How to Write Your College Essay

by Bethany Goldszer | Last Updated: June 2, 2021

The college essay is a personal narrative. The cornerstone piece of your college application, the college essay you write should share your life’s story, experiences, learnings, and growth. As much as the college essay is your story, it’s important to remember that your narrative is in progress. What write your college essay will be about how your story reads so far and the role college will play in the next scene. 

Essentially, when reading your college essay, colleges will be looking for your answer to these key questions:

  • Who are you?
  • What are your life’s motivations and goals? 
  • What challenges have you overcome as you’ve aspired towards your goals?

As you write your college essay, you’re not showing a life that has happened in a straight line. A story that is authentic zig zags: there are good days and challenges along the way, and those are things that are good to talk about in your essay. 

This post will walk you through the writing process of penning your college essay. Also, I’ll share a step-by-step outline that’s helped thousands of my students write powerful essays that strengthen their college applications.

Key Takeaways

Table of Contents

The College Essay Writing Process

When writing the college essay, you’d follow the traditional writing process that you’ve known about since elementary school. The steps are:

  • Brainstorming a compelling topic to write your essay about. One that instantly grabs the reader’s attention.
  • Writing your first college essay draft. Use the formula that I discuss below to fully flesh out your entire story.
  • Revising your college essay draft. You’ll make paragraph level changes that improve clarity and flow to guide your reader quickly through your writing. You’d also check that your essay will have the effect on the reader you’re trying to elicit.
  • Polishing your final college essay. Here you’ll focus on sentence-level edits that reflect your unique style, tone and voice. Also, here’s where you’d make tweaks that reduce word count to the limit of 650 words.

Brainstorm a Compelling Topic

a girl and a boy student in the library studying

Before you begin writing, you’ll have to brainstorm topics to write your college essay about. While college applications like the Common App provide a prompt, I suggest students choose one last. Tell your story first, then go back and choose the prompt that works best. However, if you’re like a lot of my students, this may be where you get stuck. Often they tell me:

"I have nothing to write about...nothing big has happened to me...I don't have a unique story to tell."

Do anything of this sound familiar? But I’m here to tell you, as I have told them, we all have a story to tell. Colleges want to hear your story. The hardest part is uncovering your unique story. I will help you do just that.

There are two activities that I do with students. The first is called “What are My TALENTS?” TALENTS is an acronym, standing for:

  • Traits are the innate things about you that make you unique and different from anyone else.
  • Attitudes are the way you look at, move within, and think about yourself concerning yourself, your community, and the world.
  • Learning Style is how you learn best. Are you a visual learner, auditory learner, sensory learner (you have to feel and touch something), need movement, etc.?
  • Experiences are where you have gone, what you have done or seen that’s influenced you, and how you think of yourself and others.
  • Networks are the groups you belong to. These can be religious groups, political groups, school, work, school clubs, volunteer jobs, programs, to name a few.
  • Tidbits are random things about you that make you unique and don’t fit anywhere else in your college application.
  • Skills are what you can do, such as a hobby, unique talent, or interest.

It’s not an accident. The acronym spells the word “talents.” After you work through your TALENTS, you’ll use them to help write your college essay. Also,  you can use the TALENTS framework to guide your college application, in general, to ensure colleges see how special you are.

The second activity that I would suggest is interviewing yourself by writing down your answers to fundamental questions. If that feels too weird for you, consider asking a friend or family member to interview you. The questions:

  • What is something you feel strongly about, 
  • What is your biggest flop? 
  • What, if anything, have you done to overcome it. 
  • What is your greatest accomplishment? 
  • What about it makes you, and 
  • What about that accomplishment makes you proud. 
  • What is something you regret, and how has your community influenced you? 

Responding to these questions, you’ll go deep and uncover things about yourself that you might not have known or expressed to anyone before.

Write Your First Draft

girl student writing an essay in class

For the second step in the writing process, you’re ready to start writing your college essay. To get ideas about potential topics, check out the blog posts choosing a college essay topic or the best college essay topics for 2021. You’ll find sample topics and student essays that will help inspire your potential topics.

Follow guidelines for a compelling college essay. You should tell the truth about your life’s events and how they happened. Use vivid details so that the admissions officer reader can see the people, places, or sequence of events in their mind like a Hollywood movie. Speak in the first-person voice and explain the significance of every experience, so they know why it’s important to you. And the biggest part of your essay is how you’ve grown and why you’re ready for college. 

Moreover, your college essay will follow the conventional parts of a story. There will be a plot, a beginning, a middle and end, and a setting. Your college essay should have characters, with you as the protagonist and other characters as supporting roles who’ve been part of your growth and development.

So in terms of the essay structure, I’ll share a simple formula that covers all that makes a powerful story. Write your essay using the PARS+G formula, which stands for:

  • Problem, where you’d present a challenge or obstacle you’ve faced in high school. It should be specific to high school. I get asked if it’s okay to write about something in middle school. No, definitely not. Middle school was too long ago. You’re a different person now, and that’s the person you’d like to showcase in your college essay.
  • Actions are what you would present to show what you did to solve the problem – the tangible steps you took to address whatever the problem you were dealing with.
  • Results are what happened as a result of the actions that you applied to the problem. So, you know, if, for example, your problem was being bullied during freshman year. Let’s say you took action to resolve the problem, such as speaking with the bully before it escalated. Maybe you ended up becoming friends with the person, as they had no idea how their treatment made you feel. As a result, you reached an understanding, and they apologized.
  • Skills are what you learned or what you can do better since going through this experience. In our bully example, the skills attained are improved communication, problem-solving, and mediating conflicts. All are college-level skills that you’d infer in your college essay.
  • Growth shows your improvement and the big picture impact of the resolution of the problem. This part is the conclusion of your essay and says how ready you are for college and the value you’d bring to the campus community. 

After writing the separate college essay parts, you’d piece them all together into a skeletal first draft.

Revise Your College Essay

Boy student writing in notebook

The third step is revising your first draft. Read your essay aloud to hear how it sounds. You’re listening for if it’s hitting the mark. If you’re getting your point across, or if something is missing. You can only catch these by listening. You’ll notice things when reading aloud that your eyes are too overwhelmed or not fully processing. 

Also, in the revision process, you’d focus on paragraph-level issues. These include rewriting clear topic sentences and supporting sentences for each of your paragraphs. 

Another vital part of the revision process, you’d step away, read your college essay aloud, and revise it again. You won’t adjust in one essay, but two to give your college essay a fair mock-up.

Polishing Your Final Essay Draft

The final step in the writing process is your final polish. In this stage of your college essay, you’d use a program like Grammarly, an artificially intelligent editing program to check your work. Grammarly checks your writing for word usage, punctuation, syntax, spelling, and grammar. Grammarly will save you time and the likelihood of human error when reviewing your final work. 

Also, this is an excellent time to bring in a second pair of eyes, like a peer, parent, or teacher, to read your college essay. Notice that I recommend this for the final stage and not earlier in the writing process. I believe that for your essay to sound most like you, bring others into the process once it’s fully fleshed out to get their feedback.

The final polish is the place to make style changes. As you’re reading your final draft aloud, listen for redundancies, better words that express an idea, and slight tweaks that improve your essay’s voice and authenticity, for example.

After polishing your final essay and making it nice and shiny, you should have a final college essay that you can copy and paste or upload into your college application.

Conclusion & Action Steps

This was a quick and dirty walkthrough of the college essay writing process. When writing this post, if you’re a rising senior, you’ll be applying to college in a couple of months. The summer is the perfect time to begin writing and refining your college essay. So hopefully, you will be able to use this post (and others in the college essay writing series) as a guide in putting together a rough draft of your essay.

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Bethany Goldszer is top college admissions and financial aid expert. She's been featured in HuffPost, USA Today, Newsday, Queens Gazette, and Official Black Wall Street & voted Best of Long Island. Faced with the overwhelming stress of applying, getting admitted to and financing her University of Chicago education, she started Stand Out College Prep LLC in 2012 so that no student or parent would have to go through this process alone. Over the last 15 years, Bethany has worked with over 1,500 students, helping them and their parents get into their top choice colleges and secure more than $20M in financial aid and scholarships. And each year, she continues to help more students stand out in the college admissions process and their parents navigate financial aid and scholarships.