I’ve pulled together 9 fantastic resources to help you write your best college application essay! A step-by-step guide for writing your college essays, resources to help you learn how to highlight your talents and accomplishments, do’s and don’ts of writing a college essay, and successful college essay examples.
College essays are probably the most stressful part of a college application. It’s your chance to be creative. To be unique. There’s no box to check. And that’s stressful.
That’s enough to make you freeze up! Staring at the blank screen. Your fingers poised above the keys…
Until you break the tension by watching a funny cat video.
Then you try to give it a go again.
This is it! You’re ready… You’re about to write the most important essay of your entire life!
Only it’s not.
Let’s just get that out of the way up front.
It’s so easy to feel like your entire future is riding on your college application essay. But it isn’t.
I know, I know. Everyone tells you that the essay is the most important part of the college application! That it’s your chance to shine and show who you really are! If you search for college essays that worked, you’ll find tons of articles with advice stressing the importance of your essay.
If I really wanted to make a few cents off of you to help pay for my website hosting – by you clicking my Amazon affiliate links for books to help you with your college essay – I should probably be saying that, too. But too much of the “information” around college applications and AP classes is hype driven by money.
I can not in good conscious add to that fear. That’s not what this website is about.
Let’s put your college essay in perspective.
The real importance of your college essay
The college essay is not your entire application. It is one facet – one part – of your college application.
If you’ve got the numbers – the SAT or ACT scores and a class rank with the range of a university’s current freshman class – you’re probably fine. So long as you write a decent – a coherent – essay. (I say “probably” only because there are no guarantees in this life. And I’m honest and a perfectionist to a fault.) And you should be able to find at least one or two school that meet this criteria. Not just meet that criteria, but you actually want to go to. If you’re having trouble finding them, then read the college application advice of 5 experts.
Now, if you are on the edge or below those numbers for a certain university, that’s when well written college application essays can give you a boost.
Or if you’re applying to an elite university, your essay might get you noticed.
But even if this is the case, remember that getting into your dream college isn’t a guarantee of your success in life. It won’t even guarantee that you’re going to enjoy your years at that college! (In fact, at least one much sought after university, Harvard, has very low rankings for student satisfaction with their professors. You can find out student satisfaction ratings for different colleges and universities in the Princeton Review Best Colleges guides.)
Always, always keep in mind that not getting into any one particular university isn’t going to ruin your life!
But, your essay can give you a boost on scholarships and some college admissions. They aren’t useless. They are worth your time and best effort.
So, take a deep relaxing breath.
Now let’s get you some help starting your college essay!
How to write a great college essay
Getting started, a step-by-step guide to writing your college essay
If you just want to have one resource and be done with it, then I recommend Escape Essay Hell!: A Step-By-Step Guide to Writing Narrative College Application Essays by Janine Robinson. (If you don’t write a blog, you might not understand what an affiliate link is.) If you order something through one of my affiliate links, or something else from Amazon after clicking on my link, I may get a small commission at no cost to you. That will allow me to keep writing the articles on this website for free. Well, actually at this point is is costing me money to keep this website up. All I get out of it is the hope that the use of my time for of all my research is magnified by making it available to others.)
Escape Essay Hell! is the book my own daughter is using to write her college application essays this fall. It was recommended to her by a friend who’s a college English instructor at a major university. It’s the book she picked out for her own kids. Robinson’s book is an easily approachable step-by-step guide for writing your essay. Bonus! It is not very long.
Learn how to brag about yourself gracefully in your college essay
If you’re anything like most of us, not bragging about yourself has probably been pounded into you. But on college applications (and later on job applications) you need to learn how to highlight your skills. You need to learn how to brag about yourself in a way that’s not annoying. If you can’t tell them what you can do, how will they know?
Peggy Klaus, the author of BRAG! The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn Without Blowing It, has some really great information for learning this, such as her BRAG! Take-12 Self-Evaluation Questionnaire for Teens from PeggyKlaus.com,
By answering the “Take 12” questionnaire, you’ll have the beginnings of… a colorful collection of personal and professional information that you can use to create your bragologue—a brief, pithy, conversational monologue that talks about you (what you do, your accomplishments, etc.)”
Know what NOT to do on your college essay
…stay away from the “3-D’s”: death. disease, and divorce….”
These topics are weighty enough that it can be hard to write well about them.
Go from what “not to do,” to what “to do” in your college essay
Top Five Mistakes Students Make on their College Application Essays goes over the top five mistakes made on college essays on college applications. The fifth gets to the heart of what you should be writing about, to fulfill the purpose of the application essay.
Write about something different in your college essay
…take chances. ‘I get a lot of essays on church mission trips, so when I came across one that argued that tiramisu was the best dessert ever, it stuck in my mind. Plus, the student wrote it well.’ “
It’s easy to take this advice and turn it into pressure to really stand out. Instead, remember to put the importance in perspective. It will not make or break your entire life. Use this as permission to have some fun with your essay.
Advice from an admissions officer on your college essay
It’s a little dated, but Daniel Grayson, the associate director of undergraduate admissions at Tufts University wrote a column for New York Times, A Plea from the Admissions Office to go for the ‘Dangerous’ Essay.
You can get some excellent ideas for application essays from him by reading through the comments on this Reddit thread. (Please note that comments on a thread like this are often not well monitored and may be “edgy.”) The questions are answered by an admissions officer at Tufts. When asked for his single best piece of advice he said:
Write what actually matters to you. Seriously. If you wrote the essay, and YOU think the essay is boring, why would an admissions officer feel differently?”
More recent advice from Grayson can be found in some 2015 videos about college admission essays.
A great example of a college essay
It can help to look at examples of some good college essays. Yes, I just said “good,” not “great” like I said in the heading. Let me explain.
Kwasi Enin’s college essay, Uploaded by New York Post, is a real life example of a college admissions application essay that’s a “winning” essay.
Honestly, I think it’s pretty well written, but I don’t think it’s phenomenal. That should be encouraging to anyone about to write a college admissions essay! You’re going for great – but that doesn’t mean it has to be perfect. Even so, it was good enough to gain him admittance to every school that he applied to, including eight Ivy League colleges.
While he did have eleven AP classes and test scores, and a ton of extracurriculars and volunteering, most of the kids who apply to the same schools do as well. And they don’t all get in. By a long shot.
Anyway, it’s not perfect, but I think it succeeds because it’s novel. It shows who he is, what he’s accomplished, and his in-depth thoughts about it. Mainly I think the most important element is his thoughtful approach to what he’s done. This can be used as an example to shape your essay.
But again, use this as permission to be creative, not a requirement. Maybe you’re a straight forward person. That’s fine! Use your essay to show you. Not who you think some “dream college” wants you to be.
More examples of college essays
College essay examples on-line
In Great Common Application Essays there is no way to know if these college essays were successful in getting the students in to Ivy League schools, or even into their dream college. But in my opinion, they are surprisingly technically more well written than the examples I have seen on news sites. However, three of the four represent unique opportunities that most students wouldn’t have – taking Quantum Theory and Relativity in high school, attending school in Thailand, and working in a university neuroscience lab.
Only one will be relatable to most students – the experiences surrounding the birth of a sibling. Focus on that one!
An entire book of college essay examples
Need more examples? More examples might give you a broader spectrum that includes examples of average, or regular students. Janine Robinson has an entire book of them! Heavenly Essays: 50 Narrative College Application Essays That Worked
Get started writing your college essay!
So now after you’ve read through all that, you probably don’t know where to start.
TMI. Am I right? (Ha! I probably used TMI all wrong!)
It might help to pick up a copy of Escape Essay Hell!: A Step-By-Step Guide to Writing Narrative College Application Essays.
And the number one piece of advice for writing a college essay?
Just get started! It is easier to edit, than to begin.
Other articles that might help you understand the college application process and put the college essay in perspective