How to Craft the Perfect College Application Essay

How to Craft the Perfect College Application Essay

For me, the application essay was the most daunting part of applying to college.  When it came time to write it, my GPA, test scores, and extracurriculars were already out of my hands.  There was nothing I could do about them now, but what was still in my hands was the essay.  It was the one thing I could control - and that made it all the more terrifying.

Also called the “personal statement,” this is your chance to show a school who you really are outside of a bunch of numbers.  No pressure, right?  You want to stand out, but not in a bad way.  You don’t want to be boring, but you also have no idea what to write about.  Where do you even start?  Lucky for you, I got through my essay, and now I can help you do the same.


Do something outside the box.

Be different.  Take your topic (it’ll probably have something to do with describing an experience) and get creative.  Counselors don’t have a lot of time to read your essay, so hook them with the first line.  

However, I’m not saying that what you write about has to be something outside the box.  The dullest topic you can think of can be turned into an enticing essay if you get inventive with how you write it.  Overall, the best advice I can give you is to use your judgement.  You know a boring essay when you see one; you can probably also tell if a topic is too controversial, depressing, or provocative for a college application.  Don’t make this mistake.  With enough brainstorming and fine-tuning, you’ll find the balance in being different without an essay that’s too outlandish.

Show, don’t tell.

Regardless of your topic, it’s important to describe the thing you’re writing about to the reader, not to simply tell them what happened.  Don’t just state the facts, but use detailed examples to get your point across.  It’ll be much more effective, and your readers will remain engaged.

Follow the directions.

This may seem contradictory to the first point, but following the instructions doesn’t mean sacrificing creativity.  Address what’s being asked, remain on topic, and stay within the word count.  Admissions counselors have to read hundreds – if not thousands – of essays.  Going 200 words over the limit is only going to irritate whoever has to read it.  (And in some cases, exceeding the word count could mean your essay isn’t even read at all.  Seriously, just follow the directions.)

Write about something that excites you. 

Not only will it make the whole writing part easier, but your enthusiasm will be noticeable.

Don’t be preachy. 

It’s okay – it’s good, in fact – to write about something you have an opinion on.  If you make an argument, explain your interest - just avoid coming off as self-righteous.

Put effort into each and every essay you write. 

Lots of students recycle their essays so they don’t have to write a new essay for every school they apply to.  While you may be able to reuse a line or two, counselors have a lot of experience reading these things, and they will be able to spot a generic essay.  I know it gets overwhelming, but this isn’t the time to cut corners.

Just like the essays you’re used to writing, make sure your essay has an introduction, body, and conclusion. 

You don’t necessarily have to structure this in the same way you would in English class, but it should still have these elements so your writing is cohesive.

Last but not least, edit. 

Do it again.  Good, now leave it for a day or two and edit it again.  Rewrite the parts where the story lags, and be sure there are no spelling, punctuation, or grammatical errors.  Have at least one other person read it to make sure of this, too.  It’s easy to make careless mistakes, so ask an English teacher or your college counselor to review it and triple- (no, quadruple-) check everything.

Related: 13 Things to Know Before Applying to College

Let’s recap.  What not to do:

Don’t limit yourself. 

Be imaginative, and think about what you would want to read if you were an admissions counselor.

Don’t recycle essays. 

An admissions counselor will know.  (They know everything.)

Don’t be cliché. 

It’s great that your mission trip to Africa changed your life, but admissions counselors are tired of hearing this story.  Sure, you like helping people, but that doesn’t actually tell them much about who you are.

Don’t brag. 

No one likes braggers.

Basically, just don’t be lame. 

Try to think of a creative angle, write vividly, and don’t get too controversial.  I don’t have to tell you that this is important, so make an effort and be thorough.  You’ll be fine, champ.

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