15 College Essay Tips

Writing your college essay can seem daunting, but these 15 pieces of advice can make it easy and painless.

CollegeXpress Student Writer

Originally Posted: Aug 2, 2017
Last Updated: Jul 31, 2020

Writing your college essay can seem daunting, but in reality, it can be really easy and painless! What you need to remember is that your admission essay can help to better show who you are, not just the grades and test scores you've earned. Here are 15 pieces of advice from a student who struggled to write her admission essay last fall that was able to craft a unique, standout essay in the end.

1. Make sure you answer the prompt

This may seem obvious and not-so-mind-blowing, but believe me, it’s important. If you go off on a tangent and don’t answer the prompt, it doesn’t really matter how good your essay is. The college will make note of the fact that you deviated. Answering the prompt isn’t that hard, but your response to the question needs to be clear. Don’t make them search for it. 

Related: How to Read a College Application Essay Prompt

2. Pick the prompt that speaks to you the most

If you have choices, you may want to pick the prompt that looks the easiest, but that’s not what you should do. You should definitely pick the prompt that resonates with you the most. If you genuinely enjoy and care about the subject of your essay, it’s going to be so much easier to write than if you don’t care and you’re just writing it to get it over with. Colleges will pick up on the fact that you’re passionate about what you’re writing about (or not).

3. Have a “golden thread”

When I was writing my college essays, my English teacher told me I always had to have a “golden thread.” What this means is that your central idea or theme should be evident throughout your entire essay; you shouldn’t just state it at the beginning and then again at the end. So weave your main point throughout your essay. It becomes more cohesive that way.

4. Consider your audience

When you’re writing your essay, you need to take your audience into consideration. You’re not writing this for a friend or family member, so your language and tone needs to reflect that. Don’t use slang, and try to sound as polished as you can. College acceptance committees are going to be looking at this, so you want to put your best foot forward!

5. Proofread!

You should always, always, always proofread your work at least twice before you send it in. Whether you do this by reading it out loud, reading it quietly to yourself, or having your computer read it to you, you can’t skip this step. You don’t want to send in an essay full of grammar and spelling mistakes. The website Grammarly is excellent for checking grammar if you feel like you need a second eye but no one else is available. (I’ve used that site for multiple pieces of work and it’s always been great.) 

Related: English Grammar Cheat Sheet for Students: Rules You Need to Know

6. Have someone else proofread as well

While you should look over your essay yourself, you should also have another person look it over. I would recommend having at least two different teachers check it, and one of those should be your English/language arts teacher. Sometimes there are things that make sense to us but not to others, so having someone else proofread is an excellent way to catch those bits before you send your essay out to colleges.

7. It’s okay to change your outline, or not have one at all

A lot of students use an outline to help them with their college essay, but not all do. (I know I didn’t.) If you do use an outline, know that it’s totally okay to change that outline as you go along. Your outline should never be set in stone and unchangeable. It evolves and changes as you write your essay, so don’t worry if you end up going in a slightly different direction than you originally intended.

Related: An Essay About You: How to Tackle Your College Essay

8. Don’t just summarize

You should always analyze the information you’ve given and relate it back to your thesis. This way, your argument and essay are more cohesive. Instead of just stating “this made me happy,” explain why and give specific details or examples. Include why it’s important to your thesis/main idea.

9. Don’t be generic

When you’re writing your admission essay, don’t make it a generic, run-of-the-mill paper that could be sent to any old college. The committees aren’t going to want to read generic essays, so make them want to read yours. Don’t bore them—write an essay that’s engaging, intriguing, and unique. Not only will you hold their interest, they’ll remember your essay when they make their final decision.

10. Don’t make it an essay; make it a story

While your college essay is most likely going to look like the generic five-paragraph essay with an introduction and conclusion, that doesn’t mean you have to make it sound like an essay. Make it interesting, fun, and exciting to read. Don’t just write a few stuffy paragraphs and call it good. You need to work at it and make it the best it can be! 

Related: How to Write a Great College Application Essay

11. Make sure you keep the word limit in mind

The limit for the Common Application essay is 650 words. Keep this in mind as you’re writing, and periodically check your word count. This will keep you from going way over the word count and then having to delete later. Cutting parts out is the worst, because it can be hard to decide what to get rid of.

12. Use good vocabulary

Don’t make your writing sound like a second-grader could have written it. Try using more sophisticated words: Instead of “very good,” try “excellent.” “Intelligent” could replace “very smart.” Not only will this make you sound like a higher-level writer, it’ll cut back on your word count so you have more room to get your point across. At the same time, avoid using a thesaurus to find alternative words no one would ever use to sound smarter. (“Humid prepossessing Homo Sapiens with full-sized aortic pumps” takes up a lot of space.)

13. Be honest when answering your prompt

Don’t lie about things that you’ve supposedly done or not done when it comes to your college essay. If you can’t answer a prompt without lying, then you need to pick a different one. Honesty is the best policy, and you’d be surprised how easy it is for colleges to find out if you aren’t telling the truth. 

14. If you can shorten it, do it

Don’t make a sentence extensive if you can make it succinct. Get to your point, and don’t add in pointless information just to try and reach the word count. You may need more words later, and then you’ll have to cut parts out of your essay, which like I mentioned before, you probably won’t want to do. Be precise and concise with your writing from the start. 

15. Just relax!

Your college essay is going to turn out fantastic, especially if you follow these tips. Put your best foot forward, submit your best work, and you’ll be just fine. The college essay is just one piece of your application, so you’ll be okay. Don’t stress and try to force it. If the words won’t come, take a break! That being said, don’t put it off until the last second either. Then you run the risk of submitting a subpar essay. 

Related: 5 Fun and Unique Ways to Brainstorm Your College Essays

Still feeling stuck? Find even more college essay advice on CollegeXpress!

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About Madalyn Chapman

Hi! My name is Madalyn Chapman, and I’m a member of Roanoke College's Class of 2021! I love Broadway with a burning passion, and I’ve seen several shows. In order, I’ve seen The Phantom of the Opera, Fiddler on the Roof, Wicked, Something Rotten, She Loves Me, The King and I, Finding Neverland, Aladdin, and The Lion King. My favorite author is Chris Colfer, whose book Struck By Lightning: The Carson Phillips Journal is absolutely hilarious.


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