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Everything You Need to Know About College Essays

Jan 28, 2023Date Published
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Is a college essay a part of your college admissions requirements for the USA? Since you’re reading this, we’re guessing it is. And we’re also guessing that you’re already trying to figure out how to write one. College essays aren’t documents to write half-heartedly and send off like homework you forgot to do the night before. A college essay – which often goes by “college admissions essay” or “personal statement” – presents a unique opportunity for you to speak directly to the university. Your grades and transcripts have limits to what they can say about you as a potential student. A college essay, on the other hand, gives admissions officers the chance to hear your voice, step into your mind for a moment, and see the world through your eyes. This piece of writing can make all the difference in your final application decision.  So, without further ado, let’s get into everything you need to know about college essays!

What is a Common App College Essay?

If you’re applying as an undergraduate student to a US college or university or applying to multiple US colleges and universities, you’re likely sending your application through the Common App. And a part of the application process through this centralised platform – which connects you to over 900 colleges within and outside of the USA – is the Common App essay. Similar to the UCAS personal statement, this is a piece of writing you submit to all the universities you’re applying to as part of your application. Every year, you’ll have seven first-year essay prompts to choose from. Topics for college essays tend to be pretty broad, giving a diverse group of students room to manoeuvre around the prompt, interpret and explore it in their own distinct ways, and present themselves through their writing. For instance, college essays about identity can lead to numerous interpretations of the topic, depending on who is writing it!

The Common App essay can be between 250 to 650 words long. Make sure you take a good look at the requirements for the essay before you start writing. Your ability to craft your essay around a given prompt and your adherence to instructions like keeping your writing within the recommended word limit says a lot to admissions officers about you as a student, alongside the contents of your essay. For example, sticking to the details and requirements and staying on task for your essay shows admissions officers that you’re thorough, conscientious, and detail-oriented!

Supplemental Essays

Some colleges also ask for supplemental essays specific to their university or program. Research your program requirements and chosen school thoroughly to figure out if you need additional writing samples as well as the Common App essay! Supplemental essays are usually shorter than college application essays. Nonetheless, it’s best to know exactly what the college wants and work off those instructions. 

Note that both the main and supplemental essays are important parts of your application. Don’t make the mistake of prioritising one and neglecting the other! College Essay Guy on YouTube has an excellent breakdown of how to approach supplemental essays for each school you’re applying to.

Tips for Writing Impressive College Essays

An important note to preface right off the bat: there’s no standard formula on how to write college essays. Resumes and report cards have templates, but it’s to set you apart from the scores of standard documents admissions officers go through that college essays are part of the application in the first place! So, when approaching your admissions essay, keep this thought front and centre – there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to writing a great college essay. We can give you tips, tricks, and guidelines to begin crafting something that is uniquely yours instead!

Picking Your Topic

Before you can write a college essay, you need to know what you’re going to write about. Essay prompts can be quite broad and open to interpretation. The best college essays usually have a fine-tuned focus! After all, you can’t sum up your entire life in 500 words. Rather, think of something specific, something distinct that gets across your voice and personality. Students often think that a good college essay involves writing about grand accomplishments or huge milestones. Others try to impress the admissions officers with fancy scientific theories and philosophical schools of thought. There’s no rule saying you can’t talk about these things in your college essay. But only do so if they’re relevant and serve the topic you’re writing about! 

Admissions officers read many memorable essays built on mundane topics. It’s how applicants write about these topics that make them remarkable. 

Hobbies, events, experiences, moments that seem small at a glance, may have incredible stories behind them – stories that only you can tell. Even a trip to the mall, a stressful evening stuck in traffic, or your relationship with a family member, friend, or even a complete stranger can make for a compelling essay. What you need to do is make sure you keep the focus on yourself and use your writing to paint a picture of who you are to admissions officers. The event you’re writing about may be mundane, but what’s important is how you respond to it – how you think about it, tackle it, connect it to other ideas, apply it to your life, etc. What does it say about the type of person you are and the kind of student you would be at your college of choice?

If you’re completely at a loss, ask your family members or friends about things that define who you are. Seeing yourself through the eyes of others could help you pinpoint an angle for your college essay that only you can write about!

Planning Your Essay

With the topic down, the next thing to do is lay out what you want to write. Some students benefit from mind-mapping their ideas and making a rough outline of the main points they want to touch on. Others do their best work when their ideas can just flow out without any planning. If that works for you, go ahead! Remember, your first draft is going to undergo many facelifts before it’s ready for submission. In some cases, you might find that it works better for you to scrap a draft and start from the beginning! 

Don’t feel discouraged or think that you’re wasting time and effort when it comes to rewrites. Every draft you write helps you fine-tune how you want to express your ideas. You might find that your writing flows better when you’ve retraced your storytelling a couple of times! Think about it like driving through a new part of town for the first time. You might struggle with the map and directions at first, but the more you travel through, the easier it becomes.

Because a great essay usually goes through numerous revisions, we recommend starting on your essay as early as you can. You can even work on it over the holidays before starting your final high school semester or senior year when you’re not preoccupied with schoolwork. You have more time, energy, and mental capacity to think about and plan your essay the earlier you start on it. This doesn’t mean you have to get it done in one sitting. But planning and setting the pieces in motion give you lots of time to work and rework a strong college essay.

Writing Your College Essay

There are two dimensions to the actual writing of the essay to consider – what you’re saying and how you’re saying it. 

What You’re Saying

At this stage, you already know what you’re going to be writing about. The real question here is – what are you trying to say through it? What does your approach to this topic say about you to the admissions officer? If, for example, you’re tackling college essays about family, you need to make sure you don’t end up writing a biography about your family members. How does the relationship you’re focusing on, specific moments or memories spent with this person, things you do or experienced together, shape who 
you are? You can share anecdotes and get descriptive with your writing – but remember, you’re not simply recounting or describing things. Through these anecdotes and stories, you want to show – not tell – admissions officers about the type of person you are. 

For example, you could build and develop ideas related to what you want to study around the nature of your relationship with your family member. A successful applicant to Hamilton penned a moving essay about her relationship with her father, his drinking problem, and how this connects to her love of making music. 

Now, of course, this does not mean all college essays about music are going to involve an exploration of complicated relationships like this. 


What drives you, what motivates you? How do the things you see, feel, think, and experience fuel how you handle yourself in the world, meet goals, craft dreams, create connections? They don’t want you to try fitting into the shoes of other college essay writers who got into Harvard, for instance. They want to know who you are, so be sure to keep your own voice, thoughts, and ideas front and centre. While reading college essay examples can give you an idea of all the different ways you can tackle a topic, don’t try to define or limit your essay based on the works of others. Make your essay truly and entirely your own.

How You’re Saying It

Not everyone is going to have a lyrical way with words and admissions officers know this. Some writers have a knack for using flowing figurative language to make compelling points. Others get their storytelling across through more straightforward and direct prose. Go with what works for you – put across 
your voice in your writing. Chances are, if you try to get your thoughts down in a way that doesn’t feel natural to you, it will show in your writing. You don’t have to use complex vocabulary and fancy diction if this isn’t your natural writing style. You can tell just as compelling of a story by being more simple and concise in your writing! Be sure to connect your ideas clearly and stay on track with the prompt in focus. 

It’s a good idea to ask someone else to read your work as you make your way through drafts. You already know what you want to write about – now how well does that come across to a reader approaching the topic from the outside? Getting a second or even a third set of eyes helps you figure out how effective your writing is in putting across what you want to say. If there are any confusing or unclear ideas, points that don’t exactly land, or bits of prose that aren’t doing anything for your essay overall, having someone else review your essay can help you work it out. As you get feedback, though, be sure not to let other voices overtake your own!


Ever watched the pilot episode of a series or read the first few lines of a book and immediately felt the need to know more? You might not have all the information to grasp what’s going on yet, but your attention and curiosity are sufficiently piqued. Nailing a great introduction to your college essay works the same way. This isn’t a thesis statement, where you tell the reader exactly what you’re going to talk about for the rest of the essay. In a college essay, you can craft a compelling hook first, pulling your reader willingly deeper to find out more about the ideas you introduce. 

Note, though, that you shouldn’t spend so much time on making a snappy intro that you neglect the rest of the essay. The introduction needs to work in tandem with the essay as a whole. You might introduce points, analogies, metaphors, or ideas in the intro that you develop later in the essay. Perhaps you put forth an idea or question in the intro that you complete or conclude as you unwind your thoughts in your essay. 

Remember, though, that you don’t lose points if your introduction doesn’t immediately wow the admissions officer. You can absolutely write a strong college essay without a clever or memorable introduction too!  


While writing, you also need to focus on making sure your work is free of grammatical mistakes or faulty syntax. Alongside getting to know you better as a person, admissions officers learn more about your writing ability through your college essay. Since a certain degree of English proficiency is a prerequisite for a majority of study abroad programs, pay attention to creating an error-free final piece!

Grammar-checkers can help you catch inappropriate phrasing, spelling mistakes, typos, grammatical errors, and so on. We also highly, highly recommend getting help and advice from a professional for your essay! Your English teacher or higher education counsellor can advise you from the perspective of someone who has read and worked on plenty of student essays before. They know what works and what doesn’t and give you helpful college essay tips to improve your work!

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How long should college essays be?

Common App, the central platform through which you can apply to multiple US universities, advises keeping first-year application essays to 650 words maximum. You may spend months working on your essay, but admissions officers going through hundreds of them may only spend a couple of minutes reading through yours. This doesn’t mean that if your essay is longer than 650 words, the admissions officer will toss it aside. It does, however, mean that the more effectively, clearly, and concisely you get your ideas across, the better your chances of making an impression on your admissions officer! Regardless of the word limit, we advise against being excessively wordy with your writing. 

Are there any colleges with no supplemental essays?

Yes – there are hundreds of colleges that don’t ask for additional supplements to the main Common App essay! Look into the admissions requirements of the schools and programs you’re considering to find out more.

Our Final Thoughts:

College essays can be tricky to tackle but are an excellent opportunity for students to stand out among other candidates. You don’t need to write about outstanding achievements or go in-depth with technical knowledge for a great essay. Sometimes, the best college essays are about perfectly ordinary, simple things, made extraordinary through the perspective of the person talking about them. Pick something you’re passionate about, something that’s meaningful to you, and think of ways you can represent this passion and meaning in your writing.

Try to go with something the admissions officers don’t already know about you from other items in your application package. Get creative with how you communicate experiences that had an impact on you, experiences that you tackled in a way that shows admissions officers who you are. And don’t be afraid to get the input of others to help you do a stellar job.