How To Write A Successful College Application Essay

college application essay

Starting your college application essay can be a daunting prospect. A blank page can be very intimidating. One of the biggest challenges of the college application essay is its length. The personal statement on the common application has a word limit of six hundred and fifty words. As a long time college admissions advisor, the most common question that I get about how to write a successful college application essay is: how can I sum up my life in one page of writing?

There is no one size fits all outline for how to write a successful college application essay. However, I have created some guidelines that can help make the drafting process more manageable. Here are my three rules to follow, as you start to write. 

1. It’s not what you write; it’s how you write it.

Even the most esteemed and experienced writers can’t encapsulate their entire history in one page of writing. To expect this of yourself is unreasonable. Take the pressure off and realize that your mission is to communicate how you think. You don’t have to an essay that presents a plan for world peace. In fact, I think that some of the least successful essays attempt to wrestle with themes that are too large for the scale of the college application essay.

The college application essay is an opportunity for you to show how you think. Your mind works in unique ways, and this is a chance to highlight your creative approach to your own story and experience. The topic of your essay doesn’t have to epic or erudite. Just pick something that genuinely grabs your attention, that you have spent some time thinking about. This could be anything from skipping stones to a memorable conversation to an appreciation for bubblegum. The success of your college application essay is contingent on your willingness to be authentic. Too many students fall into the trap of writing what they think someone else wants them to write, rather than writing what they want to write. 

2. Start very small! Specificity is your friend

In approaching how to write a college application essay, it is important to give yourself the permission to start small. The angle of your essay, the topic sentence, the information that you use to move into the main takeaways of your college application will benefit from specificity. Many teenagers are exploring similar themes, but the pathway by which you approach those themes can be unique to you and work to differentiate your essay.

If you takeaway anything from this guide, I hope it is this: focus on something small and use the space of your essay to explore why that “thing” is symbolic of something bigger in your life. Recently I was working with a student, who wanted to talk about her passion for art history. I encouraged her to pick one painting that had initially sparked her enthusiasm for art. She ended up picking a piece that related to her greater interests, goals, and dreams. 

3. Editing is the answer

You should spend three times as much time editing as you do writing. Experiment with approaching your essay from different angles. Write a few different versions and show them to your friends and family for feedback. It can be tricky to write something that feels like an authentic translation of your voice. All writers struggle with this. Writing multiple drafts will allow you to synthesize the strongest elements of each draft. Getting ahead of the drafting process will reduce your stress and create the best possible version of your essay. Allow yourself to sit with your essay for a couple months. 

The great news is that although the common app doesn’t release the personal statement prompts until the beginning of August, they have offered the same prompts for many consecutive years. One of the prompts always give you the option to create your own prompt. If you find yourself with a little more free time, during this pandemic crisis, take five minutes a day to brainstorm a few ideas and write a few sentences. By breaking the college application essay into more manageable pieces, you can enjoy the process and maybe even learn a little bit about yourself. Happy writing!

About the Author

Eshka-Ne Kumar

Eshka-Ne Kumar

Eshka is a Growth Strategist at Gooroo, a tutoring membership and online learning platform that matches students to tutors perfect for them based on their unique learning needs. Gooroo offers math, English, ESL, Spanish tutoring, and more.