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What is the College Essay? Your Complete Guide for 2023

Bonus Material: 30 College Essays That Worked

The college essay is one of the most important parts of your college application. 

As important as it is, however, it’s very different from the essays you’re used to writing in high school. 

From word count to genre, the college essay is in a category entirely of its own–and one that can be unfamiliar for most students applying to college.

So, what is the college essay? What role does it play in college admissions?

And, most importantly, how do you get started writing an amazing essay?

We answer all of these questions in this complete college essay guide. 

Plus, we give readers access to 30 college essays that earned applicants acceptance into the nation’s top colleges. They’re free and you can grab them below right now!

Download 30 College Essays That Worked

Here’s what we cover in this guide:

What is the College Essay?

  • Our Expert Definition
  • A College Essay That Worked
  • The Essay’s Role in College Admissions

The 7 Common Challenges in Writing the College Essay

  • How To Get Started Writing an Amazing Essay — 6 Tips
  • Bonus: 30 College Essays That Worked

Most students will use the Common App to apply to U.S. colleges and universities. A smaller number of colleges require students to submit applications through Coalition .

Regardless, both platforms require students to submit a personal statement or essay response as part of their application. Students choose to respond to one of the following prompts in 650 words or fewer .

College Essay Prompts 2022-2023

What do these questions all have in common? They all require answers that are introspective, reflective, and personal. 

Take a look at some of these buzzwords from these prompts to see what we mean:

  • Understanding
  • Belief / Idea
  • Contribution

These are big words attached to big, personal concepts. That’s the point!

But because that’s the case, that means the college essay is not an academic essay. It’s not something you write in five paragraphs for English class. Nor is it a formal statement, an outline of a resume, or a list of accomplishments.

It’s something else entirely.

Our Definition of the College Essay

How do we define the college essay? We’ll keep it short and sweet.

The college essay is a personal essay that tells an engaging story in 650 words or fewer. It is comparable to memoir or creative nonfiction writing, which relate the author’s personal experiences. 

The college essay is fundamentally personal and creative. It is rich with introspection, reflection, and statements of self-awareness. It can have elements of academic writing in it, such as logical organization, thesis statements, and transition words. But it is not an academic essay that fits comfortably into five paragraphs.

Your task with the college essay is to become a storyteller–and, in the process, provide admissions officers with a valuable glimpse into your world, perspective, and/or experiences.

what are college admission essays

Example of a College Essay That Worked

Take a look at this essay that earned its writer acceptance into Princeton. We won’t take a super deep dive into the components that make it great. 

But we do want to point out a handful of things that align with our definition of the college essay. This essay:

  • Tells an engaging story
  • Clearly conveys the author’s voice
  • Is rich with introspection and reflection
  • Provides insight into the author’s character, values, and perspective
  • Is not an academic essay or list of accomplishments
  • Is deeply personal

It also exemplifies the 7 qualities of a successful college essay .

Here’s the full essay:

“So long as you have food in your mouth, you have solved all questions for the time being.” – Franz Kafka

Kafka, I’m afraid, has drastically overestimated the power of food. And though it pains me to undermine a statement by arguably the greatest writer of the 20 th century, I recognize it as a solemn duty. Perhaps Kafka has never sat, tongue wild in an effort to scrape residual peanut butter off his molars, and contemplated the almost ridiculous but nevertheless significant role of peanut butter in crafting his identity. Oh, did I just describe myself by accident? Without further ado, the questions (and lack of answers, I point out) that I contemplate with peanut butter in my mouth.

When I was three and a half years old, my tongue was not yet versed in the complex palate of my peers, consisting mainly of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. (It did not help my transition into pre-school that I did not speak English, but Russian and that my name, which had been hurriedly switched from Alya to Alex, was unpronounceable to me.) But it is most worth noting that I refused lunch for months, waited at the windowsill with tear-stained cheeks every day unless my mom left law school midday to bring my own comfort food: borscht, katlety, kampot.

I slowly assimilated into American culture, like most immigrant kids. I began to eat the peanut butter sandwiches at pre-school in the presence of my mom, and then did not need her altogether. She must have been elated that I was comfortable, that she could stay at school all day without worrying. She must have been destroyed when I waved her away the first time and told her I did not need her to come anymore.

I realized much later that the Russian food my mother brought me in pre-school made me comfortable enough to learn the language of the children there, to share their lunches, to make friends. Ironically, my Russian culture enabled the rise and dominance of American culture. When my parents wanted to visit their birthplace, my birthplace, Odessa, Ukraine, I rolled my eyes and proclaimed Disney Land, Florida. I rolled my eyes when I spoke too fast for my parents to understand. I rolled my eyes when I checked my mom’s grammar and when she argued with customer service in her thick Russian accent.

Peanut butter, and foods like it, represented not only my entrance into American culture, but the swift rejection of anything Russian that followed. Chicken noodle soup replaced borscht, meatballs replaced katlety, Sunny D triumphed over kampot. I became embarrassed by the snacks packed in my brown paper bag, begged for Cheetos, lime Jell-O cups, and that creamy spread between two damp pieces of Wonder Bread. My American identity tried to eclipse the Russian one altogether.

I realized later still that the identity battle I fought must have been more difficult to watch for my parents than it could have ever been for me to experience. They let me figure myself out, even though it meant I spent years rolling my eyes at them. Though I do not claim to have discovered a perfect balance of Russian and American, I would venture that a healthy start is eating peanut butter for lunch and katlety at dinner.

So, Kafka, I hope that next time a memorable quote comes to mind, you think before you speak. Because when peanut butter cleaves to the roof of my mouth, I think about what it means “to cleave:” both to adhere closely to and to divide, as if by a cutting blow, especially along a natural weakness. And I think about my dual identity, how the Russian side and American side simultaneously force each other apart and bring each other together. I think about my past, feeling a little ashamed, and about my present and future, asking how I can create harmony between these two sides of me. That, Kafka, does not sound like solved questions to me.

Want to read more essays that worked? Download our 30 college essays that earned their writers Ivy League acceptance for free below.

The College Essay’s Role in Admissions

In our post about what college admissions officers are looking for , we outline the Golden Rule of Admissions.

The Golden Rule of Admissions

We also define “a student of exceptional potential.” In general, competitive applicants to top U.S. colleges and universities exemplify three pillars:

  • Character and personal values
  • Extracurricular distinction
  • Academic achievement

3 Pillars of Successful Applicants

Admissions officers have a lot at their disposal when it comes to assessing extracurricular distinction and academic achievement. They’ve got transcripts, test scores, resumes, and letters of recommendation. 

But how do they assess character and personal values?

A recent survey of admissions officers revealed some interesting answers to this question.

what are college admission essays

Source : National Association for College Admissions Counseling

Notice how an overwhelming 87% of officers surveyed reported that they infer character and personal qualities of an applicant from the content of the college essay!

The Common Data Set for individual colleges further supports this notion that officers infer character and values through the college essay, teacher recommendations, and other application components. The CDS for Cornell , for example, reveals that the application essay and character/personal qualities are “very important” in admission decisions.

what are college admission essays

What’s more, the COVID-19 pandemic profoundly altered the college application landscape by introducing some serious inequity in the realm of extracurricular activities, academics, and general access. 

Many admissions officers have stressed their focus on character and personal values (more qualitative components) in recent admissions cycles as a result.

what are college admission essays

Schools are hungry for as much material as possible that they can use to assess students’ character and values! This is one of the reasons why many top colleges require applicants to answer supplemental essay questions — ones in addition to the college essay. These essays can range from 50-650 words, and many colleges have more than one.

For example, Princeton requires applicants to respond to six supplemental essay questions . Here’s one of them from the 2022-2023 admissions cycle:

At Princeton, we value diverse perspectives and the ability to have respectful dialogue about difficult issues. Share a time when you had a conversation with a person or a group of people about a difficult topic. What insight did you gain, and how would you incorporate that knowledge into your thinking in the future?

So how important is the college essay in the application process?

Princeton’s former Dean of Admissions summed it up nicely with this quote about the college essay in a conversation with the New York Times :

Your ability to write well is critical to our decision because your writing reflects your thinking. No matter what question is asked on a college application, admission officers are looking to see how well you convey your ideas and express yourself in writing. It is our window to your world.

Now that you know what the college essay is and how it influences college admissions, let’s discuss the challenges in writing it. This list isn’t comprehensive, but it does compile some of the most common challenges most students face when preparing to write their personal statement.

Challenge #1: The Pressure

The college essay is integral to the college admissions process. It’s only likely to carry more weight in coming admission cycles in the wake of COVID-19 .

There is immense pressure on students to write essays that will make them competitive in admissions! This essay can also very much feel like uncharted territory for students given their lack of experience in the world of personal writing. This pressure can become a veritable roadblock in writing the college essay.

Challenge #2: What’s Introspection?

Successful college essays are deeply personal and full of introspection. We define introspection as reflection on what’s important in your life — values, beliefs, opinions, experiences, etc. It also can have a lot to do with what makes you you .

To some students, introspection might come naturally. To others, it might not! This is understandable. The high school classroom doesn’t necessarily give space for students to reflect on what they’ve learned from certain experiences or what they believe are their core values. However, this is exactly what admissions officers are looking for in essays!

what are college admission essays

Challenge #3: You Just Don’t Write Personal Essays in School

Most English classes spend a lot of time on the academic essay . But most don’t include many units on writing personal essays or creative nonfiction–if any!

Many students writing the college essay thus face an entirely unfamiliar genre that comes with its own word limit, structure, and style of writing.

Challenge #4: The Word Limit

Both the Common App and Coalition require students to limit their essays to 650 words. That’s a little over a page of writing, single-spaced.

This means that students have to be incredibly concise in crafting their responses. This can be a tall order given what the college essay often includes: big ideas, big themes, and big reflection!

Challenge #5: Choosing a Topic

Given the college essay’s requirements, it can be tough to choose the “right” topic . Should you discuss an extracurricular activity ? Personal experience? An important mentorship figure?

Some students have a wide variety of experiences and personal stories to choose from. Others might feel that they have a limited number.

Challenge #6: Choosing a Structure

Let’s say that you’ve chosen your college essay topic. Now how do you fit it into a concise structure that gives ample air space to what college admissions officers are looking for?

Choosing a structure can be critical for telling your specific story in a compelling fashion. But once again, this is unfamiliar terrain for most students who haven’t really written a personal essay before.

And when we say that structure really is critical for college essay writing, we mean it–we’ve written an entire post on college essay structure .

Challenge #7: Getting Started

Last but not least, it can be incredibly difficult simply to start the college essay writing process. From choosing a topic to writing that first draft, there’s a lot to navigate. Many students also have a lot going on in general when they get around to writing their essays, including AP exams, summer programs , and the chaos of senior fall schedules.

If this sounds like where you’re at in the college essay writing journey, keep reading. We’ve got 6 tips coming up to help you take those first steps.

How To Write an Amazing College Essay – 6 Tips

You’ve learned what a college essay is and the weight it carries in college admissions. You’ve also heard a bit about what makes this essay challenging. Now what?

It’s time to get started writing your very own. 

The following tips are designed to help you begin the journey towards an amazing college essay, regardless of your story, college aspirations, or timeline. Let’s dive in.

what are college admission essays

Tip #1: Give Yourself Time & Get Organized

Good college essays take time, and we mean time . We recommend that students establish a generous timeline for writing their personal statements. Ideally, students should start thinking about their essays seriously in the spring of their junior year or summer immediately following.

It’s also important to get organized. Create separate documents for brainstorming and free-writes, for example, and clearly mark your drafts based on where you’re at in the writing process.

We also recommend researching supplemental essay prompts for the colleges on your list and keeping track of these–including deadlines and word limits–in a spreadsheet. This is especially important for students applying early.

Tip #2: Practice Introspection

You can start flexing your introspective muscles before writing your essay! Practice journaling, for example, or responding to daily reflective prompts like the following:

  • What is your greatest strength? Weakness?
  • What is one of your core beliefs? Why is it core?
  • What is your best quality?
  • What matters to you? Why?
  • What challenges you? Why?

The New York Times has even released 1,000 free writing prompts for students that range from identity and family to social life and technology.

With introspection, focus on using “I” as much as possible. This can feel awkward, especially as most English teachers encourage students to avoid using “I” in academic essays. But it’s the key to deep reflection.

You can also check out our post on College Essay Brainstorming or download 30 FREE college essay brainstorming questions right here.

Tip #3: Familiarize Yourself with Personal Writing & Storytelling

Immerse yourself in examples of powerful personal writing and storytelling. A great place to start is by downloading our 30 examples of college essays that earned students Ivy League acceptance or checking out our 11 College Essays That Worked post .

Otherwise, check out memoirs or creative essay collections.

The Moth , a storytelling radio project, is another great resource for students looking to learn more about how people tell personal stories in an engaging fashion. Plus, it’s just plain fun to listen to!

Tip #4: Know What Makes for An Amazing Essay

What qualities do most successful college essays have?

We’ve done the research. A successful college essay is often:

  • Introspective and reflective
  • Full of a student’s voice
  • Descriptive and engaging
  • Unconventional and distinct
  • Well-written

We take a deeper dive into these 7 qualities of a successful college essay in a separate post.

Tip #5: Review Supplemental Essay Questions

Don’t forget about supplemental essay questions! It’s easy to overlook these or assume that they are less important than the college essay.

But remember–many colleges require supplemental essays as a means of gaining more information about competitive applicants. The Common App and Coalition also now have optional COVID-19 essay questions (learn our tips for answering these COVID-related questions here ).

Don’t save your supplemental essays for the last minute! Review questions well in advance through the Common App or Coalition platform so that you are aware of the other responses you’ll have to write.

We’ve actually compiled the supplemental essay questions for the top 50 U.S. colleges and universities right here.

You can also check out our 8 tips for writing amazing supplemental essay responses .

Tip #6: Work with a Mentor

Yes, it is possible to write your college essay, personal as it is, under the right one-on-one guidance. Mentors can help you with all stages of the college essay writing process, from topic brainstorms to final draft polishing.

They can also help create an actionable timeline for tackling both the college essay and all of those supplements, and hold students accountable!

You can sign up to work with one of PrepMaven’s master essay consultants if you’d like. Or check out our summer College Essay Workshops .

what are college admission essays

One of the best ways to start the college essay writing process is to look at examples of successful essays. But these examples can be hard to find, and few and far between.

That’s why we compiled 30 college essays that earned their writers acceptance into Ivy League schools. You can download these examples for FREE below.

what are college admission essays

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay. 

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what are college admission essays

How to Write Your College Essay: The Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide

Getting ready to start your college essay? Your essay is very important to your application — especially if you’re applying to selective colleges.

Become a stronger writer by reviewing your peers’ essays and get your essay reviewed as well for free.

We have regular livestreams during which we walk you through how to write your college essay and review essays live.

College Essay Basics

Just getting started on college essays? This section will guide you through how you should think about your college essays before you start.

  • Why do essays matter in the college application process?
  • What is a college application theme and how do you come up with one?
  • How to format and structure your college essay

Before you move to the next section, make sure you understand:

How a college essay fits into your application

What a strong essay does for your chances

How to create an application theme

Learn the Types of College Essays

Next, let’s make sure you understand the different types of college essays. You’ll most likely be writing a Common App or Coalition App essay, and you can also be asked to write supplemental essays for each school. Each essay has a prompt asking a specific question. Each of these prompts falls into one of a few different types. Understanding the types will help you better answer the prompt and structure your essay.

  • How to Write a Personal Statement That Wows Colleges
  • Personal Statement Essay Examples
  • How to Write a Stellar Extracurricular Activity Essay
  • Extracurricular Essay Examples
  • Tips for Writing a Diversity College Essay
  • Diversity Essay Examples
  • Tips for Writing a Standout Community Service Essay
  • How to Write the “Why This Major” Essay
  • How to Write a “Why This Major” Essay if You’re Undecided
  • How to write the “Why This College” Essay
  • How to Research a College to Write the “Why This College” Essay
  • Why This College Essay Examples
  • How to Write The Overcoming Challenges Essay
  • Overcoming Challenges Essay Examples

Identify how each prompt fits into an essay type

What each type of essay is really asking of you

How to write each essay effectively

The Common App essay

Almost every student will write a Common App essay, which is why it’s important you get this right.

  • How to Write the Common App Essay
  • Successful Common App Essay Examples
  • 5 Awesome College Essay Topics + Sample Essays
  • 11 Cliché College Essay Topics + How to Fix Them

How to choose which Common App prompts to answer

How to write a successful Common App essay

What to avoid to stand out to admissions officers

Supplemental Essay Guides

Many schools, especially competitive ones, will ask you to write one or more supplemental essays. This allows a school to learn more about you and how you might fit into their culture.

These essays are extremely important in standing out. We’ve written guides for all the top schools. Follow the link below to find your school and read last year’s essay guides to give you a sense of the essay prompts. We’ll update these in August when schools release their prompts.

See last year’s supplemental essay guides to get a sense of the prompts for your schools.

Essay brainstorming and composition

Now that you’re starting to write your essay, let’s dive into the writing process. Below you’ll find our top articles on the craft of writing an amazing college essay.

  • Where to Begin? 3 Personal Essay Brainstorming Exercises
  • Creating the First Draft of Your College Application Essay
  • How to Get the Perfect Hook for Your College Essay
  • What If I Don’t Have Anything Interesting To Write About In My College Essay?
  • 8 Do’s and Don’t for Crafting Your College Essay
  • Stuck on Your College Essay? 8 Tips for Overcoming Writer’s Block

Understand how to write a great hook for your essay

Complete the first drafts of your essay

Editing and polishing your essay

Have a first draft ready? See our top editing tips below. Also, you may want to submit your essay to our free Essay Peer Review to get quick feedback and join a community of other students working on their essays.

  • 11 Tips for Proofreading and Editing Your College Essay
  • Getting Help with Your College Essay
  • 5 DIY Tips for Editing Your College Essay
  • How Long Should Your College Essay Be?
  • Essential Grammar Rules for Your College Apps
  • College Essay Checklist: Are You Ready to Submit?

Proofread and edited your essay.

Had someone else look through your essay — we recommend submitting it for a peer review.

Make sure your essay meets all requirements — consider signing up for a free account to view our per-prompt checklists to help you understand when you’re really ready to submit.

Advanced College Essay Techniques

Let’s take it one step further and see how we can make your college essay really stand out! We recommend reading through these posts when you have a draft to work with.

  • 10 Guidelines for Highly Readable College Essays
  • How to Use Literary Devices to Enhance Your Essay
  • How to Develop a Personalized Metaphor for Your College Applications

Tips for Writing an Effective Application Essay

student in library on laptop

How to Write an Effective Essay

Writing an essay for college admission gives you a chance to use your authentic voice and show your personality. It's an excellent opportunity to personalize your application beyond your academic credentials, and a well-written essay can have a positive influence come decision time.

Want to know how to draft an essay for your college application ? Here are some tips to keep in mind when writing.

Tips for Essay Writing

A typical college application essay, also known as a personal statement, is 400-600 words. Although that may seem short, writing about yourself can be challenging. It's not something you want to rush or put off at the last moment. Think of it as a critical piece of the application process. Follow these tips to write an impactful essay that can work in your favor.

1. Start Early.

Few people write well under pressure. Try to complete your first draft a few weeks before you have to turn it in. Many advisers recommend starting as early as the summer before your senior year in high school. That way, you have ample time to think about the prompt and craft the best personal statement possible.

You don't have to work on your essay every day, but you'll want to give yourself time to revise and edit. You may discover that you want to change your topic or think of a better way to frame it. Either way, the sooner you start, the better.

2. Understand the Prompt and Instructions.

Before you begin the writing process, take time to understand what the college wants from you. The worst thing you can do is skim through the instructions and submit a piece that doesn't even fit the bare minimum requirements or address the essay topic. Look at the prompt, consider the required word count, and note any unique details each school wants.

3. Create a Strong Opener.

Students seeking help for their application essays often have trouble getting things started. It's a challenging writing process. Finding the right words to start can be the hardest part.

Spending more time working on your opener is always a good idea. The opening sentence sets the stage for the rest of your piece. The introductory paragraph is what piques the interest of the reader, and it can immediately set your essay apart from the others.

4. Stay on Topic.

One of the most important things to remember is to keep to the essay topic. If you're applying to 10 or more colleges, it's easy to veer off course with so many application essays.

A common mistake many students make is trying to fit previously written essays into the mold of another college's requirements. This seems like a time-saving way to avoid writing new pieces entirely, but it often backfires. The result is usually a final piece that's generic, unfocused, or confusing. Always write a new essay for every application, no matter how long it takes.

5. Think About Your Response.

Don't try to guess what the admissions officials want to read. Your essay will be easier to write─and more exciting to read─if you’re genuinely enthusiastic about your subject. Here’s an example: If all your friends are writing application essays about covid-19, it may be a good idea to avoid that topic, unless during the pandemic you had a vivid, life-changing experience you're burning to share. Whatever topic you choose, avoid canned responses. Be creative.

6. Focus on You.

Essay prompts typically give you plenty of latitude, but panel members expect you to focus on a subject that is personal (although not overly intimate) and particular to you. Admissions counselors say the best essays help them learn something about the candidate that they would never know from reading the rest of the application.

7. Stay True to Your Voice.

Use your usual vocabulary. Avoid fancy language you wouldn't use in real life. Imagine yourself reading this essay aloud to a classroom full of people who have never met you. Keep a confident tone. Be wary of words and phrases that undercut that tone.

8. Be Specific and Factual.

Capitalize on real-life experiences. Your essay may give you the time and space to explain why a particular achievement meant so much to you. But resist the urge to exaggerate and embellish. Admissions counselors read thousands of essays each year. They can easily spot a fake.

9. Edit and Proofread.

When you finish the final draft, run it through the spell checker on your computer. Then don’t read your essay for a few days. You'll be more apt to spot typos and awkward grammar when you reread it. After that, ask a teacher, parent, or college student (preferably an English or communications major) to give it a quick read. While you're at it, double-check your word count.

Writing essays for college admission can be daunting, but it doesn't have to be. A well-crafted essay could be the deciding factor─in your favor. Keep these tips in mind, and you'll have no problem creating memorable pieces for every application.

What is the format of a college application essay?

Generally, essays for college admission follow a simple format that includes an opening paragraph, a lengthier body section, and a closing paragraph. You don't need to include a title, which will only take up extra space. Keep in mind that the exact format can vary from one college application to the next. Read the instructions and prompt for more guidance.

Most online applications will include a text box for your essay. If you're attaching it as a document, however, be sure to use a standard, 12-point font and use 1.5-spaced or double-spaced lines, unless the application specifies different font and spacing.

How do you start an essay?

The goal here is to use an attention grabber. Think of it as a way to reel the reader in and interest an admissions officer in what you have to say. There's no trick on how to start a college application essay. The best way you can approach this task is to flex your creative muscles and think outside the box.

You can start with openers such as relevant quotes, exciting anecdotes, or questions. Either way, the first sentence should be unique and intrigue the reader.

What should an essay include?

Every application essay you write should include details about yourself and past experiences. It's another opportunity to make yourself look like a fantastic applicant. Leverage your experiences. Tell a riveting story that fulfills the prompt.

What shouldn’t be included in an essay?

When writing a college application essay, it's usually best to avoid overly personal details and controversial topics. Although these topics might make for an intriguing essay, they can be tricky to express well. If you’re unsure if a topic is appropriate for your essay, check with your school counselor. An essay for college admission shouldn't include a list of achievements or academic accolades either. Your essay isn’t meant to be a rehashing of information the admissions panel can find elsewhere in your application.

How can you make your essay personal and interesting?

The best way to make your essay interesting is to write about something genuinely important to you. That could be an experience that changed your life or a valuable lesson that had an enormous impact on you. Whatever the case, speak from the heart, and be honest.

Is it OK to discuss mental health in an essay?

Mental health struggles can create challenges you must overcome during your education and could be an opportunity for you to show how you’ve handled challenges and overcome obstacles. If you’re considering writing your essay for college admission on this topic, consider talking to your school counselor or with an English teacher on how to frame the essay.

Related Articles

  • How to Write a College Essay

College admissions experts offer tips on selecting a topic as well as writing and editing the essay.

what are college admission essays

Getty Images

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 1,000 schools.

For college applicants, the essay is the place to showcase their writing skills and let their unique voice shine through.

"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 recent years, 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."

On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court ruled against college admissions policies that consider an applicant's race. The ruling, though, does not prohibit students from writing essays on how their race has affected them, which experts say could significantly affect how students approach this portion of their applications.

Essay-writing tips offered by experts emphasize the importance of being concise, coherent, congenial, unique, 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 application essay.

Getting Started on the College Essay

How long should a college essay be, how to pick a college essay topic, writing the college essay, how the affirmative action ruling could change college essays, editing and submitting 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 1,000 schools. Students can submit that application to multiple schools.

Another option is the Coalition Application, an application platform accepted by more than 130 schools. Students applying through this application choose from one of six essay prompts to complete and include with their application.

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 should 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.

Though the Common App notes that "there are no strict word limits" for its main essay, it suggests a cap of about 650 words. The Coalition Application website says its essays should be between 500 and 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.

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. These are the types of essays that typically stand out to admissions officers, experts say. 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.

"Think of the college essay as a meaningful glimpse of who you are beyond your other application materials," Pierre Huguet, CEO and founder of admissions consulting firm H&C Education, wrote in an email. "After reading your essay, the reader won't fully know you – at least not entirely. Your objective is to evoke the reader's curiosity and make them eager to get to know 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. Klein Wassink says students can ask peers or family members questions such as, "What are the things you think I do well?" Or, "What are my quirks?"

The essay should tell college admissions officers something they don't already know, experts say.

Some experts encourage students to outline their essay before jumping into the actual writing, though of course everyone's writing process differs.

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."

The key to a good college essay is striking a balance between being creative and not overdoing it, Huguet says. He advises students to keep it simple.

"The college essay is not a fiction writing contest," Huguet says. "Admissions committees are not evaluating you on your potential as the next writer of the Great American Novel."

He adds that students should write in the voice they use to discuss meaningful topics with someone they trust. It's also wise to avoid hyperbole, as that can lose the readers' trust, as well as extraneous adverbs and adjectives, Huguet says.

"Thinking small, when done right, means paying close attention to the little things in your life that give it meaning in unique ways," he says. "It means, on the one hand, that you don’t have to come up with a plan for world peace, but it also means thinking small enough to identify details in your life that belong only to you."

The Supreme Court's ruling on affirmative action has left some students feeling in limbo with how to approach their essays. Some are unsure whether to include racial identifiers while others feel pressure to exclude it, says Christopher Rim, CEO and founder of Command Education, an admissions consulting company.

"For instance, some of our Asian students have been concerned that referencing their culture or race in their essay could negatively impact them (even moreso than before)," Rim wrote in an email. He noted that many students he works with had already begun crafting their essays before the ruling came. "Some of our other students have felt pressure to disclose their race or share a story of discrimination or struggle because they expect those stories to be received better by admissions officers."

Some of the uneasiness stems from what feels like a contradictory message from the court, Rim says. In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., said the ruling shouldn't be construed "as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise." But he added that colleges may consider race only if it's tied to an applicant’s individual experiences or qualities, such as demonstrating courage against discrimination.

Personal essays shouldn't serve as a way for universities to ask students about their race as a means to admit them on such basis, Roberts added.

Rim says he expects there to be a lot of confusion from parents and students as they navigate that line when writing their essay. He says his guidance will vary with each student depending on their specific situation.

"For a student from an immigrant family, sharing their racial and cultural background may be integral to understanding their identity and values and therefore should be included in the essay," he says. "On the other hand, a student who has never meaningfully considered ways in which their race has shaped their life experience and worldview should not push themselves to do so in their essay simply because they believe it will better their chances."

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, Huguet 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. Doing so is like explaining a joke to someone who's already laughed at it, he says.

"Let’s say, for example, that the whole point of a certain applicant’s essay is to let admissions officers know that she thinks outside the box. If she feels the need to end her essay with a sentence like, 'And so, this anecdote shows that I think outside the box,' she’s either underestimating the power of her story (or the ability of her reader to understand it), or she hasn’t done a good enough job in telling it yet," Huguet says. "Let your readers come to their own conclusions. If your story is effective, they’ll come to the conclusions you want them to."

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. Some providers may offer scholarships or other financial aid for their services.

The availability 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. Huguet says it's typically wise to prioritize quality over quantity when it comes to seeking feedback on essays. Too many perspectives can become counterproductive, he says.

"While it can be valuable to have different perspectives, it's best to seek out individuals who are experts in the writing process," he says. "Instructors or professors can be helpful, particularly if they possess subject expertise and can provide guidance on refining arguments, structure and overall coherence."

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 write 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."

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Course: college admissions   >   unit 4, writing a strong college admissions essay.

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  • Student story: Admissions essay about a formative experience
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How to Write a Personal Essay for Your College Application

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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.

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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.

  • AA Amy Allen is a writer, educator, and lifelong learner. Her freelance writing business,  All of the Write Words , focuses on providing high school students with one-on-one feedback to guide them through the college application process and with crafting a thoughtful personal essay. A dedicated poet, Amy’s work has also been published in several journals including  Pine Row Press ,  Months to Years,  and  Atlanta Review .

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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.

Pamela Reynolds

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.

Be Authentic

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.

Don’t Repeat

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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About the Author

Pamela Reynolds is a Boston-area feature writer and editor whose work appears in numerous publications. She is the author of “Revamp: A Memoir of Travel and Obsessive Renovation.”

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College Essays

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When you're applying to college, even small decisions can feel high-stakes. This is especially true for the college essay, which often feels like the most personal part of the application. You may agonize over your college application essay format: the font, the margins, even the file format. Or maybe you're agonizing over how to organize your thoughts overall. Should you use a narrative structure? Five paragraphs?

In this comprehensive guide, we'll go over the ins and outs of how to format a college essay on both the micro and macro levels. We'll discuss minor formatting issues like headings and fonts, then discuss broad formatting concerns like whether or not to use a five-paragraph essay, and if you should use a college essay template.

How to Format a College Essay: Font, Margins, Etc.

Some of your formatting concerns will depend on whether you will be cutting and pasting your essay into a text box on an online application form or attaching a formatted document. If you aren't sure which you'll need to do, check the application instructions. Note that the Common Application does currently require you to copy and paste your essay into a text box.

Most schools also allow you to send in a paper application, which theoretically gives you increased control over your essay formatting. However, I generally don't advise sending in a paper application (unless you have no other option) for a couple of reasons:

Most schools state that they prefer to receive online applications. While it typically won't affect your chances of admission, it is wise to comply with institutional preferences in the college application process where possible. It tends to make the whole process go much more smoothly.

Paper applications can get lost in the mail. Certainly there can also be problems with online applications, but you'll be aware of the problem much sooner than if your paper application gets diverted somehow and then mailed back to you. By contrast, online applications let you be confident that your materials were received.

Regardless of how you will end up submitting your essay, you should draft it in a word processor. This will help you keep track of word count, let you use spell check, and so on.

Next, I'll go over some of the concerns you might have about the correct college essay application format, whether you're copying and pasting into a text box or attaching a document, plus a few tips that apply either way.

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Formatting Guidelines That Apply No Matter How You End Up Submitting the Essay:

Unless it's specifically requested, you don't need a title. It will just eat into your word count.

Avoid cutesy, overly colloquial formatting choices like ALL CAPS or ~unnecessary symbols~ or, heaven forbid, emoji and #hashtags. Your college essay should be professional, and anything too cutesy or casual will come off as immature.

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Mmm, delicious essay...I mean sandwich.

Why College Essay Templates Are a Bad Idea

You might see college essay templates online that offer guidelines on how to structure your essay and what to say in each paragraph. I strongly advise against using a template. It will make your essay sound canned and bland—two of the worst things a college essay can be. It's much better to think about what you want to say, and then talk through how to best structure it with someone else and/or make your own practice outlines before you sit down to write.

You can also find tons of successful sample essays online. Looking at these to get an idea of different styles and topics is fine, but again, I don't advise closely patterning your essay after a sample essay. You will do the best if your essay really reflects your own original voice and the experiences that are most meaningful to you.

College Application Essay Format: Key Takeaways

There are two levels of formatting you might be worried about: the micro (fonts, headings, margins, etc) and the macro (the overall structure of your essay).

Tips for the micro level of your college application essay format:

  • Always draft your essay in a word processing software, even if you'll be copy-and-pasting it over into a text box.
  • If you are copy-and-pasting it into a text box, make sure your formatting transfers properly, your paragraphs are clearly delineated, and your essay isn't cut off.
  • If you are attaching a document, make sure your font is easily readable, your margins are standard 1-inch, your essay is 1.5 or double-spaced, and your file format is compatible with the application specs.
  • There's no need for a title unless otherwise specified—it will just eat into your word count.

Tips for the macro level of your college application essay format :

  • There is no super-secret college essay format that will guarantee success.
  • In terms of structure, it's most important that you have an introduction that makes it clear where you're going and a conclusion that wraps up with a main point. For the middle of your essay, you have lots of freedom, just so long as it flows logically!
  • I advise against using an essay template, as it will make your essay sound stilted and unoriginal.

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Plus, if you use a college essay template, how will you get rid of these medieval weirdos?

What's Next?

Still feeling lost? Check out our total guide to the personal statement , or see our step-by-step guide to writing the perfect essay .

If you're not sure where to start, consider these tips for attention-grabbing first sentences to college essays!

And be sure to avoid these 10 college essay mistakes .

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How to Write a College Admissions Essay

Whether you are a student applying to college or a parent seeking to help their child , the college admissions process is filled with challenges and excitement as students and parents prepare for the next two to four years.

Colleges and universities look at various factors when admitting students, such as high school grade point averages (GPA), extracurricular activities, test scores, and college essays, which can be the tipping point in favor of a student’s admission.

These college essays, along with letters of recommendation, allow students to distinguish themselves from other students and show admissions teams why they should be accepted into their chosen school and program.

Let’s discuss what an admissions essay is, as well as six tips on how to write an admissions essay.

What is an Admissions Essay?

College admissions essays are essays or personal statements that students must write as part of their college application.

Students can showcase and share their personality, goals, and why they are an excellent fit for the school or program they are applying to. This essay is the perfect opportunity for students to introduce themselves to the admission committee by sharing who they are and what they believe. Students can also highlight their academic achievements, strengths, and other personal aspects about themselves and their lives.

In turn, admissions committees reading college essays can distinguish and remember qualified and memorable candidates over potentially forgettable ones. While each college or university will differ in whether they require an essay or personal statement, students are strongly encouraged to submit one to help strengthen their application overall.

Six Tips for Writing a College Essay

College essays are the perfect opportunity to speak about yourself as a person and more than a student, as they go beyond what grades and transcripts can show.

While thinking of what will “wow” the reader can be challenging, students can write a compelling college admissions essay with preparation, support, and the following tips.

Tip #1: Start Early

Students will need first to research when their college applications and admissions essays are due, whether on a specific due date or on a rolling basis. Keep in mind that the earlier students submit, the better likelihood they will be considered for grants and scholarships.

Now that they know the deadline, students can start planning by creating a timeline of when they will need to write an outline, write the college essay, edit, have others proofread, and re-write to implement any changes or suggestions.

Starting early and planning for each stage of the writing process will ensure you have enough time to write your essay without rush or extra stress. Generally speaking, a month is a great goal, but applicants should be honest with themselves and their writing ability so that they can give themselves as much time as possible to do their best work.

Tip #2: Understand the Prompt

Before writing one word, students should make sure they have read the instructions, prompt, and formatting requirements multiple times and understand what the college wants from them.

Not only is the college essay the perfect time to highlight you as a person and student, but following the instructions can show admissions professionals your attention to detail and ability to follow directions.

In addition to the prompt itself, pay attention to the following instructions and requirements:

  • Word count minimums and maximums
  • Questions or themes the essay wants applicants to address
  • Font choice
  • Margin size

Tip #3: Develop a Strong Opener

The opener is one of the trickiest and most essential parts of the college admissions essay. A strong opener will encourage and excite the reader to keep reading, whereas a weak opener will discourage them from reading further or feel like the essay is uninteresting, weakening a student’s chances of being accepted.

Thus, students must choose a topic they are passionate about and dedicate more time to the opening paragraph of their essay, as it sets the tone for the rest of the essay. Writing an essay about a subject or topic that means something will also generate more authenticity and enthusiasm, making it enjoyable for the student and reader.

Start your essay with a bold statement, descriptive scene, thoughtful quote, or question that will pique the reader’s interest and present them with a strong thesis statement as to the purpose of your essay.

Tip #4: Stay on Topic

Similarly, students should be cautious of filling their essay with their entire life story or talking in circles, especially when writing many college applications and college admissions essays.

Make sure you fully understand each essay prompt. Because while it is tempting to repurpose one college admissions essay to fit another topic, it often makes essays feel generic or confusing.

Instead, give yourself enough time to write distinct, unique, and compelling essays for each application with specific details and examples pertaining to that topic or subject.

Tip #5: Show, Don’t Tell

One of the biggest mistakes students make when deciding what and how to write an admissions essay is telling the reader what happened rather than showing them.

What we mean by this is instead of telling what happened or sharing a list of accomplishments or activities, set the scene with an opening hook or bold beginning and provide personal anecdotes of how you felt as the events in your story played out. Common themes and story ideas may involve:

  • Awkward situations
  • Difficult decisions
  • Overcoming challenges or situations
  • Moments of bravery and inspiration

Tip #6: Be Unique

College admissions essays are not the time to pick a generic topic or subject. Instead, use them to share your specific, unique, and one-of-a-kind experience and point of view. Write the subject from an entirely new perspective that inspires you, not what you think the admissions team wants to hear.

Don’t be afraid to share a time where you lost and how that impacted you, or share a moment where you had to make a tough decision or answer a challenging question. While it’s common to write about sports or volunteer-related obstacles or success, implement a fresh approach and perspective.

Students should share what matters to them and maximize who they are rather than minimize their experiences and accomplishments. Declare yourself in a vibrant, compelling, and unique way that will convince the college you are applying to that you are who they want in a student.

While college admissions essays are merely one piece of the college application process puzzle, they are often understood as the most essential element. Since admission essays allow students to showcase who they are beyond numbers and data.

Visit University of Bridgeport’s site to learn which programs encourage students to write an essay as part of their application .

The Washington Post

Can ChatGPT get into Harvard? We tested its admissions essay.

ChatGPT’s release a year ago triggered a wave of panic among educators. Now, universities are in the midst of college application season, concerned that students might use the artificial intelligence tool to forge admissions essays.

But is a chatbot-created essay good enough to fool college admissions counselors?

To find out, The Washington Post asked a prompt engineer — an expert at directing AI chatbots — to create college essays using ChatGPT. The chatbot produced two essays: one responding to a question from the Common Application, which thousands of colleges use for admissions, and one answering a prompt used solely for applicants to Harvard University.

We presented these essays to a former Ivy League college admissions counselor, Adam Nguyen, who previously advised students at Harvard University and read admissions essays at Columbia University. We presented Nguyen with a control: a set of real college admissions essays penned by Jasmine Green, a Post intern who used them to get into Harvard University, where she is currently a senior.

We asked Nguyen to read the essays and spot which ones were produced by AI. The results were illuminating.

Can you figure out which one was written by a human?

Computer science and college admissions experts say that AI created essays have some easy tells — helpful for admissions offers who are prepping for an uptick in ChatGPT-written essays.

Responses written by ChatGPT often lack specific details, leading to essays that lack supporting evidence for their points. The writing is trite and uses platitudes to explain situations, rather than delving into the emotional experience of the author. The essays are often repetitive and predictable, leaving readers without surprise or a sense of the writer’s journey. If chatbots produce content on issues of race, sex or socioeconomic status, they often employ stereotypes.

At first, Nguyen was impressed by the AI-generated essays: They were readable and mostly free of grammatical errors. But if he was reviewing the essay as part of an application package, he would’ve stopped reading.

“The essay is such a mediocre essay that it would not help the candidate’s application or chances,” he said in an interview. “In fact, it would probably diminish it.”

Here is how Nguyen evaluated ChatGPT’s essay.

Nguyen said that while AI may be sufficient to use for everyday writing, it is particularly unhelpful in creating college admissions essays. To start, he said, admissions offices are using AI screening tools to filter out computer-generated essays. (This technology can be inaccurate and falsely implicate students, a Post analysis found .)

But more importantly, admissions essays are a unique type of writing, he said. They require students to reflect on their life and craft their experiences into a compelling narrative that quickly provides college admissions counselors with a sense of why that person is unique.

“ChatGPT is not there,” he said.

Nguyen understands why AI might be appealing. College application deadlines often fall around the busiest time of the year, near winter holidays and end-of-semester exams. “Students are overwhelmed,” Nguyen said.

But Nguyen isn’t entirely opposed to using AI in the application process. In his current business, Ivy Link, he helps students craft college applications. For those who are weak in writing, he sometimes suggests they use AI chatbots to start the brainstorming process, he said.

For those who can’t resist the urge to use AI for more than just inspiration, there may be consequences.

“Their essays will be terrible,” he said, “and might not even reflect who they are.”

About this story

Jasmine Green contributed to this report.

The Washington Post worked with Benjamin Breen, an associate professor of history at the University of California in Santa Cruz who studies the impact of technological change, to create the AI-generated essays.

Editing by Karly Domb Sadof, Betty Chavarria and Alexis Sobel Fitts.

Home — Application Essay — National Universities — Why Do I Want to Attend College

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Why Do I Want to Attend College

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Published: Feb 15, 2024

Words: 519 | Pages: 1 | 3 min read

As a young adult on the verge of embarking on the next chapter of my life, the decision to attend college carries significant weight. Many individuals pursue higher education to obtain a degree that will open doors to a successful career. While this is undoubtedly a valuable aspect of attending college, my motivation extends beyond the mere acquisition of a degree. I am driven by a deep desire to expand my knowledge, cultivate critical thinking skills, and foster personal growth in a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment.

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First and foremost, college provides an unparalleled opportunity for intellectual growth. Over the years, I have developed a thirst for knowledge that cannot be quenched within the confines of high school. The idea of delving into disciplines that captivate my curiosity, such as psychology, philosophy, and literature, is both enticing and exhilarating. College offers a diverse range of courses taught by experts in their respective fields, allowing me to explore these subjects in great depth. Engaging in thoughtful discussions with professors and peers who share a similar passion for knowledge will undoubtedly broaden my horizons and challenge my existing perspectives.

Moreover, attending college presents a unique chance to develop critical thinking skills. In today's rapidly changing world, the ability to analyze information objectively and think critically has become increasingly crucial. College courses often involve complex problem-solving tasks and assignments that demand rigorous thinking. By engaging with these challenges, I can refine my ability to think critically, analyze situations from different angles, and arrive at well-reasoned conclusions. These skills will not only be valuable throughout my academic journey but also in various aspects of my future career.

Furthermore, college offers an environment conducive to personal growth and self-discovery. It provides a platform to meet diverse individuals from various backgrounds who have unique experiences and perspectives. Interacting with such a diverse community will expose me to new ideas, beliefs, and cultures, enabling me to broaden my understanding of the world. Additionally, college facilitates personal development by encouraging independence, self-discipline, and time management. Living away from home, I will have the opportunity to take responsibility for my own choices, learn from successes and failures, and develop into a mature and self-sufficient individual.

Lastly, attending college is essential in achieving my long-term career aspirations. While it is true that not all careers require a college degree, the benefits that higher education provides are undeniable. A college education equips individuals with specialized knowledge, skills, and credentials that can significantly enhance career prospects and earning potential. Furthermore, college exposes students to career opportunities and internships, allowing them to gain practical experience and establish valuable connections within their chosen field.

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In conclusion, my desire to attend college extends far beyond the acquisition of a degree. College represents an opportunity for intellectual growth, the development of critical thinking skills, personal growth, and the pursuit of long-term career aspirations. I am eager to immerse myself in an environment that fosters curiosity, challenges existing beliefs, and offers diverse perspectives. By pursuing higher education, I hope to embark on a transformative journey that will shape not only my future career but also my identity as a lifelong learner.

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  • What Do Colleges Look For in an Essay? | Examples & Tips

What Do Colleges Look For in an Essay? | Examples & Tips

Published on September 27, 2021 by Meredith Testa . Revised on May 31, 2023.

As part of the college application process , colleges ask prospective students for a personal essay in order to learn more about them. They want to see context on each student’s background, positive traits that the student could bring to campus, and examples of the student demonstrating those qualities.

That means that you, as an applicant, have a great opportunity to make a positive impression on the admissions officers with your essay. You should aim to write an essay that

  • Humanizes you
  • Makes your application memorable and differentiates you from other applicants
  • Demonstrates your unique positive traits

Table of contents

Context: what sets you apart, positive character qualities, proof: show, don’t tell, two strategies for finding your essay’s topic, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about college application essays.

Your application will probably be similar to many other students’ applications. There will likely be many students from the same geographical area as you with comparable grades and test scores who have similar interests. Admissions officers will use your essay to see how you stand out from the crowd.

The context that admissions officers are looking for could be anything about you that differentiates you from other students. It could include your ethnic or socioeconomic background, your values, your passions, or anything else that sets you apart from your peers. International students may want to write about why they want to study in the US.

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Of course, it’s important to show your best qualities in the essay. Admissions officers want students who can demonstrate specific positive character traits.

Self-reflection and vulnerability

Self-reflection is a sign of maturity, and it can elevate an application from good to excellent. Colleges already have a list of each applicant’s accomplishments, so a student who can admit their mistakes—and prove that they’ve learned from them—will seem more human and likable.

Some students are hesitant to show their flaws, but keep in mind that colleges know you aren’t perfect. If your essay is just about how fabulous you are, you might come across as inauthentic or, worse, arrogant.

Initiative is one of the top qualities that colleges look for. Students who show initiative will likely bring that take-charge attitude with them to college, where it will help them contribute to the campus.

The essay should always involve you taking some kind of action—it shouldn’t just be about things that happened to you. For example, rather than writing about how it was emotionally difficult for you when several family members caught COVID, write about specific coping strategies you developed during that time or ways that you contributed to the family while they needed you.

“Show, don’t tell” means that you should always aim to prove something rather than just state it. This is especially important to avoid sounding arrogant when writing about yourself . For example, don’t just tell admissions officers that you’re hardworking; show them by detailing how you accomplished a goal through hard work.

So how do you actually write all that? The first step is choosing a good topic . Here are two effective ways to choose a topic that meets expectations and impresses admissions officers.

Option 1: Start with your qualities

One approach is to start by thinking of positive character traits you possess and then finding examples of times you demonstrated those traits.

Option 2: Start with a story

You could also approach your topic selection in the opposite way: start with a story, then work backwards to show how it demonstrates your positive qualities.

  • He is independent, as his parents were often preoccupied and couldn’t help him in the same ways that his peers’ parents could.
  • He is unflappable, as dealing with emergencies has always been a regular part of his life.
  • He is empathetic, as he realizes that some people are going through difficult times that aren’t necessarily obvious to outsiders.

Whatever you choose to write about, your essay should give admissions officers plenty of proof that you’re a desirable candidate. And make sure your essay has a memorable introduction and ends effectively to grab the reader’s attention.

If you want to know more about academic writing , effective communication , or parts of speech , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

Academic writing

  • Writing process
  • Transition words
  • Passive voice
  • Paraphrasing

 Communication

  • How to end an email
  • Ms, mrs, miss
  • How to start an email
  • I hope this email finds you well
  • Hope you are doing well

 Parts of speech

  • Personal pronouns
  • Conjunctions

Colleges want to be able to differentiate students who seem similar on paper. In the college application essay , they’re looking for a way to understand each applicant’s unique personality and experiences.

In your application essay , admissions officers are looking for particular features : they want to see context on your background, positive traits that you could bring to campus, and examples of you demonstrating those qualities.

College application essays are less formal than other kinds of academic writing . Use a conversational yet respectful tone , as if speaking with a teacher or mentor. Be vulnerable about your feelings, thoughts, and experiences to connect with the reader.

Aim to write in your authentic voice , with a style that sounds natural and genuine. You can be creative with your word choice, but don’t use elaborate vocabulary to impress admissions officers.

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Testa, M. (2023, May 31). What Do Colleges Look For in an Essay? | Examples & Tips. Scribbr. Retrieved February 19, 2024, from https://www.scribbr.com/college-essay/what-colleges-look-for/

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