How to Write a College Application Essay and Not Fail
College application essays, also known as a college admissions essay or personal statements, are the first type of academic writing that high school students face when they apply to selective colleges. These pieces of writing determine the future of thousands of students every year. Of course, it’s crucial to know how to write a college application essay that will make a favorable impression on the college admissions officers.
Every college has a different policy when it comes to college essay. Some institutes receive a Common Application, and others require specific essays. This process can be confusing and even terrifying for high school graduates even though entering a particular university is frequently one of the most popular adolescent dreams.
We care about our readers and want them to be prepared for the complex application and writing process. That’s why our essay writers prepared a full college application essay guide with topics and recommendations. This article will give you a general overview of the subject. For specific details, we recommend checking instructions from specific universities.
What is a college application essay?
Before proceeding to the writing process, you should know what all the fuss is about. Why is this essay so important?
Such essays allow admissions officers to take a closer look at your personality. While the GPA is an essential indicator of your knowledge, the essay demonstrates your personal qualities and inspirations. That’s extremely important, especially for prestigious colleges with history.
The Princeton Review claims that “the college essay is your opportunity to show admissions officers who you are apart from your grades and test scores (and to distinguish yourself from the rest of a very talented applicant pool).” The best colleges get thousands of applications every year, and an unforgettable essay means a chance to become a first-year student. Now, everything is clear with the importance of our writing. Let’s move on to the most common college application essay formats!
5 types of college application essays
1. College specific applications
The point of such essays is clear from the name: colleges offer specific prompts and requirements to applicants. This tendency is common for private institutions.
2. System-shared applications
Sometimes, groups of public universities supported by the same state share one application. This simplifies the process if the student is focused on a particular geographical location.
3. The Common Application
The Common Application is accepted by more than 700 institutions. This system simplifies the application a lot, as a student may complete it online and send to as many member schools as needed. However, some colleges might require additional documents or answers.
4. The Universal Application
The Universal Application is similar to the previous option, but this system unifies only 34 colleges. The majority of institutions that support the Universal Application also receive the Common Application.
5. The Coalition Application
This type of application is received in 90 member colleges. Not every institution can join this system, as it has a range of standards. For example, member schools have to offer need-based financial aid to students.
Admissions officers assure applicants that the type of the college application essay doesn’t matter when they evaluate them. However, we recommend you check with an alumnus and find out which format is preferable.
How to write a college application essay: tips and recommendations
If you’re in a hurry and want to get a general overview of how to compose an impressive admissions essay, you may read this part and leave the rest for later. We’ve gathered all the time-tested recommendations in our guide so that you won’t have to look for material somewhere else.
1. Take your time
That’s the most important among the tips for writing college application essays. You aren’t composing an ordinary text for your school assignment. The content and the formatting of the admissions essay will define your future. Don’t be over-confident – prepare a few drafts before submitting the best version.
2. Read examples of winning essays
You can find collections of the best application essays on college websites. As a rule, the admissions board will not try to hide these examples from the general public. Sometimes, you’ll also find explanations of why a specific text drew the attention of its members. Write down criteria that might influence the decision about your entering the school.
3. Don’t copy
As we’ve mentioned above, the application essay is your only chance to demonstrate your extraordinary personality. Your qualities and inspiration can become a decisive factor in the application procedure. That’s why we strongly recommend not copying even from the most successful admissions essays. Members of the board are experienced examiners, and they’ll smell a rat.
4. Provide real-life examples
General phrases and vague claims won’t help you. Imagine how many phrases like “I’m straightforward” or “I have leadership skills” admissions officers see in college application essays. But they’re not ready to trust fluent phrases or citations from classic literature. They need to know more about your life and actions. If you have a life-changing experience that presents you in a good light, that’s the most reliable way to attract attention.
5. Be emotional
Expressing emotion might not be appropriate for academic writing, but application essays are something between academic and personal writing. If you show that you’re passionate about your goals or that you have some regrets, it isn’t a mistake. You’re a human being, as well as the admissions officers. Don’t be afraid to add some feelings!
6. Add some humor
If you are able to make one of the officers laugh, your essay definitely won’t remain unnoticed. But you have to be careful with picking the right joke. We recommend you to test it on your parent or teachers – in other words, adults. They might have the opposite opinion about what is funny. Avoid black comedy, racism, and gender jokes.
7. Get feedback
Your application essay might be love at first sight. But it might work only for you, not for other people. Gather as many opinions about your work as possible. Ask your friends, parents, counselors, and teachers. Write down all the comments and edit your college application essay. Then do it again. And again.
8. Be original
A good college application essay isn’t about fitting in specific requirements. Members of the admissions board want to hear your personal voice and decide whether this voice stands out or blends in the crowd. You never know which of your statements will be the decisive one. Try to be honest, as the officers will appreciate that.
9. Avoid banal topics
Sometimes, colleges specify the topic for admissions essays, and you don’t have a choice. Then, your task is to find an unusual approach and explain your point of view. And in case institutions leave the topic to the discretion of students, you get a chance to surprise the officers both with your topic choice and presentation. Avoid predictable themes such as academic success, sports victories, world peace, etc.
10. Don’t mention your scores
Your application essay’s purpose isn’t to restate the content of other documents. If you have great academic results, admissions officers will learn of this from your test scores or letters of recommendations. Bragging about your GPA is boring, banal, and unnecessary. But your achievements in other spheres of life can be mentioned.
11. Answer the question
If the institution answers a specific question, for example, “why do you want to study at…?” or “what makes you a good candidate for…?” answer it! You may use a non-standard style or bring unexpected examples, but, after all, they need a clear answer. Don’t let your willingness to be original overcome your logical reasoning!
12. Avoid overused words and expressions
Not only certain topics but also phrases and words can be banal. You can demonstrate your culture and sophisticated writing style by using precise wording. Avoid vague words and replace them with the expressions right on point. We’ve composed this simple table to help you with word choice.
|Decent, wonderful, worthy, well-mannered, attractive, courteous, amiable
|Delightful, breathtaking, splendid, unbelievable, phenomenal, tremendous
|Leading, supreme, incomparable, unmatched, unsurpassed, unbeaten, ultimate, second to none
|Essential, significant, crucial, primary, top priority, predominant, urgent, vital, cardinal, major
|Adore, approve, cherish, admire
|Fascinating, engaging, impressive, pleasing, provocative, exotic, unusual, refreshing
|Enormous, mammoth, immense, massive, colossal, sizable, vast
|Extremely, utterly, considerable, certainly, excessively, remarkably, deeply
13. Pick a winning topic
Wording, humor, and emotions are significant for an admissions essay. But they won’t save the situation if you pick the wrong topic. If you have freedom of choice, select the topics that will help you show your best side. Then, pick the one that isn’t overused. Make sure that your topic isn’t insulting or terrifying and start writing!
14. Add details
Vivid details are crucial for any kind of writing. They help readers to understand your thoughts and emotions in a deeper way. Besides, it’s much easier to imagine a scene or a person if you describe them with the help of details, not vague sentences. Specificity gives your readers a chance to empathize with you, and empathy is the first step on the way to sympathy.
15. Choose a structure
Admissions officers are also interested in how you structure your thoughts and put them on paper. They check both your writing and logical skills. Make sure that the flow of your thoughts is clear and adequate. You can pick one of the common formats (we’ll talk about them later).
How to write a great application essay – video guide
6 popular college application essay prompts
We’re done with general recommendations. Now, we can go deeper and find out what should a college application essay be about. Our article covers the most popular prompts for the Common App. However, they change every year, and you should check the current list.
- Problem and solution
Maybe citing Kelly Clarkson is lame, but this topic can be described with the following phrase perfectly: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Challenges and obstacles make us activate our inner strengths and go forward by all means. We don’t always realize how valuable negative experiences can be. If you have a dramatic story of overcoming your fear or facing injustice – share it with the admissions officers.
- Challenged belief
Our beliefs are what shape our personalities. No matter where we get them – our family, friends, social media, or personal reflective processes – they change our worldview and influence every decision we make. Questioning and analyzing personal beliefs are the most mature things to do, and that’s an appropriate topic for an application essay.
- Major failure
“It doesn’t matter how many times you get knocked down. All that matters is you get up one more time than you were knocked down.” Another pretentious citation explains the matter of this prompt. One failure can teach use more than ten victories. In case you have such a life-changing defeat in reserve, describe it in your essay.
- Background story
The request “tell us about yourself” often baffles candidates during job interviews. In fact, there are dozens of guides on how to answer this question correctly, but you most likely forget all the recommendations when you need them the most. If you’re 100% confident that admissions officers have to know about your talent, hobby, or identity, don’t hesitate to tell them.
- Personal growth
What can be better than self-development, especially in the 21st century? The profession of a personal coach is more popular today than the services of a fitness trainer. But the admissions board isn’t interested in your growth since the age of two. Pick the moment or event that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others (CommonApp.org).
- Your passion
Passion is probably too strong a word for this prompt. You need to share the idea or topic that captivates your attention. You might say that this prompt looks like the topic of free choice. But it’s not. The Common App has another prompt titled “topic of your choice.” We can’t tell the difference between these two. Can you?
If you need more inspiration to pick the topic for your college application essay, check out our post about topics for admissions essays.
9 college application essay topics to avoid
We want to teach you how to write a college application essay properly, but also how not to do it. Graduates make various mistakes in their texts, but the worst of them is to pick the wrong topic. If admissions officers spot an irrelevant or incredibly banal topic, they probably won’t even try to evaluate the essay.
Let’s talk about what topics to avoid while writing a college application essay:
Sure, admissions officers should realize how great and intelligent you are. But they can get it from your thoughts and opinions in written form, not from the list of accomplishments that you put in the essay. Officers already know about your high grades and accomplishments from other application documents, and there is no need to repeat them.
2. Addiction problems
If you’ve overcome addiction, this act deserves respect. However, it’s a great topic to discuss with your family or psychiatrist. Admissions officers will be less than thrilled to find out that the applicant had problems with alcohol or drugs. The college administration frequently faces this problem on campus, and there is no need to remind them about it.
3. High school athletics
Sports are useful for your health, but not for your application essay. Admissions boards have seen thousands of victory and defeat stories, and they’re not as inspiring for them as for your parents. Of course, you may find an unexpected approach to this topic, but you should also consider changing it for something more exciting.
4. Painful topic
Sensitive themes such as gay marriage, terrorism, and gender discrimination are perfect for argumentative essays or debates. No doubt, you have something to say on these topics. But you never know who will evaluate your writing. We recommend you to stay away from religious, political, and racial topics.
5. How I spent my summer
A travel journal is an excellent way to save memories about the precious moments of your life. But it’s not a good way to impress admissions officers. A simple description won’t tell them anything about your personality, except for you or your parents’ level of income. By the way, volunteering experiences also fall into this category.
6. Other people
A topic about your role model is great for elementary school but not appropriate for your application essay. The board needs to learn more about YOUR personality, not the great qualities of your father or best friend. You can mention people who have influenced your life or opinions but don’t make them the focus of your writing.
Your college application essay isn’t the best place to say “sorry” and apologize for your low grades or a poor list of accomplishments. Once again: admissions officers will see your scores and extracurricular activities in other documents. Besides, you have to convince them that you’re a decent candidate, not a loser.
Leave manipulating techniques in your head, little devil! First of all, you’re too young to deceive the whole admissions board with no consequences. Secondly, sincerity is the best way to empathy. Finally, we’re sure that you have a real story to share, so why bother?
9. Traumatic event
Reflective writing is a great form of therapy for people who have suffered a tragedy. This theme may also pull the heartstrings of your readers. But we’re not sure that you should share your sadness with the admissions board. Maybe they’ve had the same experience, and the reminder is unnecessary.
How to structure a college application essay: 2 formats
The structure isn’t as crucial as the topic, but it also plays a significant role in the perception of your essay. You can’t submit a bunch of thoughts – your text has to be logical and complete. Many graduates don’t know how to format a college application essay to sound smart and intelligent.
We offer you two options that you can try:
– Montage structure
This structure is perfect for students who don’t want to focus on one significant event or problem or who are not confident about their choice of major. Montage format allows the writer to present different skills/episodes/qualities and connect them with a single focus.
For example, let’s say you want to demonstrate one of your best qualities in the application essay – your love for inventions. Thanks to the montage structure, you may bring examples from your childhood, school years, or first job. This format lets you go wide and cover numerous events or anecdotes.
Here is an example of montage structure:
- Section 1. The first section should contain a story about your experiences or achievements that showcases your skills, interests, and values. Try to organize it in a story or with a certain thematic connection. Describe and explain how events influenced your views.
- Section 2. In the second section you can discuss problems that have shaped your particular skills. It may be challenges that you have faced in relationships, at school, or in other spheres. Tell the story of how difficulties improved your problem-solving skills, critical thinking skills, or work ethic. Stick to a narrative form to help maintain the reader’s interest.
- Section 3. The last section of the essay should tell how the obtained skills and experiences have prepared you for the chosen college and program. It should have a logical conclusion and a clear explanation why your personal qualities and knowledge make you the best fit.
– Narrative structure
This format utilizes a classic, time-tested story structure: exposition, rising action, turning point, falling action, and the moment of truth. The majority of successful movies and novels are based on this principle, so why not try it in your essay? People love a good story, and admissions officers are no exception!
Here is an outline for application essays with narrative structure:
– Give a brief description of growing up and how it affected your goals and dreams.
– Choose several events or challenges that helped you become the person you are today.
– Precisely focus on the main challenge you have experienced on the way to reaching your goals.
– Describe the challenges you’ve faced in the context of adversity or community. Share the lessons learned.
– Share a situation when you were forced to make a difficult choice or take a risk.
– How did this decision affect your life and your goals? Explain how you overcame fears or concerns you had.
– Explain how you have overcome difficulties and how the lessons learned have made you the right fit for the chosen college or profession.
FAQ on college admission essay preparation
– What qualities does the application committee look for?
While there is no single answer, here is a list of qualities that are more likely to be appreciated by the committee:
– How do you start an application essay?
To make it easier for you to focus and not forget anything, we advise you to start with a plan:
- look at the list of requirements and conditions of a particular university – usually they are on the website of the educational institution in the relevant sections;
- outline the structure of the essay;
- make a list of your achievements that are worth mentioning in the essay;
- think of arguments that will show your interest in the program;
- write the text;
- edit it;
- format the text in accordance with the requirements of the university;
- before submitting, check for typos, stylistic inaccuracies, check the list of requirements again, and make sure you haven’t forgotten anything.
– How do you start an introduction to a college application essay?
The task of the essay, and hence the introduction, is to attract the attention of the admissions committee. Try to use a vivid thesis, an interesting personal story, or an unexpected metaphor. It would be appropriate in the introduction to write about your achievements, experience, knowledge, and strengths that will help you successfully master the program.
– What is a good way to end a college application essay?
The best way to end your essay is to jog the memory of the reader by retouching on the main points you discussed in the body of your essay. Highlight the aspects of your life that have led you to become the person you are now. Offer a final thought on why the committee member should consider you the best candidate for the college. Show your enthusiasm and reflect on your challenges. Write several variants for the concluding paragraph and pick the most impressive ones.
– What should be the format of a college application essay?
Format requirements are:
- the volume is no more than two pages of printed text in A4 format;
- the margins are one-inch all around;
- the font is Times New Roman, 12 pt.;
- the text has left alignment;
- the essay should be 1.5 or double-spaced.
– What are colleges looking for in essays?
It is important to find the appropriate words so that the representatives of the university understand that an applicant is a person who:
- is ready to make every effort to enroll in a particular educational institution;
- is able to clearly and competently express their thoughts on paper (the style and
- structure of speech is also assessed);
- has a high level of academic preparation (it can be confirmed using special terminology when writing an essay);
- will be able to master the program of the university, complete the training on time,
- without any problems with academic performance;
- is sociable, open to communication with the teaching staff and students;
- is able to represent the interests of the university at different events.
How do you structure a personal essay?
Your essay should be logical and easy to read. The employee of the admissions committee must understand its main idea and message. There are many ways to structure text: from the classic introduction, main body, conclusion scheme to sophisticated storytelling techniques.
– How do I write a college essay if I’m boring?
If you feel like you’re an unextraordinary person, don’t worry! Students frequently suffer from low self-confidence and writing an application essay can feel daunting. While you may think that your life is unextraordinary, every person has something meaningful to say. Think about the experience and challenges that influenced you to change. Maybe your relatives influenced you? Or your teacher?
Focus on perspectives instead of story. If you have trouble writing your life story and feeling original or intriguing, you can share your personal views on life. Highlight your personality traits or perspective on the world and what it could mean for the community you’ll be a part of at college.
Application essay examples
We encourage you to get inspired with other examples of application essays. See how a professional author structures their text and reflects on experiences and values and how they describe their hopes for further education and future work. Some students show how their qualities and skills can contribute to the campus community, while others show how challenges and discoveries helped them to pursue new passions.
Exercises to boost your application essay writing
When you don’t know where to start and how, the best thing to do is to take some time to self-reflect. As in the application essay, you should share your personality, so it’s a great time to get to know yourself better. Below you’ll find a list of questions to ask yourself:
Exercise 1. Introspection of “where do you stand?” question. Consider the following questions:
- What holds significance for me?
- How has my perception of important things transformed over the last year? Five years?
- In what ways do my values shape my deeds?
- What challenges am I encountering while doing so?
- What can I do today to ensure greater coherence between my values and actions?
Exercise 2. Reflection on mistakes. Have you ever unfairly judged someone or has your past arrogance provided you with a lesson that’s helped you to grow?
- Has that mistake changed your life?
- What lessons have you learned?
- Who has supported you in this endeavor?
Exercise 3. Analyze the article, quote, or short video. Do you like to watch TED talks? Or do you have a favorite writer or blogger? Try to reflect on something you’ve learned and how it has impacted you.
- What makes the concepts conveyed in the piece so intriguing to me?
- Does my life align with the ideas expressed in the piece?
- What could I change to further align my actions with the insights presented?
Exercise 4. Reflect on your core values. Look at the image below and choose values that resonate with you. Then try to group them into five subcategories. When the groups are ready, try to label each with a word that characterizes the group the best. There are no rules, do what you feel.
Help with college admissions process from top experts
Your journey is over, young Padawan. We’ve shared all our wisdom with you. Now, you have to face reality and try your hand at writing a college application essay. It won’t be easy – you shouldn’t expect miracles. Be brave and fight with honor.
Or, you can apply to our specialists! We don’t suggest you to cheat and send one of our samples to your college. However, you can get a worthy college application essay example. Our experts have vast experience in writing on different topics, and they’ll deal with the admissions essay flawlessly. Don’t hesitate and place an order now!