5 Steps to a Successful College Essay

Write your essays in five easy steps

 notes-514998_6401. Get Started

  • Decide on a deadline and mark it on your calendar.
  • Break the task down into smaller parts: starting date, completion date, and working dates in between when you will write.
  • Decide what you want the college admissions office to know about you that isn’t spelled out in your application. Take some time to consider this. You may have to spend a bit of time on identity development.
  • Do your activities, classes and accomplishments point to a special interest, passion, trait, or commitment that you want to further develop?
  • Who are you?
  • What is important to you?
  • Does your application raise any questions that you need to answer?

2. Develop a Key Message Statement

Try this exercise: When the admissions representative is finished reading your essay, what is the one thing you want the reader to learn about you? “Wow, this student sure is ____________!” Be sure you can confidently answer this question prior to beginning your rough draft. This is your KEY MESSAGE STATEMENT.

3. Brainstorm

Now, how do you get your message across without just spitting it out? Put yourself in your reader’s chair for a moment. Most admissions officers read hundreds of essays over a period of two to three months. This may get a bit tedious, so consider something unique or unusual.

  • Do an outline first if it helps you with your writing.
  • Feel free to entertain, educate, or persuade as you develop your message. Consider telling a story that only you can tell—perhaps a story that screams perseverance or one that hints at innovation and creativity.
  • Use descriptive words, powerful verbs, and lots of details to paint a picture that makes the reader feel like she is right there with you.
  • Remember that you want the admissions rep to get to know you—not your favorite French teacher, your father who sacrificed to bring you to this country, or your favorite author. He may however, want to know how one of these people has inspired you or made you who you are today. But remember that the focus is on you!

Realize that your college essay is not an English assignment. The best college application essay draws the reader into the essay and allows the story to unfold naturally.

  • Consider beginning your essay with a statement or question that causes the reader to think, “Hmm, I wonder what this student is going to talk about?” and ending with, “Oh, I get it!”
  • You might want to start your essay in the middle of your story for a more intriguing, eye-catching beginning: “Clutching my guide rope and flailing for a toe-hold, I thought longingly of the hot chocolate that awaited me at base
  • You’ll want to be specific. Sometimes our small daily rituals tell more about us than the big awards we win. Some students choose to humbly tell a story about a failure and what they learned from it. As long as it holds a powerful message, the story will accomplish your goal.

4. Write your first draft

  • The first sentence or introduction to your essay is often considered the most important. It is the first impression. Strategize how to launch your essay in order to really grab the reader’s attention! Be sure to use your voice, explaining any slang or technical jargon.
  • Remember not to make things up or fall prey to exaggeration. Be real—this is your chance for the admissions office to get to know you!
  • Don’t worry about spelling and grammar in your first draft —just get your ideas down on paper.

5. Refine your essay

  • Spend extra time developing a strong beginning paragraph and conclusion.
  • Keep the length of your essay to stated limits. Under the limit is better than over.
  • Vary the length of your sentences; don’t begin every sentence with the word “I.”
  • Use transition words, statements or sentences to make sure the ideas are connected in a logical fl ow.
  • Write in the active not the passive voice (“I did,” not “it was done to me”).
  • Use descriptive words and avoid slang or profanities.
  • Put your essay away for a few days and then take it out and work to make it your final draft . Polish it and make spelling and grammar corrections.

Before submitting any essays, check off all items below to make sure you have completed everything.

  • Re-read the essay prompts. Are you sure you have answered the prompt
  • Re-read and explicitly follow each college’s requirements for the topic, format, word or character limits, etc.
  • Proofread one more time for spelling and grammar.
  • Use a standard readable font and font size such as Times New Roman 12. Allow ample margins.
  • Print out and keep a copy of your final draft (of each essay).
  • When applying online, it is best to complete your essay without any special characters in a note pad document; then cut and paste in the space provided or upload the document if the application on allows it.

Courtesy of Track It, 2015