A Really Solid Approach to Make College Essays Less Terrifying

Hey you! Yeah, you! You can write an amazing college essay (or essays) and it only takes being yourself and a bit of time and thought. In reality, this is one of the most dreaded parts of the college application process, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, the writing process can be an intellectually and personally meaningful experience. It is an opportunity to reflect on how far you’ve come and on where you would like to go next.

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The essay is the first opportunity for the admissions committee to hear from, and not hear about, you. That’s exciting. 

Colleges don’t admit a list of accomplishments; they admit human beings. This is your chance to put the ‘human’ into the rest of your application and show admissions officers a bit more about yourself.

The college essay is used by admissions departments primarily for three reasons:

1. To evaluate students’ writing ability, with a specific focus on developing a logical and coherent essay structure with persuasive and well-written sentences.

2. To learn more about the student through the topic and content of the essay.

3. To see what the student would contribute to the college’s student body.

An excellent reference guide on the college essay is provided by Yale. We highly recommend checking it out for further advice. 

The Topic

Selecting the essay topic is one of the hardest parts of writing a college essay. Try a few of these things:

1. Start by thinking about topics that you want to write about. These are most likely to represent some important aspect of yourself.

2. Don’t worry too much about what others are writing. There is no one way to write about, let alone to have, a meaningful experience, role, person or reflection.

3. Don’t be afraid to abandon a topic and find something that works even better.

4. Successful essays won’t necessarily add another bullet point demonstrating academic or extracurricular success. Some of the most compelling essays are written as stories, and might describe a relationship, a meaningful time of your life, or an interest that has had an impact on you.

The Tone

In addition to the topic, the tone is important to convey your ‘voice.’ Most good college essays do not read like dry, academic papers you might write for an 11th grade English literature class. Instead, the college essay is a chance for students to demonstrate to colleges that they can write, while presenting certain aspects of themselves through the essay. Successful college essays can be witty, clever, touching, or even solemn. In each case, be yourself and present your voice.

Be you!

The Process

The process of writing college essays can be unlike that of writing academic essays. See The Guide for more detailed tips from our student writers. In brief, here are some tips our student writers used to go about writing their essays.

1. Brainstorm. Starting the essay can be the hardest part. Brainstorming about your personality traits and the characteristics you’d like the essay to illuminate is a good place to begin.

2. Get words on paper. After you have an idea of what to write about, create an outline to organize your essay and let the words flow. Do this as soon as possible.

3. Keep it simple.

4. Put yourself in the college’s position. Ultimately, colleges want to accept students who are going to graduate and be successful in the world after graduation. It is vital for you to present yourself as someone that can think critically, who loves to learn, and has a passion for something.

5. Show don’t tell.

6. Balance the use of imagery.

7. Use the essay to say what your application can’t.

8. Stay humble.

The Review

“There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.” This applies tenfold to the college essay, and is why it is vitally important to start writing early. Once you think you’ve written everything, proofread it and proofread it again. Once you think your essay is ready to submit, work with a teacher, parent, or mentor to go through your essays to seek out the grammatical mistakes that you might have missed. Don’t have a committee write your essay, but do get a couple of trusted voices in the process to ensure that the essays represent you.    


Action Step: In Section Four of The Guide, we’ve got actual essays that students used in their college applications. “Essays that Worked” begins on page 44. Read through the samples and you’ll see how you can develop the right approach in your own essays.