10 Tips for Writing an Outstanding College Application Essay

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College application season is coming, and you’re concerned with getting into the schools you like most. If you’re like I was in my senior year of high school, you may have seemingly little time to slow down and prepare for your college application essay. In this article, I’ll give you tips on writing the best college application essay you can that will increase your chances of admission to that dream school you’re eyeing. Let’s begin!

#1: Get your fundamentals down

Your essay should be free of any grammatical, spelling or other errors that would distract the decision makers during the college application process. Once your writing is technically sound, you will be free to express yourself creatively and powerfully in English. One way to get better results is to use Grammarly, which not only automatically edits your grammar but also offers explanations for its suggestions. Or you can use this book for grammar and this one for general writing.

#2: Become familiar with the prompt

The college application essay will be different than high school English class essays, AP essays, or SAT and ACT essays. Those want you to create a stance on a particular idea or analyze a reading while this essay wants you to write in a way that shows your personality and your strengths. One good way to approach it is by writing a story that answers the prompt. For example, if the prompt is “How have you demonstrated leadership in your school, organizations or community?” you might respond with a story about your Eagle Scout project like I did. Stories are great because they evoke much more interest than a dry listing of facts and achievements and give your writing a unique flavor- no one’s story is the same, while what they put on their resume might match what someone else put down.

#3: Brainstorm

This is the time where you mentally reflect on your experiences to identify your most compelling moments of leadership, your biggest challenges, and where your character comes alive. One great method of generating new ideas is to simply take a walk. A Stanford study found that a person’s creative output increases 60 percent while they walk. Once you come back, you might create a web diagram to help link ideas together. Then, pick your juiciest lead and go with it.

College Application Essay Brainstorm
It doesn’t work exactly like this.


#4: Outline

In an outline, you’ll organize your thoughts into a rough form that will shape your essay. You might organize it by time and have a beginning, middle and end section. Pick an opening for your essay. You can use a question, dialogue, humor, or use “in medias res”- put the reader right in the middle of the story from the very beginning for an exciting first impression, then go back and explain. You also want to make sure you choose a consistent tone for the essay, whether it be serious, humorous, oddball or whatever. Don’t use sarcasm and don’t be cynical- they will negatively affect the perception of your essay.

#5: Keep it Focused

An effective college application essay is focused in terms of tone and also in content. You may be tempted to write multiple anecdotes on the same topic, but chances are, that will spread your essay too thin and there won’t be enough weight to each anecdote to impress the reviewer. Stay with just one story, one time, one experience and your essay will benefit.

College Application Essay focus
Keep trying, focus will come!


#6: Take Breaks

From start to finish, writing your college application essay will take several hours, so don’t wear yourself out by trying to finish it in one sitting. Research shows that taking breaks improves productivity. Just be careful not to browse Facebook, watch TV or eat sweets on your break as those things lower your mood and productivity as explained in this article. Save the distractions for a time you specifically block out, after your work is done. You will also find that new ideas and clarity come to you through breaks and that the quality of your writing stays at a constant high level throughout the essay.

#7: Add Specifics

“It was a dark and stormy night…”

You don’t want to sound like that. Try to be as original as possible and not use cliches. The more original you can be, the more your essay will stand out in the memory of the reviewer. You can back up your main ideas with imagery, creative word choice, quotes, events, and what you were thinking at the time. Remember, your college application essay should give examples of what you did that makes you a good candidate for that school. Strong brainstorming and outline sessions will better prepare you to give those detailed examples. If you need to, do some more brainstorming and outlining if the first time wasn’t enough.

#8: Let it Rest

Give yourself some time between the writing and editing/proofreading stages to let your writing sit. This will allow your brain to relax and refresh itself. When you come back to your college application essay, you will notice things you weren’t aware of the first time around and will have a fresh perspective on what to improve.

College Application Essay rest
Feel like that sometimes?


#9: Edit

Experienced writers can’t stress enough the importance of editing. The way I like to imagine it is that the first draft of your essay is like taking a pickaxe to a marble block. You can establish the basic shape of that block with broad swings, but to get the finer details, you need to go back and use a chisel, which is what editing is. Editing brings out all the fine details from your writing, perfects the grammatical and technical blemishes, and polishes the piece until it’s quite pretty indeed. One tip for editing is to read the essay out loud: often we pick up on details when doing that that we miss when scanning text. You can also read it backwards to further scrutinize it and reduce the likelihood that you’ll miss something. Have friends, family and teachers read your essay-they’ll offer different perspectives and let you know if your writing is clear and does its job. Finally, for a high-quality finish, you can use Scribendi, which offers competitive editing and proofreading services by humans.

#10: Finish the process

Make sure you always reference the right college in your essay. You don’t want to accidentally send an essay referencing college A to college B! Give all the information you need to when you submit your essay like your name, ID number if necessary, and contact information. That will make it easier on the person receiving your essay to pass it to the reviewer. Keep your essay backed up on a cloud account or on another hard drive- losing it would suck.


Now you have some tips and ideas on creating an outstanding college application essay. What do you think? If you found it helpful or you have more tips to share, put them in the comments. Anyone can write a great essay if they master English fundamentals, follow the steps and put in the time. If you liked this article, share it on social media! Also, check out our Ultimate SAT Guide. Thanks for reading!


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1 Comment
  1. Nephi says

    Good to see real expertise on display. Your cotrbitunion is most welcome.

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