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How to Write a Personal Essay for Your College Application
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.
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.
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.
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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There are several ways parents can lend support to their children during the college application process. Here's how to get the ball rolling.
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- How to Write a College Essay
College admissions experts offer tips on selecting a topic as well as writing and editing the essay.
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. Getty Images
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
- Avoiding common admissions essay mistakes
- Brainstorming tips for your college essay
- How formal should the tone of your college essay be?
- Taking your college essay to the next level
- Sample essay 1 with admissions feedback
- Sample essay 2 with admissions feedback
- Student story: Admissions essay about a formative experience
- Student story: Admissions essay about personal identity
- Student story: Admissions essay about community impact
- Student story: Admissions essay about a past mistake
- Student story: Admissions essay about a meaningful poem
Writing tips and techniques for your college essay
Pose a question the reader wants answered, don't focus exclusively on the past, experiment with the unexpected, don't summarize, want to join the conversation.
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- College Essay Format & Structure | Example Outlines
College Essay Format & Structure | Example Outlines
Published on September 24, 2021 by Meredith Testa . Revised on May 31, 2023.
There are no set rules for how to structure a college application essay, but you should carefully plan and outline to make sure your essay flows smoothly and logically.
Typical structural choices include
- a series of vignettes with a common theme
- a single story that demonstrates your positive qualities
Table of contents
Formatting your essay, outlining the essay, structures that work: two example outlines, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about college application essays.
You should keep the formatting as simple as possible. Admissions officers need to work very quickly, so fancy formatting, unnecessary flourishes, and unique fonts will come off as more distracting than individual. Keep in mind that, if you’re pasting your essay into a text box, formatting like italics may not transfer.
Your essay will be easier for admissions officers to read if it is 1.5- or double-spaced. If you choose to attach a file, ensure that it is a PDF.
You don’t need a title for your essay, but you can include one, especially if you think it will add something important.
Most importantly, ensure that you stick to the word count. Most successful essays are 500–600 words. Because you’re limited in length, make sure that you write concisely . Say everything that you need to express to get your point across, but don’t use more words than necessary, and don’t repeat yourself.
Prevent plagiarism. Run a free check.
Once you’ve finished brainstorming topics but before you start writing, think about your writing’s trajectory: how you’ll start the essay , develop it, and end it .
Do you want to organize it chronologically? Would you prefer to make a “sandwich” structure by introducing a topic or idea, moving away from it, and then coming back to it at the end? There’s a variety of options (and a pair of strong examples below), but make sure you consider how you’d like to structure the essay before you start writing.
Although you should organize your thoughts in an outline, you don’t have to stick to it strictly. Once you begin writing, you may find that the structure you’d originally chosen doesn’t quite work. In that case, it’s fine to try something else. Multiple drafts of the same essay are key to a good final product.
Whatever structure you choose, it should be clear and easy to follow, and it should be feasible to keep it within the word count . Never write in a way that could confuse the reader. Remember, your audience will not be reading your essay closely!
Vignettes with a common theme
The vignette structure discusses several experiences that may seem unrelated, but the author weaves them together and unites them with a common theme.
For example, a student could write an essay exploring various instances of their ability to make the best of bad situations. A rough outline for that essay might look like this:
- In a rehearsal for a school play when a lighting fixture malfunctioned and the set caught fire, I helped extinguish it.
- To help the situation, I improvised fixes for the set and talked with the director about adding lines referencing the “disaster.”
- I didn’t get into my first-choice high school, but I became class president at the school where I ended up.
- When I had ACL surgery, I used the downtime to work on my upper body strength and challenged my friends to pull-up contests.
- How these qualities will serve me in college and in my career
Single story that demonstrates traits
The narrative structure focuses on a single overarching story that shows many aspects of a student’s character.
Some such essays focus on a relatively short event that the author details moment by moment, while others discuss the story of a longer journey, one that may cover months or years.
For example, a student might discuss trying out for a sports team as a middle schooler, high school freshman, and high school senior, using each of those instances to describe an aspect of their personality. A rough outline for that essay might look like this:
- Confident, there to have fun
- Very passionate and in love with the sport
- Little sister was born that day, so I had to go alone with a friend’s parents
- Learned to be independent and less self-centered
- Realized that as much as I love gymnastics, there are more important things
- Gave up first homecoming of high school, had to quit other activities, lost countless hours with friends
- I had to repeat level 9 and didn’t progress quickly
- I had a terrible beam routine at one competition the previous year and still had a mental block
- I got stuck on some skills, and it took over a year to learn them
- Passion from age 7, perspective from age 11, diligence from age 15
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.
- Writing process
- Transition words
- Passive voice
- 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
There are no set rules for how to structure a college application essay , but these are two common structures that work:
- A montage structure, a series of vignettes with a common theme.
- A narrative structure, a single story that shows your personal growth or how you overcame a challenge.
Avoid the five-paragraph essay structure that you learned in high school.
Your college essay’s format should be as simple as possible:
- Use a standard, readable font
- Use 1.5 or double spacing
- If attaching a file, save it as a PDF
- Stick to the word count
- Avoid unusual formatting and unnecessary decorative touches
You don’t need a title for your college admissions essay , but you can include one if you think it adds something important.
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- College application essays allow students to showcase their strengths and uniqueness.
- A well-written college essay could tip an admission decision in your favor.
- Students should spend time editing and proofreading their application essays.
- Your college application essay should focus on you and a meaningful topic.
Many colleges and universities require a college admissions essay as part of the application process. These personal statements allow students to describe their academic achievements, their strengths, and other personal aspects that can help admissions officers see them as unique individuals.
The essay also demonstrates a student's readiness for college and likelihood of success. While an applicant's GPA, SAT or ACT scores, and transcripts are important, a college application essay can offer an admissions department insights that these metrics don't reveal.
How Important Is the College Application Essay?
Many schools strongly emphasize the college application essay during admissions.
Although universities consider other elements such as GPA and recommendation letters , an outstanding personal essay for college can help you stand out from other applicants. If you have a similar GPA and test scores to those of other applicants, an essay can allow you to differentiate yourself.
According to a 2018-19 study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling , 56.4% of admissions counselors reported that their institutions placed "considerable" or "moderate" importance on the college application essay when making admission decisions.
The report also found that private schools and more selective colleges tended to put the most weight on admissions essays.
How Long Should a College Essay Be?
Most effective college essay topics tend to reflect conciseness. Students who don't know how to write a personal statement for college might lose their readers' attention if they take too long to make their point. Applicants should remember that they get only a few hundred words to leave a favorable impression.
The Common App essay , for example, allows applicants to write a maximum of 650 words and a minimum of 250 words. Most supplemental essays submitted through this application system should be around 250 words or less.
With the Coalition Application, essays should be 500-650 words long .
What Kinds of College Essay Prompts Are There?
College essay prompts typically consist of broad, open-ended questions. They intend to focus students' writing while allowing for some freedom when addressing a topic. Depending on the school, students might respond to one prompt or pick from several.
Students should pay attention to what a prompt asks and stay on topic. Failing to answer the prompt directly is a common mistake when writing a personal statement for college.
Both the Common App and Coalition for College provide several prompts. Students should read their chosen question carefully as they develop their response. Creating outlines can help applicants stay on topic.
Common App Essay Prompts, 2021-22
- Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
- Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
- Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
Coalition App Essay Prompts, 2021-22
- Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
- Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.
- Has there been a time when you've had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?
- What is the hardest part of being a student now? What's the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?
- Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.
What Are Some Examples of Good College Essay Topics?
Good college essay topics enable concise, transparent, honest, and meaningful writing. Because personal statements should differentiate applicants from their peers, topics should include compelling details and anecdotes.
Students should think carefully before writing about a negative experience or personal weakness. A college essay should portray the applicant positively, and dwelling on difficult or taboo topics could detract from your strengths.
You might look for college application essay examples to help you brainstorm topics. Students can also consider asking family members and peers to comment on their strengths and unique qualities. They may have insight to offer about what makes an applicant a good fit for a particular major or area of study.
Below are some examples of good college essay topics:
- A Defining Moment, Experience, or Realization: An experience that changed your perspective; a strong belief you no longer hold
- Someone Who Has Greatly Influenced You: Your most important mentor; a person who changed your life for the better
- A Key Part of Your Identity: An important aspect about you that you wish more people knew; your best characteristic
- Your Biggest Passion: A cause for which you have sacrificed; how your passion helped shape your identity
- A Problem You Solved: A significant obstacle you overcame; a solution you developed that achieved results
- A Unique Hobby: Your most enjoyable pastime; a time when your hobby taught you a valuable lesson
How to Write a Personal Statement for College: 6 Tips
A key characteristic of an excellent college application essay is writing quality. The personal statement can weigh heavily on some admission decisions. With this in mind, students can employ several strategies to make their essays stand out.
1. Pick a Meaningful Topic
Compelling college essay topics enable applicants to tell memorable and relatable stories. Students choosing subjects that hold personal meaning for them will likely write with more authenticity and enthusiasm, maintaining readers' interest.
Applicants should focus more on writing something they care about rather than what they think will impress admissions officers.
2. Keep the Focus on You
Unlike test scores or letters of recommendation, good college essay topics give students considerable control over how they express their best selves. Therefore, the essay should focus on them and not on other people.
Even personal statements that discuss an influential teacher or mentor should keep the story's focus on the applicant, such as how that person drove you to change or take action.
3. Use Specific Details and Examples
College essays ideally illustrate students' potential by outlining their achievements. These statements should include detailed descriptions and examples that portray experiences rather than future goals.
For instance, students who want to convey their leadership skills might describe specific incidents when they inspired others or helped a group achieve a tangible output.
4. Reveal Something Unique About Yourself
A student should write a college application essay that distinguishes them from other applicants. For example, writing about playing a niche instrument or winning an Olympic medal can help students stand out from other applicants. Doing so also demonstrates how your distinctive qualities will add to campus life.
5. Tell a Story
Students should use their college admissions essays to tell stories, striving for quality instead of quantity. In other words, you should avoid discussing your entire life and instead focus on one or two strong anecdotes that reveal your true self.
Applicants may write about specific hobbies or work experiences that highlight their values, skills, or proficiencies.
6. Edit and Proofread
Editing involves fine-tuning a draft to improve its organization and clarity. Proofreading typically follows editing and entails checking for errors. Once applicants have edited and proofread their essays, they'll benefit from at least one more read-through.
You should also strongly consider asking someone else to review your draft to catch additional errors and provide constructive feedback.
What Should You Avoid in Your Personal Essay for College?
Although a personal essay for college can demonstrate excellent writing and topic choice, it can still leave an unfavorable impression if it contains inappropriate or repetitive information. Here are some examples of topics to leave out of your statement.
Your Grades, Test Scores, and Academic Achievements
Successful college essays typically include information that does not appear anywhere else in the application. When reviewing other submission documents, admissions officers can learn about students' grades, previous courses, and scholarly achievements. As such, the essay should not focus on these kinds of details.
Your Life of Privilege
Steer clear of topics that highlight a privileged lifestyle. For example, framing a relatively common athletic injury as the hardest challenge you've faced may not demonstrate resilience as effectively as you'd like it to. It also suggests a lack of awareness of more serious obstacles others your age have faced.
In your eyes, Fido and Fluffy may be the most amazing creatures on the planet. But we all love our pets. You want your college essay to stand out by focusing on a topic or experience that's unique to you rather than something universal.
Cliches and Trite Quotations
A college admissions essay presents an opportunity for students to express their creativity and originality of thought. Using cliches and trite expressions makes writers appear lazy or unimaginative. Also, some sayings may be relevant to specific cultures, alienating or confusing some readers.
Your Criminal Record
Everybody admires an underdog who overcomes adversity, but illuminating past missteps with the law isn't exactly the best way to make a good first impression on college admissions officers. While you shouldn't sanitize reality for the benefit of your readers, choose a college essay topic that at the very least presents you in a positive light.
Grammar and Spelling Mistakes
Knowing how to write a college application essay includes detecting spelling, punctuation, and grammar mistakes. Error-free personal statements go far to illustrate applicants' excellent writing skills. Students might ask teachers, mentors, or others they trust to read their essays to catch any mistakes before submitting them.
College Application Essay Example
I planned my high school career carefully: marching band, honors courses, and three dual-credit college classes. My senior year should have been a smooth glide to graduation, with multiple electives to fill out the seven-hour day.
As a member of the Class of 2011, however, I became part of the first group of students to fall under the Texas Education Agency's new "4x4 plan." High school graduation requirements for Texas students expanded to include four years of four core subjects: mathematics, social studies, English, and science.
Under the new plan, despite careful planning, I was one year short on science. Due to the limited curriculum options of my small school, the only course on my prescribed registration list was Biology II. Enrolling in Biology II meant participating in the final project: dissecting cats.
I had avoided the course in the past for this exact reason. Being a longtime animal lover and advocate, there was simply no way I would — or could — take a scalpel to the body of a nameless shelter cat — killed in a gas chamber, its limbs stiff, fur matted with embalming fluid.
If all else failed, I was ready to sacrifice my 4.0 GPA. I was prepared to sit out for the project and take a dozen failing grades.
But first, I decided to put up a fight.
I drafted a formal letter to the principal and the biology teacher, discussing my reservations. I sent a second letter to the school's anatomy teacher. Her courses were over capacity, strictly limited to students interested in pursuing a health major in college, and the only other science option available at my grade level.
I let them know how the sudden introduction of the 4x4 plan felt like a punishment to students like me who had painstakingly planned their high school years from the start. I told them of my compassion for all living creatures, my concern with the use of cruel carbon monoxide euthanasia in Texas shelters, and the availability of modern computer programs that required no desecration of beloved companion animals.
When my senior year arrived, I had a seat in the crowded anatomy classroom — a future music major, alongside two dozen students with their eyes set on nursing, physical therapy, and medical school.
Presenting my views in a clear, respectful way prompted three adults in authority to make a positive change on my behalf. I was further informed that, in the years to follow, shelter cats would be phased out of Biology II and replaced with virtual dissection labs.
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First-year essay prompts
Common App has announced the 2023-2024 essay prompts.
Below is the complete set of common app essay prompts for 2023-2024..
- Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
- Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
- Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
- Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
We will also retain the optional community disruption question within the Writing section.
Looking for tips on how to approach the essay? Check out our blog !
Solutions center for first-year students
Solutions center for transfer students.
Sample College Admission Essay 1 with Feedback
We've discussed in a general sense what makes a good essay, but it's always helpful to look at specific examples and hear how admissions officers evaluated them. Included below is a sample essay. It's well-written and avoids the common admission essay pitfalls discussed in previous videos (listing off accomplishments like a resume, writing about someone else instead of making it personal, etc.), so it's not simple to know how an admissions officer will react. Read the essay, and then proceed to the follow-up video to hear from admissions.
Sample essay 1
Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you (500 word limit).
A misplaced foot on the accelerator instead of the brakes made me the victim of someone’s careless mistake. Rushing through the dark streets of my hometown in an ambulance, I attempted to hold back my tears while two supportive Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) comforted me. Although I suffered a minor knee injury, the trauma of that accident still lingers.
Fast forward six years to the present. Now I am sitting in the back of the ambulance, a rookie EMT, with my purple gloves on, stethoscope around my neck, and a red medical bag in hand. I am also making sure we have the proper medical equipment stocked, including neck collars and long body boards. As I step out of the ambulance, a bitter breeze nips at my face. Shattered glass, two crushed car hoods, and traffic everywhere, the scene is put into perspective as I can finally see what is happening. I stop in my tracks. It is my accident all over again.
“Get the collars and boards, there is a possible back injury,” my partner whispers to me. I fetch the items, still attempting to deal with my conflicting emotions. Using the help of five other EMTs, we extricate the victim from the car and secure him to the stretcher. While in the ambulance, I realize now that circumstances have been reversed. This time, clutching the patient’s hand, I tried to soothe him, and he slowly calms down. I keep my composure and actively tried to help the patient feel as comfortable as I did. Keeping all of his personal belongings close to me, we wheel him into the busy emergency room and transfer him safely. As we leave, he looked into my eyes and I could feel his sincere gratitude. Rather than being an innocent victim, like the current patient was, I am now the rescuer.
Even though I felt the horrid memories rushing back, I kept my duties as a rescuer in the forefront of my mind. Keeping my cool in the face of extreme pressure I came out of the call a changed person: someone who can see a problem, regardless of any bias I may have, and focus only on what is happening at that instant. Confidently facing my own terrors, I felt as if conquering my fears allowed me to face my duties with a grounded and compassionate outlook.
Tears stream, limbs hurt, children cry: I am there, with a smile on my face, a stethoscope around my neck, compassion in my heart, happy to help and proud to serve.
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How to write your best college application essay
University of Rochester dean of undergraduate admissions offers college applicants some dos and don’ts in writing the personal statement.
By robert alexander, the dean of undergraduate admissions, financial aid, and enrollment management for arts, sciences & engineering, university of rochester..
Many universities ask applicants to include a college application essay—usually a personal statement or similar essay—along with their application materials. With more students applying to selective colleges than ever, and with many of those colleges placing less emphasis on standardized test scores, the admissions essay can be a crucial component of the applicant’s file.
We’ve made that shift in emphasis away from testing at the University of Rochester . As a selective private research university with programs in the liberal arts, sciences, and engineering, the undergraduate college draws from a global pool of high-achieving students. Since nearly all of those candidates are at or near the top of their class, we use a holistic approach to select those with strong ethical character who align with our institutional values. So, as an applicant, how can you distinguish yourself?
One of the most important ways is through your college application essay.
Many students may dread this part of the process. Yet with the right attitude and strategy, you can write an essay that will improve your candidacy for admission. A good college application essay will not overcome poor grades for a student at the lowest end of a school’s applicant pool, but it can help a qualified candidate stand out from the crowd.
Tackle the college essay topic
The traditional college application essay usually requires an open-ended personal statement in response to broad or general prompts that might have you share a story, reflect on an event, or discuss a topic. The Common Application, Coalition for College Application, and other online college application forms typically provide a set of options from which you can choose.
Of course, some college and universities require you to respond to a specific prompt or question. In that case, you want to make sure to answer that prompt or question clearly and directly.
Whether the guidelines are open-ended or specific, the topic itself is less important than how you express yourself.
And above all: Don’t write an admissions essay about something you think sounds impressive or that you think the admissions officer wants to read. While it’s fine to look at college application essay examples, don’t simply mimic one. Write about something truly important to you.
Breadth versus depth?
- Dig deep into one aspect of your topic instead of trying to cover many aspects superficially in your college essay. Be brief in explaining who, what, and where; leave plenty of room for why and how .
→ For example : If you’re writing about a life-changing trip, don’t spend six paragraphs on where you traveled, how long it took to get there, and the weather. We want to know why you went and why the experience was meaningful. How are you different now because of it?
Details bring your application essay to life
- Be specific. It’s the details, rather than any general statements, that bring your essay—and hence, you—to life for an admissions officer who is reading hundreds of personal statements.
→ For example : If you’re writing about how much you loved playing your high school sport, tell a story about a specific game-winning play (or a devastating loss), how you felt, and what you learned.
Writing a college application essay: dos and don’ts
Here are a few guidelines for crafting a college application essay that effectively conveys who you are while also helping you stand out from the thousands of other applicants.
- Present yourself in a dimension that reaches beyond grades, recommendations, and test scores. Think of the things that built your character—maybe a special relationship in your life, your most meaningful extracurricular activity, or a class or idea that changed the way you think. We want to know what makes you tick, how you might fit into our community, and how your distinctive qualities and experiences would contribute to our interesting and dynamic campus.
- Be sure your essay reflects you. Ask yourself: Am I the only person who could have written this essay? Or could everyone else in my senior class have written it?
- Tell a story about yourself with a beginning, middle, and end. Hook the reader with a compelling opening paragraph—surprise us, teach us something we didn’t know, or share something vulnerable and make us curious to read more. Close with a clear ending that ties back to your opening or provides a captivating conclusion to your story.
- Ask someone to proofread your essay or to offer feedback—but be sure your essay is written in your own voice and style. It won’t serve you well for someone else to write your essay for you!
- Stay within the required—or suggested—length. Usually it is about 650 words. This shows that you can follow directions. Plus, good writers can adhere to a word limit and still get their point across.
- Pay attention to formatting. If you compose your essay in a word processing software program (like Microsoft Word or Google Docs) in order to use spellcheck or other features, be sure to review it again after copy-and-pasting into the application itself. Some of the original formatting might be lost because different combinations of word processing and web browsers can cause errors. Double-check before clicking “submit”!
And a few don’ts:
- Humor and creativity can work, provided they are not taken to an extreme. Remember: You don’t know your reader’s sense of humor—and it might not be the same as yours.
- Don’t be controversial or sensational for its own sake; but it’s OK to take a risk if you’re sharing a unique viewpoint or a particularly strong conviction that you hold dear.
- You’re not writing a legal brief for the Supreme Court or trying to sway the audience to your side of an argument. Instead, you’re attempting to share something of yourself with the admissions committee.
- Avoid using words that are not in your regular vocabulary. Again, be yourself.
- Don’t repeat information available in other parts of your application, unless you’re using your college admissions essay to expand upon an activity or academic opportunity that was particularly meaningful to you.
- Avoid regurgitating your resume or writing about your entire life’s history. Listing every award and semester you made honor roll is unnecessary, but sharing how you felt when a beloved yet demanding English teacher said you were his best student has more potential.
Ultimately, your college application essay is a chance to tell the admissions committee who you are and what is important to you. We want to know: What are your values?
At the University of Rochester, for example, we have a motto: Meliora, meaning “ever better.” So, it stands to reason that when we read an application essay, we want to know: How will you make yourself, your community, or the world better?
Tell us your story. This may be your best chance to come through as an individual, so make the most of this opportunity!
About Robert Alexander
Robert Alexander, the dean of undergraduate admissions, financial aid, and enrollment management for Arts, Sciences & Engineering at the University of Rochester, has more than 22 years of enrollment management experience in higher education. He joined Rochester in June 2020 and previously served in senior admissions, enrollment, and communications roles at Millsaps College, University of the Pacific, and Tulane University.
Rochester’s dean of undergraduate admissions offers advice on which courses to take, and why.
Grades. Clubs. Scores. Essays. Interviews. We’ve culled the advice of seasoned admissions professionals from the University of Rochester for a roadmap of what to do—and what to avoid.
Equitable access to internships helps University of Rochester students preview their futures.
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Category : Campus Life
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Choose Your Test
Sat / act prep online guides and tips, 177 college essay examples for 11 schools + expert analysis.
College Admissions , College Essays
The personal statement might just be the hardest part of your college application. Mostly this is because it has the least guidance and is the most open-ended. One way to understand what colleges are looking for when they ask you to write an essay is to check out the essays of students who already got in—college essays that actually worked. After all, they must be among the most successful of this weird literary genre.
In this article, I'll go through general guidelines for what makes great college essays great. I've also compiled an enormous list of 100+ actual sample college essays from 11 different schools. Finally, I'll break down two of these published college essay examples and explain why and how they work. With links to 177 full essays and essay excerpts , this article will be a great resource for learning how to craft your own personal college admissions essay!
What Excellent College Essays Have in Common
Even though in many ways these sample college essays are very different from one other, they do share some traits you should try to emulate as you write your own essay.
Visible Signs of Planning
Building out from a narrow, concrete focus. You'll see a similar structure in many of the essays. The author starts with a very detailed story of an event or description of a person or place. After this sense-heavy imagery, the essay expands out to make a broader point about the author, and connects this very memorable experience to the author's present situation, state of mind, newfound understanding, or maturity level.
Knowing how to tell a story. Some of the experiences in these essays are one-of-a-kind. But most deal with the stuff of everyday life. What sets them apart is the way the author approaches the topic: analyzing it for drama and humor, for its moving qualities, for what it says about the author's world, and for how it connects to the author's emotional life.
A killer first sentence. You've heard it before, and you'll hear it again: you have to suck the reader in, and the best place to do that is the first sentence. Great first sentences are punchy. They are like cliffhangers, setting up an exciting scene or an unusual situation with an unclear conclusion, in order to make the reader want to know more. Don't take my word for it—check out these 22 first sentences from Stanford applicants and tell me you don't want to read the rest of those essays to find out what happens!
A lively, individual voice. Writing is for readers. In this case, your reader is an admissions officer who has read thousands of essays before yours and will read thousands after. Your goal? Don't bore your reader. Use interesting descriptions, stay away from clichés, include your own offbeat observations—anything that makes this essay sounds like you and not like anyone else.
Technical correctness. No spelling mistakes, no grammar weirdness, no syntax issues, no punctuation snafus—each of these sample college essays has been formatted and proofread perfectly. If this kind of exactness is not your strong suit, you're in luck! All colleges advise applicants to have their essays looked over several times by parents, teachers, mentors, and anyone else who can spot a comma splice. Your essay must be your own work, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with getting help polishing it.
And if you need more guidance, connect with PrepScholar's expert admissions consultants . These expert writers know exactly what college admissions committees look for in an admissions essay and chan help you craft an essay that boosts your chances of getting into your dream school.
Check out PrepScholar's Essay Editing and Coaching progra m for more details!
Want to write the perfect college application essay? Get professional help from PrepScholar.
Your dedicated PrepScholar Admissions counselor will craft your perfect college essay, from the ground up. We'll learn your background and interests, brainstorm essay topics, and walk you through the essay drafting process, step-by-step. At the end, you'll have a unique essay that you'll proudly submit to your top choice colleges.
Don't leave your college application to chance. Find out more about PrepScholar Admissions now :
Links to Full College Essay Examples
Some colleges publish a selection of their favorite accepted college essays that worked, and I've put together a selection of over 100 of these.
Common App Essay Samples
Please note that some of these college essay examples may be responding to prompts that are no longer in use. The current Common App prompts are as follows:
1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. 2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? 3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? 4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you? 5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. 6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
Now, let's get to the good stuff: the list of 177 college essay examples responding to current and past Common App essay prompts.
- 12 Common Application essays from the classes of 2022-2025
- 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2026
- 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2022
- 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2018
- 8 Common Application essays from the class of 2012
- 8 Common Application essays from the class of 2007
These essays are answers to past prompts from either the Common Application or the Coalition Application (which Johns Hopkins used to accept).
- 1 Common Application or Coalition Application essay from the class of 2026
- 6 Common Application or Coalition Application essays from the class of 2025
- 6 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2024
- 6 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2023
- 7 Common Application of Universal Application essays from the class of 2022
- 5 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2021
- 7 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2020
Essay Examples Published by Other Websites
- 2 Common Application essays ( 1st essay , 2nd essay ) from applicants admitted to Columbia
Other Sample College Essays
Here is a collection of essays that are college-specific.
- 4 essays (and 1 video response) on "Why Babson" from the class of 2020
- 5 essay examples ( 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 ) from the class of 2020 along with analysis from Emory admissions staff on why the essays were exceptional
- 5 more recent essay examples ( 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 ) along with analysis from Emory admissions staff on what made these essays stand out
University of Georgia
- 1 “strong essay” sample from 2019
- 1 “strong essay” sample from 2018
- 10 Harvard essays from 2023
- 10 Harvard essays from 2022
- 10 Harvard essays from 2021
- 10 Harvard essays from 2020
- 10 Harvard essays from 2019
- 10 Harvard essays from 2018
- 6 essays from admitted MIT students
- 6 "best gift" essays from the class of 2018
Books of College Essays
If you're looking for even more sample college essays, consider purchasing a college essay book. The best of these include dozens of essays that worked and feedback from real admissions officers.
College Essays That Made a Difference —This detailed guide from Princeton Review includes not only successful essays, but also interviews with admissions officers and full student profiles.
50 Successful Harvard Application Essays by the Staff of the Harvard Crimson—A must for anyone aspiring to Harvard .
50 Successful Ivy League Application Essays and 50 Successful Stanford Application Essays by Gen and Kelly Tanabe—For essays from other top schools, check out this venerated series, which is regularly updated with new essays.
Heavenly Essays by Janine W. Robinson—This collection from the popular blogger behind Essay Hell includes a wider range of schools, as well as helpful tips on honing your own essay.
Analyzing Great Common App Essays That Worked
I've picked two essays from the examples collected above to examine in more depth so that you can see exactly what makes a successful college essay work. Full credit for these essays goes to the original authors and the schools that published them.
Example 1: "Breaking Into Cars," by Stephen, Johns Hopkins Class of '19 (Common App Essay, 636 words long)
I had never broken into a car before.
We were in Laredo, having just finished our first day at a Habitat for Humanity work site. The Hotchkiss volunteers had already left, off to enjoy some Texas BBQ, leaving me behind with the college kids to clean up. Not until we were stranded did we realize we were locked out of the van.
Someone picked a coat hanger out of the dumpster, handed it to me, and took a few steps back.
"Can you do that thing with a coat hanger to unlock it?"
"Why me?" I thought.
More out of amusement than optimism, I gave it a try. I slid the hanger into the window's seal like I'd seen on crime shows, and spent a few minutes jiggling the apparatus around the inside of the frame. Suddenly, two things simultaneously clicked. One was the lock on the door. (I actually succeeded in springing it.) The other was the realization that I'd been in this type of situation before. In fact, I'd been born into this type of situation.
My upbringing has numbed me to unpredictability and chaos. With a family of seven, my home was loud, messy, and spottily supervised. My siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing—all meant my house was functioning normally. My Dad, a retired Navy pilot, was away half the time. When he was home, he had a parenting style something like a drill sergeant. At the age of nine, I learned how to clear burning oil from the surface of water. My Dad considered this a critical life skill—you know, in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed. "The water's on fire! Clear a hole!" he shouted, tossing me in the lake without warning. While I'm still unconvinced about that particular lesson's practicality, my Dad's overarching message is unequivocally true: much of life is unexpected, and you have to deal with the twists and turns.
Living in my family, days rarely unfolded as planned. A bit overlooked, a little pushed around, I learned to roll with reality, negotiate a quick deal, and give the improbable a try. I don't sweat the small stuff, and I definitely don't expect perfect fairness. So what if our dining room table only has six chairs for seven people? Someone learns the importance of punctuality every night.
But more than punctuality and a special affinity for musical chairs, my family life has taught me to thrive in situations over which I have no power. Growing up, I never controlled my older siblings, but I learned how to thwart their attempts to control me. I forged alliances, and realigned them as necessary. Sometimes, I was the poor, defenseless little brother; sometimes I was the omniscient elder. Different things to different people, as the situation demanded. I learned to adapt.
Back then, these techniques were merely reactions undertaken to ensure my survival. But one day this fall, Dr. Hicks, our Head of School, asked me a question that he hoped all seniors would reflect on throughout the year: "How can I participate in a thing I do not govern, in the company of people I did not choose?"
The question caught me off guard, much like the question posed to me in Laredo. Then, I realized I knew the answer. I knew why the coat hanger had been handed to me.
Growing up as the middle child in my family, I was a vital participant in a thing I did not govern, in the company of people I did not choose. It's family. It's society. And often, it's chaos. You participate by letting go of the small stuff, not expecting order and perfection, and facing the unexpected with confidence, optimism, and preparedness. My family experience taught me to face a serendipitous world with confidence.
What Makes This Essay Tick?
It's very helpful to take writing apart in order to see just how it accomplishes its objectives. Stephen's essay is very effective. Let's find out why!
An Opening Line That Draws You In
In just eight words, we get: scene-setting (he is standing next to a car about to break in), the idea of crossing a boundary (he is maybe about to do an illegal thing for the first time), and a cliffhanger (we are thinking: is he going to get caught? Is he headed for a life of crime? Is he about to be scared straight?).
Great, Detailed Opening Story
More out of amusement than optimism, I gave it a try. I slid the hanger into the window's seal like I'd seen on crime shows, and spent a few minutes jiggling the apparatus around the inside of the frame.
It's the details that really make this small experience come alive. Notice how whenever he can, Stephen uses a more specific, descriptive word in place of a more generic one. The volunteers aren't going to get food or dinner; they're going for "Texas BBQ." The coat hanger comes from "a dumpster." Stephen doesn't just move the coat hanger—he "jiggles" it.
Details also help us visualize the emotions of the people in the scene. The person who hands Stephen the coat hanger isn't just uncomfortable or nervous; he "takes a few steps back"—a description of movement that conveys feelings. Finally, the detail of actual speech makes the scene pop. Instead of writing that the other guy asked him to unlock the van, Stephen has the guy actually say his own words in a way that sounds like a teenager talking.
Turning a Specific Incident Into a Deeper Insight
Suddenly, two things simultaneously clicked. One was the lock on the door. (I actually succeeded in springing it.) The other was the realization that I'd been in this type of situation before. In fact, I'd been born into this type of situation.
Stephen makes the locked car experience a meaningful illustration of how he has learned to be resourceful and ready for anything, and he also makes this turn from the specific to the broad through an elegant play on the two meanings of the word "click."
Using Concrete Examples When Making Abstract Claims
My upbringing has numbed me to unpredictability and chaos. With a family of seven, my home was loud, messy, and spottily supervised. My siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing—all meant my house was functioning normally.
"Unpredictability and chaos" are very abstract, not easily visualized concepts. They could also mean any number of things—violence, abandonment, poverty, mental instability. By instantly following up with highly finite and unambiguous illustrations like "family of seven" and "siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing," Stephen grounds the abstraction in something that is easy to picture: a large, noisy family.
Using Small Bits of Humor and Casual Word Choice
My Dad, a retired Navy pilot, was away half the time. When he was home, he had a parenting style something like a drill sergeant. At the age of nine, I learned how to clear burning oil from the surface of water. My Dad considered this a critical life skill—you know, in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed.
Obviously, knowing how to clean burning oil is not high on the list of things every 9-year-old needs to know. To emphasize this, Stephen uses sarcasm by bringing up a situation that is clearly over-the-top: "in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed."
The humor also feels relaxed. Part of this is because he introduces it with the colloquial phrase "you know," so it sounds like he is talking to us in person. This approach also diffuses the potential discomfort of the reader with his father's strictness—since he is making jokes about it, clearly he is OK. Notice, though, that this doesn't occur very much in the essay. This helps keep the tone meaningful and serious rather than flippant.
An Ending That Stretches the Insight Into the Future
But one day this fall, Dr. Hicks, our Head of School, asked me a question that he hoped all seniors would reflect on throughout the year: "How can I participate in a thing I do not govern, in the company of people I did not choose?"
The ending of the essay reveals that Stephen's life has been one long preparation for the future. He has emerged from chaos and his dad's approach to parenting as a person who can thrive in a world that he can't control.
This connection of past experience to current maturity and self-knowledge is a key element in all successful personal essays. Colleges are very much looking for mature, self-aware applicants. These are the qualities of successful college students, who will be able to navigate the independence college classes require and the responsibility and quasi-adulthood of college life.
What Could This Essay Do Even Better?
Even the best essays aren't perfect, and even the world's greatest writers will tell you that writing is never "finished"—just "due." So what would we tweak in this essay if we could?
Replace some of the clichéd language. Stephen uses handy phrases like "twists and turns" and "don't sweat the small stuff" as a kind of shorthand for explaining his relationship to chaos and unpredictability. But using too many of these ready-made expressions runs the risk of clouding out your own voice and replacing it with something expected and boring.
Use another example from recent life. Stephen's first example (breaking into the van in Laredo) is a great illustration of being resourceful in an unexpected situation. But his essay also emphasizes that he "learned to adapt" by being "different things to different people." It would be great to see how this plays out outside his family, either in the situation in Laredo or another context.
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Example 2: By Renner Kwittken, Tufts Class of '23 (Common App Essay, 645 words long)
My first dream job was to be a pickle truck driver. I saw it in my favorite book, Richard Scarry's "Cars and Trucks and Things That Go," and for some reason, I was absolutely obsessed with the idea of driving a giant pickle. Much to the discontent of my younger sister, I insisted that my parents read us that book as many nights as possible so we could find goldbug, a small little golden bug, on every page. I would imagine the wonderful life I would have: being a pig driving a giant pickle truck across the country, chasing and finding goldbug. I then moved on to wanting to be a Lego Master. Then an architect. Then a surgeon.
Then I discovered a real goldbug: gold nanoparticles that can reprogram macrophages to assist in killing tumors, produce clear images of them without sacrificing the subject, and heat them to obliteration.
Suddenly the destination of my pickle was clear.
I quickly became enveloped by the world of nanomedicine; I scoured articles about liposomes, polymeric micelles, dendrimers, targeting ligands, and self-assembling nanoparticles, all conquering cancer in some exotic way. Completely absorbed, I set out to find a mentor to dive even deeper into these topics. After several rejections, I was immensely grateful to receive an invitation to work alongside Dr. Sangeeta Ray at Johns Hopkins.
In the lab, Dr. Ray encouraged a great amount of autonomy to design and implement my own procedures. I chose to attack a problem that affects the entire field of nanomedicine: nanoparticles consistently fail to translate from animal studies into clinical trials. Jumping off recent literature, I set out to see if a pre-dose of a common chemotherapeutic could enhance nanoparticle delivery in aggressive prostate cancer, creating three novel constructs based on three different linear polymers, each using fluorescent dye (although no gold, sorry goldbug!). Though using radioactive isotopes like Gallium and Yttrium would have been incredible, as a 17-year-old, I unfortunately wasn't allowed in the same room as these radioactive materials (even though I took a Geiger counter to a pair of shoes and found them to be slightly dangerous).
I hadn't expected my hypothesis to work, as the research project would have ideally been led across two full years. Yet while there are still many optimizations and revisions to be done, I was thrilled to find -- with completely new nanoparticles that may one day mean future trials will use particles with the initials "RK-1" -- thatcyclophosphamide did indeed increase nanoparticle delivery to the tumor in a statistically significant way.
A secondary, unexpected research project was living alone in Baltimore, a new city to me, surrounded by people much older than I. Even with moving frequently between hotels, AirBnB's, and students' apartments, I strangely reveled in the freedom I had to enjoy my surroundings and form new friendships with graduate school students from the lab. We explored The Inner Harbor at night, attended a concert together one weekend, and even got to watch the Orioles lose (to nobody's surprise). Ironically, it's through these new friendships I discovered something unexpected: what I truly love is sharing research. Whether in a presentation or in a casual conversation, making others interested in science is perhaps more exciting to me than the research itself. This solidified a new pursuit to angle my love for writing towards illuminating science in ways people can understand, adding value to a society that can certainly benefit from more scientific literacy.
It seems fitting that my goals are still transforming: in Scarry's book, there is not just one goldbug, there is one on every page. With each new experience, I'm learning that it isn't the goldbug itself, but rather the act of searching for the goldbugs that will encourage, shape, and refine my ever-evolving passions. Regardless of the goldbug I seek -- I know my pickle truck has just begun its journey.
Renner takes a somewhat different approach than Stephen, but their essay is just as detailed and engaging. Let's go through some of the strengths of this essay.
One Clear Governing Metaphor
This essay is ultimately about two things: Renner’s dreams and future career goals, and Renner’s philosophy on goal-setting and achieving one’s dreams.
But instead of listing off all the amazing things they’ve done to pursue their dream of working in nanomedicine, Renner tells a powerful, unique story instead. To set up the narrative, Renner opens the essay by connecting their experiences with goal-setting and dream-chasing all the way back to a memorable childhood experience:
This lighthearted–but relevant!--story about the moment when Renner first developed a passion for a specific career (“finding the goldbug”) provides an anchor point for the rest of the essay. As Renner pivots to describing their current dreams and goals–working in nanomedicine–the metaphor of “finding the goldbug” is reflected in Renner’s experiments, rejections, and new discoveries.
Though Renner tells multiple stories about their quest to “find the goldbug,” or, in other words, pursue their passion, each story is connected by a unifying theme; namely, that as we search and grow over time, our goals will transform…and that’s okay! By the end of the essay, Renner uses the metaphor of “finding the goldbug” to reiterate the relevance of the opening story:
While the earlier parts of the essay convey Renner’s core message by showing, the final, concluding paragraph sums up Renner’s insights by telling. By briefly and clearly stating the relevance of the goldbug metaphor to their own philosophy on goals and dreams, Renner demonstrates their creativity, insight, and eagerness to grow and evolve as the journey continues into college.
An Engaging, Individual Voice
This essay uses many techniques that make Renner sound genuine and make the reader feel like we already know them.
Technique #1: humor. Notice Renner's gentle and relaxed humor that lightly mocks their younger self's grand ambitions (this is different from the more sarcastic kind of humor used by Stephen in the first essay—you could never mistake one writer for the other).
My first dream job was to be a pickle truck driver.
I would imagine the wonderful life I would have: being a pig driving a giant pickle truck across the country, chasing and finding goldbug. I then moved on to wanting to be a Lego Master. Then an architect. Then a surgeon.
Renner gives a great example of how to use humor to your advantage in college essays. You don’t want to come off as too self-deprecating or sarcastic, but telling a lightheartedly humorous story about your younger self that also showcases how you’ve grown and changed over time can set the right tone for your entire essay.
Technique #2: intentional, eye-catching structure. The second technique is the way Renner uses a unique structure to bolster the tone and themes of their essay . The structure of your essay can have a major impact on how your ideas come across…so it’s important to give it just as much thought as the content of your essay!
For instance, Renner does a great job of using one-line paragraphs to create dramatic emphasis and to make clear transitions from one phase of the story to the next:
Suddenly the destination of my pickle car was clear.
Not only does the one-liner above signal that Renner is moving into a new phase of the narrative (their nanoparticle research experiences), it also tells the reader that this is a big moment in Renner’s story. It’s clear that Renner made a major discovery that changed the course of their goal pursuit and dream-chasing. Through structure, Renner conveys excitement and entices the reader to keep pushing forward to the next part of the story.
Technique #3: playing with syntax. The third technique is to use sentences of varying length, syntax, and structure. Most of the essay's written in standard English and uses grammatically correct sentences. However, at key moments, Renner emphasizes that the reader needs to sit up and pay attention by switching to short, colloquial, differently punctuated, and sometimes fragmented sentences.
Even with moving frequently between hotels, AirBnB's, and students' apartments, I strangely reveled in the freedom I had to enjoy my surroundings and form new friendships with graduate school students from the lab. We explored The Inner Harbor at night, attended a concert together one weekend, and even got to watch the Orioles lose (to nobody's surprise). Ironically, it's through these new friendships I discovered something unexpected: what I truly love is sharing research.
In the examples above, Renner switches adeptly between long, flowing sentences and quippy, telegraphic ones. At the same time, Renner uses these different sentence lengths intentionally. As they describe their experiences in new places, they use longer sentences to immerse the reader in the sights, smells, and sounds of those experiences. And when it’s time to get a big, key idea across, Renner switches to a short, punchy sentence to stop the reader in their tracks.
The varying syntax and sentence lengths pull the reader into the narrative and set up crucial “aha” moments when it’s most important…which is a surefire way to make any college essay stand out.
Renner's essay is very strong, but there are still a few little things that could be improved.
Connecting the research experiences to the theme of “finding the goldbug.” The essay begins and ends with Renner’s connection to the idea of “finding the goldbug.” And while this metaphor is deftly tied into the essay’s intro and conclusion, it isn’t entirely clear what Renner’s big findings were during the research experiences that are described in the middle of the essay. It would be great to add a sentence or two stating what Renner’s big takeaways (or “goldbugs”) were from these experiences, which add more cohesion to the essay as a whole.
Give more details about discovering the world of nanomedicine. It makes sense that Renner wants to get into the details of their big research experiences as quickly as possible. After all, these are the details that show Renner’s dedication to nanomedicine! But a smoother transition from the opening pickle car/goldbug story to Renner’s “real goldbug” of nanoparticles would help the reader understand why nanoparticles became Renner’s goldbug. Finding out why Renner is so motivated to study nanomedicine–and perhaps what put them on to this field of study–would help readers fully understand why Renner chose this path in the first place.
4 Essential Tips for Writing Your Own Essay
How can you use this discussion to better your own college essay? Here are some suggestions for ways to use this resource effectively.
#1: Get Help From the Experts
Getting your college applications together takes a lot of work and can be pretty intimidatin g. Essays are even more important than ever now that admissions processes are changing and schools are going test-optional and removing diversity standards thanks to new Supreme Court rulings . If you want certified expert help that really makes a difference, get started with PrepScholar’s Essay Editing and Coaching program. Our program can help you put together an incredible essay from idea to completion so that your application stands out from the crowd. We've helped students get into the best colleges in the United States, including Harvard, Stanford, and Yale. If you're ready to take the next step and boost your odds of getting into your dream school, connect with our experts today .
#2: Read Other Essays to Get Ideas for Your Own
As you go through the essays we've compiled for you above, ask yourself the following questions:
- Can you explain to yourself (or someone else!) why the opening sentence works well?
- Look for the essay's detailed personal anecdote. What senses is the author describing? Can you easily picture the scene in your mind's eye?
- Find the place where this anecdote bridges into a larger insight about the author. How does the essay connect the two? How does the anecdote work as an example of the author's characteristic, trait, or skill?
- Check out the essay's tone. If it's funny, can you find the places where the humor comes from? If it's sad and moving, can you find the imagery and description of feelings that make you moved? If it's serious, can you see how word choice adds to this tone?
Make a note whenever you find an essay or part of an essay that you think was particularly well-written, and think about what you like about it . Is it funny? Does it help you really get to know the writer? Does it show what makes the writer unique? Once you have your list, keep it next to you while writing your essay to remind yourself to try and use those same techniques in your own essay.
#3: Find Your "A-Ha!" Moment
All of these essays rely on connecting with the reader through a heartfelt, highly descriptive scene from the author's life. It can either be very dramatic (did you survive a plane crash?) or it can be completely mundane (did you finally beat your dad at Scrabble?). Either way, it should be personal and revealing about you, your personality, and the way you are now that you are entering the adult world.
Check out essays by authors like John Jeremiah Sullivan , Leslie Jamison , Hanif Abdurraqib , and Esmé Weijun Wang to get more examples of how to craft a compelling personal narrative.
#4: Start Early, Revise Often
Let me level with you: the best writing isn't writing at all. It's rewriting. And in order to have time to rewrite, you have to start way before the application deadline. My advice is to write your first draft at least two months before your applications are due.
Let it sit for a few days untouched. Then come back to it with fresh eyes and think critically about what you've written. What's extra? What's missing? What is in the wrong place? What doesn't make sense? Don't be afraid to take it apart and rearrange sections. Do this several times over, and your essay will be much better for it!
For more editing tips, check out a style guide like Dreyer's English or Eats, Shoots & Leaves .
Still not sure which colleges you want to apply to? Our experts will show you how to make a college list that will help you choose a college that's right for you.
Interested in learning more about college essays? Check out our detailed breakdown of exactly how personal statements work in an application , some suggestions on what to avoid when writing your essay , and our guide to writing about your extracurricular activities .
Working on the rest of your application? Read what admissions officers wish applicants knew before applying .
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Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.
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Writing A College Application Essay
College Application Essay Examples
22+ Winning College Application Essay Examples For Your Inspiration
Published on: Feb 18, 2019
Last updated on: Nov 7, 2023
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"Congratulations, you've been accepted!" Imagine opening up your acceptance letter and feeling a rush of excitement as you read the words.
Feels great, doesn't it?
But with so much riding on one application essay, how do you make it truly stand out and captivate your panel?
That's where our collection of the best college application essays steps in.
Check out our expert examples that will help you write an essay that stands out from the rest. Our examples are engaging, descriptive, and informative - perfect for any student looking to make their application stand out.
So read this blog to turn your college application essay into your ticket to success!
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Good College Application Essay Examples
Crafting a standout college application essay can be a daunting task, but finding inspiration in the form of good examples can make the writing process significantly more manageable.
Here is a successful college application with its complete analysis:
This essay tells a simple story about the applicant's interest in computer science, their challenges, and what they want to do in the future. It's straightforward and easy to understand.
- Engaging Introduction : The essay starts with a comparison to an adventure to make it interesting.
- Narrative Flow: The essay follows a story-like structure, talking about the challenges faced and what the applicant learned.
- Specific Details : It gives specific examples like the summer job and coding contests to show what they've done.
- Relevance to the College : The essay says why the applicant wants to go to the college, making it personal.
- Personal Growth : It shows that the applicant learned and didn't give up.
The following are some example college essays for you to understand better.
College Application Essay Examples PDF
College Application Essay Examples 300 Words
College Application Essay Examples 500 Words
College Application Essay Examples 600 Words
College Application Essay Examples 650 Words
College Application Essay Examples 1000 Words
Personal statement college application essay example 500 Words pdf
College Application Essay Examples for High School Senior
College Application Essay Examples About Yourself
Personal Essay Examples for College Application
College Application Essay Examples for Universities
Many famous education institutes require students to write essays in their given format. Here are some college application essay examples to help you get admission in different universities.
College Program Application Essay Examples
College Scholarship Application Essay Examples
College Transfer Application Essay Examples
Common College Application Essay Examples
UC College Application Essay Examples
Honors College Application Essay Examples
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Subject Related College Application Essay Examples
Sometimes, students also have to write essays on different subjects. Here are some examples of college essays for students who have a background in medicine or technology.
Nursing College Application Essay Examples
College Application Essay Examples Computer Science
Engineering College Application Essay Examples
Art College Application Essay Examples
Veteran College Application Examples
college application essay examples about sports
How to Write a College Application Essay
The college application essay is a crucial component of your application package, offering admissions officers a unique glimpse into your personality, experiences, and aspirations.
To make a lasting impression, it's essential to know how to start and end a college application essay effectively.
Here are examples of how to start and end your college application essay:
How to Start a College Application Essay - Examples
Common App Essay Prompts
When you apply to colleges and universities using the common essay prompts, you can create a personal essay where you can share your individual story.
These prompts are your chance to stand out and show admissions officers who you are beyond your grades and test scores.
Here are some college application essay prompts for you:
- Background, Identity, or Talent : Share a meaningful aspect of your background or identity.
- Overcoming Challenges : Describe a time you faced a challenge or setback and what you learned.
- Questioning Beliefs : Reflect on when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea.
- Problem-Solving : Discuss a problem you've solved or one you'd like to address.
- Personal Growth : Describe an event that led to personal growth and self-discovery.
Need more prompts? Read our college application essay prompts blog!
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Tips for Writing an Effective College Application Essay
Remember, your college application essay is an opportunity to showcase your personality, experiences, and aspirations.
Here are some tips for writing college application essays:
- Start Early : Begin the essay-writing process well in advance of your application deadlines. This allows you to brainstorm, draft, revise, and edit your essay thoroughly, ensuring it's the best it can be.
- Understand the Prompt: Carefully read and understand the essay prompt or question. Make sure your essay directly addresses the question or topic. If the prompt has multiple parts, address each one in your essay.
- Be Authentic : Your essay should reflect your unique voice and experiences. Be yourself, and don't try to write what you think the admissions committee wants to hear.
- Tell a Story : Engage the reader by telling a personal story or anecdote. Use descriptive language to paint a vivid picture, and allow your experiences to reveal your character, values, and aspirations.
- Focus on One Topic : It's better to explore one specific aspect of your life, personality, or experiences deeply rather than attempting to cover too much. A narrow focus allows for more depth and clarity.
A college essay is indeed an important part of your application. It provides an opportunity for students to show the admission committee what makes them good candidates.
However, most people do not possess the right skills and knowledge to craft a perfect essay. Thus, they end up hiring an essay writer for their college admissions essay.
If you're seeking help with your admission essay, consider our college admission essay writing service . We offer affordable rates, continuous progress tracking, and unlimited revisions.
Place your order with our online essay writing service today and take the first step toward academic success!
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Essay Writing Tips
Many colleges and universities require you to submit an essay with your application. The topic of this essay is usually the reason(s) you want to attend that particular college. Some colleges give two choices and ask what you hope to accomplish in your life as the additional topic. Other colleges require an in-person interview so they can learn about you first-hand.
Experts advise students to follow the tips below to create a good essay for a college application:
Make yourself shine
This is an opportunity to show the admissions committee what makes you special and interesting.
Keep the topic specific
Many colleges ask applicants to describe themselves, an experience that influenced their life or to explain a special interest. Often, the essay involves describing an extracurricular activity you have enjoyed. Before you write the essay, come up with a list of several essay topics and key points involved in each one. Then choose the topic about which you feel most strongly.
Outline your essay
List all the items that apply to your essay and then organize them. Start with a statement of purpose, then address the individual items and conclude with a restatement of your essay.
Pay attention to the opening paragraph
Your opening paragraph plays a large role in the success of your essay. There are several approaches you might use including starting with a quotation, a rhetorical question or a short description of the experience you plan to expand upon in the essay.
Review and rewrite
Do not settle for your first effort. Rewrite the essay. Then edit the final draft one more time and be diligent in your proofreading for spelling or grammar errors. When you think it’s perfect, have a teacher review it and give you feedback.
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College Application Essay
An Expert Guide to Writing a Great College Application Essay
Published on: Mar 2, 2020
Last updated on: Jan 20, 2023
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The college application essay is one of the most important parts of your application. It's what you will use to introduce yourself and showcase your personality, creativity, and personal qualities to the admissions office.
But with so many different colleges out there, it can be difficult to narrow down which essay they want from you. This blog post will give you some tips on how to write a great college admission essay that showcases who you are as an individual- no matter where or for what school!
What is a College Application Essay?
Every year colleges receive hundreds of thousands of applications from high school students. It is not easy for them to choose the best candidates, as many candidates with similar scores apply to these colleges.
So they include your personal statement in their admission process along with recommendation letters to discover what separates you from the other skilled applicants.
That is why colleges allow you to tell them more about yourself and prove to them with your essay’s help that you are the kind of candidate they are looking for.
Application essays are now part of the admission application process in almost all the colleges offering higher education worldwide.
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Importance of a College Application Essay
Your college essay is more than good grammar and correct sentence structure. Since your academic grades and test scores have nothing about your personality, interests, and hidden talents, the college application essay serves this purpose.
In a college admission essay, you can talk about your extracurricular activities, achievements, and personality. Convince the committee that you are more than just an A student.
Keep in mind that you are a unique person with a unique personality. Your interests, choices, achievements, and approaches to tasks, problems, and conflicts are unique somehow.
You can use this in your favor and make an impression on the committee. This is your chance to prove your mettle.
What is a College Looking for in Your Essay?
As mentioned earlier, academics is not the only factor in getting admission into a college.
The admission officer is looking to know more about you while reading your essay. Colleges look for candidates with exceptional skills and people who can bring diversity and add value to the community.
There are many things you must add to your supplemental essay. The reason is every college offers different programs, and they expect talented candidates. So that resources provided by the college are used in the best way possible.
The college admission committee looks for the following things in your essay:
- Your command of basic essay writing
- Critical thinking skills
- Your creativity and originality
- Can you directly answer the essay questions?
- Your ability to express yourself in an essay
- Intellectual curiosity
- How do you want to contribute to society?
- What change do you want to bring to society?
- Diversity of experience
- Clarity of thoughts
- Your ability to construct an argument
Keeping in mind that a common application must answer these two questions in one way or the other.
- What sets you apart from other applicants?
- Why did you choose this college?
If you properly answered these questions, your essay will be counted in the best as you told them what they wanted to hear.
How to Write a College Application Essay?
Writing an essay is tough, but it becomes a lot tougher when your admission is dependent on one essay. But it is not impossible to tailor a beautiful essay. Here are the steps to follow to write a perfect application essay.
1. Understanding the Prompt
The essay topic is the most important point of your essay, and you should take it seriously. You should know the topic or the question well to craft your essay accordingly. The college can ask you to follow a particular prompt like a question or ask you to provide a “why us” type essay.
If you are given a free hand to pick a topic of your choice, you are in control. You have a chance to choose the best and grab the committee’s attention, and hence stand out from the crowd. Now, a free hand can be dangerous too. Turning it into a friendly option is your job.
You don't have to pick a topic specifically from a common app for your application essay. If the committee is offering you to choose a topic of your choice, pick the one in which you can write much about yourself.
2. Outline of Your Essay
The outline is your best companion in your writing. It helps you create a structure for your essay. Note the main points in the outline so that you don't miss anything in your essay.
3. The Beginning and Ending
Beginning and Ending are always the key things people remember about your essay or whatever that you wrote. This is your opportunity to stand aside from the crowd and make the evaluation easier for the committee.
4. Mention Your Accomplishments
Talking about your accomplishments is essential. It is you providing proof of your can-do capability. And once you provide evidence to someone, it’s very easy to convince them.
5. Show Your Personality
Show the real you. Don't fake anything. You have a unique personality, as your experiences are different. Share what you have learned from your experiences to reflect your real personality.
6. Work on Your Grammatical Skills
The usage of good and simple words is really important. Stay away from thesaurus as you don't have to write words you don't use in your daily conversation. You might sound awkward while using such terms as you are not comfortable with them. Hence, it's better to avoid such things and save yourself from embarrassment.
7. Share Your Real Story
Many students take help from the internet and just copy-paste the essays they found online. This is the biggest mistake they can ever make. The admission committee can easily recognize that it's not your real story.
Confidently share your personal story that is relevant to the prompt, as college boards care about your complete persona. You don't have to be over creative with your story; just be the real you.
8. Read Other’s Essay
Read other’s essays and get some inspiration and learn how they have crafted their story. It will help you present your ideas and think of things that best suit your essay prompt.
9. Create a Draft
Give yourself time and brainstorm; let the ideas flow in. Gather as much information as you can and write your first draft. After writing the first draft, refine it as many times as you can. Refining your draft a number of times will help you craft a perfect essay for your admission.
10. Stick To The Word Count
Most of the colleges have restrictions that you can’t write over the specific word limit. So you have to cover each and everything within that particular word limit. Even if the admission board hasn't restricted the word count, you still have to be in the limit.
If they asked you to write your essay within 500 - 650 words, stick to the limit and provide your complete story within this limit. A college essay is comparatively short, to the point, and well written. Avoid extra details and long descriptions.
11. Take A Break
After revising and refining your first draft, take a break to let it sit and rewrite your essay. Taking a break will help you think of things you might have missed in your essay, but they are very relevant to your story and the prompt.
12. Write The Final Draft
Revise your essay to include important information and exclude irrelevant details from the essay. Correct all grammatical and spelling mistakes. Check the flow of the story; does it sound real? Does the information have a logical connection?
Refine your essay and remove all the mistakes. I know it will scare you initially, but once you follow the steps, you will have a well-crafted essay in your hand.
College Application Essay Examples
It is essential to follow a proper format, as it is no casual writing. Be very careful in essay structure as it counts too. You might be getting admission to an ivy league or any top-notch college. You don’t want to miss this.
A well-structured essay is easy to digest, and more importantly, will get your job done. Here is a college application essay format example you have a look for reference.
College Application Essay Format (PDF)
It is your chance to go to your dream college, and you can’t afford to lose, do you? Here are some example essays that worked and you can learn from.
College Application Essay Sample (PDF)
College Application Essay Example (PDF)
Do’s and Don’ts of College Application Essay
In such a critical part of admission, you have to be very careful. There are certain things experts will suggest and other things they will want you to avoid. Here are the do’s and don’ts of college application essays.
- Since the committee wants to know about you, you have to use your own voice and writing tone.
- Tell them something they don’t know already.
- Don’t forget to get your spelling & grammar checked once you are done with your essay.
- Let someone else proofread your essay, as we often don’t see the mistakes we make.
- It is best to seek help from a counselor for test prep or any good writer who can spare some time and edit your application, keeping in mind your needs.
- Avoid classroom answers; it’s not an exam. The admission board does not expect the right response; instead, they want you to be honest and be yourself.
- Don’t use informal words that you use in casual conversations with friends and family over coffee.
- Don't write stories. Be real instead.
- Don't wait until the day you have to submit your essay. Start today and write your essay again and again till the day you submit it.
- Strictly avoid repeating your resume in your personal statement. The committee asked for a personal essay, not a resume. By this age, you should know what a resume is and how it is different from a personal statement.
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Frequently Asked Questions
How do you start a college application essay.
Following are the steps to start a college application essay:
- Try starting with a question.
- Begin with a bold statement.
- Use an interesting quote.
- Challenge the reader by speaking directly to them.
- Tell the reader what you do NOT want to do in your writing.
What should a college application essay be about?
Most college applications ask for a supplemental essay. The essay is to learn about you. You can write about your life experiences and what you want to do in the future.
What do colleges look for in an essay?
Admissions officers look for students who have interesting experiences that show their character and point of view. These are essays that are not just about safe, generic things. These essays make the admissions officer remember them or want to help them.
How long is a college essay?
For your college application, your personal statement should be around 400-600 words. You need to write about yourself.
Cordon J. (Law, Literature)
Cordon. is a published author and writing specialist. He has worked in the publishing industry for many years, providing writing services and digital content. His own writing career began with a focus on literature and linguistics, which he continues to pursue. Cordon is an engaging and professional individual, always looking to help others achieve their goals.
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Should AI read your college essay? It's complicated
Should ai read your college essay it's complicated.
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In a new study, researchers developed a series of artificial intelligence tools that can scan through essays in college applications, picking out evidence of key personal traits. That includes qualities like leadership and perseverance.
The team also designed the tools not to show a preference for applicants from particular racial or gender backgrounds—avoiding the “algorithmic bias” that plagues many AI systems, such as some facial recognition software .
The study was led by researchers from CU Boulder and University of Pennsylvania and was published in October in the journal “Science Advances.”
“Our paper shows that AI doesn’t need to be a biased black box as it has been in a lot of other situations,” said Benjamin Lira, a doctoral student in psychology at UPenn and first author of the study. “You can actually have AI that advances the aims of holistic admissions, which looks at applicants as a whole and not just their grades or test scores.”
These tools should never replace experienced, feeling admissions officers and are not currently in use at any college, said study co-author Sidney D’Mello. But, under the right circumstances, AI could help admissions officers identify promising future students who may have previously gone unnoticed amid thousands of applications.
“We advocate for transparency, where the AI provides explanations and clearly communicates when it is less confident in its decisions,” said D’Mello, professor in the Institute of Cognitive Science and Department of Computer Science at CU Boulder. “People can then decide for themselves how much they should trust it.”
‘I like cheese’
The research drills down on what may be the secret sauce for college admissions: When it comes to personal essays, what are colleges and universities looking for? Even experienced admissions officers don’t always agree on that point—or even with each other, Lira said.
“Humans have limitations,” he said. “You’re not going to read the first essay of the day in the same you read the last one before lunch.”
In their latest research, he and his colleagues set out to see if they could use AI to try to make that process more reliable. To do that, the team tapped into a mountain of data—more than 300,000 (completely anonymous) applications that prospective students had submitted to colleges in the U.S. in 2008 and 2009. Each included a 150-word essay that applicants wrote about their extracurricular activities or work experiences.
First, the team recruited a cohort of real admissions officers to read a sample of these essays. The professionals scored the essays for evidence of seven traits that colleges might want to see in incoming freshmen. They included intrinsic motivation (“Running track is so much more than a sport to me”) and what the researchers call “prosocial purpose,” or the willingness to help others (“Helping children realize their hidden talents is one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had”). The team also trained undergraduate students to identify evidence of those traits in the essays based on existing theories and research on personal qualities.
The researchers fed those insights into a series of AI platforms called large language models to train them to identify evidence of personal qualities going beyond simple word spotting.
Afterward, when the AI platforms read new essays, their results largely lined up with the judgements of the human readers. The AI also seemed to assign beneficial personal qualities evenly across applicants from all demographic backgrounds—although, echoing previous findings, female writers were slightly more likely to demonstrate prosocial purpose than males.
“If I say ‘I donated clothing to a homeless shelter,’ the AI will tell me that it has a 99.8% probability of showing prosocial purpose,” Lira said. “But if I say something like ‘I like cheese,’ that drops to less than 1%.”
What really surprised the researchers, however, was just how important the language embedded in even these short essays seemed to be.
Students whose essays showed evidence of leadership, for example, were more likely to graduate from college in six years than those who didn’t—even after the researchers accounted for the applicants’ test scores, demographics and a host of other factors. The relationship was small but could still provide colleges with clues to help their students, said study-co-author Stephen Hutt, who earned his doctorate degree in computer science from CU Boulder in 2020.
“We could actually use these college applications to inform the retention models that universities employ to identify at-risk students much sooner, getting them support in their freshman year, rather than waiting until after,” said Hutt, now an assistant professor at the University of Denver. For D’Mello, the study shows how much information is hiding in human language—if you only know where to look.
“I was amazed by how a 150-word open-ended response contained sufficient information on whether a student would graduate college six years later,” he said. “Language is really an amazing thing.”
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My Davidson | A Student Blog Student-to-Student: Advice from Davidson College Students on the College Essay
Current Davidson College students share their tips and tricks for navigating and writing the college essay.
About the Authors
This piece was written by Senior Fellows in Davidson College's Office of Admission & Financial Aid; Zaynab Abuhakema ’24, Nathanael Bagonza ’24, Chloe Boissy Stauffer ’24, Kelsey Chase ’24, Amanda Fuenzalida ’24, Olivia Howard ’24 (she/her), Ann Nishida ’24, Lilly Sirover ’24, Samuel Waithira ’24 and Ruby Zhou ’24.
Learn more about them below.
Zaynab Abuhakema ’24 (she/her) is a physics major and theatre minor from Summerville, South Carolina.
“Just be honest! We want to know more about YOU and why you can see yourself at Davidson. Tell us about your passions in the way that makes the most sense to you. Have someone read over it if you want, but don’t worry too much about the technical part. Just show us who you are the best way you can on a page.”
Nathanael Bagonza ’24 (he/him) is an English major from Haverhill, Massachusetts.
“Don’t worry about if your writing is ‘great’ or not; rather, be intentional in ensuring that your essays demonstrate who you are and what you are passionate about! I ended up becoming an English major writing a collection of essays for my senior honors thesis, but what made my application essays work from day one was telling stories that really spoke to my true, authentic self.”
Chloe Boissy Stauffer ’24 (she/her) is an environmental studies and political science double major from Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.
“A couple pages of writing will never capture your whole story- admissions counselors understand this. In order to communicate an accurate snapshot of who you are, try thinking of one hobby, one accomplishment, or one interaction that you think best reflects your overall skill set and worldview. By using one or two examples to ‘anchor’ your story, you can frame your personality, backstory and values. Whatever you write, make sure it’s authentic to who you are because that’s who we want to get to know.”
Kelsey Chase ’24 (she/her) is a political science major from Concord, New Hampshire.
“I read a lot of Common App essays during my college process, not because I wanted to study them or compare them to my own, but because I genuinely thought they were fascinating to read. This helped me realize that it’s helpful to think about writing the essays for a peer rather than an admissions officer. Don’t worry about what you think the admissions officers want to hear; rather, write an essay that you think would help potential friends understand you at your core. I would also advise against your parents or adults taking too much editorial control over your essay — you want your essay to sound like you, which is someone who’s 17 or 18 years old, not a professional. It can definitely be helpful to have someone read over it just to catch grammar mistakes or awkward phrasing, but what matters most is that you feel like it really conveys something important about who you are.”
Amanda Fuenzalida ’24 (she/her) is a biology major from Naples, Florida and Santiago, Chile.
“When I think about the personal essay, I always think about growth, because that is what life is, a continuous growing process. And at 17–18 years, you do not have to have everything figured out or have decided what you want to for the rest of your life. But what you can do well is reflect on the experiences that have made you the person you are at this very moment. And thinking about this personal statement, I would think maybe what are key major parts of my life that have shaped me to be who I am, that make you proud of yourself. Reading back your essay, you should feel that sense of pride, that this essay reflects the person you (not anyone else) are proud you have become.”
Olivia Howard ’24 (she/her) is a biology and German Studies double major from Dacula, Georgia.
“I do not consider writing to be my strong suit, and I remember the dread and fear I had when I was writing my college essays. Essays are intimidating, and you might feel lost trying to fit your story into the limits that are set. My advice to you is to be patient with yourself and allow who you are to come through on the page. Do not over stress about having the most complex grammar and sentence structure, but rather focus on writing what matters to you. It is okay to not be an award-winning writer who uses metaphors and various literary devices. A lot of times it is better to tell your story in a simple way rather than using flowery language and fluff that does not get your point across.”
Ann Nishida ’24 (she/her) is a biology major and music minor from Ridgewood, New Jersey.
“The focus is on you . The essay portion is a chance for the admission counselors to see a side of you that a transcript or test score won’t fully represent. A good starting point in discovering your unique qualities may be to ask yourself Why ? Why am I passionate about certain activities, why do I interact with my environment in a certain way, why do I want to go to Davidson, etc. Good luck!”
Lilly Sirover ’24 (she/her) is a biology major and public health minor on the premedicine track from Haddonfield, New Jersey.
“As someone who prefers speaking over writing, I highly recommend using a voice recording app to talk through your essay ideas as you begin the writing process. Talking through your unique strengths, challenges you have navigated, a personal experience that changed your perspective, a topic that you are endlessly curious about, or something else personal to you allows your story to develop naturally.”
Samuel Waithira ’24 (he/him) is an economics major and applied mathematics minor from Nairobi, Kenya.
“Be genuine with every aspect of your application. Do not try to mold your application into what you believe the college wants. When you present your true self, you build trust with the admissions team, showing that you have confidence in who you are. Remember that each applicant is unique, and colleges are often looking for a diverse student body. By being genuine, you can showcase your individuality and the qualities that set you apart from other applicants.”
Ruby Zhou ’24 (she/her) is an English major on the predental track from Houston, Texas.
“Start writing. I have a tendency to procrastinate whenever I have a daunting task looming over me, and I just need to start writing or I’ll never get it done. The writing might sound horrible and you might feel embarrassed, but if you think about it, the earlier you start, the more time you have to change “bad” writing to something beautiful.”
Looking for More Student Stories?
Check out more student-written blog posts like this one at My Davidson, Davidson College's blog for students, by students.
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Yes, ChatGPT can help with your college admissions essay. Here's what you need to do to stay within the rules.
- Students who use tools like ChatGPT to write their college essays need to walk a fine line.
- Colleges will likely penalize students who submit completely AI-generated applications.
- Using AI to edit or draft the essays may be acceptable though, a tutoring company founder says.
The education sector has had a rough ride with generative AI.
After the release of ChatGPT, some colleges and schools were quick to put a blanket ban on the bot when students began using it to write their essays. Professors and teachers were left with the difficult task of navigating the new concept of AI plagiarism.
Now, several colleges have changed their tune and are encouraging students and staff to use generative AI as a tool — as long as they don't use it to cheat. However, the guidance is still pretty vague, especially when it comes to admissions and college essays.
"The landscape is shifting, but colleges are not unified in their approach to GPT," Adam Nguyen, founder of tutoring company Ivy Link , told Insider. "If you look across the landscape of college admissions, especially elite college admissions, there are no clear rules on whether you could use GPT or not."
In February, I tested the chatbot's ability to write college application essays . The results were relatively successful , with two private admissions tutors agreeing the essays definitely passed for ones written by a real student and probably would have had a shot at most colleges, but probably not the most selective institutions.
There are telltale signs when an entire essay is AI-generated, Nguyen said. For example, there tends to be a lot of repetition, and the essays are generally mediocre.
"If an essay is clearly written by AI, I think they will penalize the student and that application," Nguyen said.
While it's clear students should be writing their own work, it's less clear if students are allowed to use the tech to help them draft or edit essays.
As colleges grudgingly accept that AI is not going anyway, Nguyen said there's a fine line for students to walk.
"If you fill in the details, restructure the essay, and provide the specific language and sentences, that will make the essay your own," he said. "I think many colleges would be fine with that."
He continued, "I would suggest not using it as a default. If you're really stuck, you could use it to start." He suggested that, as a general rule, at least 80% of the essays needed to be edited and changed to be on the safe side.
"If an essay's really good, it won't raise any suspicion, and I don't think most colleges will care that you use GPT to start, as long as they can't tell either," he added.