College Application Essay Advice

By Sarah Koch

So, you’ve reached the writing part of your application.  Constructing a college essay may seem scary, and that’s okay!  This is a new experience for all of us, so it’s natural to feel a little unsure about, well, what exactly you’re doing.  However, once you get started, you may find that the writing sections of your applications are actually (sort of) fun!  While the rest of your application asks for logistics and personal information, an essay allows you to branch out and tell your unique story.  The CommonApp writing section has seven prompt choices (see picture) and a 650-word limit.  College-specific applications may ask for a similar long essay, and many colleges also have required supplemental short answer questions.  No matter which you’re working on, here are some dos and don’ts of writing and submitting.


  • Answer the prompt. It’s easy to end up off-topic, so keep the prompt next to you and make sure your entire essay relates to the prompt you’ve chosen.
  • Be authentic. This may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many essays readers get every year that are either completely made up/stolen or about cliché topics (see a list of these under the Don’ts section).  What makes you stand out among your peers?  What story is there that only you can tell?  Write about that, and you’re sure to get readers’ attention.
  • Start out strong. The opening of your essay is incredibly important.  You can set yourself up for success by starting with a bang that will get readers’ attention and set your essay apart from other students’.  Remember all the tips our English teachers have given us since freshman year?  Use those!  (E.g., start in the middle of the action; avoid quotes and dictionary definitions)
  • Focus on personal growth. It’s not enough to simply describe an experience.  You must explain its relevance to your life and why it is important enough to write a college essay about. 
  • Create psychological unity within your essay. If you start out with an anecdote, refer back to it in the end.  Don’t leave any idea incomplete!  Connect your introduction with your conclusion in a way that also incorporates takeaways from the body of your essay.
  • Write multiple drafts. Remember that an essay is never perfect after only one draft.  On the CommonApp alone, you have seven different topics to choose from, so why not try more than once?  Save all drafts you make for each prompt/topic so that you can combine the best parts of all of them into a final product.
  • Get feedback, but be careful about who you share your essay with. It may seem tempting to just email it to your best friend, but be wary of the risk that comes with sharing your essay with a peer.  Plagiarism is real, and it is dangerous, especially when the stakes are so high.  If you choose a friend to peer review your essay, make sure it is someone you trust.  It’s also a good idea to run your essay by at least one adult, such as a parent, Mrs. Conway, or a teacher.  They’re usually better at catching grammar mistakes, as well as approaching your essay with a mature and insightful perspective.


  • Forget about word count. Though most essays can be cut down to fit within their limit, it’s easy to go way over if you’re not careful.  Draft your essay in a program that shows word count, such as Microsoft Word.  Pay attention to the number as you write and edit so that when you paste your finished product into the submission box, it won’t cut off part of your answer.
  • Be boring. A cliché essay is not what will get you into your dream school!  According to College Vine, there are four questions that are critical to the core of your essay.  They are:
    • Who am I?
    • Why am I here?
    • What is unique about me?
    • What matters to me?

Unfortunately, many overused topics tend to leave out answers to these questions.  Visit for a list of cliché topics to avoid and how to fix them!

  • Present yourself as a risk. Though heartfelt stories of growth are preferable, a line exists between “personal” and “too personal”.  Colleges may be deterred by excessive information regarding a physical or mental illness, past lapses in judgement (ex: illegal activities), or similar “TMI” subjects.  Additionally, avoid presenting yourself or your opinions as superior; this includes being mindful of political and other bias, as well as being careful not to brag about accomplishments.
  • Rush. A college essay is not a “one and done.”  Writing one is a process!  Be mindful of deadlines and pace yourself accordingly.  Write down specific goals for yourself—this will help you minimize stress and maximize efficiency!
  • Be extremely formal or informal. Though it’s important to use sophisticated vocabulary and mechanics, a personal statement is not as strict as your typical 3.5 when it comes to structure.  Base your essay around a mature, narrative tone, but don’t be afraid to use conversational descriptions.  The best college essays tell a specific story in a style which blends maturity, humor, and insight.


Finally, know that your college counselors, teachers, parents, and friends are all here for you.  Everyone wants to see you succeed, so if you need help, ask for it!


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