How to Write a College Essay: A Step-by-Step Guide

Learn How to Write a College Essay with Campus to Career Crossroads

Written by Jason

It is simple: I envisioned Campus to Career Crossroads helping students have successful outcomes, dreamed up by the students themselves. Our mission at Campus to Career Crossroads is to develop a supportive and individualized partnership with you and your family to help you navigate the complex stages from high school and throughout your career. Let's work together!

Last updated Jun 26, 2024 | Published on Jun 26, 2024

In his book On Writing, Stephen King said, “Stories are found things, like fossils in the ground… Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered, pre-existing world.” 

Did you know that your college essay is the same? Did you know that your life is packed with potential essay material, just waiting to be unearthed?

You might not believe it, but it is true. You are a fountain of limitless potential, and all you have to do is dig it up and show it to the world. 

Learning how to write a college essay may seem like a daunting task, but it can be so fun, and we will show you how to write a good college essay in just a few easy steps. 

Hint, hint: Maybe you will even discover more about yourself than you would ever realized.

Why is a Good College Essay Important?

First, why is it important to write a good college essay? 

It is important to write a good college essay because it serves as the heartbeat of your application. Consider this: The average admissions official of a selective university reads over 1,000 essays per application cycle!

Yikes! 

See how important it is to write a good essay? 

Does that mean you need to write like Stephen King or James Joyce?

Absolutely not. But you do need to stand out, and one of the best ways to do that is to cultivate your essay, massage it, create it, and publish it as if you are submitting a manuscript for a novel to an agent. In other words, you want to take it seriously and make it as good as you possibly can.

Who Reads College Essays?

This is a great question. Who is the nameless, faceless person reading your essay? Is it (gasp!) a computer reading your essay? And if that is the case, why learn how to write a college essay about yourself?

Who Reads Your College Essay?

In some cases, a computer does scan your essay, but it is typically for general information, such as the stuff you are involved inside and outside of school. For example, AI will scan your application to check on the stuff in your application, such as your involvement in high school, such as your activities, sports, and other interests. 

However, real people will read your essay, do notworry. If you are concerned about who will read your essay, you can always ask an admissions professional at the colleges that you are considering. You can point-blank ask them, “Hey, who will read my essay, anyway?”

What Do College Admissions Officers Look for in a College Essay?

Above all else, admission readers are looking for a voice — your voice. So shove aside searching for what you think looks good on college applications and focus on your voice.

What does that mean? They want to “hear” you speak in your essay. They want to “hear” you communicate ideas, bring something important to the table, and above all else, prove how you should be a member of their incoming class.

Before we launch into how to write an essay, it is helpful to consider an admissions reader’s frame of mind as they are sifting through essays. 

Ultimately, they want something that grabs their attention after reading thirty essays in a row that sound the same. Above all else, admission officers think in their heads while reading: 

  • Can I learn more than what you mentioned in other parts of your application?
  • Does this applicant offer unique and meaningful content?
  • Do they use humor, creativity and imagery?
  • Are they authentic?
  • Would we like this person as part of the incoming class?

Put yourself in their shoes before you sit down to write. If you need to (and this sounds silly, we know, but it works!) take a screenshot of a person online — it can be a random person — and picture writing your essay to that person. What would make them smile? What might grip them immediately?

How to Write a College Essay

So, how do you write a college essay? Let’s take a look at the steps we’ve cultivated after years of helping clients.

How to Write a College Essay Includes Telling Your Story

Step 1: Look at the prompts.

The first step is an easy one. You will typically use the Common App essay prompts to answer your essay question, so read through our Common App college essay tips. Here are the prompts! 

  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.

Read through them and feel them deeply. Which ones speak to you? Do two work for you? If you think two of them speak to you, great! You have already narrowed it down. In fact, try to narrow it down to two.

Now, remember that you may not fill out the application for a college using the Common App. You may use the college or university’s own application. 

Learn more about writing about your activities on the Common App.

Step 2: Pick a topic.

Now, imagine writing the first one. What would the first line be? Can you imagine writing a first line of your essay for one or the other? If you can clearly see it in your mind for one over the other, that is the essay you want to write.

If you are not sure about the one you want to write on, just choose one. That sounds crazy, right? It is honestly a great idea to just pick one and start on it. If you are not feeling it, you will know, and can start on a different prompt!

Step 3: Brainstorm. 

Now, you get to brainstorm with your topic in mind. Talk to your family and friends (if you want) while you’re thinking about your topic. They might offer some ideas because they know you so well. Here is how you might brainstorm. 

Essay Brainstorming

Let’s say you choose this essay: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

Let’s say you write down these ideas: 

  • When Mrs. Ross, my English teacher, said Romeo and Juliet was a bad play.
  • When Jennifer said that all dyslexics were dumb without realizing that I’m dyslexic.
  • When Sarah said that most writers can’t make any money writing.

You get the idea. You do not have to tackle broad, sweeping ideas, so understand that you do not have to tackle polarizing themes, like politics, homelessness, abortion, or other themes that give people a little indigestion.

Does one idea stand out to you? (If so, pat yourself on the back.)

Go with that idea and don’t look back.

Step 4: Organize.

Next, organize your essay. Visualize it in your mind before you even start.

Ask yourself:

  • Where will you draw your reader? You will want to put them in a specific place or moment.
  • Choose a hook. How will your first sentence draw your reader in? How will you draw them into the essay? 
  • Identify at least three to five “so what” moments that demonstrate a unique perspective that reveals something important about you. Why should someone care?
  • How will your last sentence leave the reader wanting more? (You may not know your last sentence yet, but be thinking about it in advance.)

Also, do not forget to answer the prompt! 

Step 5: Write without stopping.

Start writing as if you don’t have a care in the world. Just write and do not stop, even if it sounds dumb. For example, I started writing the first stuff that comes to mind with this brainstormed idea: When Addy said that all dyslexics were dumb without realizing that I am dyslexic.

The first time I noticed something was different, I remember listening to this one kid, Alyssa, speed reading in first grade. I looked at the text and realized that I could not follow what she was reading. I was flabbergasted to hear what she was seeing. How did I not see the same thing she was seeing?

Flash forward twelve years. When Addy, this snooty kid in my class, said, All dyslexics are dumb, I felt like i was back in 1st grade.

As you can see, grammatical errors need to be corrected in this passage, but do not worry about that stuff. You can edit later.

Step 6: Edit and smooth everything out.

Finally, smooth everything out. Are your themes obvious? Have you rehashed your application? Does it sound like a formal report? Have you used unnatural vocabulary? Do whatever you can to reveal, not brag.

Form your paragraphs into a beginning, middle, and end, so it makes sense for a reader to get from point A to point B. This can be difficult to discern, and because it is so challenging, it is a good idea to use our services at Campus to Career Crossroads.

Read it out loud when you are done. Does it sound normal? If so, great job! If not, rewrite it to sound like you’re a human, and whatever you do, do not write in TXT language! You are not texting your friends!

Self-editing is not as complicated as it sounds, and watch things like verb tenses, viewpoints, dialogue tags, and other things that just sound “off” when you read it back to yourself. Trust me, you will know.

Step 7: Get professional help.

How to write a college essay is tough stuff! Get some help from Campus to Career Crossroads. We walk you through every step in our planning process, from start to finish. You will never wonder what you need to do next to create your essay, because we will help you!

13 Tips for Making Your Essay Stand Out

We wrote an article about making your Common App essay stand out, but here are some other tips you can use on how to write a college application essay and personal statement essay.

Tip 1: Be Authentic

This is not the time to sound stilted by trying to use big words (aka trying to impress people). Check out this college essay example:

Be Authentic

In the penultimate year of my secondary education, I resolved to endeavor for the esteemed position of class president. My confidence was bolstered by an ostensibly impeccable stratagem and the camaraderie of numerous acquaintances. My campaign was executed with meticulous precision, encompassing the creation of visually stimulating placards, and the delivery of oratorically sophisticated discourses. Nonetheless, on the day of the electoral process, I was met with an unforeseen and disheartening defeat. This experience engendered a profound sense of melancholy and disenchantment, as I had exerted substantial effort.

This is obviously an extreme example, but ask yourself if your writing is overly verbose.

Tip 2: Grab the Reader from the Start

Think of your favorite novel. What is it about it that hooks you and draws you in? 

Let’s use Harry Potter as an example. You have read it, right? 

The first book starts off with a lot of mystery, and describes how the Dursleys were trying so hard to be normal, but it is obvious right away that they are concealing a big secret. You wonder right away what that secret is and why they are trying to hide.

There is no one “right” way to draw the reader in, and you might even want to use dialogue. Why not explore that creative way to draw in the reader?

If you start your essay off, “You are lucky you did not bite your tongue clean off,” the doctor said to me, is not that an intriguing beginning? 

It sure is. It would prompt an admissions reader to continue reading more, right?

Tip 3: Focus on Deeper Themes

Deeper themes. 

If that elicits a groan, stop. We are not talking about English class, as in analyzing an Emily Dickinson poem here. Themes can be simple. Think of the themes that resonate with you and your life:

  • Hard work
  • Determination
  • Overcoming obstacles
  • Helping others
  • Achievement

Avoid certain topics: sports, mission work, and injuries. 

Tip 4: Show, Don’t Tell

Showing, not telling: It is our favorite writing tip, because it can give you so much more interesting information in a more creative way. 

How to Write a College Essay Includes Specific Examples and Experiences

It is easiest to show you an actual example of showing vs. telling:

  • Telling: I was sad to see my grandma leave. 
  • Showing: Tears ran down my face as I watched my grandma climb into the car to return to Washington.

See how the first example does not give us much detail, while the second immerses us into your essay.

Tip 5: Write How You Speak (and Improve Your Writing)

Even if you do not consider yourself a writer, try to write how you speak: “I do not go to the grocery store every day” vs. “I don’t go to the grocery store every day.”

  • Filters: Consider cutting out anything that filters your words, such as “I saw a shadow creeping down the hallway.” See the difference in this: “A shadow crept down the hallway.”
  • Kick passive voice to the curb: Consider cutting passive voice from your essay. It’s more clunky and less engaging. “The ball was kicked by Jeff” should be “Jeff kicked the ball.”
  • Get rid of weak or unnecessary adverbs: “Suddenly,” “really,” “very,” and any other words ending in -ly. They add fluff and no substance. You can almost always use a stronger descriptor. “I whispered quietly” should be “I whispered.”
  • Pet words or phrases: Overusing your favorite phrases can annoy your writer and it will feel tired when you use it over and over again.

Go back to basics — when you start a new topic or thought, create a new paragraph. Also, make it simple to read. The human mind likes organization!

Remember, you do not have to be a great writer to write a great essay, and do check for errors. 

Tip 6: Read it Aloud

Though you might feel crazy doing it, it is important to put your essay down for a day or so, and then pick it up to reread. 

Out loud.

That means absorbing all the ebbs and flows, understanding where it needs a comma, figuring out whether it is missing a hook or whether it just needs more “oomph” in sections. Reading it out loud will help you identify those problem areas, even more so than reading it in your head. Do it even if you feel like a dork, even if you feel your eight-year-old brother will make fun of you for doing it.

It will help you improve your essay.

Tip 7: Do not Repeat Yourself

If you have already mentioned something in your application and carry it over to the essay, you a’re double-dipping. Avoid doing that unless you are going off on a totally different tangent. 

Here is an example: 

Let’s say you mention that you volunteer in a nursing home as one of your activities on your application. Now, imagine you expand on that in your essay and write about developing a close relationship with one of the nursing home residents, Mr. Stanley, who has influenced your desire to become a gerontologist.

See how that is different from regurgitating the hours you spend at the nursing home, which you did on your initial application?

Tip 8: Write, Then Edit

Have you ever heard the term “There’s no writing, only rewriting?”

Writing is a creative process, which means you need to immerse yourself in it. Do not worry about the misplaced commas or any dead-sounding prose just yet. Write to get your ideas on your computer, and then when you feel as if you have got them all down, then go back through and self-edit.

Just do not tempt yourself and edit while you are writing — you could lose all flow and creativity, especially if you think it is not good enough. Again, it is all rewriting.

Tip 9: Do not Use AI

Should you use AI to write your essay? 

Absolutely not. No. Nein.

That is to say, you could use AI to help you get ideas, but as you likely know, AI writing sounds dead, inhuman. And how can a computer create your voice? It cannot, so do not let it try. Use it to possibly outline your work but never let it take the place of you. Your story, your voice, everything about you is unique, so ensure you are giving those things credence, a chance to see the light of day.

Learn more with our ChatGPT essay tips.

Tip 10: Ask Others to Read Your Essay

Ask a couple of trusted people to read your essay, but think carefully about who you will ask. Sometimes, family members think your essay is so great that they will want to frame it. Other times, they have so much feedback that it is unhelpful. 

It is likely more beneficial to ask someone who reads a lot of writing, such as your English teacher, who has the qualifications to help you.

We have a trained editor on our staff who reads essays and offers feedback to students. She has spent years in college admissions and works as a full-time editor and writer and knows exactly where each comma and semicolon should go and knows the best ways to flesh out ideas. It is another perk you get when you work with Campus to Career Crossroads.

Tip 11: Use Paragraph Breaks

Reading a block of text can feel exhausting when you are a reader. Therefore, the last thing you want to do is create lengthy blocks of text that make admissions readers tired. You need to do whatever you can to grab their attention, not make them feel, “Oh, man, another boring essay.”

When you start a new thought or concept, introduce a paragraph break. Whenever you begin dialogue or thoughts, start a new paragraph. Whenever something changes, introduce a paragraph break.

Tip 12: Pay Attention to Length

How long should a college essay be?

Although there are often no strict word limits for college essays, most essays are shorter, rather than longer. The Common App suggests that essays stay at about 650 words. Check your word count at the end of writing and editing so you know where you are on word count. You do not want to fail on this most basic task. 

Tip 13: End Your Essay With a “Kicker”

Most people ask about how to start a college essay, but ending your essay with a “kicker” is an effective way to leave a lasting impression on your reader. But what exactly is it?

A “kicker” is a powerful conclusion that ties together your main points, leaves your audience thinking, or evokes a strong emotional response. You can do this in a few different ways: 

  • Refer back to your opening scene, story, or question
  • Inspire a call to action
  • Share a final reflection or insight
  • End with your vision for the future

You Can Write a Great Essay

You do not have to be a great writer to write a great essay. If you weave in all the elements we have suggested above, you can create a great essay. The best way to create a great essay involves putting your whole heart into it. Do not keep yourself at arm’s length in this very personalized, nuanced area of your life. This is all about you, and it is your time to shine.

Overwhelmed by the idea of how to write a college essay? You do not have to go it alone. Let Campus to Career Crossroads help you.

FAQs

How do you start a college essay?

How to write a college essay can be daunting, but a strong opening can set the tone for an engaging and compelling narrative. You can use an anecdote, story, quote, question, put a bold statement, set the scene, or introduce an unexpected fact or statistic.

Remember to keep the opening concise and relevant to the overall message of your essay. It should provide a glimpse of your personality and set the stage for the story you want to tell.

What is the format of a college essay?

Generally, the college essay format you want includes an engaging introduction, a detailed body, and a reflective conclusion.

  • Introduction: The introduction should capture the reader’s attention with a compelling opening and introduce the main theme or story.
  • Body: The body elaborates on this theme or story, providing specific examples, personal experiences, and reflections that showcase your personality and values.
  • Conclusion: The conclusion wraps up the essay by reflecting on the significance of the experiences shared and how they have shaped your future aspirations and readiness for college.

What do colleges look for in essays?

Colleges seek three key elements in your admission essay: a unique perspective, strong writing, and an authentic voice. Admissions officers often say that a standout essay makes them feel as if the student is in the room, speaking directly and genuinely to the committee.

What makes for a good college essay?

A good college essay offers a unique perspective and showcases strong writing skills (but again, you can accomplish that in the editing!). A good college essay also conveys an authentic voice that reflects the student’s true personality, engages the reader, and leaves a lasting impression.

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