Of all the materials in a college application, the essay provides the greatest opportunity for you to set yourself apart. Unlike the transcript or resume, the essay is creative and expressive; in it, you can show the admissions counselors who you are and what you can do (that is, how well you can write!). A good application essay should have a memorable main idea, a cohesive structure, and a strong introduction and conclusion. Although essay topics can vary by college, the most common prompts deal with personal experiences and aspirations for the future. This guidecontains a diverse set of resources to help you orient yourself to the college application essay and, ultimately, to write the most competitive essay possible.
College Application Essay Fundamentals
The college application essay is a requirement for admission to almost all institutions of higher learning. Though in some ways it resembles essays you've written in class or on standardized tests, in other ways it's a unique writing exercises with its own particular requirements. Use the resources below to help you understand how the essay should be structured and what kind of content to include.
"How Long Should College Application Essays Be?" (Learn.org)
This webpage guides you through some basic tips on writing the college essay—including essay length, sticking to the prompt, and maintaining an original tone.
"College Application Essay" (College Board)
This webpage from the College Board discusses the different types of application essays, what length you should aim for, and most importantly, why colleges value this aspect of the application so much.
"College Essays, College Applications" (College Board)
The College Board's website is a great resource for any student looking to apply to college. This webpage contains several links to helpful resources, including sample essays and genuine student interviews.
"Timeline for College Applications" (College Essay Guy)
This colorful, one-page guide from a college application specialist offers an illustrated timeline for high school students looking to apply for college.
How to Prepare to Write Your Essay
Before putting your ideas down on paper, it's important to conceptualize your essay, to craft strategically your tone and style, and, crucially, to choose a topic that suits you and the school to which you're applying. The resources in this section include writing tips, lists of common mistakes you should avoid, and guides dedicated to the college application essay.
How to Plan Your Essay
"3 Common College Essay Mistakes to Avoid" (CNBC)
This article from CNBC broadly outlines the most common mistakes students make when writing their college application essays. Although these mistakes may seem obvious, even the most experienced writers can fall into these common traps.
"7 Effective Application Tips" (Peterson's)
This article from Peterson's (a company providing academic materials for test prep, application help, and more) lists seven pieces of advice designed to make your writing pop.
"The Secret to Show, Don't Tell" (The Write Practice Blog)
You've heard it before: show, don't tell. This is a great writing tip, but how do you pull it off? Here, the writing blog The Write Practice outlines how you can make your writing more descriptive and effective.
"Passive Voice" (University of North Carolina)
Avoiding passive construction is a subtle yet effective way to upgrade any piece of writing. Check out this webpage from a university writing center for some tips on recognizing and avoiding passive voice.
"Using Appropriate Words in an Academic Essay" (National University of Singapore)
There are many ways to upgrade your vocabulary. Often, words can be replaced with more impressive substitutes, phrases can be shortened or lengthened depending on context, and transitions can be used for a smoother flow. The link above expands on these strategies and offers several others.
How to Brainstorm Topic Ideas
"Bad College Essays: 10 Mistakes to Avoid" (PrepScholar)
This article from a well-known tutoring service and test prep program describes what to avoid when writing your essay. Essays that are too graphic, too personal, or too overconfident are all problematic, and this article explains why.
"5 Tricks for Choosing Your College Essay Topic" (CollegeXpress)
Lost on how to choose a topic? This webpage from CollegeXpress outlines five sources of inspiration you can mine for ideas as you're getting started.
"The College Admission Essay: Finding a Topic" (The Choice Blog)
This article from New York Times blog The Choice breaks down three essential questions to ask yourself when choosing a topic for your college essay.
"COLLEGE ESSAY GUIDE: Choosing a Prompt for the Common Application" (YouTube)
In this five-minute video, a Yale student discusses how to choose a college essay prompt and how to approach the essay writing process. His channel is filled with original videos on the college application process.
"Where to Begin? 3 Personal Essay Brainstorming Exercises" (CollegeVine Blog)
Approaching the Common App essay prompts can be difficult. This blog post explains several tactics you can use to narrow down your options, such as writing down a list of your greatest convictions.
"Using First Person in an Academic Essay: When Is It Okay?" (WritingCommons.org)
Most high school students are told to avoid using the first person point of view; this can be confusing when writing college essays, which typically ask what you think. This article breaks down when (and why) it's acceptable to write in the first person.
How to Approach Different Essay Types
Although all college essays serve the same purpose - articulating why you should get into a college - they come in different kinds. While topics on the Common Application are relatively consistent from year to year, personal statements and so-called "supplemental essays" vary by institution. Each of these essays requires a slightly different approach. The resources in this section will prepare you to answer the various types of essay prompts you're likely to encounter.
Common Application Essays
The Common Application's official website is the best place to start getting acquainted with the service to which the majority of US colleges and universities now subscribe - a service which allows you to streamline your application process and minimize duplication of materials.
"What's App-enning" Blog (Common App)
The Common App runs a blog with a wealth of information on common application-related news, including periodic updates on common application essay prompts for each application cycle. You can practice brainstorming with old prompts, or even start preparing your application by looking at this year's prompts.
125 College Essay Examples (PrepScholar Blog)
Here, PrepScholar provides a variety of Common App essays that got their respective applicants into their desired schools. Along with the body text of the essays, the website provides analysis on what makes the essays so great.
A Few Essays That Worked (And a Few That Didn't) (NYTimes Blog)
This article analyzes unsuccessful essays, illuminating the ways in which they fell short. Although you should exercise caution and adjust your approach to your specific school, it's always good to pick up on general things to avoid.
What Is a Personal Statement? (PrepScholar Blog)
Although personal statements and Common App essays are similar, not all personal statement essays are administered through the Common App. This article from PrepScholar's blog will provide you with everything you need to know about writing a personal statement.
Examples of Successful Statements (Purdue OWL)
The Purdue OWL online writing lab collate links on this page to several successful personal statement. It can be useful to read successful statements and to consider how and why the statements made an impact on their readers.
Past Threads on Advice for Writing Your College Essay (Reddit Post)
Although not about the personal statement per se, this Reddit post has links to several past threads that may be of use to any prospective college applicant.
What 10 Things Should Your Personal Statement Include? (Which University UK)
This site outlines ten things to consider when writing a personal statement, including outlining what you will bring to the course, not what the course will bring to you.
How to Write Great Supplemental College Essays (IvyWise Newsletter)
Supplemental essays can often be challenging, asking a range of questions from the mundane to the oddly specific. This article from college application site IvyWise will break down example prompts to make them more approachable.
Write Your Supplemental Essays (College Essay Guy)
Looking for a comprehensive guide to supplemental essays? Look no further than this page provided by the "College Essay Guy," who breaks down how to write supplemental essays that ask different kinds of questions.
An Awesome Guide to the UChicago Supplement (Dyad)
Dyad, a college mentoring service, walks you through how to approach UChicago's supplemental essay question. Although the article is specific to UChicago, it contains general tips that are helpful to any college applicant.
Reading My Yale Supplement Essay (YouTube)
Josh Beasley is back in this short YouTube video, where he reads the supplemental essay that got him into Yale and extrapolates advice for current and prospective applicants.
How to Structure Your Essay
A college application essay (like any academic essay) should have an introduction, a conclusion, and body paragraphs. Additionally, it should have overall coherence (that is, it should make a point) and cohesion (that is, it should flow well from paragraph to paragraph). We've collected the most relevant resources here to help you structure your college essay correctly and efficiently.
How to Make Your Essay Stand Out
College Essays That Stand Out From the Crowd (NYTimes)
This NYTimes article includes links to several recent essays that caught the eyes of the admissions readers by taking risks. You can even listen to an essay being read aloud by a current Princeton student.
50 Successful Ivy League Application Essays (Gen / Kelly Tanabe)
If you have some time on your hands, this hefty PDF document contains 50 essays from successful Ivy League applicants. After reading these essays, consider what they have in common and how they might be a model for your own essay.
Make Your Application Essay Stand Out (CampusExplorer.com)
In this article from CampusExplorer, you'll find general tips on how to make your essay more appealing to the admissions readers. The writers include general writing tips as well as more targeted advice for the tone and audience of the application essay.
How to Write a College Application Essay that Stands Out (Boston University)
This short video from BU's own admissions department touches briefly on what impresses their admissions readers, including risk-taking, memorable stories, and honesty.
Essay Structure (Monash University)
This chart from Monash University visually demonstrates how your content should be organized in order to keep your argument or story on track.
How to Write an Introduction
How to Start a Personal Statement: The Killer Opening (Which University UK)
Any good introduction both forecasts what your essay will be about and catches the reader's attention. This page will give you some helpful advice on starting your essay with a bang.
How to Start a College Essay Perfectly (PrepScholar Blog)
This article from PrepScholar shows you how to "hook" your reader at the start of your application essay with colorful language, a vivid story, and an "insightful pivot" to your main point.
Let Me Introduce Myself (Stanford University)
This article from Stanford U's alumni page details the first-line openings of the essays for some current Stanford undergrads.
Five Ways to NOT Start Your College Application Essays (PowerScore)
In this article, you'll learn five techniques to avoid, as they typically land a college application essay in the "reject" pile; these include beginning with dictionary definitions or famous quotations.
How to Write a Conclusion
Ending the Essay: Conclusions (Harvard University)
Harvard's writing center suggests bringing closure to your essay (that is, wrapping up your argument) while still expanding outward to broader applications or insights in your final paragraph.
Concluding Paragraph (Easybib)
Although you may have used Easybib to make a bibliography before, did you know they have many resources on how to write a good essay? Check out this page for succinct advice on what your conclusion should entail.
5 Ways to Powerfully End Your College Essay (College Greenlight)
This blog post instructs you to end with action (that is, a story or anecdote) rather than summary, giving you five ways to do this effectively, including addressing the college directly.
How to Write the Best Conclusion for a College Application Essay and Supplement (Koppelman Group)
The Koppelman Group, a college application consulting firm, warns you, above all, not to end "in conclusion" or "to conclude." They also provide targeted advice for the Common App and Supplement essays, respectively.
How to Revise Your Essay
No essay is perfect in its first-draft form; college application essays in particular are limited by word counts that can be difficult to meet. Once you've communicated your ideas, you'll want to edit your essay in order to make sure it's the best it can be. You'll also need to cut or add words to make sure it's within the specifications set by the institution. The resources in this section include tips and tricks for revising your college application essay.
3 Ways to Increase Word Count (WikiHow)
Complete with illustrations, this WikiHow page outlines several ways you might go about substantively expanding your essay. These tips include clarifying points, reworking your introduction and conclusion, adding new viewpoints and examples, and connecting loose threads.
Admissions 101: What an Essay Word Limit Really Means (Veritas Prep)
In this blog post, Veritas Prep's college preparation tutors assure you that being a little over or under the limit is acceptable, recommending ways you can think about the word limit's purpose.
College Essay Word Limit - Going Under? (College Confidential)
In this College Confidential discussion forum, students discuss the possible ramifications of writing under the word limit for a college essay.
How to Increase Your Essay Word Count (WordCounter)
This article from WordCounter outlines different ways you might go about meeting word count, including addressing different viewpoints, adding examples, and clarifying statements.
Hitting the Target Word Count in Your College Admissions Essay (Dummies.com)
This article details how to hit the target word count. Scroll down to the middle of the article for advice on where you should cut words from to meet word count.
Some Tricks to Reduce Word Count (EastAsiaStudent.net)
This article recommends simplifying your style, deleting adverbs, deleting prepositions, and revisiting connectives and adjectives to reduce word count.
Advice on Whittling Your Admissions Essay (NYTimes)
In this New York Times article, Andrew Gelb discusses how to go about cutting down your admissions essay in order to meet the requisite word limit.
How to Shorten an Essay Without Ruining the Content (Quora)
This Quora post from a concerned student yielded useful community responses on how to effectively shorten an essay without losing the original message.
How to Find Essay Writing Help
Feel like you've hit a wall revising your essay on your own? You're not alone, and there are plentiful resources on the web through which you can connect with fellow college applicants and/or professional tutors. The links in this section will take you to free services for improving your college application essay, as well as two of the top paid writing tutor services.
College Confidential Forums
College Confidential is a free, public forum in which you can post your essay and receive feedback from current college students, current college applicants, and even teachers or other experienced users.
This subreddit is a great place to look for crowdsourced help on your essay, ask questions about college essays, or even find a private tutor.
Essayforum.com provides another platform for students to share their application essays. Although this link takes you to the site's forum for applicants to undergraduate degree programs, you can submit and review essays in other categories as well.
Varisty Tutors offers tutoring services from freelance tutors based on location. Prices and services vary, but their site is easy to use and there are many tutors available to choose from.
Princeton Review, one of the largest providers of college preparation tutoring (ranging from standardized test preparation to essay help) offers online essay tutoring services with a free trial period.
Resources for Teaching Students How to Write a College Essay
Using in-class time to prepare your students to write college application essays is, of course, rewarding, but can also be challenging. If you're a teacher looking to incorporate the college essay into your curriculum but you're not sure where to start, take a look at the useful resources below.
College Essay Writing
This product includes material for more than one full lesson plan, including powerpoint presentations, assessments, and homework on the topic of college essays.
Narrative Writing Ideas and Prompts
Appealing to students 9th grade and up, this product includes lesson plans, handouts, and homework for developing narrative writing for the college essay process.
College Essay: Comprehensive 7-Session Workshop Series
This PDF includes entire courses, manuals, and handouts designed to teach students the ins and outs of the college essay process, either in an individual or group setting.
College Essay Revision Forms & Rubrics
These PDFs provide students with visual organizers and rubrics to assess their own writing and learn how to become better college essay writers.
Teaching the College Essay (Edutopia)
Teaching your students about writing the college essay can be incredibly intimidating -- as a teacher, how should you approach the process? This article from Edutopia outlines how to go about introducing the college essay to your students.
Essay Lesson Plan Ideas for College Applications (EssayHell)
If you're a teacher looking for a concrete lesson plan on college essays, this guide recommends using the first day to discuss the importance of the essay, the second day for brainstorming, and so on. Click on the link above to examine their full guide.
Help Your Students Write a Killer College Essay (EdWeek Blog)
This blog post goes over various techniques designed to help your students choose an appropriate topic and write their essay with passion.
The Biggest College Essay Mistakes & How to Fix Them (Talks With Teachers)
Looking to help your students avoid the minefield of mistakes in the college essay field? Check out this post from Talks With Teachers, a journal that shares "inspiring ideas for English teachers."
Additional Resources (Further Reading)
Curious to read more about college application essays, or to see fun and unusual examples of what students have written? The articles, blog posts, and books in this section are a good place to start surveying the field.
One Over-the-Top Admissions Essay (Huffington Post)
This piece from the Huffington Post talks about a humorous response to a Stanford supplemental essay topic, the so-called "letter to my future roommate."
College & University - Statistics and Facts (Statista.com)
In the process of writing your college essay, you may find yourself wondering who exactly goes to college, how many colleges there are in the United States, etc. This site gives the up-to-date statistics for various US demographics, both in aggregate and by university, as well as other information.
Who Made That College Application? (NYTimes)
This piece from the NYTimes outlines the history of the college essay from its origins in the 1800s, to the first "modern" college application, produced by Columbia University in 1919, to the present.
How They Got Into Harvard (Staff of the Harvard Crimson)
This highly-rated collection of successful Harvard application essays, available on Amazon, is both an entertaining read and an instructive resource for anyone looking for exemplary essays to use as models.
Here’s a brutal truth about applying to college: On paper, most teenagers are not very unique. Some three million high school graduates send applications into universities every single year, and that’s just within the United States. Seasoned admissions officers—particularly at elite schools—know how to spot cookie-cutter applicants and toss them into the reject pile in seconds.
Luckily, you do get a modest chance to distinguish yourself. Universities in the US and across the world are increasingly looking away from test scores and grade point averages and toward one particularly unique component of students’ applications: the essay. If done exceptionally well, it’s a catapult to an acceptance offer. So what exactly is the best way to sell oneself to Harvard in a thousand words or fewer? Reporters and editors across Quartz’s newsroom have come together to offer some foolproof advice.
Forget “writing from the heart”
Parents and teachers will often tell students who are just starting out on their essays to “write sincerely,” “write about your feelings,” “write about what matters to you.” That advice, while well-intentioned, is not helpful. An essay can be completely heartfelt—and terrible.
Instead of starting from such a broad place, begin with the narrow strategy of researching the worst college-essay clichés; that way, even if you don’t have the faintest idea what to write about, you at least know what you have to avoid. Examples of hackneyed essay characteristics that immediately make admissions officers roll their eyes include:
- Dictionary definitions (“Webster’s defines ‘courage’ as…”)
- Epigraphs or references of famous writers (“It was the best of times…”)
- Sound effects (“Whizz! Snap! Whew! went the rocket that I built…”)
- Sentences that are just strings of SAT words (“The fortuitous phenomena that transpired on the fortnight of…”)
- Overused metaphors
- “Let me tell you a story”
- Repeating information from other parts of your application, i.e. re-listing all your extracurriculars
- Talking about the university instead of yourself
- Over-using passive tense, instead of telling an engaging story
- Sticking too close to the prompt (“A time I overcame an obstacle was when…”)
Don’t be interesting. Be interested
Now, what to write about? Essay prompts are intentionally open-ended, and there are several ways to go about choosing a topic. Here’s a nearly foolproof one: Write about a person, place, or idea that you genuinely—perhaps to the point of geeky, nervous-laughter embarrassment—love.
“Write about what you’re interested in, not what you think is interesting about you,” says Quartz lifestyle reporter Jenni Avins, who wrote about her part-time job in high school making crepes in a coffee shop: “I was really interested in the people who came into this creperie, and this little world. It was an observational piece about having this window on a community.”
But this doesn’t mean you should ramble on pointlessly for five paragraphs. Make sure your topic reveals something about yourself, or why you want to study and pursue the things you do. Jenni’s essay highlighted her curiosity toward others. Quartz science editor Elijah Wolfson wrote his essay about pizza joints in New York—but it was really a tale of moving across the country and coming to terms with loss.
Yale’s dean of admissions Jeremiah Quinlan told Quartz last year that the university is explicitly “looking for passion” in the kids it admits; you can bet that the admissions offices at Stanford, MIT, and other top-tier schools are hunting around for the exact same. Don’t worry about your topic sounding too boring or pretentious—the raw emotion underneath matters more.
Pull out unflattering memories
It can be instinctive to paint the best picture of yourself possible in your essay, but put aside vanity and pride for a moment. You’ve already spent the rest of your college application flourishing your immaculate GPA, club leadership, and volunteer work. Oftentimes, the most powerful essay topic is one that lets some of your imperfections seep through.
You can start by thinking of a time that you struggled, made a mistake, or were embarrassed. Quartz technology reporter Mike Murphy, for example, wrote his essay on being stranded at the bottom of the Grand Canyon as a kid. He begins by setting up the scene: “I’m sorry, but 3:30 a.m. is never the same as 4:00 a.m.” He goes on to explain how he and his relatives were accidentally separated on the trip, walking the reader through the challenges he faced on his way back to safety, and ending on a tone of humility and lesson-learning.
Good essays don’t all need to hype up an applicant’s superpowers: They can expose weaknesses, demonstrating subtlety and self-awareness.
Tell a story—however you want to
When it comes to the college essay, taking a risk—however small or big—is better than playing it safe. Try writing different versions of your essay, maybe in completely different formats, just to see if one of them resonates more than the others.
“Admissions officers have to read so many essays that physically look the same. An essay that stands out is simply more memorable,” says Quartz growth editor Jean-Luc Bouchard. “I wrote a series of thematically linked poems for my admissions essay, and even though the poems were probably pretty bad, I think I got points just for trying something different.”
You may recall the news this spring about Ziad Ahmed, a student who got into Stanford by writing “#BlackLivesMatter” a hundred times on one of his essay prompts. Such ventures may come off as gimmicky—and we certainly wouldn’t recommend anyone repeating this exact idea in a future year—but they’re effective at one thing: grabbing the reader’s attention. Ziad, who had interned for Hilary Clinton and was recognized by Barack Obama at a White House dinner in 2015, was already more than qualified. What his essay did was make admissions officers pause in their tracks for a moment, and peer a tad more closely at the rest of his application.
Tinker with your essay. Think of it not as an essay in the academic sense, but an unlined blank canvas you can use to present whatever you want. That said, no sound effects—please.
Run your essay through spellcheck. Ask a teacher, friend, parent, or counselor to read it over—then ask five more people to do the same. Admissions officers barrel through dozens of essays a day, and the rote tedium of it can cause them to be hyper-critical of even the smallest of typos and grammatical errors. Show them this small respect, and you’ve already beat out many others kids for that coveted acceptance letter.