How to Write a College Admission Essay: Complete Guide

Writing guide
Posted on December 18, 2023

All admission decisions are made by considering many diverse factors simultaneously. Your GPA scores, high school transcript, application essay, and extracurricular activities are all vital for your enrollment. Stick around, and you will learn thoroughly about one of these aspects. This article will teach you how to write a college admission essay, how to choose essay topics for it, do the editing and proofreading, and many more writing tips for your admission.

The Importance of College Admission Essays in the Application Process

It is hard to underestimate the importance of the college application essay for your enrollment chances. Why so? There are a few crucial reasons:

  • Colleges do not accept grade lists; they accept real people with unique experiences. Of course, all students worry about their GPA and SAT or ACT scores. However, your college application essay is a way to demonstrate what person you are to let the admission committee like you before they have even seen you.
  • Colleges build particular student bodies. For many colleges, diversity is not a fancy word but an actual selection criterion. Searching for a college that aligns well with your goals in life and worldview saves time and effort for both parties, and the essay is merely a form to ensure that alignment.
  • Top colleges strive to allocate their resources wisely. Successful student careers showcase the success of a college’s education style. Institutions such as the Ivy League, MIT, or Stanford read dozens of college application essays with 4.0 GPAs attached, so how should they select the best of the best? They start deciding based on how students use the given resources.
  • Application essay topics are well-composed tools to find out your personality. Admission decisions depend on whether the committee sees you as a good college representative or not. Personal statement questions are usually written in the most effective way to find that out.

How Do I Write a College Application Essay? What Are the Steps?

Essentially, there are three key steps in preparing and writing an application essay:

  1. Working with prompts and topics
  2. Preparing the essay content
  3. Writing, editing, and proofreading your essay

Let’s cover them one by one.

Step 1. Choosing the Right Essay Prompts and Topics

When you are searching for the answers to “how to write a college admissions essay and prompts,” there are two possible scenarios:

  1. The college has all recommendations and essay prompts accessible to prospective students.
  2. You have to work with common recommendations and come up with your own essay topics as there are no specific preferences expressed by the college.

Where do I find inspiration for topics if my college requires no particular prompts?

If you have no requirements for your college application essay, check the prompts from other top universities. You can do that using a Common App – a standard application service for many colleges. For instance, here are the updated essay prompts from Harvard University:

Harvard College Application Essay Questions

Alternatively, you can check the websites of each particular college or university you can remember.

Common essay prompts for your college application form:

Describe a facet of your identity that makes you who you are today. How do you usually acquire new perspectives on life, and what was the story behind this part of your personality?

  1. What does personal growth mean for you? Do you strive for growth ruthlessly, or do you believe in balance in life?
  2. How do you overcome small failures in your life? What was the last small yet significant failure, and what lessons did it teach you?
  3. Reflect on the topic that fascinates you. What were your unique experiences that made you so excited about it?
  4. Reflect on the role of community in your life. Do you believe in individualism and the importance of personal strengths, or do you prefer to contribute to group dynamics?
  5. What is the most significant or sustainable ethical dilemma in your life? At what point of resolving it do you stand right now?
  6. Have you ever assumed leadership roles? Why so? Describe how you feel about your role in life.

But how do I personalize these generic prompts?

That is quite a reasonable question. Here is the answer: divide the piece of paper into two parts and write down all key points about yourself as a prospective student and about the institution you are applying to. These are your lighthouses in any struggles with admission essay writing. There is no unified college admission essay guide for all the cases. You are unique, and so is your situation, so take the benefit of it!

Pro tip
In some cases, essay prompts are less direct than you think. For instance, essay topics usually include questions about the struggles in your life. Their goal is not to evaluate a list of your achievements. A college application essay is rather a test for your soft skills.

Step 2. Crafting the Perfect Essay: Length and Content

So, we now know what to write about in a college application letter. Let’s talk about how to write a college admission essay and get enrolled.

How long should a college application essay be?

The general range for the admission essay length usually varies between 200 and 700 words, but it’s best to adhere to about 500-600 words. These numbers are equal to the two written pages.

You can start working on the content of your essay while you think of what you can fit in this word count. It is for a good reason: a nice essay must be brief, precise, and touching all at the same time.

Presenting myself: the content to include in my admission essay

There are a few points that the college admission committee expects to see in your application letter:

  • Why this profession?
  • What was your story of realizing your path and desired career?
  • Who are you? What determines you as a human being, and what are your unique trait sets?
  • How do you plan to benefit from the chosen education? How will the community and humanity benefit from you receiving that education?

Hence, based on these essay prompts, here are the brief ideas of how your admission paper structure may look:

  • Tell the story. Start with a short story on how you came to your career ideas.
  • Showcase your truth. Provide particular examples of how your predispositions to this choice manifested. What were the signs that you are good at your subjects? What made you passionate about that education?
  • Argue why you decided to apply. Explain how well-thought-out your decision-making is. Because it is indeed well-thought, right?
  • Align your application with the college requirements. Demonstrate your awareness of the program’s plans, curriculums, goals, future job choices, and the college’s mission and vision (you can pick some of these points).
  • Say “thank you.” Finish by showing gratitude to the reader for the time they spent on your essay and express your eagerness to hear back from the college.

An outline sample for your first college application essay draft

Let’s now show a small example of what the outline of your first essay draft may look like, considering all recommendations to include. It does not have to be serious or detailed at first. At this point, just come up with what you are telling the reader about your path and distribute it to approximate paragraphs:

  1. Telling about how my love of gardening started from a young age, among the granny’s herbs in the garden. Future me, please try to answer the essay topics’ questions as precisely as possible here.
  2. Telling how I liked to make flower crowns, my first self-made herbal tea, and how that gradually developed into my high school projects with companion gardening and soil studies.
  3. Tell about how I considered environmental studies seriously for the first time after being presented with the idea of sustainable ecology and economic growth. Mention the project I made to calculate whether replacing the meat industry with plant alternatives is more sustainable.
  4. Here, tell about my interest in the college major programs and the possibility of working in the laboratory as a professor’s assistant, which is not an option in other colleges.
  5. Thank you for considering my application, blah blah blah.
Jacob Lee Top-10 Writer at
The key elements of a successful personal statement (application essay) are a profound knowledge of your goals and strengths and a thoughtful choice of a college. If you know what you are searching for and are certain where you will find it, you will get the perfect match.

Common Mistakes to Avoid in Admission Essays

You also need to get the lay of the land about the common mistakes students make. The main thing to know is that your college application essay is not your CV or your resume.

So, do not write these things in your admission essay:

  • Do not write about your grades. The committee will see them in your transcript or application form.
  • Avoid cliche and sensitive topics. For example, “I wish to make the world a better place” is, of course, a cute and nice statement. However, we all wish the same, and that’s why such a statement is overly vague and a common utopian cliche.
  • Avoid extreme views, pity parties, and excuse-making. The college admission committee understands and believes that this Earth is a complicated place to be. As human beings, they will sympathize with those who express extreme struggles in their applications. However, it will decrease your chances, so instead, think of how the struggles in your life made you a better and stronger person. And write about that.
  • Do not answer all essay prompts. If there are three essay topics, it does not mean you have to answer them all. Choose only one and reflect on it thoughtfully.

Step 3. Technical Perspective of Writing an Admission Essay

How to write a college admission essay format is quite a technical question. Apart from filling your essay with strong content, you must also take care of the formatting.

Admission essay: general rules

If you are familiar with the golden rules of writing an academic essay, you know that they are pretty strict. However, it does not really apply to the personal statement. As this format has to be ABOUT YOU, there are just a few important points to remember when it comes to the structure:

  • Keep an eye on your narration logic and structure. You don’t have to make all the paragraphs equal in word count or have to write a thesis statement or topic sentences. Instead, just make sure that your narration is consistent, smooth, and coherent. Do not twist a few stories into one; it is better to arrange them in chronological order.
  • No citations are needed. Unless you feel that a particular phrase is your motto or precisely describes what you are trying to say, it is better to use your own words. For instance, you can use quotes if essay prompts ask you to talk about the person who motivates you.
  • Put most of your focus into the introduction. The human brain decides within a second whether we like something or not. The same happens with reading. The admission committee sees dozens of applications daily but remembers only the catchy ones.
  • Keep the balance between narration and logic. Some students overdo the task of telling about themselves and making their application letter an entertaining story about their life. The admission committee needs to see what kind of person you are, not just what interesting occasions happened to you in your life.

What tone of voice should I choose? A few compilations of tones of voice for your goals

Before we start talking about the tone of voice in the admission essay, read these three examples:

  1. Can you imagine a 10-year-old girl sewing a full clothing collection all on her own and then modeling it? Well, that was me, and that was the first clue to my current decision to learn design in college.
  2. Against all odds, my passion still stands strong on both feet from my childhood until the current moment. And I stand still on my decision to study maritime studies and marine engineering.
  3. I am writing this application letter to show my sincere interest in business studies. I am not a man of many words, and it would not be me to try and get into a story on why I like that profession. Instead, I can sincerely tell you about what I am currently working with so that you can decide whether I am a good fit for the college.

Now, how can you characterize each of them? What impression did they make on you? How do you see the author’s personality? What we can all agree upon is that the authors have completely different personal traits, right?

Check it carefully one more time as we analyze these brief essay examples:

Can you imagine a 10-year-old girl sewing a full clothing collection all on her own and modeling it? Well, that was me, and that was the first clue to my current decision to learn design in college. The tone of voice is enthusiastic. The author uses a rhetorical question to engage the reader in her excitement. This tone of voice fits well with energetic, extroverted, and easy-going people. 
Against all odds, my passion still stands strong on both feet from my childhood till the current moment. And I stand still on my decision to study maritime studies and marine engineering. The tone of voice expresses a calm certainty of the chosen path. In the first sentence, the author casually mentions “all odds,” which means there have been many struggles along the way. The author uses anaphora (a rhetorical device of using intentional repetitions) to emphasize “standing still” on the decision. This tone of voice suits calm people who don’t change their minds easily. 
I am writing this application letter to show my sincere interest in business studies. I am not a man of many words, and it would not be me to try and get into a story on why I like that profession. Instead, I can sincerely tell you about what I am currently working with so that you can decide whether I am a good fit for the collegeThe tone of voice here expresses sincerity. The author does not try to pretend to be someone else. He says that fancy storytelling isn’t for him. Instead, he proposes his current projects as the testimony of his values and goals. That is a very pragmatic approach that will fit application letters to many technical majors well. 

But how do you choose the right tone of voice for your admission essay? Imagine you are facing an almighty creature that sees right through you. In fact, imagine wearing the sorting hat from the “Harry Potter” series if you are familiar with this story. Imagine explaining your motives and goals to someone who sees the deepest parts of your soul. What do your replies sound like? Is it sincere, enthusiastic, calm, excited, calculating? Whatever it is, that’s your true tone of voice to use in your admission essay.

Step 3: Boring but Necessary Additions. Five Important Writing Tips for Finalizing Your Essay

The final step of preparing your application letter is editing and proofreading. Apart from regular grammar checks, there are a few more things for you to know.

Editing and Proofreading: Finalizing Your Essay

  1. Vary sentence structure and length. You can reach a natural flow of speech while editing if you mix short and long sentences. It creates a dynamic in your text, making it more appealing and readable. To find out whether your essay flows easily, try reading it in a melody-like manner. It can be smooth or rhythmic, but most importantly, it has to have some type of flow structure.
  2. Check your word choice. This advice specifically concerns non-native English speakers. Sometimes, what you are trying to say with a sentence fits into one capacious word.
  3. Cut out all redundancies and repetitions. Do that with both the content and editing. You don’t need to repeat the same arguments twice.
  4. Consider the “So what?” factor. It’s an easy way to make sure your content and structure are well-aligned. If any of your sentences or paragraphs do not pass the “So what?” test, delete them. The sentence, word, argument, or paragraph passes the test if you can explain to yourself how this item benefits your goal.
  5. Evaluate transitions and connections. Each of your paragraphs may be meaningful and well-composed. However, it is worth nothing if the overall structure is chaotic. For example, do not jump from storytelling right into values. Find a smooth transition to connect all the parts.
Pro tip
To edit and proofread your college essay effectively, brainstorm a list of points that may go wrong. You can ask AI or make a Google search of the most typical mistakes in the personal statement and then check them out of your essay one by one. Also, do the editing and proofreading checks separately and make the breaks between them.

We lied. It’s six writing tips. This one is the most important

You can work on this most important tip long before you start working on your applications. The tip is this: work on your distinct personal literary voice. Have you noticed how you can name Shakespeare, Hemingway, or Bronte in just a few passages? It works not only in classic literature but in essay writing as well.

From Theory to Practice. Analyzing a Good Quality Application Essay

As you may still struggle to work through your application writing, let’s get some samples of good application essays and their components. We will tackle the task by dividing it into major components.

A good introduction paragraph sample for a college application essay

Most essentially, a good introduction paragraph sets the tone, starts the storytelling or presents key arguments, and explains the main author’s goal. Here is an example of one:

College admission essay introduction sample

Body paragraph

The main purpose of your body paragraphs is to reinforce, deepen, and extend what you said in the beginning:

College admission essay body sample

Writing a conclusion paragraph: do not overcomplicate it

All you have to do in your conclusion paragraph is tie all the ends together and end all of your storytelling arcs. Here is an example of how you do that:

College application essay conclusion sample

Real-Life Examples of Successful College Essays

If you wish for some more samples and topics, here they are:

Also, the best way to find real-life examples of application essays is to check the universities’ and colleges’ websites. For instance, here is a whole rubric on the essays that worked from Johns Hopkins University.

Some Essential Tips for Writing a Personal Statement (Psychological Edition)

We understand that no matter how many tips you receive, you are still left alone with the question of “How to write a college essay for admission.” Why so? Because naturally, you are still worried. And because it’s your life and career at stake. But having your nerves tightly tensed will not help the matter, so here are some writing tips to ease your worries:

  • You can only do as much. Accept it. Sometimes, we look at the text and expect it to be somehow magical. But relax and breathe out. You can only do that much within 650 words, so do your best and let it go. Your personal worthiness does not depend on your essay.
  • If you struggle to define what to tell about yourself, ask the opinions of others. Your family or friends have been there through your development. Ask what they would say about you.
  • Be honest. Your admission essay does not have to be fancy. You don’t have to pretend to be someone else. Although you have access to the college’s values regarding students, do not try to just please them and pretend to have these desired qualities.

FAQ about College Admission Essays

  • What makes a college admission essay stand out to admissions officers?

Your personality, being almost palpable in your writing and style, is what makes a college application essay stand out among other applicants.

  • How long should a college admission essay be?

On average, it should be no less than 200 words and no longer than 600-650 words. However, the best option is to keep it around 500-600 words.

  • How do I choose the best topic for my college essay?

To choose the best topic for your college essay, pick the one that resonates with you the most. As soon as you feel that you have something to say in the answer to the question, that is your best option.

Hopefully, this college admission essay guide will help you get into the university of your dreams with no extra effort. Believe in yourself, keep in mind all the writing tips you have learned, and good luck with your admission!
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