How to Write A Great College Application Essay

Let me begin by saying I don’t remember one thing about my college application process beyond the many full color university brochures that arrived by mail my senior year and were used as trays to hold my chocolate Poptart. At some point, I decided to apply to my local city university — and when I say decided what I really mean is: I decided by not deciding other things. I have no memory of filling out the requisite forms or writing an essay, but several months later, I was climbing from a subway stop on my first day of college, consumed with small logistics such as what class do I have and what time of day and what day of week and how do I find the building and how soon until I graduate? I was wildly unprepared. These days, for my daughter and her friends, that same innocent but idiot approach to the college application process seems impossible. The angling toward college begins years earlier and takes the shape of advanced classes and standardized tests and team sports and extra curricular activities and philanthropy … and preparation for the all-important essay. Many high school English courses gear at least some of their class time toward the writing of that essay, and yet it still produces great anxiety, from topic to title to content. So here are tips on how to write a great college application essay and stand out among the crowd of prospects.

  • Shall we? 1 of 8
    great-college-application-essay
  • Number 1 2 of 8
    catchy-title

    Grip the reader, shake up the reader, entertain the reader, or even confuse the reader -- the first job is to create a very real desire to continue reading the essay.

  • Number 2 3 of 8
    get-personal

    The idea here is to convey what is uniquely you - so write about something that sets you apart. Things you've done, experiences you had, games you played, places you lived, the family that surrounds you. The essay should be narrow in its scope, and highlighting you from a very personal perspective.

  • Number 3 4 of 8
    sprinkle-humor

    In both the title and the essay, being funny is appreciated. Being funny is also difficult, so make sure you don't sacrifice the story to the joke, and have as many people read your essay as possible to make sure the humor translates when read by a voice not your own.

  • Number 4 5 of 8
    show-dont-tell

    Create a narrative arc around your essay, utilizing a clear beginning, middle, and end. Don't just recount an event's details, but reflect on ways the event impacted you, allowing the reader to see precisely how you handle challenges, adversity, ambition, and change. Always use an active voice and meaningful descriptors. 

  • Number 5 6 of 8
    be-original

    Write about something important to you, and do so using your own voice. Many universal themes can be approached from your very unique angle.

  • Number 6 7 of 8
    be-true

    The essay will always have more impact if you are being honest about the content, and true to yourself. Your essay doesn't need to detail the ways you are going to rule the world, instead it's quite acceptable to write about the way in which you live in it.

  • Number 7 8 of 8
    show-confidence

    Sometimes taking a risk has great payoff if you are writing in your unique voice and being true to you. Be bold in defending your beliefs, and engage your readers with a sometimes counterintuitive viewpoint surrounding the big topics.

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