Last updated March 7, 2023
How to Write a College Essay (Exercises + Examples)
Welcome, traveler, to our super-comprehensive guide to writing a college essay. In this post we're going to define the different types of college essays that you'll need to write to apply to college, hone in on THE BIG ONE (your personal statement), and go deep into the conventions for writing a personal statement.
We're also going to share examples, talk about the biggest mistakes students make, discuss cliches, and more. It's going to be a great time.
Who was this guide written by? It was a group effort by the Admit Report team—Alex, Kylie, and Ben. We're former admissions officers and long-time writing coaches. Together, we have over a decade of admissions and writing experience.
Between us, we've also read more than 10k college essays. So we know a thing or two about 'em. In fact, we put all of our knowledge in a course—it's called the Essay Academy—where we help students learn how to write their own. It's like this guide on steroids times fifteen. Check it out if you want. We worked hard on it.
But anyway, let's get down to business.
What are college essays?
Let's start with the very (very) basics: what are college essays?
To apply to college, you need some stuff. You need your transcripts, of course, as well as letters of recommendation from teachers and your counselor. Depending on the school, you may also need to have taken a standardized test like the ACT or the SAT.
But in addition to all those basic requirements, you need to write essays about yourself. These essays go out to every school you apply to (with some exceptions). They're the main tool that college admissions officers use to "get to know you," and they're crucial to a process called "holistic admissions."
What is holistic admissions?
Good question. The concept can be a bit fuzzy. Holistic admissions is the method that most admissions offices use to analyze applicants. A holistic admissions process assigns certain weights to grades, scores, letters of rec, extracurricular achievements, and other factors. But it also takes your own subjective experiences into account—your life circumstances, your experiences, and your story. Holistic admissions processes are designed to read "between the lines" created by the other application data, the goal being to get a clear sense of who you, the applicant, really are.
The rubber meets the road here with college essays. The essays provide the context that an admissions officer uses to understand the other components of your application. Essays put the “whole” in “holistic.”
The power of context is significant. Your essays can prop up a major weakness in your application by explaining the circumstances that surrounded, for example, a grade blip. Or they can help an admissions officer understand why you're such a strong applicant: maybe you don’t have too many extracurriculars because you spent most of high school helping take care of your younger brothers.
But most of all, your essays can provide a humanizing touch to a process that can, at times, reduce human beings down to transcript decimal points and standardized test scores.
Basically, your essays are how you stand out.
How important are college essays?
Since your essays help you stand out, they’re really important. Perhaps even the most important.
In an admissions landscape where spots are limited, application volume is astronomical, and other candidates have just as solid credentials, the only way you have a chance of admission (at least at more highly-selective schools) is by standing out from the crowd.
When done well, your college essays have a genuine impact on your readers—the admissions officers who decide whether to admit you. No GPA, test score, or AP class can ever have the same effect.
Of course, essays can’t replace strong GPAs, test scores, and academic rigor. But they can bring to life the person behind those statistics. And admissions officers admit people, not stats.
Your college essays are also important because they are one of the few things over which you have total control.
You can’t control what your recommenders will write about you, and you can’t go back in time to take an extra math class or learn the trombone. But you can work and re-work your essays until they say exactly what you want them to say.
In short, college essays are a crucial part of your college application because they’re the main way you help an admissions officer get to know you.
What are the different types of college essays?
So the purpose of essays is to help you stand out and to help admissions officers understand who you are. But what this looks like in practice will depend on which type of essay you're actually writing.
It's essays, plural, after all. There are three genres of essay you will probably need to write in order to apply to college:
#1) Personal essay: the flagship piece of writing that every single admissions officer will read.
#2) Supplemental essays: the essays you write for specific schools that admissions officers read alongside your personal essay.
#3) UC essays: the Personal Insight Question essays written specifically for the University of California application. (You’ll only need to worry about these if you’re applying to a UC.)
This guide is all about #1: the personal essay. If you want to learn more about the other two types, check out our supplemental essay and UC Essay guides after you finish this post.
What is the Common Application personal statement?
The Common Application personal statement is a single piece of reflective writing that has a maximum length of 650 words. The essay is standardized—meaning you only have to write one of them to apply to most schools—and is a requirement that most colleges have for all their applicants.
Everyone (almost) who applies needs to write one. Who created this rule? Well, the Common Application did—an organization that provides infrastructure for students to apply to many colleges at once.
That's a whole other post, though.
So, what's the common application personal statement all about? Generally, these essays tend to be deeply reflective. They're an opportunity for a writer to focus on a personal topic, background, experience, or belief.
Generally, they are NOT the place to flex your academic credentials or talk about how eager you are to study computer science in college.
Seriously, the best common app personal statements are personal reflections. They're written without too much explicit strategy about how the admissions committees will evaluate them. Instead, the best ones are written from a place of genuine meaning and care—they're about an area of your life that really matters to you, and that says something about who you are.
Let's take a look at the current Common App essay prompts. I want to give you a sense of what types of questions the common app personal statement gets at:
- Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
- Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
- Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
- Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
As you can see, you’ve got a lot of options—even the option to write about whatever you want.
One thing I usually highlight to my students is that the range of prompts you could write about is so vast that, really, the prompts don't deserve MUCH attention or thought.
After all, if you're stumped, you can always pick the last option and submit an essay that hits on your own topic.
So if your personal statement is the centerpiece essay that almost every school receives, what other types of essays exist?
What are supplemental essays?
Supplementals are the other big genre of essay that you're likely to encounter in your application journey.
It’s important to understand how they work in tandem with your personal statement.
Supplementals are much shorter than your personal statement. Typically, they're between 100-350 words long. And unlike the personal statement, supplemental essays are much more specific. They ask you to answer specific questions about your life, interests, experience, and your hopes and dreams for attending a school. All supplemental are school-specific, meaning that some schools will require them and others won't, and that you'll have to write unique essays for each school that does require them.
Some common supplemental prompt themes:
- Tell us about a way in which you contribute diversity to your community.
- Tell us about an extracurricular that you've been particularly involved in.
- Why do you want to attend our school?
- Why do you want to study your chosen major?
- Explain a challenge you have overcome.
We've written a separate massive post about supplemental essays. Feel free to check that out if you need a place to start.
Now that we've surveyed the main two types of essays (the common app personal statement and your supplementals), it's time to get back to the meat of this post. Let's continue discussing what the Common Application personal statement is and how you can write one that stands out.
How to Write a Common Application Personal Statement
So now that you know what a personal statement is and how it’s different from a supplemental essay, it’s time to talk about how to actually write one.
You’ve written essays for school before, so why does writing a personal statement seem so daunting?
Well, like any kind of writing, a personal statement is a specific genre of writing that has its own goals, tone, and conventions. Picking up on these conventions isn’t easy, especially when you’ve probably never written a personal statement before.
Any roadblocks you’re experiencing while getting started are likely because you don’t quite know what is expected of you. And how can you write an excellent essay if you don’t know what your reader expects?
But fear not. In this part of the guide, we’ll break down all the ins and outs of what a personal statement is and how you can write one yourself. We’ll go over what your goals are, what specific requirements you should meet, how to pick the best topic, and how to outline and draft your essay.
Goals of a Common Application Essay
I think it's helpful to think of a college essay as a persuasive document. In Rhetoric 101, you learn that most pieces of writing—at least those crafted to be read by someone else—have a persuasive purpose. Even a work of fiction is trying to convince someone of something—of a certain way to look at the world.
College essays have a very particular audience (admissions officers) and a very specific persuasive task: convince them that you are one of the few students who deserve a spot at their school.
So that's the goal, in a nutshell. But unlike a resume, where you're trying to bowl over an interviewer by showing just how accomplished and skilled you are, the kind of persuasion you need to hone in a college essay is different.
Instead of writing an essay that simply regurgitates your accomplishments (those are already in your activities section, after all), your essay should give admissions officers a sense of who you are as a person.
But here’s the thing. Your admissions officers aren’t friends or family; they’re not going to know and love you no matter what you write. They are short on time, and you are one of hundreds (maybe even thousands) of applications piling up in their queue. You need to market yourself to them.
Apple doesn’t sell iPhones by saying, “Here’s a phone you can call and text with. You can also browse the Internet.” Of course not. That’s boring and uninspired. Instead, they craft slogans like, “The Internet in your pocket.”
You could straight up tell an admissions officer, “I am a dedicated and hard-working person. I give my everything to my academics.” But that isn’t likely to get you noticed by an admissions officer, who has read those same sentences thousands of times in their career.
What will get you noticed? Like Apple’s slogan, your college essay should show, not tell admissions officers who you are and what you’ll contribute to their campus. It should give genuine insight into your lived experience through well-crafted writing. And it should be vulnerable and honest but ultimately positive in its expression of what you bring to the table.
That’s a lot to ask, I know. This guide will help you get there.
Let’s start by setting a few concrete goals your personal statement should aim for.
Goal #1: Write persuasively about your strengths.
You need to persuade admissions officers that you are a worthwhile human being to take a gamble on: someone who will make a good addition to the vibrant school community that they are the gatekeepers of.
That means that your essay needs to highlight positive characteristics about yourself. This should be your most central goal. Aim to highlight only one or two strengths. These characteristics should clearly communicate the positive ways you’ll contribute to your college campus.
Here are a few examples:
- Intellectual refinement and care
- Humor and good-naturedness
- The capacity for reflection and depth
In other words, you're trying to convince admissions officers that you are a good, cool human being. Leave it up to those pesky supplemental essays to flex your skills and abilities.
So what does this look like in practice?
Think back to the discussions you’ve had in your English classes. Remember the ones about themes or central messages? The strength you want to showcase should be the underlying message of your essay, that intangible feeling an admissions officer walks away with.
What this doesn’t look like: “I am the most compassionate person in the world. When I see someone struggling to load their groceries in the car, I always run over and help. I’ve never picked up money off the side of the street. If I see a baby crying in a supermarket, I go right up and buy them a toy. I just love being nice.”
Theme: I love bragging about myself.
What this does look like: “As a grocery store attendant, I have many duties. But the one I love most is bagging. When my longtime customer, Ms. Smith, comes through my line, I like to help her load her groceries in her car. In exchange for my effort, she tells me stories. My favorite story, and the one from which I’ve crafted my life philosophy, came up after we saw a spare penny in front of her car. She explained that her dad taught her never to pick up spare change. Instead, they drop a few more coins. They call it ‘littering for good’ to pass on help, even just a few cents, to a stranger. I can’t wait to ‘litter for good’ on my college campus.”
Theme: I’m a caring, thoughtful person who loves engaging with and helping others.
See the difference? I’m not listing every single good quality about me. I’m showing my strength (compassion) through memorable storytelling and reflection. That’s goal #1.
Goal #2: Stand out of the crowd with an essay that's memorable.
If you're applying to some of the more selective schools in the country (or even if you aren't), your application is being directly compared with those of tens of thousands of other qualified students. Your essay is one of your biggest chances to stand out from the crowd.
How do you do that? NOT through topic selection, let me tell you. Plenty of students think that the only way to stand out from an application stack is to write an essay that's about a quirky topic—something weird that an admissions officer has never encountered before.
This is the wrong approach.
A study conducted by researchers at Stanford looked at the topics of over 350,000 college essays. They found that most of the essays were grouped into a series of stable topic buckets. That is, while the quality and success of the essays differed wildly, the topics themselves remained fairly consistent. (I think there were only about fifty disparate topics that applicants wrote about.)
The lesson to me is clear. No one is truly original in their topic selection, so you shouldn't try to be either. Your goal isn't to stand out by being more daring and quirky than ever before, or to write about "the most INTENSE experience in my life."
Your goal should be to execute a common topic in a way that is relentlessly personal, even "vulnerable." The best essays may be about a common topic, but they're written with such a strong personal touch that an admissions officer can't put your essay down. And when they finish it, they think, "Wow, I can't believe she went through that. Good for her."
A bad topic: If I were an alien visiting the earth in the time of the dinosaurs, I would be so quirky and unique.
A good topic: Let me tell you about the most impactful afternoon I spent with my mom making cookies.
By telling a story that is deeply personal and vulnerable, you become a person who sticks in an admissions officer’s mind and who stands up off the page. In a landscape of intense competition, where admissions officers will often read 30 applications in a single afternoon, being memorable is the gold standard.
Goal #3: Convey yourself in polished, thoughtful writing.
The Common App personal statement is one of the main venues you have to convince an admissions officer that they should let you into their school. This may be a bit of a bummer for any student who has a hard time writing.
But you don’t have to write a New York Times bestseller to write a good college admissions essay.
A big goal for your personal statement is to unencumber the reader. That means that your writing itself should not be a barrier for an admissions officer who's just trying to get to know you.
There are two ways this usually becomes a problem.
Problem #1: You struggle with the conventions of standard written English. If you struggle with writing the way an admissions officer expects to read, it may be difficult to pull off an essay that flows smoothly throughout.
Problem #2: You have (or try to have) an overly complicated writing style. This happens when you're someone who tends to write in long, florid, complex sentences that, strung together one after another, enmesh the reader in a hopeless tangle of clauses and modifiers they need to read thrice over in order to extricate themselves. (See what we did there? Long sentences = hard to read.)
Here are two tips to help combat these issues:
Tip #1: Ask for some help. Try to find an adult (a relative, friend, or teacher would be my first recommendation) who can copy-edit your essay for clarity.
Tip #2: Write more simply. Try to write in a way that makes it easy for a reader to skim your essay. Because a lot of the time, admissions officers may only have time to skim.
As you write, remember that you aren’t just writing this essay for yourself. You’re writing it for an audience. Like anything produced for an audience, the writer needs to be cognizant of how well or poorly the reading audience will be able to read the piece.
So if your writing impedes the reader from reading, do some intentional work to improve it. If you need to read your essay aloud to catch confusing sentences, do so. If your writing style tends to be more floral, try to pare things down.
Focus on concision and clarity. Are you using your words well? Have you written too little? Or are you filling the page to bursting with lengthy descriptions and numerous tangents?
Find a balance, and write straight down the middle.
So, your personal statement should fulfill three goals: write essays that highlight mature values, like self-awareness, compassion, and intellectual curiosity; don't try to stand out by picking a novel topic, but rather execute a normal topic in a way that stands out by being relentlessly personal and even vulnerable; and write your essay in a way that minimizes inconvenience to a reading audience.
Common App Essay Conventions
Like all writing meant for an audience, the Common App personal statement has specific conventions. Some of these conventions, like word length, are standardized and imposed by the Common App.
Other conventions, like tone, are more implicit. That means that you wouldn’t know to do them if you weren’t told. Thankfully, that’s what this guide is for.
What's the right word count for a college essay?
We’ll start off with the basics: word count.
In the Common App personal statement, the maximum number of words is 650. If you’re writing in a word processor like Word or Google Docs, what does 650 words look like? Depending on your line breaks, 650 words is almost 1.5 pages single-spaced or nearly 3 pages double-spaced.
Does the maximum length mean you have to write all 650 words?
We like to advise students to try to get 80% of the way there. So for a 650-word essay, that means you should try to write at least 520 words.
It's totally fine to write the full 650; many students do. And we've seen some really strong essays that weigh in at less than 500 words. But to avoid admissions officers thinking you didn't take an idea or story as far as you might have been able to if you'd written more, do your best to hit that 80% benchmark.
What is the proper tone for a common app essay?
The right tone for a Common App essay will vary a lot on the seriousness or levity of your topic. Generally, we like essays that are reflective, honest, and maintain a degree of informality or playfulness.
Essays that are extremely straight-faced aren't much fun. Remember: a major goal of essays generally is to give admissions officers a genuine lens into who you are. So don't squash out that "personal voice" to project a super serious (and false) version of yourself. If humor, verbal puns, or any other quirkiness that comes naturally to you rises to the top in your essays, give those details space to play out!
That being said, adjust your tone based on your topic. If you're writing a funny essay about a chemistry experiment gone wrong, I might expect some humor and playful self-deprecation. If you're writing about death or more serious subjects, however, you might want to pull back on the levity. But then again, maybe you deal with death through humor. Who are we to say? The point is this: be aware of the relationship between your subject and the tone of your essay, and try to strike an appropriate balance.
What should a college essay include?
There are a lot of requirements to juggle when writing your college essay. We’ve covered a lot so far, so I think we’re due for a quick recap.
Your college essay should…
Be an appropriate word length.
Length requirements exist for a reason. Schools assign prompts word lengths because they have a rough idea of how long it will take any student to adequately answer the prompt.
If your answer is too short, you risk looking like you don’t care. If it’s too long, you’re likely not making your points as clearly and concisely as you could be.
Show vulnerability and deep personal meaning.
Your college essay is your main chance at connecting with admissions officers. Having the courage to be vulnerable will set your essay apart.
Be anchored in your core strengths.
We encourage our students to focus their essays on core strengths because, at the end of the day, your college essay is about getting you admitted. An admissions officer wants to know about your strengths so they know what a great community member you’ll be.
Have clear organization with a beginning, middle, and end.
Personal statements are stories. Stories need clear structure. Your admissions officers are short on time, so clear organization will help them understand the main point you’re trying to make.
Contain examples and reflection.
College essays without examples or reflection aren’t being meaningful or vulnerable. You need to both demonstrate what your lived experience has been like and reflect on why it matters. Doing so is part of making your essay genuinely mean something.
Avoid centering experiences that happened before high school.
While it may seem like middle school wasn’t actually that long ago, admissions officers don’t care that much about anything that happened before high school. That’s not to say that they don’t care how your early life experiences affected you. You can still write about these experiences, but they should not be the main focus. The main focus should be on what your life has been like over the last couple of years.
And, most importantly, maintain a focus on YOU.
Writing about yourself is hard. Writing an essay that’s actually about your grandma, the kid you tutor, or your family dog is nice, but it’s not what admissions officers actually want to hear about. They want to learn about you.
For more on college essay requirements, see our comprehensive college essay requirement post.
How to Choose a College Essay Topic
Okay, now that you have the requirements down, it’s time to choose a topic.
All of what I just wrote may feel a bit nebulous and, perhaps, discouraging. It's one thing to say "write an essay from the heart" and another to actually do it. For 97% of writers, it's the doing that's hard.
Sadly, there's no silver bullet framework for writing the perfect college essays. But there are plenty of exercises and techniques you can use to set yourself up for writing a great one.
In this section, we’re going to share some of the strategies we use in our work with students. These are also the foundation of our Essay Academy. Hopefully, they help you get the ball rolling.
Let’s focus first on one of the most challenging parts of the college essay writing process: choosing a topic.
What should I write my college essay about?
Deciding what to write about is usually the first roadblock students face when trying to start their college essays. It’s hard to start writing if you don’t know what to write about.
There’s also lots of conflicting advice about what you should write about. That makes choosing a topic even more confusing.
Some people say you should write about your greatest accomplishment. Others say to write about the biggest challenge or trauma you’ve faced. Others yet advise people to write about the most mundane part of their lives.
None of these topics is necessarily better than another, and no one is necessarily off-limits.
What this broad-stroke advice misses, however, is that at the heart of your essay, no matter the topic, is you.
Since you’re at the center of your essay, you can’t choose your college essay topic based on what other people think is best. You have to choose one that is best for you. That means that your college essay topic should allow you to write about your strengths in a seamless, cohesive, and honest way.
The following exercises will help you find your perfect topic.
College Essay Topic Exercise #1: Archetypes
We've been going on and on about strengths and meaning, so let's focus in on how to identify great strengths that can anchor your essay.
In reading thousands of college essays, we noticed that the best ones were those that clearly conveyed a specific strength or set of strengths. When we read these essays, we’re able to see that the writer is... you name it: intellectual, artistic, social, compassionate, entrepreneurial, diplomatic, perceptive, justice-oriented, etc.
We started taking note of these "strength profiles," and pretty soon we had a stable grouping of what we started to call student "archetypes."
Archetypes are profiles of common strengths that we each have. It's a framework that operates a little bit like a personality test: no one is 100% described by a single archetype, but we might gravitate to one, two, or three of them.
A full breakdown of the archetype process is available on the Essay Academy, but here are a few of the most common archetypes from our framework:
Trying to represent every part of yourself in a 650-word essay is difficult. Even the best writers in the world would struggle with that task. So your archetype gives you a concrete persona in which to root your personal statement. This persona is a simplified version of a core part of you. It is the anchor of your personal brand.
Find your archetype, find your strengths-based college essay topic.
And if you’re having trouble identifying your archetypes, don’t worry. We’ve developed an archetypes quiz—answer a few fun questions, and you’ll learn the top two archetypes that will make for a great college essay.
College Essay Topic Exercise #2: Stanford Items
If the archetype process isn’t working for you and you’re still struggling to find a college essay topic that fits, then there’s another exercise you can do.
Remember that Stanford study we referenced way back in the goals section? That’s where the name of this exercise comes from. In their analysis, researchers compiled a huge list of the most common college essay topics. While some college essay topics are better than others, choosing a common topic isn’t off-limits. This list can inspire you to start thinking about how you might use different parts of your lived experience to write your college essay.
We’ve drawn out some of our favorites from the study into two categories: those that relate to your sense of self and those that are rooted in specific activities. (You can find the full list on page 21 of the paper.)
‼️ Stanford Items: Sense of Self
- Humor / Storytelling
- Work and Goals
- Family Death
- Human Nature
- Social Anxiety
- Mental Health
- Life Reflections
‼️ Stanford Items: Activities
- Civic Experiences
- Camping / Swimming
- Performance / Art
- Winning competitions
- AP Classes
- Gendered Activities
- Fashion / Style
- Work / Money
- Group Assignments
Pick through these topics and see if any resonate with you, spark specific memories, or encourage you to think about your strengths. Make note of them and, if relevant, write down how they connect to any archetypes you identify with.
Turning Your Strengths into a Topic
Once you have your archetypes or Stanford Items (or both), it’s time to make the jump from strengths to topic.
To make this jump successfully, you need to find the best way to relate your strength to a concrete experience.
Start the process by reflecting on your archetype strengths.
If you pick one or two of them—the builder and the scholar—you suddenly have a great strengths-based foundation for your essays. You can write about your love of learning and how you manifested that love in a project, for example.
You can also start from a story you want to tell and use these archetypes to think more concretely about the positive values that the story contains or helps you express.
If you want to start with a story, flip through the archives in your brain and look for the standout moments that showcase your archetype(s).
Remember that college essays should primarily focus on events that have happened since you started high school. You can touch on your childhood experiences briefly, but the heart of the essay should be about something fairly recent.
Let’s do an example to demonstrate the process.
We’ll say that you’re our example student. Let’s pretend that you fall under the “partner” archetype. We’ll say that you want to show admissions officers your care, willingness to engage with others, and ingenuity.
So what’s your first step? Using your archetype, you would think through all the memories possible and start writing down ideas. Let’s say that your brainstorm looked something like this:
✏️Example Topic Brainstorm
- The 7th-grade science fair project that required teamwork
- Listening to classical music with my grandpa
- My club basketball team making it to the finals
- Binge-watching old Storm Chasers episodes this summer with my cousin
That’s good. You’re on the right track. But how do you decide between them?
First off, we can eliminate idea #1 because it happened too far in the past.
For the remainder, you could try free writing to see which option you can write the most (and most meaningfully) about.
You could also see if any topics would be more appropriate for any supplemental essays you have to write.
Or you can return to the Stanford Items for more inspiration.
Let’s say that you were really drawn to the family, life reflections, and music Stanford Items because you really value time with your family and are a very philosophical and musical person.
You also know that you always have a great time listening to music with your grandpa and have an endearing story to tell about the origins of your musical connection.
Bam! A college essay topic.
To recap, here’s a summary of the steps:
- Find archetype(s).
- Choose a few Stanford Items.
- Make a list of relevant memories that showcase your archetypes.
- Narrow down your list.
College Essay Topic Exercise #3: Free Write
Once you’ve narrowed your list to a single topic, it’s time to free-write.
The moment you have your topic idea, you might be tempted to jump right into your first draft. There’s a problem with this approach.
When you write, you might be tempted to filter your ideas so you only write down the best ones. Or you might go back and edit as you write. When you filter yourself, you often end up losing great ideas because you’re afraid to put them on paper. You get nervous about whether they’ll actually be useful to your draft, and you get overwhelmed by the thought of stitching all your disparate ideas together.
That’s why pre-writing exercises are so important.
Enter free writing. Free writing is the process of getting your ideas on paper all at once and without judgment. In free writing, there are no bad ideas. Even the worst ideas you’ve ever had will get you one step closer to your first draft. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, or organization. The goal of a free write is simple: to write as much as possible about your topic. You’ll do the cleanup later.
Here’s how you free-write:
- Open a blank document and write your topic and archetypes or Stanford Items at the top.
- Set a 15-20 minute timer.
- Write! Don’t stop. Even if you have to type filler words, type whatever comes to mind until the timer is up.
Let’s take a look at an example.
✏️ Example Free Write
Option #2: Listening to classical music with my grandpa
I always have enjoyed going over to my grandpa’s house for dinner. The carpet in his office is so ugly. I wonder why his stereo is so big anyway. What are all those buttons for. I don’t even remember when he got that. He must have had it before I was born. It looks like a time machine. Haha. I think those big headphones of his are so funny too. Anyway. It’s so special to bond with him over classical music. I just downloaded a new song for him on his iPod. He still has a hard time working it but he does okay. When did I start listening to music with him? I guess it was a couple of years ago. I remember having to work up the courage to even see what he was listening to. I watched all those YouTube videos and tried to impress him. He looked so proud when I finally showed him my fake conducting skills. What were we listening to? Grieg. I think my strength in this story is something like compassion and curiosity. I really enjoyed the process of figuring out classical music from scratch. And I’ll always appreciate this connection that we have.
See? It’s not perfect—it goes on tangents and doesn’t always have perfect grammar. But it puts several great ideas out in the open, airs them out, and tries them on for size. It offers both an account of the sequence of events and small nuggets of reflection. It’s a great start to the writing process.
That’s what you’re aiming for in your own free write.
After free writing comes intentional reflection.
Once you have your free write down, follow it up with a pointed reflection about what you might be able to use moving forward.
Highlight, underline, circle, or annotate your free write to indicate what you think will be useful to put in your essay. Scratch out what is truly garbage (and pat yourself on the back for having had the courage to write it).
When you’ve extracted the useful material from your free-write, it’s time to move on to outlining.
How to Outline a Common App Essay
Phew! You’ve already done a lot of work. At this point, feel free to take a break if you need to. Sometimes sitting with a free write for a couple of hours or overnight can help you clear your head before moving into the next pre-writing exercise: outlining.
When you’re ready, let’s get started.
What is an outline, and why is it important?
As you probably know from writing essays in school, it’s easy for your ideas to get out of control when you’re writing without a plan.
Writing without an outline is like going on a trip to Europe with only a toothbrush and the clothes on your back.
It’s an adventure, for sure, but not necessarily productive. And in the college application writing timeline, every day counts. A good, thorough outline can save you hours of time agonizing over a draft that doesn’t structurally make sense.
To streamline the writing process, we outline.
Outlines can take many forms, but they all lay out a clear picture of what is going to happen in an essay and when.
Your outline then gives you a framework in which to write your essay. The most comprehensive outlines are nearly plug-and-play, where writing your first draft is simply a matter of filling in the gaps in the outline. Shorter outlines provide a simple roadmap to guide you as you begin drafting.
Both types of outlines are great. What matters is that you have one.
Elements of a Good Story
Few things are universal. But there’s something about storytelling that is essentially human.
That’s why it’s so powerful, and that’s why a good college essay can have such a profound effect on your college admissions outcomes. Admissions officers are humans who love good stories.
So what makes a story good?
Of course, the answer to that question varies by time and place.
But this section defines and explains the basic elements that most college essays should have. We’ll start with themes.
Lots of students have a hard time grasping the concept of “theme,” especially when they’re creating their own theme. But a theme is simply the main message that a piece of writing conveys. It is the big takeaway you want a reader to remember about your essay. Here’s an example:
College essay topic: I love tinkering with old lawnmowers in my garage because I like to see how things work.
Theme: Problem-solving and intellectual curiosity
In that example, notice how the theme is actually two distinct strengths. That’s exactly what you’re aiming for in your college essay. Your essay’s theme should be a strength or two (hopefully related to your archetype, as we’ve outlined here) that defines you.
Remember that little plot diagram in your English classes? A “plot” is the sequence of events that happens in a story. It’s the way a story plays out. If you’ve ever read a book or watched a movie or TV show, then you already know all about plots. Think back to the most boring movie you’ve ever seen. Have it in mind? Ask yourself why it was boring. I’ll bet it was probably boring because you didn’t like the plot.
In general, plots consist of a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning introduces the story and characters, the middle shows character development and reveals some kind of tension, and the end concludes the story arc and resolves any standing conflict.
Plots aren’t just for movies. They’re also for college essays.
Your college essay plot can take many shapes, but in general, it should have a distinct beginning, middle, and end.
Conflict & Inciting Incident:
Stories are interesting because they have conflicts that require resolutions. Questions about how conflicts will be resolved are what keep an audience engaged.
Inciting incidents are the specific moments at which conflicts begin. They create a sense of drama that helps an audience understand how a character moves from one state of being to another.
In the same way, your college essay will likely have some kind of conflict. That doesn’t mean that you have to have some life-changing inciting incident (though that is an option). It could be something as simple as taking a lawnmower apart and not being able to put it back together.
Conflict Example: I prided myself on my ability to know the ins and outs of any machine put in front of me. Then one day I met the Lawn Destroyer 3000. It destroyed me. I couldn’t figure it out, no matter how hard I tried, and I began to doubt myself as a mechanic.
Okay, we made up the Lawn Destroyer 3000. But you get our point. The conflict is there, and we can tell that it is a significant one. The confrontation with the Lawn Destroyer was the incident that incited a conflict of identity: who am I if I can’t fix any machine put in front of me? The rest of the story should work toward answering that question and resolving that conflict.
Your college essay will likely operate within some variation of this structure.
Resolution & Conclusion:
If you’ve ever learned about 5-paragraph essays, you may have been taught that a conclusion is a restatement of the main points of the essay. In some ways, that’s true.
But in personal statements, the conclusion does a bit more heavy lifting.
Because personal statements ooze meaning, the conclusion typically has to resolve the central conflict, offer thoughtful reflection, and end on a hopeful note no matter the topic.
You want your admissions officer to leave your essay feeling like they completely understand your theme. You also want them to come away with a positive feeling, even if your essay was about a difficult topic, because you want them to associate you with positivity.
There’s a lot to juggle in your conclusion, so it may need extra attention.
“Literary devices” refer to those good ole writing techniques you’ve come to know and love (?) through books like The Great Gatsby. The most common kinds of literary devices in college essays are metaphors, similes, imagery, and symbolism. Sometimes students throw in puns, imagery, or juxtaposition for good measure.
Since personal statements are also exercises in creative writing, you are free to use the literary devices you see fit for your college essay. In fact, we encourage you to use them (sparingly).
When overdone, they make a piece of writing kitschy or cliche. But when done with extreme intention, they elevate a piece of writing and show good writing skills.
College essay writing is no joke. As you can see, there’s a lot to juggle. But that’s why we break the process down, step by step. At this point, you’re ready to get started on outlining using what we call a “structured free write.”
Outlining Exercise #1: Do a structured free write.
Now that you have your free write in hand, hopefully covered in some annotations, we’ll ease into the outline by doing a quick pre-outlining exercise called a “structured free write.”
So what separates a regular free write from a structured one? In a regular free write, your goal is to dump words on a page. The structured free write asks you to do the same thing, but to answer a series of questions designed to draw out the key lessons, ideas, and tensions that will help you build a deep, reflective, and honest personal essay.
But like a regular free write, your goal is still to spill your thoughts onto the page until you can't write anymore. No pressure or word quotas—just brain-dumping until you feel you've covered enough.
Here are four structured free write questions I want you to answer:
- What is the theme or central message you want admissions officers to take away from your story? (Hint: It should have something to do with your archetype or strength.)
- Good stories have beginnings, middles, and ends. How can you section out your story?
- Many stories have “inciting incidents” or specific conflicts that propel the story forward. Does your story have an inciting incident or conflict? If so, what is it?
- What are a few salient details you can use to add texture to your draft and “show, not tell” your admissions officer about your experience?
✏️Take a look at this example from our free write student:
- Theme: Using my curiosity to connect with my grandpa
- Beginning - Learning about my grandpa’s interest Middle - Discovering classical music for myself Middle/end - Showing my grandpa what I learned End - Buying my grandpa an iPod to thank him for everything
- Inciting incident: At first not being able to conduct alongside my grandpa, feeling like I let him down. That inspired me to learn more.
- The stereo looks like a time machine. Rich descriptions of the office, the music we listened to, and our conducting skills.
If you've answered these questions thoroughly, you should now have a few powerful assets in hand. You have a story idea, a clear sense of the story's strengths, and some nuances that you can use to set up themes.
Outlining Exercise #2: Do an outline.
Now it’s time for the real deal. The outline. The outlines you’ve encountered before probably look like this:
Standard Essay Outline
II. Paragraph 1:
- Example 1
- Example 2
III. Paragraph 2:
- Example 1
IV. Paragraph 3:
- Example 1
- Example 2
If your outline looks like that, that’s great!
But your college essay probably isn’t going to have a 5-paragraph structure with specific examples supporting each point. You have much more freedom with form and function.
Instead, your college essay outline might look a little different.
The example student wrote their outline like this. Notice how the outline breaks down the story elements in a logical way, gives enough details to be comprehensive but not overwhelming, and begins to formulate how to weave the theme throughout.
✏️ Example College Essay Outline
- Hook: The stereo looks like a time machine.
- Theme: Using my curiosity to connect with my grandpa
II. Paragraph I: Seeing my grandpa conduct in his office for the first time.
III: Paragraph 2: Trying to conduct with him and failing.
IV: Paragraph 3: Doing my own research so we could conduct together.
V: Paragraph 4: Showing him my new skills and him being proud.
VI: Paragraph 5: Buying him an iPod in thanks.
VII: Conclusion: It’s sad that we won’t get to have our weekly ritual once I go to college, but we’ll always still connect through music.
No matter its structure, your outline should have a few key components. None of these has to be in its final form, but it’s good to be thinking about them.
- A hook
- A theme
- A beginning, middle, and end sequence
- An indication of where any conflict, inciting incident, or resolution happens
- A conclusion that relates to your theme
As you outline, don’t stress about everything being perfect. You’ll likely identify changes that need to happen as you draft, but what’s important right now is that you have a loose structure to work from.
When your outline is in place, you’re ready to start drafting.
How to Draft a Common App Essay
Are you ready? It’s time to start writing.
There are lots of philosophies about how to write a first draft. What they all have in common is this: your first draft will be pretty bad, and that’s okay.
Whether or not you’re someone to whom writing comes naturally, writing is hard. Sometimes it’s really hard. Sometimes it can feel impossible.
Writing can be cathartic, exhilarating, and fun. But it can also be stressful and wearing. You might find yourself flying through some passages but trudging through others.
The point of a first draft is to give you the space to do what you need to do to get your ideas from your brain to the page in a logical way. First drafts are often bad because essay writing is a monumental task, especially when the stakes are as high as a college essay. You have to ease your way into it, step by step.
The most important thing to remember is not to get discouraged.
Want to know the key to writing well? It’s persistence. Good writers are good because they keep going. Even when the writing doesn’t come easily and even when you start to doubt yourself, try to push through. You’ll be able to fix whatever you need to later, but for now, your first draft goal is simply to write.
Drafting Step 1: Find dedicating writing time.
You need dedicated time to write. I know you probably have a lot going on, but it’s important that you set aside a good chunk of time to start writing in earnest.
Before you dive in, make sure you have your free write and outline handy. You can copy and paste them into your first draft document or not. You might also summarize your theme or main point at the top of your page to keep it at the front of your mind.
Once you’re all set up, it’s time to begin.
Drafting Step 2: Decide where to start.
For many writers, starting is the hardest part. Your first instinct may be to start with your hook and introduction. For most people, though, the introduction is actually the most difficult place to start.
So where should you start instead?
We like to encourage our students to start with the section they feel most ready to write.
That could be the introduction. It could be the conclusion. Or it could be any one of your paragraphs.
Wherever it may be, starting with what you feel most inspired by is a great way to get the ball rolling on your draft. Sprinting through a paragraph or two eliminates the problem of staring at a blank page with only the blinking cursor of doom. It gives you helpful momentum to tackle the parts you’re less sure about.
In short, start wherever you want.
Drafting Step 3: Write.
Now it’s time for the good stuff.
The difference between a free write and a first draft is that the first draft is more intentional and organized. In a free write, you’re writing whatever pops into your head. But in a first draft, you’re writing with a plan.
Your first draft takes your outline and brings it to life. Your sentences may be simple, you may miss key points, and your organization may lose focus. But when you’re done with your draft, you have a complete essay that makes a genuine attempt at communicating complicated ideas.
It’s not an easy process, but your pre-writing exercises have prepared you. You’re ready.
So take your plan for each part of your essay and start writing. Here’s an example:
Example plan: “I know that the first paragraph after my introduction needs to introduce my family background. I want to introduce my bread metaphor and show the importance of my relationship with my grandma.”
Example paragraph: “When I was growing up, I loved making bread with my grandma. As she added the flour to the mixture, she’d explain the purpose of each ingredient. As I got older, she likened the ingredients to members of our family. She was the flour, making up the substance. My grandpa was the yeast, keeping things going. And I was the salt, adding a little spice to their lives. I learned that each ingredient was essential to the bread.”
Is that the best paragraph in the world? No! But does it convey a solid point? Yes.
At this stage, sorting through your ideas and organization is more important than agonizing over beautiful sentences and structure. You’ll get to that step during the revision process.
Now do that for every paragraph until you’ve gotten through your outline.
You might not get to it all in one sitting. You may have to return to your draft over multiple days or even weeks. But eventually you’ll get there.
It’s time to return to our example student. Let’s take a look at their first draft.
✏️ Example college essay first draft
I used to think my grandpa had a time machine. It turns out it was just an old stereo with a mahogany case and smoked glass door. It sat in his office on blue shag carpet. We’d eat dinner at his house every Sunday, and every time after dinner he’d retreat to his office to listen to the stereo. He was listening to classical music.
When I turned 16, I got the courage to follow him to his study. I watched as he turned on the stereo, put on big headphones, and sat in his chair. The stereo played tapes and CDs. He closed his eyes and started waving them like a conductor’s. He looked happy and peaceful. But when his eyes began to open, I ran away.
The next week, I decided that my chance had come. After dinner, I followed my grandpa to his office. We looked at each other, puzzled. “Can I join you tonight?” I asked. He agreed. We both went up to his stereo and I tried to grab the headphones but he instead unplugged them and turned on the stereo speakers. We listened to Grieg’s Piano Concerto. The music came to life. It entranced and overwhelmed me, then he looked at me expectantly as his hands were raised in conducting position. I froze. I didn’t know what to do, so I didn’t do anything. I just sat there. And I could tell my grandpa was disappointed.
I returned home and went immediately to my computer, googling the Piano Concerto and as many other pieces as I could find. I listened. I watched as the conductor’s attention moved from section to section. Finally, I raised my own hands and followed along. I had no idea what I was doing and felt silly. Surely I was off-beat, making huge errors, and insulting the musical profession. But the music made me feel alive.
I had learned a lot about conducting. Even though I was never a musician, I could tell that I loved music. I couldn’t wait to conduct for my grandpa. He had always watched me play baseball and listened to me drone on about video games. My siblings never seemed to care about his music. And before this, I hadn’t either. By the next week, I was ready. I couldn’t even wait until after dinner, dragging my grandpa straight to his office. I sat him down and turned on the stereo. I closed my eyes and peeked to make sure he was doing the same. Together, our arms waved to the music. When I opened my eyes, he was looking at me, smiling. This ritual became our weekly routine.
I had saved for months by Christmas. I had mowed lawns and babysat. I knew just what to get him. He opened the package and looked confused. Turning the white box in his hands, he carefully took off the lid. In the box was another kind of machine. Sitting next to him on the couch, I turned the iPod on, unwrapped the earbuds, and placed one bud in each of our ears. I scrolled through and watched his delight as his favorite song began to play. There, together on the couch, we conducted together.
Moving away from my grandpa for college will be hard, but I know that listening to Grieg’s Piano Concerto will always transport me back to that moment. Maybe that wooden box in his office was a time machine after all.
Drafting Step 4: Take a break before you start editing.
When your first draft is done, pat yourself on the back and set your essay aside.
An important step in the writing process is taking time away from your writing. Especially with writing as vulnerable as a personal statement, stepping back for a moment can keep your eye on the college admissions prize.
After an hour, day, or longer, you’ll return to your draft refreshed and ready to edit.
How to Edit a Common App Essay
When you’ve never written a personal statement before (and may never have even read one), issues are bound to happen.
That’s why it’s important to build in time for editing.
When you think about editing, you probably think of angry red scribbles over a comma splice or have flashbacks to elementary school sentence diagrams.
But in the writing world, editing is a lot more complicated. It’s not all about fixing grammar (though that is part of it). At its core, editing is about making sure a piece of writing clearly communicates its ideas in a way the intended audience will understand.
In college essay editing, this means ensuring that your strengths shine through, your essay is logically organized, and your writing is clear and interesting.
To help meet these editing goals, we like to talk about two levels of editing: “higher order” and “lower order.”
Higher-order concerns are those that are organizational, thematic, or idea-based. They are the issues that, when addressed, fundamentally change a piece of writing. They’re also the hardest to find and figure out.
Lower-order concerns, on the other hand, are paragraph- and sentence-level issues of diction, syntax, spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Lower-order concerns can address grammatical issues that interfere with clarity, or they can address stylistic issues in how a sentence is constructed.
Both levels are necessary when editing a college essay. Let’s go through each in turn, and we’ll share the mistakes we see students most commonly making.
Higher-order concerns are the most important level to address because they affect how well your college essay does its job. Admissions officers will generally forgive small mistakes in grammar or word choice. But because higher-order concerns affect the overall meaning of an essay, an issue at the level of theme, structure, or organization can tank an application.
Addressing these issues first will get your essay into good shape before you start working on lower-order edits.
Higher-order concerns take many shapes in college essays. There are a few main problems that tend to surface.
Not maintaining a clear theme
Recall from the “How to Choose a College Essay Topic” section that your essay’s theme is its central message. It should have something to do with the core strength you want to show admissions officers.
College essays can go awry when the central message is unclear or absent. Your theme helps make the case that you should be admitted. If your essay lacks a clear theme, you’re missing out on a huge opportunity to advocate for yourself to an admissions officer.
Returning to your archetype and asking yourself what you actually want your essay to communicate can help remedy this higher-order issue.
Crafting an unorganized structure
When you’re trying to communicate so much in so few words, it’s easy for your thoughts to get jumbled. Often this jumble presents itself as a lack of paragraph-level organization.
You may have learned in English class that a paragraph should be a complete unit of thought with a topic sentence, maybe an example to support your point, and some kind of exposition or analysis.
Your college essay paragraph structure doesn’t have to be quite this rigid. But your paragraphs should still be organized clearly and simply.
In general, there are a few guidelines to follow:
- Your essay should be more than one paragraph.
- Each paragraph should only convey one main idea.
- Every paragraph should work to advance the overall message of your essay.
Sticking to these guidelines will help make sure your paragraphs stay on track.
Neglecting the conventions of a personal statement
When you’re in the weeds of a deeply personal, vulnerable story, it can be difficult to remember the ultimate goal of a personal statement. While a lot goes into writing a personal statement, they really have one main purpose: to get you into college. Anything you write should work towards that end.
That’s not to say that you can’t write an essay that is personally meaningful too. But you can’t lose sight of that ultimate goal as you construct your theme and organization.
Focusing on something other than yourself
This higher-order issue arises again and again in college essays. Too often students focus on someone or something other than themselves. We can’t tell you how many times we’ve heard admissions officers say, “Wow, his grandma sounds awesome. Too bad I can’t admit her!” after reading student essays about someone who influenced them.
If your college essay is about a loved one, then your higher-order edits should ensure that the essay is, at its core, actually about you, not your loved one.
Other times students get so immersed in the topic they’re writing about that they forget to connect the topic back to themselves. We’ve read essays about Rubik’s Cubes and historical events and sports that were great but had nothing to do with the student writing them.
So whatever your topic, focus your edits on making sure that your essay actually says something about you.
Once your higher-order concerns have been addressed and your essay is close to its final form, it’s time to move on to the lower-order concerns that will polish your draft to perfection.
All students have different comfort levels with the mechanics of standard written English. If you’re a student who’s less confident in your ability to write with perfect English grammar, remember that the most important goal when editing for lower-order concerns is clarity. Whether you can correctly identify a part of speech or place a comma perfectly every time doesn’t matter nearly as much as being able to clearly communicate your message.
That disclaimer out of the way, let’s talk editing at the sentence level.
Since you want your writing as clean and polished as possible, it can be helpful to have a trusted friend, teacher, or family member read over your essay to look for any areas where your language interferes with your meaning. You can also look to tools like Grammarly to catch typos and small mistakes.
Once you’ve done that, there are four common sentence-level issues you can look for in your essay.
Back to the basics
Over the thousands of college essays we’ve read, a surprising number neglect some of the simplest parts of standard English grammar. Things as basic as capitalizing “I” or the words at the beginning of sentences can be forgotten. To many admissions officers, this kind of mistake can show a lack of care or effort (even if that wasn’t the writer’s intention). These fixes are small and easy, so don’t let them work against you.
Run-on sentences are sentences that have too many parts (and often incorrectly use punctuation like commas and semi-colons). They can take a great college essay and make it confusing.
Here’s a run-on sentence: As I stood before the crowd, wearing my brand-new bright blue suit, I started to speak, but before I knew it I was shaking, I was so nervous that my brain went blank and I absolutely froze.
Here’s an edit: I stood before the crowd in my brand-new bright blue suit. Before I uttered a word, I started to shake. I was so nervous that my mind went blank, and I absolutely froze.
That edit took the run-on sentence from one sentence to three. Breaking up the sentences made each moment clearer, and there’s a greater sense of drama in the edited version.
Comb through your essay for sentences that are taking up a lot of space. Analyze them closely to see if there are any changes you can make.
Cliches are overused and idiomatic sentences. Think of phrases like “when it rains, it pours,” “I needed to get all my ducks in a row,” or “don’t let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game.” They’re tempting to use because we’re so accustomed to hearing them in our daily lives, but they actually dampen our writing and make it less interesting. Scour your essay for any cliche sentences and replace them with your own original voice.
Transitions are the words, phrases, or sentences that connect one paragraph or sentence to the next. Think of words like however, moreover, although, whereas, or next. They are sentences like, “After I returned home, I began to reflect on the evening.” Transitions are an essential part of good writing because they make the reader’s job easier by guiding them through the progression of your ideas. Because college essays are so short, writers can forget to include sufficient transitions. But especially when you’re moving between storytelling and reflection, or between the past and the present, you need transitions to hold your reader’s attention. You want an admissions officer thinking about the themes of your essay, not trying to figure out whether something happened this year or five years ago.
But editing for lower-order concerns isn’t just about grammar. It’s also about tone and style. Editing for style means fine-tuning your language. Doing so results in writing that isn’t just clear—it’s beautiful.
This extra step is one of the ways your essay can reach the highest levels of college essay stardom.
In particular, there are three beautifying practices to focus on that will have a huge impact.
Eliminate unnecessary words and sentences.
Embrace your inner Marie Kondo, hold your word or sentence close, and ask, “Does this do anything for my essay?” If the answer is no, cut it. In the best college essays, every single piece of the essay contributes in some way.
Vary sentence length to create visual and rhythmic interest.
This is one of our favorite tips because it’s so easy. Your sentences need to be different lengths. Some should be long, and they should take the reader on a journey that parallels the thematic message the sentence conveys. When you want a reader to take their time with an idea, your writing style should reflect that. But other sentences should be short. You can write concisely when you want to pack a punch or emphasize an important idea. Doing so draws in the reader’s attention. Go line-by-line through your essay and find places where you can split up sentences, add on to them, or write completely new ones.
Remember that personal essays are also opportunities for creative writing.
You can think about your essay not only as a way to communicate to admissions officers but also as an artistic tribute to who you are in this moment. This doesn’t mean that you have to go over the top with descriptive and figurative language. But once you get the bones of your essay in place, going back to add more interest to your writing itself can help your essay stand out.
Editing can take a lot of time and effort. You’ll likely have to go through several drafts addressing different higher- and lower-order concerns before you come to your final draft.
Investing lots of time and energy into revising your essay will pay off.
But you could edit an essay forever. At some point, you’ll have to blow the whistle and call time.
As you near your final draft, read this Reddit post about the trap of diminishing returns to help you know when to stop editing and start submitting.
Troubleshooting Your College Essay
Is something not working but you can’t quite put your finger on it? Here are a few exercises, based on the most common problems we see students struggling with, that might help.
Troubleshooting Exercise #1: Do a reverse outline.
As you may have guessed, reverse outlining is like outlining but in reverse. Instead of outlining and then writing, reverse outlining means taking what you’ve already written and creating an outline for it.
Reverse outlining can be helpful for a) seeing a bird’s-eye view of what you’ve actually written and b) identifying structural issues in your essay.
So how do you do it?
Go paragraph by paragraph and summarize what you’ve written in outline format. Include the “thesis” or main point of each paragraph (if there is one) and list any examples you’ve used.
Here’s a reverse outline for a college essay example called The Muscle Show.
✏️ Reverse outline for Example Essay #4: The Muscle Show
I. Hook + Introduction: Family scrapbooking.
II. Paragraph I: Setting the scene for summers at our rental house.
III. Paragraph II: Introducing “down the shore” scrapbook and MUSLE SHOW picture
IV. Paragraph III: Transition to backstory.
V. Paragraph IV: Description of childhood state.
VI. Paragraph V: Description of teen state and family context.
VII. Paragraph VI: Turning point & Inciting Incident
VIII. Paragraph VII: Beginning of rising action - using my skills to improve my health
IX. Paragraph VIII: Steadily moving towards health improvement
X. Paragraph IX: Health improvement helps improve other areas of life
XI. Paragraph X: Description of current, new-and-improved state
XII. Paragraph XI: Reflection and return to childhood picture.
Once you have your outline in place, walk through the outline with a critical eye. Does each step progress logically? Do you make any unnecessary jumps, or are there places where you need to bridge any gaps?
Find where the problems are and address them.
Troubleshooting Exercise #2: Read aloud.
Are you struggling with that elusive concept called “flow”? This exercise takes you back to the basics. Reading aloud is one of the best ways you can catch several issues in your writing:
a) Tone: If you feel silly reading a sentence aloud, there’s a good chance you’ve tried to imitate someone else’s voice rather than embracing your own. Trying to imitate someone else can make your writing stuffy and inauthentic. So when you start stumbling over your words or roll your eyes as you read, take a second look.
b) “Flow”: Everyone talks about flow, but it’s difficult to know what it should look like. In general, writing that “flows” well is writing that doesn’t require the reader to exert any extra effort to understand the writer’s point. You’ve certainly been there as a reader—just think about all the times in English class you’ve had to read a paragraph multiple times to understand what it’s saying. Reading aloud will help you identify places where a reader might get stuck in the progression of your story.
c) Wordiness: Some of us struggle more with this problem than others. But reading your work out loud is one of the best ways to find run-on or overly complex sentences. If you’re struggling to get through a sentence in an average breath, then consider splitting it up or trimming it down.
Reading aloud isn’t just a good way to catch typos or silly mistakes. It can help you fundamentally improve your whole essay. Give it a try.
Troubleshooting Exercise #3: Get an outside opinion.
There comes a point when you’re so deep into your own piece of writing that it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. If and when you reach that point, try asking for help.
No writer writes completely alone. Professional writers go through numerous rounds of revision with editors, and professors even collaborate with others and do something called “peer review.” Having someone else read your writing isn’t cheating. It’s good writing practice.
So do an essay swap with a friend, ask a trusted family member or teacher to read through your essay, or reach out to a college counselor. But don’t just hand over your essay. Also provide specific questions about what you want feedback on, or look to a resource like our college essay rubric.
Here’s an example list of questions:
a) Did my hook make you want to read more?
b) How smooth is my transition from talking about X event to Y reflection?
c) Does the writing sound like me? Do you get a genuine sense of my personality?
d) Which of my strengths does the essay communicate?
e) Does my conclusion make sense?
Getting feedback on both large- and small-scale questions can help you get over any last roadblocks you’re experiencing and move towards that glorious final draft.
College Essay Writing Checklist
We’ve covered a lot of ground in this guide, so let’s take a second to recap. By this point, you’ve learned about a bunch of steps you’ll need to take to write your college essay. Here they all are in a checklist:
- Find your archetypes
- Find your Stanford Items (optional)
- Connect your archetypes or Stanford Items to concrete experiences
- Free write
- Structured free write
- First draft
- Second draft
- Revise / seek feedback
- Third draft
- Final checks
When you’ve completed your checklist and feel good about your final draft, you’ll be ready to submit.
✏️College Essay Example
If you’ve never even read a college essay before, you can’t expect to wake up one day and be able to write an amazing one. As with any kind of writing, college essays have their own conventions and expectations. Reading examples is one of the best ways to learn these conventions.
It’s the time you’ve been waiting for—our final essay draft, accompanied by annotations from a former admissions officer. Let’s take a look.
✏️College Essay Example: The Time Machine
My grandpa’s house has a time machine.((This hook is intriguing and makes a reader want to read more.)) At least, that’s what I thought it was when I was young. An electronic panel encased in mahogany and protected by a smoked glass door, the time machine sat in his office on blue shag carpet. Every week after Sunday dinner, he’d retreat to his office, punch some buttons on the machine, and disappear until dessert was ready.
In time, I learned that what I thought had been a betrayal of time and space was actually something entirely earthly: classical music.((The essay quickly moves on from the time machine idea and gets to the heart of the essay, classical music, in a fun way.))
Empowered by the courage that came with my sixteenth birthday, I finally followed my grandpa to his office one day. Watching him through the crack in the door, he powered on the large stereo. After slipping on huge, padded headphones, he sat back in his chair and closed his eyes.
Before long, his hands started waving like a conductor’s, growing and shrinking along with the music. He looked totally and completely at peace. As his eyes began to open, I fled back to the kitchen for some pie.((This excerpt “shows, not tells” the reader a lot about the writer. We see the admiration they have for their grandpa. ))
The next week, I decided that my chance had come. I jumped from my chair and followed my grandpa the moment my siblings began clearing dishes from the table. We walked silently to his office, exchanging only a mutually puzzled glance. “Can I join you tonight?” I asked when we reached his office door. With a pause and a brief nod, he led me to the machine. I was eager as he pulled out the headphones, but his hand reached to unplug them. Instead, he stood back up, knees cracking, as the music came to life aloud. “Grieg’s Piano Concerto,” he explained. We sat down together, and I closed my eyes along with him. The music was entrancing. It was overwhelming.
He looked at me expectantly, hands raised, but I froze. I didn’t understand how to translate the music I was hearing into movement. My grandpa’s hope faded to a quiet disappointment.((It’s clear that this subtle moment of disappointment was a turning point for the writer.))
I returned home and went immediately to my computer, googling the Piano Concerto and as many other pieces as I could find.((A clear signpost for the reader, this sentence shows that the writer is taking actions to get better.)) I listened. I watched as the conductor’s attention moved from section to section. And when I was ready, I raised my own hands and followed along. Having no idea what I was doing, I felt silly. Surely I was off-beat, making egregious errors, and insulting the musical profession. But the music made me feel alive.
When the following Sunday rolled around, I was ready. Not able to wait until after dinner, I drug my grandpa straight to his office. Powering on the stereo, I sat him down in his chair. I closed my eyes, peeking momentarily to make sure that he did the same. Together, our arms waved to the music. When I opened my eyes, he was looking at me, smiling. This ritual became our weekly routine.
By Christmas that year, I had saved for months, mowing lawns and babysitting. I knew just what to get him. He opened the package and looked confused. Turning the white box in his hands, he carefully shimmied off the lid. In the box was another kind of machine, with similar smoked glass and a single button. Sitting next to him on the couch, I powered the iPod on, unwrapped the earbuds, and placed one bud in each of our ears. I scrolled through the
pre-loaded tracks((This small detail of “pre-loaded tracks” shows just how much the writer was thinking ahead. Even small details can reveal a lot about your values and personality.)) and watched his delight as his favorite song began to play. There, together on the couch, we conducted in unison.
Moving away from my grandpa for college will be hard, but I know that listening to Grieg’s Piano Concerto will always transport me back to that moment.
Maybe that wooden box in his office was a time machine after all.((This final sentence is a beautiful tie back to the introduction.
This essay is a beautiful story about the writer’s relationship with their grandpa. We’ve watched the progression of this idea through each major stage of the writing process: brainstorming, free writing, drafting, and final version.
See how all the pieces have come together? The student’s essay is strengths-based and showcases the values they were going for. Let’s break it down a little more.
Strengths: Care & compassion, creativity
What this essay does well:
- This writer opens the essay with an intriguing hook that draws us in and makes us want to learn more.
- As readers, we get a clear sense of the writer’s personality and values. These characteristics are showcased through the writer’s relationship with their grandpa.
- The writer uses a “Going on a Journey” essay structure. It’s clearly organized, and the grandfather’s moment of disappointment makes for a subtle but significant inciting incident.
- The conclusion offers wonderful reflection, and the final sentence clearly ties back to the hook. Ending the essay this way sandwiches the main theme and ties everything together with a neat bow.
Keep in mind that this essay is likely only one essay in the student’s application. It will probably be accompanied by supplemental essays that round out the writer’s cohesive application narrative.
If you found that example helpful, we’ve compiled a bunch more (with admissions officer annotations) from writers just like you. Check out our complete list of college essay examples for more.
Writing your college essay will push you to write, reflect, and strategize on a whole other level. But we hope that you embrace the opportunity to spend time thinking about how you’ve gotten to where you are today. Doing so will help you get to where you want to go in the future.
With that, traveler, we’ve reached the end of this guide-to-end-all-guides. Congratulations, and thank you for joining us on the journey!
And if you want even more in-depth guidance, our video course, the Essay Academy, has even more admissions insights, step-by-step writing exercises, and standout essay examples to help you craft college essays that earn admission.
Until then. 👋
Every week, our team of former T15 admissions officers sends out an email with the best application tips based on your grade level. No BS—just our best advice straight to your inbox.