The 9 Steps to Creating a College Application Essay

The personal essay is a key element to the overall college application. It’s the chance to let the admission officers get to know the real you. After all, you’re more than just test scores, GPA, and academics! A college application essay allows you to talk about lessons learned, special skills, awards won, causes that matter to you, and the activities you’ve participated in. But how do you begin? Where do you begin? Not everyone is an English-class whiz-kid, after all. Well, you’ve no doubt written a few essays for class by this point, time to dust off the research-and-writing skills and get to work! Here’s how to write a college application essay!

College student typing on a laptop.

Step One: Find the Prompt

Your college application will almost always give you some sort of essay prompt to write about. It could be something common like “Who is a person you look up to” or “describe a time you overcame a challenge.” Or it could be some bizarre essay questions, like “If you could choose to be raised by robots, dinosaurs, or aliens, who would you pick? Why?” (Yes, that is a real college app essay prompt from a real university).

Once you have your prompt, it’s time to brainstorm.

Step Two: Brainstorming

Different prompts will call for different brainstorming sessions. If your prompt is “What person inspires you?” jot down a list of people who you admire. It could be a parental figure, a teacher, a celebrity, a past inventor, or even a fictional character (just make sure you follow the rules of the prompt of the application essay).

At this point in the process, just write down everything that pops into your brain. Nothing is set in stone yet. Whatever comes to you, consider it.

Step Three: Select Your Topic

Once you’ve got your brainstorm list, it’s time to narrow it down. Go through each potential topic and think about what material you can get out of it. Start eliminating weaker ideas.

For example, if your prompt is “Describe a time your hard work paid off” and you’ve brainstormed: Studied hard to get an A in class I struggled with, saved up and worked odd-jobs to pay for a new video game, spent weeks and weeks on an art project that one first prize in a contest—which of these can you write the most about? Which one taught you a valuable lesson or two?

The narrowing down process might take two or three rounds, but at the end of it, you’ll have your topic.

Step Four: Outline Your Essay

Before you dive into writing, it’s helpful to create an outline. You’ve learned about essay structures in class, no doubt, so put it to use here. Create bullet points for topics you want to hit in the body paragraphs. If you’ve got an idea for an intro hook or a good conclusion, jot them down—though some people find it easier to write the introduction and conclusion after they’ve written the body.

Step Five: First Draft

It’s time to write your college application essay! With your outline in hand, you’re not going in blind. Don’t try to make your first draft perfect. Avoid worrying too much about flow, length, or vocabulary just yet, just get your thoughts down on paper. Remember, your outline is a guide, but if you find yourself taking another path as you write, that’s totally fine. It’s a guide, not an instruction manual.

Step Six: Edits & Second Draft

With the first draft down, it’s time to take a break. Step away from your work for a bit to relax your mind and come back with fresh eyes. Re-read your essay and go through to make small edits—re-write sentences to make them flow better, fix any grammatical or spelling errors, make sure things are consistent, etc.

Now it’s time to revise and tackle the bigger edits. Does the structure of your essay make sense and flow well? Do you hit all the points the prompt asked you to make? Did you talk about everything you wanted to? (Or did you ramble a bit too much and muddy the point of the essay?). Go through your paper a second time and smooth things out.

Step Seven: Find a Test-Reader

When you work on something for a while, your eyes tend to skim over your own mistakes. So find someone willing to read your essay! They’ll be able to tell you if anything is confusing or if there are any glaring errors. Parents and teachers make good test-readers.

Step Eight: Final Edits & Proofreading

With test-reader feedback, it’s time to do a final draft of your essay. Make any necessary edits. Take another break and re-read your work one final time, scrutinizing it for any sneaky errors or last-minute changes that need fixing. Double-check that the formatting matches the requirements—some colleges are very particular about font style and size.

Proofreading is vital. You don’t want to send your essay off with some silly error that counts against you—like spelling your own name wrong (I might be speaking from experience here).

Step Nine: Submit Your Essay

Your essay is primed and polished and ready to send in. Congratulations! Ship that paper off and celebrate. You’ve worked hard.

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