Wondering how to write a college essay? You're not the only one. Many students who are getting ready to apply to colleges do not know where to begin when it comes to their college admissions essay. After taking IB or AP classes and working hard to make sure you have the perfect grades and high school resume, you do not want to submit an application with a weak college essay and risk your chances of getting into your dream school. That's why in this blog, we share with you some of the tips and strategies that our college essay advisors use to help students craft their essays. We've even included some examples to give you some inspiration. So keep reading if you want to find out how to write an outstanding college essay.


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What is a college essay?

College essays are an essential element of most college applications; they are sometimes referred to as personal statements, college admissions essays, or common app essays for those who are submitting their application through the common application portal. Furthermore, some colleges may request supplemental essays as part of a secondary application after you've submitted your primary application. Most of the time, the school provides a prompt or question that your essay is supposed to answer, but there are also times when there are no prompts, and you are expected to simply write about yourself and why you are applying to a particular school.

College essays are supposed to tell the admissions committee why you are the best all-around candidate for admission. It's important to remember that most four-year colleges have a holistic admissions process. This means that they want to know about your grades and GPA, but also about your motivations and who you are outside of academia. Therefore, a compelling college essay should showcase your hard and soft skills, personality, motivations, and what you are hoping to get out of the program you've applied to.

Along with a prompt, some schools may choose to give specific instructions for college admissions essays, such as a word count. However, your essay should be 500 to 650 words unless otherwise stated. It should follow the structure of an academic paper, meaning that it should have an introduction, main body, and a conclusion.

Interested in seeing a quick overview of some key points covered in this blog? Check out this infographic:

How to write a college essay

Many students are intimated by the idea of writing a college essay, and understandably so. Not only does the college essay carry a lot of weight in the admissions process, but it can be challenging to write about yourself in a way that is flattering but still likable and not arrogant. That's why we're going to go over the winning three-step strategy that our college advisors use to help students brainstorm and write an essay that will communicate their story effectively to the admissions board.

Step 1: What’s your story?

The first thing you want to do is figure out what you want to share with the admissions committee. You should think about what you want the premise of your essay to be. If you have a prompt, then a big part of this step is already done for you. If there is no prompt, you can choose to talk about something specific. For example, if you are planning on becoming a doctor, you could choose to tell the admissions board about how you figured out that medical school is right for you and how their college will help you achieve your goal.

Once you know what question your essay is answering, you should write down as much information about yourself as possible. We call this 'gathering your story' because this is when you want to write down everything that has led you to this moment. Ask yourself the following questions and write down the answers. Remember that you're just brainstorming so it doesn't need to be perfect but it should be specific and detailed. The end goal is to have two or three specific events or examples that you can include in your essay.

You will not need to include all this information in your essay, but the process of thinking about it and writing it down can help you remember relevant experiences that you may have forgotten. It can also help you identify information that may have seemed insignificant but is actually pertinent to your decision to pursue a specific field or attend a particular school. Use the list of questions above as a guide to help you get started and try to think of other information that could be relevant.

You should write down the skillsets and non-cognitive skills you picked up from different experiences as you answer these questions. It's also a good idea to elaborate on the impact that those experiences, classes, and activities had on you. Think about why you chose those activities, what you hoped to get out of them and what you actually learned. For example, maybe you joined the high school volleyball team because you enjoy the sport and you thought it might be an excellent way to make new friends, but in the end, it taught you how to be a team player.

Interested in checking out 3 quick tips for college essays or personal statements? This video is for you:

Step 2: Structure it

Once you have a rough idea of the type of essay you want to write and what it will include, the next step is to create an outline. As mentioned earlier, a good college essay needs to follow the same structure as an academic paper. It can be several paraphs long, but it needs to have the following: 

You should start organizing your thoughts and creating a rough outline. At this point, you should know what the focus or theme of each part will be. For example: “I will start by discussing how my background made me love sports. Then I will discuss this formative experience I had in high school at the swim meet. Then I will discuss what I learned about my love for various sports from that experience, how it shaped me, and why it matters to me as a person.”

Step 3: Outline and expand

Some students like to free write and then edit as they go, but our college admissions consulting experts advise using a different process. First, we recommend that you create an outline for your college essay. Since you know what you want the essay to say and you now have a good idea of what the essay's structure needs to be, you can start outlining your information in a way that follows that structure. Having a clear outline will make it easier for you to write an essay that will be easy for the reader to follow. Once you have an outline that you are happy with, you can start expanding on it one paragraph at a time until you have a first draft.

Additional tips for a strong college essay

Conclusion 

Writing any type of college essay can be intimidating, but it can be a lot easier when you're using the right process and have the right tools. In our highly sought-after application review packages, we use these very same strategies and more to help students write outstanding college essays that help them get into their chosen schools. In other words, by following the steps and tips that we outlined in this blog, you are already taking a step in the right direction.

Now, take a look at the examples below. Pay attention to what we just mentioned as you read this essay. Notice the length of the essays, the introductions, and what the admissions committee can deduce from the information provided, for example. 

College essay example #1

University of Pennsylvania Prompt: How did you discover your intellectual and academic interests, and how will you explore them at the University of Pennsylvania? (300-450 words) 

I'd like to say that it all started on a sunny Monday morning in March, but the truth is that the details are fuzzy. What I do remember is the feeling that I got when I finished reading "We need new names" by NoViolet Bulawayo. I was in the tenth grade, and my literature teacher, Ms. Stevens, had informed us that we would be reading it for the first half of the semester. I opened the book intending to read the first chapter, do my assignment and move on. Instead, I finished the book in two days and found myself on my way to my teacher's office to discuss it. It was only after spending my lunch break discussing literary devices with Ms. Stevens and enjoying it that I decided that I wanted to have a career that revolved around books. 

Books have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, so I'd always had some appreciation for the written word, but this was the first time I read a book where I could see a family like mine, and it completely changed my world. My parents are immigrants from Zimbabwe, but my siblings and I were born and raised in Canada. This means that we grew up in a bi-cultural home where poutine was just as common as traditional Zimbabwean dishes like Sadza. Until my teacher put that book in my hands, I had never seen another family like mine in any form of media, and it made me feel seen. 

I immediately started looking for more books about immigrant stories, and before I knew it, I was reading all kinds of books, from classics like A tale of two cities to fun memoirs like Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. Furthermore, I started an after-school book club for other bookworms like myself at my high school. It now has a total of 23 members, and I am very proud of the books that we read and the amazing conversations that those books have sparked. 

 That experience only made my interest in literature grow. It has led to the point where I am now actively seeking an education that will allow me to introduce others to the enchanting world of books. I am confident that the University of Pennsylvania's unrivaled English program would allow me to continue exploring this interest and give me the skills that I need to achieve my goal. 

I have found that many communities are not reflected in many of the books traditionally considered classics and taught in schools. My goal is to be a part of changing that, the way Ms. Stevens was by introducing me to NoViolet Bulawayo. 

Want to review more advice for college essays? Take a look at this video:

College essay example #2

Stanford University prompt: The Stanford community is deeply curious and driven to learn in and out of the classroom. Reflect on an idea or experience that makes you genuinely excited about learning. (100-250 words)

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. Those are Arthur C. Clarke's words, and I wholeheartedly believe them to be true because I find technology as fascinating as magic, and I am genuinely excited to learn more about it. 

According to my mother, I've always been curious about everything. I believe her when she says this because it has not changed much. I still enjoy learning new things, pulling something apart and trying to figure out how it works, and spending hours on google researching a random topic. 

However, the subject that I am most curious about is technology. I remember being young and being very confused at the idea of a telephone. I could not wrap my head around the fact that this small device allowed me to speak with my cousins in Europe from my house in Canada. Today, I understand how telephones work, but I have more questions about other aspects of technology like coding and programming. 

I have been teaching myself how to code since the seventh grade, but I know there is much to learn. My hope is that I will be able to attend Stanford University in the fall and gain the knowledge that I will need to one day create my own piece of technology that will be indistinguishable from magic. 

FAQs

1. What is a college essay?

It is essentially a personal essay that is required for most college applications.

2. Are college essays even important?

Yes, college essays are actually very important. Having a perfect GPA and extracurriculars is great, but the truth is that many students have an impressive academic background. Your college essay is one of the things that can make you stand out from the crowd. 

3. How long should a college essay be?

This varies greatly depending on the instructions given by the school, but usually, they range between 200 and 650 words.

4. What is the structure of a college essay?

A college essay needs to follow the structure of a typical academic essay, meaning that it should have an introduction, main body, and conclusion. 

5. Can admissions consultants help with college essays?

The right ones can! Our college essay advisors can help you brainstorm and edit your essay to make sure it is competitive and compelling.

6. Do all college admissions essays have a prompt or question I need to answer?

Not all of them do. The school will often give you a prompt, but this won't always be the case.

7. What should my college essay be about?

Most of the time, the school will give you a pretty open-ended prompt, so you can write about anything as long it answers the prompt. If there is no prompt, you can write about yourself and what motivated you to apply to college or what got you interested in your chosen field of study. 

8. Why do colleges ask for college essays anyway?

Colleges care about your grades, but also about you - the person. They want to get a sense of who the person behind the application is, and college essays allow them to do that.

9. How do you start an introduction to a college essay?

We recommend starting with an anecdote, a quote, or a gripping fun fact about you so that you can grab the reader's attention from the very beginning. People tend to remember a strong opening. 

10. Can a college essay hurt you?

In short, yes. The college admissions essay is an essential part of your application, and unfortunately, it is often the weak link for many students who have an otherwise impressive record. If your college essay is weak, it can be the thing that keeps you from attending your dream college. 

To your success,

Your friends at BeMo

BeMo Academic Consulting


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