More often than not, a college essay forms a significant part of your day-to-day coursework. Becoming a great essay writer is the difference between acing a course, toeing the bell curve, and a strong college admission.
Essays are also used for college applications, and if you're applying to a competitive program, you'll need to stand out from the crowd. And while you may not be writing the next great American novel, writing essays can still be a rewarding, and valuable, experience that gives you the opportunity to share your ideas.
So, if you're looking for a step-by-step guide to writing a college essay and nailing your college application, you've come to the right place.
Personal statements – what types are there?
Before we start the process of writing, it's important to understand that there are two main types of essays, and they both serve different purposes.
- The personal statement is the most common type of college essay you'll be asked to write. It can take a variety of forms (see below), but all personal statements should follow the same basic format.
- The argumentative essay is less common, but it can be a great way to get your voice heard and make an impact on your reader.
What does a personal statement look like?
A personal statement should follow the same basic structure every time, and it's one that you'll come to know well if you're a student writing a college application essay, for example.
First, you'll need to introduce yourself and your story. This can be done in a variety of ways, but there are two main components to keep in mind:
- Your introduction should include the following information: Who you are, What you're applying for, Why you're applying.
- Next, you'll need to talk about your personal background and explain why it's relevant to the program you're applying to. You can do this in a variety of ways, but it should always be relevant and interesting. Is there a unique period of time in your life that you can share your perspective on? This is your chance to stand out from the crowd - no pressure!
- Finally, you'll need to conclude with a statement about what you want to do next. This could be your future goals or a description of how you plan to achieve those goals. The important thing is that this final section should tie your story back to the reason you're writing the essay in the first place. Remember that admission officers read hundreds of essays during the college admissions process, so try to think outside of the box with your essay draft.
A variety of personal statements
You'll be asked to write a personal statement for a variety of reasons as an essay prompt, so it's important to understand how these essays are different from one another.
How to pick a great essay topic
When you're asked to write a personal statement, it's important to choose the right topic. If you pick a topic that doesn't fit the program you're applying for, then your essay will be much less effective with the admissions office.
For example, if you were in the application process for an internship in business, then it would be so much better to write about your interest in business than it would be to write about your passion for dance and extracurricular activities.
The same is true if you're applying for a scholarship – you'll need to show that you have a genuine interest in the program, and you should do that by writing about a personal experience or skill that's actually relevant to the program.
Another great strategy for picking an essay topic is to use your essay to tell a story. If you're writing about a personal experience, then the best way to get your point across is to tell a story that illustrates what you want to say.
This will make your essay more interesting and engaging, and it’ll help you avoid getting lost in the details. If you can produce a quality essay with a fresh perspective on life, your creative writing could see you sailing through the admission process.
Before approaching the essay, figure out the story you want to tell - let that inform your pen on paper.
How to write an essay - the meat and potatoes of it all
Now that you understand the basics of writing a personal statement, it's time to get started. There are three basic steps to writing an essay:
- Decide on an essay topic. You should do this before you begin writing, and it's often best to choose something that's relevant to the program you're applying for.
- Formulate a plan for your essay. This means deciding on the main points you want to make, and the way you want to present them. You can also spend some time here planning your writing process and looking at writing tips to make sure you're on track.
- Write your essay!
Step 1: Decide on a topic
When you're writing an essay, it's best to think about the topic from two different perspectives.
First, you should think about your audience. This means understanding who’ll be reading your essay and what they'll be looking for.
Second, you should think about the essay prompt or question you're being asked to answer. This is particularly important if you're writing a scholarship essay or an internship application essay.
For example, let's say you're applying for a scholarship to attend a summer program in Europe. The core question will be why you want to attend the program, and what your deep-seated interest is in the topic.
You'll need to use your essay to explain how your background and experience makes you a good candidate for the program. Here are some things to keep in mind when you're thinking about your audience:
1. Who will be reading your essay?
You'll need to make sure that it's appropriate for your audience, and that means being careful with your language and avoiding any potentially offensive statements. Every admissions committee is different, so you'll want to make sure you know who you're writing for before you put pen to paper.
2. What will they be looking for?
Think about what the reader is hoping to find when they read your essay. It's important to give them what they're looking for, so make sure you're writing in a way that appeals to their interests.
An admissions officer is a real person at the end of the day; try to find a way to relate to them and give them insight into who you are as a candidate.
3. How can you make your essay interesting?
You’ll want to make sure that your essay is interesting, but it's also important to be respectful of the reader's time. Make sure you're keeping things brief and to the point - setting up an essay plan and sticking to it will help you stick to the word count.
Step 2: Plan your essay
Once you've decided on a topic, it's time to make a plan. This is where you'll decide on the main points you want to make and how you want to present them. You'll want to start planning your essay early so that there is plenty of time to refine your ideas.
Here are some things to keep in mind when you're planning your essay:
1. Figure out what your main point is
The most important thing to remember is that your essay should always have a main point. This means that you'll need to pick one idea and focus on it throughout the essay - don’t waffle and keep your word choices simple!
2. Make sure your points are relevant
If you're writing about something that's even tangentially relevant, then it’ll be much harder for you to come up with a cohesive essay. You want to make sure that you're writing about something that's obviously relevant to the program you're applying for and details why you would be the right choice.
3. How can you show your enthusiasm?
It's important to show your enthusiasm for the program or topic you're writing about, but it's also important to avoid getting overly emotional. Make sure you're showing your enthusiasm in a way that's appropriate for the audience you're writing for.
If you're writing a college application essay, remember that it will be reviewed by an admissions officer, for example.
4. How can you make your essay interesting?
Remember - no reader wants to read an essay that's boring and dull - especially if they have spent weeks reading other essays. The best way to make sure this doesn't happen to you is to really attempt to tell a story - the most interesting essays are those that walk through a cohesive story, such as describing the transition from childhood to adulthood which is something everyone can relate to. Which leads to….
5. How can you use the essay to tell a story?
The best way to get your point across is to tell a story, and the more detailed and interesting the story is, the better. Remember, if you're writing about an experience, then it's best to focus on the story, rather than on the details. It can pay to read sample essays for insight, but you'll want to try and think outside of the box.
Step 3: Write your essay
It sounds flippant, but this is the easiest part. If you’ve completed the previous steps correctly, you should have a solid essay structure in place, a core topic as well as a narrative structure you intend to walk the reader through.
All that’s left is to put a pen on paper (or finger on keyboard) and run through it! The final steps will be to make sure the essay adheres to the instructions given and to double-check for potential grammar errors.
As you can see, college essays aren’t particularly difficult - they just require a solid foundation. Keep things simple and follow the basic structure outlined above and your applications essay should do well.
At the end of the day, the most important thing is to pick a topic that's deeply relevant to the program you're applying for. Start with that, and you'll be on your way to writing an essay that’ll impress any admission officers or admission committee (and college professors in your subsequent years!).
Frequently Asked Questions about writing a college essay
🥇 How do I make my college essay stand out?
Choose a great title, try to channel some of your unique hobbies or passions, and try to be authentic. Write something that means a lot to you and it will translate in your essay.
💬 What should you not write in a college essay?
Avoid writing about sensitive topics like religion, politics, or sports. The best topics are ones that are relatable to everyone but do not cause any offense. If there is any doubt about your topic, try to select another.
🤼 Is it ok if my college essay is short?
As long as you get your point across effectively, the length of the essay is not important. What matters most is that your thoughts are cohesively ordered, supporting arguments added where needed and a conclusive summary added.
🍒 What are the best college essay topics?
Some of the best essays come from your personal, unique life experiences - overcoming an obstacle, solving a difficult problem. achieving personal growth and even talking about a person you admire.
🤔 How long is too long for a college essay?
Always try to keep to the set word limit - if no range is given, try to keep it to under 700 words. You want to try and choose one main topic to focus on, more than that will add unnecessary bulk to your writing.