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How to Write the College Application Essay

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by
Director of Undergraduate Admission, Loyola University Chicago

You already know how to write an academic essay. You start with an introduction, throw in a thesis statement, find about three paragraphs' worth of evidence, and wrap it all up with a tidy conclusion. Now, forget all that, because writing the college application essay is different.

Your college application essay needs to capture your personality and breathe life into your application, explaining who you are even if the reviewer knows nothing else about you. But the best part is that you choose what to share and how to share it.

Take a minute and think about who might be reading your essay and how it will convey your background. What makes you unique? If you had the opportunity to stand in front of an admission committee to share a significant story or important information about yourself, what would you say? The college essay is your chance to share your personality, goals, influences, challenges, triumphs, life experiences, or lessons learned. These are the stories behind the list of activities and leadership roles on your application.   

One of the most common struggles students encounter is resisting the urge to squeeze everything they’ve seen, done, and heard into one essay. The purpose is not to write a comprehensive summary of your life in an allotted number of words. Instead, pick one moment in time and focus on telling the story behind it. Admission officers realize that writing doesn’t come easily to everyone, but with some time and planning, anyone can write an essay that stands out.

One way to make your essay stand out is to work step-by-step, piece-by-piece. The end result should be a carefully designed, insightful essay that makes you proud. Take advantage of being able to share something with an audience who knows nothing about you and is excited to learn what you have to offer. Brag. Write the story that no one else can tell.

1. The Prompt

Ease yourself into the process. Take time to understand the question being asked.

Truly understanding the question (or essay prompt) may be the single most important part of your preparation. When you are finished writing, you need to make sure that the essay still adheres to the prompt. Essay questions often suggest one or two main ideas or topics of focus. These can vary from personal to trivial, but all seek to challenge you and spark your creativity and insight. 

  • Read the essay questions and/or prompts. Read them again. Then, read them one more time.
  • Take some time to think about what is being asked and let it really sink in before you let the ideas flow.
  • Before you can even start brainstorming, define what it is you’re trying to accomplish. Is this essay prompt asking you to inform? Defend? Support? Expand upon?
  • If it doesn’t already, relate the question back yourself by asking, “How does this—or how could this—apply to me?”
  • Avoid sorting through previous class essays to see if the topics fit the bill. These pieces rarely showcase who you are as an applicant.

2. Brainstorming

Get your creative juices flowing by brainstorming all the possible ideas you can think of to address your essay question.

Believe it or not, the brainstorming stage may be more tedious than writing the actual essay. The purpose is to flesh out all of your possible ideas so when you begin writing, you know and understand where you are going with the topic.

  • Reflect. You have years to draw from, so set aside time to mentally collect relevant experiences or events that serve as strong, specific examples. This is also time for self-reflection. “How would my friends describe me?” “What are my strengths?” “What sets me apart from other applicants?”
  • Write any and all ideas down. There’s no technique that works best, but you’ll be thankful when you are able to come back to thoughts you otherwise would have forgotten. 
  • Narrow down the options. Choose three concepts you think fit the scenario best and weigh the potential of each. Which idea can you develop further and not lose the reader? Which captures more of who you really are? 
  • Choose your story to tell. From the thoughts you’ve narrowed down, pick one. You should have enough supporting details to rely on this as an excellent demonstration of your abilities, achievements, perseverance, or beliefs.

3.  The Outline

Map out what you’re going to write by making an outline.

Architects use a blue print. A webpage is comprised of HTML code. Cooks rely on recipes. What do they have in common? Structure. The rules for writing a good essay are no different. After you brainstorm, you’ll know what you want to say, but you must decide how you’re going to say it. Create an outline that breaks down the essay into sections.

  • All good stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Shape your story so that it has an introduction, body, and conclusion. Following this natural progression will make your story coherent and easy to read.
  • Strategize. How are you going to open your essay? With an anecdote? A question? Use of humor? Try to identify what the tone of your essay is going to be based on your ideas.
  • Stick to your writing style. It’s particularly important when writing a piece about yourself that you write naturally. Put the words in your own voice. By planning the layout of your essay ahead of time, you’ll avoid changing your writing style mid-essay.

4. The Essay

Once you are satisfied with your essay in outline format, begin writing!

By now you know exactly what you will write about and how you want to tell the story. Before you know it, you will have reached the necessary word count, and you will be happy you spent all that time preparing!

  • Keep your focus narrow and personal. Don’t lose your reader. Start with your main idea, and follow it from beginning to end.
  • Be specific. Avoid using clichéd, predictable, or generic phrases by developing your main idea with vivid and detailed facts, events, quotations, examples, and reasons.
  • Be yourself. Admission officers read plenty of essays and know the difference between a student’s original story and a recycled academic essay, or worse—a piece written by your mom or dad or even plagiarized. Bring something new to the table, not just what you think they want to hear. Use humor if appropriate.
  • Be concise. Don’t use 50 words if five will do. Try to only include the information that is absolutely necessary.

5. Proofreading

The last step is editing and proofreading your finished essay.

You have worked so hard up until this point and while you might be relieved, your essay is only as good as your editing. A single grammatical error or typo could indicate carelessness—not a trait you want to convey to an admission officer.

  • Give yourself some time. Let your work sit for a while (at least an hour or two) before you proofread it. Approaching the essay with a fresh perspective gives your mind a chance to focus on the actual words, rather than seeing what you think you wrote.
  • Don’t rely solely on the computer spelling and grammar check. Computers cannot detect the context in which you are using words, so be sure to review carefully. Don’t abbreviate or use acronyms or slang. They might be fine in a text message, but not in your essay.
  • Have another person (or several!) read your essay, whether it’s a teacher, guidance counselor, parent, or trusted friend. You know what you meant to say, but is it clear to someone else reading your work? Have these people review your essay to make sure your message is on target and clear to any audience.
  • Read your essay backwards. This may sound a bit silly, but when reading in sequential order, your brain has a tendency to piece together missing information, or fill in the blanks, for you. Reading each sentence on its own and backwards can help you realize not only typos and mistakes in grammar, but that you may have forgotten an article here and there, such as “a” or “the.”
  • Read your essay out loud. This forces you to read each word individually and increases your chances of finding a typo. Reading aloud will also help you ensure your punctuation is correct, and it’s often easier to hear awkward sentences than see them.
  • Check for consistency. Avoid switching back and forth from different tenses. Also, if you refer to a particular school in the essay, make sure it is the correct name and is consistent throughout the piece. You don’t want to reference two different schools in the same paper!

6. Tying up loose ends

Celebrate finishing what you started.

Writing the essay takes time and effort, and you should feel accomplished. When you submit your essay, remember to include your name, contact information, and ID number if one was provided when applying, especially if you send it electronically to a general admission e-mail account. Nothing is worse than trying to match an essay with no name (or an e-mail address such as gurlluvspink@domain.com) to a file. Make sure to keep copies of what you sent to which schools and when—and follow up on them! Be certain the college or university you are applying to received your essay. You don’t want all that hard work to go to waste!

Looking for some examples? Look no further!

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