How to Write a College Essay

By Jacqueline DeMarco · September 06, 2023 · 9 minute read

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How to Write a College Essay

You’ve done it all. You worked hard in your high-school classes, prepped for and took the SAT/ACT, and spent countless hours doing extracurricular activities. And, now, it’s time to write the dreaded college application essay. This is 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 intimidating), here’s a closer look at what the college essay is all about, plus some simple tips for writing a compelling application essay.

How Personal Statements Differ By School

The number of colleges you apply to can impact how many personal statements you’ll need to write. Before you begin the essay-writing process, you’ll want to review the personal statement requirements for each school you plan to apply to. Some colleges have the same essay requirements, while others might request statements tailored to a school-specific prompt.

When looking at essay requirements from different school, here are some things to consider:

•   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, you might simply need to make small tweaks to an already drafted essay.

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.)

Essay requirements for private schools can vary. If you’re applying to schools that don’t use the common app (more on that in a minute), you may need to submit a completely custom application to each school. Some private schools (such as religiously-affiliated schools) may look for shared values to be reflected in a student’s application and essay.

Fortunately, many schools accept the Common Application 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.

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College Application Essay Tips

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

What follows are some useful tips for writing a stronger college application essay.

Tip #1: Start Early

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

Generally, it’s a good idea to start the process at least two months before your first deadline — that should give you ample time to brainstorm, write, and edit your essays. Ideally, you’ll want to start the process over summer vacation. This will help alleviate stress during the school year and give you even more time to perfect your essays.

Starting the personal statement earlier not only gives you extra time for fine-tuning the wording, it also allows ample time for starting over (if need be). Starting over may sound like the last thing you’d want 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 realize that the topic they picked just isn’t strong enough to stand on its own. Alternatively, some applicants find that starting on a given prompt actually leads them towards a topic or essay idea.

Either way, starting early helps ensure you have enough time to mull over what to write about and how exactly to say it in a clear and compelling way. It also gives you time to simply sit and brainstorm essay ideas and create a few potential personal statement outlines.

Even with clear essay prompts, you may need a little extra inspiration to jump-start the essay-writing process. You may find it helpful to search online for and read college essay examples that helped real students get into their dream schools. These real-life examples can serve as models for how to present a personal story and organize an essay that commands attention.

By starting the writing process in advance, you’ll have 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.

Recommended: Important College Application Deadlines

Tip #2: Step Away From Your Application

When writing a personal statement for college applications, it’s a good idea to consider carefully who will read the essays (and what the admission committee is looking for). Try to put yourself in the shoes of the admissions counselors. After reviewing the non-essay portion of your application, admissions officers will typically have a clear sense of your previous coursework, grades, volunteering, and extracurricular activities.

So, when deciding which essay topic to write about, it can be helpful to ask yourself: “Would they already know this about me just by reading 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 your chance to share who you are and how you view the world.

Recommended: 10 Ways to Prepare for College

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 important to identify exactly which type of question you’ll be answering and how best to communicate who you are in a concise, non-cliched way.

Recommended: The Ultimate Guide to Liberal Arts Colleges

Tip #4: Focus on What Matters to You

To really wow admissions officers in the college essay, you might try to tap into your 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 you care deeply about, or a personal relationship that shaped you.

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, you may want to go beyond a factual retelling of your experiences to craft a thoughtful assessment of why a given topic matters to you as an individual.

Recommended: College Planning Guide for High School Students

Tip #5: Find a Trusted Reviewer

You don’t necessarily have to shell out big bucks on a private tutor or writing coach to review your college essays (although there’s nothing wrong seeking one out ). Before submitting an essay, you may want to invite a trusted teacher, family member, or friend to read the essay over and offer comments or questions. When asking for detailed feedback, here are some helpful questions to ask a reviewer 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 your essay can help you draft a more impactful personal statement. However, you may want to avoid inviting too many editors to comment on an essay that’s still being drafted. Writing is somewhat subjective. So, receiving a lot of competing opinions might leave you feeling flustered or confused about what to change.

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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.

Colleges and universities offer different financial aid packages, which will impact your cost of attendance. Financial aid may include grants, scholarships, work-study, and federal student loans (which may be subsidized or unsubsidized). Your financial aid package is based on the information you provided in the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

If there are still gaps in funding, you also have the option of seeking a private student loan. These are available through private lenders, such as banks, credit unions, and online lenders. Rates and terms vary, depending on the lender. Generally, borrowers (or cosigners) who have strong credit qualify for the lowest rates.

Keep in mind, though, that private loans may not offer the borrower protections — like income-based repayment plans and Public Service Loan Forgiveness — that automatically come with federal student loans.

If you’ve exhausted all federal student aid options, no-fee private student loans from SoFi can help you pay for school. The online application process is easy, and you can see rates and terms in just minutes. Repayment plans are flexible, so you can find an option that works for your financial plan and budget.

Cover up to 100% of school-certified costs including tuition, books, supplies, room and board, and transportation with a private student loan from SoFi.

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