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How Long Should a College Essay Be?

High school essays tend to require a page limit, but college essays tend to require a word count.

[Featured image] A young woman wearing glasses and a gray sweater uses her laptop.

When it comes to college application essays, many colleges and universities specify a word count. Some expect one longer essay, while others expect responses to multiple prompts using a shorter word count for each answer. However, that’s not always the case. If your institution doesn’t provide a specific word count, it’s best to keep your essay between the length established by the longer college admissions essay format: 250 to 650 words .

Word count is just one factor to consider as you craft your college admissions essay. Let’s go over other considerations, like whether a longer essay makes a difference, and whether it’s acceptable to exceed the word count. 

College essays: Word count vs. page limit 

High school essays tend to require a page limit, meaning that your teachers might ask you to submit a five-page paper or an eight-paper paper. However, college application essays tend to require a word count. 

When a college provides you with a wide word count range, it’s best to take advantage of the upper word count limit. For example, if a college asks for an essay between 250-500 words, you should aim to craft a response that’s at least 400-450 words. You don’t need to hit the maximum length, but your essay should be well over half the word count. 

College essays, or personal statements , are an opportunity for a college admissions committee to hear directly from you. It’s valuable space. Writing the bare minimum may not send the best message to the committee, and it may not help them learn more about who you are outside of your transcripts and general application. 

Learn more: Step-by-Step Guide to Applying for College

How to measure your college essay's word count

Measuring your word count depends on which program you’re using to write your essay. Here's how you can find your word count on Microsoft Word and Google Docs, two of the most popular writing applications:

Microsoft Word: The page count is typically displayed on the bottom left of your screen. You can also click “Review” and then “Word count” to find how much you’ve written. 

Google Docs: Under “Tools,” click on “Word count.” You can also highlight a portion of your text before clicking “word count” so you can determine the exact word count of that section. 

Should you go over the word count? 

No. Do not go over the maximum word count. If there isn’t a preferred word count, you should submit an essay that’s under 650 words, according to the college application platform Common App, which works with over 900 colleges in the US [ 1 ]. 

Admissions officers are looking for well-written essays that follow directions. Officers review thousands of essays every year. In fact, the average college received 9,071 applications in 2020 [ 2 ]. Writing either a very short or a very long essay—ignoring the directions in either case—might send the wrong impression. 

You can always start by writing a longer draft and then trimming the most unnecessary parts to tighten your essay and get it down to the preferred word count. This will help you include the most important information and get your point across in a concise way.

What length should supplemental college essays be?

Supplemental essays are additional prompts that some colleges and universities ask students to answer in addition to their personal statement or college essay. It's usually an opportunity to specify your interest in that particular school: Admissions committees may ask why you want to attend or what you want to study and why.

Schools require, on average, at least two or three supplemental essays, but others have been known to ask for over ten. Most schools will provide specific instructions about the word count for supplemental essays. As with the college essay, stay within the range or limit, and write a focused response that incorporates some knowledge about the school.  

How to format your college essay

As with word count, many institutions specify any formatting requirements, such as double-spacing (vs. single-spacing) your essay, and what font size you should use. (With general online application portals, such as Common App, the program will format your essay for you.)

Because a college essay is measured by word count rather than page length, writing in a larger font and using double-spaced formatting won’t affect the overall length of your essay, though it’s best to adhere to each college’s guidelines. Check if there are any parameters you need to follow for each application you submit. Read more: College Essay Format: Writing & Editing Tips

4 tips for writing an effective college essay

No matter which essay prompt you choose, it’s important to take your time crafting your response, making sure every word adds to your story. Follow these tips to help your college essay stand out.

1. Be prepared to write a few drafts. 

Your college essay should go through a few drafts before you share the final version with one of your peers or a professional for additional feedback. Take advantage of the rough draft phase by overwriting. Forget about your word count for a moment and let yourself go. Doing so may help you discover something new to say, or help you expand upon your original idea. 

Make editing a separate process from the actual writing. As much as possible, write and then walk away for a period of time (a few hours or even a day). Return to your essay with fresh eyes and see if you can cut the essay, reduce the number of words you’re using, or find a more succinct or focused way to approach your response. 

2. Answer the question and relate it to your unique story.

Your essay should both answer the prompt and convey who you are. You don’t need a dazzling, one-of-a-kind story to get an admissions officer’s attention. Your life is unique to you—only you have had your experiences. 

Make sure that whatever you choose to write about is an authentic representation of who you are. Instead of comparing your essay to someone else in your class, work to make your response the best it can be for you. And as you focus your essay, go one step further by sharing what you’ve learned or how you’ve grown as a result. That kind of reflection can build more depth into your response.  

3. Get specific.

When recounting an experience, incorporate creative writing to your personal statement.  Use details to describe a situation and add a bit of color. Pick strong verbs and a few specific adjectives that correctly highlight the action and scene. Let’s compare these two examples: 

When I got a musical instrument for my birthday, I wasn’t really sure I’d like it. Still, I figured I’d play it daily because I enjoy music. I got better, and soon I made band. I like that I get to go to all the school games.

When my mother surprised me with a clarinet for my 15th birthday, I wondered if I’d enjoy playing it. Over the summer, when my friends gathered outside to enjoy their time off, I practiced my scales every day in my room—and slowly improved. After that hard work and sacrifice, I was excited to earn a place in the marching band.

Both paragraphs recount the same memory, but the second one creates a more memorable picture. 

4. Ask for feedback.

Once you feel as though you’ve developed a final draft, don’t rush to turn it in. Instead, ask one of your favorite teachers or a trusted friend or family member to read it. Ask for constructive feedback on ways to improve. Be prepared to make changes if something is unclear or if they think there’s a better way to phrase a section. But make sure you continue to write in your voice so the college gets to know who you are instead of someone else.

When you’re feeling confident, review your work one last time for grammar and spelling. Don’t let a small error override an otherwise thoughtful, engaging essay.

Keep learning 

You may find it helpful to brush up on your creative writing skills so you can express yourself clearly and colorfully before applying to college. On Coursera, you can enroll in Wesleyan University’s Creative Writing specialization for free. Or you can find courses that can help you gain more knowledge of the college admissions process . 

Article sources

1. Common App. “ Are There Word Limits? , https://appsupport.commonapp.org/s/article/are-there-word-limits-kudeoeos." Accessed January 30, 2024.

2. US News and World Report. “ 10 Colleges That Received the Most Applications ,  https://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/the-short-list-college/articles/colleges-that-received-the-most-applications." Accessed January 30, 2024.

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how long to college essays need to be

How Long Should a College Essay Be

how long to college essays need to be

Writing a college essay is a big deal for students, giving them a chance to share their unique stories and ambitions with admissions officers. But here's the thing: figuring out how long it should be can be tricky. 

In this article, we're going to tackle the question of a perfect essay length head-on. We'll break down what influences the ideal length for your essay and give you some tips on finding that sweet spot between saying enough and not saying too much.

Why Following a College Essay Word Limit Is Important

Sticking to the college essay length matters for a few important reasons. Firstly, it shows that you can follow instructions, which is a skill you'll need in college and beyond. Admissions officers have lots of essays to read, so keeping within the limit respects their time and attention. 

Plus, it helps level the playing field for all applicants, giving everyone a fair chance to make their case without overwhelming reviewers with too much information. And on your end, it forces you to be concise and clear, focusing on what really matters in your story. If the word limit of your essay is too large, simply say, ‘ do my essay for me ,’ and our experts will help you fit into any word limit.

Why Essay Length Varies in Different Assignments

The issue of how long is an essay can change depending on the assignment for a few reasons. First off, it's about who's reading it and why. A formal academic essay might need more detail and research, so it could end up longer. But it might be shorter and more casual if you're just sharing your thoughts with a friend. 

Then there's the topic itself – some things need more explanation. Plus, your teacher's guidelines, like how many words or pages to aim for, can also affect how long your essay turns out. It's about fitting the essay to the task at hand and making sure you cover everything you need to without going overboard.

Struggling to Fit into the Word Count?

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Wondering about the ideal length for your college essay? You're not alone. Figuring out how much to write can be a head-scratcher for many students. But fear not! In this guide, we'll show you how to strike the right balance between text length and informational richness.

How Long Should a College Essay Be

High School Essay

The length of a high school essay can vary depending on the assignment and teacher's instructions. Generally, essays in high school classes range from around 500 to 1000 words, though some assignments may require shorter or longer compositions. The length often reflects the depth of analysis and detail expected by the teacher, as well as the complexity of the topic. 

Shorter essays might focus on summarizing information or making a concise argument, while longer essays allow for more in-depth exploration and analysis. Regardless of length, students should prioritize clarity, coherence, and relevance to effectively convey their ideas and meet the requirements of the assignment.

College Admission Essay

College admission essay length typically ranges from 250 to 650 words, with many colleges setting specific word limits. Admissions officers receive thousands of applications, so brevity is key. A well-crafted essay should be concise yet impactful, showcasing the applicant's personality, experiences, and aspirations within the given word count. 

Adhering to the word limit demonstrates the applicant's ability to follow instructions and communicate effectively, while exceeding it may signal a lack of respect for guidelines or an inability to convey ideas succinctly. 

Undergraduate College Essay

Undergraduate college essay length typically ranges from 400 to 650 words, although some institutions may specify shorter or longer limits. The essay aims to provide admissions officers with insight into the applicant's character, values, and potential contributions to the campus community. 

While brevity is important, the essay should be substantive enough to convey meaningful information about the applicant's experiences and aspirations.

Graduate School Admission Essay

Graduate school admission essay length varies, typically ranging from 500 to 1000 words, although specific requirements may differ by program. These essays allow applicants to articulate their academic and professional goals, research interests, and reasons for pursuing graduate studies. 

Admissions committees seek concise yet comprehensive essays demonstrating the applicant's readiness for advanced academic work and alignment with the program's values and objectives. 

Graduate School Essay

Graduate school essay length typically ranges from 500 to 1000 words, although requirements can vary between programs. These essays serve as a crucial component of the application process, allowing applicants to convey their academic background, research interests, career goals, and suitability for the program. 

Admissions committees value conciseness and coherence, so applicants should prioritize quality over quantity when crafting their essays. Ultimately, the essay should offer a compelling narrative that highlights the applicant's strengths, experiences, and motivations for pursuing graduate studies.

Recommended Length of Each Part of the Essay

While the recommended college essay length of each its part can vary depending on the specific requirements of the assignment or application, here's a general guideline:

  • Introduction

The introduction typically comprises 10-15% of the total essay length. It should provide background information on the topic, establish the context, and present the thesis statement or main argument.

  • Body Paragraphs

Each body paragraph should be roughly the same length and account for approximately 60-70% of the total essay length. Aim for around 150-200 words per paragraph. Each paragraph should focus on a single main idea or point and provide supporting evidence or examples to strengthen the argument.

The conclusion should be similar in length to the introduction, comprising around 10-15% of the total essay length. It should summarize the main points discussed in the essay, restate the thesis or main argument, and provide a sense of closure or resolution.

Remember that these are general recommendations, and the actual length of each part may vary based on the specific requirements of your assignment or application. 

It's essential to review any guidelines provided and adjust your essay accordingly to meet the expectations of your audience. Use a specialized college essay writing help from experts who always hit the mark when it comes to the length of assignments.

How Long Should an Introduction Be

An introduction should typically span between 50 to 100 words, offering enough context to engage the reader while succinctly presenting the main argument or thesis. It serves as a roadmap for the essay, providing an overview of what to expect without delving into excessive detail.

How Long Is a Body Paragraph

A body paragraph is typically around 100 to 200 words in length, although this can vary depending on the complexity of the topic and the depth of analysis required. Each paragraph should focus on a single main idea or point, supported by evidence or examples, and contribute to the overall argument or thesis of the essay.

How Long Should a Conclusion Paragraph Be

Knowing how long should a college essay be – from 400 to 600 words – a conclusion paragraph should mirror the length of the introduction, comprising between 50 to 100 words of the total essay length. It should summarize the main points discussed in the essay, restate the thesis or main argument, and provide a sense of closure or resolution to the reader.

How to Check Word Count

To check the word count of an essay, you can use various methods depending on the software or platform you're using:

How to Make an Essay Longer

To make an essay longer, consider these strategies:

  • Expand Ideas: Add more detail and examples to elaborate on your points.
  • Provide Supporting Details: Include additional evidence or references to strengthen your arguments.
  • Address Counterarguments: Discuss opposing viewpoints and explain why they're invalid.
  • Use More Sources: Incorporate more research to support your claims.
  • Use Transitions: Improve the flow between paragraphs with transitional phrases.
  • Rephrase and Expand: Clarify and expand on your ideas by revising your sentences.
  • Consider Different Angles: Explore the topic from various perspectives.
  • Revise Carefully: Edit your essay to ensure added content enhances its quality.

How to Shorten an Essay

To shorten an essay length while maintaining its essence, follow these strategies:

  • Remove Redundancy: Cut out repetitive phrases or sentences.
  • Combine Similar Ideas: Condense related points to streamline your message.
  • Simplify Language: Use clear, concise language to convey your ideas.
  • Delete Unnecessary Details: Eliminate irrelevant examples or explanations.
  • Focus on Essentials: Keep only the most relevant information.
  • Check for Wordiness: Remove filler words and phrases.

When working on your compositions, remember about the impact of remote learning on students and your productiveness.

How to Format a College Essay Based on the Required Length

Let’s explore strategies to tailor your essay's structure and content to fit within specified word limits. By understanding how to adjust your writing style and organization, you'll be better equipped to craft a compelling essay that adheres to length requirements without sacrificing quality or clarity.

Spacing is crucial for how long is an essay looking, its readability and adherence to length requirements. Opting for double-spacing ensures adequate room for markers to review your content and allows for easy reading. Additionally, double-spacing aids in maintaining a clean, organized appearance, enhancing the overall presentation of your essay.

  • If the instruction is to double-space the paper, consider using a spacing of 2.1 or 2.2 instead. 
  • You can extend the margin size by a quarter, such as increasing the right and bottom margins from 1 inch to 1.25 inches, to make subtle adjustments in length without significantly impacting the overall appearance.
  • Another strategy is to increase the spacing between characters, although it should be done cautiously to avoid excessive alterations. 
  • Aim to keep the spacing between 1.2 and 1.5 to maintain readability and visual consistency throughout the document.

Font and Size

Font selection and size can be key to adjusting the college essay length. Opt for a standard, easily readable font such as Times New Roman, Arial, or Calibri to ensure clarity and consistency. Aim for a font size of 12 points, which is the standard for most academic writing and provides optimal legibility without sacrificing space or readability.

  • If your instructor hasn't specified a font, consider using larger options such as Arial, Bangla Sangam MN, Cambria, or Quicksand. 
  • Exercise caution and try not to exceed an increase of 0.1-0.5 points to avoid noticeable alterations. 
  • Another technique is to increase the size of punctuation marks, such as periods and commas, by a couple of points compared to the main text size, or italicizing them, which can subtly add to the overall length of your essay.

Following the specified length for your college essay is super important because it shows that you can stick to the rules and pay attention to instructions, which is a skill colleges value. Plus, sticking to the word count helps you be concise and get your point across clearly without rambling or overwhelming the reader.

If you’re struggling to fit into the required word limit, buy a college essay that will be written by a seasoned professional who knows exactly how to meet academic standards.

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Daniel Parker

Daniel Parker

is a seasoned educational writer focusing on scholarship guidance, research papers, and various forms of academic essays including reflective and narrative essays. His expertise also extends to detailed case studies. A scholar with a background in English Literature and Education, Daniel’s work on EssayPro blog aims to support students in achieving academic excellence and securing scholarships. His hobbies include reading classic literature and participating in academic forums.

how long to college essays need to be

is an expert in nursing and healthcare, with a strong background in history, law, and literature. Holding advanced degrees in nursing and public health, his analytical approach and comprehensive knowledge help students navigate complex topics. On EssayPro blog, Adam provides insightful articles on everything from historical analysis to the intricacies of healthcare policies. In his downtime, he enjoys historical documentaries and volunteering at local clinics.

  • How long should my essay be? – BigFuture | College Board . (n.d.). https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/help-center/how-long-should-my-essay-be  
  • 12 Strategies to Writing the Perfect College Essay - Harvard Summer School . (2022, August 9). Harvard Summer School. https://summer.harvard.edu/blog/12-strategies-to-writing-the-perfect-college-essay/
  • How Long Should a College Essay Be? | Honor Society - Official Honor Society® Website . (n.d.). https://www.honorsociety.org/articles/how-long-should-college-essay-be

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Ideal College Application Essay Length

Can you go over the Common App length limit? How long should your essay be?

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The 2019-20 version of the  Common Application has an essay length limit of 650 words and a minimum length of 250 words. This limit has remained unchanged for the past several years. Learn how important this word limit is and how to make the most of your 650 words.

Key Takeaways: Common Application Essay Length

  • Your Common Application essay must be between 250 words and 650 words.
  • Don't assume shorter is better. A college requires an essay because they want to learn more about you.
  • Never go over the limit. Show that you can follow instructions and that you know how to edit.

How Strict Is the Limit?

Many wonder whether they can go over the limit, even if only by a few words. What if you feel that you need more space to communicate all of your ideas clearly?

650 words is not a lot of space in which to convey your personality, passions, and writing ability to the people in admissions offices—and the title and any explanatory notes are also included in this limit. The holistic admissions processes of most schools prove that colleges really do want to get to know the person behind your test scores and grades . Since the essay is one of the best places for showcasing who you are, is it worth it to go over?

Most experts recommend adhering to the limit. The Common Application will even prompt its applicants if they exceed the word count to prevent them from going over. Most admissions officers have stated that, while they will read all essays in their entirety, they are less inclined to feel that essays over 650 accomplish what they set out to do. In short: any of the prompts can and should be answered in 650 words or fewer.

Choosing the Right Length

If everything from 250 to 650 words is fair game, what length is best? Some counselors advise students to keep their essays on the shorter end, but not all colleges place the most value in succinctness.

The personal essay is the most powerful tool at your disposal for showing readers your personality without meeting them. If you've chosen a focus that reveals something meaningful about you, you're probably going to need more than 250 words to create a thoughtful, introspective, and effective essay. However, it isn't essential to hit the 650 mark, either.

From the Admissions Desk

"There is no need to meet the full word count [650] if the essay captures what the student would like to share. Visually, you want to make sure the essay looks complete and robust. As a general rule, I would suggest the essay be between 500-650 words."

–Valerie Marchand Welsh Director of College Counseling, The Baldwin School Former Associate Dean of Admissions, University of Pennsylvania

Each of the Common App essay prompts creates different writing challenges, but no matter which option you choose, your essay should be detailed and analytical, and it should provide a window into some important dimension of your interests, values, or personality. Ask yourself: Will the admissions officers know me better after reading my essay? Chances are, an essay in the 500- to 650-word range will accomplish this task better than a shorter essay

In general, the length of an essay does not determine its effectiveness. If you have answered the prompt in its entirety and feel proud of your work, there is no need to stress about any particular word count. Do not pad your essay with filler content and tautologies to stretch it out, and on the flip side, don't leave important sections out in the interest of keeping the essay brief.

Why You Shouldn't Go Over the Essay Length Limit

Some colleges will allow you to exceed the limit set by the Common Application, but you should avoid writing more than 650 words in all cases for the following reasons:

  • College students adhere to guidelines : If a professor assigns a five-page paper, they don't want a 10-page paper and you don't have 55 minutes to take 50-minute exams. The message that you send to a college when you write a powerful essay in 650 words or fewer, even when they accept longer submissions, is that you can succeed under any conditions.
  • Essays that are too long can leave a negative impression: Essays over 650 may make you appear over-confident. The word counts have been established by experts for a reason and writing more than you are allowed might make it seem like you think what you have to say is more important than other applicants, who have to follow the rules. Avoid seeming self-important by stopping yourself from going overboard.
  • Good writers know how to edit and cut : Any college writing professor would tell you that most essays become stronger when they are trimmed. There are almost always words, sentences, and even entire paragraphs that don't contribute to an essay and can be omitted. As you revise any essay you write, ask yourself which parts help you to make your point and which get in the way—everything else can go. Use these 9 style tips to tighten up your language.

College admissions officers will read essays that are too long but may consider them to be rambling, unfocused, or poorly-edited. Remember that your essay is one of many and your readers will wonder why yours is longer when it doesn't need to be.

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Tips for Writing an Effective Application Essay

Find the right college for you.

Writing an essay for college admission gives you a chance to use your authentic voice and show your personality. It's an excellent opportunity to personalize your application beyond your academic credentials, and a well-written essay can have a positive influence come decision time.

Want to know how to draft an essay for your college application ? Here are some tips to keep in mind when writing.

Tips for Essay Writing

A typical college application essay, also known as a personal statement, is 400-600 words. Although that may seem short, writing about yourself can be challenging. It's not something you want to rush or put off at the last moment. Think of it as a critical piece of the application process. Follow these tips to write an impactful essay that can work in your favor.

1. Start Early.

Few people write well under pressure. Try to complete your first draft a few weeks before you have to turn it in. Many advisers recommend starting as early as the summer before your senior year in high school. That way, you have ample time to think about the prompt and craft the best personal statement possible.

You don't have to work on your essay every day, but you'll want to give yourself time to revise and edit. You may discover that you want to change your topic or think of a better way to frame it. Either way, the sooner you start, the better.

2. Understand the Prompt and Instructions.

Before you begin the writing process, take time to understand what the college wants from you. The worst thing you can do is skim through the instructions and submit a piece that doesn't even fit the bare minimum requirements or address the essay topic. Look at the prompt, consider the required word count, and note any unique details each school wants.

3. Create a Strong Opener.

Students seeking help for their application essays often have trouble getting things started. It's a challenging writing process. Finding the right words to start can be the hardest part.

Spending more time working on your opener is always a good idea. The opening sentence sets the stage for the rest of your piece. The introductory paragraph is what piques the interest of the reader, and it can immediately set your essay apart from the others.

4. Stay on Topic.

One of the most important things to remember is to keep to the essay topic. If you're applying to 10 or more colleges, it's easy to veer off course with so many application essays.

A common mistake many students make is trying to fit previously written essays into the mold of another college's requirements. This seems like a time-saving way to avoid writing new pieces entirely, but it often backfires. The result is usually a final piece that's generic, unfocused, or confusing. Always write a new essay for every application, no matter how long it takes.

5. Think About Your Response.

Don't try to guess what the admissions officials want to read. Your essay will be easier to write─and more exciting to read─if you’re genuinely enthusiastic about your subject. Here’s an example: If all your friends are writing application essays about covid-19, it may be a good idea to avoid that topic, unless during the pandemic you had a vivid, life-changing experience you're burning to share. Whatever topic you choose, avoid canned responses. Be creative.

6. Focus on You.

Essay prompts typically give you plenty of latitude, but panel members expect you to focus on a subject that is personal (although not overly intimate) and particular to you. Admissions counselors say the best essays help them learn something about the candidate that they would never know from reading the rest of the application.

7. Stay True to Your Voice.

Use your usual vocabulary. Avoid fancy language you wouldn't use in real life. Imagine yourself reading this essay aloud to a classroom full of people who have never met you. Keep a confident tone. Be wary of words and phrases that undercut that tone.

8. Be Specific and Factual.

Capitalize on real-life experiences. Your essay may give you the time and space to explain why a particular achievement meant so much to you. But resist the urge to exaggerate and embellish. Admissions counselors read thousands of essays each year. They can easily spot a fake.

9. Edit and Proofread.

When you finish the final draft, run it through the spell checker on your computer. Then don’t read your essay for a few days. You'll be more apt to spot typos and awkward grammar when you reread it. After that, ask a teacher, parent, or college student (preferably an English or communications major) to give it a quick read. While you're at it, double-check your word count.

Writing essays for college admission can be daunting, but it doesn't have to be. A well-crafted essay could be the deciding factor─in your favor. Keep these tips in mind, and you'll have no problem creating memorable pieces for every application.

What is the format of a college application essay?

Generally, essays for college admission follow a simple format that includes an opening paragraph, a lengthier body section, and a closing paragraph. You don't need to include a title, which will only take up extra space. Keep in mind that the exact format can vary from one college application to the next. Read the instructions and prompt for more guidance.

Most online applications will include a text box for your essay. If you're attaching it as a document, however, be sure to use a standard, 12-point font and use 1.5-spaced or double-spaced lines, unless the application specifies different font and spacing.

How do you start an essay?

The goal here is to use an attention grabber. Think of it as a way to reel the reader in and interest an admissions officer in what you have to say. There's no trick on how to start a college application essay. The best way you can approach this task is to flex your creative muscles and think outside the box.

You can start with openers such as relevant quotes, exciting anecdotes, or questions. Either way, the first sentence should be unique and intrigue the reader.

What should an essay include?

Every application essay you write should include details about yourself and past experiences. It's another opportunity to make yourself look like a fantastic applicant. Leverage your experiences. Tell a riveting story that fulfills the prompt.

What shouldn’t be included in an essay?

When writing a college application essay, it's usually best to avoid overly personal details and controversial topics. Although these topics might make for an intriguing essay, they can be tricky to express well. If you’re unsure if a topic is appropriate for your essay, check with your school counselor. An essay for college admission shouldn't include a list of achievements or academic accolades either. Your essay isn’t meant to be a rehashing of information the admissions panel can find elsewhere in your application.

How can you make your essay personal and interesting?

The best way to make your essay interesting is to write about something genuinely important to you. That could be an experience that changed your life or a valuable lesson that had an enormous impact on you. Whatever the case, speak from the heart, and be honest.

Is it OK to discuss mental health in an essay?

Mental health struggles can create challenges you must overcome during your education and could be an opportunity for you to show how you’ve handled challenges and overcome obstacles. If you’re considering writing your essay for college admission on this topic, consider talking to your school counselor or with an English teacher on how to frame the essay.

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how long to college essays need to be

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Students can go online to review essay requirements for the colleges they want to apply to, such as word limits and essay topics. Many students may start with the Common App, an application platform accepted by more than 1,000 schools.

For college applicants, the essay is the place to showcase their writing skills and let their unique voice shine through.

"The essays are important in part because this is a student's chance to really speak directly to the admissions office," says Adam Sapp, assistant vice president and director of admissions at Pomona College in California.

Prospective college students want their essay, sometimes called a personal statement, to make a good impression and boost their chances of being accepted, but they have only several hundred words to make that happen.

This can feel like a lot of pressure.

"I think this is the part of the application process that students are sometimes most challenged by," says Niki Barron, associate dean of admission at Hamilton College in New York, "because they're looking at a blank piece of paper and they don't know where to get started."

That pressure may be amplified as many colleges have gone test optional in recent years, meaning that ACT and SAT scores will be considered if submitted but are not required. Other schools have gone test-blind and don't consider such scores at all. In the absence of test scores, some admissions experts have suggested that more attention will be paid to other parts of an application, such as the essay.

But just as each applicant is unique, so are college admissions policies and priorities.

"Being test optional hasn't changed how we use essays in our selection process, and I wouldn't say that the essay serves as a substitute for standardized test scores," Barron wrote in an email. "A student's academic preparation for our classroom experience is always front and center in our application review process."

On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court ruled against college admissions policies that consider an applicant's race. The ruling, though, does not prohibit students from writing essays on how their race has affected them, which experts say could significantly affect how students approach this portion of their applications.

Essay-writing tips offered by experts emphasize the importance of being concise, coherent, congenial, unique, honest and accurate. An applicant should also flex some intellectual muscle and include vivid details or anecdotes.

From brainstorming essay topics to editing the final draft, here's what students need to know about crafting a strong college application essay.

Getting Started on the College Essay

How long should a college essay be, how to pick a college essay topic, writing the college essay, how the affirmative action ruling could change college essays, editing and submitting the college essay.

A good time for students to begin working on their essays is the summer before senior year, experts say, when homework and extracurricular activities aren't taking up time and mental energy.

Starting early will also give students plenty of time to work through multiple drafts of an essay before college application deadlines, which can be as early as November for students applying for early decision or early action .

Students can go online to review essay requirements for the colleges they want to apply to, such as word limits and essay topics. Many students may start with the Common App , an application platform accepted by more than 1,000 schools. Students can submit that application to multiple schools.

Another option is the Coalition Application, an application platform accepted by more than 130 schools. Students applying through this application choose from one of six essay prompts to complete and include with their application.

In addition to the main essay, some colleges ask applicants to submit one or more additional writing samples. Students are often asked to explain why they are interested in a particular school or academic field in these supplemental essays , which tend to be shorter than the main essay.

Students should budget more time for the writing process if the schools they're applying to ask for supplemental essays.

"Most selective colleges will ask for more than one piece of writing. Don't spend all your time working on one long essay and then forget to devote energy to other parts of the application," Sapp says.

Though the Common App notes that "there are no strict word limits" for its main essay, it suggests a cap of about 650 words. The Coalition Application website says its essays should be between 500 and 650 words.

"While we won't, as a rule, stop reading after 650 words, we cannot promise that an overly wordy essay will hold our attention for as long as you'd hoped it would," the Common App website states.

The word count is much shorter for institution-specific supplemental essays, which are typically around 250 words.

The first and sometimes most daunting step in the essay writing process is figuring out what to write about.

There are usually several essay prompts to choose from on a college application. They tend to be broad, open-ended questions, giving students the freedom to write about a wide array of topics, Barron says.

The essay isn't a complete autobiography, notes Mimi Doe, co-founder of Top Tier Admissions, a Massachusetts-based advising company. "It's overwhelming to think of putting your whole life in one essay," she says.

Rather, experts say students should narrow their focus and write about a specific experience, hobby or quirk that reveals something personal, like how they think, what they value or what their strengths are. Students can also write about something that illustrates an aspect of their background. These are the types of essays that typically stand out to admissions officers, experts say. Even an essay on a common topic can be compelling if done right.

Students don't have to discuss a major achievement in their essay – a common misconception. Admissions officers who spoke with U.S. News cited memorable essays that focused on more ordinary topics, including fly-fishing, a student's commute to and from school and a family's dining room table.

What's most important, experts say, is that a college essay is thoughtful and tells a story that offers insight into who a student is as a person.

"Think of the college essay as a meaningful glimpse of who you are beyond your other application materials," Pierre Huguet, CEO and founder of admissions consulting firm H&C Education, wrote in an email. "After reading your essay, the reader won't fully know you – at least not entirely. Your objective is to evoke the reader's curiosity and make them eager to get to know you."

If students are having trouble brainstorming potential topics, they can ask friends or family members for help, says Stephanie Klein Wassink, founder of Winning Applications and AdmissionsCheckup, Connecticut-based college admissions advising companies. Klein Wassink says students can ask peers or family members questions such as, "What are the things you think I do well?" Or, "What are my quirks?"

The essay should tell college admissions officers something they don't already know, experts say.

Some experts encourage students to outline their essay before jumping into the actual writing, though of course everyone's writing process differs.

The first draft of an essay doesn't need to be perfect. "Just do a brain dump," Doe says. "Don't edit yourself, just lay it all out on the page."

If students are having a hard time getting started, they should focus on their opening sentence, Doe suggests. She says an essay's opening sentence, or hook, should grab the reader's attention.

Doe offered an example of a strong hook from the essay of a student she worked with:

"I first got into politics the day the cafeteria outlawed creamed corn."

"I want to know about this kid," she says. "I’m interested."

The key to a good college essay is striking a balance between being creative and not overdoing it, Huguet says. He advises students to keep it simple.

"The college essay is not a fiction writing contest," Huguet says. "Admissions committees are not evaluating you on your potential as the next writer of the Great American Novel."

He adds that students should write in the voice they use to discuss meaningful topics with someone they trust. It's also wise to avoid hyperbole, as that can lose the readers' trust, as well as extraneous adverbs and adjectives, Huguet says.

"Thinking small, when done right, means paying close attention to the little things in your life that give it meaning in unique ways," he says. "It means, on the one hand, that you don’t have to come up with a plan for world peace, but it also means thinking small enough to identify details in your life that belong only to you."

The Supreme Court's ruling on affirmative action has left some students feeling in limbo with how to approach their essays. Some are unsure whether to include racial identifiers while others feel pressure to exclude it, says Christopher Rim, CEO and founder of Command Education, an admissions consulting company.

"For instance, some of our Asian students have been concerned that referencing their culture or race in their essay could negatively impact them (even moreso than before)," Rim wrote in an email. He noted that many students he works with had already begun crafting their essays before the ruling came. "Some of our other students have felt pressure to disclose their race or share a story of discrimination or struggle because they expect those stories to be received better by admissions officers."

Some of the uneasiness stems from what feels like a contradictory message from the court, Rim says. In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., said the ruling shouldn't be construed "as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise." But he added that colleges may consider race only if it's tied to an applicant’s individual experiences or qualities, such as demonstrating courage against discrimination.

Personal essays shouldn't serve as a way for universities to ask students about their race as a means to admit them on such basis, Roberts added.

Rim says he expects there to be a lot of confusion from parents and students as they navigate that line when writing their essay. He says his guidance will vary with each student depending on their specific situation.

"For a student from an immigrant family, sharing their racial and cultural background may be integral to understanding their identity and values and therefore should be included in the essay," he says. "On the other hand, a student who has never meaningfully considered ways in which their race has shaped their life experience and worldview should not push themselves to do so in their essay simply because they believe it will better their chances."

While admissions officers try to learn about students via the essay, they are also gauging writing skills, so students want to make sure they submit top-notch work.

"The best writing is rewriting," Sapp says. "You should never be giving me your first draft."

When reviewing a first essay draft, students should make sure their writing is showing, not telling, Huguet says. This means students should show their readers examples that prove they embody certain traits or beliefs, as opposed to just stating that they do. Doing so is like explaining a joke to someone who's already laughed at it, he says.

"Let’s say, for example, that the whole point of a certain applicant’s essay is to let admissions officers know that she thinks outside the box. If she feels the need to end her essay with a sentence like, 'And so, this anecdote shows that I think outside the box,' she’s either underestimating the power of her story (or the ability of her reader to understand it), or she hasn’t done a good enough job in telling it yet," Huguet says. "Let your readers come to their own conclusions. If your story is effective, they’ll come to the conclusions you want them to."

After editing their essay, students should seek outside editing help, experts recommend. While there are individuals and companies that offer paid essay help – from editing services to essay-writing boot camps – students and families may not be able to afford the associated fees. Some providers may offer scholarships or other financial aid for their services.

The availability and level of feedback from free essay advising services vary. Some college prep companies offer brief consultations at no charge. Free essay workshops may also be available through local high schools, public libraries or community organizations. Khan Academy, a free online education platform, also offers a series of videos and other content to guide students through the essay writing process.

Colleges themselves may also have resources, Barron notes, pointing to pages on Hamilton's website that offer writing tips as well as examples of successful admissions essays. Likewise, Hamilton also holds virtual panel discussions on writing admissions essays.

Students have other options when it comes to essay help. They can ask peers, teachers, school counselors and family members for help polishing an essay. Huguet says it's typically wise to prioritize quality over quantity when it comes to seeking feedback on essays. Too many perspectives can become counterproductive, he says.

"While it can be valuable to have different perspectives, it's best to seek out individuals who are experts in the writing process," he says. "Instructors or professors can be helpful, particularly if they possess subject expertise and can provide guidance on refining arguments, structure and overall coherence."

Proofreaders should not change the tone of the essay. "Don't let anyone edit out your voice," Doe cautions.

And while proofreading is fair game, having someone else write your essay is not.

When an essay is ready to go, students will generally submit it online along with the rest of their application. On the Common App, for example, students copy and paste their essay into a text box.

Sapp says even though students often stress about the essay in particular, it's not the only thing college admissions officers look at. "The essay is the window, but the application is the house," he says. "So let's not forget that an application is built of many pieces."

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12 Strategies to Writing the Perfect College Essay

College admission committees sift through thousands of college essays each year. Here’s how to make yours stand out.

Pamela Reynolds

When it comes to deciding who they will admit into their programs, colleges consider many criteria, including high school grades, extracurricular activities, and ACT and SAT scores. But in recent years, more colleges are no longer considering test scores.

Instead, many (including Harvard through 2026) are opting for “test-blind” admission policies that give more weight to other elements in a college application. This policy change is seen as fairer to students who don’t have the means or access to testing, or who suffer from test anxiety.

So, what does this mean for you?

Simply that your college essay, traditionally a requirement of any college application, is more important than ever.

A college essay is your unique opportunity to introduce yourself to admissions committees who must comb through thousands of applications each year. It is your chance to stand out as someone worthy of a seat in that classroom.

A well-written and thoughtful essay—reflecting who you are and what you believe—can go a long way to separating your application from the slew of forgettable ones that admissions officers read. Indeed, officers may rely on them even more now that many colleges are not considering test scores.

Below we’ll discuss a few strategies you can use to help your essay stand out from the pack. We’ll touch on how to start your essay, what you should write for your college essay, and elements that make for a great college essay.

Be Authentic

More than any other consideration, you should choose a topic or point of view that is consistent with who you truly are.

Readers can sense when writers are inauthentic.

Inauthenticity could mean the use of overly flowery language that no one would ever use in conversation, or it could mean choosing an inconsequential topic that reveals very little about who you are.

Use your own voice, sense of humor, and a natural way of speaking.

Whatever subject you choose, make sure it’s something that’s genuinely important to you and not a subject you’ve chosen just to impress. You can write about a specific experience, hobby, or personality quirk that illustrates your strengths, but also feel free to write about your weaknesses.

Honesty about traits, situations, or a childhood background that you are working to improve may resonate with the reader more strongly than a glib victory speech.

Grab the Reader From the Start

You’ll be competing with so many other applicants for an admission officer’s attention.

Therefore, start your essay with an opening sentence or paragraph that immediately seizes the imagination. This might be a bold statement, a thoughtful quote, a question you pose, or a descriptive scene.

Starting your essay in a powerful way with a clear thesis statement can often help you along in the writing process. If your task is to tell a good story, a bold beginning can be a natural prelude to getting there, serving as a roadmap, engaging the reader from the start, and presenting the purpose of your writing.

Focus on Deeper Themes

Some essay writers think they will impress committees by loading an essay with facts, figures, and descriptions of activities, like wins in sports or descriptions of volunteer work. But that’s not the point.

College admissions officers are interested in learning more about who you are as a person and what makes you tick.

They want to know what has brought you to this stage in life. They want to read about realizations you may have come to through adversity as well as your successes, not just about how many games you won while on the soccer team or how many people you served at a soup kitchen.

Let the reader know how winning the soccer game helped you develop as a person, friend, family member, or leader. Make a connection with your soup kitchen volunteerism and how it may have inspired your educational journey and future aspirations. What did you discover about yourself?

Show Don’t Tell

As you expand on whatever theme you’ve decided to explore in your essay, remember to show, don’t tell.

The most engaging writing “shows” by setting scenes and providing anecdotes, rather than just providing a list of accomplishments and activities.

Reciting a list of activities is also boring. An admissions officer will want to know about the arc of your emotional journey too.

Try Doing Something Different

If you want your essay to stand out, think about approaching your subject from an entirely new perspective. While many students might choose to write about their wins, for instance, what if you wrote an essay about what you learned from all your losses?

If you are an especially talented writer, you might play with the element of surprise by crafting an essay that leaves the response to a question to the very last sentence.

You may want to stay away from well-worn themes entirely, like a sports-related obstacle or success, volunteer stories, immigration stories, moving, a summary of personal achievements or overcoming obstacles.

However, such themes are popular for a reason. They represent the totality of most people’s lives coming out of high school. Therefore, it may be less important to stay away from these topics than to take a fresh approach.

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Write With the Reader in Mind

Writing for the reader means building a clear and logical argument in which one thought flows naturally from another.

Use transitions between paragraphs.

Think about any information you may have left out that the reader may need to know. Are there ideas you have included that do not help illustrate your theme?

Be sure you can answer questions such as: Does what you have written make sense? Is the essay organized? Does the opening grab the reader? Is there a strong ending? Have you given enough background information? Is it wordy?

Write Several Drafts

Set your essay aside for a few days and come back to it after you’ve had some time to forget what you’ve written. Often, you’ll discover you have a whole new perspective that enhances your ability to make revisions.

Start writing months before your essay is due to give yourself enough time to write multiple drafts. A good time to start could be as early as the summer before your senior year when homework and extracurricular activities take up less time.

Read It Aloud

Writer’s tip : Reading your essay aloud can instantly uncover passages that sound clumsy, long-winded, or false.

Don’t Repeat

If you’ve mentioned an activity, story, or anecdote in some other part of your application, don’t repeat it again in your essay.

Your essay should tell college admissions officers something new. Whatever you write in your essay should be in philosophical alignment with the rest of your application.

Also, be sure you’ve answered whatever question or prompt may have been posed to you at the outset.

Ask Others to Read Your Essay

Be sure the people you ask to read your essay represent different demographic groups—a teacher, a parent, even a younger sister or brother.

Ask each reader what they took from the essay and listen closely to what they have to say. If anyone expresses confusion, revise until the confusion is cleared up.

Pay Attention to Form

Although there are often no strict word limits for college essays, most essays are shorter rather than longer. Common App, which students can use to submit to multiple colleges, suggests that essays stay at about 650 words.

“While we won’t as a rule stop reading after 650 words, we cannot promise that an overly wordy essay will hold our attention for as long as you’d hoped it would,” the Common App website states.

In reviewing other technical aspects of your essay, be sure that the font is readable, that the margins are properly spaced, that any dialogue is set off properly, and that there is enough spacing at the top. Your essay should look clean and inviting to readers.

End Your Essay With a “Kicker”

In journalism, a kicker is the last punchy line, paragraph, or section that brings everything together.

It provides a lasting impression that leaves the reader satisfied and impressed by the points you have artfully woven throughout your piece.

So, here’s our kicker: Be concise and coherent, engage in honest self-reflection, and include vivid details and anecdotes that deftly illustrate your point.

While writing a fantastic essay may not guarantee you get selected, it can tip the balance in your favor if admissions officers are considering a candidate with a similar GPA and background.

Write, revise, revise again, and good luck!

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About the Author

Pamela Reynolds is a Boston-area feature writer and editor whose work appears in numerous publications. She is the author of “Revamp: A Memoir of Travel and Obsessive Renovation.”

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How to Format a College Essay: Step-by-Step Guide

Learn how to format and/or structure your college essay using my step-by-step guide + essay examples.  Amazing college essay examples from my own students. How was your college application journey? Let us know over at collegeessayguy.com

Mark Twain once said, “I like a good story well told. That’s the reason I am sometimes forced to tell them myself.”

At College Essay Guy, we too like good stories well told.

The problem is that sometimes students have really good stories … that just aren’t well told.

They have the seed of an idea and the makings of a great story, but the essay formatting or structure is all over the place.

Which can lead a college admissions reader to see you as disorganized. And your essay doesn’t make as much of an impact as it could.

So, if you’re here, you’re probably wondering:

Is there any kind of required format for a college essay? How do I structure my essay? 

And maybe what’s the difference?

Good news: That’s what this post answers.

First, let’s go over a few basic questions students often have when trying to figure out how to format their essay.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

  • College essay format guidelines
  • How to brainstorm and structure a college essay topic
  • Recommended brainstorming examples
  • Example college essay: The “Burying Grandma” essay

College Essay Format Guidelines

Should I title my college essay?

You don’t need one. In the vast majority of cases, students we work with don’t use titles. The handful of times they have, they’ve done so because the title allows for a subtle play on words or reframing of the essay as a whole. So don’t feel any pressure to include one—they’re purely optional.

Should I indent or us paragraph breaks in my college essay?

Either. Just be consistent. The exception here is if you’re pasting into a box that screws up your formatting—for example, if, when you copy your essay into the box, your indentations are removed, go with paragraph breaks. (And when you get to college, be sure to check what style guide you should be following: Chicago, APA, MLA, etc., can all take different approaches to formatting, and different fields have different standards.)

How many paragraphs should a college essay be? 

Personal statements are not English essays. They don’t need to be 5 paragraphs with a clear, argumentative thesis in the beginning and a conclusion that sums everything up. So feel free to break from that. How many paragraphs are appropriate for a college essay? Within reason, it’s up to you. We’ve seen some great personal statements that use 4 paragraphs, and some that use 8 or more (especially if you have dialogue—yes, dialogue is OK too!).

How long should my college essay be? 

The good news is that colleges and the application systems they use will usually give you specific word count maximums. The most popular college application systems, like the Common Application and Coalition Application, will give you a maximum of 650 words for your main personal statement, and typically less than that for school-specific supplemental essays . Other systems will usually specify the maximum word count—the UC PIQs are 350 max, for example. If they don’t specify this clearly in the application systems or on their website (and be sure to do some research), you can email them to ask! They don’t bite.

So should you use all that space? We generally recommend it. You likely have lots to share about your life, so we think that not using all the space they offer to tell your story might be a missed opportunity. While you don’t have to use every last word, aim to use most of the words they give you. But don’t just fill the space if what you’re sharing doesn’t add to the overall story you’re telling.

There are also some applications or supplementals with recommended word counts or lengths. For example, Georgetown says things like “approx. 1 page,” and UChicago doesn’t have a limit, but recommends aiming for 650ish for the extended essay, and 250-500 for the “Why us?” 

You can generally apply UChicago’s recommendations to other schools that don’t give you a limit: If it’s a “Why Major” supplement, 650 is probably plenty, and for other supplements, 250-500 is a good target to shoot for. If you go over those, that can be fine, just be sure you’re earning that word count (as in, not rambling or being overly verbose). Your readers are humans. If you send them a tome, their attention could drift.

Regarding things like italics and bold

Keep in mind that if you’re pasting text into a box, it may wipe out your formatting. So if you were hoping to rely on italics or bold for some kind of emphasis, double check if you’ll be able to. (And in general, try to use sentence structure and phrasing to create that kind of emphasis anyway, rather than relying on bold or italics—doing so will make you a better writer.)

Regarding font type, size, and color

Keep it simple and standard. Regarding font type, things like Times New Roman or Georgia (what this is written in) won’t fail you. Just avoid things like Comic Sans or other informal/casual fonts.

Size? 11- or 12-point is fine.

Color? Black. 

Going with something else with the above could be a risk, possibly a big one, for fairly little gain. Things like a wacky font or text color could easily feel gimmicky to a reader.

To stand out with your writing, take some risks in what you write about and the connections and insights you make.

If you’re attaching a doc (rather than pasting)

If you are attaching a document rather than pasting into a text box, all the above still applies. Again,  we’d recommend sticking with standard fonts and sizes—Times New Roman, 12-point is a standard workhorse. You can probably go with 1.5 or double spacing. Standard margins.

Basically, show them you’re ready to write in college by using the formatting you’ll normally use in college.

Is there a college essay template I can use? 

Depends on what you’re asking for. If, by “template,” you’re referring to formatting … see above.

But if you mean a structural template ... not exactly. There is no one college essay template to follow. And that’s a good thing.

That said, we’ve found that there are two basic structural approaches to writing college essays that can work for every single prompt we’ve seen. (Except for lists. Because … they’re lists.)

Below we’ll cover those two essay structures we love, but you’ll see how flexible these are—they can lead to vastly different essays. You can also check out a few sample essays to get a sense of structure and format (though we’d recommend doing some brainstorming and outlining to think of possible topics before you look at too many samples, since they can poison the well for some people).

Let’s dig in.

STEP 1: HOW TO BRAINSTORM AN AMAZING ESSAY TOPIC

We’ll talk about structure and topic together. Why? Because one informs the other.

(And to clarify: When we say, “topic,” we mean the theme or focus of your essay that you use to show who you are and what you value. The “topic” of your college essay is always ultimately you.)

We think there are two basic structural approaches that can work for any college essay. Not that these are the only two options—rather, that these can work for any and every prompt you’ll have to write for. 

Which structural approach you use depends on your answer to this question (and its addendum): Do you feel like you’ve faced significant challenges in your life … or not so much? (And do you want to write about them?)

If yes (to both), you’ll most likely want to use Narrative Structure . If no (to either), you’ll probably want to try Montage Structure .

So … what are those structures? And how do they influence your topic?

Narrative Structure is classic storytelling structure. You’ve seen this thousands of times—assuming you read, and watch movies and TV, and tell stories with friends and family. If you don’t do any of these things, this might be new. Otherwise, you already know this. You may just not know you know it. Narrative revolves around a character or characters (for a college essay, that’s you) working to overcome certain challenges, learning and growing, and gaining insight. For a college essay using Narrative Structure, you’ll focus the word count roughly equally on a) Challenges You Faced, b) What You Did About Them, and c) What You Learned (caveat that those sections can be somewhat interwoven, especially b and c). Paragraphs and events are connected causally.

You’ve also seen montages before. But again, you may not know you know. So: A montage is a series of thematically connected things, frequently images. You’ve likely seen montages in dozens and dozens of films before—in romantic comedies, the “here’s the couple meeting and dating and falling in love” montage; in action movies, the classic “training” montage. A few images tell a larger story. In a college essay, you could build a montage by using a thematic thread to write about five different pairs of pants that connect to different sides of who you are and what you value. Or different but connected things that you love and know a lot about (like animals, or games). Or entries in your Happiness Spreadsheet .

How does structure play into a great topic?

We believe a montage essay (i.e., an essay NOT about challenges) is more likely to stand out if the topic or theme of the essay is:

X. Elastic (i.e., something you can connect to variety of examples, moments, or values) Y. Uncommon (i.e., something other students probably aren’t writing about)

We believe that a narrative essay is more likely to stand out if it contains: 

X. Difficult or compelling challenges Y. Insight

These aren’t binary—rather, each exists on a spectrum.

“Elastic” will vary from person to person. I might be able to connect mountain climbing to family, history, literature, science, social justice, environmentalism, growth, insight … and someone else might not connect it to much of anything. Maybe trees?

“Uncommon” —every year, thousands of students write about mission trips, sports, or music. It’s not that you can’t write about these things, but it’s a lot harder to stand out. 

“Difficult or compelling challenges” can be put on a spectrum, with things like getting a bad grade or not making a sports team on the weaker end, and things like escaping war or living homeless for three years on the stronger side. While you can possibly write a strong essay about a weaker challenge, it’s really hard to do so.

“Insight” is the answer to the question “so what?” A great insight is likely to surprise the reader a bit, while a so-so insight likely won’t. (Insight is something you’ll develop in an essay through the writing process, rather than something you’ll generally know ahead of time for a topic, but it’s useful to understand that some topics are probably easier to pull insights from than others.)

To clarify, you can still write a great montage with a very common topic, or a narrative that offers so-so insights. But the degree of difficulty goes up. Probably way up.

With that in mind, how do you brainstorm possible topics that are on the easier-to-stand-out-with side of the spectrum?

how long to college essays need to be

Brainstorming exercises

Spend about 10 minutes (minimum) on each of these exercises.

Values Exercise

Essence Objects Exercise

21 Details Exercise

Everything I Want Colleges To Know About Me Exercise

Feelings and Needs Exercise

If you feel like you already have your topic, and you just want to know how to make it better…

Still do those exercises.

Maybe what you have is the best topic for you. And if you are incredibly super sure, you can skip ahead. But if you’re not sure this topic helps you communicate your deepest stories, spend a little time on the exercises above. As a bonus, even if you end up going with what you already had (though please be wary of the sunk cost fallacy ), all that brainstorming will be useful when you write your supplemental essays .

The Feelings and Needs Exercise in particular is great for brainstorming Narrative Structure, connecting story events in a causal way (X led to Y led to Z). The Essence Objects, 21 Details, Everything I Want Colleges to Know exercises can lead to interesting thematic threads for Montage Structure (P, Q, and R are all connected because, for example, they’re all qualities of a great endodontist). But all of them are useful for both structural approaches. Essence objects can help a narrative come to life. One paragraph in a montage could focus on a challenge and how you overcame it.

The Values Exercise is a cornerstone of both—regardless of whether you use narrative or montage, we should get a sense of some of your core values through your essays.

How (and why) to outline your college essay to use a good structure

While not every professional writer knows exactly how a story will end when they start writing, they also have months (or years) to craft it, and they may throw major chunks or whole drafts away. You probably don’t want to throw away major chunks or whole drafts. So you should outline.

Use the brainstorming exercises from earlier to decide on your most powerful topics and what structure (narrative or montage) will help you best tell your story.

Then, outline.

For a narrative, use the Feelings and Needs Exercise, and build clear bullet points for the Challenges + Effects, What I Did About It, and What I Learned. Those become your outline. 

Yeah, that simple.

For a montage, outline 4-7 ways your thread connects to different values through different experiences, and if you can think of them, different lessons and insights (though these you might have to develop later, during the writing process). For example, how auto repair connects to family, literature, curiosity, adventure, and personal growth (through different details and experiences).

Here are some good example outlines:

Narrative outline (developed from the Feelings and Needs Exercise)

Challenges:

Domestic abuse (physical and verbal)

Controlling father/lack of freedom

Sexism/bias

Prevented from pursuing opportunities

Cut off from world/family

Lack of sense of freedom/independence

Faced discrimination

What I Did About It:

Pursued my dreams

Traveled to Egypt, London, and Paris alone

Challenged stereotypes

Explored new places and cultures

Developed self-confidence, independence, and courage

Grew as a leader

Planned events

What I Learned:

Inspired to help others a lot more

Learned about oppression, and how to challenge oppressive norms

Became closer with mother, somewhat healed relationship with father

Need to feel free

And here’s the essay that became: “ Easter ”

Montage outline:

Thread: Home

Values: Family, tradition, literature

Ex: “Tailgate Special,” discussions w/family, reading Nancy Drew

Perception, connection to family

Chinese sword dance

Values: Culture/heritage, meticulousness, dedication, creativity

Ex: Notebook, formations/choreography

Nuances of culture, power of connection

Values: Science/chemistry, curiosity 

Synthesizing plat nanoparticles

Joy of discovery, redefining expectations

Governor’s School

Values: Exploration, personal growth

Knitting, physics, politics, etc.

Importance of exploring beyond what I know/am used to, taking risks

And here’s the essay that became: “ Home ”

When to scrap what you have and start over

Ultimately, you can’t know for sure if a topic will work until you try a draft or two. And maybe it’ll be great. But keep that sunk cost fallacy in mind, and be open to trying other things.

If you’re down the rabbit hole with a personal statement topic and just aren’t sure about it, the first step you should take is to ask for feedback. Find a partner who can help you examine it without the attachment to all the emotion (anxiety, worry, or fear) you might have built up around it. 

Have them help you walk through The Great College Essay Test to make sure your essay is doing its job. If it isn’t yet, does it seem like this topic has the potential to? Or would other topics allow you to more fully show a college who you are and what you bring to the table?

Because that’s your goal. Format and structure are just tools to get you there.

Down the Road

Before we analyze some sample essays, bookmark this page, so that once you’ve gone through several drafts of your own essay, come back and take The Great College Essay Test  to make sure your essay is doing its job. The job of the essay, simply put, is to demonstrate to a college that you’ll make valuable contributions in college and beyond. We believe these four qualities are essential to a great essay:

Core values (showing who you are through what you value)

Vulnerability (helps a reader feel connected to you)

Insight (aka “so what” moments)

Craft (clear structure, refined language, intentional choices)

To test what values are coming through, read your essay aloud to someone who knows you and ask:

Which values are clearly coming through the essay?

Which values are kind of there but could be coming through more clearly?

Which values could be coming through and were opportunities missed?

To know if you’re being vulnerable in your essay, ask:

Now that you’ve heard my story, do you feel closer to me?

What did you learn about me that you didn’t already know?

To search for “so what” moments of insight, review the claims you’re making in your essay. Are you reflecting on what these moments and experiences taught you? How have they changed you? Are you making common or (hopefully) uncommon connections? The uncommon connections are often made up of insights that are unusual or unexpected. (For more on how to test for this, click The Great College Essay Test link above.)

Craft comes through the sense that each paragraph, each sentence, each word is a carefully considered choice. That the author has spent time revising and refining. That the essay is interesting and succinct. How do you test this? For each paragraph, each sentence, each word, ask: Do I need this? (Huge caveat: Please avoid neurotic perfectionism here. We’re just asking you to be intentional with your language.)

Still feeling you haven’t found your topic? Here’s a list of 100 Brave and Interesting Questions . Read these and try freewriting on a few. See where they lead.

Finally, here’s an ...

Example College Essay Format Analysis: The “Burying Grandma” Essay

To see how the Narrative Essay structure works, check out the essay below, which was written for the Common App "Topic of your choice" prompt. You might try reading it here first before reading the paragraph-by-paragraph breakdown below.

They covered the precious mahogany coffin with a brown amalgam of rocks, decomposed organisms, and weeds. It was my turn to take the shovel, but I felt too ashamed to dutifully send her off when I had not properly said goodbye. I refused to throw dirt on her. I refused to let go of my grandmother, to accept a death I had not seen coming, to believe that an illness could not only interrupt, but steal a beloved life.

The author begins by setting up the Challenges + Effects (you’ve maybe heard of this referred to in narrative as the Inciting Incident). This moment also sets up some of her needs: growth and emotional closure, to deal with it and let go/move on. Notice the way objects like the shovel help bring an essay to life, and can be used for symbolic meaning. That object will also come back later.

When my parents finally revealed to me that my grandmother had been battling liver cancer, I was twelve and I was angry--mostly with myself. They had wanted to protect me--only six years old at the time--from the complex and morose concept of death. However, when the end inevitably arrived, I wasn’t trying to comprehend what dying was; I was trying to understand how I had been able to abandon my sick grandmother in favor of playing with friends and watching TV. Hurt that my parents had deceived me and resentful of my own oblivion, I committed myself to preventing such blindness from resurfacing.

In the second paragraph, she flashes back to give us some context of what things were like leading up to these challenges (i.e., the Status Quo), which helps us understand her world. It also helps us to better understand the impact of her grandmother’s death and raises a question: How will she prevent such blindness from resurfacing?

I became desperately devoted to my education because I saw knowledge as the key to freeing myself from the chains of ignorance. While learning about cancer in school I promised myself that I would memorize every fact and absorb every detail in textbooks and online medical journals. And as I began to consider my future, I realized that what I learned in school would allow me to silence that which had silenced my grandmother. However, I was focused not with learning itself, but with good grades and high test scores. I started to believe that academic perfection would be the only way to redeem myself in her eyes--to make up for what I had not done as a granddaughter.  

In the third paragraph, she starts shifting into the What I Did About It aspect, and takes off at a hundred miles an hour … but not quite in the right direction yet. What does that mean? She pursues things that, while useful and important in their own right, won’t actually help her resolve her conflict. This is important in narrative—while it can be difficult, or maybe even scary, to share ways we did things wrong, that generally makes for a stronger story. Think of it this way: You aren’t really interested in watching a movie in which a character faces a challenge, knows what to do the whole time, so does it, the end. We want to see how people learn and change and grow.

Here, the author “Raises the Stakes” because we as readers sense intuitively (and she is giving us hints) that this is not the way to get over her grandmother’s death.

However, a simple walk on a hiking trail behind my house made me open my own eyes to the truth. Over the years, everything--even honoring my grandmother--had become second to school and grades. As my shoes humbly tapped against the Earth, the towering trees blackened by the forest fire a few years ago, the faintly colorful pebbles embedded in the sidewalk, and the wispy white clouds hanging in the sky reminded me of my small though nonetheless significant part in a larger whole that is humankind and this Earth. Before I could resolve my guilt, I had to broaden my perspective of the world as well as my responsibilities to my fellow humans.   

There’s some nice evocative detail in here that helps draw us into her world and experience.

Structurally, there are elements of What I Did About It and What I Learned in here (again, they will often be somewhat interwoven). This paragraph gives us the Turning Point/Moment of Truth. She begins to understand how she was wrong. She realizes she needs perspective. But how? See next paragraph ...

Volunteering at a cancer treatment center has helped me discover my path. When I see patients trapped in not only the hospital but also a moment in time by their diseases, I talk to them. For six hours a day, three times a week, Ivana is surrounded by IV stands, empty walls, and busy nurses that quietly yet constantly remind her of her breast cancer. Her face is pale and tired, yet kind--not unlike my grandmother’s. I need only to smile and say hello to see her brighten up as life returns to her face. Upon our first meeting, she opened up about her two sons, her hometown, and her knitting group--no mention of her disease. Without even standing up, the three of us—Ivana, me, and my grandmother--had taken a walk together.

In the second-to-last paragraph, we see how she takes further action, and some of what she learns from her experiences: Volunteering at the local hospital helps her see her larger place in the world.

Cancer, as powerful and invincible as it may seem, is a mere fraction of a person’s life. It’s easy to forget when one’s mind and body are so weak and vulnerable. I want to be there as an oncologist to remind them to take a walk once in a while, to remember that there’s so much more to life than a disease. While I physically treat their cancer, I want to lend patients emotional support and mental strength to escape the interruption and continue living. Through my work, I can accept the shovel without burying my grandmother’s memory.

The final paragraph uses what we call the “bookend” technique by bringing us back to the beginning, but with a change—she’s a different, slightly wiser person than she was. This helps us put a frame around her growth. 

… A good story well told . That’s your goal.

Hopefully, you now have a better sense of how to make that happen.

For more resources, check out our College Application Hub .

how long to college essays need to be

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Resources / Getting In

5 College Essay Writing Mistakes to Avoid

thoughtful college student sitting at outdoor table with pen in hand

By Matt Musico*

The college essay is one of the most important parts of an application. While writing yours, avoid these five common mistakes.

The college admissions journey has different stages – and different stress levels associated with each one. Writing the college essay is among the most stressful parts of the process for students I’ve worked with. They often struggle — and stress out — during the writing process because of a number of misconceptions about what the essay is and how to approach it.

Below are five common blunders students sometimes make when starting their college essays, and some tips for how to avoid them.

1. Dismissing “Unremarkable” Stories

I always enjoy sitting down with students for an essay brainstorming session because we get to talk about them and the stories that stand out in their minds. There have been many occasions where someone says, “I don’t have anything good to write about.” Thankfully, that’s the furthest thing from the truth for many students.

The story you tell in an essay is important. However, it’s not more important than how you tell it and the impact it’s had on you. Simply talking about how you fixed a broken bathroom cabinet as a seven-year-old isn’t a remarkable story on the surface. But it becomes remarkable when you discuss how that experience laid the foundation for your mindset to not give up when faced with unknowns and other intimidating situations. And it becomes even more remarkable when you continue sharing events later in life displaying that same determination.

Just because a story doesn’t sound interesting at first doesn’t mean you can’t turn it into something memorable. The difference is digging a layer or two below the surface to uncover the true meaning and the impact the story has had on you.

2. Not Talking About Yourself Enough

Your essay is one of the few spots in a college application where you can display your personality. The whole point of writing the essay is to help an admissions officer get a sense of who you are. So, don’t waste this opportunity to give them a glimpse.

You might want to write about someone who has had a profound impact on you, or an event that was meaningful in your life. If you do, make sure you’re wrapping up the story with how this person or event changed you and how you’ve lived your life since that moment. While the story itself may be excellent, the reader wants to know what the person or experience means to you. Tell them! 

3. Approaching the College Essay Like an English Paper

If you’re assigned a paper in English, Social Studies, or any other class, there are certain essay elements to uphold. Having a dedicated introduction and conclusion, using sophisticated “SAT” words, as well as writing in a formal tone and using proper grammar are typical ones.

The Common Application only allows up to 650 words for an essay. That might sound like a lot of room, but it’s not. A typical introduction in a term paper might take up 150 to 200 words, leaving less room for the parts of your essay that are the most interesting.

So, don’t necessarily approach your essay like you would an English paper. The typical format you’re used to isn’t needed, and it’s okay to write in the first-person. A thesaurus isn’t necessary to make things sound more impressive. If you wouldn’t use the word “plethora” or “evocative” in daily conversation, then don’t force them into your college essay .

Having a hard time finding the right tone to use? Think of a teacher you have a good relationship with. If you saw them in the hallway and stopped to have a short conversation, what kind of tone would you have? It would likely be friendly, yet respectful. That’s the tone to aim for in your essay.

4. Trying Too Hard to Impress

As mentioned above, the college essay is supposed to give the reader a glimpse of who you are – not necessarily a list of what you’ve achieved. Don’t approach this part of your application as you would a cover letter for a job .

There is another place to list the extracurricular involvement and accomplishments you’re proud of. It’s in your activities list. Simply re-sharing that list without adding much context or new information won’t catch a reader’s attention.

Are you interested in pursuing politics because your involvement in student government inspired you? Then share stories about how that happened. Discussing the specific impact your activities and accomplishments had on you — and what you learned about yourself or how you grew as a result — will provide the reader with more context and make your essay more memorable and effective.

5. Not Getting Specific Enough

If you’re an athlete and want to write your essay about winning a championship or an important game, it’s easy to say how you learned the value of hard work and coming together as a team. However, just about any athlete could write that general statement and many have.

The best way to avoid broad statements that sound like clichés or too generic is to pick personal stories that illustrate your point. These should be stories where you can share a lot of detail — so much detail that once you read it back to yourself, there’s no doubt you’re the only person who could have told that story. To uncover important details, ask yourself how you were feeling at certain points in the story. Why were you feeling that way? How has this experience or person changed your perspective?

I’ve typically told students that the Common Application essay’s 650-word limit gives you enough space to share two or three detailed personal stories that relate back to the overall theme of their essay. Some students want to tell three different stories that display a personality trait of theirs. Others might want to share only one or two.

There are many ways to approach how to structure your essay. What’s most important is whether you told your stories with enough detail to make them meaningful and uniquely about you. If that can’t happen, then it’s time to brainstorm for other story ideas.

Writing your college essay comes with inherent pressure and expectations based on what you’ve heard from others. Steering away from these five common mistakes will hopefully help put your best foot forward in this area of your application. And last, but most certainly not least, remember to be yourself. That’s what admissions counselors want to learn about when they sit down to read your application. Best of luck on your college essays !

*Matt Musico is a freelance writer for CollegeData. He has worked in higher education for the better part of a decade in undergraduate admissions and with high school families as a private college counselor.

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how long to college essays need to be

How to Write College Application Essays

Use the links below to jump directly to any section of this guide:

College Application Essay Fundamentals 

How to prepare to write your essay , how to approach different essay types, how to structure your essay , how to revise your essay, how to find essay writing help , resources for teaching students how to write a college essay, additional resources (further reading).

Of all the materials in a college application, the essay provides the greatest opportunity for you to set yourself apart. Unlike the transcript or resume, the essay is creative and expressive; in it, you can show the admissions counselors who you are and what you can do (that is, how well you can write!). A good application essay should have a memorable main idea, a cohesive structure, and a strong introduction and conclusion. Although essay topics can vary by college, the most common prompts deal with personal experiences and aspirations for the future. This guide   contains a diverse set of resources to help you orient yourself to the college application essay and, ultimately, to write the most competitive essay possible. 

The college application essay is a requirement for admission to almost all institutions of higher learning. Though in some ways it resembles essays you've written in class or on standardized tests, in other ways it's a unique writing exercises with its own particular requirements. Use the resources below to help you understand how the essay should be structured and what kind of content to include. 

"How Long Should College Application Essays Be?" (Learn.org)

This webpage guides you through some basic tips on writing the college essay—including essay length, sticking to the prompt, and maintaining an original tone. 

"College Application Essay" (College Board)

This webpage from the College Board discusses the different types of application essays, what length you should aim for, and most importantly, why colleges value this aspect of the application so much. 

"College Essays, College Applications" (College Board) 

The College Board's website is a great resource for any student looking to apply to college. This webpage contains several links to helpful resources, including sample essays and genuine student interviews. 

"Timeline for College Applications" (College Essay Guy)

This colorful, one-page guide from a college application specialist offers an illustrated timeline for high school students looking to apply for college. 

Before putting your ideas down on paper, it's important to conceptualize your essay, to craft strategically your tone and style, and,  crucially, to choose a topic that suits you and the school to which you're applying. The resources in this section include writing tips, lists of common mistakes you should avoid, and guides dedicated to the college application essay.

How to Plan Your Essay

"3 Common College Essay Mistakes to Avoid" (CNBC)  

This article from CNBC broadly outlines the most common mistakes students make when writing their college application essays. Although these mistakes may seem obvious, even the most experienced writers can fall into these common traps.

"7 Effective Application Tips" (Peterson's)

This article from Peterson's (a company providing academic materials for test prep, application help, and more) lists seven pieces of advice designed to make your writing pop. 

"The Secret to Show, Don't Tell" ( The Write Practice Blog)  

You've heard it before: show, don't tell. This is a great writing tip, but how do you pull it off? Here, the writing blog  The Write Practice  outlines how you can make your writing more descriptive and effective. 

"Passive Voice" (University of North Carolina)  

Avoiding passive construction is a subtle yet effective way to upgrade any piece of writing. Check out this webpage from a university writing center for some tips on recognizing and avoiding passive voice. 

"Using Appropriate Words in an Academic Essay" (National University of Singapore)

There are many ways to upgrade your vocabulary. Often, words can be replaced with more impressive substitutes, phrases can be shortened or lengthened depending on context, and transitions can be used for a smoother flow. The link above expands on these strategies and offers several others. 

How to Brainstorm Topic Ideas

"Bad College Essays: 10 Mistakes to Avoid" (PrepScholar)

This article from a well-known tutoring service and test prep program describes what to avoid when writing your essay. Essays that are too graphic, too personal, or too overconfident are all problematic, and this article explains why. 

"5 Tricks for Choosing Your College Essay Topic" (CollegeXpress)

Lost on how to choose a topic? This webpage from CollegeXpress outlines five sources of inspiration you can mine for ideas as you're getting started.

"The College Admission Essay: Finding a Topic" (The Choice Blog)

This article from New York Times  blog The Choice  breaks down three essential questions to ask yourself when choosing a topic for your college essay. 

"COLLEGE ESSAY GUIDE: Choosing a Prompt for the Common Application" (YouTube)

In this five-minute video, a Yale student discusses how to choose a college essay prompt and how to approach the essay writing process. His channel is filled with original videos on the college application process. 

"Where to Begin? 3 Personal Essay Brainstorming Exercises" ( CollegeVine Blog)

Approaching the Common App essay prompts can be difficult. This blog post explains several tactics you can use to narrow down your options, such as writing down a list of your greatest convictions.

"Using First Person in an Academic Essay: When Is It Okay?" (WritingCommons.org)

Most high school students are told to avoid using the first person point of view; this can be confusing when writing college essays, which typically ask what  you  think. This article breaks down when (and why) it's acceptable to write in the first person. 

Although all college essays serve the same purpose - articulating why you should get into a college - they come in different kinds. While topics on the Common Application are relatively consistent from year to year, personal statements and so-called "supplemental essays" vary by institution. Each of these essays requires a slightly different approach. The resources in this section will prepare you to answer the various types of essay prompts you're likely to encounter. 

Common Application Essays

CommonApp.org

The Common Application's official website is the best place to start getting acquainted with the service to which the majority of US colleges and universities now subscribe - a service which allows you to streamline your application process and minimize duplication of materials.

"What's App-enning" Blog (Common App)  

The Common App runs a blog with a wealth of information on common application-related news, including periodic updates on common application essay prompts for each application cycle. You can practice brainstorming with old prompts, or even start preparing your application by looking at this year's prompts.

125 College Essay Examples (PrepScholar Blog)

Here, PrepScholar provides a variety of Common App essays that got their respective applicants into their desired schools. Along with the body text of the essays, the website provides analysis on  what  makes the essays so great. 

A Few Essays That Worked (And a Few That Didn't) (NYTimes Blog)

This article analyzes unsuccessful essays, illuminating the ways in which they fell short. Although you should exercise caution and adjust your approach to your specific school, it's always good to pick up on general things to avoid. 

Personal Statements

What Is a Personal Statement? (PrepScholar Blog)

Although personal statements and Common App essays are similar, not all personal statement essays are administered through the Common App. This article from PrepScholar's blog will provide you with everything you need to know about writing a personal statement.

Examples of Successful Statements (Purdue OWL)

The Purdue OWL online writing lab collate links on this page to several successful personal statement. It can be useful to read successful statements and to consider how and why the statements made an impact on their readers. 

Past Threads on Advice for Writing Your College Essay (Reddit Post)

Although not about the personal statement  per se , this Reddit post has links to several past threads that may be of use to any prospective college applicant. 

What 10 Things Should Your Personal Statement Include? (Which University UK)  

This site outlines ten things to consider when writing a personal statement, including outlining what you will bring to the course, not what the course will bring to you. 

Supplemental Essays

How to Write Great Supplemental College Essays (IvyWise Newsletter)

Supplemental essays can often be challenging, asking a range of questions from the mundane to the oddly specific. This article from college application site IvyWise will break down example prompts to make them more approachable. 

Write Your Supplemental Essays (College Essay Guy)

Looking for a comprehensive guide to supplemental essays? Look no further than this page provided by the "College Essay Guy," who breaks down how to write supplemental essays that ask different kinds of questions. 

An Awesome Guide to the UChicago Supplement (Dyad)

Dyad, a college mentoring service, walks you through how to approach UChicago's supplemental essay question. Although the article is specific to UChicago, it contains general tips that are helpful to any college applicant. 

Reading My Yale Supplement Essay (YouTube)

Josh Beasley is back in this short YouTube video, where he reads the supplemental essay that got him into Yale and extrapolates advice for current and prospective applicants. 

A college application essay (like any academic essay) should have an introduction, a conclusion, and body paragraphs. Additionally, it should have overall coherence (that is, it should make a point) and cohesion (that is, it should flow well from paragraph to paragraph). We've collected the most relevant resources here to help you structure your college essay correctly and efficiently. 

How to Make Your Essay Stand Out 

College Essays That Stand Out From the Crowd (NYTimes)

This NYTimes article includes links to several recent essays that caught the eyes of the admissions readers by taking risks. You can even listen to an essay being read aloud by a current Princeton student.

50 Successful Ivy League Application Essays (Gen / Kelly Tanabe)  

If you have some time on your hands, this hefty PDF document contains 50 essays from successful Ivy League applicants. After reading these essays, consider what they have in common and how they might be a model for your own essay.

Make Your Application Essay Stand Out (CampusExplorer.com)

In this article from CampusExplorer, you'll find general tips on how to make your essay more appealing to the admissions readers. The writers include general writing tips as well as more targeted advice for the tone and audience of the application essay.

How to Write a College Application Essay that Stands Out (Boston University)

This short video from BU's own admissions department touches briefly on what impresses their admissions readers, including risk-taking, memorable stories, and honesty. 

Essay Structure (Monash University)

This chart from Monash University visually demonstrates how your content should be organized in order to keep your argument or story on track. 

How to Write an Introduction

How to Start a Personal Statement: The Killer Opening (Which University UK)  

Any good introduction both forecasts what your essay will be about and catches the reader's attention. This page will give you some helpful advice on starting your essay with a bang. 

How to Start a College Essay Perfectly (PrepScholar Blog)

This article from PrepScholar shows you how to "hook" your reader at the start of your application essay with colorful language, a vivid story, and an "insightful pivot" to your main point.

Let Me Introduce Myself (Stanford University)

This article from Stanford U's alumni page details the first-line openings of the essays for some current Stanford undergrads. 

Five Ways to NOT Start Your College Application Essays (PowerScore)

In this article, you'll learn five techniques to avoid, as they typically land a college application essay in the "reject" pile; these include beginning with dictionary definitions or famous quotations. 

How to Write a Conclusion 

Ending the Essay: Conclusions (Harvard University)

Harvard's writing center suggests bringing closure to your essay (that is, wrapping up your argument) while still expanding outward to broader applications or insights in your final paragraph.

Concluding Paragraph (Easybib)  

Although you may have used Easybib to make a bibliography before, did you know they have many resources on how to write a good essay? Check out this page for succinct advice on what your conclusion should entail. 

5 Ways to Powerfully End Your College Essay (College Greenlight)

This blog post instructs you to end with action (that is, a story or anecdote) rather than summary, giving you five ways to do this effectively, including addressing the college directly.

How to Write the Best Conclusion for a College Application Essay and Supplement (Koppelman Group)

The Koppelman Group, a college application consulting firm, warns you, above all, not to end "in conclusion" or "to conclude." They also provide targeted advice for the Common App and Supplement essays, respectively. 

No essay is perfect in its first-draft form; college application essays in particular are limited by word counts that can be difficult to meet. Once you've communicated your ideas, you'll want to edit your essay in order to make sure it's the best it can be. You'll also need to cut or add words to make sure it's within the specifications set by the institution. The resources in this section include tips and tricks for revising your college application essay. 

3 Ways to Increase Word Count (WikiHow)

Complete with illustrations, this WikiHow page outlines several ways you might go about substantively expanding your essay. These tips include clarifying points, reworking your introduction and conclusion, adding new viewpoints and examples, and connecting loose threads. 

Admissions 101: What an Essay Word Limit Really Means (Veritas Prep) 

In this blog post, Veritas Prep's college preparation tutors assure you that being a little over or under the limit is acceptable, recommending ways you can think about the word limit's purpose.

College Essay Word Limit - Going Under? (College Confidential) 

In this College Confidential discussion forum, students discuss the possible ramifications of writing under the word limit for a college essay. 

How to Increase Your Essay Word Count (WordCounter)

This article from WordCounter outlines different ways you might go about meeting word count, including addressing different viewpoints, adding examples, and clarifying statements. 

Hitting the Target Word Count in Your College Admissions Essay (Dummies.com)

This article details how to hit the target word count. Scroll down to the middle of the article for advice on where you should cut words from to meet word count. 

Some Tricks to Reduce Word Count (EastAsiaStudent.net)

This article recommends simplifying your style, deleting adverbs, deleting prepositions, and revisiting connectives and adjectives to reduce word count. 

Advice on Whittling Your Admissions Essay (NYTimes) 

In this New York Times article, Andrew Gelb discusses how to go about cutting down your admissions essay in order to meet the requisite word limit.

How to Shorten an Essay Without Ruining the Content (Quora) 

This Quora post from a concerned student yielded useful community responses on how to effectively shorten an essay without losing the original message. 

Feel like you've hit a wall revising your essay on your own? You're not alone, and there are plentiful resources on the web through which you can connect with fellow college applicants and/or professional tutors. The links in this section will take you to free services for improving your college application essay, as well as two of the top paid writing tutor services.

College Confidential Forums 

College Confidential is a free, public forum in which you can post your essay and receive feedback from current college students, current college applicants, and even teachers or other experienced users. 

/r/CollegeEssays (Reddit)

This subreddit is a great place to look for crowdsourced help on your essay, ask questions about college essays, or even find a private tutor. 

Essayforum.com

Essayforum.com provides another platform for students to share their application essays. Although this link takes you to the site's forum for applicants to undergraduate degree programs, you can submit and review essays in other categories as well.  Varsity Tutors

Varisty Tutors offers tutoring services from freelance tutors based on location. Prices and services vary, but their site is easy to use and there are many tutors available to choose from.

Princeton Review

Princeton Review, one of the largest providers of college preparation tutoring (ranging from standardized test preparation to essay help) offers online essay tutoring services with a free trial period. 

Using in-class time to prepare your students to write college application essays is, of course, rewarding, but can also be challenging. If you're a teacher looking to incorporate the college essay into your curriculum but you're not sure where to start, take a look at the useful resources below.

TeachersPayTeachers

College Essay Writing

This product includes material for more than one full lesson plan, including powerpoint presentations, assessments, and homework on the topic of college essays. 

Narrative Writing Ideas and Prompts

Appealing to students 9th grade and up, this product includes lesson plans, handouts, and homework for developing narrative writing for the college essay process. 

College Essay: Comprehensive 7-Session Workshop Series

This PDF includes entire courses, manuals, and handouts designed to teach students the ins and outs of the college essay process, either in an individual or group setting. 

College Essay Revision Forms & Rubrics

These PDFs provide students with visual organizers and rubrics to assess their own writing and learn how to become better college essay writers. 

Free Resources

Teaching the College Essay (Edutopia) 

Teaching your students about writing the college essay can be incredibly intimidating -- as a teacher, how should you approach the process? This article from Edutopia outlines how to go about introducing the college essay to your students. 

Essay Lesson Plan Ideas for College Applications (EssayHell)

If you're a teacher looking for a concrete lesson plan on college essays, this guide recommends using the first day to discuss the importance of the essay, the second day for brainstorming, and so on. Click on the link above to examine their full guide. 

Help Your Students Write a Killer College Essay (EdWeek Blog)

This blog post goes over various techniques designed to help your students choose an appropriate topic and write their essay with passion. 

The Biggest College Essay Mistakes & How to Fix Them (Talks With Teachers)

Looking to help your students avoid the minefield of mistakes in the college essay field? Check out this post from Talks With Teachers, a journal that shares "inspiring ideas for English teachers." 

Curious to read more about college application essays, or to see fun and unusual examples of what students have written? The articles, blog posts, and books in this section are a good place to start surveying the field.

One Over-the-Top Admissions Essay (Huffington Post)

This piece from the Huffington Post talks about a humorous response to a Stanford supplemental essay topic, the so-called "letter to my future roommate."

College & University - Statistics and Facts (Statista.com) 

In the process of writing your college essay, you may find yourself wondering who exactly goes to college, how many colleges there are in the United States, etc. This site gives the up-to-date statistics for various US demographics, both in aggregate and by university, as well as other information.

Who Made That College Application? (NYTimes)

This piece from the NYTimes outlines the history of the college essay from its origins in the 1800s, to the first "modern" college application, produced by Columbia University in 1919, to the present.  

How They Got Into Harvard (Staff of the Harvard Crimson)

This highly-rated collection of successful Harvard application essays, available on Amazon, is both an entertaining read and an instructive resource for anyone looking for exemplary essays to use as models. 

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The low-income lens in college essays

Students from low-income backgrounds may not realize that they have a unique perspective to present to admissions officers. If your identity has been shaped by financial difficulties and other obstacles, consider writing about these challenges in your college essays so that admissions officers understand the full context of your successes and academic accomplishments.

Bring us into your world. We want to know you. We want to know your truth.

Student challenges and extenuating circumstances

You may describe specific challenges that you have risen above in your college essays, such as:

  • You hold significant responsibilities in your household, such as providing care for an ill family member, babysitting siblings, or preparing family meals.
  • You have a part-time job to pay for school activities or household expenses.
  • You live with people other than your immediate family or have been in foster care.
  • You experienced homelessness or other temporary housing situations.
  • A parent has passed away or is not present in your life.
  • You commute a long distance to attend school.
  • Your family or community is not supportive of your educational goals.
  • You faced obstacles because English is not your first language.

Proper tone for college essays

If you choose to write about challenges in your life, be careful to avoid using overly critical or negative language when writing a college essay. This is a good opportunity to emphasize your emotional maturity and how challenges in your life have helped you grow as a person. You may compromise that impression if your tone is resentful or excessively dramatic.

College essay topic choice

Giving admissions officers a window into difficult experiences can present your story in your college application, but there are other topics that can also make for a strong essay (e.g. a favorite book, a community service project). Whichever angle you select to tell your story, highlight the most important things that have shaped and continue to shape your identity.

The writing process: brainstorm, outline, and draft

Writing a college essay can seem daunting at first, but it doesn’t have to be. Watch our webinar,  Write a College Essay that Stands Out , and download our worksheet as a template and foundation to help you craft a strong college essay. This college essay format may help you write your essay in a manner that goes beyond just a chronological explanation of your life or an expansion of your resume.

Essay feedback and revisions

Ask teachers, mentors, family, or friends for feedback on your essay. Reach out well in advance of any deadlines, and give them at least two weeks to provide feedback. Ask them in person if you can, but if you cannot, send them an email. If they agree to take a look, you can send them a message with your essay. Download a sample message below.

After receiving feedback, revise! You should plan on going through a few drafts. Here are some things to keep in mind: 

  • You do not have to incorporate all feedback. Accept what you think is most helpful. 
  • Edits and revisions should not remove your voice or completely alter your writing style. 
  • Pay attention to spelling, grammar, punctuation, and even formatting. 
  • It may help to read your essay out loud to catch mistakes you might otherwise skim over. 
  • Read your college essay from an admissions officer’s perspective.
  • For more college essay writing tips, continue reading the FAQs below.

Detailed FAQs about college admissions essays

Mechanics, structure, and content are vital parts of a successful essay. Our Detailed College Essays FAQs page covers each category in detail to give your essay a strong start and finish. Learn about how to write a college essay, how long a college essay should be, and more.

10 Strategies for Writing a College Application Essay

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Strategies How to Write a College Application Essay

Your college essay, frequently asked questions about writing a college application essay.

Writing a college application essay can have an incredible influence on the college admissions committees . The essay is designed to give students a chance to really show colleges who they are and what they aspire to be. This is why it’s important to compose something that makes your personal statement stand out amongst the hundreds of other students.

You want to write something captivating and impactful without overwhelming the reader yet staying true to you. But between knowing where to start and what to write about, the essay itself seems almost impossible to conquer. And this is where I come in.

Today’s article focuses on my carefully crafted 10-step strategy for writing the perfect college application essay . With some colleges no longer considering factors like high school grades and standardized test scores (i.e., SAT and ACT scores ), the pressure to create a college application essay can be fierce but stress no more. With the help of these ten strategies, you will be on your way to writing the strong college application essay that just might get you a seat at your dream college. Let’s get right into it!

Visit our Scholarship blog for more insight on college-related topics, plus access to hundreds of exclusive scholarships . So, don’t wait. Start applying today !

Start Early:

Because the whole application process is tedious from beginning to end, you want to give yourself plenty of time to work on your essay. Be sure to start brainstorming ideas early and create and outline your essay. Not only will this give you an idea of how you want to structure your essay, but it will also provide an ample amount of time to work on the essay. If you start early, you will also have more than enough time to edit and go through multiple drafts until your final draft is complete.

Understand the Prompt:

Before you begin writing anything, make sure you fully understand the essay prompt. The last thing you want to do is write an essay that has nothing to do with the theme/prompt the school has given prospective students. Look into the essay’s guidelines beforehand to have a clear understanding of what your topic is. That way, you don’t waste words and time.

Show, Don’t Tell:

It’s easy to put words on a paper and call it an essay, but that’s boring (and lazy)! Show your readers what you want them to see; don’t just tell them. Use specific examples to illustrate your points and qualities. Try adding some humor in there to give them an even clearer sense of your personality, as well.

Whatever theme or prompts you are focusing on in your essay, just make sure you show who you truly are. Bring your readers on your journey through any experience you’re highlighting rather than just telling them you were there. Use your achievements and moments of clarity to draw them in. An admissions officer will want to see your colors, not just hear about them.

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Be Authentic:

This is the key and probably the most important part of your essay. Be authentic and unapologetically you. Write in your own voice, and don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Share your experiences, passions, and aspirations, but focus on how who you truly are, your values, and your goals. It’s easy to tell when something is forced, so stray away from generic tones and cliché jargon. Be fun, use humor, and showcase your natural tone. College admissions committees respect transparency and honesty as these characteristics usually line up with their institution’s values, so be authentically you.

Focus on a Specific Topic:

When you’re working on something like a college application essay where your goal is to stand out, it’s easy to ramble on about yourself, and that’s okay! But it’s important to know what is necessary and what overflow is. Choose a specific topic/theme that gives your story a way to showcase your personality and stick to it. You want to focus on key details and not details about the details. Stick to what you want to convey and use supporting information and/or characteristics.  

Structure Your Essay:

The key to a well-thought-out, formed essay is a strong outline. Organizing your thoughts will help you more than you know, so make sure you start your outline with a clear introduction that leads to strong body paragraphs that support your main points. And when all is said and done, you will wrap up your essay with an impressionable conclusion. You might go through a few outlines before you get to your final one, but that’s okay! Whatever works for you will shine through your essay.

writing an essay for college applications

Edit and Revise:

Editing is going to be your best friend. The first draft is always going to be a little messy, so make sure you go back and proofread your work for any grammar and spelling errors. The editing and writing process can also help you gain some clarity on what you are trying to convey to the college admissions committee. Because we’re the ones writing it, our thoughts make sense as soon they spill onto the paper, so proofreading your work will give you a chance to realign those thoughts and make it more coherent and smoother to read.

And since you’re the one writing it, it’s easy to overlook typos and missed punctuation, so I suggest taking breaks. And this can go any way! You can complete the first few paragraphs and then take a break; you can do one paragraph at a time or even the entire essay and then take a break. Whichever way you choose to go when it comes to writing essays, stepping back from your words can help you regain that sharp eye that will catch the errors.

Seek Feedback:

If you’re anything like me, you don’t like to bother people or ask for help, but for your college application essay, you have to put that aside. Don’t be afraid to ask teachers, counselors, your parents, peers, and friends to read your essay and provide constructive feedback in areas that need improvement. A second, third, and even fourth set of eyes will be able to catch things you can’t. Just be sure the people you know will set time aside to help you.

Also, request that your readers tell you what they gained from the essay. Did you perceive yourself well, did you miss anything, should you include a detail you don’t think it relevant to personal essay, but they do? You want to make sure your essay represents you academically, professionally, and personally, so listen closely to what they have to say and revise until it’s ready to go.

Be Positive:

Though I know it’s important to share your experiences and stories in your applications essay, I want to make sure you don’t focus on the negative aspects of your experiences (if any!). Colleges want to see their prospective student’s personalities and how they get through even the happiest of life experiences, and not just the challenging ones. Focus on your strengths, achievements, and growth while maintaining a positive and optimistic tone throughout your essay.

Leave them wanting more:

The goal point of your application’s essay is to stand out, so ending your essay with a strong closing sentence will amplify the reader’s interest that much more. Not only will these strategies inspire a well-written and authentic essay, but they can also increase your chances of making a strong, lasting impression on college admissions committees. Make sure your closing statement is witty and powerful and ties it all together.

Your college essay should show your personality, special qualities, experiences, and aspirations to the college admissions officers and committee. You don’t want to do too much, but you also don’t want to leave anything out . So, in case you get stuck, here are some elements to include in your college application essay:

  • Personal Story : Share your story and experiences that have shaped your identity and/or influenced your passions.
  • Academic Achievements : This is not the time to be modest about academic achievements, so highlight any awards or honors that demonstrate your dedication to education.
  • Goals and Aspirations : Clearly state your goals and aspirations and explain how attending the college you are applying to support those dreams.
  • Unique Perspective : Offer the unique perspectives or insights that set you apart from other applicants. This will showcase your individuality.
  • Writing Style : You want your essay to demonstrate strong writing skills, creativity, and clarity. Provide vivid language, clear storytelling, and proper grammar and punctuation.
  • Relevance : Make sure your essay directly addresses the college’s prompts or questions and aligns with the values and mission of the institution.
  • Reflection : Reflect on your experiences, challenges, and growth, and show how they have shaped your character and prepared you for college.
  • Be Yourself : But most importantly, be You. Stay true to your authenticity, as it is the one thing that will make you stand out the most!

In truth, your college application essay doesn’t have to drag . Include some of these elements into your work, and you might even (dare I say) have fun showing every college board member who you are and what you have to offer the world of academia. Good luck, and happy writing your admissions essays .

college essay writing

What should I write about in my college application essay?

When it comes to topics for your college application essay, choose a subject that boasts your unique personality, experiences, and personal values. Consider sharing a personal story that shines a light on your strengths, or write about any challenges you’ve overcome gracefully or a significant moment that helped shape your identity. The goal of college essays is to provide admissions officers with insight into who you are beyond your academic achievements, not just that you can put together an essay.

How long should my college application essay be?

Most colleges have specific guidelines regarding the length of the application essay, typically ranging from 250 to 650 words. It is important to adhere to the word count limit provided by the college to ensure that your essay is concise and focused. Be sure to carefully review the college application process and instructions to determine the appropriate length for your essay.

How can I make my college application essay stand out?

To make your college application essay stand out, focus on your authentic voice and perspective. Avoid clichés and generic statements, and instead, strive to convey your unique personality and experiences. Use bold language, descriptive details, and storytelling techniques to captivate the reader’s attention. Don’t be afraid to get feedback from teachers, counselors, or peers to ensure that your college essay topic is well-written and effectively communicates your message.

Interested in learning more from Bold.org ? Visit our Scholarship Blog to stay up to date on everything you need to know about college topics and apply for scholarships today.

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What I’ve Learned From My Students’ College Essays

The genre is often maligned for being formulaic and melodramatic, but it’s more important than you think.

An illustration of a high school student with blue hair, dreaming of what to write in their college essay.

By Nell Freudenberger

Most high school seniors approach the college essay with dread. Either their upbringing hasn’t supplied them with several hundred words of adversity, or worse, they’re afraid that packaging the genuine trauma they’ve experienced is the only way to secure their future. The college counselor at the Brooklyn high school where I’m a writing tutor advises against trauma porn. “Keep it brief , ” she says, “and show how you rose above it.”

I started volunteering in New York City schools in my 20s, before I had kids of my own. At the time, I liked hanging out with teenagers, whom I sometimes had more interesting conversations with than I did my peers. Often I worked with students who spoke English as a second language or who used slang in their writing, and at first I was hung up on grammar. Should I correct any deviation from “standard English” to appeal to some Wizard of Oz behind the curtains of a college admissions office? Or should I encourage students to write the way they speak, in pursuit of an authentic voice, that most elusive of literary qualities?

In fact, I was missing the point. One of many lessons the students have taught me is to let the story dictate the voice of the essay. A few years ago, I worked with a boy who claimed to have nothing to write about. His life had been ordinary, he said; nothing had happened to him. I asked if he wanted to try writing about a family member, his favorite school subject, a summer job? He glanced at his phone, his posture and expression suggesting that he’d rather be anywhere but in front of a computer with me. “Hobbies?” I suggested, without much hope. He gave me a shy glance. “I like to box,” he said.

I’ve had this experience with reluctant writers again and again — when a topic clicks with a student, an essay can unfurl spontaneously. Of course the primary goal of a college essay is to help its author get an education that leads to a career. Changes in testing policies and financial aid have made applying to college more confusing than ever, but essays have remained basically the same. I would argue that they’re much more than an onerous task or rote exercise, and that unlike standardized tests they are infinitely variable and sometimes beautiful. College essays also provide an opportunity to learn precision, clarity and the process of working toward the truth through multiple revisions.

When a topic clicks with a student, an essay can unfurl spontaneously.

Even if writing doesn’t end up being fundamental to their future professions, students learn to choose language carefully and to be suspicious of the first words that come to mind. Especially now, as college students shoulder so much of the country’s ethical responsibility for war with their protest movement, essay writing teaches prospective students an increasingly urgent lesson: that choosing their own words over ready-made phrases is the only reliable way to ensure they’re thinking for themselves.

Teenagers are ideal writers for several reasons. They’re usually free of preconceptions about writing, and they tend not to use self-consciously ‘‘literary’’ language. They’re allergic to hypocrisy and are generally unfiltered: They overshare, ask personal questions and call you out for microaggressions as well as less egregious (but still mortifying) verbal errors, such as referring to weed as ‘‘pot.’’ Most important, they have yet to put down their best stories in a finished form.

I can imagine an essay taking a risk and distinguishing itself formally — a poem or a one-act play — but most kids use a more straightforward model: a hook followed by a narrative built around “small moments” that lead to a concluding lesson or aspiration for the future. I never get tired of working with students on these essays because each one is different, and the short, rigid form sometimes makes an emotional story even more powerful. Before I read Javier Zamora’s wrenching “Solito,” I worked with a student who had been transported by a coyote into the U.S. and was reunited with his mother in the parking lot of a big-box store. I don’t remember whether this essay focused on specific skills or coping mechanisms that he gained from his ordeal. I remember only the bliss of the parent-and-child reunion in that uninspiring setting. If I were making a case to an admissions officer, I would suggest that simply being able to convey that experience demonstrates the kind of resilience that any college should admire.

The essays that have stayed with me over the years don’t follow a pattern. There are some narratives on very predictable topics — living up to the expectations of immigrant parents, or suffering from depression in 2020 — that are moving because of the attention with which the student describes the experience. One girl determined to become an engineer while watching her father build furniture from scraps after work; a boy, grieving for his mother during lockdown, began taking pictures of the sky.

If, as Lorrie Moore said, “a short story is a love affair; a novel is a marriage,” what is a college essay? Every once in a while I sit down next to a student and start reading, and I have to suppress my excitement, because there on the Google Doc in front of me is a real writer’s voice. One of the first students I ever worked with wrote about falling in love with another girl in dance class, the absolute magic of watching her move and the terror in the conflict between her feelings and the instruction of her religious middle school. She made me think that college essays are less like love than limerence: one-sided, obsessive, idiosyncratic but profound, the first draft of the most personal story their writers will ever tell.

Nell Freudenberger’s novel “The Limits” was published by Knopf last month. She volunteers through the PEN America Writers in the Schools program.

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Sat / act prep online guides and tips, what is a personal statement everything you need to know about the college essay.

College Admissions , College Essays

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In addition to standardized test scores and transcripts, a personal statement or essay is a required part of many college applications. The personal statement can be one of the most stressful parts of the application process because it's the most open ended.

In this guide, I'll answer the question, "What is a personal statement?" I'll talk through common college essay topics and what makes for an effective personal statement.

College Essay Glossary

Even the terminology can be confusing if you aren't familiar with it, so let's start by defining some terms:

Personal statement —an essay you write to show a college admissions committee who you are and why you deserve to be admitted to their school. It's worth noting that, unlike "college essay," this term is used for application essays for graduate school as well.

College essay —basically the same as a personal statement (I'll be using the terms interchangeably).

Essay prompt —a question or statement that your college essay is meant to respond to.

Supplemental essay —an extra school or program-specific essay beyond the basic personal statement.

Many colleges ask for only one essay. However, some schools do ask you to respond to multiple prompts or to provide supplemental essays in addition to a primary personal statement.

Either way, don't let it stress you out! This guide will cover everything you need to know about the different types of college essays and get you started thinking about how to write a great one:

  • Why colleges ask for an essay
  • What kinds of essay questions you'll see
  • What sets great essays apart
  • Tips for writing your own essay

Why Do Colleges Ask For an Essay?

There are a couple of reasons that colleges ask applicants to submit an essay, but the basic idea is that it gives them more information about you, especially who you are beyond grades and test scores.

#1: Insight Into Your Personality

The most important role of the essay is to give admissions committees a sense of your personality and what kind of addition you'd be to their school's community . Are you inquisitive? Ambitious? Caring? These kinds of qualities will have a profound impact on your college experience, but they're hard to determine based on a high school transcript.

Basically, the essay contextualizes your application and shows what kind of person you are outside of your grades and test scores . Imagine two students, Jane and Tim: they both have 3.5 GPAs and 1200s on the SAT. Jane lives in Colorado and is the captain of her track team; Tim lives in Vermont and regularly contributes to the school paper. They both want to be doctors, and they both volunteer at the local hospital.

As similar as Jane and Tim seem on paper, in reality, they're actually quite different, and their unique perspectives come through in their essays. Jane writes about how looking into her family history for a school project made her realize how the discovery of modern medical treatments like antibiotics and vaccines had changed the world and drove her to pursue a career as a medical researcher. Tim, meanwhile, recounts a story about how a kind doctor helped him overcome his fear of needles, an interaction that reminded him of the value of empathy and inspired him to become a family practitioner. These two students may seem outwardly similar but their motivations and personalities are very different.

Without an essay, your application is essentially a series of numbers: a GPA, SAT scores, the number of hours spent preparing for quiz bowl competitions. The personal statement is your chance to stand out as an individual.

#2: Evidence of Writing Skills

A secondary purpose of the essay is to serve as a writing sample and help colleges see that you have the skills needed to succeed in college classes. The personal statement is your best chance to show off your writing , so take the time to craft a piece you're really proud of.

That said, don't panic if you aren't a strong writer. Admissions officers aren't expecting you to write like Joan Didion; they just want to see that you can express your ideas clearly.

No matter what, your essay should absolutely not include any errors or typos .

#3: Explanation of Extenuating Circumstances

For some students, the essay is also a chance to explain factors affecting their high school record. Did your grades drop sophomore year because you were dealing with a family emergency? Did you miss out on extracurriculars junior year because of an extended medical absence? Colleges want to know if you struggled with a serious issue that affected your high school record , so make sure to indicate any relevant circumstances on your application.

Keep in mind that in some cases there will be a separate section for you to address these types of issues, as well as any black marks on your record like expulsions or criminal charges.

#4: Your Reasons for Applying to the School

Many colleges ask you to write an essay or paragraph about why you're applying to their school specifically . In asking these questions, admissions officers are trying to determine if you're genuinely excited about the school and whether you're likely to attend if accepted .

I'll talk more about this type of essay below.

Want to write the perfect college application essay?   We can help.   Your dedicated PrepScholar Admissions counselor will help you craft your perfect college essay, from the ground up. We learn your background and interests, brainstorm essay topics, and walk you through the essay drafting process, step-by-step. At the end, you'll have a unique essay to proudly submit to colleges.   Don't leave your college application to chance. Find out more about PrepScholar Admissions now:

What Kind of Questions Do Colleges Ask?

Thankfully, applications don't simply say, "Please include an essay about yourself"; they include a question or prompt that you're asked to respond to . These prompts are generally pretty open-ended and can be approached in a lot of different ways .

Nonetheless, most questions fall into a few main categories. Let's go through each common type of prompt, with examples from the Common Application, the University of California application, and a few individual schools.

Prompt Type 1: Your Personal History

This sort of question asks you to write about a formative experience, important event, or key relationship from your life . Admissions officers want to understand what is important to you and how your background has shaped you as a person.

These questions are both common and tricky. The most common pit students fall into is trying to tell their entire life stories. It's better to focus in on a very specific point in time and explain why it was meaningful to you.

Common App 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.

Common App 5

Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

University of California 2

Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.

University of California 6

Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.

Prompt Type 2: Facing a Problem

A lot of prompts deal with how you solve problems, how you cope with failure, and how you respond to conflict. College can be difficult, both personally and academically, and admissions committees want to see that you're equipped to face those challenges .

The key to these types of questions is to identify a real problem, failure, or conflict ( not a success in disguise) and show how you adapted and grew from addressing the issue.

Common App 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?

Harvard University 7

The Harvard College Honor Code declares that we “hold honesty as the foundation of our community.” As you consider entering this community that is committed to honesty, please reflect on a time when you or someone you observed had to make a choice about whether to act with integrity and honesty.

Prompt Type 3: Diversity

Most colleges are pretty diverse, with students from a wide range of backgrounds. Essay questions about diversity are designed to help admissions committees understand how you interact with people who are different from you .

In addressing these prompts, you want to show that you're capable of engaging with new ideas and relating to people who may have different beliefs than you.

Common App 3

Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

Johns Hopkins University

Tell us about an aspect of your identity (e.g., race, gender, sexuality, religion, community) or a life experience that has shaped you as an individual and how that influenced what you’d like to pursue in college at Hopkins.  This can be a future goal or experience that is either [sic] academic, extracurricular, or social.

Duke University Optional 1

We believe a wide range of personal perspectives, beliefs, and lived experiences are essential to making Duke a vibrant and meaningful living and learning community. Feel free to share with us anything in this context that might help us better understand you and what you might bring to our community. 

body_oddpencilout

Prompt Type 4: Your Future Goals

This type of prompt asks about what you want to do in the future: sometimes simply what you'd like to study, sometimes longer-term career goals. Colleges want to understand what you're interested in and how you plan to work towards your goals.

You'll mostly see these prompts if you're applying for a specialized program (like pre-med or engineering) or applying as a transfer student. Some schools also ask for supplementary essays along these lines. 

University of Southern California (Architecture)

Princeton Supplement 1

Prompt Type 5: Why This School

The most common style of supplemental essay is the "why us?" essay, although a few schools with their own application use this type of question as their main prompt. In these essays, you're meant to address the specific reasons you want to go to the school you're applying to .

Whatever you do, don't ever recycle these essays for more than one school.

Chapman University

There are thousands of universities and colleges. Why are you interested in attending Chapman?

Columbia University

Why are you interested in attending Columbia University? We encourage you to consider the aspect(s) that you find unique and compelling about Columbia.

Rice University

Based upon your exploration of Rice University, what elements of the Rice experience appeal to you?

Princeton University

Princeton has a longstanding commitment to understanding our responsibility to society through service and civic engagement. How does your own story intersect with these ideals?

Prompt Type 6: Creative Prompts

More selective schools often have supplemental essays with stranger or more unique questions. University of Chicago is notorious for its weird prompts, but it's not the only school that will ask you to think outside the box in addressing its questions.

University of Chicago

“Vlog,” “Labradoodle,” and “Fauxmage.” Language is filled with portmanteaus. Create a new portmanteau and explain why those two things are a “patch” (perfect match).

University of Vermont

Established in Burlington, VT, Ben & Jerry’s is synonymous with both ice cream and social change. The “Save Our Swirled” flavor raises awareness of climate change, and “I Dough, I Dough” celebrates marriage equality. If you worked alongside Ben & Jerry, what charitable flavor would you develop and why?

body_uchicago

What Makes a Strong Personal Statement?

OK , so you're clear on what a college essay is, but you're still not sure how to write a good one . To help you get started, I'm going to explain the main things admissions officers look for in students' essays: an engaging perspective, genuine moments, and lively writing .

I've touched on these ideas already, but here, I'll go into more depth about how the best essays stand out from the pack.

Showing Who You Are

A lot of students panic about finding a unique topic, and certainly writing about something unusual like a successful dating app you developed with your friends or your time working as a mall Santa can't hurt you. But what's really important isn't so much what you write about as how you write about it . You need to use your subject to show something deeper about yourself.

Look at the prompts above: you'll notice that they almost all ask you what you learned or how the experience affected you. Whatever topic you pick, you must be able to specifically address how or why it matters to you .

Say a student, Will, was writing about the mall Santa in response to Common App prompt number 2 (the one about failure): Will was a terrible mall Santa. He was way too skinny to be convincing and the kids would always step on his feet. He could easily write 600 very entertaining words describing this experience, but they wouldn't necessarily add up to an effective college essay.

To do that, he'll need to talk about his motivations and his feelings: why he took such a job in the first place and what he did (and didn't) get out of it. Maybe Will took the job because he needed to make some money to go on a school trip and it was the only one he could find. Despite his lack of enthusiasm for screaming children, he kept doing it because he knew if he persevered through the whole holiday season he would have enough money for his trip. Would you rather read "I failed at being a mall Santa" or "Failing as a mall Santa taught me how to persevere no matter what"? Admissions officers definitely prefer the latter.

Ultimately, the best topics are ones that allow you to explain something surprising about yourself .

Since the main point of the essay is to give schools a sense of who you are, you have to open up enough to let them see your personality . Writing a good college essay means being honest about your feelings and experiences even when they aren't entirely positive.

In this context, honesty doesn't mean going on at length about the time you broke into the local pool at night and nearly got arrested, but it does mean acknowledging when something was difficult or upsetting for you. Think about the mall Santa example above. The essay won't work unless the writer genuinely acknowledges that he was a bad Santa and explains why.

Want to build the best possible college application?   We can help.   PrepScholar Admissions combines world-class admissions counselors with our data-driven, proprietary admissions strategies. We've guided thousands of students to get into their top choice schools, from state colleges to the Ivy League. We know what kinds of students colleges want to admit and are driven to get you admitted to your dream schools. Learn more about PrepScholar Admissions to maximize your chance of getting in:

Eloquent Writing

As I mentioned above, colleges want to know that you are a strong enough writer to survive in college classes . Can you express your ideas clearly and concisely? Can you employ specific details appropriately and avoid clichés and generalizations? These kinds of skills will serve you well in college (and in life!).

Nonetheless, admissions officers recognize that different students have different strengths. They aren't looking for a poetic magnum opus from someone who wants to be a math major. (Honestly, they aren't expecting a masterwork from anyone , but the basic point stands.) Focus on making sure that your thoughts and personality come through, and don't worry about using fancy vocabulary or complex rhetorical devices.

Above all, make sure that you have zero grammar or spelling errors . Typos indicate carelessness, which will hurt your cause with admissions officers.

Top Five Essay-Writing Tips

Now that you have a sense of what colleges are looking for, let's talk about how you can put this new knowledge into practice as you approach your own essay. Below, I've collected my five best tips from years as a college essay counselor.

#1: Start Early!

No matter how much you want to avoid writing your essay, don't leave it until the last minute . One of the most important parts of the essay writing process is editing, and editing takes a lot of time. You want to be able to put your draft in a drawer for a week and come back to it with fresh eyes. You don't want to be stuck with an essay you don't really like because you have to submit your application tomorrow.

You need plenty of time to experiment and rewrite, so I would recommend starting your essays at least two months before the application deadline . For most students, that means starting around Halloween, but if you're applying early, you'll need to get going closer to Labor Day.

Of course, it's even better to get a head start and begin your planning earlier. Many students like to work on their essays over the summer, when they have more free time, but you should keep in mind that each year's application isn't usually released until August or September. Essay questions often stay the same from year to year, however. If you are looking to get a jump on writing, you can try to confirm with the school (or the Common App) whether the essay questions will be the same as the previous year's.

#2: Pick a Topic You're Genuinely Excited About

One of the biggest mistakes students make is trying to write what they think the committee wants to hear. The truth is that there's no "right answer" when it comes to college essays . T he best topics aren't limited to specific categories like volunteer experiences or winning a tournament. Instead, they're topics that actually matter to the writer .

"OK," you're thinking, "but what does she mean by 'a topic that matters to you'? Because to be perfectly honest, right now, what really matters to me is that fall TV starts up this week, and I have a feeling I shouldn't write about that."

You're not wrong (although some great essays have been written about television ). A great topic isn't just something that you're excited about or that you talk to your friends about; it's something that has had a real, describable effect on your perspective .

This doesn't mean that you should overemphasize how something absolutely changed your life , especially if it really didn't. Instead, try to be as specific and honest as you can about how the experience affected you, what it taught you, or what you got out of it.

Let's go back to the TV idea. Sure, writing an essay about how excited you are for the new season of Stranger Things  probably isn't the quickest way to get yourself into college, but you could write a solid essay (in response to the first type of prompt) about how SpongeBob SquarePants was an integral part of your childhood. However, it's not enough to just explain how much you loved SpongeBob—you must also explain why and how watching the show every day after school affected your life. For example, maybe it was a ritual you shared with your brother, which showed you how even seemingly silly pieces of pop culture can bring people together. Dig beneath the surface to show who you are and how you see the world.

When you write about something you don't really care about, your writing will come out clichéd and uninteresting, and you'll likely struggle to motivate yourself. When you instead write about something that is genuinely important to you, you can make even the most ordinary experiences—learning to swim, eating a meal, or watching TV—engaging .

body_spongebob

#3: Focus on Specifics

But how do you write an interesting essay? Focus.

Don't try to tell your entire life story or even the story of an entire weekend; 500–650 words may seem like a lot, but you'll reach that limit quickly if you try to pack every single thing that has happened to you into your essay. If, however, you just touch on a wide range of topics, you'll end up with an essay that reads more like a résumé.

Instead, narrow in on one specific event or idea, and talk about it in more depth . The narrower your topic, the better. For example, writing about your role as Mercutio in your school's production of Romeo and Juliet is too general, but writing about opening night, when everything went wrong, could be a great topic.

Whatever your topic, use details to help draw the reader in and express your unique perspective. But keep in mind that you don't have to include every detail of what you did or thought; stick to the important and illustrative ones.

#4: Use Your Own Voice

College essays aren't academic assignments; you don't need to be super formal. Instead, try to be yourself. The best writing sounds like a more eloquent version of the way you talk .

Focus on using clear, simple language that effectively explains a point or evokes a feeling. To do so, avoid the urge to use fancy-sounding synonyms when you don't really know what they mean. Contractions are fine; slang, generally, is not. Don't hesitate to write in the first person.

A final note: you don't need to be relentlessly positive. It's OK to acknowledge that sometimes things don't go how you want—just show how you grew from that.

#5: Be Ruthless

Many students want to call it a day after writing a first draft, but editing is a key part of writing a truly great essay. To be clear, editing doesn't mean just making a few minor wording tweaks and cleaning up typos; it means reading your essay carefully and objectively and thinking about how you could improve it .

Ask yourself questions as you read: is the progression of the essay clear? Do you make a lot of vague, sweeping statements that could be replaced with more interesting specifics? Do your sentences flow together nicely? Do you show something about yourself beyond the surface level?

You will have to delete and rewrite (potentially large) parts of your essay, and no matter how attached you feel to something you wrote, you might have to let it go . If you've ever heard the phrase "kill your darlings," know that it is 100% applicable to college essay writing.

At some point, you might even need to rewrite the whole essay. Even though it's annoying, starting over is sometimes the best way to get an essay that you're really proud of.

body_aplus

What's Next?

Make sure to check out our other posts on college essays , including our step-by-step guide to how to write your college essay , our analysis of the Common App Prompts , and our collection of example essays .

If you're in need of guidance on other parts of the application process , take a look at our guides to choosing the right college for you , writing about extracurriculars , deciding to double major , and requesting teacher recommendations .

Last but not least, if you're planning on taking the SAT one last time , check out our ultimate guide to studying for the SAT and make sure you're as prepared as possible.

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points?   We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download them for free now:

Alex is an experienced tutor and writer. Over the past five years, she has worked with almost a hundred students and written about pop culture for a wide range of publications. She graduated with honors from University of Chicago, receiving a BA in English and Anthropology, and then went on to earn an MA at NYU in Cultural Reporting and Criticism. In high school, she was a National Merit Scholar, took 12 AP tests and scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and ACT.

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Your Best College Essay

Maybe you love to write, or maybe you don’t. Either way, there’s a chance that the thought of writing your college essay is making you sweat. No need for nerves! We’re here to give you the important details on how to make the process as anxiety-free as possible.

student's hands typing on a laptop in class

What's the College Essay?

When we say “The College Essay” (capitalization for emphasis – say it out loud with the capitals and you’ll know what we mean) we’re talking about the 550-650 word essay required by most colleges and universities. Prompts for this essay can be found on the college’s website, the Common Application, or the Coalition Application. We’re not talking about the many smaller supplemental essays you might need to write in order to apply to college. Not all institutions require the essay, but most colleges and universities that are at least semi-selective do.

How do I get started?

Look for the prompts on whatever application you’re using to apply to schools (almost all of the time – with a few notable exceptions – this is the Common Application). If one of them calls out to you, awesome! You can jump right in and start to brainstorm. If none of them are giving you the right vibes, don’t worry. They’re so broad that almost anything you write can fit into one of the prompts after you’re done. Working backwards like this is totally fine and can be really useful!

What if I have writer's block?

You aren’t alone. Staring at a blank Google Doc and thinking about how this is the one chance to tell an admissions officer your story can make you freeze. Thinking about some of these questions might help you find the right topic:

  • What is something about you that people have pointed out as distinctive?
  • If you had to pick three words to describe yourself, what would they be? What are things you’ve done that demonstrate these qualities?
  • What’s something about you that has changed over your years in high school? How or why did it change?
  • What’s something you like most about yourself?
  • What’s something you love so much that you lose track of the rest of the world while you do it?

If you’re still stuck on a topic, ask your family members, friends, or other trusted adults: what’s something they always think about when they think about you? What’s something they think you should be proud of? They might help you find something about yourself that you wouldn’t have surfaced on your own.  

How do I grab my reader's attention?

It’s no secret that admissions officers are reading dozens – and sometimes hundreds – of essays every day. That can feel like a lot of pressure to stand out. But if you try to write the most unique essay in the world, it might end up seeming forced if it’s not genuinely you. So, what’s there to do? Our advice: start your essay with a story. Tell the reader about something you’ve done, complete with sensory details, and maybe even dialogue. Then, in the second paragraph, back up and tell us why this story is important and what it tells them about you and the theme of the essay.

THE WORD LIMIT IS SO LIMITING. HOW DO I TELL A COLLEGE MY WHOLE LIFE STORY IN 650 WORDS?

Don’t! Don’t try to tell an admissions officer about everything you’ve loved and done since you were a child. Instead, pick one or two things about yourself that you’re hoping to get across and stick to those. They’ll see the rest on the activities section of your application.

I'M STUCK ON THE CONCLUSION. HELP?

If you can’t think of another way to end the essay, talk about how the qualities you’ve discussed in your essays have prepared you for college. Try to wrap up with a sentence that refers back to the story you told in your first paragraph, if you took that route.

SHOULD I PROOFREAD MY ESSAY?

YES, proofread the essay, and have a trusted adult proofread it as well. Know that any suggestions they give you are coming from a good place, but make sure they aren’t writing your essay for you or putting it into their own voice. Admissions officers want to hear the voice of you, the applicant. Before you submit your essay anywhere, our number one advice is to read it out loud to yourself. When you read out loud you’ll catch small errors you may not have noticed before, and hear sentences that aren’t quite right.

ANY OTHER ADVICE?

Be yourself. If you’re not a naturally serious person, don’t force formality. If you’re the comedian in your friend group, go ahead and be funny. But ultimately, write as your authentic (and grammatically correct) self and trust the process.

And remember, thousands of other students your age are faced with this same essay writing task, right now. You can do it!

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how long to college essays need to be

How Important is the College Essay?

What’s covered:, factors that impact the importance of college essays, final thoughts, where to get your essay edited.

You know it’s important to have a high GPA, strong standardized tests scores, and extracurricular activities for your college application. But what about the essay? Just how much does it really matter to your overall academic profile? 

The essay is always important, but just how much it will influence your overall application varies by the school to which you are applying, as well as your individual profile. We’ll break it down further in this post.

how long to college essays need to be

At the top 250 schools, your essays generally account for 25% of your overall application. This is only slightly behind the 30% for extracurriculars. Essays are actually ahead of the 20% for grades and coursework, 15% for test scores, and 10% for recommendations and interviews. 

Now that many schools are going test-optional or test-blind , however, this breakdown changes slightly. In these situations, test scores no longer account for 15%, meaning that other portions of your application, including essays, are given more weight and consideration.

You might be surprised to learn that essays are that important, but keep in mind that at top schools, there are at least 4 academically-qualified candidates for every open spot. To truly assess an applicant’s fit with the school, admissions officers need the essays. Essays are your one opportunity to share your voice, your unique experiences, and your perspective.

While there is a general breakdown as to how important essays are, their actual influence will vary based on several factors:

1. School size and type

Huge public schools tend to have more applicants than private schools, as well as limited resources with which to evaluate candidates. State schools tend to screen candidates first using GPA and test scores, before reviewing extracurricular activities and essays. At these schools, essays matter less if you have particularly strong academics. The more selective the school, however, the more important essays are. For instance, essays likely matter more at UC Berkeley and the University of Michigan compared to the University of Nebraska or University of Arizona. This is because more selective schools often have more qualified applicants, so essays are used kind of as a tie-breaker. 

In contrast, smaller colleges, especially liberal arts schools, tend to take a more holistic approach to evaluating candidates, since these colleges tend to be more self-selective and receive fewer applications. Therefore, they can devote more time and resources to each individual application.

Top private schools like the Ivies and similar-tier colleges also prefer to use a holistic approach when evaluating students, seeking to understand the candidate and their background as a whole. At top-tier colleges, many of the candidates are already excellent students who have stellar grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities, so essays provide an additional way to differentiate candidates and understand their entire profiles and personalities. As a result, essays are extremely important at these schools, even for those with stellar academics.

2. The strength of your profile

If you are a “borderline” candidate, with good but less-competitive grades and test scores, a strong essay could push you into the admitted pool. However, your essay is unlikely to compensate for grades and test scores that are too far below average, since academics are the primary basis of evaluation.

For the student who otherwise presents an outstanding profile, with a high GPA, competitive test scores, and stellar extracurricular activities, the essay may have a smaller impact on your overall application, because you have already demonstrated your ability to succeed. However, you should still aim to write a strong essay, especially if your dream colleges are highly-selective. 

Under no circumstances should you ever “blow off” your college essay. Even if the rest of your profile makes you a top candidate for competitive colleges, your essay always matters. In fact, your essay could end up hurting an application for an otherwise strong candidate if it appears hastily written or not well thought-out.

3. Your intended major

Factoring in your particular interests, talents, and intended major makes the importance of the essay even more nuanced. If you intend to study a humanities subject such as Journalism, Creative Writing, or English, and list writing-oriented extracurricular activities (such as your school newspaper) on your application, your essay needs to reflect your talent and chosen major. If colleges see that your focus is writing and receive a poorly-written or uninspired essay, they will be confused — and may wonder how well you understand your own strengths.

On the other hand, if your focus is clearly on a subject in which writing personally and creatively is not as essential, such as STEM, admissions committees may provide a little more leeway and judge your essay a little less harshly. You still need to present a well-written and carefully-considered essay, of course. If you know writing is somewhat of a weakness, have teachers, guidance counselors, friends, and family members read it and offer feedback. However, colleges will generally understand that your talents lie elsewhere.

4. Test-optional/Test-blind policies

When colleges go test-optional or test-blind , standardized test scores are given less or no consideration in the admissions process. This means that the other aspects of your application will be more important. So, if you’re planning on applying to schools with test-optional or test-blind policies, keep in mind that your essays will be given even more consideration. Alternatively, if you’re applying to a school where standardized tests are required, your essays may be weighted slightly less.

In either case, you should be making sure your essays are as strong as possible. As schools are increasingly turning test-optional and test-blind in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, admissions processes are constantly changing in unpredictable ways. Your essays are the most personalized part of your application and are your chance to tell admissions officers your unique story. So, make sure that your essays are in great shape and are conveying your personality in an authentic and interesting way.

Essays are an extremely important part of the college admissions process. While certain factors may impact the relative influence of essays, you should always put in your best effort. 

If you’re looking for more help on how to write a strong essay, check out these posts:

How to Write the Common App Essays (with Examples!)

How to Write the “Why This Major” Essay

How to Write the “Why This College” Essay

Want help with your college essays to improve your admissions chances? It’s always useful to have another set of eyes look at your essays to make sure they are in great shape. No matter where you are in the writing process, you can check out our Peer and Expert Essay Review to get some insight into how to improve your college essays! 

With our free peer review, you can have others take a look at your essay and provide useful feedback. You can also improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays. Alternatively, try out our paid expert essay review to get expert advice and detailed tips on what to improve in your essays!

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  • How To Write A Great Admission Essay: A Step-by-Step Guide
  • Posted:  May 10, 2024
  • Category:  Essay writing guides

How To Write A Great Admission Essay: A Step-by-Step Guide

You're likely familiar with the traditional structure of an academic essay: start with an introduction, incorporate a thesis statement, support it with three paragraphs of evidence, and conclude neatly. However, when it comes to crafting a college admission essay, set this formula aside. The admission essay is a unique genre that demands a different approach.

Rethinking the Essay Structure

Forget everything you know about standard academic essays because the college application essay follows different rules. Here, the focus shifts from showcasing your ability to analyze information to demonstrating your personal story and aspirations.

The Objective of Your College Essay

Your college application essay should infuse your application with vitality. It's meant to reflect your true self, showcasing who you are beyond just grades, test scores, and extracurricular involvements. Don't be intimidated by this task; it's less daunting than it appears. You can select the aspects of your personality you wish to highlight and how you wish to present them. Consider the admissions officers at the college or university who will be reading your essay. Think about how your essay will present your background and what distinguishes you. If you were given a chance to speak directly to an admissions committee, what compelling story or critical information about yourself would you share? Your college essay is an opportunity to express your personality, ambitions, influences, obstacles, achievements, life experiences, and the lessons you've learned. Additionally, it's a chance to explain why you would be a perfect candidate for their institution and equally, why the institution is the right fit for you. These narratives add depth to the bare list of activities and leadership roles noted in your application.

The Challenge of Selectivity in Your Essay

A frequent dilemma for students is the temptation to cram every experience, sight, and conversation into their essays. However, your application essay is not meant to be an exhaustive autobiography condensed into 650 words. Instead, choose a moment and delve into the narrative surrounding that instance. Admissions officers understand that not everyone is a natural writer, but with sufficient time and thoughtful planning, anyone can craft a standout college application essay. A systematic approach — breaking the task down into manageable pieces — is a recommended strategy. Aim for a well-thought-out, perceptive essay that you can take pride in. Seize the opportunity to introduce yourself to an audience that's unfamiliar with you yet eager to discover what you bring to the table. Feel free to boast a little about your unique qualities (without overdoing it). Tell the story that only you can tell.

Understanding Your Essay Prompt

Begin the essay-writing process by easing into it. Allocate sufficient time to thoroughly comprehend the question or prompt at hand. Arguably, the most crucial aspect of your essay preparation is ensuring that you fully grasp what the prompt is asking. After you have completed your essay, it's important to revisit and confirm that your composition still aligns with the prompt. College essay prompts typically hint at one or two key ideas or themes to explore. These themes may range from deeply personal to seemingly mundane, yet all are designed to provoke your creativity and deepen your insight.

Deep Dive into the Essay Prompts

Go over the essay prompts carefully. Read them once, then again, and perhaps one more time for good measure.

Take time to absorb the question. Let the prompt's essence penetrate you deeply before starting to generate ideas.

Identify your objective with this essay. Before brainstorming begins, question the purpose of the prompt: Is it calling for you to inform? Argue? Justify? Elaborate?

Connect the prompt to your personal experiences. Consider, "How is this relevant to me?" or "How could this be relevant to me?".

Steer clear of recycling your old English class essays. The topics you covered in class are not likely suitable here, as those essays seldom reflect your individuality as an applicant.

Generating Ideas for Your Topic

Stimulate your creativity by brainstorming various ideas to tackle the college essay prompt. Interestingly, the brainstorming phase can often be more demanding than composing the actual essay. The goal is to fully develop your ideas so that when you start writing, you have a clear direction.

Brainstorm. Stimulate your creativity by brainstorming various ideas to tackle the college essay prompt. Interestingly, the brainstorming phase can often be more demanding than composing the actual essay. The goal is to fully develop your ideas so that when you start writing, you have a clear direction for your topic.

Reflect and Gather Your Stories. Dive into your past experiences, allocating time to mentally sift through significant events that provide vivid, precise examples. This period is also essential for introspection. Ask yourself, "What are my strengths?" "How would my friends describe me?" "What distinguishes me from other candidates?".

Jot Down Your Thoughts. Document every idea that comes to mind. While there's no one-size-fits-all method, you'll appreciate having recorded thoughts you might have otherwise forgotten.

Refine Your Choices . From your list, select three ideas that best align with the college application essay prompt and evaluate their potential. Consider which concept can be expanded on without losing your reader's interest and which one truly reflects your essence.

Select Your Narrative. Choose one idea from your refined list. This should be a narrative that you can back up with ample details, demonstrating your skills, traits, perseverance, or beliefs effectively.

Crafting an Outline

Create an outline to develop a blueprint for your essay. Just as architects use blueprints and chefs use recipes, all successful endeavors start with a solid plan. The same applies to essay writing. Once you've brainstormed and gathered your ideas, you know what you want to communicate, but it's crucial to organize how you will express it. Construct an outline that organizes the essay into distinct sections.

Structuring Your Story. Organize your essay to include an introduction, body, and conclusion. Like any compelling story, your essay should have a clear beginning, middle, and end. This natural structure will ensure your essay is logical and easy to follow.

Planning Your Approach. Consider how you'll begin your essay. Will you use a question, dialogue, or perhaps a touch of humor? Decide on the tone of your essay based on the ideas you've developed.

Maintaining Your Unique Voice. It's crucial to write in your own voice, especially when the essay is about you. Express yourself naturally and use a style that feels genuine to you. By planning your essay structure in advance, you can maintain consistency in your writing style throughout the piece.

Composing the Essay

Once your outline is set, it's time to begin writing. At this stage, you understand what you want to discuss and the approach you wish to take. Sit down at your computer and start composing. Allow yourself to draft freely without pausing for edits. Focus on getting your thoughts down. After completing your initial draft, return to refine and edit repeatedly. With thorough preparation behind you, you'll effectively tell the story you envisioned and meet the required word count, leaving you pleased with the effort you invested. As you write, keep these tips in mind to enhance your work.

Focus Your Essay. Ensure your essay maintains a narrow and personal focus. Stick closely to your main idea from start to finish to keep the reader engaged.

Emphasize Specific Details. Steer clear of clichés and generic statements. Enrich your main point with vivid details, specific events, direct quotations, illustrative examples, and compelling reasons.

Authenticity is Key. Be genuine. Admissions officers read countless essays and can distinguish between an authentic student story and a repurposed academic essay — or worse, a plagiarized one. Offer something unique rather than what you think they want to hear. Incorporate humor if it feels right.

Be Concise. Use words economically. Avoid verbosity by including only essential information; don’t use fifty words when five will suffice.

Proofread and Edit

The final stage involves editing and proofreading your completed essay. Although you might feel relieved to have finished writing, the quality of your essay ultimately hinges on this meticulous review. Grammatical mistakes or typographical errors could suggest a lack of attention to detail — a perception you definitely want to avoid in the eyes of an admissions officer.

Set Your Paper Aside. After completing your essay, let it rest for a few hours to distance yourself from the text. This break allows you to approach your work with fresh eyes, enabling you to see what’s actually on the page rather than what you intended to write.

Review Beyond Spellcheck . Avoid relying solely on your computer's spellcheck since it won’t catch every mistake, particularly with word context. Avoid shorthand, acronyms, and slang — appropriate in casual communication but unsuitable for a formal college essay.

Seek External Feedback . Have someone else read your essay, whether it's a teacher, counselor, parent, or trusted friend. They can offer valuable perspectives on whether your intended message is coming across clearly to readers.

Read Your Essay Backwards. Though it sounds unusual, reading your essay from end to beginning can disrupt your mental auto-fill and help you catch errors or missing words like "a" or "the" that you might otherwise overlook.

Read Aloud. Reading your essay out loud makes you focus on each word, improving your chances of catching typos. It also helps you check punctuation and the flow of your sentences, making it easier to identify awkward phrasing.

Ensure Consistency. Maintain tense consistency throughout your essay. Additionally, if you mention a specific college, verify that you use the correct name consistently. This avoids the confusion of referring to multiple institutions in the same essay.

Celebrate Your Achievement

Completing your college essay is a significant accomplishment, demanding considerable time and effort. Feel proud when you submit your essay. Ensure you include your name, contact details, and any ID number provided by the college, especially if you’re sending it to a general admissions email. It’s crucial to avoid the confusion of an unattributed essay. Keep track of which essays you've sent to which schools, including the dates. Make follow-up inquiries to confirm that each college has received your essay. You wouldn’t want your hard work to be overlooked.

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Best College Essay Help — 2024

May 10, 2024

college essay help, college essay coach

In today’s hyper-competitive admissions landscape, the stakes have never been higher, and college essays are more important than ever. They’re also more scrutinized and more mysterious than ever. On one hand, students are told to “be themselves” and “tell their stories.” On the other, they’re receiving messaging that certain stories might not be the right ones to tell . It makes sense, then, why college essay coaches and essay consulting businesses are seemingly everywhere, and why a quick search of “college essay help” yields a dizzying number of options. But does the college essay really require professional guidance? And if you do need assistance, how do you even begin to differentiate providers?

Firstly, we want to make one thing clear: there are many outstanding college essay coaches who bring a high level of expertise to the table. That said, we believe our approach to college essay coaching is the “best” for many types of students, offering an optimal balance of hands-on guidance and autonomy. Our students work hard, and their results speak for themselves .

Wondering what sets College Transitions apart from other online essay coaching services? In today’s post, we’ll discuss our essay coaching model, our coaching staff, and our essay coaching philosophy.

Ready to speak with a College Transitions counselor about college essay help?

Fill Out a Free Consultation Request

Why procure college essay help?

See if any of the following sound familiar:

  • Does a blank page send you into a panic mode?
  • Are you struggling to think of a topic (or narrow them down)?
  • Do you have trouble with a specific part of the writing process, like brainstorming or revision?
  • Does the number of essays you’ll need to write sound completely overwhelming to you?
  • Have you received so many pieces of advice about the college essay that your head is spinning?
  • Are you trying to revise your essay but aren’t sure what to do next?
  • Are you an excellent writer who wants to take your work to the next level?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you will likely benefit from professional assistance. Although stellar resources abound online for free (which you should absolutely take advantage of), none of those resources are going to be tailored to your specific needs . Thus, if you’ve taken your essay writing process as far as you can on your own, enlisting an essay coach could save you hours of time, lower your stress level significantly, and even enable you to enjoy the writing process.

What is College Transitions’ essay coaching philosophy?

At the core of our essay coaching philosophy is the belief that you should emerge from the college essay process as a stronger writer and thinker. We want our students to produce essays that complement and strengthen their applications and leave our program with new writing skills that will benefit them in college and beyond.

Why College Transitions essay coaching?

Facts: The best college essays tell a compelling story, demonstrate one or more positive attributes, and are written in your authentic voice. Although this may sound like a tall order, it’s one that we at College Transitions are no stranger to fulfilling.

How do we accomplish this? By supporting your unique needs and giving you the tools that you need to produce your best possible work, whether that’s close attention to your ideas, a deep dive into narrative structure, detailed grammar explanations, or all of the above. Accordingly, we assess ability level at the beginning of the process and aim to push you to the next level in your writing.

Best College Essay Writing Help – Continued

Although the essay process will be tailored specifically to each student, you can expect that:

  • Your coach will deliver feedback in a way that lets you make your own decisions and retain your authentic voice. They’ll accomplish this by focusing on areas of concern step-by-step, asking open-ended questions, and aiming to be in a conversation with you about your writing.
  • Your coach will provide thoughtful, actionable suggestions related to three major areas: content, structure, and syntax.
  • Your coach will guide you through a brainstorming process before you start writing.
  • Your coach will help you understand each college’s prompts and tailor your essays accordingly.
  • Your coach will be highly responsive, responding to any emails in 24 hours and providing written feedback on submitted essays within two days.
  • Your coach will be in frequent communication with you throughout the essay writing process to help you stay on track for your deadlines.

Who are College Transitions’ essay coaches?

College Transitions’ essay coaches are highly trained professionals who have at least four to five years of teaching or tutoring experience at the high school and/or college level. The vast majority of our coaches have worked with students on their writing for between ten and fifteen years in a diverse array of roles, from classroom instructors and writing center consultants to private tutors, editors, and curriculum designers.

Every one of our coaches holds at least a bachelor’s degree, and nearly all hold master’s or doctoral degrees in English, writing, or education. Many of our coaches are also published writers or researchers, and our staff includes award-winning novelists, journalists, short story authors, and poets.

Most importantly, our coaches are experts in both teaching and supporting college essays. College essays are a very specific type of personal writing that require a special type of knowledge and guidance. As such, we ensure that our coaches are familiar with college essay conventions and are adept at guiding all skill levels to their best possible work.

Our Collaborative Approach

For years, we’ve taken a team-based approach to the college admissions process. Such a collaborative approach enables students to benefit from the expertise of at least two professionals: an admissions counselor and an essay coach. They work together to ensure that all parts of your application are as strong and cohesive as possible.

Moreover, you’ll work with the same primary counselor and essay coach for the duration of the college admissions process. Our coaches work with individual students rather than individual essays, which enables your coach to become deeply familiar with your story, your writing style, and your unique circumstances.

Why does this make a difference? Getting to know you will enable your coach to provide personalized, thoughtful suggestions, whether that is reminding you of an experience that could be a great topic for a supplemental or noticing patterns that deserve further attention.

The Benefits of Our Virtual Model

We work with all our students 100% virtually and one-on-one in a model that we have honed relentlessly over the past decade. We deeply understand that building trust in a remote environment requires responsiveness, a value that is at the core of our counseling and essay coaching services. Accordingly, our essay coaches tailor the entire process to your needs, whether that means facilitating weekly video chats, helping you organize a writing schedule, or being a “hands-off” presence who is there to assist if and when you need it.

Frequently Asked Questions — College Essay Help

Do you offer “essay-only” coaching packages.

Yes! In addition to several types of counseling & essay coaching packages, we also offer essay-only support.

Do you write essays for students?

Absolutely not. Not only is this unethical, it’s detrimental to your admissions prospects. Admissions officers can easily spot essays written by parents, professionals, and AI software. If they do, you likely have little to no chance of acceptance at that particular university.

With an appropriate level of guidance, College Transitions students choose their own topics and write and revise their own essays. Moreover, they tend to become more independent as the process moves along. This level of choice and autonomy should be standard for any solid essay coaching provider.

How many drafts do students typically complete of each essay?

It depends, but most students complete 5-8 drafts of their Common Application personal statement and 2-4 drafts of each supplemental essay.

Do you only work with specific types of students?

We work with all types of students! Our students hail from every region of the country, apply to a diverse range of colleges, and hail from myriad backgrounds and identities. We also regularly work with students who are high-achieving, neurodiverse, or English language learners.

Best College Essay Writing Help — Final Thoughts

We sincerely believe that you will find the best college essay coaches for your needs right here at College Transitions. Again, we invite you to get to know us more through our website and/or by filling out a Consultation Request .

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IMAGES

  1. College Essay Format: Simple Steps to Be Followed

    how long to college essays need to be

  2. 💣 College essay paper format. How To Format A College Application Essay

    how long to college essays need to be

  3. Writing a Powerful College Application Essay: Tips and Examples

    how long to college essays need to be

  4. How to Write a Successful College Essay: Tips, Topics, & Samples

    how long to college essays need to be

  5. How Long is a College Essay? 7 Answers

    how long to college essays need to be

  6. Steps to writing a college essay

    how long to college essays need to be

VIDEO

  1. Those Unnecessarily Long Essays You Had to Write in High School

  2. College essays should be enough to tell whether someone is a good writer or not

  3. Essays need to be in MLA Format for ENG 100

  4. AQA A level Religious Studies How long should my essays be?

  5. Do you need to make your essays longer?

  6. Editing YOUR College Essays

COMMENTS

  1. The Best College Essay Length: How Long Should It Be?

    In the simplest terms, your college essay should be pretty close to, but not exceeding, the word limit in length. Think within 50 words as the lower bound, with the word limit as the upper bound. So for a 500-word limit essay, try to get somewhere between 450-500 words. If they give you a range, stay within that range.

  2. How Long Should a College Essay Be?

    Revised on June 1, 2023. Most college application portals specify a word count range for your essay, and you should stay within 10% of the upper limit. If no word count is specified, we advise keeping your essay between 400 and 600 words. You should aim to stay under the specified limit to show you can follow directions and write concisely.

  3. How Long Should Your College Essay Be? What Is the Ideal Length?

    Personal statements are generally 500-650 words. For example, the Common Application, which can be used to apply to more than 800 colleges, requires an essay ranging from 250-650 words. Similarly, the Coalition Application, which has 150 member schools, features an essay with a recommended length of 500-650 words.

  4. How Long Should a College Essay Be?

    Some expect one longer essay, while others expect responses to multiple prompts using a shorter word count for each answer. However, that's not always the case. If your institution doesn't provide a specific word count, it's best to keep your essay between the length established by the longer college admissions essay format: 250 to 650 words.

  5. How Long Should a College Essay Be: Simple Explanation

    Knowing how long should a college essay be - from 400 to 600 words - a conclusion paragraph should mirror the length of the introduction, comprising between 50 to 100 words of the total essay length. It should summarize the main points discussed in the essay, restate the thesis or main argument, and provide a sense of closure or resolution ...

  6. Ultimate Guide to Writing Your College Essay

    Sample College Essay 2 with Feedback. This content is licensed by Khan Academy and is available for free at www.khanacademy.org. College essays are an important part of your college application and give you the chance to show colleges and universities your personality. This guide will give you tips on how to write an effective college essay.

  7. PDF Strategies for Essay Writing

    Harvard College Writing Center 5 Asking Analytical Questions When you write an essay for a course you are taking, you are being asked not only to create a product (the essay) but, more importantly, to go through a process of thinking more deeply about a question or problem related to the course. By writing about a

  8. How Long is an Essay? Guidelines for Different Types of Essay

    High school essay. 300-1000 words. In high school you are often asked to write a 5-paragraph essay, composed of an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. College admission essay. 200-650 words. College applications require a short personal essay to express your interests and motivations. This generally has a strict word limit.

  9. How to Write a College Essay

    Making an all-state team → outstanding achievement. Making an all-state team → counting the cost of saying "no" to other interests. Making a friend out of an enemy → finding common ground, forgiveness. Making a friend out of an enemy → confront toxic thinking and behavior in yourself.

  10. How Long Should Your College Application Essay Be?

    Updated on December 30, 2019. The 2019-20 version of the Common Application has an essay length limit of 650 words and a minimum length of 250 words. This limit has remained unchanged for the past several years. Learn how important this word limit is and how to make the most of your 650 words.

  11. How to Write the Best College Application Essay

    5. Proofread. Correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling are essential. Proofread several times after you've finished. Then ask a teacher, parent, or college English major to give it a quick read as well. 6. Keep Track of Length. Finally, admissions officers value succinctness.

  12. How to Write Your College Essay: The Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide

    Next, let's make sure you understand the different types of college essays. You'll most likely be writing a Common App or Coalition App essay, and you can also be asked to write supplemental essays for each school. Each essay has a prompt asking a specific question. Each of these prompts falls into one of a few different types.

  13. Tips for Writing an Effective Application Essay

    Follow these tips to write an impactful essay that can work in your favor. 1. Start Early. Few people write well under pressure. Try to complete your first draft a few weeks before you have to turn it in. Many advisers recommend starting as early as the summer before your senior year in high school.

  14. How to Write a College Essay

    Getty Images. Students can go online to review essay requirements for the colleges they want to apply to, such as word limits and essay topics. Many students may start with the Common App, an ...

  15. 12 Strategies to Writing the Perfect College Essay

    Don't Repeat. If you've mentioned an activity, story, or anecdote in some other part of your application, don't repeat it again in your essay. Your essay should tell college admissions officers something new. Whatever you write in your essay should be in philosophical alignment with the rest of your application.

  16. How to Format and Structure Your College Essay

    Make sure that paragraphs are clearly separated, as text boxes can also undo indents and double spacing. If you're attaching a document: Use a standard font and size like Times New Roman, 12 point. Make your lines 1.5-spaced or double-spaced. Use 1-inch margins.

  17. How long should my essay be?

    The average length of a personal essay for college is 400─600 words. Always read the prompt. Follow the instructions provided in the application.

  18. How to Format a College Essay: Step-by-Step Guide

    Again, we'd recommend sticking with standard fonts and sizes—Times New Roman, 12-point is a standard workhorse. You can probably go with 1.5 or double spacing. Standard margins. Basically, show them you're ready to write in college by using the formatting you'll normally use in college.

  19. Getting College Essay Help: Important Do's and Don'ts

    Looking for college essay help? This guide explains who and how to ask so you can get the best advice on your personal statement. Call Direct: 1 (866) 811-5546 ... But if cuts need to be made to shorten the essay, that's your job and not the proofreader's. Proofreaders are like entomologists, hunting for tiny specks amidst a vast landscape. ...

  20. 5 College Essay Writing Mistakes to Avoid

    That's the tone to aim for in your essay. 4. Trying Too Hard to Impress. As mentioned above, the college essay is supposed to give the reader a glimpse of who you are - not necessarily a list of what you've achieved. Don't approach this part of your application as you would a cover letter for a job.

  21. How to Write College Application Essays

    How to Structure Your Essay. A college application essay (like any academic essay) should have an introduction, a conclusion, and body paragraphs. Additionally, it should have overall coherence (that is, it should make a point) and cohesion (that is, it should flow well from paragraph to paragraph).

  22. How to Write a College Essay

    Ask teachers, mentors, family, or friends for feedback on your essay. Reach out well in advance of any deadlines, and give them at least two weeks to provide feedback. Ask them in person if you can, but if you cannot, send them an email. If they agree to take a look, you can send them a message with your essay. Download a sample message below.

  23. 10 Strategies for Writing a College Application Essay

    The goal of college essays is to provide admissions officers with insight into who you are beyond your academic achievements, not just that you can put together an essay. How long should my college application essay be? Most colleges have specific guidelines regarding the length of the application essay, typically ranging from 250 to 650 words.

  24. What I've Learned From My Students' College Essays

    May 14, 2024. Most high school seniors approach the college essay with dread. Either their upbringing hasn't supplied them with several hundred words of adversity, or worse, they're afraid ...

  25. How long does it take to write a college essay?

    While timelines will differ depending on the student, plan on spending at least 1-3 weeks brainstorming and writing the first draft of your college admissions essay, and at least 2-4 weeks revising across multiple drafts. Don't forget to save enough time for breaks between each writing and editing stage. You should already begin thinking ...

  26. What Is a Personal Statement? Everything You Need to Know About the

    Personal statement —an essay you write to show a college admissions committee who you are and why you deserve to be admitted to their school. It's worth noting that, unlike "college essay," this term is used for application essays for graduate school as well. College essay —basically the same as a personal statement (I'll be using the terms ...

  27. Your Best College Essay

    When we say "The College Essay" (capitalization for emphasis - say it out loud with the capitals and you'll know what we mean) we're talking about the 550-650 word essay required by most colleges and universities. Prompts for this essay can be found on the college's website, the Common Application, or the Coalition Application.

  28. How Important is the College Essay?

    At the top 250 schools, your essays generally account for 25% of your overall application. This is only slightly behind the 30% for extracurriculars. Essays are actually ahead of the 20% for grades and coursework, 15% for test scores, and 10% for recommendations and interviews. Now that many schools are going test-optional or test-blind ...

  29. Unlock Your Future: Mastering the Art of the College Admission Essay

    However, when it comes to crafting a college admission essay, set this formula aside. The admission essay is a unique genre that demands a different approach. Rethinking the Essay Structure. Forget everything you know about standard academic essays because the college application essay follows different rules.

  30. Best College Essay Help

    Your coach will guide you through a brainstorming process before you start writing. Your coach will help you understand each college's prompts and tailor your essays accordingly. Your coach will be highly responsive, responding to any emails in 24 hours and providing written feedback on submitted essays within two days.