Demystifying the College Application Essay

The college application essay is one of the most stressful parts of the college admissions process. Unlike other parts of the application, which are other people telling the college about you, this is a chance to speak directly to the people making the admission decision. While this thought might be terrifying, it is also a tremendous opportunity to create a person out of the litany of test scores, GPA, and recommendations that are the other parts of the application.


Before beginning to write, you must know what good writing is. Stay away from books that promise fail safe strategies on how to write a college essay or teenage pregnancy essay. In fact, stay away from college application essay books. The college admissions essay is just a short piece of creative nonfiction. To learn how to write well, read the best creative nonfiction that you can find. Look for essays in magazines like the New Yorker, and nonfiction anthologies. A good librarian will also help you to find essays you might like.

When you find an essay that speaks to you, read it critically. Try to identify what makes it a good essay, and what clues are displayed about the author. Notice how an essay might be about one subject, but also speaks about another, larger issue.

After you understand what makes a good essay, take some time to read a good book on the mechanics of writing. On Writing Well, by William Zinsser is considered the best on the topic, and states the truth that writing is much more than that first draft. If you are unsure of writing conventions, Elements of Style by Strunk and White is an excellent reference book.


For this next step, take a look at what type of college admissions essay you must write. Some colleges require you to answer a specific question; others leave the topic up to you. Try to limit the amount of college essays as much as possible; it’s fine to reuse an essay. For each required essay, brainstorm for possible topics. The easiest way to accomplish this is to write down as many possible topics in five minutes. Don’t be concerned with the quality of the ideas at this point and don’t reject any idea as stupid while brainstorming.

Wait a while and take a look at your list of topics. Choose what you think are the best three ideas, and write seven to ten sentences about them. The purpose is to see if the idea is strong enough to write the required amount. Conversely, don’t choose a topic that is so broad you feel as though you could write twenty pages on the subject. A college admissions essay is a small peek into your life: it is not an autobiography.


Once you take a look at what you have written, choose the topic you think has the most potential. Then write as much as you can about it. Don’t worry about length, write for as long as you can stay on topic. It is not uncommon to realize after writing several paragraphs you have just started to really write about the heart of the issue.

Try not to be self-conscious; a first draft is simply a way of organizing your thoughts. Remember that the actual topic is not as important as how you address the topic. For example, if you write about a person that you admire, it won’t really matter who you choose. The person reading your essay will be looking for the reasons for your admiration and what those values say about you.


Revision is the most important part of writing. Few if any writers get it right the first time. Don’t look at your rough draft right away, wait a few days to gain some perspective. Reread your essay and make sure it answers the question. Remove anything that doesn’t directly address or clarify your topic. Now is also the time to think carefully about word choice. Read your essay out loud and carefully mark anything that sounds awkward and cut out any clich├ęs.

Next, make sure you have a well developed beginning and ending. Discard the five paragraph essay model in favor of something that carefully bookends your subject, rather than endlessly recapping. Check the word count of your essay and make sure it meets the requirements. It doesn’t have to be exactly the recommended count, but it should come close. If there is no recommended word count 500-750 words is standard.

Once you have revised your essay, it is time to get an outside perspective. Ask a teacher, counselor, or parent to read your essay. Listen carefully to any feedback they might have. Remember, your essay is judged on what it conveys to the reader, not what you intend.

After you carefully weigh the feedback you receive, make any final revisions you need. They could be as simple as tweaking a few sentences, or as large as rewriting an ending. Take the time you need to make your essay the best you can.


Obsessing over your college admissions essay, just like fixating on any part of your application, is counterproductive. Getting accepted to your first choice college can be exhilarating, but no college will ensure success for the rest of your life. How hard you work, wherever you attend will give you the best college experience. No one is born with a good work ethic; it is a product of hard work and personal discipline. Use this rule of thumb for this essay and the ones you will write at college: start early and be sure to send it in on time.