How to Write A Good College Essay (with Example Prompts for Practice)

Few things strike more terror into a student’s heart than the thought of the college essay or personal statement. Don’t worry! With our tips, checklist, and plenty of time to practice with the prompts, you can reframe that fear into a feeling of supreme gratitude for what is actually a gift! The essay is your chance to showcase all the great things about you that can’t possibly be reflected in the yes-no-how-many application questions.

So relax and remember that colleges are looking for reasons to admit you. They are searching for students who will fit into their campus culture.  Students who get along with their roommates, do well in their classes, become involved and contributing members of the community, and finally, who graduate into successful, supportive (donating!) alumni.  Your essay can show them that you belong at their school. Grades and test scores can tell them only so much; your essay is where admissions officers will find your core values, your character and ambitions, your motivations, goals and work ethic.  Curiosity, passion and initiative rank high on the list of desirable qualities in an applicant.

Start Your Essay with Self-Discovery

Where to begin?  Student, know thyself!  There are tons of self-exploration devices available for free on the internet (For a list, start here.).  Ask yourself the tough questions that determine what values are important to you, and then think about how you acquired those values and how you demonstrate your commitment to them by your thoughts, words and specific deeds.  You will immediately envision meaningful personal “stories.” This first step is critical to your writing success, and certainly the most difficult part of the process. The good news is that your labors will yield material that can be used for lots of different essay prompts!  (The Common and Coalition Applications have already released the news that theirs will not change for the 2019-20 application cycle and we’ve included them at the end of this article.)

Stay Specific In Your Essay

Once you have decided which values you want to present, select your topic.  It seems that the most successful essays focus on small snippets of life — interesting or fun experiences which precipitated a change of view or an “aha!” moment.  Go for the specific rather than the broad here, and know that the story should not be about saving the world, (few 17-year-olds have done that). Above all, it must be your very own story.  One of the most memorable essays we’ve seen was about Saturday mornings with mom searching for second-hand jigsaw puzzles, and the resulting problems/solutions when pieces were missing.  While any experience can make a good essay, we encourage you to stay positive. Admissions officers tell us to avoid the “3 D’s of death, disease and divorce.” If you must address such a theme because it is central to your identity, focus the bulk of your piece on your active solutions and successful emergence from the situation.

Stick To You In Your Essay

College admissions counselors read hundreds of essays during each application cycle — they can spot a phony a mile away. It’s fine to ask a trusted adviser for an opinion on your draft, but make no mistake, the writing must be your own.
When telling your story, use your unique voice. If you are a natural clown, be funny! If you are an introverted engineer, be quietly brainy.  In other words, be yourself.  Imagine that you are recounting an event to a friend – perhaps an adult with whom you are comfortable and respect.  Because he wasn’t at the event with you, you must describe it in such a way that he will fully understand what happened.  Vivid details, sensory perceptions and clear examples will allow him to enjoy and understand your experience. Your actions and feelings in the story should give your friend a clear idea of what you care about and who you are.  One of the very best descriptions that we’ve come across for the ultimate essay is this: Suppose you drop your writing (unsigned) in the school hallway between classes, and a friend happens along some time later. When he picks it up and reads the first few paragraphs, he knows beyond the shadow of a doubt that it belongs to you!

The Rules of the College Essay

There are a few hard and fast rules:

  1. Always observe the word limit.  Do not, repeat, DO NOT EXCEED!  One of our most revered admissions counselors opines that there is no high school senior in the world whose story can’t be told in 600 words.
  2. Allow yourself plenty of time.  Even if you are the type who works best under pressure, don’t wait until the night before it’s due to begin.  Plan for a rough draft, finished essay, and polished final version.
  3. Write the body of the story first.  Only when it is finished should you worry about an attention-grabbing opening to capture the reader’s interest along with an ending paragraph that summarizes your points.
  4. Read and reread the essay.  Ask one or two people who know you to review.  When considering their suggestions, keep in mind your ownership of the story.

Aside from these rules, we’re including a checklist for you to use to cover every base and the 2019-20 Common and Coalition Application Prompts so that you can practice.  Remember that you are a wonderful, unique individual with remarkable gifts. Let the colleges get to know you through honest, transparent essays and personal statements.  There is a perfect match school just waiting for you!

More Resources for the College Essay –

The College Essay Checklist

The Common Application Prompts

The Coalition Application Prompts

Leave a Comment