Most selective colleges require you to submit an essay or personal statement as part of your application.
It may sound like a chore, and it will certainly take a substantial amount of work. But it's also a unique opportunity that can make a difference at decision time. Admissions committees put the most weight on your high school grades and your test scores. However, selective colleges receive applications from many worthy students with similar scores and grades—too many to admit. So they use your essay, along with your letters of recommendation and extracurricular activities, to find out what sets you apart from the other talented candidates.
Telling Your Story to Colleges
So what does set you apart?
You have a unique background, interests and personality. This is your chance to tell your story (or at least part of it). The best way to tell your story is to write a personal, thoughtful essay about something that has meaning for you. Be honest and genuine, and your unique qualities will shine through.
Admissions officers have to read an unbelievable number of college essays, most of which are forgettable. Many students try to sound smart rather than sounding like themselves. Others write about a subject that they don't care about, but that they think will impress admissions officers.
You don't need to have started your own business or have spent the summer hiking the Appalachian Trail. Colleges are simply looking for thoughtful, motivated students who will add something to the first-year class.
Tips for a Stellar College Application Essay
1. Write about something that's important to you.
It could be an experience, a person, a book—anything that has had an impact on your life.
2. Don't just recount—reflect!
Anyone can write about how they won the big game or the summer they spent in Rome. When recalling these events, you need to give more than the play-by-play or itinerary. Describe what you learned from the experience and how it changed you.
3. Being funny is tough.
A student who can make an admissions officer laugh never gets lost in the shuffle. But beware. What you think is funny and what an adult working in a college thinks is funny are probably different. We caution against one-liners, limericks and anything off–color.
4. Start early and write several drafts.
Set it aside for a few days and read it again. Put yourself in the shoes of an admissions officer: Is the essay interesting? Do the ideas flow logically? Does it reveal something about the applicant? Is it written in the applicant’s own voice?
5. No repeats.
What you write in your application essay or personal statement should not contradict any other part of your application–nor should it repeat it. This isn't the place to list your awards or discuss your grades or test scores.
6. Answer the question being asked.
Don't reuse an answer to a similar question from another application.
7. Have at least one other person edit your essay.
A teacher or college counselor is your best resource. And before you send it off, check, check again, and then triple check to make sure your essay is free of spelling or grammar errors.
Looking for strategic college advice?
Get one-on-one help from former Ivy League and top tier admission officers. Our College Admission Counselors will help you find, apply, and get accepted to your dream school.
About Rob FranekRob Franek, Editor-in-Chief at The Princeton Review, is the company's primary authority on higher education. Over his 24-year career, he has served as a college admissions administrator, test prep teacher, author, publisher, and lecturer. Read more and follow Rob on Twitter: @RobFranek
Choosing Your Topic
Once you have a pool of essay topic ideas, it’s time to narrow them down and pick the topic about which you’re going to write — but if you have several promising topic ideas, how do you choose among them? Again, you shouldn’t pick one candidate simply because it seems to be the most exciting or unique option. Rather, you should choose your topic based primarily on what subject will allow you to write the best essay.
In this case, the “best” essay is the one that showcases your strong writing skills, demonstrates the personal qualities (thoughtfulness, curiosity, dedication, passion, and so on) that you want colleges to see in you, and allows colleges to get to know you better on a different level from the rest of your application.
The topic you initially like the most may not be the one that allows you to write the best possible essay. Of course, you’re likely to write a better essay on a topic in which you have a strong interest, but there is some strategy involved in choosing a topic as well.
A thoughtful and well-written essay on a topic that might initially seem more mundane will benefit you far more than a dull or poorly-written essay on a more exciting-sounding topic. Choosing an unusual experience you’ve had as your essay subject may even tempt you to let the experience itself do the legwork, rather than using that subject as a vehicle to tell colleges more about who you are as a person.
If you can find meaning and significance in a small incident, that can be incredibly compelling for your readers. Drawing from your ordinary experiences to illustrate a larger point will make your essay all the more personal and revealing. Remember, the value of your essay is much more in how you write about your experiences than what experiences you write about.
A final note on choosing your essay topic: You don’t necessarily need to be absolutely committed to a topic right away. If it becomes clear after you start outlining or writing that your chosen topic isn’t going to work as well as you would like, there’s nothing wrong with starting over with a new topic.
Feel free to go back to your brainstormed pool of topics, or even to come up with something new entirely. Just make sure that you have enough time left to develop and edit your new essay appropriately. This is all the more reason to start the essay writing process early — if your topic ends up not working out, you’ll still have time to try a different approach.
Making Your Topic Shine
Once you’ve selected a topic, you need to figure out how to develop an essay from it that is technically skillful, compelling to the reader, and true to the vision of yourself that you’re working to portray in your application.
If you’re worried that your essay topic is not interesting or exciting enough on its own, you may be extra concerned about how to build a strong essay upon that topic. In reality, however, everyone — no matter how interesting or exciting their choice of topic might seem — should take great care in planning how they’re going to develop their basic topic statement into a full-fledged essay.
To write a truly effective college essay, you’ll need to focus not on depicting and describing an event or issue in your life, but on expressing your personal experience or perspective in an interesting manner. The value of the experience and the point in writing about it lies not necessarily in what happened, but how it affected you, and in how you analyze and consider that effect.
Details are quite important here, as they’ll bring life and context to your story. Vivid and evocative details can turn an essay on a seemingly mundane topic into something truly fascinating. The details you choose to leave out are equally important; you’ll be working with a word-count limit, and it’s important that your essay be concise and readable rather than wordy and overwrought.
You’ll also need to make sure that your essay clearly develops the themes that you intend for it to develop. Relating an experience, ordinary or extraordinary, isn’t enough on its own; you have to be thoughtful about the experience and show why this experience is important enough to you to be worth inspiring your college essay.
The key to writing a strong college application essay is in your delivery. With skillful writing, powerful word choice, and a good sense of how to develop a fragment of an idea into a longer piece of writing, you can make any topic, no matter how “uninteresting” it may seem, into an exploration of issues important to you and a showcase of your skills as a communicator.
Will your essay make or break your college application?
It depends. You can take a look at our CollegeVine blog post How Important is the College Essay? for a more detailed discussion of the importance of the essay as compared to other parts of your application.
Briefly, however, a brilliant essay can’t make up for severe deficiencies in your academic qualifications, but it may have an impact otherwise, particularly at a smaller or more competitive school. If you’re on the borderline, a great essay may tip the balance toward admission. An essay that’s clearly carelessly written, inappropriate, or full of technical errors can hurt your chances of admission even if you do have great qualifications.
The bottom line is that, just as with every other part of your college application, colleges will need to see that you’ve taken the task seriously and put in your best effort. Managing your time properly is important, and you can’t work on one essay forever, but if you get started early, you should be able to put enough time into developing, writing, and editing your essay to make it a piece of writing of which you’re truly proud.
For more information about choosing and developing a college application essay topic, you can check out the CollegeVine blog for tips and tricks. Our Essay Breakdown posts about how to write the school-specific essays for various top schools contain a wealth of good ideas.
If you’re applying to colleges using the Common Application and need to complete one of its essay questions, CollegeVine has your back. Our admissions experts have analyzed each of the five Common Application essay prompts in the posts below, where you can find detailed advice on how to respond to each prompt.
If you’re applying using the Coalition Application (CAAS), we have you covered as well with our post How to Write the Coalition Application Essays 2016-2017.
CollegeVine’s admissions advisors can help you with all aspects of the application process, including developing and editing your college essay. With a fee structure that’s more affordable than those of most companies that offer college application assistance, we’re committed to helping a broader range of high school students access the resources they need to navigate the increasingly competitive world of college admissions.
Still have questions about filling out the Common Application? Check out our blog post How to Write the Common Application Essays 2017-2018.