How to Write a College Essay

By Jacqueline DeMarco · May 03, 2021 · 10 minute read

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How to Write a College Essay

You’ve done it all. You aced your high-school classes—earning high marks on the SAT, ACT, and AP exams. You spent countless hours volunteering and made it to every volleyball practice on time. And, now, it’s time to consider college and write that pesky college application essay. It’s your chance to pour your personality and point of view into an essay that could shape the next phase in your life.

No pressure, right? It’s common for high school students to feel overwhelmed by the whole application process, especially if you’re unsure how to write a college essay. You’re not alone, as many teens dread having to write about themselves in a personal statement. To help calm your nerves (and make the process a little less confusing), it can be helpful first to brush up on what goes into the writing of a compelling college application essay.

How Personal Statement Differ By School

The number of colleges a student applies to can impact how many personal statements they’ll need to write. Before beginning the essay-writing process, though, it can be helpful for applicants to review the personal statement requirements for each college or university where they want to apply. Some colleges may share identical essay requirements, while others might request statements tailored to a school-specific prompt.

Applicants can consider the following questions before planning out their college essays:

•   How long should this college essay be?
•   What is the essay prompt or topic asking?
•   What questions are they looking to have answered?
•   What does this college or university value?

Different schools will often ask applicants to respond to the same or similar essay topic. In this case, it’s possible to submit one personal statement to multiple universities. In other instances, students might want to make small tweaks to an already drafted essay before submitting it to a competing institution. Colleges that are all part of the same university system—such as state schools, like those under the California State University umbrella—tend to share applications and essay requirements. (In practice, this means applicants won’t need to write individual essays for each school within that system.)

Applying to private universities can look different than applying to public universities. Unless they utilize the Common App (more on that in a minute) applying to private schools often involves submitting a completely custom application to every private institution you apply to. Some private schools (such as religiously-affiliated schools) may look for shared values to be reflected in a student’s application, essay, or interview. Public schools are less likely than private ones to require, or recommend, an interview as part of the application process.

One type of college application high school students are likely to come across is called the Common Application (also known as Common App). In order to simplify the application process and support time-crunched students, the Common App represents almost 900 public and private higher education institutions across the world. Its standardized application allows students to apply to multiple schools via a single platform. Practically speaking, this might translate into writing just one college essay that multiple schools can then access. Typically, the Common App offers seven essay prompts for the required 650-word personal statement.

College Application Essay Tips

Before putting pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard, students might want to understand what admissions offices look for in a personal statement and how to write a college essay that gives voice to who they are. Some pre-planning can make the application gauntlet feel less confusing and the writing of the essay more fun.

Here are some useful tips for writing a stronger college application essay:

Tip #1: Start Early

The sooner applicants can begin writing their college essay (or in some cases multiple essays), the more time they’ll have to polish and refine. The time a student requires to write their essays will vary greatly by the student and which schools they are applying to. Some may need to only write one essay that they can submit to multiple schools, others may need to write half a dozen custom essays for their applications.

Starting the process two months before their first deadline should give students ample time to brainstorm, write, and edit their essays. If possible, starting the process over summer vacation will help alleviate stress during the school year and give students even more times to perfect their essays.

Not only can starting the personal statement earlier create extra time for fine tuning the wording, it can build in ample time for starting over (if need be). Starting over may sound like the last thing a busy student wants to do when applying to college, but it’s an option that many value—a chance to rework their personal story.

A lot of college applicants know exactly what they want to write about. But, after beginning the essay-writing process, some might realize that the first topic they pick just isn’t strong enough to stand on its own. Alternatively, some applicants find that starting on a given prompt actually leads them towards t an alternate topic or essay idea.

Either way, by starting early, applicants can have enough time to mull over what to write about and how exactly to say it in a clear and compelling way. Even if some students won’t start writing months before applications are due, it can be beneficial to dedicate some time early on to brainstorm essay ideas and create a few potential personal-statement outlines. This way, the applicant can have added time to plan what to write before putting fingers to the keyboard.

Even with clear essay prompts, some students may need a little extra inspiration to jump-start the essay-writing process. For example, many college applicants like to read college essay examples that helped real students get into their dream schools—findable either online or in college application prep books. These real-life examples could serve as models for how to present a personal story and clarify how to organize an essay that compels attention.

Starting the writing process in advance can give applicants plenty of time to ink a few drafts, ask for feedback from family and teachers, and make any necessary tweaks—something that’s especially key when applying to schools with different essay requirements. The whole essay-writing process can be far more enjoyable (and, ideally, more impactful) when applicants don’t feel like they’re up against a clock that’s quickly ticking down.

Tip #2: Step Away From Your Application

When writing a personal statement for college applications, applicants can consider carefully who will read the essays (and what the admission committee is looking for). Applicants can try to put themselves in the shoes of the admissions counselors. After reviewing an application, admissions officers will typically have a clearer sense of an applicant’s previous course work, grades, volunteering and extracurricular activities.

So, when deciding which essay topic to write about, it can be helpful for applicants to ask themselves: “would they already know this about me just by reading at the rest of my application?” The whole point of the personal statement is to humanize the accomplishments that get listed elsewhere in the application. Because of this, it’s often advisable to go beyond repeating the resume items mentioned in other sections of the application in the essay.

College admission counselors want to get to know the person behind those accomplishments (not to read another laundry list of achievements). The essay is applicants’ chance to share who they are and how they view the world.

Tip #3: Identify What Type of Essay You Need to Write

Typically, college applicants will encounter three different types of essay questions:

•   the “you” prompt
•   the “why us?” topic
•   the “creative” question

The “you” style question tends to ask students to share more personal details or life experiences in the essay. Such personal narratives can help colleges and universities to learn what drives, inspires and shapes individual applicants.

The “why us?” prompt seeks to understand why a student is choosing to apply to a specific school. The admission officer here is trying to gauge how committed each student is to their individual institution. It’s a chance to demonstrate an understanding of a school’s core values and for the applicant to specify why they want to attend that university in particular (and not another one).

The “creative” prompt usually serves to evaluate a student’s creative thinking and writing skills, all while reviewing an applicant’s knowledge base and education.

Before writing any college essay, it’s advisable for applicants to identify exactly which type of question they’ll be answering and how best to communicate who they are in a concise, non-cliched way.

Tip #4: Focus on What Matters to You

To really wow admissions officers in the college essay, applicants might try to tap into their passions, personal experiences, and interests that go beyond high school academics. It can be helpful to step away from school accomplishments and bring up topics such as a life experience that left a lasting impression, a cause the applicant cares deeply about, or a personal relationship that shaped who’s applying.

It can be important to reflect—not just recount or summarize— during the essay writing process. In order to stand out amongst thousands of other talented applicants, students might want to go beyond a factual retelling of their experiences, crafting as well a thoughtful assessment of why a given topic matters to them as an individual.

Tip #5: Find a Trusted Reviewer

It’s not necessary for applicants or their families to shell out big bucks on a private tutor or writing coach to review their college essays (although there’s nothing wrong seeking one out ). Before submitting an essay, many college applicants like to invite a trusted teacher, family member, or friend to read the essay over and offer comments or questions. Prior to asking for detailed feedback, here are some helpful questions for others to keep in mind:

1. Are there any spelling or grammar mistakes I need to change?
2. Is the organization of my essay easy to follow?
3. Did you have any questions while reading that my essay didn’t answer?
4. Did the content capture your attention or was it difficult to finish the entire essay? Why?
5. Where is there room for improvement?
6. Is any section confusing or unclear?

Having a handful of trusted eyes review the essay for typos can help students to draft a more impactful personal statement. But, it may be helpful to avoid inviting too many potential editors to comment on an essay that’s still being drafted. Writing is somewhat subjective. So, receiving a lot of competing opinions might leave an applicant flustered or confused about what to change.

You Got In. Now What?

Congratulations! All that hard work and pre-planning paid off. Your college essay really knocked the socks off the admissions officers. Once you’ve received all of your college acceptance offers, you’ll be able to decide which college is the best option for your future plans. It’s likely how much it will cost to attend college might play a factor in your ultimate decision.

That being said, the cost of tuition and room and board aren’t the only factors to consider. Colleges and universities offer different financial aid packages, and may offer grants or scholarships to help you attend your top choice.

To help unravel all of the financial options of paying for college, SoFi teamed up with Edmit to offer Edmit Plus—a tool that can help students estimate their financial aid and available scholarship and merit aid options (as well as what the eventual cost of attendance might be).

Students can choose between federal and private student loans. Federal student loans often offer benefits that private lenders do not. For example, federal loans aren’t due until after a student graduates, leaves school, or changes their enrollment status to less than half-time.

Depending on the loan repayment terms, private loans may require payments while the student is still in school. Federal loans offer a fixed interest rate and typically have lower interest rates than private loans which may come with a variable interest rate. Student loans can help applicants and parents cover the costs of higher education that financial aid or scholarships do not.

SoFi offers no-fee private student loans and flexible repayment options to help students pay for college.

Learn more about SoFi Private Student Loans.

Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.
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