How to Write a Compelling College Application Essay

Application essays are one of the most intimidating parts of applying to college. It’s the only thing you can’t copy-paste, and each one takes time and energy to do well.

But these essays are also the best opportunity to make your application stand out. Admissions offices sort through thousands of applications every year—and essays can communicate so much more about you than test scores.

A good college application essay is like putting a face to your name. You have a few hundred words to say something memorable, and someone is going use them to decide if you have what it takes to succeed at their school.

We’re going to give you tips to help you nail your college application essays every step of the way, from brainstorming to revising.

First, let’s look at a few example prompts and go over some basics.

Example college application prompts

College application essay prompts tend to be pretty broad and open-ended—which means it’s up to you to make your essay interesting. The best prompts invite you to talk about yourself, but some questions can are just plain weird, like these:

  • “How are apples and oranges supposed to be compared?” —University of Chicago
  • “To tweet or not to tweet?” —University of Virginia
  • “Are we alone?” —Tuft University

Questions like that are designed to be off-putting and nudge your creativity in a particular direction. Some prompts aren’t even questions, and they can be frustratingly open-ended:

  • “By the end of the college application process, you will have probably written dozens of essays and responded to a multitude of questions. Use this opportunity to try something new.” —University of Notre Dame
  • “Take a blank sheet of paper. Do with this page what you wish. Your only limitations are the boundaries of this page. You don’t have to submit anything, but we hope you will use your imagination.” —Texas Christian University

Those prompts are anomalies though. Most prompts try to draw out particular real-life examples of things that make you unique, like these:

  • What’s something you’ve changed your mind about over the last few years? Why did your perspective change?
  • When was a time you overcame adversity?
  • What are you most passionate about?

Questions like that are a lot more valuable to admissions offices because there’s more room to talk about your personal experiences. When you see a question that looks dumb or weird, it’s probably there to “test your creativity.” But it’s also probably there because somebody got sick of reading boring application essays. Or they don’t take the essay portion seriously. I might be a little biased, but a question like that is definitely a waste of an opportunity to get to know you.

The Common Application is also a great place to find example essay prompts. Hundreds of colleges use the Common Application every year, which means you just have to write one essay for all your applications. (That’s pretty nifty, assuming you want to go to one of those schools.)

This brings us to a burning question I know you’re wondering about.

Can you reuse your essay for multiple colleges?

There’s absolutely no rule that says you can’t use the same essay for every college application. The only way anyone would even know you did it is if your essay doesn’t address the prompt.

But do you really want to do that? Probably not.

College essay prompts are often so generic that there are bound to be parts of your responses that naturally overlap, and in that case, you can probably salvage sections of previous essays you’ve written. I mean, how much do you really have to say about yourself, right?

(Hopefully, a lot.)

The problem with reusing essays is that even slight changes to the prompt can change how you would respond to the overall question. Take a look at this prompt from The Common Application:

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

The parts in italics have been revised from the previous year. Here’s what it used to be:

“Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?”

Variations like that come up all the time, and they can change which experiences make the most sense for you to talk about, or what parts of the experience you should focus on.

If you see opportunities to reuse essays you’ve already written, and you feel like what you already wrote is the best you can do, then you should reuse it. But don’t force a square peg into a round hole. That just makes you look silly.

Something else to consider: you know what else have generic essay prompts and ask you to talk about yourself? Scholarships. You can probably find pieces of those essays to reuse, and visa versa. Just make sure that if you reuse anything, you can confidently say it’s the best you have to offer.

Now on to our essay tips.

16 tips for writing a strong application essay

We’ve divided up our tips into four main sections:

  • Brainstorming
  • Outlining
  • Writing
  • Revising

Feel free to skip ahead to the parts you need the most help with.

Brainstorming your essay

When you first read a prompt, it can be tempting to jump right in and get it over with. But that’s probably not going to lead to your best work, and it may not actually save you time in the long run.

Your first intuition may get you started with a paragraph or two, but what happens when you hit a dead end? Or realize that the example you started to use isn’t your best one? Or that you totally missed the point of the prompt? Brainstorming can help ensure that you put your best foot forward . . . the first time.

Make sure you understand the prompt

Obviously, this is really basic. But again, imagine that you work in the admissions office. Remember that stack of essays they have to read? The admissions staff need filters to sort the good papers from the bad. And “going off prompt” is guaranteed to be one of the first filters they’ll use.

It doesn’t matter if you have the best story or the coolest experience to talk about if you can’t follow the basic directions. Even if your writing sounds really intelligent, your inability to follow the prompt will have the opposite effect.

But more than that, sometimes the prompt itself can give you a hint about the kind of responses the admissions office is looking for. A silly question—like “To tweet, or not to tweet?” may be begging for a silly answer. Is there a reference in the prompt to something from culture? Film, music, or literature? Make sure you understand it before you dive in.

Whatever direction you’re considering, let the prompt be your anchor.

Think of several ways to respond to the prompt

Your gut reaction to a prompt isn’t always the best direction. Remember, the whole point of this essay is to help them get to know you—and see what you’re capable of. So think of a few different angles.

If you try something personal, does it feel forced?

Are there multiple “sides” to the question? (“Are we alone?” for example, is a yes or no question.) Your perspective might align more with a particular direction, but maybe you can make a stronger case with a different perspective.

Once you have a few ideas, it’s worth doing a quick outline of your best two. Which do you have the strongest material for?

Talk to someone who knows you well

You’re totally allowed to talk to people about the prompt. It’s not cheating. If the prompt asks you a personal question or lends itself to talking about yourself, talk to a parent, teacher, or friend—anyone who knows you well enough to have some insight into who you are and what you’ve accomplished.

Maybe you can’t think of a time you’ve overcome adversity, because you didn’t see it that way. Someone who knows you well might be able to point to a few examples and give you that “Aha!” moment.

Or what if a prompt asks you about your pet peeves or something? I can never think of my pet peeves until they’re happening right in front of me. But I guarantee you my friends and family can name some right away.

My brother was preparing for an interview recently, and he needed to talk about his flaws, so he called me to brainstorm. Boy did I have some ideas for him.

Tell a story

Not every interesting essay is a story. But anytime you can tell a story, it provides a tangible example of your qualities, background, experience, or identity. “I had to work really hard to get good grades in school” is something just about everyone could probably say. But your personal journey is so much more interesting than that.

Even with those weird questions like “How should apples and oranges be compared?”, find a story. Maybe for that one, it’s a time where you felt you were unfairly compared to someone else, or you made assumptions about someone and were totally wrong. Weaving in a personal story can make your abstract answer to an abstract question so much more powerful. I mean, you just turned their question into a metaphor. That’s pretty legit.

Should you do some quick research?

You don’t have a time limit for your application essay—just a due date. If a prompt asks about a particular topic, it’s worth taking the time to find an article or two about it. You have the Internet, after all. (And presumably, the discretion to identify reliable sources of information.)

Researching the subject of the prompt (or even Googling the question itself) could turn up some great examples to inspire you—heck, maybe you’ll even find something worth quoting.

Take a peek at Quora

If you’re not familiar with Quora.com, all you really need to know is that it’s a place where people ask and answer questions. Millions of them. And odds are that the more personal prompt questions have been asked before. Even if they haven’t, you can probably find related questions that basically ask the same thing. This can be a great way to see some real examples from real people.

Outlining your essay

I’ll be the first to say that I hate outlining. It always used to feel like a waste of time, because I had ideas right out of the gate and felt ready to start writing. Until recently, I never used outlines. But now I know that not having an outline creates problems later on.

Outlines help you:

  • Get all of your possible ideas on paper.
  • See where there might be holes in your essay before you start.
  • Connect your ideas to each other.
  • Identify the main points you need to make.
  • Pace yourself.
  • And more . . .

Here’s what you should pay attention to while you’re building your outline:

Narrow the scope

A lot of college application essays have no upper limit on word count. You can write as much as you want, but that doesn’t mean you should. Remember, your essay is being read by a real person—who also happens to be reading many, many others. So while a prompt might invite you to go on and on, or you might have several examples or experiences that address the prompt, stick to one direction. Use your outline to identify places where you’re going too broad, or exploring too many perspectives.

Get off the fence

Your essay is going to be a lot more interesting if you actually take a stance on something. Especially if the essay poses a question you aren’t passionate about (like a twist on the apples and oranges question—which is better?), it’s easy to find yourself explaining the merits of both perspectives or hanging out in the middle ground. That’s boring. Pretend like you care. Pick a side! Colleges want to see you advocate for one position and pick apart the flaws in an opposing argument. It’s hard to do that when you don’t commit to either side.

Tie in things that matter to you

This whole thing is just an elaborate scheme to show the admissions office something unique about you that they can’t get from a dropdown field or fill-in-the-blank. So as you outline, find appropriate places to talk about things you care about and reveal something about who you are.

Writing your essay

When you get down to the actual writing, here are some things to keep in mind:

Be yourself

When you spend all that time over-analyzing the prompt and imagining what kind of person will read your essay, it’s easy to write what you think the admissions office wants to hear, not what you really think and feel. The reality is, your voice and personality is going to come through a lot stronger if you be yourself—and that’s ultimately going to make for a better essay.

Jeff Brenzel is the dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale—a notoriously difficult school to get into. He says students should, “Show your essay to a teacher who knows you well, or a parent that you’re on good terms with. Or even to a close friend, and say, ‘Does this sound like me?’ . . . Presenting yourself as who you are is your best bet in the college admissions process.”

Write how you talk

This is one of the most common traps of academic writing: what you’re trying to say gets bogged down in stilted language and vocabulary. Writing how you actually talk will make your essay more clear and readable, and in the end that makes you look more intelligent than an advanced vocabulary you barely use correctly.

Pro tip: Please, for the love of God, use contractions.

Keep it short and sweet

We touched on this in the outlining phase, but just because you don’t have an upper limit on word count doesn’t mean you should write until you develop carpal tunnel. You know how I keep bringing up those imaginary admissions office staff? Well here’s what one of the real ones wants you to know:

Jonathan Reider used to work in the admissions office at Stanford, and he says, “every admissions officer has a big stack to read every day; he or she expects to spend only a couple of minutes on the essay.”

A couple of minutes. You get past that, and you’re slowing down the rest of their day. So be concise.

Revising your essay

Rob Franek of The Princeton Review says, “There is no perfect college essay.” But with a solid revision process, you can at least feel confident that the essay you have is the best you can do.

Here’s my advice:

Think about something else for awhile

The worst time to start editing your essay is right after you’ve finished writing it. You just tried to formulate your best thoughts. You banged your head against the desk to find the right way to word that sentence. When you start reading your essay right after writing it, you’re naturally going to overlook even some of your most glaring mistakes.

That’s normal. And it’s why you need to do something else.

Seriously. You could:

  • Play a video game.
  • Read a book.
  • Go to a movie.
  • Hang out with friends.
  • Binge watch the new season of Stranger Things.
  • Go on a walk.
  • Work out.
  • Sleep.
  • Write another college essay.
  • Literally do anything else.

If you feel comfortable waiting a few days to revise your essay, that’s even better. The idea is that you take enough time focusing on other things that you can look at your essay with fresh eyes. Ideally, you’d be able to read it as if someone else wrote it. That way you won’t just catch glaring mistakes—you’ll find better ways to communicate your point, and maybe even better points to make.

Read it out loud

You’re going to feel really dumb doing this, but you should do it anyways. Remember how I said you should write how you talk? Reading your essay out loud can help you spot places where your language sounds stilted or needlessly wordy. If you’re impressed with your first draft, I guarantee you’ll be a lot less impressed after you read it out loud.

Plug your essay into editing apps

You have access to technology. Use it. There are some really good apps out there that go well beyond your word processor’s spell check. Some of them are better at editing than real people. Here are a couple I’d recommend checking out:

These will help you see your essay in new ways and notice mistakes that don’t jump out right away. Like when you use passive voice (don’t do that). Or if you use too many adverbs (gross). Those are things spellcheck won’t ever catch—and your editors might not either!

Ask people to tear it apart

If you want your essay to be the best it can be, you have to show it to someone. Ideally, someone who:

  1. Knows you well (since you’re hopefully the subject of this essay)
  2. Knows how to write as well as or better than you.

It could be a friend, family member, teacher, boss, or tutor. I don’t care. But before you ever feel ready to send this off to a stranger who reads tons of these, you’ve got to have someone edit this. Mercilessly. As if your college admissions depended on it. Like if you don’t get in it’s all their fault because they didn’t tell you how they really felt. Tell them to do their worst.

And then remember that ultimately you’re the writer, so you get to decide what to do with all those edits. (You’re allowed to ignore them. Especially if they’re bad.) As long as you bear that in mind, it’s worth having a few people review your essay for you.

Pro tip: This should be your last step in the revision process. Don’t ask someone to revise your first draft before you’ve even gone through it for the basics. Ideally, you should wait to show your essay to someone until you feel it’s perfect. (Unless you’re stuck and need help.)

Make sure your humor is actually funny

I saved this for the last tip because in order to know if you’re funny, someone else has to tell you. And if you’re not funny, a good friend will happily tell you.

Humor is really hard to pull off in a college application essay. You hardly know anything about your audience, and they could have a completely different sense of humor than you. I’m not one of those sticklers who’ll tell you not to bother trying, but I will say this:

  • If a punchline plays a major role in articulating your main point, it’s risky. You don’t want to leave any room for misinterpretation on something that important.
  • If more than one person tells you something isn’t funny, there’s a good chance the admissions staff won’t think it is, either.

Get to work

That’s it. That’s all my advice. If you have any tips for other students though, feel free to share them in the comments.

And since you’re here, you may as well know: we rank the top colleges in the U.S. by degree and state. So if you aren’t sure where you want to go (or want some solid backup plans) check out our lists.

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