A college application is made up of many different components. You’ve got the transcripts, the recommendations, the exam scores. And, just when you think there can’t possibly be anything else, you’re hit with the essays.
Some schools require just one personal statement. Others ask for many. Some, like the University of Chicago, pose “quirky” questions like, “Cats have nine lives, Pac-Man has three lives, and radioactive isotopes have half-lives. How many lives does something else—conceptual or actual—have, and why?” (Yes, that’s a real question.)
No matter what the specific essay requirements are for a given university application, they boil down to essentially the same thing. College admissions staff want to know more about who you, the applicant, are as a three-dimensional person.
We get that talking about yourself might not be your favorite thing in the world, but there are ways to make the process of writing a college application essay easier. We’ve broken down some of the basic principles you can use to make nearly any college application essay a success, regardless of how strange the prompt might seem.
1. Use the prompt as a starting point for brainstorming
It might seem like the prompts for college application essays, whether on the Common App or elsewhere, are really specific. But actually, they’re way more open-ended than they seem.
Essentially, every single one of the prompts is asking you about the same thing: what is something that happened to you and how did it affect you? This can be something related to your background, your personal history, or a challenge that you faced. You can write about something silly, like the time you “accidentally” brought your pet hamster to school in your pocket, or something serious, like the loss of a family member.
To get the ball rolling, take a look at the prompts for ideas. Write down events in your life that come to mind while you’re reading the prompts. You should try to pick discrete events that can be explained in about 500 words, like “working tech on the high school musical after not getting cast in the play.” Aim for a list of 5–10 ideas.
2. Pick a subject that is specific to you
Your personal statements are not an opportunity for you to rewrite your entire resume. Remember, the college admissions staff already know about all of your extracurriculars, your grades, your exam scores. No need to go into all of that again.
Instead, you should pick one or two subjects off of your list that really highlight who you are beyond all of that. (And be honest! Don’t make up a story about saving a puppy from a burning building if it didn’t really happen.)
Ideally, the topic or topics you pick should be very specific to who you are. It will make it easier to write about in a detailed way. It will also help you stand out from the crowd. You should think about what subjects will best present your value to the admissions committee. Are you tenacious? Brave? Creative? Whatever quality you want to highlight should be shown in the topics you pick.
3. Be descriptive
Once you’ve picked your topic, remember the basic format you need to use: what happened and how you responded to it. Then, start writing your response.
As you write, try to use as many sensory details as possible. Use descriptions to give the reader a sense of what you heard, saw, smelled, felt, and (maybe) tasted. These will help give your essay something special.
Boring sentence: I knew I had my hamster in my pocket.
Interesting sentence: I could feel Harvey scrabbling around in my coat pocket while he squeaked with excitement.
This is why it’s important to be honest about the events you’re writing about. It’s hard to provide good, realistic detail if you’re making up a story. Also, if you’re puffing up your volunteer work, the lack of detail will be a dead giveaway. Just don’t. No one expects you to be a superhero. They just expect you to be honest.
While it’s good to use vivid descriptions, you should also try to avoid clichés. The worst of these is starting with a quote from a famous person or “The dictionary defines ‘bravery’ as …” While we appreciate the shout out, it reads as trite.
4. Edit, edit, edit
One of the most challenging parts of writing a college application essay is the editing process. You only have a limited number of words to work with—somewhere between 250 and 500, generally. And you have to do a lot in that small space like tell a compelling, detailed story that gives a clear picture of who you are, your values, and how you respond to events in your life. That’s a lot.
We can practically guarantee that your first draft of your essay will not be quite right. Once you’ve drafted your essay, read through it again.
Are your details vivid enough? Have you addressed both sides of the prompt: what happened and how you reacted to it? Have you avoided clichés? Does the first sentence open the essay with a bang? Did you spell everything correctly? (Hint: Dictionary.com can help with that.)
Once you’ve run through your mental checklist, go back and make changes. Then, read through it again. Make more changes.
We suggest that you go through at least three or four drafts before you move on to the next step in the process.
5. Get feedback
It’s important to get a lot of feedback from others in the process of drafting your college application essay. Don’t do this too early—it can be discouraging to have someone comment on a piece of writing that is half-baked.
But once you’re semi-happy with your work, have a trusted family member, teacher, mentor, or other member of your circle read through it. Ask them to give you honest, direct feedback about what they think of it. You might ask them to specifically look for instances where you need to be more specific or provide more detail.
Once you have their feedback, incorporate it into your piece. Then, ask for another couple of rounds of feedback. After each round, use the feedback to make your essay better.
6. Double-check before you submit
When you’re sure you’re happy with your essay, double- and triple-check the spelling and grammar. We recommend you read it aloud to yourself to make sure it sounds OK.
After all that, submit your essay, cross your fingers, and good luck!