5 Steps to Acing the College Essay

Summary: If you’ve been tasked with writing a college essay, here’s how to approach the assignment. 

Your Essay Is the College Application Centerpiece

There is a lot of buzz about the potential for AI to do everything from writing epic poetry to college admissions essays. But if you’ve been tasked with writing a college application essay—accept the creative challenge. It is an opportunity to share your personal story, and no AI app knows your struggles, triumphs, achievements, or viewpoint. This article will help you set your writing up for success and turn in a well-written college application essay.


1. Choose a Prompt

Pick a topic that is important to you or that you feel passionate about; for example, a challenge you overcame, a person that inspired you, or an event that sparked a period of growth. Begin writing about the topic, describing the idea, situation, or event, and how you feel about it. Don’t worry about the overall organization of the essay, its grammar, spelling, or punctuation—it’s more important to get your thoughts down on the page with as much description and detail as possible.  

2. Write Early and Often

College Board recommends the best time to write your college essay is sometime during your junior year or the summer before your senior year. Once you can begin the essay, write as much as you can in one sitting. Set aside the rough draft for one or two days before rereading it. Sometimes when reading what you wrote later, you can recall more detail or clarify something that might seem vague.  

In the second reading of your essay, edit, clarify, or expand what you wrote. If using a prompt, reread the prompt and compare your writing to the prompt. Does it read like something’s missing? Did you address the topic? If not, add what you think might be missing or delete anything that seems off-topic. If you have time, set aside the rough draft again, then repeat the editing and revising process a third time.

3. Summarize and Reflect

The summary is your conclusion of the essay. Once the bulk of the essay has been written, tackle the summary. Close with what life lessons you learned from the event and how these life lessons can help you in college or preparing for the future. Wrapping up how college can help you continue to learn and grow can guide you in writing a summary that reflects upon your experience. 

4. Hook onto an Introduction

After writing the body of your essay and a summary, it’s easier to write the introduction to your topic than when you first began. A “hook” helps grab the reader’s attention and makes them want to know more. A hook can be a question, a quote, or a provocative statement that draws the reader into your essay to read further.

A common prompt and question hook is, “Why this college; why now?” This prompt and question hook can lead the reader to your introduction of how this college fulfills your dreams or prepares you for your future career. Quotation hooks can also draw your reader in. One example of a quotation hook is from the author John C. Maxwell’s warning about dreams, “Dreams don’t work unless you do.” Whatever type of hook you use, relate the hook to the body of your essay.

5. Make Revisions and Get Feedback

You now have an introduction, the body of the essay, and the summary. It’s time to transform your draft into a final copy. Check to see if you have written within the guidelines and word count requirements and make changes to fit any specific guidelines. You’ll also want to check spelling, punctuation, and grammar. 

Once you have a final copy, find someone to review your essay and offer feedback. Ask a trusted adult to give you an open and honest review of the essay and share feedback on how to improve it. A current or former English teacher, school counselor, or college and career advisor are knowledgeable resources to review your essay. Whomever you choose, allow time to receive feedback and make suggested revisions.  

What to do with a Completed Essay 

Based on which colleges you apply to, your completed essay may need to be tweaked to fit each school—usually, these are minor changes. If all the colleges you apply to use the Common app, only one essay is needed. Admission officers are looking for applicants that can think and write clearly about a topic they believe in. With the strategies listed here, you are well on your way to delivering a well-written essay.

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