How to Write a College Application Essay: A Complete Guide

The college application essay is a key part of the admissions process. Learn how to write a personal statement for college, including what to avoid.

portrait of Juliann Scholl, Ph.D.
by Juliann Scholl, Ph.D.

Updated March 8, 2022

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How to Write a College Application Essay: A Complete Guide


Many colleges and universities require a college admissions essay as part of the application process. These personal statements allow students to describe their academic achievements, their strengths, and other personal aspects that can help admissions officers see them as unique individuals.

The essay also demonstrates a student's readiness for college and likelihood of success. While an applicant's GPA, SAT or ACT scores, and transcripts are important, a college application essay can offer an admissions department insights that these metrics don't reveal.

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How Important Is the College Application Essay?

Many schools strongly emphasize the college application essay during admissions.

Although universities consider other elements such as GPA and recommendation letters, an outstanding personal essay for college can help you stand out from other applicants. If you have a similar GPA and test scores to those of other applicants, an essay can allow you to differentiate yourself.

According to a 2018-19 study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, 56.4% of admissions counselors reported that their institutions placed "considerable" or "moderate" importance on the college application essay when making admission decisions.

The report also found that private schools and more selective colleges tended to put the most weight on admissions essays.

How Long Should a College Essay Be?

Most effective college essay topics tend to reflect conciseness. Students who don't know how to write a personal statement for college might lose their readers' attention if they take too long to make their point. Applicants should remember that they get only a few hundred words to leave a favorable impression.

The Common App essay, for example, allows applicants to write a maximum of 650 words and a minimum of 250 words. Most supplemental essays submitted through this application system should be around 250 words or less.

With the Coalition Application, essays should be 500-650 words long.

What Kinds of College Essay Prompts Are There?

College essay prompts typically consist of broad, open-ended questions. They intend to focus students' writing while allowing for some freedom when addressing a topic. Depending on the school, students might respond to one prompt or pick from several.

Students should pay attention to what a prompt asks and stay on topic. Failing to answer the prompt directly is a common mistake when writing a personal statement for college.

Both the Common App and Coalition for College provide several prompts. Students should read their chosen question carefully as they develop their response. Creating outlines can help applicants stay on topic.

Common App Essay Prompts, 2021-22

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Coalition App Essay Prompts, 2021-22

  1. Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
  2. Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.
  3. Has there been a time when you've had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?
  4. What is the hardest part of being a student now? What's the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?
  5. Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.

What Are Some Examples of Good College Essay Topics?

Good college essay topics enable concise, transparent, honest, and meaningful writing. Because personal statements should differentiate applicants from their peers, topics should include compelling details and anecdotes.

Students should think carefully before writing about a negative experience or personal weakness. A college essay should portray the applicant positively, and dwelling on difficult or taboo topics could detract from your strengths.

You might look for college application essay examples to help you brainstorm topics. Students can also consider asking family members and peers to comment on their strengths and unique qualities. They may have insight to offer about what makes an applicant a good fit for a particular major or area of study.

Below are some examples of good college essay topics:

How to Write a Personal Statement for College: 6 Tips

A key characteristic of an excellent college application essay is writing quality. The personal statement can weigh heavily on some admission decisions. With this in mind, students can employ several strategies to make their essays stand out.

1. Pick a Meaningful Topic

Compelling college essay topics enable applicants to tell memorable and relatable stories. Students choosing subjects that hold personal meaning for them will likely write with more authenticity and enthusiasm, maintaining readers' interest.

Applicants should focus more on writing something they care about rather than what they think will impress admissions officers.

2. Keep the Focus on You

Unlike test scores or letters of recommendation, good college essay topics give students considerable control over how they express their best selves. Therefore, the essay should focus on them and not on other people.

Even personal statements that discuss an influential teacher or mentor should keep the story's focus on the applicant, such as how that person drove you to change or take action.

3. Use Specific Details and Examples

College essays ideally illustrate students' potential by outlining their achievements. These statements should include detailed descriptions and examples that portray experiences rather than future goals.

For instance, students who want to convey their leadership skills might describe specific incidents when they inspired others or helped a group achieve a tangible output.

4. Reveal Something Unique About Yourself

A student should write a college application essay that distinguishes them from other applicants. For example, writing about playing a niche instrument or winning an Olympic medal can help students stand out from other applicants. Doing so also demonstrates how your distinctive qualities will add to campus life.

5. Tell a Story

Students should use their college admissions essays to tell stories, striving for quality instead of quantity. In other words, you should avoid discussing your entire life and instead focus on one or two strong anecdotes that reveal your true self.

Applicants may write about specific hobbies or work experiences that highlight their values, skills, or proficiencies.

6. Edit and Proofread

Editing involves fine-tuning a draft to improve its organization and clarity. Proofreading typically follows editing and entails checking for errors. Once applicants have edited and proofread their essays, they'll benefit from at least one more read-through.

You should also strongly consider asking someone else to review your draft to catch additional errors and provide constructive feedback.

What Should You Avoid in Your Personal Essay for College?

Although a personal essay for college can demonstrate excellent writing and topic choice, it can still leave an unfavorable impression if it contains inappropriate or repetitive information. Here are some examples of topics to leave out of your statement.

Your Grades, Test Scores, and Academic Achievements

Successful college essays typically include information that does not appear anywhere else in the application. When reviewing other submission documents, admissions officers can learn about students' grades, previous courses, and scholarly achievements. As such, the essay should not focus on these kinds of details.

Your Life of Privilege

Steer clear of topics that highlight a privileged lifestyle. For example, framing a relatively common athletic injury as the hardest challenge you've faced may not demonstrate resilience as effectively as you'd like it to. It also suggests a lack of awareness of more serious obstacles others your age have faced.

Your Pet

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

Cliches and Trite Quotations

A college admissions essay presents an opportunity for students to express their creativity and originality of thought. Using cliches and trite expressions makes writers appear lazy or unimaginative. Also, some sayings may be relevant to specific cultures, alienating or confusing some readers.

Your Criminal Record

Everybody admires an underdog who overcomes adversity, but illuminating past missteps with the law isn't exactly the best way to make a good first impression on college admissions officers. While you shouldn't sanitize reality for the benefit of your readers, choose a college essay topic that at the very least presents you in a positive light.

Grammar and Spelling Mistakes

Knowing how to write a college application essay includes detecting spelling, punctuation, and grammar mistakes. Error-free personal statements go far to illustrate applicants' excellent writing skills. Students might ask teachers, mentors, or others they trust to read their essays to catch any mistakes before submitting them.

College Application Essay Example

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 euthanasia 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.

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