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Write a Great College Essay (+ Examples)

How do you write a great college essay that makes colleges notice you? Use these five keys to spice up your college essays. Admissions counselors receive application after application, and they want to know if you will fit in well at their school. To do this, they look to college application essays to discover your interests, values, habits, passions and views about life.

Writing an essay that truly reflects you is an important step in the college admissions process and will help match you with your best-fit college—and win scholarships.

1. Show Your Passion

Make sure the topic that you choose for your application essay is one that you are passionate about, one that matters deeply to you. If you’re fighting for words, you probably have the wrong topic. Once you decide what important event, moment, or phenomenon in your life to write about, a draft should flow out of you fairly instinctively.

But passion doesn’t mean you shouldn’t edit. Write out your first draft instinctively and then go back, proofread, and make necessary edits to keep your essay concise.

2. Be Specific

Details, details, details. The best way to do that is by adding details that bring the story to life. Put the admissions department in your shoes and use details to make it an essay they will remember.

I was a chubby two-hundred-and-thirty pounds and slower than the corn borer beetles that plague local farmers, but I wanted to be a football player.

3. Show, Don’t Tell

Show your reaction to the situations you describe in your essay, don’t just tell about them. Do what you can to make your reader feel it with you.

On that first hot day, those strangers and I began to run plays they had learned at summer camp. “Ed, get in there at left tackle.” I stood, bewildered. “You do know what a left tackle is, don’t you?” Red crept into my face as my teammates began to laugh. Tears fell beneath my helmet as I realized that I was unaware of basic football terms and impossibly overweight.

4. Less Is More

Choose a narrow subject that you know well and succinctly write about it. While you do want to provide specific details in your college application essay, you also don’t want to go so in-depth that your reader can’t wait for your essay to be done. Keep it simple and remember that less is more.

5. Use Humor

A little levity goes a long way. If you’re naturally a funny person, show it. These admission folks read about 20 to 25 applications daily, 12 to 15 hours a day, so add a bit of humor to your application essay to help them smile. Make them laugh out loud, and you’ve hit a bull’s-eye! Just be your humble, human self, and you should get some smiles. A word of caution: humor at the expense of someone else can be risky.

Here’s an example of using humor well:

I stagger out of bed. After donning the latest in farming fashion (ripped jeans, a tattered t-shirt, and rubber boots), I join my dad in the morning chores. We work side-by-side, dumping buckets of feed to silence the ear-splitting squeals of the pigs. They devour every morsel, their demanding squeals replaced by satisfied chomping sounds. But for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. As the stomachs of the pigs are filled, other parts are emptied. So my dad and I continue our work, beginning the odorous task of cleaning pigpen after pigpen. The awful aroma hangs upon us, a pungent pig perfume that can only be removed by countless handfuls of antibacterial soap and bottles of the strongest scented shampoo.

Topic Ideas for College Application Essays

If you aren’t sure what to write about in your college application essay, here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Hobbies and non-school pursuits that engage your heart and mind.
  • A social cause that you hold dear.
  • An event (personal, local, national or international) that has touched you.
  • An academic subject that sparks your interest. Has it led to experiences or study outside of school? The best essay material goes beyond the courses you took.
  • A special trip you took. If you’re writing about a trip, show how your experiences affected you, and why they were meaningful to you.
  • Obstacles that you’ve overcome. Write about your obstacles with hope and an eye for showing self-growth. Show how your misfortune is a part of you, but can’t define you.

College essays reveal your perception of yourself and your interests—and share that with the college admissions team. Your essay is vital. Poor college application essays can undo thirteen years of impressive academic achievement. A fabulous essay can get you in or get you that big scholarship. Remember these five keys, and show what makes you stand out from other applicants.

Crafting an Unforgettable College Essay

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.

Test Your College Knowledge

How well do you understand the college admissions process? Find out with our quiz.

About Rob Franek

Rob Franek, Editor-in-Chief at The Princeton Review, is the company’s primary authority on higher education. Over his 26-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.

Do’s & Don’ts of Writing a College Admission Essay

After three years of high school, you would probably be glad to never write an essay again. If you plan on going to college, however, you should know that essay writing is one of the more important things you need to get out of your high school experience. Simply put, you can’t get through college without it.

If you are wondering how to get into college, you should know that the college essay is one of the most important parts of your application. Yes, it’s a lot of work, but it’s not all bad news. College admissions essays and personal statements give you the chance to tell your story. The decision the admissions office must make is about more than just your grades and your extracurricular activities. They want to know about your interests, your values, and your character. They have to decide whether you are a good fit for their school and its community.

You must have other things on your mind besides your essay with college on the horizon. We have inside information to help you with those matters, too. You could be working on your college application checklist, wonder how to apply for fafsa, or when college applications are due. Or you may be nervous about your last year of high school—which is why we offer advice for high school seniors: keep your head up!

So, for now, how do you create a college application essay, personal essay, common app essay, or whatever you need to write to get in? These tips will get you most of the way there—you’ll just have to come up with the exact words.

How do you write a college admission essay?

Just get started

The hardest part is the first part. Starting early is key to writing a college essay, so you should get started the summer before your senior year.

Worry about the college essay length and word limit later. If you can get your essay finished during this summer, you’ll have plenty of time to adjust it or rewrite it, as well as to get started on other essays, as well. Plus you’ll be in a position to apply for early decision deadlines by the winter, which is always a good idea.

Find an idea wherever you can

Application essays tend to be a source of hesitation more than inspiration. Most colleges, as well as the Common Application, will have the topics for their essays available online.

Look them up, and then start looking anywhere and everywhere for ideas. You can also look forward for college essay examples online, just to get you started. It’s always good to pull ideas from your own experiences. Think about what you’ve accomplished and what you feel defines you.

Think about parts of your background that have shaped your life. Ultimately, every application essay you write will be about you, as it should be the easiest thing to write about, and it will give admission officers an idea of who you are.

If you’re stumped, don’t be afraid to ask for help. You can start will the closest sources, like friends and family, and don’t forget about your teachers, either. If you’ve written essays for them before, they’ll know your strengths and weaknesses and can steer you towards essay topics they know will work for you.

Make a plan

It may be tempting to dive in and write, like pulling off a bandage. The smarter move, however, is to strategize. Be sure you have a main idea you want to get across and that it’s present throughout the essay.

What is the point of your story; what one thing do you want to make sure the reader gets from the piece? So, how long is a college essay? Most college admission or application essays are required to be pretty short, anywhere from 200 to 900 words. You want to make the best use of that limited number of words, so you should map out what you want your essay to look like in some form. That may be a traditional outline, or it may be just a matter of breaking the essay into pieces and working on it one section at a time.

U.S. News & World Report says, “If students are having a hard time getting started, they should focus on their opening sentence … an essay’s opening sentence, or hook, should grab the reader’s attention.” You should also plan to write multiple drafts. Going with your instincts is good, especially because you are the subject of the essay, but you owe it to yourself to evaluate your drafts and rewrite them, even if it’s just to prove to yourself the first round was best. Build time into your plan for that process.

What should be included in a college essay?

Answer the question

This sounds obvious, but it can be easy to forget. Because personal essays are about you, you may find yourself on a roll re-living your memories. Your personal reflections are the key to keeping the reader invested, but don’t let them carry you away.

Stay focused on the essay prompt—for example, a question about an experience outside the classroom that shaped who you are. Make what you write about what you learned from the experience, not the exact details or context of the story.

Remember, this is more of a written job interview than a first date in paragraph form.

The genuine article only

Everything is significant when it comes to telling your own story. It doesn’t matter where you’ve been or what you’ve seen, and this is not a time where a reader is judging your list of achievements.

The most crucial factor of your college admissions essay is that you’re writing about what’s truly important to you. Have confidence in your own choices—what music is special to you, the authors you most value, the activities you participate in.

Your enthusiasm for wood carving, slam poetry, Coen Brothers movies, or whatever, is what will jump off the page. You can’t make up that passion, and you shouldn’t try.

Word order means more than word choice

You need to check, double-check, sit for a while and check again to make sure your admissions essay is as polished as possible. Basic grammar is really, really, important; it won’t get you into a school on its own, but without it, you could cost yourself a spot.

Making sure you have the right punctuation in the right place and using active voice over passive is vital. That said, make sure your good grammar doesn’t keep the essay from sounding like you.

Don’t push to use fancier language or longer sentences than you normally would. Use the simplest word you need to get the point across—every time. Sell yourself as you really are, so that reading your writing and having a conversation with you both feel like meeting the same person.