How to Write a College Application Essay

The essay portion of your college application helps an admissions department get to know you better. Prospective schools are interested in your goals and expectations, what you can bring to the college, and how you see the world around you. An essay also demonstrates your writing ability, a key skill for college success.

What You Need to Know Before Writing Your College Essay

It might not sound as difficult as a term paper, but a brief college application essay can present a greater challenge than a longform piece. When you only have a few hundred words to work with, each one matters. You must stick to the topic at hand, avoid tangents, and include pertinent details throughout your essay.

In a college essay, punctuation is just as important as word choice, so pay close attention to grammar usage. It can be especially beneficial to have a knowledgeable friend, teacher, or mentor proofread your essay.

Finally, present your work with a unique, relevant title. Try to avoid cliches.

What to Do If You Don't Think You Have Anything Interesting to Write About

Don't wait until the last minute to start putting your essay together. You can begin brainstorming weeks and months ahead of your college application deadlines.

Most schools want prospective students to write first-person essays. Ideally, you want to tell a story that only you can tell. One way to brainstorm ideas is by considering your most significant milestones: moments and events, both major and minor, that helped shape you into the person you are today.

Make a list of these moments and dig into the details. Choose a topic you feel strongly about. Then work to mold it into a strong, structured narrative.

What to Avoid Writing

  • Your Life of Privilege

    Be careful to avoid topics that highlight a privileged lifestyle. For example, framing a one-semester athletic injury as the hardest challenge you have ever faced may not demonstrate significant resilience. It may also suggest a lack of awareness of more serious challenges faced by your peers.

  • Your Pet

    In your eyes, Fido and Fluffy are the most amazing creatures on the planet. But we all love our pets. In a college essay, you want to stand out by focusing on a topic or experience that is unique to you rather than something universal.

  • Delinquencies You Have Overcome

    Everybody admires an underdog who overcomes adversity, but highlighting past missteps with the law may not be the best way to make a good first impression on your college admissions team. While you should not sanitize reality for the benefit of your readers, choose an essay topic that presents you in a positive light.

Example of a Quality College Application Essay

Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

I planned my high school career carefully: marching band, honors courses, and three dual-credit college classes. My senior year should have been a smooth glide to graduation, with multiple electives to fill out the seven-hour day.

As a member of the Class of 2011, however, I became part of the first group of students to fall under the Texas Education Agency's new "4x4 plan." High school graduation requirements for Texas students expanded to include four years of four core subjects: mathematics, social studies, English, and science.

Under the new plan, despite careful planning, I was one year short on science. Due to the limited curriculum options of my small school, the only course on my prescribed registration list was Biology II. Enrolling in Biology II meant participating in the final project: dissecting cats.

I had avoided the course in the past for this exact reason. Being a longtime animal lover and advocate, there was simply no way I would — or could — take a scalpel to the body of a nameless shelter cat — killed in a gas chamber, its limbs stiff, fur matted with embalming fluid.

If all else failed, I was ready to sacrifice my 4.0 GPA. I was prepared to sit out for the project and take a dozen failing grades.

But first, I decided to put up a fight.

I drafted a formal letter to the principal and the biology teacher, discussing my reservations. I sent a second letter to the school's anatomy teacher. Her courses were over capacity, strictly limited to students interested in pursuing a health major in college, and the only other science option available at my grade level.

I let them know how the sudden introduction of the 4x4 plan felt like a punishment to students like me who had painstakingly planned their high school years from the start. I told them of my compassion for all living creatures, my concern with the use of cruel carbon monoxide euthanisia in Texas shelters, and the availability of modern computer programs that required no desecration of beloved companion animals.

When my senior year arrived, I had a seat in the crowded anatomy classroom — a future music major, alongside two dozen students with their eyes set on nursing, physical therapy, and medical school.

Presenting my views in a clear, respectful way prompted three adults in authority to make a positive change on my behalf. I was further informed that, in the years to follow, shelter cats would be phased out of Biology II and replaced with virtual dissection labs.