How To Write an Amazing College Essay

How To Write an Amazing College Essay

LaNaiah Frieson, Contributor

 As juniors prepare for their upcoming senior year, many of them have begun to compile a list of colleges they are interested in attending in the fall of 2023. For many prospective applicants, a common concern they have is determining whether the admissions officers will be able to get a sense of who they are amidst the stats provided on their application.   

For students looking to strengthen their applications, refining their college essay writing skills is a great opportunity to let admissions officers get a sense of the human behind the numbers and boost their chances of being accepted. Below is advice on how to craft the most competitive college application essay. 

What are some strategies students can use to begin crafting a great essay? 

For many students, getting started is the hardest part when preparing to write a personal essay. Thankfully, there are only four steps to creating a unique college essay: brainstorming, outlining, writing, and editing. 

The brainstorming process can begin as early as the spring of junior year. To get started, students can begin to come up with topics that answer who they are, what they believe in, what makes them unique, and how they explore their interests in their community.  

For example, maybe they are interested in studying linguistics in the future. In their outline, they can jot down what sparked that interest, what they’ve done to explore other languages throughout high school, and express what pursuing linguistics through higher education means to them.  

Then, the writing process can begin. Students should not be afraid to draft many different versions of their essay. In fact, drafting multiple essays using different styles and techniques is encouraged because it allows applicants to get creative in their writing. 

After choosing the essay that works for them, the editing process can begin. Students get help with editing their essay by having their teachers and counselors proofread it and provide feedback. The goal of this step in the essay writing process is to ensure that the essay is not only free of grammatical errors, but that it also is written in their unique voice. Bringing their voice into the essay adds a personal touch to the application that admissions officers cannot find in stats. 

How can students choose the right prompt to write about? 

While some schools don’t require a personal essay for an applicant to be considered for admission, brainstorming ways to answer the essay prompts because they can be adapted to any school’s requirements. Here are the prompts provided by the Common Application for the 2022-2023 admissions cycle, tips on how to potentially answer them, and a few reasons for choosing them: 

  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. 

Students should choose this prompt if they have something they strongly identify with that tells a compelling story of who they are, and their application would be incomplete without it. This includes racial and sexual identity, gender, experience, education, service, and culture. Within this prompt, students can describe their experiences growing up, interactions with their community, how they discovered and engaged in their interests, and discuss important relationships that shaped who they are. 

  1. 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? 

Students should choose this essay if they have experiences that contributed to overcoming adversity. In this essay, applicants can write about a foundational failure such as a divorce, losing a home, or losing a friend or family member. Applicants can also write about repeated failures that are linked to each other such as social anxiety in the classroom that they learned to overcome. Through these topics, students can link their stories to how they have or plan to help others in similar areas in the future. 

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

Students should choose this essay if they have gone against social norms that impacted their lives. This essay should show the student’s ability to be introspective and inquisitive. Writing about a time they stood up for someone who needed help, called out issues in schools such as discrimination in dress codes and petitioned for change, or created a safe space for LGBTQIA+ youth in the community shows potential for taking action on their future college campus and gives admissions officers a sense of their beliefs.  

  1. 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? 

Students should choose this essay if they have a person or experience that shaped who they are today. Since this essay can be tricky to write about properly, it is important to use diction to paint a picture of the narrative in a way that focuses on how the applicant applied what they learned. Rather than saying, “I learned how to be a hard worker from my mom,” it Is better to show how they learned to work hard through their experiences, service, and work ethic despite the obstacles they have faced. Then, students should explain the moment of epiphany that made them grateful for that impactful person in their life or their experiences. Explaining this realization implicitly throughout the essay rather than explicitly allows the admissions officer to see how the student has grown. 

  1. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. 

Students should choose this prompt if they have an accomplishment, event, or realization that contributed to their development. Applicants who choose this prompt can their leadership positions, organizations that they were a part of that taught them about their community, or a more informal event that allowed them to reflect on themselves and the world around them. 

  1. 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? 

Students should choose this prompt if they are interested in writing about a topic, concept, or idea that they find especially interesting. For those whose interests connect to what they might pursue in college, it is important to emphasize how they have already explored it in their extracurriculars and/or academics. It is important to choose a topic that effectively discusses intellectual curiosity with this prompt because the topic choice is a clue into what kind of student the applicant will be. 

For example, those who are particularly interested in astronomy could write about what sparked that interest, how they have pursued it through founding clubs like the astronomy club or through research, and its importance in their life or the lives of others. Those who are interested in baking or cooking could get creative with their essay by using a family recipe to describe who they are and where they came from to paint a picture of themselves beyond their stats.  

  1. 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. 

Students should choose this prompt if they would like to write about a topic that does not fall under any of the other prompts. Due to the open-endedness of this prompt, it can be both high in risk and in reward. Applicants should strive to be as creative as possible when answering this prompt and frame the essay in a way that is understandable to the common reader. Successful essays that answer this prompt capture the admissions officer’s attention in a unique and profound way and motivate them to advocate for the application to be approved. 

What are some ways students can get creative with their essays? 

For college essays, the way a student ends up using the limited space allotted is just as important as the contents of the essay. Most personal essays will end up following a narrative structure to tell a story that is significant to the applicant. With the only requirements being the 650-word limit and fully answering one of the seven prompts, students have a wide range of directions they can go in to tell their story. 

For instance, a student whose life was impacted by music could use lines from their favorite lines to tell their story. For a student who is interested in studying computer science, they could use binary code in a portion of their essay to connect coding to a significant event in their life that was the catalyst for their interest. Additionally, students who are passionate about volunteering in underserved communities could use something deeply personal to them such as researching how to take care of their natural hair in a community where haircare products are limited to describe their commitment to providing equal opportunities for everyone. 

The possibilities are endless with personal essays. The more unique and creative the essay, the more likely it will resonate with the admissions officers. 

What makes an essay stand out from the rest of the pool? 

Colleges seek students that are intellectually curious, leaders in their community, and pursue academic excellence. Through a deeply personal college essay, students can express their exploration of these traits and persuade the reader to advocate for their spot in the incoming class.  

Personal essays should delve deep into the applicant’s feelings, evaluate their problem-solving and decision-making skills, and remain unique to them. As a rule of thumb, colleges advise students to avoid writing about cliché essay topics. Some of the common personal essay topics to avoid include writing about a sports injury, an immigrant story, tragedy, a difficult class, someone you admire, religion, and a volunteer trip.  

While there have been applicants who were successful despite writing based on these topics, admissions officers dread these topics because they are often either overdone or centered around someone other than the applicant. For instance, while writing about how someone’s role model is nice, it often says more about the character of their role model than the applicant. 

Another thing college admissions officers advise that students stay away from are cliché quotes such as “be the change you want to see in the world” because they are generally overdone and add little personal touches to the essay.  

Successful college essays tend to “show” the reader how the applicant has grown rather than “telling” them. This can be done by providing examples as to how they have applied what they learned either personally or in their community. 

While writing personal essays can seem daunting, it is a great way to display the applicant’s sense of creativity, identity, personality, aspirations, authenticity, and influences. The goal for this essay is to spark thoughtful discussion that provides insight into who the applicant truly is. Applicants should use this essay to express who they are and what motivates them to pursue higher education.