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Tips for Writing a Great College Essay

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The essay you submit with your college application showcases your writing skills, but that’s not its only purpose. Your college essay also allows your voice and personality to shine through and indicates to those on the admissions committee that you would be a great fit for the school’s student body. Transcripts and test scores are important, but the essay is where you can speak directly to a person reviewing your application. Follow these tips to help your essay stand out in a sea of applicants.

Start Early

Make sure to begin the writing process early to give yourself plenty of time to prepare and to research the requirements. You may want to begin as early as the spring semester of your junior year, although the timing ultimately depends on the deadline for submitting applications to the schools of your choice.

The summer is a good time to work on your essay because it’s a season when you may not be as overloaded with homework, test preparation, and extracurricular activities. If the application deadlines are during your senior year, you can focus on preparing to write your essay during the summer before you enter that final year.

Do Your Research

Every school has its own requirements for application essays, so take some time to research the requirements at the schools to which you plan to apply. Submitting an essay that doesn’t follow their criteria or that excludes some of the information the admissions committee has requested can result in your application being rejected. Some colleges and universities also request writing samples along with the main essay, so you’ll want to have plenty of time to pull together these samples and any other requests before you submit your application.

As you research, check out the Common App, an online application resource that is accepted by over 900 schools. Both first-time and transfer students can use this application to apply for multiple schools, and you only have to fill in your personal details once, which will be used on all the applications you plan to submit.

Choosing a Topic

After you’ve done your research and have clear criteria for your college essays, the next step in the writing process is selecting a topic. For many students, choosing a writing topic is the most challenging and daunting task. You may have several prompts to choose from on each school’s application, which will give you some direction. As you decide what you want to write about, consider how you can narrow your focus and write about a specific situation or experience, rather than trying to put your whole life and personality into one essay.

Ultimately, you want to identify what sets you apart among all the students who will also apply to the same school as you. If you’re having trouble deciding on a topic, talk to your friends and family and ask them what they consider to be your differentiators, or aspects of your personality that help you stand out. Make sure the topic you choose tells the admissions board members something about you that they wouldn’t already know from reviewing your application.

Examples of essay prompts from the Common Application include:

  • Share your story about a background, interest, identity, or talent that is particularly important for us to know about you.
  • Reflect on a time when you challenged or questioned an idea or belief. What prompted this thought process, and what was the outcome?
  • Recall a time when you faced a failure, setback, or challenge in your life, as well as how it impacted you and what you learned.
  • Discuss a problem you are striving to solve or a problem you have solved. Explain why it is significant to you and what steps you took to create a solution.
  • Describe a concept, idea, or topic that engages you to the point that you lose track of time. What about this particular topic is fascinating to you, and where do you go to learn more about it?
  • Discuss a realization, event, or accomplishment that sparked a new understanding of yourself and/or those around you, or a period of personal growth.

Consider the Length

Some schools don’t have a strict length requirement for their essays, but the Common Application limits you to 650 words for the main essay. In general, it’s recommended to stay around 600-700 words for a longer essay (though many school’s supplemental essays will be limited to 400 words, 250 words, or even as few as 100 words). If your essay drags on too long, the person reading it may lose interest, while an essay that is particularly brief may not be able to touch on all the details you want to present about yourself.

Use Multiple Drafts

The first draft of your college essay probably won’t be perfect, and that’s okay. Many writers see the first draft as a “brain dump,” or a chance to put all the information they want to present on paper. After you take this step, you can start rearranging the content in a more readable way and trim elements that may not convey crucial details. It’s also important to remember that the first sentence of the piece can help you set the tone for the entire essay. That opening line should grab the reader’s attention, serving as the hook for the remaining content.

Admissions officers are looking at the information you present, as well as your writing and editing skills, when reading your essay, so make sure to take the time to revise your draft carefully. An experienced editor can review your essay and make suggestions to improve the flow and remove any grammatical or typographical errors. Sometimes, it can also be helpful to have multiple people review your essay to look for information gaps, areas that cause confusion, and mistakes that need to be corrected.


Ultimately, your college essay is an essential element of your application, as you want to make sure you’re presenting yourself to your dream school as an appealing candidate for admission. At Spark Admissions, we provide customized guidance and support, including essay feedback, to help students get into their top-choice schools. Our wide range of packages will fit the needs of every student with whom we work, and our results are second to none.

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