How To Start a College Essay: 9 Effective Techniques
This post was co-written by me (Ethan) and Luci Jones (Brown University, CO ‘23).
How to start a college essay TABLE OF CONTENTS
The full hemingway, the mini hemingway, the philosophical question, the confession, the trailer thesis, the fascinating concept, the random personal fun fact, the shocking image.
In anything you do, there’s a special, pivotal moment.
I don’t mean the moment when inspiration strikes or the last brushstroke is painted or the audience oohs and ahs over the final product. The point in time we’re talking about here is the Moment When You Do The Darn Thing (DTDT for short). It’s when you get off the couch, stop binging Netflix , and take action. It’s when you put pencil to paper, fingers to keyboard, or *insert whatever other analogy feels applicable here.*
For many, getting started is the hardest part of anything. And that’s understandable. First, because it turns whatever you’re doing into a reality, which raises the stakes. Second, because where you start can easily dictate the quality of where you end up.
College essays have their own special brand of DTDT. Knowing how to begin a college essay is daunting. It can be hard to write an engaging, authentic opener. But without an interesting hook, you risk getting lost in a vast sea of applications. To this end, we’ve put together some techniques about how to start a college essay to make your DTDT moment a little smoother and a little less stressful.
I say “probably” because I’m about to share a few overused techniques that I don’t recommend. Having said that, it is possible to pull them off—they’re just really hard to do well.
The Overly Grand Ambiguous Statement: From a distance, it might seem nice to talk about why all of humankind has felt some type of way for as long as history has existed. (Examples: “Many great thinkers have existed in our nation’s history” or “The key to a successful endeavor is perseverance.”) But these kinds of overly generalized or impersonal grand statements get lost easily in the crowd because they don’t tell the reader much about you. And without a connection to you, there’s not much reason for them to continue reading.
Going Meta: As cool as it may seem to demonstrate to your audience that you are aware of how you’re writing your essay in the moment you’re writing it, it’s less cool to college admissions officers who read meta stuff like that all the time. There are other, more subtle ways to demonstrate self-awareness in your intro rather than to open your essay with some variation of, “I stare at the blank screen...” or, worse, “When I was asked to write this personal statement, at first I wasn’t sure how to begin.” Note that the meta essay can sometimes work (you’ll see a couple examples below), but has a higher degree of difficulty.
The Quote: While quoting famous people who have said something cool in the past may seem like an appealing way to start your essay, remember that colleges want to hear YOUR thoughts. Don’t use the words of another person to stand in for your own opinions or insights. You have cool things to say. It may just take a little while to discover what those things are.
The Too-Obvious Thesis That Spoils the Ending of the Movie (i.e. Your Essay): What if Avengers: Infinity War had opened with a voiceover from the director saying, “This is a film about how Thanos collects all the infinity stones and destroys half the population.” (Aaaaaand this is your too-late spoiler alert. Sorry. But don’t worry, they go back in time and undo it in Endgame . Oh, also spoiler.) That would’ve sucked. That’s what it feels like, though, if you start your essay with something like, “I want to be a veterinarian because I care about animals and the environment.” I read a sentence like that and I go, “Cool, thanks, now I can save myself the three minutes it would’ve taken to read the essay. Thank you, next.” While you may want to have that sentence in mind so you know what you’re trying to get across (this is called a logline), just don’t give away the whole thing. Instead, start your essay with something to pique our interest. How? We’re about to share 9 ways.
Want to read a few more college essay tips? Check out this huge list from admissions experts.
9 WAYS TO START A COLLEGE ESSAY:
An image-based description that focuses on a particular moment and doesn’t explain much—at least not right away. This technique lets dialogue, actions, or details speak for themselves.
(Note that there are many other authors that do this — it’s part of great writing — but my little brother suggested Hemingway and I kinda’ liked the sound of it.)
Every Saturday morning, I’d awaken to the smell of crushed garlic and piquant pepper. I would stumble into the kitchen to find my grandma squatting over a large silver bowl, mixing fat lips of fresh cabbages with garlic, salt, and red pepper.
Why It Works: In this intro, the author paints a very visceral picture of waking up in the morning to the smell of her grandmother’s traditional Korean cooking. Through the careful word choice (“piquant pepper,” “fat lips of fresh cabbages,” etc.), we get a sense that something important is happening, even if we don’t know what it is yet. But this one can be difficult to pull off if you don’t help the reader understand why you’ve described what you’ve described. Read the rest of the essay here .
Which brings us to...
An image-based description, perhaps 1-3 sentences in length, that focuses on a particular moment and then follows up with a sentence that explains, comments on, or somehow provides context for what is being described.
Take a look at how this can happen by just adding one sentence to the example above (see bolded line below):
Every Saturday morning, I’d awaken to the smell of crushed garlic and piquant pepper. I would stumble into the kitchen to find my grandma squatting over a large silver bowl, mixing fat lips of fresh cabbages with garlic, salt, and red pepper. That was how the delectable Korean dish, kimchi, was born every weekend at my home.
Why it Works: This single sentence hints at some of the author’s core values—culture, ritual, family—without giving too much away about where the essay is headed. Like any good intro, this one creates more questions that answers. (Read the rest of the essay here .)
They covered the precious mahogany coffin with a brown amalgam of rocks, decomposed organisms, and weeds. It was my turn to take the shovel, but I felt too ashamed to dutifully send her off when I had not properly said goodbye. I refused to throw dirt on her. I refused to let go of my grandmother, to accept a death I had not seen coming, to believe that an illness could not only interrupt, but steal a beloved life.
Why It Works: The author drops us right into the middle of something we know nothing about, yet it invites us to care. How? The specifics. The details she notices and the resistance she’s feeling help to put us in her shoes. This means we don’t just feel sympathy, we feel empathy . And that empathetic connection heightens the stakes for us by raising questions: How did her grandmother die? Why can’t the author let her go? Why is she angry? (Spoiler: It turns out she’s more angry at herself than anyone else. Read the rest of the essay here .)
The author begins with information that creates certain expectations about them before taking us in a surprising direction.
Growing up, my world was basketball. My summers were spent between the two solid black lines. My skin was consistently tan in splotches and ridden with random scratches. My wardrobe consisted mainly of track shorts, Nike shoes, and tournament t-shirts. Gatorade and Fun Dip were my pre-game snacks. The cacophony of rowdy crowds, ref whistles, squeaky shoes, and scoreboard buzzers was a familiar sound. I was the team captain of almost every team I played on—familiar with the Xs and Os of plays, commander of the court, and the coach’s right hand girl. But that was only me on the surface. Deep down I was an East-Asian influenced bibliophile and a Young Adult fiction writer.
Why It Works: We’re introduced to the author as a basketball superstar, the queen of the court, a sports fanatic—and at this point the reader may even be making assumptions about this author’s identity based on her initial description of herself. However, in one sentence, the writer takes us in a completely unexpected direction. This plays with audience expectations and demonstrates that she has a good degree of self awareness about the layers of her identity. After having our expectations thrown for a loop, we can’t help but wonder more about who exactly this person is (and if you want to know like I did, read the rest of this essay here ).
I am on Oxford Academy’s Speech and Debate Team, in both the Parliamentary Debate division and the Lincoln-Douglass debate division. I write screenplays, short stories, and opinionated blogs and am a regular contributor to my school literary magazine, The Gluestick. I have accumulated over 300 community service hours that includes work at homeless shelters, libraries, and special education youth camps. I have been evaluated by the College Board and have placed within the top percentile. But I am not any of these things. I am not a test score, nor a debater, nor a writer. I am an anti-nihilist punk rock philosopher. And I became so when I realized three things:
Why It Works: He basically tears up his (impressive) resume in the first few sentences and says, “That’s not me! Here’s the real me…” and as a result we wonder, “How does one become an anti-nihilist punk rock philosopher? And what are the three things??” (Read the rest here .)
Ask a question that you won’t (and probably can’t) answer in your essay. This gives you a chance to show how your brilliant brain works, plus keeps us hooked as you explore possible answers/solutions.
Does every life matter? Because it seems like certain lives matter more than others, especially when it comes to money.
Why it Works: It raises a complex, interesting question and poses a controversial idea: that we treat some lives as though they matter more than others. We wonder: “Is that true? Could it be? Say more…” Heads-up: This one can veer into the “Overly Grand Ambiguous Statement” opening if you’re not careful. Click here to read the rest of the essay mentioned above, which by the way took him a long time to refine—as this approach is not easy to pull off.
Begin by admitting something you might be judged (or judge yourself) for.
I have been pooped on many times. I mean this in the most literal sense possible. I have been pooped on by pigeons and possums, house finches and hawks, egrets and eastern grays. (Read the rest here .)
Why it Works: Shows vulnerability, but also in many cases intrigues us to learn more.
Here is a secret that no one in my family knows: I shot my brother when I was six. Luckily, it was a BB gun. But to this day, my older brother Jonathan does not know who shot him. And I have finally promised myself to confess this eleven year old secret to him after I write this essay.
Why It Works: This is a super vulnerable to admit and raises all sorts of questions for us: Why did he shoot his brother? Why hasn’t he confessed it to him? What will his brother say once he tells him? (Fun fact: This essay actually breaks the “don’t start with a quote” rule. Here’s the rest if you wanna’ read it.)
A contextualizing 1-2-sentences (often at the end of the first paragraph) to ground the essay by giving us a sneak peek at what’s to come in the essay—but that do NOT give away the ending.
Example (I’ve marked it in bold below at the end of the first paragraph):
Six years ago, a scrawny twelve year old kid took his first steps into Home Depot: the epitome of manliness. As he marched through the wood section, his eyes scrolled past the options. Red Oak? No, too ubiquitous. Pine? No, too banal. Mahogany? Perfect, it would nicely complement his walls. As days went on, the final product was almost ready. 91 degree angles had been perfected to 90. Drawer slides had been lubricated ten times over. Finally, the masterpiece was finished, and the little boy couldn’t help but smile. A scrawny 12-year-old kid had become a scrawny 12-year-old man. This desk I sit at has not only seen me through the last six years, but its story and the story of the objects I keep on it provide a foundation for my future pursuits.
Why It Works: As we read the first few sentences of this paragraph we might wonder, “Where is this going?” But this sentence sets us at ease and—again, without giving too much away—gives us a sense of what’s to come. We know that we’re going to learn about the author and his future through the objects on his desk. Great! It also signals to the reader “Don’t worry, you’re in good hands. I’m still aware of the task at hand.”
Begin with a concept that’s unusual, paradoxical, and/or marked a turning point in your thinking. This is often followed up with context explaining where the concept came from and why the author is considering it.
Crayfish can turn their red blood cells into precursor neuronal cells, I read in shock. The scientific paper, published in Cell 2014, outlined the process where crayfish could regenerate lost eyestalks or olfactory (smell and odor) nerves with their blood – they could see and smell again! It seemed unfair from an evolutionary standpoint. Humans, who were so much larger than a 7-ounce crayfish, couldn’t use their abundant blood to fix their brain damage.
Why It Works: This opening signals to the reader that the author is: a) someone who has read quite a bit, b) curious, and c) knows, as I like to say, “some stuff about some stuff.” In this case, she knows some science stuff.
Do you know some stuff about some stuff? If so, a little geeky language can help signal this to the reader. Don’t overdo it, though, or it can seem showy.
FYI: I see this more often at the start of great essays than personal statements, as this can often lead to an essay that’s more heady/intellectual and less vulnerable/personal. A variation on this that’s a bit more personal is the...
Begin with a strange fact about yourself to grab our attention. Then go on to say why it’s meaningful. Example:
I subscribe to what the New York Times dubs “the most welcomed piece of daily e-mail in cyberspace.” Cat pictures? Kardashian updates? Nope: A Word A Day.
(Read the rest here .)
Why It Works: It pulls us in by making us think, “Oh, that’s cool!” and then wondering, “Okay, where is this going?”
Grab our attention with an incredibly specific and arresting image or sentence. Then tell us why it matters.
Smeared blood, shredded feathers. Clearly, the bird was dead. But wait, the slight fluctuation of its chest, the slow blinking of its shiny black eyes. No, it was alive.
Why It Works: This style subtly highlights the writing talent of the author without drawing attention away from the content of the story. In this example, the staccatoed sentence fragments convey a sense of halting anxiety and also mimic the movement of the bird’s chest as it struggles to breathe. All sorts of questions come up: What happened to the bird? What will the author do? (Read the rest of the essay here .)
February 2011– My brothers and I were showing off our soccer dribbling skills in my grandfather’s yard when we heard gunshots and screaming in the distance. We paused and listened, confused by sounds we had only ever heard on the news or in movies. My mother rushed out of the house and ordered us inside. The Arab Spring had come to Bahrain.
(Read the rest of the essay here .)
Bowing down to the porcelain god, I emptied the contents of my stomach. Foaming at the mouth, I was ready to pass out. My body couldn’t stop shaking as I gasped for air, and the room started spinning. (Read the rest of the essay here .)
There are, of course, many more kinds of openings—and I’ll add to this post as I discover new ones.
We get it, writing a standout introduction is easier said than done. Hopefully though, after seeing some examples of dynamic and thoughtful intros that used our techniques, you’re inspired to brainstorm some of your own . You’ve got this. DTDT has never looked so good.
Have a great college essay opening or a new type of opening you’d like to suggest? Share it in the comments below!
This post was co-written by me (Ethan) and Luci Jones (Brown University, CO ‘23). Luci took my How to Write a Personal Statement course last year. The essay that she produced was so good and her writing was so beautiful, I’ve asked her to help me co-write this blog post with me, create a few techniques for writing a great introduction, and analyze why they work so well.
WANT HELP writing YOUR PERSONAL STATEMENT? CHECK OUT A FREE TRIAL OF MY STEP-BY-STEP VIDEO COURSE HERE
Watch the lessons on your own or via the live option.
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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 .
The Admissions Strategist
How to start a college essay: 8 killer tips.
College admissions essays are a vital part of your application.
They give the admissions committee a more personal understanding of you, and they can tip an admissions decision in your favor.
As with any piece of writing, it’s important to consider your audience when writing a college essay.
- In this case, the audience is an admissions officer who will likely read hundreds of essays , all addressing similar prompts, during the admissions cycle.
He may have read dozens of essays in the last few hours. As he turns to your application, he wants to read a well-written, engaging essay.
- How can you make this person feel excited about reading your essay?
- How can you immediately set yourself apart from dozens or hundreds of other applicants?
- How can you make the admissions officer want to really pay attention and read closely?
1. Keep it brief .
On college essays, students are generally limited to 500-700 words .
- That’s certainly not many words for such an important piece of writing, so it’s necessary for you to keep the essay introduction brief.
You need to get to the “meat” of the essay as quickly as possible.
- So while the college essay introduction is important, it shouldn’t take up the majority of your limited word count.
In the introduction, you do not need to summarize or preview everything that will be discussed in the essay.
- Instead, the college essay introduction should give a short, engaging glimpse into the rest of the piece.
When writing the first draft of your essay, it’s OK to go over the word count by 200-300 words.
- When cutting down the essay, start by refining the introduction. Since you likely started the essay by writing the introduction, there’s a good chance you included too much unnecessary background detail.
- When you reread the essay after a short break, you’ll realize how much of your introduction isn’t necessary.
As a benchmark, you don’t want the introduction to comprise more than 30% of the word count of the entire college essay.
Even then, we recommend keeping the introduction to around 20% of the essay.
2. Start with an attention grabber .
The very first sentence of your essay should be the “hook” or “grabber.” This sentence “hooks” readers or “grabs” their attention, making them want to read more.
This first sentence should provide rich details, engage a reader’s curiosity, or otherwise stand out from the rest.
Here are some sample grabbers from winning college essays:
I have old hands. (Stanford) If my life were a play, there would be two sets, two acts, and two sets of characters. (MIT) Some fathers might disapprove of their children handling noxious chemicals in the garage. (Stanford) There is a hefty blue book in my bookcase that is older than any other book in my house. (MIT) When I was in the eighth grade I couldn’t read. (Stanford) As an Indian-American, I am forever bound to the hyphen. (Stanford) I change my name each time I place an order at Starbucks. (Stanford) I’ve been surfing Lake Michigan since I was 3 years old. (Stanford)
The first sentence can also be a question, but only if it’s particularly insightful or interesting, like this one:
While traveling through the daily path of life, have you ever stumbled upon a hidden pocket of the universe? (Stanford)
Don’t each of these sentences make you want to read more? That’s the impact of a well-written grabber.
Some of these sentences offer vivid details (the hefty blue book, the noxious chemicals, the old hands).
- Others engage our curiosity (How do you surf a lake? Is it true that a Stanford applicant couldn’t read in eighth grade? What is a hidden pocket of the universe?).
The rest simply stand out.
- For example, “I am forever bound to the hyphen,” is a thought-provoking and interesting statement. “I change my name each time I place an order at Starbucks,” is a unique way to begin a college essay.
Where is she going with this?
You may also notice that, for the most part, these sentences are short.
This isn’t a necessity, but a short, intriguing opening sentence can be especially powerful.
Find a similarly unique or thought-provoking first sentence.
From the first few words, the admissions officer will be fully engaged in reading your essay.
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3. vividly describe an anecdote related to your essay’s main point..
After the initial grabber (or sometimes as part of the initial grabber), it’s a good idea to include a vivid anecdote .
Like the grabber, a detailed anecdote can keep your reader engaged and wanting to know more.
It can also effectively introduce the experience or topic you’ll be discussing.
Here’s an excerpt from another winning college essay (written by Shaan Merchant for Tufts University):
“Biogeochemical. It’s a word, I promise!” There are shrieks and shouts in protest and support. Unacceptable insults are thrown, degrees and qualifications are questioned, I think even a piece of my grandmother’s famously flakey parantha whizzes past my ear. Everyone is too lazy to take out a dictionary (or even their phones) to look it up, so we just hash it out.
This highly detailed description of a family game of Bananagrams (a version of Scrabble) provides an excellent introduction to Merchant’s essay about his love of words.
Merchant could have started his essay with a dull sentence like, “I have loved words since I was a child.” Instead, he selected a colorful, entertaining anecdote that introduced this point far more creatively.
He also started with an intriguing grabber: “Biogeochemical.
- It’s a word, I promise!” Immediately, readers are pulled into the essay and wondering what inspired this opening piece of dialogue.
Brainstorm an anecdote that can introduce the main point of your essay (like a game of Bananagrams introduced Merchant’s love of words).
- If your essay is about an experience, you can open it by narrating a significant moment that was part of that experience.
To make the anecdote vivid, you should include specific details that paint a picture in the reader’s mind.
These images can describe any of the five senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, or touch.
- In our sample excerpt, for instance, Merchant mentions “shrieks and shouts” and “[his] grandmother’s famously flakey parantha” (flatbread). Later in his college admissions essay introduction, Merchant also references “small, glossy, plastic tiles” thrown into a pile.
In another winning college essay, a student vividly described the condition of his mother’s feet in relation to her hard work and sacrifice on his behalf.
The bottom line is this:
Come up with an anecdote that illustrates your essay’s point or the experience you’re describing.
Make sure you also include plenty of specific, descriptive adjectives. The admissions officer will be thankful for your refreshingly creative college essay introduction.
4. Connect the descriptive anecdote to the overall point of your essay.
A descriptive anecdote is creative, engaging, and a fun way to introduce the essay topic.
But it’s not very effective unless you explain how this anecdote is connected to the rest of the essay.
In this sentence, you can:
- Explain the importance of the experience or moment being described
- Explain how this moment is connected to a larger event or experience
- Explain what personal qualities or traits this anecdote illustrates
- Explain how the anecdote is connected to the overall point you will be making in the essay
In Merchant’s intro, he goes on to describe the game of Banagrams a bit more, including the fact that his dad won the game with “Rambo,” which Merchant contended was not a word.
After this entertaining and vivid description, Merchant writes, “Words and communicating have always been of tremendous importance in my life.”
With this brief sentence, Merchant explains what personal qualities are illustrated by his anecdote, as well as telling readers what the rest of the essay will be about.
After you write an anecdote, make sure you also provide 1-2 sentences explaining the significance of the anecdote and connecting it to the main topic of your essay.
In addition to making the essay topic clear to the reader, this type of sentence highlights excellent thinking skills.
5. Avoid stale, overused introductory techniques.
The goal here is to write a college essay introduction that is not like the other hundreds or even thousands of introductions the admissions officer has read.
This means it’s important to avoid boring, predictable introductory techniques.
- For example, you don’t want to say, “Many experiences have shaped my journey to college,” or, “The obstacles I’ve experienced have made me who I am.”
- These sentences are weak and vague, and they’re also likely written by many college applicants every year.
You also want to avoid the formulaic essay writing you may have learned in elementary or middle school.
- Do not write, “In this essay, I will tell you about…” or feel the need to list each of the main points you’ll cover.
- For example, it’s not necessary to write, “My volunteer work with blood drives, nursing homes, and mentoring programs has greatly influenced me.”
The college admissions essay should be more creative than a traditional essay written for English class.
For this reason, it’s better to ditch overused, formulaic introductions for something more unique.
6. Don’t try to use impressive vocabulary words.
In the sample introduction written by Shaan Merchant, he incorporated impressive words like “biogeochemical,” “parantha,” and later, “donnybrook.”
However, this complex word usage was intended to illustrate Merchant’s point about his lifelong love of words.
In most cases, however, it is best if you don’t try too hard to use multi-syllable vocabulary words intended to impress admissions officers.
- Usually, this will make the introduction sound unnatural. It won’t sound like your authentic voice , which is what admissions officers want to read.
Additionally, most admissions officers can recognize when an applicant is being genuine vs. when an applicant is simply trying to impress.
- Worse, some applicants may try to use complicated vocabulary and end up using it incorrectly.
It’s great for you to include a few more advanced words, but you shouldn’t overdo it. Otherwise, the introduction will sound stiff, forced, and unnatural .
The introduction should introduce not only the topic of the essay, but also your unique and authentic voice.
7. Write your college essay introduction last.
This may sound crazy, but it’s usually a good idea to write the introduction last.
First, construct the body of your essay.
- What are the main points you want to make?
- How have the experiences, people, or events described shaped or impacted your life?
- What do these experiences, events, or people tell admissions officers about you?
Once this information is complete, writing the perfect accompanying introduction is a simpler process.
- When you know exactly what you want to write in your essay, it’s easier to come up with a relevant anecdote.
- It’s also easier to generate a powerful, engaging grabber.
The introduction comes first in the essay, but that doesn’t mean you have to write it first.
If the introduction seems a little tricky, or if you get stuck with writer’s block, write the rest of the essay first.
Later, it’ll be far easier to come back to the introduction and think up a brilliant, relevant grabber and anecdote.
8. Proofread, proofread, proofread.
This is true of the college essay in general, but it’s especially important for the introduction.
The college essay introduction is the very first impression the college admissions officer will get of you.
Spelling and grammar mistakes in the introduction are the equivalent of arriving late to a job interview wearing ripped jeans.
It’s not a good first impression. Even if what comes next is great, the negative first impression is hard to forget.
Make sure your introduction is completely free of errors in grammar, spelling, capitalization, punctuation, word usage, etc.
- Read over it multiple times, and have others check it multiple times as well.
Have a friend or relative with excellent grammar skills look over the essay, or ask your English teacher if he or she would take a look.
No matter how many times you and others have proofread the essay, check for errors one more time before sending it off.
Don’t ruin what could be a great essay with typos or mistakes in the very first paragraph.
Here are a few tips to ensure your college essay is mistake-free:
- Use Grammarly . This is a web extension that catches basic mistakes while you’re writing. Think of it as an upgraded spell check.
- Have a friend or teacher review the essay.
- Highlight the absolutely necessary sentences in your introduction. Which sentences create the meaning and essence of the introduction? Which sentences, once omitted, do not alter the meaning and effectiveness of the introduction?
Recap: How to Write a College Essay Introduction
An effective college essay introduction should “wow” admissions officers. It should be creative, intriguing, and unique.
Make sure you start with a strong “hook” or “grabber.” It’s a good idea to follow this first sentence with a vivid anecdote, which you will then connect to the overall topic of your essay. This is often easier to do if you go back and write the introduction last.
Avoid overused introductory techniques, spelling and grammar errors, and forced vocabulary.
If you follow these tips, the admissions officer will be interested in what you have to say from the very start.
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How to Start a College Essay to Hook Your Reader
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What is the purpose of the college essay introduction, tips for getting started on your essay, 6 effective techniques for starting your college essay.
- Cliche College Essay Introduction to Avoid
Where to Get Your Essay Edited for Free
Have you sat down to write your essay and just hit a wall of writer’s block? Do you have too many ideas running around your head, or maybe no ideas at all?
Starting a college essay is potentially the hardest part of the application process. Once you start, it’s easy to keep writing, but that initial hurdle is just so difficult to overcome. We’ve put together a list of tips to help you jump that wall and make your essay the best it can be.
The introduction to a college essay should immediately hook the reader. You want to give admissions officers a reason to stay interested in your story and encourage them to continue reading your essay with an open mind. Remember that admissions officers are only able to spend a couple minutes per essay, so if you bore them or turn them off from the start, they may clock out for the rest of the essay.
As a whole, the college essay should aim to portray a part of your personality that hasn’t been covered by your GPA, extracurriculars, and test scores. This makes the introduction a crucial part of the essay. Think of it as the first glimpse, an intriguing lead on, into the read rest of your essay which also showcases your voice and personality.
Take the time to sit down and brainstorm some good topic ideas for your essay. You want your topic to be meaningful to you, while also displaying a part of you that isn’t apparent in other aspects of your application. The essay is an opportunity to show admissions officers the “real you.” If you have a topic in mind, do not feel pressured to start with the introduction. Sometimes the best essay openings are developed last, once you fully grasp the flow of your story.
Do a Freewrite
Give yourself permission to write without judgment for an allotted period of time. For each topic you generated in your brainstorm session, do a free-write session. Set a time for one minute and write down whatever comes to mind for that specific topic. This will help get the juices flowing and push you over that initial bit of writer’s block that’s so common when it comes time to write a college essay. Repeat this exercise if you’re feeling stuck at any point during the essay writing process. Freewriting is a great way to warm up your creative writing brain whilst seeing which topics are flowing more naturally onto the page.
Create an Outline
Once you’ve chosen your topic, write an outline for your whole essay. It’s easier to organize all your thoughts, write the body, and then go back to write the introduction. That way, you already know the direction you want your essay to go because you’ve actually written it out, and you can ensure that your introduction leads directly into the rest of the essay. Admissions officers are looking for the quality of your writing alongside the content of your essay. To be prepared for college-level writing, students should understand how to logically structure an essay. By creating an outline, you are setting yourself up to be judged favorably on the quality of your writing skills.
1. The Scriptwriter
“No! Make it stop! Get me out!” My 5-year-old self waved my arms frantically in front of my face in the darkened movie theater.
Starting your essay with dialogue instantly transports the reader into the story, while also introducing your personal voice. In the rest of the essay, the author proposes a class that introduces people to insects as a type of food. Typically, one would begin directly with the course proposal. However, the author’s inclusion of this flashback weaves in a personal narrative, further displaying her true self.
Read the full essay.
2. The Shocker
A chaotic sense of sickness and filth unfolds in an overcrowded border station in McAllen, Texas. Through soundproof windows, migrants motion that they have not showered in weeks, and children wear clothes caked in mucus and tears. The humanitarian crisis at the southern border exists not only in photographs published by mainstream media, but miles from my home in South Texas.
This essay opener is also a good example of “The Vivid Imaginer.” In this case, the detailed imagery only serves to heighten the shock factor. While people may be aware of the “humanitarian crisis at the southern border,” reading about it in such stark terms is bound to capture the reader’s attention. Through this hook, the reader learns a bit about the author’s home life; an aspect of the student that may not be detailed elsewhere in their application. The rest of the essay goes on to talk about the author’s passion for aiding refugees, and this initial paragraph immediately establishes the author’s personal connection to the refugee crisis.
3. The Vivid Imaginer
The air is crisp and cool, nipping at my ears as I walk under a curtain of darkness that drapes over the sky, starless. It is a Friday night in downtown Corpus Christi, a rare moment of peace in my home city filled with the laughter of strangers and colorful lights of street vendors. But I cannot focus.
Starting off with a bit of well-written imagery transports the reader to wherever you want to take them. By putting them in this context with you, you allow the reader to closely understand your thoughts and emotions in this situation. Additionally, this method showcases the author’s individual way of looking at the world, a personal touch that is the baseline of all college essays.
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4. The Instant Plunger
The flickering LED lights began to form into a face of a man when I focused my eyes. The man spoke of a ruthless serial killer of the decade who had been arrested in 2004, and my parents shivered at his reaccounting of the case. I curiously tuned in, wondering who he was to speak of such crimes with concrete composure and knowledge. Later, he introduced himself as a profiler named Pyo Chang Won, and I watched the rest of the program by myself without realizing that my parents had left the couch.
Plunging readers into the middle of a story (also known as in medias res ) is an effective hook because it captures attention by placing the reader directly into the action. The descriptive imagery in the first sentence also helps to immerse the reader, creating a satisfying hook while also showing (instead of telling) how the author became interested in criminology. With this technique, it is important to “zoom out,” so to speak, in such a way that the essay remains personal to you.
5. The Philosopher
Saved in the Notes app on my phone are three questions: What can I know? What must I do? What may I hope for? First asked by Immanuel Kant, these questions guide my pursuit of knowledge and organization of critical thought, both skills that are necessary to move our country and society forward in the right direction.
Posing philosophical questions helps present you as someone with deep ideas while also guiding the focus of your essay. In a way, it presents the reader with a roadmap; they know that these questions provide the theme for the rest of the essay. The more controversial the questions, the more gripping a hook you can create.
Providing an answer to these questions is not necessarily as important as making sure that the discussions they provoke really showcase you and your own values and beliefs.
6. The Storyteller
One Christmas morning, when I was nine, I opened a snap circuit set from my grandmother. Although I had always loved math and science, I didn’t realize my passion for engineering until I spent the rest of winter break creating different circuits to power various lights, alarms, and sensors. Even after I outgrew the toy, I kept the set in my bedroom at home and knew I wanted to study engineering.
Beginning with an anecdote is a strong way to establish a meaningful connection with the content itself. It also shows that the topic you write about has been a part of your life for a significant amount of time, and something that college admissions officers look for in activities is follow-through; they want to make sure that you are truly interested in something. A personal story such as the one above shows off just that.
Cliche College Essay Introductions to Avoid
It’s best to avoid introductory sentences that don’t seem to really say anything at all, such as “Science plays a large role in today’s society,” or “X has existed since the beginning of time.” Statements like these, in addition to being extremely common, don’t demonstrate anything about you, the author. Without a personal connection to you right away, it’s easy for the admissions officer to write off the essay before getting past the first sentence.
Quoting Someone Famous
While having a quotation by a famous author, celebrity, or someone else you admire may seem like a good way to allow the reader to get to know you, these kinds of introductions are actually incredibly overused. You also risk making your essay all about the quotation and the famous person who said it; admissions officers want to get to know you, your beliefs, and your values, not someone who isn’t applying to their school. There are some cases where you may actually be asked to write about a quotation, and that’s fine, but you should avoid starting your essay with someone else’s words outside of this case. It is fine, however, to start with dialogue to plunge your readers into a specific moment.
Talking About Writing an Essay
This method is also very commonplace and is thus best avoided. It’s better to show, not tell, and all this method allows you to do is tell the reader how you were feeling at the time of writing the essay. If you do feel compelled to go this way, make sure to include vivid imagery and focus on grounding the essay in the five senses, which can help elevate your introduction and separate it from the many other meta essays.
Phrases like “Ever since I was young…” or “I’ve always wanted…” also lend more to telling rather than showing. If you want to talk about your childhood or past feelings in your essay, try using one of the techniques listed earlier (such as the Instant Plunger or the Vivid Imaginer) to elevate your writing.
CollegeVine has a peer essay review page where peers can tell you if your introduction was enough to hook them. Getting feedback from someone who hasn’t read your essay before, and thus doesn’t have any context which may bias them to be more forgiving to your introduction, is helpful because it mimics the same environment in which an admissions officer will be reading your essay.
Writing a college essay is hard, but with these tips hopefully starting it will be a little easier!
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Most selective colleges require you to submit an essay or personal statement as part of your application.
It may sound like a chore, and it will certainly take a substantial amount of work. But it's also a unique opportunity that can make a difference at decision time. Admissions committees put the most weight on your high school grades and your test scores . However, selective colleges receive applications from many worthy students with similar scores and grades—too many to admit. So they use your essay, along with your letters of recommendation and extracurricular activities , to find out what sets you apart from the other talented candidates.
Telling Your Story to Colleges
So what does set you apart?
You have a unique background, interests and personality. This is your chance to tell your story (or at least part of it). The best way to tell your story is to write a personal, thoughtful essay about something that has meaning for you. Be honest and genuine, and your unique qualities will shine through.
Admissions officers have to read an unbelievable number of college essays, most of which are forgettable. Many students try to sound smart rather than sounding like themselves. Others write about a subject that they don't care about, but that they think will impress admissions officers.
You don't need to have started your own business or have spent the summer hiking the Appalachian Trail. Colleges are simply looking for thoughtful, motivated students who will add something to the first-year class.
Tips for a Stellar College Application Essay
1. write about something that's important to you..
It could be an experience, a person, a book—anything that has had an impact on your life.
2. Don't just recount—reflect!
Anyone can write about how they won the big game or the summer they spent in Rome. When recalling these events, you need to give more than the play-by-play or itinerary. Describe what you learned from the experience and how it changed you.
3. Being funny is tough.
A student who can make an admissions officer laugh never gets lost in the shuffle. But beware. What you think is funny and what an adult working in a college thinks is funny are probably different. We caution against one-liners, limericks and anything off–color.
4. Start early and write several drafts.
Set it aside for a few days and read it again. Put yourself in the shoes of an admissions officer: Is the essay interesting? Do the ideas flow logically? Does it reveal something about the applicant? Is it written in the applicant’s own voice?
5. No repeats.
What you write in your application essay or personal statement should not contradict any other part of your application–nor should it repeat it. This isn't the place to list your awards or discuss your grades or test scores.
6. Answer the question being asked.
Don't reuse an answer to a similar question from another application.
7. Have at least one other person edit your essay.
A teacher or college counselor is your best resource. And before you send it off, check, check again, and then triple check to make sure your essay is free of spelling or grammar errors.
Read More: 2018-2019 Common Application Essay Prompts (and How to Answer Them)
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- 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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12 Strategies to Writing the Perfect College Essay
College admission committees sift through thousands of college essays each year. Here’s how to make yours stand out.
When it comes to deciding who they will admit into their programs, colleges consider many criteria, including high school grades, extracurricular activities, and ACT and SAT scores. But in recent years, more colleges are no longer considering test scores.
Instead, many (including Harvard through 2026) are opting for “test-blind” admission policies that give more weight to other elements in a college application. This policy change is seen as fairer to students who don’t have the means or access to testing, or who suffer from test anxiety.
So, what does this mean for you?
Simply that your college essay, traditionally a requirement of any college application, is more important than ever.
A college essay is your unique opportunity to introduce yourself to admissions committees who must comb through thousands of applications each year. It is your chance to stand out as someone worthy of a seat in that classroom.
A well-written and thoughtful essay—reflecting who you are and what you believe—can go a long way to separating your application from the slew of forgettable ones that admissions officers read. Indeed, officers may rely on them even more now that many colleges are not considering test scores.
Below we’ll discuss a few strategies you can use to help your essay stand out from the pack. We’ll touch on how to start your essay, what you should write for your college essay, and elements that make for a great college essay.
More than any other consideration, you should choose a topic or point of view that is consistent with who you truly are.
Readers can sense when writers are inauthentic.
Inauthenticity could mean the use of overly flowery language that no one would ever use in conversation, or it could mean choosing an inconsequential topic that reveals very little about who you are.
Use your own voice, sense of humor, and a natural way of speaking.
Whatever subject you choose, make sure it’s something that’s genuinely important to you and not a subject you’ve chosen just to impress. You can write about a specific experience, hobby, or personality quirk that illustrates your strengths, but also feel free to write about your weaknesses.
Honesty about traits, situations, or a childhood background that you are working to improve may resonate with the reader more strongly than a glib victory speech.
Grab the Reader From the Start
You’ll be competing with so many other applicants for an admission officer’s attention.
Therefore, start your essay with an opening sentence or paragraph that immediately seizes the imagination. This might be a bold statement, a thoughtful quote, a question you pose, or a descriptive scene.
Starting your essay in a powerful way with a clear thesis statement can often help you along in the writing process. If your task is to tell a good story, a bold beginning can be a natural prelude to getting there, serving as a roadmap, engaging the reader from the start, and presenting the purpose of your writing.
Focus on Deeper Themes
Some essay writers think they will impress committees by loading an essay with facts, figures, and descriptions of activities, like wins in sports or descriptions of volunteer work. But that’s not the point.
College admissions officers are interested in learning more about who you are as a person and what makes you tick.
They want to know what has brought you to this stage in life. They want to read about realizations you may have come to through adversity as well as your successes, not just about how many games you won while on the soccer team or how many people you served at a soup kitchen.
Let the reader know how winning the soccer game helped you develop as a person, friend, family member, or leader. Make a connection with your soup kitchen volunteerism and how it may have inspired your educational journey and future aspirations. What did you discover about yourself?
Show Don’t Tell
As you expand on whatever theme you’ve decided to explore in your essay, remember to show, don’t tell.
The most engaging writing “shows” by setting scenes and providing anecdotes, rather than just providing a list of accomplishments and activities.
Reciting a list of activities is also boring. An admissions officer will want to know about the arc of your emotional journey too.
Try Doing Something Different
If you want your essay to stand out, think about approaching your subject from an entirely new perspective. While many students might choose to write about their wins, for instance, what if you wrote an essay about what you learned from all your losses?
If you are an especially talented writer, you might play with the element of surprise by crafting an essay that leaves the response to a question to the very last sentence.
You may want to stay away from well-worn themes entirely, like a sports-related obstacle or success, volunteer stories, immigration stories, moving, a summary of personal achievements or overcoming obstacles.
However, such themes are popular for a reason. They represent the totality of most people’s lives coming out of high school. Therefore, it may be less important to stay away from these topics than to take a fresh approach.
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Write With the Reader in Mind
Writing for the reader means building a clear and logical argument in which one thought flows naturally from another.
Use transitions between paragraphs.
Think about any information you may have left out that the reader may need to know. Are there ideas you have included that do not help illustrate your theme?
Be sure you can answer questions such as: Does what you have written make sense? Is the essay organized? Does the opening grab the reader? Is there a strong ending? Have you given enough background information? Is it wordy?
Write Several Drafts
Set your essay aside for a few days and come back to it after you’ve had some time to forget what you’ve written. Often, you’ll discover you have a whole new perspective that enhances your ability to make revisions.
Start writing months before your essay is due to give yourself enough time to write multiple drafts. A good time to start could be as early as the summer before your senior year when homework and extracurricular activities take up less time.
Read It Aloud
Writer’s tip : Reading your essay aloud can instantly uncover passages that sound clumsy, long-winded, or false.
If you’ve mentioned an activity, story, or anecdote in some other part of your application, don’t repeat it again in your essay.
Your essay should tell college admissions officers something new. Whatever you write in your essay should be in philosophical alignment with the rest of your application.
Also, be sure you’ve answered whatever question or prompt may have been posed to you at the outset.
Ask Others to Read Your Essay
Be sure the people you ask to read your essay represent different demographic groups—a teacher, a parent, even a younger sister or brother.
Ask each reader what they took from the essay and listen closely to what they have to say. If anyone expresses confusion, revise until the confusion is cleared up.
Pay Attention to Form
Although there are often no strict word limits for college essays, most essays are shorter rather than longer. Common App, which students can use to submit to multiple colleges, suggests that essays stay at 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.
In reviewing other technical aspects of your essay, be sure that the font is readable, that the margins are properly spaced, that any dialogue is set off properly, and that there is enough spacing at the top. Your essay should look clean and inviting to readers.
End Your Essay With a “Kicker”
In journalism, a kicker is the last punchy line, paragraph, or section that brings everything together.
It provides a lasting impression that leaves the reader satisfied and impressed by the points you have artfully woven throughout your piece.
So, here’s our kicker: Be concise and coherent, engage in honest self-reflection, and include vivid details and anecdotes that deftly illustrate your point.
While writing a fantastic essay may not guarantee you get selected, it can tip the balance in your favor if admissions officers are considering a candidate with a similar GPA and background.
Write, revise, revise again, and good luck!
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How To: Write Your Personal Essay
Posted by Carolyn Pippen on Wednesday, September 11, 2013 in Application Process , General Information , The College Essay .
While we still have a few more days until the official beginning of fall, around here it feels a lot like the season has already begun. Classes are back in session , the leaves are falling off the trees, and most of our counselors have departed for the two-month marathon of flights, high school visits, and college fairs that we call travel season.
In addition, thousands of high school seniors across the country have begun the process of filling out college applications. Regardless of whether or not one of your applications will be submitted to Vanderbilt, we would like to offer you a few nuggets of the expertise we have acquired working with students and evaluating applications over years.
Thus we give you: The “How To” Series. Over the next several weeks, we will be posting lists of tips concerning various pieces of the application that we hope will make this process a little less overwhelming for all of you. Today’s tips focus on the personal essay.
- Be thoughtful, but not fretful. As a senior, most of the accomplishments that will make up the bulk of your application – academic performance, test scores, and extracurricular involvement – are said and done. In a sense, the only part of the application over which you have complete control right now is the essay. Don’t let this scare you! While the essay is a valuable tool that we use to understand you better, it is rarely if ever a “make or break” component of your application.
- Keep the “personal” in personal essay. The Common Application presents six different prompts for you to choose from when writing your essay. To be honest, we don’t really care that much what you write about, as long as you’re writing about you. In other words, don’t spend the entire essay detailing the life of your favorite and most accomplished family member, but rather focus on how that person has affected you and your life decisions. Don’t give us a detailed narrative of your favorite community service trip, but instead tell us what you learned from that trip and how it has changed your outlook on the world. This is one time when it’s okay to be self-centered – more than anything, we want to know about you!
- Don’t try to guess what the reader wants to hear. If you ask a hundred different admissions counselors what their favorite kind of essay is, you will likely get a hundred different answers. Trying to figure out what topic will get us most excited is like trying to guess which outfits the judges of Project Runway are going to like the most – no matter how many times we watch, Heidi always manages to confound. Instead of trying to game the system, focus on the things that get you excited. If nothing else, I promise that passion will show through.
- Feel free to be funny or creative – but don’t overreach. If your friends tell you that you’re the funniest person in the class, use that skill to your advantage. If your creativity is what sets you apart from your peers, let that innovation guide the structure and content of the essay. On the other hand, if every joke you make at the cafeteria table falls flatter than a pancake in a Panini press, don’t try to fake it. Figure out what your personal strengths are, and stick with them.
- Tell us something we don’t already know. When writing your essay, be sure to keep in mind all of the other pieces of your application we already have in front of us while we’re reading it. Do not use this space to summarize your extracurricular involvement or your academic achievements if we’ve already seen these things in your resume and transcript. We know that there is more to you than just test scores and leadership roles, so tell us more!
- Ask for input (but not too much). Your parents, friends, guidance counselors, coaches, and teachers are great people to bounce ideas off of for your essay. They know how unique and spectacular you are, and they can help you decide how to articulate it. Keep in mind, however, that a 45-year-old lawyer writes quite differently from an 18-year-old student, so if your dad ends up writing the bulk of your essay, we’re probably going to notice.
- Edit, proof, polish, and breathe. Beyond gaining insight into your personal psyche, the purpose of the essay is also to showcase your written communication skills. Treat this essay just like any class assignment – write it early, proof and revise, keep an eagle eye out for spelling and grammatical errors, and make sure it is presented in a clean and polished way. That being said, do not call our office in a panic if you discovered a missing article or a misused “its” after you hit submit. Because of our holistic selection process , no student will be denied based on one element of his or her application; this includes typos.
Tags: academic credentials , breathe , college applications , Common Application , essay writing , extracurricular activities , Heidi Klum , how to apply , personal essay , Project Runway
November 11th, 2013
Hi Carolyn, students get stressed regarding writing college admission essays. Your tips are going to help them a lot.
November 30th, 2013
thanks it helped me write a good essay
July 22nd, 2015
Thanks for the informative tips on short essay writing .
January 20th, 2016
Hello, I am applying to a liberal arts college and am sort of stuck up on the essay. Should I be completely honest and mention my shortcomings. I am pretty much introverted and not a good conversationalist. Should I or should I not mention these
January 27th, 2016
Your essay should help to give better, deeper insight into you as a person. As the post mentions, your essay should supplement the other parts of your application to help us understand you better. That said, you don’t have to include anything about yourself that you don’t feel comfortable sharing.
April 25th, 2016
September 3rd, 2016
Is there a specific place to write the essay and is there a prompt, the common app doesn’t have a location to attach a personal essay.
September 6th, 2016
Thank you for your question. The Common Application gives students the option to choose one of five essay prompts. You can read the essay promts on the Common Application site at http://www.commonapp.org/whats-appening/application-updates/common-application-announces-2016-2017-essay-prompts
Again, thanks for your question and your interest in Vanderbilt.
September 17th, 2016
so Vanderbilt does not have additional or supplemental essays?
September 20th, 2016
Thank you for your question – you are correct, there are no supplements for Vanderbilt.
September 21st, 2016
Hi! I’m just adding the final touches to my application and I’m ready to send it off. I’m very excited! Just a clarification: when you say there aren’t any supplements for Vanderbilt, does it mean that the activity essay/expansion isn’t required or is that not classified as a supplement? Thank you!
September 22nd, 2016
Hi Hannah, thanks for your question (and congratulations on finishing up your application). This can vary depending on the specific application method you are using. I think you may be asking about the Common App, and in that case the short answer about activities is required to submit your application. We don’t consider that a supplement because it is a part of the Common Application. If you have more questions, please feel free to follow up.
Thank you for the clarification!
September 23rd, 2016
I made a mistake..3 actually! I submitted my application today and after looking back through my pieces of writing, I realized that I accidentally wrote a word twice in my personal statement and forgot a period, and I also failed to include a small word in my topic sentence for my activities essay on the common app. Apparently, I was far too excited to hit submit. I would hate to have my admission chances suffer because of this. I’ve emailed my admissions counselor, but in the meantime, is there anything that can be done? Thank you!
September 30th, 2016
Hi Hannah, thank you for checking in on this. Emailing your admissions counselor is absolutely the right course of action, and I am sure they will handle it from here. Don’t worry about it! And thanks for your enthusiasm about Vanderbilt!
April 13th, 2017
Thanks for tips, right now i’m in the middle of essay writing, so your article is just what i needed. Start to get more and more worried each day, seems like now i know what to do
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How to Write a Great College Application Essay
By manuela florea
You’ve completed all the application forms, taken all the tests, and now it’s finally time to impress your university’s admission officers with a great college application essay.
A college application essay is usually around 500 words, and those words can mean the difference between acceptance and rejection. You will spend many days researching and crafting your essay, but admissions officers will only have a few minutes to actually read it, so you need to get their attention.
However, if you are the type of person who likes to start with the don’ts, check out our blog post on How Not to Write a University Application Essay .
1. Read the instructions carefully
They say starting the essay is the hardest part. You may think it’s redundant to mention that you need to read the instructions carefully, but with all the excitement and stress that characterizes this period of your life, it needs to be highlighted.
If you don’t follow the application essay guidelines, the admissions officer may assume that you won’t be able to follow the directions of the university’s program. Page and word limits are mentioned for a reason and you must be able to organize your submission by following the rules.
After you’ve read through the instructions a few times and gathered your notes, you can start creating an outline to organize your essay and decide what message you want to send. Now you're ready to write your first draft.
2. Start with a compelling introduction
Great writing is hard to achieve, but it’s possible if you’re smart about it. Anyone who works in journalism will tell you that you can catch any reader’s attention as long as you deliver a great introduction.
The admissions officers will only spend a brief amount of time reviewing your essay, so you need to start with a vivid paragraph that will keep them engaged. The introduction has to reveal to the reader what your essay is about and catch their attention. You could open with an anecdote or an interesting story that will show some of the best parts of your personality and character, offering an insight that will help the admission officers get to know who you are.
3. Use your inner voice
Universities are looking for authenticity and quality of thinking, so don’t try to shape your essay around phrases or ideas that people have used many times before, but base it on your genuine beliefs.
The application essay is your opportunity to impress an admissions officer with your determination and existing knowledge of your chosen subject. Make sure it reflects all of your skills and ambitions, and show how your chosen program will help you achieve future goals.
4. Avoid clichés
While you research your application essay, you will be encouraged to check out some examples of great essays and get inspired. While this is a great exercise, many students allow themselves to be influenced too much by the examples, and use lots of clichés in their desire to impress the admission officers.
Remember that there are thousands of others students applying to your desired university, and you need to distinguish yourself. Re-read your essay, delete all the sentences that sound like a cliché, and try to find a more original angle.
Admissions officers go through thousands of applications a year, so it’s only logical that they will notice those that bring a unique personality to life. Let them discover that!
5. Give good examples to support your ideas
A college application essay is basically a glimpse into how your mind works and how you view the world. If you want your essay to be credible, you need to make sure everything you write supports that viewpoint. Spend some time figuring out how the essay question relates to your personal qualities and then write from a specific angle.
That means that every time you want to express an idea, you don’t simply state a fact, but you also include specific details and examples to develop your ideas. You can do that by offering examples from your personal experiences and writing about what truly motivates you and how you developed a certain belief.
6. Stick to a clear essay plan
Creativity is an aspect very much appreciated in writing, but don’t assume that a creative essay is not also an organized one. Obviously, you don't want to write a bunch of words without meaning, so make sure you write about just one subject at a time.
You will have a maximum number of words, so the secret is not to try to cover everything in your essay. Create a plan before you actually start writing, organize your essay in three parts (introduction, body and conclusion), and decide on the main ideas you want to express.
7. Ask someone to proofread your work
You want to create a great college application, so you will probably read it over and over again in order to make sure there are no typos and spelling and grammar errors. But after a while, you might need a fresh perspective. It's best to ask someone who hasn't seen it yet to take a look, as they're likely to see mistakes you won't catch.
If you ask a teacher or parent to proofread your essay, they will be able not only to catch mistakes, but also to check if the writing sounds like you. After reading so many examples and following all those instructions, it’s hard to tell if what you just wrote is a statement of who you really are or not. Enlist the help of others to make sure that your essay is immaculate.
Now start writing and craft an extraordinary essay!
This article was originally published in January 2016 . It was last updated in September 2022
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Manuela is passionate about education and evolution and wishes to collect enough information in order to help students from all corners of the world take the big step towards their incredible future.
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6 Steps to Start Your College Essay
Getting started on your college essay can be one of the hardest parts of applying to college. Our advice? Take it one step at a time.
Most counselors and students who have applied to college recommend getting started on your college essays early -- the summer prior to senior year, if possible. If you find yourself putting it off, or if you’re experiencing essay anxiety, take a deep breath and try this 6-step plan.
Step 1. Review the essay prompt(s)
Take 15 or 20 minutes to simply look at the essay prompts. The Common Application and Coalition Application release their prompts during the spring prior to senior year.
- Common App essay prompts
- Coalition App essay prompts
If you’re applying to colleges that require an essay but don’t accept the Common App or Coalition App, check the website of the colleges to which you are applying to see if their application and essay is available. Most colleges post their applications in August.
Don’t worry about choosing a topic yet. At this point, just think about what you want colleges to know about you, beyond your grades and test scores. As the Colorado College Admissions Department advises: “Take the time to think carefully about what you want us to know about you.”
Step 2. Start brainstorming
On another day, look at the prompts again. Do any of them invoke personal experiences that demonstrate a unique aspect of your personality? Your academic passions? Your ability to learn and grow from your experiences? Or another quality you want colleges to remember? Write down everything that comes to mind.
Step 3. Test drive a few topics
Some of the students profiled in CollegeData’s Road to College Student Stories have told us that when they connected with an essay topic they were truly passionate about, their essay practically wrote itself. How do you find that topic?
Spend at least a few afternoons or evenings writing about the experiences you brainstormed in Step 2. Write freely and don’t edit yourself at first -- just get your words and ideas on paper.
When you’re finished free writing, ask yourself:
- Which topics were easy -- or even fun -- to write about?
- Where did you have the most to say?
- Which piece of writing seems to reveal the “real you” and your genuine voice?
Remember that your essay does not have to be about a harrowing hardship, tragic loss, or a jaw-dropping adventure. As the Wellesley Admissions Department advises: "An essay about some small, even insignificant-seeming thing can be more powerful than an essay about how you’ve saved the world or overcome tragedy.”
Step 4. Write a (terrible) first draft or two
Once you have selected your topic, you can start structuring your first draft. But don’t expect your first, or even third or fourth draft, to be perfect. Give yourself time to write multiple versions, and plan to walk away from your essay for at least a couple of days so you can come back to it with a fresh perspective.
Keep in mind that you may be able to use parts of the early drafts of your essay -- writing that didn't make it into the final version -- for supplemental essays or other parts of your application.
Warning: Be careful about being overly influenced by online essay examples.
While reading essays submitted by other students can be helpful, reading too many might put the voices of other students in your head. Your essay should be uniquely yours. As the Princeton Admissions Department advises: “This is your opportunity to display your best writing as well as your ability to convey ideas in your own voice.”
Step 5. Get feedback from a teacher, counselor, or other people you trust
Some questions to ask the readers of your essay:
- Does the essay ring true to them?
- Does the language sound like you?
- Did they find any parts of it unclear or difficult to understand?
Step 6. Write as many drafts as you need to
Revise and get feedback until you feel confident that your essay says what you want it to say. Then have a teacher, counselor or another person you trust proofread your essay to ensure there are no grammatical or punctuation errors and that it is clear and easy to read.
With your essay finished, you can then work on the other parts of your applications . Good luck!
7 ways to improve your college essay.
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How to Write a College Application Essay: A Complete Guide
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- College application essays allow students to showcase their strengths and uniqueness.
- A well-written college essay could tip an admission decision in your favor.
- Students should spend time editing and proofreading their application essays.
- Your college application essay should focus on you and a meaningful topic.
Many colleges and universities require a college admissions essay as part of the application process. These personal statements allow students to describe their academic achievements, their strengths, and other personal aspects that can help admissions officers see them as unique individuals.
The essay also demonstrates a student's readiness for college and likelihood of success. While an applicant's GPA, SAT or ACT scores, and transcripts are important, a college application essay can offer an admissions department insights that these metrics don't reveal.
BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.
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How important is the college application essay.
Many schools strongly emphasize the college application essay during admissions.
Although universities consider other elements such as GPA and recommendation letters , an outstanding personal essay for college can help you stand out from other applicants. If you have a similar GPA and test scores to those of other applicants, an essay can allow you to differentiate yourself.
According to a 2018-19 study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling , 56.4% of admissions counselors reported that their institutions placed "considerable" or "moderate" importance on the college application essay when making admission decisions.
The report also found that private schools and more selective colleges tended to put the most weight on admissions essays.
How Long Should a College Essay Be?
Most effective college essay topics tend to reflect conciseness. Students who don't know how to write a personal statement for college might lose their readers' attention if they take too long to make their point. Applicants should remember that they get only a few hundred words to leave a favorable impression.
The Common App essay , for example, allows applicants to write a maximum of 650 words and a minimum of 250 words. Most supplemental essays submitted through this application system should be around 250 words or less.
With the Coalition Application, essays should be 500-650 words long .
What Kinds of College Essay Prompts Are There?
College essay prompts typically consist of broad, open-ended questions. They intend to focus students' writing while allowing for some freedom when addressing a topic. Depending on the school, students might respond to one prompt or pick from several.
Students should pay attention to what a prompt asks and stay on topic. Failing to answer the prompt directly is a common mistake when writing a personal statement for college.
Both the Common App and Coalition for College provide several prompts. Students should read their chosen question carefully as they develop their response. Creating outlines can help applicants stay on topic.
Common App Essay Prompts, 2021-22
- 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?
Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
- Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- 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?
- 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.
Coalition App Essay Prompts, 2021-22
- Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
- Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.
- Has there been a time when you've had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?
- What is the hardest part of being a student now? What's the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?
- Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.
What Are Some Examples of Good College Essay Topics?
Good college essay topics enable concise, transparent, honest, and meaningful writing. Because personal statements should differentiate applicants from their peers, topics should include compelling details and anecdotes.
Students should think carefully before writing about a negative experience or personal weakness. A college essay should portray the applicant positively, and dwelling on difficult or taboo topics could detract from your strengths.
You might look for college application essay examples to help you brainstorm topics. Students can also consider asking family members and peers to comment on their strengths and unique qualities. They may have insight to offer about what makes an applicant a good fit for a particular major or area of study.
Below are some examples of good college essay topics:
- A Defining Moment, Experience, or Realization: An experience that changed your perspective; a strong belief you no longer hold
- Someone Who Has Greatly Influenced You: Your most important mentor; a person who changed your life for the better
- A Key Part of Your Identity: An important aspect about you that you wish more people knew; your best characteristic
- Your Biggest Passion: A cause for which you have sacrificed; how your passion helped shape your identity
- A Problem You Solved: A significant obstacle you overcame; a solution you developed that achieved results
- A Unique Hobby: Your most enjoyable pastime; a time when your hobby taught you a valuable lesson
How to Write a Personal Statement for College: 6 Tips
A key characteristic of an excellent college application essay is writing quality. The personal statement can weigh heavily on some admission decisions. With this in mind, students can employ several strategies to make their essays stand out.
1. Pick a Meaningful Topic
Compelling college essay topics enable applicants to tell memorable and relatable stories. Students choosing subjects that hold personal meaning for them will likely write with more authenticity and enthusiasm, maintaining readers' interest.
Applicants should focus more on writing something they care about rather than what they think will impress admissions officers.
2. Keep the Focus on You
Unlike test scores or letters of recommendation, good college essay topics give students considerable control over how they express their best selves. Therefore, the essay should focus on them and not on other people.
Even personal statements that discuss an influential teacher or mentor should keep the story's focus on the applicant, such as how that person drove you to change or take action.
3. Use Specific Details and Examples
College essays ideally illustrate students' potential by outlining their achievements. These statements should include detailed descriptions and examples that portray experiences rather than future goals.
For instance, students who want to convey their leadership skills might describe specific incidents when they inspired others or helped a group achieve a tangible output.
4. Reveal Something Unique About Yourself
A student should write a college application essay that distinguishes them from other applicants. For example, writing about playing a niche instrument or winning an Olympic medal can help students stand out from other applicants. Doing so also demonstrates how your distinctive qualities will add to campus life.
5. Tell a Story
Students should use their college admissions essays to tell stories, striving for quality instead of quantity. In other words, you should avoid discussing your entire life and instead focus on one or two strong anecdotes that reveal your true self.
Applicants may write about specific hobbies or work experiences that highlight their values, skills, or proficiencies.
6. Edit and Proofread
Editing involves fine-tuning a draft to improve its organization and clarity. Proofreading typically follows editing and entails checking for errors. Once applicants have edited and proofread their essays, they'll benefit from at least one more read-through.
You should also strongly consider asking someone else to review your draft to catch additional errors and provide constructive feedback.
What Should You Avoid in Your Personal Essay for College?
Although a personal essay for college can demonstrate excellent writing and topic choice, it can still leave an unfavorable impression if it contains inappropriate or repetitive information. Here are some examples of topics to leave out of your statement.
Your Grades, Test Scores, and Academic Achievements
Successful college essays typically include information that does not appear anywhere else in the application. When reviewing other submission documents, admissions officers can learn about students' grades, previous courses, and scholarly achievements. As such, the essay should not focus on these kinds of details.
Your Life of Privilege
Steer clear of topics that highlight a privileged lifestyle. For example, framing a relatively common athletic injury as the hardest challenge you've faced may not demonstrate resilience as effectively as you'd like it to. It also suggests a lack of awareness of more serious obstacles others your age have faced.
In your eyes, Fido and Fluffy may be the most amazing creatures on the planet. But we all love our pets. You want your college essay to stand out by focusing on a topic or experience that's unique to you rather than something universal.
Cliches and Trite Quotations
A college admissions essay presents an opportunity for students to express their creativity and originality of thought. Using cliches and trite expressions makes writers appear lazy or unimaginative. Also, some sayings may be relevant to specific cultures, alienating or confusing some readers.
Your Criminal Record
Everybody admires an underdog who overcomes adversity, but illuminating past missteps with the law isn't exactly the best way to make a good first impression on college admissions officers. While you shouldn't sanitize reality for the benefit of your readers, choose a college essay topic that at the very least presents you in a positive light.
Grammar and Spelling Mistakes
Knowing how to write a college application essay includes detecting spelling, punctuation, and grammar mistakes. Error-free personal statements go far to illustrate applicants' excellent writing skills. Students might ask teachers, mentors, or others they trust to read their essays to catch any mistakes before submitting them.
College Application Essay Example
I planned my high school career carefully: marching band, honors courses, and three dual-credit college classes. My senior year should have been a smooth glide to graduation, with multiple electives to fill out the seven-hour day.
As a member of the Class of 2011, however, I became part of the first group of students to fall under the Texas Education Agency's new "4x4 plan." High school graduation requirements for Texas students expanded to include four years of four core subjects: mathematics, social studies, English, and science.
Under the new plan, despite careful planning, I was one year short on science. Due to the limited curriculum options of my small school, the only course on my prescribed registration list was Biology II. Enrolling in Biology II meant participating in the final project: dissecting cats.
I had avoided the course in the past for this exact reason. Being a longtime animal lover and advocate, there was simply no way I would — or could — take a scalpel to the body of a nameless shelter cat — killed in a gas chamber, its limbs stiff, fur matted with embalming fluid.
If all else failed, I was ready to sacrifice my 4.0 GPA. I was prepared to sit out for the project and take a dozen failing grades.
But first, I decided to put up a fight.
I drafted a formal letter to the principal and the biology teacher, discussing my reservations. I sent a second letter to the school's anatomy teacher. Her courses were over capacity, strictly limited to students interested in pursuing a health major in college, and the only other science option available at my grade level.
I let them know how the sudden introduction of the 4x4 plan felt like a punishment to students like me who had painstakingly planned their high school years from the start. I told them of my compassion for all living creatures, my concern with the use of cruel carbon monoxide euthanasia in Texas shelters, and the availability of modern computer programs that required no desecration of beloved companion animals.
When my senior year arrived, I had a seat in the crowded anatomy classroom — a future music major, alongside two dozen students with their eyes set on nursing, physical therapy, and medical school.
Presenting my views in a clear, respectful way prompted three adults in authority to make a positive change on my behalf. I was further informed that, in the years to follow, shelter cats would be phased out of Biology II and replaced with virtual dissection labs.
Feature Image: fotostorm / E+ / Getty Images
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