How to Write a College Application Essay – College Writing 101

how to write college application essay

The college application essay is one of the most important parts of any application for higher education. Whereas your grades, extra-curriculars, and letters of recommendation speak in your place, the application essay is where your own words can tell your own story.

In effect, your essay can become the story of why you’re the proper fit for the school, and it can tell much, much more than the impersonal record of your achievements.

For this reason, most successful applications are marked by brilliant essays.

Think About the Essay Prompt

There are many important elements to crafting the perfect essay, and many steps to be followed, but none more important than the first: determining will your essay will be about?

Some schools ask specific questions, requiring you to frame your essay in response; others want you to speak broadly about yourself, telling them about yourself in an open-ended way that is more or less up to you to decide.

In either case, it is important to think through what you are going to write, and in the case of a prompt, to actually think of how you can address the topic in a meaningful way. The question should not be periphery to your purpose, but central to what you will set forth through your ideas. If there is no prompt, you will have to think yourself how best to frame your story.

In both instances, one must be mindful of what the type of school you are attending is like, what your plans for study are, and what you bring to the table as a person and as a student.

Ask yourself throughout: am I answering their question about who I am?

Writing With/Without an Essay Prompt

Now, if you’re faced with a prompt, you have something of a pre-established starting point that should give you some ideas of how to address the topic. But if you are going in on your own, you have to think of how to make yourself stand out far more.

Your story should not be something hackneyed and cliché, nor should it be focused purely on your dreams in a general sense. It should explain why this specific school meets your aspirations.

Having some idea of what you are going to study, and what you intend to do with your life, will give you something to frame your narrative around, and it should be specific to the school, not so general that it could be applied to anything.

Speak about your personal experiences, but funnel them through the filter for the reason you want to study there. The school expects to have some idea of why you’re coming to study there, and if you act as if the school is just another generic place, you will fall by the wayside against the numerous other well-qualified applicants.

Show them why they should care about you.

How to Approach Your Essay

After you’ve figured out what you are going to talk about, it’s time to actually start giving a framework to your essay by writing an outline or rough draft. Getting your ideas down will help organize your thoughts, which at this point are probably in quite a jumble.

An outline will help you to order that chaos, giving the key structure that will be so important to conveying the message you want to write. Your outline is a skeleton, and you’ll need to add meat to those bones by actually sitting down and writing. Needless to say, this is where the real hard work begins. Most importantly, do not undermine yourself right off the bat by writing in a sloppy, unprofessional manner.

Your writing should reflect your intelligence, and intelligence is displayed through proper grammar and spelling throughout. Avoid not only the clichés referenced above, but also slang and foul language. If you’re going to use humor, make sure it really is funny, and not vulgar or excessive.

Above all else, write clearly, and in complete thoughts. A sentence that requires interpretation because you’re not explaining what you mean is one that will impress no one. You are telling your tale! Do not leave out crucial information!

Additionally, whereas a little embellishment here and there in describing things in a vivid way is acceptable, your essay should not be filled with blatant untruths. You cannot deceive your way into college. If you were a bench warmer and you claim to be the star of the team, they will know that you’re not telling the truth. This is your story, but it is autobiography, not fiction.

How to Structure Your Essay

Your opening paragraph will probably be the most crucial part of the essay, and it is here that you really must grab the attention of your reader. Start with something eye-catching: something that will make the reader stop and pay attention.

If you have a story to tell, explain why it’s important right off the bat. Say you want to become a doctor and the reason you want to become one is because your grandmother died from a curable illness. Start with that: “The day I decided to become a doctor was the day my grandmother died from cancer that should have been detected months before it was.”

Your own, individual essay may not be quite as personal as that, but start with something that will draw your reader in.

The following paragraphs should explain the theme you set forth in the opening paragraph and address the reason for your study at that college. As mentioned before, it’s crucial that you make them realize that you have some sort of plan and purpose.

If you are applying to multiple schools, the details of why you want to study should differ from one school to the next, explaining exactly how each individual school is a fit. The whole essay does not have to be unique, but don’t let them feel that this could apply equally to any school in the world. Just as you’re an individual, your essays should be individualized to your audience.

Lastly, end your essay by bringing the separate points all together and describe also what you will use your education for in the form of a goal you want to accomplish. Give them a reason for why they want to see you succeed, and give them a reason for why you should be given them a chance to do just that at their school.


If you have a clear idea of what to write, you organize it well by creating an outline or rough draft, you write clearly and without errors, your introduction hooks the reader in, the body of your essay explains why you want to study there, and you manage to end with some goals that will inspire them to think of you in the right light, then you will have done everything you can.

Nevertheless, you must also remember that this essay is just one of many factors in your application, and, while vital, it can only go so far.

If your grades, activities, letters, and background just don’t fit with the school’s standards and goals, or you just are facing too stiff of competition, even a great essay may not get you into your dream school. Still, the better your essay, the better your chances.

Oh, and one last thing: brevity is the soul of wit. If there is a maximum, don’t go over, and whatever the minimum is? Assume that they want, at most, twice that length. Your story should not be shorter than is needed, but neither should it be longer than necessary. Trim the fat. Your essay should not be bloated.