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8 min read

How to Write the College Essay: 20 Tips for Success

How to Write the College Essay: 20 Tips for Success

You're filling out your daunting college application. They ask for your grades and extracurriculars (check!). Easy.

But... you've still got that dang college essay to tackle. You might be tempted to think: "Seems like a good job for ChatGPT!"

The college essay is an important part of the self-portrait you paint for colleges. It's a time that your personality can shine through. Challenging, yes. Yet super rewarding and worth doing, even for your own sake.

In this blog post, as a former Dean of Admission, I'll walk you through these highlights (click to jump to each section):

As the essay prompts seem to stare tauntingly from the pages of your applications, the growing anxiety can become stressful. About 50% of students find the college essay to be the most difficult aspect of the application.

Even the best writers struggle with the questions, “What do they want to see?,” “How can I set myself apart from the competition?,” and these past few years in particular, “Should I share personal experiences that shaped my life?".

If you find yourself in this situation, you’re not alone. Writing a compelling essay is not an easy task given the high-stakes nature of college admission. That said, by writing a powerful essay that effectively complements your other credentials, you have an opportunity to stand out. Let’s take a look at why colleges require essays in the first place, and start writing!


The Role of College Essays

Despite the potentially stressful nature of college essays, the essays do help admission officers learn more about you. For example, they want to see if you’re able to:

1. Write well

Your essay should reveal that you have good command of the language, understand the rules of grammar, and can convey ideas concisely. Do you have a thesis statement that is supported throughout the essay? Is the essay in your own words?

2. Think analytically and reflectively

Admission officers want to get past the facts of your application to discern your capacity for critical thinking. How do you process information about yourself and the world around you? What do you care about? Which experiences have defined you? Your college application essay should reveal how and why have they shaped you.

3. Be creative

It is important to remember that your college essay is not work you are producing for a grade. Rather, you need to make an impression. Think of your college essays as artistic expression. Just as artists have an array of brushstrokes and a rich palette of color at their disposal, you can employ language, literary forms, and punctuation to convey important messages. As the artist, you are at liberty to create. So, what will your art say about you? How will it reveal the story you want to tell?

4. Take risks

Risk-taking is an interesting element of creative writing. Done well, it can lift your presentation from the mundane and safe to the provocative and insightful. Moreover, your capacity for making yourself vulnerable reflects a level of self-confidence that can be reassuring to admission officers who want to discern your ability to perform on their highly-competitive campuses.

5. Reveal the “invisible you”

So much of what you have accomplished in school and in life is data that will be found in the body of your application. The true evidence of your character, personality and sense of compassion, however, lies within you. The power of a good essay is often found in its ability to give the reader this insight. Go beyond your résumé to reveal your personality.


College Essays Reveal a Sense of Purpose 

You may be wondering: How do you start off a college essay?

Kick off your essay by revealing the purpose of your writing (and your college goals).

Admissions officers are seeking students who are purposeful in their pursuits when choosing among highly talented students. They see a ton of candidates who are attracted by the fame or prestige of their institutions, who may simply be applying to see if they can get in. Such candidates, regardless of their credentials, are not very compelling and are easily dismissed.

Selective institutions often employ supplemental essay prompts to sort the whimsically submitted applications from those that are more intentional. The applicants who hold attention longer are those who can clearly express a sense of purpose. They know what they want to accomplish in college, how they can best accomplish it, and understand the instructional elements of the institution that speak to their objectives and learning styles. They can clearly demonstrate the synergy that exists between themselves and the institutions in question.

As you prepare your supplemental essays, focus on:

1. The things you want to accomplish

Why is college important to you? What are your objectives? If you have a specific academic/career interest, how can you prove it? What do you know about the discipline? If you are uncertain about your academic/career direction, do you recognize—and can you articulate—the value of a broadly-based educational experience?

2. The manner in which you like to engage in learning

We don’t all process the same information the same way, and colleges don’t all deliver it in the same manner! Know your learning style. This is especially true if you are an experiential, hands-on learner who values testing ideas. Be prepared to provide evidence of this learning style in your supplemental essays.

3. Proving the synergy

Selective colleges are most interested in students whose sense of purpose is illustrated in their recognition of compatible learning opportunities on their campuses. When they ask “Why do you want to come here,” they are not interested in knowing whether you can recite their institutional superlatives. Rather, they want to see if you have made the conscious connection between your sense of purpose and the opportunities that exist within their educational environment.

And, when given the opportunity, take advantage of supplemental essays to address any adversity you might have experienced, academic and otherwise, during your high school years.


The Next Step: How to Write a Compelling College Essay

Colleges want to read essays that make a statement that speaks to who you are as a person. As you can see, the risk-reward element with the essay is very high, especially if you aspire to highly selective colleges and universities. The following tips should be helpful in developing a personal statement that becomes the glue for a thematically cohesive application.

1. Resist the temptation to buy the “best college essays” book

Doing so will likely contribute to the “paralysis by analysis” you might be experiencing. The genius for your essay rests within you, not an essay someone else has written. Focus on your own storyline.

2. Let provided college essay prompts be a guide, not a requirement

Too often students get stuck on the choice of a prompt and never get to the essay itself. The provided essay prompts are not requirements. Rather they are designed to stimulate a creative thought process. Focus instead on the key messages you want to convey and develop a storyline that illustrates them well. There is a very good chance an essay developed in this manner will speak to at least one of the listed essay prompts.

3. Don’t restate information that is mentioned elsewhere in your college application

This is your opportunity to provide insight and interpretation. Essays that become résumé narratives have little value to the reader. What story does your résumé not communicate?

4. Focus on your experience

You’ll hear a lot from “experts” about taboo topics (sports, death, disease, divorce, pets, etc.) Indeed, generic essays on these related topics are not a good idea. On the other hand, if you have experienced something intensely personal and profoundly meaningful within such a topic, help the reader to know how the experience affected you.

If writing your college essay brings up bad memories or resurfaces difficult feelings, the 988 crisis hotline can help. If the first time you are telling anyone about your intense personal experience is your college essay, consider stepping away and reaching out to a trusted person for support.

5. Find the story within the story

Quite often, metaphors are effective in framing key messages. If you have identified themes or messages to be conveyed in your application, think about vignettes or moments of revelation or clarity that speak to the bigger picture of your developing perspective. What were you feeling at the time? How did you react? What has been the impact of that experience on how you see yourself in the world?

6. Reveal—don’t tell

It is best not to recite the facts of your life. Instead, take the reader between the lines to better understand you, as a thinking person. Colleges value diversity of thought in their classrooms. The essay is your opportunity to reveal that element of diversity that can be found uniquely within you.

7. Demonstrate the synergy between yourself and the institution

This is great to address in response to the common “Why do you want to come here?” essay prompt. You don’t win points by telling them you want to study with their “world-famous professors” in their “top-ranked programs.” Instead, reflect on your research and/or campus visit experience to project yourself into the culture of the place. Reveal an awareness of instructional style and independent learning opportunities.

8. Be measured and concise in your presentation

While complex sentences are sometimes necessary, it is best to err on the side of simplicity. This can be especially true in a story-telling narrative. A series of short, punchy sentences can have a powerful effect in delivering emotionally laden messages.

9. Allow paragraphs to be your friends

An essay that is presented in a few long paragraphs is not only hard to read—the resulting word blocks can be overwhelming to tired eyes—it effectively obscures the author’s key messages. Change paragraphs with each new thought. A one-line, one-sentence paragraph can be more impactful than a 3-4 sentence paragraph.

10. Find creative solutions to conveying ownership of your thoughts

Don’t use the word “I” to start sentences any more than is necessary. It is assumed that you are the author. 

11. Speaking of unnecessary words

...check to see if the word “that” is needed wherever it appears in your draft. If not, delete it.

12. Avoid dangling prepositions

Dangling prepositions include: to, for, from, with, and about. Such words will undoubtedly play important roles in the articulation of your thoughts, but they don’t belong at the end of sentences!

13. Punctuate creatively to emphasize key points

The strategic use of long dashes, exclamation marks, italics, and bold-type characteristics can add emphasis to certain passages while revealing the inflection of your voice. Use quotation marks to indicate you are giving special meaning to a word or phrase. 

14. Don’t restate the essay prompt

Doing so is unnecessarily redundant and can limit your ability to take a more expansive approach with your essay.

15. Eliminate qualifying phrases such as “I think” and “I believe”

They convey a lack of conviction. Instead, try to project a more confident, assertive voice in your college essay.

16. Make sure there is agreement

...between nouns and pronouns as well as verb tenses. Failure to do so is an indication of poor grammar skills, carelessness—or both.

17. Whenever possible, write in the active voice

Here is an example of using an active voice:

  • She is a great mentor to me.

And the passive voice:

  • A great mentor to me, she is.

A good rule of thumb is to mention the subject before the action. That way, you'll be speaking in an active voice.

18. Eliminate unnecessary adverbs

There is a tendency to want to impress with flowery language—and adverbs often comprise the bouquet. Don’t overdo them.

19. Speaking of flowery language, use the thesaurus judiciously

The words you use need to sound like they are coming from you. If not, they can be rather jarring to the reader!

20. Don’t worry about the word count

Word and character counts can be paralyzing if you allow them to dictate your approach to an essay topic. Instead, commit yourself to an idea. Write it down from start to finish. Then, take a step back to gain perspective. As you begin to edit and refine the idea, challenge your word choices. Are they essential to conveying the key messages? If not, eliminate them later.


Make a Good Essay Great!

Finally, when you think you are finished with your essay, dare to make it great! First, attempt to reduce your word count by 10%. Doing so will force you to examine every word, thought, and article of punctuation. Even if you're unable to reduce by 10%, making an honest attempt at it will improve your essay.

And then have someone read it out loud to you. When you proofread silently, your brain will play tricks on you (there is only one “and” in the sentence when, indeed, it reads “and and”). Hearing the words as written will force you to acknowledge the script as it is. Don’t be surprised if you need to ask the reader to pause while you make a change or two!

Your college counselor may be able to help you refine your essay as well.

Good luck!


This article was originally published on September 22, 2021. It was updated on June 13, 2023 for accuracy and comprehensiveness.


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