What Makes a Great College Application Essay

Admissions essays can be the most intimidating part of the application process. Your personal statement in a college application has the potential to make or break your admission. We don’t say this to scare you, but it is important to put your best foot forward when it comes to your essays.

While admissions committees mainly focus on grades and test scores, your personal essay, letters of recommendation, and activities résumé can really help you stand out among students with similar academic performance. By the time you start the application process, there’s not much you can do to improve your GPA or boost your activities résumé, but you can make a notable impact on your application with a remarkable personal statement. As you prepare to write, you might consider following a few steps to get you from brainstorming to finalizing your submission. Keep in mind these recommendations to get on the right track toward impressing colleges with your essay.

Get Organized

A great essay requires time and patience. You will want to give yourself plenty of time to complete this process. If you are diligently working (knowing you will have plenty of other tasks at hand—from school to extracurriculars to college visits), your optimal writing time frame should be at least two months out from submission.

The first step to submitting a stellar essay is gaining an understanding of/making a plan for the types of essays you will actually need. Many colleges use the Common Application, which means you may only need one essay that you will submit several times, rather than a different piece for every application. You will want to do your research and find out whether the colleges to which you are applying use the Common App or if they instead have their own system and requirements for admission.

Many colleges that use the Common App may also accept supplemental essays with more focused prompts based on specific departments or majors of interest. It would be wise to make a list of every requirement and essay prompt for which you will need to formulate a response. That way, you will have a firm understanding of how many essays you will actually need to write, how long they all need to be, and whether you may be able to reuse any.


Once you have a clear picture of how many essays you need to write and the questions you will have to answer, it’s time to start thinking of a story to tell. Your personal statement is your chance to show the admissions committees who you really are. To avoid redundancy, you won’t want to repeat in your essay the same accomplishments and qualifications you’ve already shared in your activities résumé; instead, share a part of your life that truly sets you apart. You have a unique story that is worth sharing—believe it! As you reflect on your years leading up to this point, filter your experience through these questions:

  •     Have you overcome an obstacle that seemed impossible at the time?
  •     Can you think of a life-changing moment or experience?
  •     Do you have a distinctly happy (or sad!) memory that is extremely meaningful to you?
  •     Who is someone who has had the greatest influence or impact on you?
  •     Do you have a unique hobby or interest that sets you apart?

Come up with a list of possibilities for essay topics from your experiences. Remember that your essay should be about a subject you’re comfortable with, even if it challenges you to show your vulnerability. If you paint a clear picture of who you are through your personal statement, admissions committees are more likely to remember you and, therefore, take notice of your application as a whole. They are reading thousands of essays—try to think outside the box and come up with some topics that might strike someone as a little out of the ordinary.

At this point, it would be worth it to run a few of your ideas past someone that you trust—whether that be your school counselor, English teacher, or your parents. These confidants can help you narrow down the topic that will make you stand out. 

Choose a Topic

After you come up with several topics about which you would feel comfortable writing, it’s time to narrow it down. If you need to give yourself a few days to consider each idea, come back to them another time with fresh eyes! Sleep on your ideas and approach them with fresh eyes so that you can solidify which the topic you’re most passionate about.

Unlike most of the papers you wrote in high school, this particular writing assignment is not your analysis of someone else’s work. You are writing in your voice about your experiences and feelings. Even if the topic you’re leaning toward is not the most unique idea, you might be able to approach the story with a unique style or perspective. Just remember, of course, that whatever you choose to write about needs to relate directly to the prompt the colleges have provided. Admissions committees are not going to give much thought to your application if you haven’t answered the question they asked, no matter how good your essay is. 


Creating an outline might feel overwhelming at first, and you might be wondering where to start. Just as it requires a lot of thought to decide a topic, so too does it need a sound, well-planned structure. This piece of writing does not necessarily have to follow the traditional, five-paragraph “introduction-body-conclusion” format that you were taught in elementary school, but it should still flow in a way that makes sense.

If your personal statement is focused on a specific story or event, you may have an outline that roughly follows this format:

  •     provide very brief, yet very important, background information
  •     narrate specific details of the event
  •     explain how it was resolved/concluded
  •     describe what you learned from the experience

If you are writing about a special person or specific theme from your life, here’s an idea of how your essay could flow:

  •     introduce the main subject
  •     list three to five examples of how this person/theme impacted you or presented itself
  •     explain how this person/theme permanently changed you

In case you need multiple essays or are having trouble figuring out whether you will be able to provide enough detail about a particular subject, you may benefit from creating outlines for multiple topics. This might help you understand which will be the easiest for crafting a fluid, well-developed essay.

First Draft

The only way to construct a great essay is to write and rewrite. First drafts are meant to be imperfect. Even the most experienced, widely celebrated authors don’t get it right the first time around! Your outline will come in handy for your first draft; the words will flow more easily if you know your end goal. And if they don’t flow easily and you get stuck at a certain point, you can skip ahead to a different part of your outline and remain productive. Know that this first draft may feel disjointed or messy. Leave it for a day or two, and then come back to more clearly articulate what you want to say once you have let your mind rest. If you have given yourself enough time, you will be able to take breaks as you need them without feeling rushed.


Now that you officially have an essay written (way to go!), you may want to put it away for several days so that you can read it again with a fresh perspective. As you review, look for any slow or awkward areas in your storytelling. Read through it several times—even out loud; it’s easier to catch confusing phrasing when you actually hear the words.

If you begin to feel discouraged, don’t panic! There’s not need to start over from scratch just because you’re frustrated. Give yourself time, and don’t be too hard on yourself if it takes a while to get it right.

You will definitely want to have someone you trust to review your personal statement. Consider asking your English instructor, as they obviously know what makes a piece of writing stand out. No matter whom you ask, be sure to give them plenty of time to read it (i.e. more than just a couple of days before your application deadline). Keep in mind that you will likely need to incorporate the notes and edits that your proofreader provides, so give yourself at least a few days to finalize your draft after they return it.

Final Draft

After you have triple-checked your essay; had a knowledgeable and objective set of eyes read over it for you; and corrected any errors in spelling, grammar, and syntax; your final draft is ready to submit!

Even if you feel like writing is not your strong suit, it is possible to submit an essay that you can be proud of. Give yourself enough time to brainstorm, plan, write, and edit, and you will be well on your way to an essay you can be proud of. And never be afraid to ask for help as you go—you have tools and resources available to you as well as a team of people who want to see you succeed!


More Helpful Guides:

How to Write an Activities Résumé for College Applications

Should You Apply to College Early?

High School Checklist: Freshman through Senior Year

What Are Colleges Looking For?


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