even reach out to a friend with exceptionally good writing skills. We often get so close to our own words that we miss obvious errors. Even the best writers in the world rely on editors to help catch mistakes.
Another option is to ask your English teacher or guidance counselor to review your essay. In some schools, students will work on the college essay in English class during the fall of their senior year. This gives them a chance to receive both teacher and peer feedback, which can be incredibly valuable.
Finally, read your essay aloud before hitting submit. It may feel silly, but you will be amazed at the errors you will catch this way.
Make a point.
By the time you reach your conclusion, be sure your essay makes some sort of point. This is what will separate it from the competition. Ask yourself what you want your reader to walk away thinking and knowing about you, and allude to that in your final sentences. A strong conclusion that helps tie the entire essay together, and also points to the bigger picture, is key.
To achieve this, as you finish your final body paragraphs ask yourself “So what?” This will help you hone in on how to end your essay in a way that elevates it into a story about an insight or discovery you made about yourself, rather than just being about an experience you had. Above all, remember that the conclusion should not be an afterthought, nor should it simply summarize the previous few paragraphs.
In many ways, the conclusion is the most important part of your essay as it’s the last thing people will read. Be sure to give it the time, effort, and energy it deserves. You want your readers to pause and reflect at the end of your essay. You want them to feel something, versus just moving on to the next essay on their list.
While some students are able to afford pricey college counselors to help guide them through the application process, at the end of the day, there is no magic formula that someone can pay thousands of dollars for when it comes to writing the college essay. Everyone has a unique story to tell and that is priceless. As long as you give yourself the time to brainstorm, and write and then rewrite, as well as ask for feedback from others along the way, you can end up with a solid final product.
One lesson you will learn at college is that the world is full of a wide array of brilliant, interesting, diverse individuals who all have unique life experiences. You are one of those people. Enjoy the process of telling your story, and then relish the opportunity you will have to create more stories as you move onto the next chapter of your life.
- AA Amy Allen is a writer, educator, and lifelong learner. Her freelance writing business, All of the Write Words , focuses on providing high school students with one-on-one feedback to guide them through the college application process and with crafting a thoughtful personal essay. A dedicated poet, Amy’s work has also been published in several journals including Pine Row Press , Months to Years, and Atlanta Review .
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The first draft is always the hardest. Work with an admissions essay coach who will give you practical, step-by-step guidance on how to develop your essay and make your story come alive.
Your coach will…
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We’ll help you show your best traits to college admissions officers and prove that you’re college-ready! With help from our essay coaches, you’ll improve your chances of getting accepted – so what are you waiting for?
Meet Scribbr's essay experts
Janice holds a PhD in German studies from Duke University. She also earned an MA in Library Science and a BA in German and Linguistics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
As a former professor, she has helped many students refine their application essays for competitive degree programs and study-abroad programs.
Today, she helps students improve their writing skills at Scribbr. In her spare time, when she’s not writing or editing, she enjoys working on the small family farm that she owns and operates.
Originally from Maryland, Amy headed west to attend Scripps College in California, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in music and gender studies.
In 2009, she began working for the admissions office of her alma mater, where she focused on reviewing applications and interviewing prospective students.
Today, she finds inspiration in learning about students’ interests and helping them craft a story that draws people in. She is a musical theater librettist, an avid baker, and a world traveler.
Alexandra earned an Erasmus Mundus MA in cultural narratives and a BA in English from Emory University.
As a teacher, editor, and writing coach, she has spent nearly a decade helping students find their voice and express their ideas. She especially enjoys helping English language learners: she wrote her thesis in a foreign country and knows first-hand how challenging it can be to formulate complex ideas in another language.
She lives in Italy and enjoys writing and reading, hiking, and cooking.
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Using powerful writing techniques to craft an unforgettable story will make them want to learn more. Our college essay editing service has you covered!
We’ll check that your essay has…
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We care about your story and what’s unique about you: we make sure that your perspective and voice always remain front and center in the essay we return to you.
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Colleges are looking for thoughtful, motivated students who will enrich their community. Your essay is your chance to show admissions officers why they should choose you.
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When you select our college essay editing service , we’ll offer in-depth content feedback on all of the above. Y ou can also customize what level of feedback you want.
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Your coach can provide this feedback through direct edits or suggestions in comments — the choice is yours.
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For many students, finding the right story to tell is the hardest part—and there’s no reason for you to do it alone! Check out our Knowledge Base resources for articles such as How to Choose Your Topic , How to Make Your Essay Stand Out , and Common App Examples .
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We know that waiting for feedback can be nerve-racking. If you select our faster deadline option, you’ll hear from your personal statement editor in 24 hours or less – including on weekends and holidays.
We never engage in rewriting or adding text at Scribbr. Our personal statement editors will make grammatical corrections and leave suggestions using Word’s track changes and commenting feature. However, we always make sure that your perspective and voice remain front and center in your essay.
We know that waiting for feedback can be nerve-racking. If you select our faster deadline option, you’ll hear from your college essay coach in 24 hours or less – including on weekends and holidays.
Yes. All our college essay coaches are subject-matter experts and can help you make decisions regarding the content of your essay. Your coach will help you make a strong case for your admission.
Our essay coaches will provide feedback on…
- Whether your topic is appropriate and how to strengthen it
- Whether your essay demonstrates positive traits and authenticity
- Whether the narrative flows smoothly and grabs the reader’s attention
- How to dig deeper and show self-reflection and insight
- What content is missing and should be added
- What content is weak and should be removed
- How to shorten your essay to meet a word count limit
However, we will never…
- Write or rewrite content for you
- Research or fact-check your essay’s content
If you have any questions, feel free to email [email protected]
Yes! Our essay coaches can help you reduce your word count by up to 25%. You can choose to receive this feedback through direct edits or suggestions in comments – just select your choice when you upload your essay.
When you submit your essay to our College Essay Editing & Coaching service, you’ll be asked to indicate what type of content feedback you would like to receive. You can choose from three options:
Dig deep and challenge me
Give me the standard treatment
Whichever option you choose, you’ll receive in-depth content feedback from your essay coach. However, the type of feedback your essay coach provides may differ, and the option you should choose depends on what outcome you want from the review. You can always elaborate on what type of feedback you want in your note to your essay coach.
Learn more about the three options below.
Choose from three options
If you choose this option, we’ll challenge you to write the best possible essay – no content suggestions are off-limits, including reorienting your topic or reframing your story. Students who choose this option aren’t afraid to go back to the drawing board if it’ll increase their chances of getting accepted. You may have to roll up your sleeves and do some more work on your essay, but your essay will be much stronger because of it.
Select this option if your priority is to have the best possible essay, even if it requires some extra work on your side.
We’ll strike a balance between “dig deep and challenge me” and “tread lightly.” We may suggest changes to your structure and narrative, including removing weak content, elaborating on certain sections, and adding content to strengthen your arguments. You may have to rework sentences and paragraphs, but we won’t suggest major content changes.
With this option, we’ll focus on improving your essay in a way that requires little additional work from you. We’ll provide you with targeted suggestions for how to refine your essay’s structure and narrative, but we will work within your current structure and topic. While you may have to make a few tweaks here and there, we’ll aim to return you a polished draft that’s ready to be submitted to your chosen colleges.
Select this option if you are fairly satisfied with your essay and don’t want to make major changes or if you have limited time to revise.
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Our customer support team is here to find the solution that helps you the most, whether that’s a free new edit or a refund for the service.
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Course: college admissions > unit 4.
- Writing a strong college admissions essay
- Avoiding common admissions essay mistakes
- Brainstorming tips for your college essay
- How formal should the tone of your college essay be?
- Taking your college essay to the next level
- Sample essay 1 with admissions feedback
- Sample essay 2 with admissions feedback
- Student story: Admissions essay about a formative experience
- Student story: Admissions essay about personal identity
- Student story: Admissions essay about community impact
- Student story: Admissions essay about a past mistake
- Student story: Admissions essay about a meaningful poem
Writing tips and techniques for your college essay
Pose a question the reader wants answered, don't focus exclusively on the past, experiment with the unexpected, don't summarize, want to join the conversation.
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1. Explore essay prompts and select a topic. 2. Start your college essay outline before jumping in. 3. Write the essay and leave time for multiple drafts. 4. Edit and proofread your essay. 5.
The college essay can make or break your application. It’s your chance to provide personal context, communicate your values and qualities, and set yourself apart from other students. A standout essay has a few key ingredients: A unique, personal topic. A compelling, well-structured narrative.
1. Upload your college essay. Upload your college essay, and tell us a little about yourself. We’ll match you with a certified college essay coach. 2. Sit back and relax. Your coach will edit your essay and share in-depth advice to help you strengthen your structure, content, and narrative. 3. Receive your feedback.
Admissions look for essays where student highlights their growth and introspection, so your essay should focus on you learning and growing as a person. Don’t just brag or describe. Your essay should have a moment of revelation: what did you learn from your experience? How did it make you the person you are today?