Nearly every high school student dreads writing their college essay. Despite its often overlooked importance, a college extracts a lot of valuable information about prospective students not found in the rest of the traditional college application.

If you’re struggling with writing your college essay, here’s a closer look at the various steps of the process, as well as several tips to help make your essay stand out.

Five Steps to Writing Your College Essay

1. Understand the Requirements

Taking the time to understand your college essay’s requirements is a crucial first step in the writing process. Guidelines such as minimum or maximum length, recommended topics, and standard formatting are all components admission counselors look at closely when reviewing your essay. Fulfilling the requirements demonstrates to schools that you are able to follow directions.

Perhaps one of the most overlooked aspects of a college essay is its standardized formatting. While high schools teach students how to organize long-form writing, many admission counselors are seeing a trend in sloppy formatting. “In this day and age of texting and online messaging, we’re seeing more and more students writing in this way,” says Alex Patturelli, director for undergraduate admission.

2. Pick Your Topic Carefully

Selecting the right topic is probably the most important step when writing your college essay. While prompts are often provided, try not to get caught up in these suggestions. For the most part, they’re meant to spark ideas, provide inspiration, and give examples of the many directions you could take your essay.

Instead, think about what you want your prospective colleges to know about you. This could be personal struggles that you overcame, an achievement you’re proud of, or even the reason you’re passionate about your desired major. However, if your major is one of the top programs at the schools you’re applying to, there are a few things that you should keep in mind.

According to Patturelli, one of the most common essay topics a college receives pertains to one of its top programs. For example, Regis College, known for its nursing program, receives thousands of essays every admission cycle about why students want to become a nurse. According to Patturelli, “There’s nothing wrong with pursuing this topic, but if you're gonna write about a school’s top program just know that the standard for those types of essays are a little bit higher.”

3. Make a Plan

One of the biggest mistakes students make when writing their college essay is skipping the crucial step of making a plan. “Students need to spend more time on topic development,” says Patturelli. “I even encourage students to sit with two or three topics for a while.”

Developing a plan for your college essay doesn’t entail writing a laundry list of to-do items, but rather taking the time to sit with your ideas and allow your essay to take shape. According to Patturelli, “I think students can start to tell when they get into writing, what topic they're most passionate about and what topics they considered just because they thought it would look good on their application.” This planning and preparation should give you a better sense of what topic produces the best caliber of writing, which is the most important aspect of any college essay.

4. Edit and Proofread

While nobody enjoys this step, editing and proofreading can be the difference between a school acceptance and rejection. Despite its importance, admission counselors read thousands of essays each year that have an abundance of typos.

“We’ve seen essays where a student is in the middle of their thought, and then the sentence abruptly ends,” says Patturelli. “This shows us that the student probably stepped away from the essay, came back, and didn't actually edit or reread.” This demonstrates a lack of care and attention to detail that isn’t often rewarded with an acceptance letter.

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In addition to these errors, there are plenty of other components of your essay that you should look closely at during the editing and proofreading process, including:

  • Making sure there is agreement between nouns and pronouns
  • Using the active voice
  • Applying an assertive, confident voice rather than phrases like “I think” and “I believe”
  • Avoiding dangling prepositions (e.g., to, for, from, with, about)
  • Emphasizing key points with appropriate punctuation (e.g., long dashes, exclamation marks, italics, bold-type, and quotation marks)
  • Eliminating unnecessary adverbs

For many students the last bullet point may be surprising, however, more often than not, admission counselors aren’t impressed by flowery language. “Some students try to be so engaging that it feels almost too descriptive,” says Patturelli. Despite being a good writer, many students who write densely descriptive essays are often penalized on message quality. “I get to the end of those essays and wonder what it was about.”

5. Allow Others to Evaluate

Self-editing is essential to writing a college essay, but things are bound to slip through the cracks. As the author, it’s hard to edit elements such as structure, tone, and clarity. While you know what your essay is supposed to look like and convey, it may not be clear to others. Have a friend, parent, or high school counselor read through it to make sure your story is clear and well organized.

Remember to listen to constructive criticism. While it may be difficult to hear that your essay is confusing, small adjustments can make a huge difference. Make sure you write your essay early enough to allow other readers enough time to give feedback and suggestions. This last step of the process shouldn’t be rushed.

10 Things to Keep in Mind When Writing Your College Essay

Now that you understand the necessary steps to writing an effective college essay, here are some helpful tips that can help make your writing more memorable.

Write About a Topic Important to You

This might seem simple, but many students write on a topic they think admission counselors are looking for rather than one they are interested in. When you write about something important to you, it really shows. “We can tell whether they're passionate or not,” says Patturelli. “I think students don't necessarily always think, ‘Do I love this topic or not?’”

In the end, admission counselors want to read about what you’re passionate about to better understand if you’re a good fit for both the school and your desired program. Make sure you pick a topic that’s important to you.

Remember to Analyze

College essays are meant to tell a story, but they are also supposed to reveal something about you. The best way to accomplish this is by analyzing an experience you had and putting it into a greater context. “It's not enough to just be a good story teller, you also need to be reflective,” says Patturelli.

This isn’t an easy element to execute in a short-form essay, but the best way to approach this requirement is asking the question “Why does this matter?” If you can’t think of a reason why your story is informative to who you are as a student, it’s probably not worth writing about. Remember that this essay is part of your college application, so you can even think about why your story matters to your college application, and why it means the school should accept you.

Be Yourself

Authenticity always leads to better writing. Much like writing about topics you’re passionate about, it’s also essential to write about topics that are true to your personality and story. Admission counselors can typically see right through essays that touch on topics that aren’t true to the student.

Don’t go for shock value and lie in your college essay. Just be yourself and let your writing act as a supplemental guide to your application for counselors to get to know you better.

Don’t Write One Draft

Writer’s block isn’t just an unwanted phenomenon for writers, it can also negatively impact students’ college writing process. One way to tackle this common obstacle is to avoid writing one draft or brainstorming document. Many times, this concept of one draft can add unnecessary pressure on the creative portion of your essay.

Try taking one idea and going in a few different directions in separate drafts. This allows you to take some risks and reveal an approach that you may not have considered before. It also provides a clear comparison of different essays, allowing you to piece together the parts that work from each draft.

Take Risks

Taking risks might seem like a reckless decision when it comes to your academic future. While it’s no guarantee that risks are rewarded, many admission counselors remember essays that decided to take an outside-of-the-box approach. Be sure not to mistake this tip for adding “shock value” though. Unconventional essays don’t necessarily shock the reader, but rather talk about sensitive topics or take an unconventional approach to formatting and structure. Think about ways to make your story compelling and your essay stand out.

Don’t Lie

Not everyone has an overly exciting life, or suffered a tragedy that led to immense personal growth. Oftentimes, students try to write flashy or shocking stories in order to grab an admission counselor’s attention, whether or not it’s true. Try not to over exaggerate or lie in your college essay. Admission counselors don’t remember shocking essays, they remember well written content with compelling takeaways.

Create a Compelling Hook

A compelling hook is the key to any effective college essay. During the editing and proofreading process, make sure to take the time to check that there is a well written hook sentence. Admission counselors read a lot of college essays, so the more engaging a hook sentence, the more memorable your essay will be.

“The opening line has to be an engaging hook sentence,” says Patturelli. “I tell students all the time, it's okay to be a little out there. Admission counselors read a lot of college essays and a memorable opening might not be the difference between getting into a school, but it can be the difference between being considered for additional scholarship or leadership roles.”

Make Your Essay Easy to Read

All well-written essays all have one thing in common: they’re easy to read. The best topics are only as effective as how well they are communicated to your audience. “Essays need to be a consistent, flowing story,” says Patturelli. “A lot of times students try to do different stories every paragraph. That format is just so hard to follow.”

Even if your essay tells a cohesive story, make sure it’s visually appealing as well. Paragraph and line breaks are an excellent way to create natural breaks in your essay. Try not to overwhelm your reader with long blocks of text.

Don’t Focus Too Much on the Prompt

The essay prompt is meant to spark ideas, offer suggestions, and give guidance to those who don’t know where to start. Don’t stress too much about the prompt though. Many times, it isn’t part of the essay evaluation process. “I evaluate students on the story they told, what lesson they learned, and if they're a good writer,” says Patturelli. “Often I'm not even looking at whether they answered the prompt or not.”

Ask For Help

Much like the other aspects of the college application process, asking for help is a necessary part of writing a college essay. While you need to pick a topic and write a compelling story, there are several resources available that can assist in other ways. High school counselors are excellent sources of support in any phase of the application process, including college essays. Another commonly untapped resource is college admission officers.

Start Writing

The hardest, but most important step in the writing process is actually writing. Once you’re over that hurdle, don’t be afraid to tap into the resources available to you. For example, Regis College’s admission department is an excellent resource for prospective students who want guidance on the application process from the college essay to the interview. You’ll be amazed at how beneficial it is to accept guidance from individuals who read thousands of essays every year.

Want to learn more about the various steps in the college application process? Check out our Complete Guide to Applying to College to learn more about how to make the admission process easier.

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