Last updated May 12, 2023
How NOT to End a College Essay (and What You Can Do Instead)
If you’ve ever read the last page of a book, gasped, and slammed it shut, then you know the effect a good or bad conclusion can have on a reader.
Conclusions are one of the most challenging but critical parts of a college essay. Getting it right can be tricky.
College essay conclusions require special attention because of the high stakes. Write one wrong, and you’ll leave a bad taste in your admissions officer’s mouth. But write a great one, and you’ll leave them awe-struck and ready to admit you.
So let’s dive into what a conclusion is and go over the best (and worst) ways you can write one.
What’s the point of a conclusion?
A conclusion, well, concludes.
Before discussing the point of a conclusion, we should briefly revisit story structure basics.
Most story arcs you’re familiar with look like this:
- A beginning that lays out the scene and characters.
- A “rising action” that moves the story forward and develops the central conflict.
- A climax where a pivotal moment occurs.
- A “falling action” where the central conflict is resolved following the climax.
- A conclusion where all remaining questions are answered and the author reflects on the meaning of the story.
Similarly, in a college essay, a conclusion serves an especially important role. Your conclusion will be the last part of your essay that admissions officers read before moving on. You want it to pack a punch and leave them with a great impression of you.
When conclusions go awry, it’s usually because they’re focused too much on summary. Instead of summarizing, your conclusion should gently bring your story to a close. It’s an opportunity for you to wrap up any leftover conflict and do intentional reflection and meaning-making.
So what does that actually mean? Think of it as the “so what” paragraph. While you’re not likely to say “my essay matters because of x, y, and z,” your conclusion will drive home your theme.
Let’s take a brief example. If your essay is about what a problem-solver you are, then you might picture admissions officers saying, “That’s great. So what?”
While that would be a rude question, it’s a helpful thought exercise. In response, you might say something like, “My problem-solving matters because I want to use my engineering degree to address real-world problems.” Ah ha! You’ve found meaning.
Now you can write a conclusion that drives home the idea that you’re a problem-solver who wants to help your community. An admissions officer will leave your essay with a clear and positive sense of your strengths.
That’s why conclusions are important.
How long should your conclusion be?
You have some flexibility when it comes to the length of your college essay conclusion. Some conclusions are only a sentence long. Others take up a 3-5 sentence paragraph.
The length of your conclusion will be determined by the amount of detail or reflection you’ll need to wrap up your essay and reflect on its meaning.
There are two main errors students make when deciding how long their conclusion should be.
They write a short conclusion simply because they’re cutting it close to the word count.
They write a long conclusion because they’re trying to jam-pack it with information that actually belongs in the body of their essay.
Most conclusions are fairly short and sweet, but they need to be long enough for you to meaningfully reflect. Too short, and you risk not saying enough. Too long, and your conclusion loses its punch. Finding the balance is key.
How NOT to end a college essay
Before we jump into some good ways to end your college essay, let’s briefly go through some bad ways. The following four approaches are common ways students choose to end their college essays, but they don’t work very effectively because they don’t serve the ultimate purpose of a conclusion. Instead, they’re quick-fix conclusions that actually end up detracting from the essay.
Your conclusion should not…
1. start with a literal conclusion.
“In conclusion, I found that…”
Please don’t write “In conclusion….” Transitional phrases can be very helpful, and the phrase might work in other kinds of writing. But in college essay writing, “In conclusion…” usually signals that you aren’t actually sure how to transition your essay to your conclusion. It also shows a lack of maturity in your writing style because the phrase is often (though not always) used by beginning writers early on in their craft.
Instead of literally writing “In conclusion,” just begin your conclusion. Make sure you have a logical transition from the previous paragraph, and get right to it.
2. restate what you’ve already said.
“This essay has explained why I…”
The reader has already read your essay. They don’t need a play-by-play at the end. If an admissions officer notices that your conclusion is restating what they’ve already read, then there’s a good chance that they’ll quickly skim through it and move on. They probably won’t get anything new from it, and it’ll be like you didn’t write anything at all.
If you feel compelled to restate what you’ve already said, it may be because you want to drive home your theme or main point. That is a perfectly reasonable thing to do in a college essay. Instead of restating every single point, focus in on the most significant and go deeper in your reflection.
3. go meta.
“Now that you’ve read this essay, you understand…”
There’s a time and a place to reference your reader, but a college essay conclusion generally isn’t it. Doing so draws the attention away from your own story and points it outward to the reader. You want admissions officers to be thinking about you, not themselves.
The easiest way to fix this issue is probably to just eliminate it. Going meta likely serves no true purpose in your essay, so try getting rid of it and returning instead to the point you were originally trying to convey.
4. lack a conclusion at all.
You’d be surprised how many college essays trail off into the Common Application void without truly wrapping things up.
Reading an essay without a conclusion is like having the power go out mid-binge watch. Admissions officers are left wondering what happened and why. They wonder what you wanted them to get from your essay, what you see as your most important takeaways, and why they should admit you.
To avoid leaving your admissions officers in the dust, try out the following strategies.
4 Effective Ways to End a College Essay
So now you know what not to do. You even have a few tips for correcting any mistakes you may have already made.
But we still need to discuss the right way to approach your conclusion. Let’s go over four effective strategies.
These strategies are good ways to end any personal essay, but they are especially good in college essays because they maintain sight of the purpose of a personal statement. They encourage you to write creatively, reflect meaningfully, and convey your strengths with purpose.
Many college essays are organized around specific themes. One fantastic way to end a college essay is by returning to an event, metaphor, or idea that appeared early on in the essay. This approach is effective because it brings the essay full circle. Often a callback will highlight the writer’s changed perspective: whereas they began the essay looking at something one way, they end the essay having gained a new outlook.
When I returned home from my trip, I raced to my flower pot. The flowers were in full bloom. Over the two months I was away, we both underwent significant transformation. Now, as I take on this new challenge, I’ve realized how much I’ve grown, too.
This conclusion contains a callback to a flower pot that presumably made up part of their introduction. It effectively uses the flower as a metaphor for growth and allows the writer to reflect back on how they have changed over the course of the essay’s story.
2. Looking to the future
Concluding an essay by looking forward is a great way to demonstrate how the strengths you write about in your essay will serve you in college and beyond. Admissions officers read college essays with an eye toward how a student will do in college. By ending your essay with a forward-looking perspective, you can make that job easy for them.
With all my effort, I raised over $10,000 for my local charity. Now that I’ve seen how much that money has helped my community, I can’t stop chasing that feeling of accomplishment as the donation amount ticks higher and higher. What will I fundraise next?
By emphasizing the student’s love for fundraising, we learn a few things from this conclusion. We see that the student is a very skilled fundraiser and that they want to use their skill to help their community. The final sentence also gives us a sense of forward movement, a kind of momentum that the student would be likely to bring to their college campus.
3. Return to a strength or value
Since college essays should be all about strengths and values, ending your essay by explicitly returning to them is also a good idea. By leaving your admissions officers with a discussion of your strength or value, you emphasize its importance. You communicate exactly what you want them to know about you before they move on to the next application.
People like to joke that only two things in life are certain: change and taxes. But I like to add a third. Change, taxes, and my art. No matter where I am or what I’m doing, I’ll be making art. And it won’t be any old art. It’ll be art that means something, art that moves people. Like change or the IRS, I’ll be right here waiting and creating.
This conclusion is spunky and to-the-point. It returns to the student’s strength—their artistry—and emphasizes why their strength is important. By the end of the conclusion, we get a solid sense of the student’s personality, and we’re very clear on the fact that they interact with the world through their art.
4. Pointed reflection
Some conclusions are only about intentional meaning-making. This option is especially good for skilled writers who can make their reflections poetic. Concluding with a pointed reflection also ensures that you leave your admissions officers with the specific ideas you want them to take away from your essay. These kinds of conclusions show a maturity of thought and perspective—always good strengths to show in your college applications.
I’ll always remember that fishing trip with my grandpa. The creak of his old red pickup, the musty smell of my borrowed fishing vest, the sun reflecting off the water—all of it is seared in my memory as the best day of my life. Now that he’s gone, I go fishing alone. As I tie on my fly, I think about what he told me: walk slowly so you don’t startle the fish.
This conclusion reflects on the writer’s relationship with their grandpa. The imagery engages us in their reflection, and we also get a sense of what’s at stake. The last sentence boasts a good metaphor that presumably has something to do with the rest of the essay. It wraps things up and ends on a positive and creative note.
Your college essay conclusion is really important. It’s the final chance you have to make a lasting impression, so use it wisely.
It may take you several drafts to get it right, and that’s okay. Once you land on something you like, ask family, friends, teachers, or counselors their opinion on it. Crowdsourcing reactions to your conclusion can help you get a sense of how an admissions officer might react. You’ll be empowered to adjust your conclusion to evoke the exact response you want admissions officers to have.
Need more conclusion guidance? The Essay Academy has a step-by-step college essay writing curriculum awaiting you.
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