Writing Skills

How to Write a Great College Application Essay

June 20, 2022

Each year millions of graduating seniors apply to one or more colleges, leaving admissions teams millions of essays to review. Unfortunately, many of these college application essays are forgettable. Great college entrance essays come in different forms and styles. However, they all have one thing in common—they make an impact. Writing a great college application essay that gives you the best chance for acceptance into your school of choice means you need to ensure your entrance essay is unforgettable. Below, I offer several tips on how to approach your college application essay, so those who read it will say, "WOW! That was a GREAT college application essay."

Brainstorm Topics for Your Essay

Planning is key to writing a great college application essay. Before you begin writing, you need to decide what to write about in your essay. It's best to begin by brainstorming a broad list of experiences, so you can examine which ones showcase your personality and skills in a way that lets your essay stand out. It's helpful to dig deep and separate your experiences into five categories:

  • Obstacles
  • Accomplishments/Leadership
  • Values
  • Interests
  • Diversity

Reveal Several Traits in Your Essay

As you review your brainstormed list of experiences, choose those that allow you to reveal positive traits that demonstrate how you will thrive on campus. On a side note, you need to review the prompts for your supplemental or optional essays, and it's crucial that you do not repeat information. Ultimately, you want to highlight two or three traits in your essay and reinforce your traits through the experiences you choose. Showcasing experiences that reveal traits also reveals your values to your readers.

Focus on Values in Your College Application Essay

Each one of the obstacles and accomplishments that you have experienced in your life has been informed by your values—the things that matter to you. If you do a quick internet search of values, you will find dozens of traits and things listed. However, for the purposes of your essay, you need to narrow down your values to about five things that really make you tick, and choose no more than two to discuss in your essay. For example, you might value trustworthiness, honesty, service, loyalty, positivity, creativity, family, and more. Ultimately, you want to think about the things that could be the thread that connects many pieces of your life. When you convey your values in your essay, you provide your readers with insights into how you will fit into the campus community and make positive contributions while you are there.

Create an Outline of Your College Application Essay

Freewriting an essay of any type, a presentation, a speech, etc., is a recipe for disaster. Without a clear plan of what you intend to write, you're likely to go off on tangents and miss an opportunity to demonstrate strong writing skills. Instead, create an outline that serves as a roadmap for your essay with a clear introduction, body, and conclusion. Your outline should include complete sentences and transitions to each part of your story. If you've done the work to identify the values that motivate you, they will help you easily transition from one experience to another. Don't skimp on your outline. Use complete thoughts and ensure each piece flows to the next. This can be frustrating. However, if you put in the effort to create a succinct and strong outline, your college application essay will practically write itself.

Show, Don't Tell

As you tell your story in your college application essay, you might fall into the trap of simply stating your experiences without offering any context, imagery, or emotion to your readers. The best college application essays that make an impact allow readers to experience the essay as if they were walking alongside the writer. Paint a picture of your experience by appealing to your reader's imagination and senses. Additionally, application essays that are written in the first person typically fare best because it allows you to keep your story centered around your experiences instead of the experiences of others.

Use Active Voice in Your Essay

Using an active voice is one of the best things you can do to "show" your reader your experiences. It puts focus on the action of each sentence and makes your narrative clearer for your reader because it allows for less wordy and more concise sentences. Active voice also makes your college application essay great because it creates an emotional impact, while passive voice puts some emotional distance in the narrative. Consider the following example:

  • Passive: The volunteer work I did taught me about the disparities in my community.
  • Active: I learned about the disparities in my community through volunteer work.

The second example packs more of a punch and more clearly conveys what you learned.

Use Proper Format, Grammar, and Syntax

Content is key for a great college application essay. However, do not disregard the importance of submitting a professional statement in the proper format. You have to spend hours, maybe days editing your essay. It's also in your best interest to let a teacher or another trusted person in your life read your essay and check for mistakes. A simple spell check and grammar check will not do. You must thoughtfully review each sentence in your essay and eliminate spelling errors, punctuation errors, sentence fragments, dangling modifiers, and other syntax errors. This makes your essay stronger but also demonstrates your writing skills to the admissions personnel who review your application.