10 Steps to Writing a College Essay That Gets Noticed

The college essay is your personal touch — an opportunity to demonstrate your writing and communications skills and prove your readiness for college-level work. Remember that writing a college essay reveals a glimpse of who you are and your unique personality – it’s your voice. Expressing yourself through this written exercise adds a three-dimensional quality to your application and conveys your personal qualities. Your narrative, along with your academic record and test scores, will complete your application.

A quick bit of advice: be yourself and choose a topic that’s meaningful to you. Admission folks read countless essays in search of thoughtful, eager students who are enthusiastic about beginning their undergraduate education at their institution. Write what is true to you, not just what you think an admissions officer will want to read.

Here are some steps to writing an amazing college essay:

Select your college essay topic

The essay assignment reflects moving from one learning environment to another, and a message relating your story of academic growth is often a successful approach. Other successful topics include your background, interests, challenges you’ve faced, or an event, person, or book important to you. How did that person or event change you? What did you learn from the experience?

Take time to reflect on your writing

Reflection is crucial to writing this essay. Careful planning and wise insight offer the opportunity to demonstrate your maturity of thought, fluency with written language, critical thinking skills, self-awareness, and ability to learn from your experiences. As a brainstorming exercise, you might ask yourself these questions: What has been your most significant learning experience in high school? How has my academic passion or interest become a focused commitment over the last two or three years? The thoughts generated by reflecting on these questions will likely provide direction and inspiration that will help you respond to specific application prompts.

Discover your voice

Your personal voice will illuminate a distinctive characteristic of you. Through your essay, you’ll be able to connect this unique aspect of who you are to your growth as both an individual and a student. Because colleges will be looking to get a sense of who you are, ask yourself: How have the circumstances of my life shaped my person and worldview? What story can I tell that illustrates who I am? 

Review the college essay prompts

Now you’re ready to review the essay prompts you need to address. Once you’re familiar with the prompts, set them aside and dive right into putting your thoughts on paper. Begin with a list and write your ideas down.

Share your ideas verbally

Talk about your ideas with friends or parents and listen to what you have to say about yourself. Sharing your ideas verbally may help you create a storyline or narrative. As an example, you could conduct a mock interview and answer the question, “Tell me about yourself.” Listen as themes and messages begin to emerge and what’s important to you is distilled. Make notes about your experiences, motivations, dreams, or challenges, and describe their significance to you. What do you want a college to know about you?

Begin writing

Start early and be prepared to write several drafts. Write in the first person, craft an interesting narrative, check the tone and strength of your voice, and sharpen your grammar skills. Narrow your list, focus on a small event and expand with details. Your thesis statement should reveal your message, one that encompasses both personal reflection and analysis. Use anecdotes, interpretations, and observations that are unique to your life and demonstrate how you think and write.

Speak directly to the reader

Grabbing the reader’s attention with a hook may be a way to begin. You can use a metaphor, humor, or a straight-forward statement, but regardless of approach, your voice must speak directly to the reader. Engage the reader with the first sentence. Take the time to reveal, with all honesty, an important part of your life by isolating an incident and exploring it in some depth. Remember to relax, be yourself, and allow your personal statement to emerge. Engage the writing process and let the colleges know that you have thought carefully about your interests and future pursuits. Allow them to get to know you. This is a time to convey your confident side with an enthusiastic and upbeat tone. After all, you are ready, willing, and on your way to a fabulous undergraduate program. Ask yourself this: Does my message illuminate my true, unique, and upbeat self? 

Read it aloud

Read your draft aloud to yourself. Invite an adult or friend to listen for another perspective. Verbally reading your essay will help you catch errors.

Revise, revise, revise

Firstly, take care not to repeat information. Your goal shouldn’t be to impress with complex sentence structures. Good writing, even when describing complex topics, should communicate each point simply and clearly. Revise, as needed, with attention to word choice, sentence structure, and flow. Does the essay provide new insight?  Be prepared to proofread and rewrite. Good college essays typically take several drafts, requiring modification with each shift in voice, tone, or sentence structure. Write, rewrite, proofread, polish, and read aloud.

Ask for new eyes

Check-in with a teacher or your counselor for a proofread, checking for clarity of voice, message, and grammatical errors.

Once your main personal statement (essay) has been written, you’ll be ready to tackle supplemental essays. As you take on the writing portion of your college application, you’ll recognize an important truth about skillful writing in general: achieving simplicity is very hard work!


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