Writing a College Essay

by Bethany Goldszer | Last Updated: June 1, 2020

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Writing a college essay is not like writing an English class essay. Rather, the college essay is a personal statement that captures who you are as a student and why you should be admitted into college. In about 650 words, the college essay should be well written and compelling, engagement, and deeply personal. 

Commonly, students make the mistake of waiting until the school year starts in the fall to begin their college essays. But as mentioned earlier, the guidance you would receive from your English teacher, will likely not get you to an essay that will impress college admissions officers. Adding to this, in 2020, there is a chance that high schools across the country may not reopen, leaving you without guidance with your college essay. And with many schools announcing that they will be test-optional for the foreseeable future, an extraordinary essay can set you apart from other applicants and be the needle that moves admissions odds in your favor.

Being four to six months ahead of when applications are due, summer is a great time to start writing your college essay. With no class readings, quizzes, and other papers to distract, you have plenty of time to craft the perfect college essay that will impress college admissions officers.

But to write an essay of this magnitude, you’ll need guidance. In this blog article, I outline how to write a college essay that will improve your chances of admissions success.

What is the College Essay?

For context, I am referring to the college essay that is required by the Common App. Other admission portals such as Coalition App have essays that are required. But here, we focus on the Common App since it’s the most widely used application by prospective college students. The Common App announced in late March that 2019-2020 prompts will be used for the 2020-2021 season. 

writing a college essay

You know from what we mentioned earlier, the college essay is not an English essay 5-paragraph assignment. I had a student who copied and pasted an essay written and told me he was ready to submit. Of course, I shut this down immediately, and we wrote an essay. Trust me. These stories don’t usually go as deep as they need to go. The time spent writing an English paper is not sufficient. Writing a high-quality college essay takes many hours to put together and involves steps.

Contrary to popular belief, the college essay does not have to be written about a monumental moment. The best essays are ones that don’t seem of particular significance. But once fleshed out gives a preview into how you think and are coming of age in the 21st century. 

What Makes a Good College Essay?

Guidelines to follow as you write your college essay include:

  • Write a college essay that is between 500 and 650 words. The Common App general essay word limit is 650 words. By writing a college essay that is too short, you risk not getting your point across. Schools that require additional essays, may appreciate brevity for these essays, where starting ranges can be from 75 words to 250 words. But the general essay is your cornerstone essay where you have the opportunity to show how you are a unique and great candidate. Use as many words as you can within this limit to accomplish this goal. As far as writing an essay that is too long, the Common App won’t let you insert an essay that’s more than 650 words. As you write, check the word count so you know how you’re pacing.

  • Write your college essay in the first-person voice. This means you’ll use the words I, me, my, mine, and myself throughout your college essay. A first-person college essay forges a connection between you and the college admissions officer who is reading it. Also, using the first-person voice invites the admissions officer to follow along with your personal journey, while learning something new about themselves in the process.

  • Write a college essay that tells a story. Your story should have a beginning, middle, and end. Great college essays have something happen immediately at the start to get the reader’s attention. Also, the opening is suitable for setting up the main character (YOU) and introducing your goals and motivations. You can enter other characters as well. Towards the end of the beginning, you want to add something big, heartbreaking, sad, or unbelievable that gets in the way of your goal. The reader will feel bad for your character and ask, “What are you going to do? In the middle, you’ll get into the business of describing how you will still attempt to achieve your goal, describing the blocks that get in the way of you achieving your goal. Showing that you can overcome roadblocks gives the reader hope and admiration of your character. As you explain how you deal with twist and turns of a young adolescent, the reader will develop feelings for you. In the end, you’ll wrap up the conflict and show how you achieved your goal (or not) and what the skills, learnings, growth you’ve experienced (as you walk into the sunset)—the end.

  • Convey emotions in your college essay. Use words that express feelings, wants, and desires, as well as your learnings, and goals.

  • Ask a person you admire and trust to review your college essay. But be careful that they do not over-edit the essay to the point where it does not sound like you wrote it. College admissions officers can often tell when an essay is over-edited as it reads as if an adult, with more life experience, wrote it.

Writing a college essay

How to Get Started Writing Your College Essay?

For most students, writing a college essay can be stressful. And getting started is the most difficult part. 

How do I choose an essay topic? A few years ago, I taught a summer essay writing course for a nonprofit organization. Many students struggle with selecting a topic. So, I tasked them with producing a podcast, where they’d record a story about themselves. They worked in groups of three, all interviewing each other using questions developed by StoryCorps. The challenge: students had to find a common theme that linked their stories together and present it from this angle.

One group, in particular, discovered they commonly believe that “home” transcends place, with one student, Manal, reflecting on summer visits to Morocco, an effort made by her mom to keep the family close to paternal relatives following her dad’s untimely death. Another student, Tenzin, talks about being a Tibetan born in India, who recently settled in Queens, New York. She speaks optimistically of her new American home. You can listen to the podcast here.

Following the podcast’s production, students presented their work at a listening party attended by an NYC Council Member, business leaders, and neighbors. A reporter from the Times Ledger event came out to interview the students. From this experience, the students could see the emotion their stories evoked and helped them in choosing a topic that would work for their college essay. Both students, Manal and Tenzin, were accepted into their top choice colleges, the Macaulay Honors Program at Baruch College and New York University respectively.

Making a podcast is one creative way to uncover an essay topic. Other creative things you can do to uncover topics include:

  • Gather a group of friends and make a 45-minute reality TV show episode. Post to YouTube for comments.

  • Post on Instagram photos of your favorite things with the hashtag #essay.

  • Write an apology song to someone you’re angry with. Say everything you are feeling and wish you had the nerve to say.

  • Make a timeline that represents your life. Create a 128-character Twitter tweet next to each event.  

  • Write a segment for the MTV show “When I Was 17” about your life as it is now, at 17. Watch the episode about rapper Drake here for ideas.

  • Write on strips of paper everything that you want to do before high school graduation and throw in a paper cup. Make a plan for how to achieve at least two over the next semester. Find and follow Tumblr posts tagged #highschoolbucketlist

  • List 5 places you want to visit, then head to Virtual Tourist to explore. Don’t forget to keep a travel journal of interesting finds.

  • Bonus: Write a letter to your 22-year-old self. Next, seal and stamp the letter. Ask your parents to mail it back to you before college graduation. It will be interesting to see how much you have changed five years later.

Conclusion + Next Steps

After you choose a topic, you’re ready to write your college essay. I recommend that you start by freewriting to get as many words down on paper as possible. Set a timer for 25 minutes and let your pen do the walking. Then, apply the guidelines we discussed earlier. Soon, you’ll be on your way to having a great college essay.

For help with other parts of your college application, be sure to check out my article, 7 Tips for Creating a Stand Out College Application.

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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.