How to Write An Attention-Grabbing College Essay in 6 Steps!

The college essay has always been a bit of an enigma. Students are often stumped by the Personal Statement, which is extremely open but extremely vague at the same time. If you’re using the CommonApp, you might be wondering: where do I even start with those seven prompts? And don’t even mention the scattered supplementals of each individual college! In this post, I’ll be giving advice on how to write both types of essays: how to brainstorm effectively and organize your ideas for the Personal Statement, how to write hard-hitting supplemental essays that effectively convey your best self, and how to create a schedule that will help you get it all done in time.

Step 1. Familiarize with the Structure

Before you launch into writing your essays or even brainstorming what to write about, get familiar with the general structure of college essays. These essays are a whole different ball game from the analytical and creative essays you write for school. First and foremost, they are “personal essays,” the style of which you might be more familiar with if you’ve had any experience with memoirs and creative nonfiction. These essays require you to do some deep self-reflection and extensive soul-searching, and they unfailingly open with a personal anecdote of some sort. You’ll most often see college essays, and memoirs of all kinds, opening smack in the middle of the event, frequently with dialogue or onomatopoeia. This style is called in medias res (literally Latin for “in the middle of things”), where you hook the reader, the admissions counselor, right into the middle of the action. Your goal is to make them feel invested in your story. Leave them eager to read on and find out more. However, that’s not all the college essay is about. In every college essay, Personal Statement, supplemental, or otherwise, your primary goal is to market yourself as an applicant. Why you? Why this school? What did you learn, and why is it important? A key characteristic of a college essay is ending on an introspective, broad-strokes note. What are the larger implications of this story, and how has this informed / will this inform your personal growth? This is where you let the admissions officers glimpse your thought process and maturity, and sell your point with a final punch. Once you’ve gotten comfortable with the general structure of a college essay, you’re ready to move on to brainstorming.

Step 2. Brainstorm

Again, this is probably a different process than the typical brainstorming that you’re used to doing. As aforementioned, writing college essays forces you to be extremely introspective. Reflect on your life and yourself as a person. Reflect on the lows and the highs, the most difficult moments, the moments that were your peak performance. What experiences have been the most formative? Give yourself ample time to do this brainstorming, because you’re going to be doing a LOT of it. Here are some questions to get you started in your soul-searching, which most colleges are also bound to ask in one form or another, so it is best to prepare answers to these questions. Why you? What do you bring to the college that nobody else can? What are your unique characteristics and quirks, and why are they important to who you are? Why do you want to study a particular subject in college? What is your life mission? Really dig deep and find out the root of the WHY. Why are you really interested in this subject, this career, this college? These may seem like hard-hitting questions, and that’s because they are! In order to choose a topic that best captures you in a limited amount of space, you have to go deep into yourself, and be vulnerable. It’s scary, but it’ll be worth it.

Step 3. Freewrite & Find a Story

During your brainstorming phase, you probably came up with several different ideas. That’s totally okay—commendable, even! This is what the freewriting step is for. Find a time to sit down for 20 to 30 minutes or even just 10 to 15, and simply just write. Write whatever comes to your mind. Don’t let yourself stop and walk away! (For the ambitious, I recommend checking out the Most Dangerous Writing Prompt website, or perhaps using the Pomodoro Technique to give yourself a definitive time limit.) You don’t have to write out full-length essays for every single topic you brainstormed, but I’d recommend at least a paragraph or two for each. In writing these few paragraphs, pay attention to the flow of the writing. How captivating is this story to your own eyes, first and foremost? How easy is it to write about yourself in this particular event? Do you have enough room in this topic to dig out a deeper why?

After taking some time away from your writing, revisit your freewrites. Do some more freewriting if needed. and see which ones felt like they flowed the best and felt the most genuine. Keep in mind that, at the end of the day, the story you choose to present yourself through doesn’t necessarily have to be extremely sophisticated or nuanced. It just has to convey something fundamentally important about YOU—your personality and quirks, the way you handle failure and tough situations, the way you work with others, or something else central to you as a person. Remember: you don’t need to do too much. I know someone wrote their essay about how, when he was younger and home alone, his dog’s eye fell out, and he was so confused about what to do that he chased the dog around trying to manually shove its eye back in. Another friend wrote her essay about the time she dreamt she was a kiwi fruit rolling down the sidewalk. No topic is too “basic” or “simple” to write about. On the other hand, basically every topic you can think of really has been written about already, one way or another. However, keep in mind that it’s ultimately not your chosen anecdote that needs to be completely original. It’s the way you communicate it, and the knowledge and growth you took away from it, that will drive the message home for the admissions officers reading your essays.

Step 4. Find Another Pair of Eyes

After many rounds of brainstorming, freewriting, and revising, you’ve now put together a solid draft. Maybe you don’t know what else you could do to improve it. Maybe you don’t even know if it’s getting your ideas across clearly enough. At this point in your essay-writing process, it’s good to get another pair of eyes on your writing—someone who will read your essay with truly fresh eyes, and someone who hasn’t spent so much time with the essay that they can’t spot simple errors and areas where the writing doesn’t flow. Find someone who knows you and your “voice” well—a family member, a friend, a close teacher. While getting a second and maybe even third reader is helpful, you do also want to maintain a good balance; there is such a thing as getting TOO MANY opinions. No doubt, every single person’s interpretation and advice will be slightly different. Trying to squeeze too many outside voices into your essay can dilute your own voice. At the end of the day, this is YOUR essay. 

Step 5. Finding Your Voice

What is this “voice” I keep talking about? How does one find it? Think about your writer’s voice. And no, I don’t mean the voice you hear in your head as you read your essay, or these words, or what have you. Think about the syntax you use in your personal writing. Are there certain phrases you often use? Are there unique ways in which you think about certain things? This step is often not as complicated as you think it might be. As long as you don’t write something that’s utterly dry and stilted like a computer manual or laundry list, your voice will most likely naturally shine through. Give yourself space in the essay to be lighthearted, be quirky, be contemplative. You can even be humorous—although I do send along a gentle word of caution with this one. Use humor only if you’re confident that it will properly communicate. Humor and sarcasm are often hard to pick up on through words on a page. A common hypothetical used to illustrate this concept of “voice” is: imagine your essay was put in a pile with a bunch of other essays written by other people, all anonymously printed. Would your family member/friend/teacher be able to identify which essay is yours simply from reading it? Does your voice shine through? Test which you may have heard of: a pile of college essays without names or any other identifying information on them, would your family, friends, and/or teachers be able to tell just from reading your essay that it was written by you?

Step 6. Reduce, reuse, recycle

As some parting advice, don’t be afraid to recycle your writing from school to school! When it comes to writing all those supplemental essays, self-plagiarism is not a crime. Many schools require you to write multiple supplemental essays. Since you want to strategize how to use all of your available space to communicate the most important aspects of yourself, take care not to repeat information in the supplemental essays that you already mentioned in your Personal Statement, since the Personal Statement is sent to all of your colleges. However, there is no humanly possible way to think up and write an entirely original essay for every single supplemental prompt from every single one of your colleges. The trick here is that many colleges end up giving similar essay prompts—maybe not phrased exactly the same way, but ultimately asking the same basic questions. Why you? Why us? Why major? Here is where you can borrow parts of—or the entirety of—essays you’ve already written for other schools. As you’re noting down the prompts of each college you’re applying to, it can be helpful to group together similar prompts so that you have an idea of where a single topic can be applied to multiple essays. Just be very careful to use the right names! Don’t submit an essay to Yale that discusses how much you want to attend Harvard!

With these simple steps, you are on your way to writing a great college essay. Writing a personal essay of any kind can be daunting since we don’t often open ourselves up as much as we do during our college soul-search. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable—your time spent working and reworking your deeply personal writing for college will be a lesson that serves you well throughout the rest of your life!