How to write a college essay (with real examples!)

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s 30 College Essays That Worked

If you’re applying to college, the application essay is your chance to differentiate yourself from other applicants and highlight something beyond your GPA and test scores. 

The college application essay matters: it can make or break an application, especially to elite universities that get thousands of other applications. 

At PrepMaven, we’ve specialized in developing an approach to the college application essay specifically designed to help students gain admission to elite universities. Using this approach, we’ve helped countless students get admitted to Princeton, Harvard, and other Ivies. 

This post has two main parts. In the first, we explain what admissions committees are looking for and what your college essay needs to do (with an example!). In the second, we walk you through the 5 stages of writing an application essay, with advice for how to approach each stage. 

Jump to section:
What are admissions committees looking for?
Story
Reflection
Style and Tone
5 Stages

  1. Brainstorming/topic selection
  2. Picking a structure
  3. First Draft
  4. Revising 
  5. Final Draft

Next steps


What are admissions committees looking for?

That’s really the key question: at the end of the day, the college application process is all about giving college admissions officers what they want. 

When we work with students, we often like to tell them that most successful college application essays contain two key elements: story and reflection. 

At the same time, the college admissions essay also requires you to write in a specific style and tone–the kind that you’re likely not used to writing in for school. 

In this section, we’ll walk through what we mean by each of these by dissecting a real college essay that worked to get the writer into Princeton. 

Story

Every good college admissions essay tells some kind of story about you. Often, this is pretty literal: as you can see in our collection of 30 real college admissions essays that worked, many of these essays recount some of the writer’s most important personal experiences. That’s the heart of the Narrative Essay structure, which you can read about here

But even more creative or unusual essay formats come down to telling some kind of story. 

If you’re going to tell admissions counselors the five most important books on your shelf, you’re telling a story about what kind of reader you are and what those books meant to you. If you write an essay that outlines the steps you take to create a painting, you’re telling the story of you as an artist. 

It all comes down to story. 

Let’s take a look at the below example, essay 1 from our collection of 30 successful sample essays, to see how a good story works. 

At eleven years old, I wrote the New York Times best-selling novel, The Chosen, the first installation in a trilogy that would become the newest sensation of the fantasy genre, and grow to be even more popular than the Harry Potter series. At least, that’s what I originally imagined as I feverishly typed the opening words of my manuscript. I had just received a call from my parents, who were on a business trip in London. While touring the city, they heard about an amateur novel writing contest open to all ages, and thought that I, as an amateur writer, would be interested. All I had to do was compose an original manuscript of merely 80,000 words and submit it to an office in London, and I could win $20,000 in addition to a publishing deal.

I hung up the phone with a smile plastered on my face. Never mind that I was barely eleven, that my portfolio consisted of a few half-page poems from elementary school, or that the contest was taking place on another continent, I was determined to write the most extraordinary fantasy novel ever created. For months afterward the sight of me was accompanied by the tap, tap, tap of my fingers flying across the keyboard, and the sharp glint of obsession in my eyes. The contest in London closed, a winner was chosen. I didn’t care. I kept writing. After a year I had stretched my writing project into a three hundred page novel. I scraped together a few dollars of allowance money, slapped it in my mom’s hand, and asked her to have Staples print a bound copy of the manuscript.

She handed me my magnum opus when I got home from school that day. I ran my fingers across the shiny laminate over the cover page, caressed the paper as if it were some sacred tome. After more than fourteen months fleshing out characters and cultivating mythologies, I was ready to publish. With the copy in hand I ran to my dad. “Read it and tell me what you think!” I said, imagining the line of publishing companies that would soon be knocking down my door.

Within two weeks my father handed it back to me, the pages now scrawled over in bright red ink. “You’ve got a lot of work to do,” he told me, with his typical soul-wrenching brusque.

I stared at him for a moment, jaw locked tight, eyes nearly brimming with tears. He proceeded to list for me all the things I needed to revise for my next draft. Less colloquial dialogue, vivid descriptions, more complex subplots, the list went on and on.

“A serious author doesn’t get offended by constructive criticism,” he said, “whether you take my advice or not will prove whether or not you are one.”

My dreams fell like the Berlin wall. What was the point of slaving over a novel if I had to start from scratch again? My father’s advice would force me to rewrite the entire novel. What sort of writer was I, that my work warranted such substantial alteration?

As I soon learned—a normal one.

Today, six years, 10 drafts, and 450 pages later, I am finally close to finishing. Sometimes, when I’m feeling insecure about my ability as a novelist I open up my first draft again, turn to a random chapter, and read it aloud. Publishing that first draft would have been a horrible embarrassment that would have haunted me for the rest of my life. Over the past half-decade, I’ve been able to explore my own literary voice, and develop a truly original work that I will be proud to display. This experience taught me that “following your dreams” requires more than just wishing upon a star. It takes sacrifice, persistence, and grueling work to turn fantasy into reality.

So, what’s the story here? It’s pretty simple: an eleven year old hears about a writing contest and spends a year writing a 300-page novel, certain that it’ll be a best-seller. Showing it to their dad, they instead get a whole lot of (constructive) criticism–a huge disappointment at first, but then an important learning moment. 

In the end, they finish their novel, though it isn’t (that we know of) a worldwide success. 

If you’re used to writing essays for school, this probably looks a bit bizarre: almost the entirety of this essay gets used to tell an anecdote about the student’s life. So, why did admissions committees love this essay?

  1. It starts with a great hook.

This is a textbook opening paragraph that reels the reader in with a surprising statement before then building that statement into an entire story. You can read more about that in our dedicated guide on how to start these personal statements, here

  1. Something about the story is unique. 

Most of us, probably, haven’t actually written a book. It doesn’t really matter how good it is, whether it’s published, and so on. What matters is that the actual story of hearing about this writing contest and spending so long writing is an experience particular to this student. 

A note on “unique” vs “cliche” topics. Most good college essay counselors will tell you that you’re better off avoiding any “cliche” topics and instead trying to write about something unusual, quirky, or unique. That’s mostly true: if you have something unique to write about, it’ll make your job easier. If you don’t, however, you can still write a brilliant, successful essay about something like sports. 

Doing this is hard: if your topic is a bit “cliche,” then you have to find some other way (experimental structure, particularly effective storytelling, or an unexpected and profound reflection) of differentiating your essay from all the other sports essays. 

  1. The story is well-told. 

What does it mean to tell a story well? Imagine if this author had instead written: “When I was 11, I tried to write a book, but my dad said it wasn’t very good and I had to edit it. So I edited it, and now I’ve finished writing it, which makes me proud.” 

Yikes, right? It’s the same story, but now it’s boring. So, what makes a story interesting to read?

  • Tons of specific details–the more, the better. To pick just a few from this essay: “the shiny laminate over the cover page,” “fleshing out characters and cultivating mythologies,” as well as the whole list of necessary edits provided by the father. 
  • Vivid description. This goes hand in hand with specific details: instead of saying “I was upset,” this author writes “I stared at him for a moment, jaw locked tight, eyes brimming with tears.” Instead of saying “I typed the book,” the author writes about “the tap, tap, tap of their fingers flying across the keyboard.” Every sentence is a chance for you to do something interesting, to write it in your own way. 
  1. The story has a satisfying ending. 

Here, the story starts with the writer’s feverish attempts to create a novel, all while harboring unrealistic expectations. 

After receiving a ton of constructive criticism, the writer basically starts from scratch. By the end of their essay, they’re “close to finishing” something much more thoughtfully and carefully written. 

It’s not that the story has to be perfectly wrapped up at the end of these college application essays–after all, your life story is just starting out. Even in this example, notice that the story doesn’t end with the writer telling us they finally finished the novel and published it to astounding success: they’re just “close to finishing.” But because the whole story is about the process of learning, editing, and starting over, it’s an ending that wraps up the story neatly. 

So, if we want to break down the formula for the story element of the college essay, we can say it looks something like this:

A good story = a great hook + some unique element + specific details/vivid description + satisfying ending. 

It’s simple, but it’s not easy. For 29 more examples of writers who mastered this formula, check out our collection of successful essays. 

Or, if you want to work with someone who not only mastered this formula themselves but has mastered how to teach students this formula, contact us to get paired with one of our expert personal essay coaches. 


Reflection

So, let’s say you do some soul searching and come up with an amazing, unique story about yourself to wow college admissions committees. You write it beautifully, perhaps using some of PrepMaven’s many guides. 

Great: now, you have to show us what this story says about you. 

That’s all we mean by reflection: once you’ve told us your story, you need to make clear to the reader what we’re supposed to get out of it. In other words, you need to reflect or investigate your own story, exploring some of the possible impacts it’s had on you, some lessons you learned from it, or what it means in the grand scheme of your life. 

In essence, the reflection is your answer to the question, “So what?”

Let’s take a look at the example essay we’ve been looking at and identify the parts where the author reflects on or thinks about what lessons can be taken from this story. The reflection element of this essay comes right at the end:

What was the point of slaving over a novel if I had to start from scratch again? My father’s advice would force me to rewrite the entire novel. What sort of writer was I, that my work warranted such substantial alteration?

As I soon learned—a normal one.

Today, six years, 10 drafts, and 450 pages later, I am finally close to finishing. Sometimes, when I’m feeling insecure about my ability as a novelist I open up my first draft again, turn to a random chapter, and read it aloud. Publishing that first draft would have been a horrible embarrassment that would have haunted me for the rest of my life. Over the past half-decade, I’ve been able to explore my own literary voice, and develop a truly original work that I will be proud to display. This experience taught me that “following your dreams” requires more than just wishing upon a star. It takes sacrifice, persistence, and grueling work to turn fantasy into reality.

Why is this an effective reflection?

  1. It shows the writer’s thought process and questioning. 

Confronted with disappointment, the writer is forced to question what they thought they knew: “what was the point?” and “what sort of writer was I?” are great examples of what a good reflection looks like. 

We actually get to see into this student’s thought process. Open-ended questions like the ones here are, by the way, one of the most efficient ways to signal to admission officers that you’re doing some serious reflecting. 

  1. It shows growth. 

The writer doesn’t just question and move on: they actually develop some new knowledge as the result of this questioning. They learn what it means to be a writer, what it means to produce something you can be proud of. 

We can see this most clearly in the part of the essay where the writer talks about looking back on that first draft: we know they’ve grown because they can see the flaws with their earlier writing. 

  1. It highlights an important, positive aspect of the writer’s outlook on life. 

What’s the lesson this writer learns? 

That “‘following your dreams’ requires more than just wishing upon a star. It takes sacrifice, persistence, and grueling work to turn fantasy into reality.” It’s a simple enough life lesson, one that all of us (hopefully) have to learn. But it’s an important one, especially because it conveys to college admission officers that this student is ready to work hard to attain their goals. 

At the end of the day, you’re trying to convince a room full of adults that you’d be an interesting, enjoyable person to have around campus for the next four years. Your reflection needs to show them that–that’s why we say it should be “positive.”

It wouldn’t be a good idea, for example, if the ultimate takeaway you lead up to is something like “I learned to only look out for myself and trust no one.” No matter how good your story, no matter how well laid out your thought-process, the takeaway from this essay for an admissions officer will be that you’re selfish and not much of a community member. So: think about what aspect of yourself you would want people to come away with.

The key to a good reflection like this one is that you really show us the process of you thinking through the important changes/lessons/etc. at play in your essay

It’s not enough to just say, “This is important because X.” Admissions committees want to see you actually think through this. Real realizations don’t usually happen in an instant: you should question and consider, laying your thoughts out on paper. 

A suggestion we often give our students is to read over the story you’ve written, and ask yourself what it means to you, what lessons you can take from it. As you ask and answer those questions, put those onto the page and work through them in writing. You can always clean it up and make it more presentable later. 

If you like things broken down neatly, let’s sum up the formula here: Successful reflection = thought process + growth + outlook. 


Style and Tone

The third thing that admissions officers are looking for in your essay is an engaging style and tone. 

This is less an “element” of the essay like Story and Reflection, and more of a quality that all of your essay needs to have. 

What kind of style and tone are they looking for? Again, take a look at the above example. How would you describe the style and tone of that essay?

You might say it’s playful, informal, fun. The point is not to mimic this essay’s style, but to notice that it is personal, that it feels like there’s a real, distinct person talking to us. Because you aren’t the person who wrote that essay, yours will look and feel different. But it still needs to feel like it’s coming from you. 

What this really means is that you need to avoid a few specific traps that lots of students fall into when writing their application essays:

  • Don’t write it like a formal essay for school. 
  • Don’t try to show off fancy vocabulary. 
  • Don’t try to sound like you’re older than you are. 

There are lots of little ways to accomplish those things: using contractions is one I always recommend to students. You’ll be surprised how much looser and more natural your writing feels when you stop saying “it is” and start saying “it’s.”

Another good place to start: cut out all those big transition words. They’re great to know if you’re taking the SAT or writing an essay on symbolism in Jane Eyre. But when most of us tell stories to each other, we don’t say things like “Nevertheless” and “However.” 

The best general advice we can give for style and tone? Read it out loud. Does what you’re reading sound stilted, awkward, unnatural to you? Then change it. 

A lot of this is easier said than done. While the college application essays might feel effortless and informal, they are often products of extensive revisions and tiny edits, each one designed to bring out the voice of the writer just a bit more. 

Often the best way to get there is with the help of someone who can read through your essay with you and let you know how it sounds–which is exactly what our essay coaches are trained to do


The 5 stages of writing a college essay

Now that we’ve covered what the college essay is supposed to do, we’ll break down the stages of writing a personal statement like this. 

Why does it matter to have stages to the essay writing process? It doesn’t just help you save time; following these steps will help ensure you get the best possible finished product. By tackling each stage of the essay-writing process separately, you can focus only on what immediately matters, making your job a lot easier. 

Below, we’ll offer an overview of what to do from start to finish as you write your own personal statement. Often, you’ll see that these stages link to other blog posts: that’s because we’ve created in-depth, dedicated guides for each of these stages that go into even more detail.


Stage 1: Brainstorming and topic selection

A huge part of what makes an essay like this successful is what it’s actually about. Even if you’re a brilliant writer, you don’t want to pick the wrong topic. While it’s possible to write a great essay about anything, picking the right topic will make your life way easier–and might make the difference when it comes to impressing those selective colleges. 

So, how do you pick the right topic?

It starts by really dedicating a lot of time to coming up with all the viable things you could write about, then narrowing them down. It might sound dumb or easy, but the best college essay writers all spend a lot of time on brainstorming to ensure they get the topic right. 

You can consult our post here for specific brainstorming exercises that our students have used to craft essays that got them into their dream schools. In this post, we’ll cover what makes a good essay topic in the first place so you know what kinds of things you should be brainstorming. 

Qualities of a good personal statement topic:

  1. It’s personal. 

This might sound like an obvious thing (it is a “personal” statement, after all), but let us explain what that actually means. 

Your topic doesn’t necessarily have to be unique. If you do have some truly unique story–a personal struggle, tragedy, or accomplishment that you’ve never heard of anyone else experiencing–then you should most likely use that. 

But the truth is that most of us don’t have that kind of story in our arsenal–and yet, many people still write fantastic essays. The key is that your topic has real, specific personal importance to you and your life. You need to be able to tell the reader of your essay how this topic has influenced your perspective, your life, or just who you are. 

Even if the topic itself isn’t completely unique, you can make your essay unique by focusing on those deeply personal connections that nobody else has.

  1. It shouldn’t be cliche. 

This might sound a little contradictory: didn’t we just say that most of us don’t have a “unique” story to tell? Remember that a college essay has two parts: story and reflection. Even if the story you have to tell might not be unique, the reflection should be. What do we mean?

Let’s say, for example, that all you’ve really pursued in high school is competitive swimming. It’s the biggest part of your life; it’s by far the thing that has shaped you most. Now, is swimming (or dedication to a sport in general) unique? Nope, not really. But that doesn’t mean you’re dead in the water. 

Now, let’s say you write your essay about your swimming career, and the reflection in your essay is mostly about how it taught you to work hard, dream big, and pursue excellence. That might very well be true, but it’s the kind of story we’ve all heard a million times before. If that’s the essay you write, the admissions committee will yawn politely and more or less forget the essay in its entirety. 

But what if you took a different approach? Let’s say you still wrote about swimming, but instead connected it to something far less cliche. Perhaps swimming was a way you were able to connect to a family member or friend you otherwise had trouble relating to. Perhaps swimming shaped how you viewed, say, art or literature or science. Or maybe swimming taught you something paradoxical, like how to slow down and be less competitive. 

The point is that there are a hundred different, unusual ways to write about something. Your goal should be to pick a topic that lets you write about it in a way nobody else has. 

A key question to ask yourself as you consider your topic might be just that: can I say something personal about this topic that other people cannot?

  1. It lends itself to a story. 

As we suggested earlier in this post, these are all fundamentally narrative essays, which means you’ve got to tell a story. So as you consider your topic, make sure that it’s one that allows you to tell some kind of story or paint a scene. 

If your topic is something totally theoretical (like abstract ideas you have about the state of the world, or politics, or human nature), it’s likely best you avoid it unless you can anchor it to a particular event in your own life. 

Using our brainstorming exercises and Diamond Strategy, you’ll be able to find a topic that fits all three of these criteria. Once you do, it’s time to pick a structure for your essay.

Take a look at the essays below: each spent a lot of time in the brainstorming process, and each has a good example of a successful topic. 

 


Stage 2: Picking a structure

Although each college essay is a little different, we’ve broken the overall structure or format of the college application essay into four different types. 

  1. The Narrative Essay
  2. The Montage Essay
  3. The “I am…” Essay
  4. The Creative Essay

In this section, we’ll talk a bit about what each looks like and how to decide which to use. If you want a deep dive into each of these essay types that dissects real examples, you should check out our post on College Essay Formats here

The Narrative Essay

Key elements:

  • Starts with a story that it tells in detail.
  • Moves on to reflecting on that story and connecting it to an important development in the author’s life. 
  • Often ends by circling back to the story at the beginning and offering closure. 

When is the Narrative Essay the right structure for you?

If your essay topic is connected to one specific event or moment in your life, then the Narrative Essay is likely the best choice for you. This format is designed to let you go deep, really diving into just one story and telling it in great detail before drawing out some life lessons. 

The Montage Essay

Key elements:

  • Includes 2-4 mini-stories or snapshots from your life. 
  • Ends by tying all of those mini-stories together into one overarching theme or lesson. 

When is the Montage Essay the best move?

If you want to convey multiple aspects of your life, or describe several minor events connected by a common theme, then this is the best move. For example: if you have a really diverse set of interests or passions that can be summed up by looking at the bumper stickers on your car, or if you want to recount three totally different moments from your life that are all connected by you learning to overcome failure. 

These essays are flexible, and often work best for writers who want to highlight breadth–that is, describing a number of different aspects of your personality or outlook. 

The “I am…” Essay

Key elements:

  • Starts with a declarative statement about your identity or beliefs. 
  • Inserts a story or scene later as an example.
  • Uses the statement and story together to look forward to the future. 

Who should use this?

This format is best if your topic centers on an identity or belief that is fundamental to who you are. You should still include a story or scene in this format, but it’ll really be more of an example than the main show. 

Primarily, you should focus on articulating in an interesting and unique way what this identity or belief says about you, why it matters, and how it will shape who you’ll be in college. 

The Creative Essay

Key elements:

  • It’s radically experimental with form. 

This one’s a weird one by definition: the idea here is that it doesn’t look like any of the other ones, and does something totally unexpected. Some examples: 

  • A transcript of a mock interview with you.
  • A play, story, or poem.
  • A recipe or instruction guide. 

You get the idea: these essays rely in part on a clever gimmick that connects to the overall theme of the essay. As a result, they’re hard to classify–and risky to try. 

Who should use this essay format?

If you’re willing to write creatively and take risks, and if your essay topic is itself unusual or strange, then you might want to give this format a try. 

We recommend that you look at our related post on College Essay format and download the below collection of 30 college essay examples to see how these different formats can play out successfully. 


Stage 3: First Draft

This is probably the hardest part of any kind of writing: going from nothing to something. If you’re struggling to figure out where to start, we’ve outlined a set of writing exercises and specific techniques for starting college essays here.

In this post, we’ll walk you through what you should be aiming to accomplish in your first draft. 

The goal of the first draft isn’t to come up with a perfect–or even good–essay. We can’t stress this enough: there’s no reason at all your first draft should be a particularly good essay or piece of writing. 

What does that mean for you? It means you don’t have to worry about the smaller stylistic things. Word choice, sentence structure, and style can all wait. Trust us, you’ll have plenty of time in the revision process to play around with all those. But if you focus too much on that for the first draft, it’ll make it a lot harder for you to make progress and get the draft completed. 

So, what is the first draft supposed to do for you?

The goal is to get the content and most of the details onto the page. Everything that you think might fit into the story you’re telling should be present in the first draft. And, while you should do your best to structure and organize it in the most effective way, odds are that the organization is going to change too. 

What shouldn’t change much is the backbone of this essay: the story you tell, the specific details from your life you include, and the reflection you think through. 

Thinking about it that way should make your life a lot easier. The first draft is literally all about getting the important things on the page so that later you can reorganize and polish them into a coherent, successful essay.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the first draft should be short or undetailed: just the opposite. We recommend starting with a first draft of over 750 words for the Common App personal statement (which has a max word count of 650). 

Why? Because you need to focus on getting all of the ideas and details together first. Inevitably, you’ll later cut some stuff out. But it’s much, much better to cut things out than it is to discover you haven’t written enough. 

In a nutshell: the first draft should be long and detailed, but it doesn’t have to be pretty. 

Take a look at the free collection of 30 successful essays below. The first draft of each of those essays looked totally different–but all of the key details and ideas were there. 


Stage 4: Revision

This is really where most of the work happens. 

Once you’ve written a first draft that contains the key ideas and details, your job is to shape it into a compelling narrative essay. 

Below we’ll offer a synopsis of what you should focus on as you revise, as well as what your long-term goals should be. 

When you revise, you should tackle the following things one at a time:

  1. Big picture/content
  2. Organization
  3. Style/language
  4. Pruning
  5. Proofreading 

Do these in order: don’t worry about organization until you’re sure you’ve gotten the content down, and don’t worry about style/language until everything is organized like you want it to be. 

Why do it this way? Simply put, it saves you a ton of time and helps you focus on the right thing. It doesn’t make any sense to pretty up the sentences if you later might totally reorganize the essay. By working through each of these steps in order, you give yourself a specific task to focus on, which will keep the essay-writing process streamlined. 

So, what do we mean by each of these steps?

  1. Big picture/content 

This is essentially what you’re doing in the first draft. As you review the first draft, ask yourself if all of the necessary pieces to your essay are there: do you have all the details needed for your story and your reflection?

Once you’re confident that everything’s there (even if it’s disorganized, messy, or confusing!), you can move on to the next step. Usually, this process doesn’t take more than one or two drafts, but it is crucial; problems with big picture or content usually necessitate a total rewrite of the essay. 

  1. Organization

Once you have the content and ideas you think are most important, start thinking about the order that you’re telling your essay in. What do you start with, and where do you end? How do you keep each paragraph flowing smoothly into the next? 

In general, a well-organized personal statement begins with an engaging hook, often in the form of a surprising statement or a detailed, slightly disorienting anecdote. Then, you’ll want to provide any necessary background for us to understand what’s going on before quickly continuing the story so we don’t lose steam. 

Only once you’ve shown us your story in detail should you move on to any “lessons learned.” Putting those too early will make the essay feel rushed, so the majority of your reflection will come at the end of the essay. 

A good way to test the organization of your essay is this: as you move from each paragraph, is there any unwanted awkwardness or confusion? Does it ever feel like you’re jumping around for no reason? And do the paragraphs feel like they could be moved around somewhere else while still making sense?

If you can answer “yes” to any of the above, it means your essay needs a reorganization.

The best way to figure out when you’re done is simply by playing around with reorganizing your essay several times, and read it aloud each time to yourself and/or someone else. Whatever version sounds smoothest and least confusing when read aloud is likely the best organized one. 

For real examples of what a well organized college essay looks like, check out the collection of 30 linked below!

 

  1. Style/Language

Only once your essay has the main ideas and organization in place should you move on to worrying about how pretty the language is. This step often takes many, many drafts, but each one will only change fairly minor things like sentence structure, word choice, etc. 

This can be tricky, especially if you’re not someone who enjoys creative writing. We do have a few important pieces of advice on what to aim for, though: 

  1. Read it aloud. Does your essay sound like it has a distinct, personal voice?
  2. Does your essay use words that are formal, complicated, or unnatural to you?
  3. Does your essay use words that are unvaried, boring, generic?
  4. Are you showing, or telling?

Your final product shouldn’t sound like an essay you wrote for English class. Nor should it sound like a diary entry or rambling. It should instead feel like someone with a distinct personality is telling a vivid and detailed story about themselves. 

The best way to sum up the ideal tone for most college essays is something like this: imagine you’re trying to tell an interesting story to someone you don’t know very well, maybe at a party or something like that. 

You wouldn’t want to sound like someone from the nineteenth century, using fancy or old words for the sake of it. At the same time, you would want to keep the language engaging enough that you don’t lose their attention.

That’s where the now infamous advice of “show, don’t tell” comes in. You’ve probably heard that advice from just about every college counselor and English teacher, but we should break down what it actually means. What’s “showing” look like?

Simply put, it’s about telling a story rich with detail before making any broad or abstract claims about yourself. “Telling” would look something like: “I’ve always loved spending time with my grandfather.” “Showing” would instead mean actually describing how you spent time with your grandfather, what you did together, and how you felt in the moment. 

Or, to take another example: “I felt incredibly nervous” is a classic example of plain old telling. But you can make that same idea much more engaging by “showing:” “I tried to wipe my clammy palms on my pant legs, hoping nobody would notice the tremor in my voice. Oh God, I was up next.

Many students struggle with getting the stylistic elements of the college essay down, and this is one of those moments where the help of an expert can make all the difference. One of the easiest ways to take an essay from okay to amazing is by having a really talented writer help you polish your language and make your essay sound distinct–and that’s exactly what our essay coaches can help you do. 

  1. Pruning

Once your essay sounds like it should, you’re almost done. The next step is simply to get it under the word count. 

If you’re super close, then this will be a breeze: cut a couple words here and there, and you’re good to go. 

If not, you’ll have a little more work to do to make sure you can retain the essay’s effectiveness while bringing it under the word count. 

This process will depend on just how much over word count your essay is. If you’re within 50 words, you’d be surprised at how much space you can save by simply cutting a word or two out of your sentences. It might sting a bit to get rid of an adjective you’ve fallen in love with, but remember that nobody but you will ever know that word was in there. 

Generally, you can cut anywhere from 50-75 words without actually getting rid of whole sentences. That being said, if you’ve tried that and are still over word count, that means it’s time to judiciously remove or drastically shorten a few sentences. 

Do you have a list of three examples? Cut it down to two, or one. Do you have two sentences that could be combined into one? Do it. Ultimately, this’ll come down to what details, words, and turns of phrase you really want to keep, and which you’re willing to sacrifice. 

  1. Proofreading

Once your essay is under the word count, print it out. That’s right: print it out. With the essay printed, go through and proofread carefully for any spelling, grammar, or typographic mistakes. Mark it up with a pen, and then fix the essay on your computer. 

Print it again. Proofread again. Correct again. Only once you can do 2 full read-throughs without noticing any mistakes at all should you consider the essay good to go. Even then, we really recommend having someone else read over it as well. After having spent so much time staring at this essay, you’re likely to miss some obvious things that another reader might catch right away. 


Stage 5: The Final Draft

Finally–finally!–you’re finished. At this point, you should have a polished, thoughtful essay that looks like one of the ones in our collection of 30 successful college essays

There’s a few minor things left to do. First is to let this final draft sit for a while, from between a few days to a week. Come back to it after you’ve put it out of your mind and re-read it. Does it still hold up? Are there any glaring errors?

Don’t go crazy here: you’re really just looking to see if there’s anything important that you missed when you were in the heat of your essay-writing frenzy. If you need to make some minor tweaks, go ahead–so long as you don’t forget to then proofread all over again.

If you’re feeling good, then now’s the time to paste it into whatever portal you’ll be using for applications (for most of you, this’ll be the Common App). 

Double and triple check that nothing weird happened to the formatting once you pasted it into Common App, which is notorious for messing around with things like spacing and bolding. The best way to do this is to go straight to the application preview pdf. There, you can read through your essay exactly as it’ll appear to college admissions committees.

And if that’s all done… that’s it! You’re free (at least until it’s time to write the supplemental essays). 

No matter where you are in the college application process, looking at examples of what worked to get students into schools like Princeton will always be helpful. That’s why we put together a free collection of 30 real college essay examples for you to use as a resource below. Check them out!

 


Next Steps

Now that you know what to do, it’s time to start doing it. Regardless of where you are in the process, having an expert guide you through the college essay can be invaluable–especially given how high the stakes are when you’re gunning for admission to elite universities. Reach out to us now to get paired with an expert coach. 


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Mike

Mike

Mike is a PhD candidate studying English literature at Duke University. Mike is an expert test prep tutor (SAT/ACT/LSAT) and college essay consultant. Nearly all of Mike’s SAT/ACT students score in the top 5% of test takers; many even score above 1500 on the SAT. His college essay students routinely earn admission into their top-choice schools, including Harvard, Brown, and Dartmouth. And his LSAT students have been accepted In into the top law schools in the country, including Harvard, Yale, and Columbia Law.