Tips for Writing a Winning College Essay

Mar 19, 2019 by

Applying to college can feel like a full-time job. The applications, essays, and interviews can be all-consuming. But the day you get that acceptance letter in the mail from your dream school, all that hard work is a distant memory. The applications are often straightforward and require students to write an essay on a specific topic. This can be difficult for students who lack strong writing skills. But the following tips will help students of all skill levels write a well-crafted, creative, and attention-grabbing essay to help them land that acceptance letter.

Fully Understand the Prompt

All too often, students write their college essay before fully understanding what’s being asked. Reading the prompt fully and answering it correctly shows attention to detail and the ability to follow directions. Even if you are an outstanding writer, not following directions is a sure way for your essay to end up in the rejection pile. Most college essay prompts are designed to spark creativity and help students dig deep into personal insight. Read the question several times before you start writing. And be sure to go back after you’ve finished and make sure that your essay covers all parts of the question. Even the best writers can get off track when the words start flowing, so always proofread your work.


Once you fully grasp the question being asked, it’s time to brainstorm. Don’t rush through this process. Sit down in a quiet atmosphere with little to no distractions or interruptions. Start with the most obvious points you want to make in your essay. Use bullet points or full sentences, whatever works best for your creative process. The more ideas you can get down, the better. This helps get your creative juices flowing and is a great resource to reference once you start the writing process. Some helpful tips for brainstorming include asking yourself questions like, “What are my best attributes? What have been some of my biggest struggles and how have I overcome them?” Use specific examples and details whenever possible. Once you get this down, you can choose which information will best support your essay and which ideas are too hard to expand on. Don’t limit yourself but it’s important not to set yourself up for failure either, by choosing a topic that’s too narrow.

Open with a Catchy Anecdote

When it comes to catching the attention of the acceptance committee, it’s okay to show your personality. In fact, it’s recommended! Your college essay doesn’t need to be overly formal or stuffy. Have fun with it. Of course, paying close attention to grammar and spelling is a must, you can showcase a little bit of yourself in a creative way. Start off with an interesting or unique anecdote about yourself. This acts like the hook in a good book or story. Just like a good book, readers want to be engaged from the start. Your college essay needs to grab the reader’s attention and impress them from the get-go. Just steer clear of cliche’ phrases or ideas that have been done so many times before. A unique, fresh perspective gives you a better chance at getting a careful read.

Put a Personal Spin on It

Another effective way for your essay to stand out from the rest is to put a personal spin on the prompt. Prospective college students make the mistake of giving generic, cookie cutter answers in most college essays. Avoid giving them what you think they want and instead, show them who you are. Look deeper at the question and see where you can make the answer your own. A successful college essay is as much about standing out as it is about quality writing. Do you speak a second language? Try incorporating some spanish essay phrases into your piece. Do you have unique work or volunteer experience? Use personal narrative to tap into the emotional side of the essay writing process without sacrificing quality or steering too far from the prompt topic.


While free writing is good for some things, you’ll want to create an outline for your college essay. That doesn’t mean you have to ditch all your creative ideas, it simply mean you need to organize them in a cohesive way. Start by determining how exactly plan to answer the prompt question. Next, see where your personal narrative and experience fits in. Write a short heading for each section of the essay. This helps you create a flow and connect ideas throughout the essay. Make sure that there’s a common theme throughout that is clear to the readers. Simply throwing a few personal stories onto a piece of paper isn’t going to result in a quality piece. Your college essay should have a clear message and purpose, sprinkled with some personality.

Write a Rough Draft

Once you have your outline in place, you can write your first draft. The rough draft is designed to get your ideas down in some sort of cohesive order. It’s the process of taking your brainstorming ideas and visions and getting them down in some type of order. Don’t worry too much about grammar or spelling (yet). This will come in the revision phase. The rough draft is more about seeing how your ideas come together, whereas revisions are designed for polishing your final draft.

Get a Second Opinion

It’s proven that writers need distance from their work sometimes. After all, if you’ve spent hours writing your college essay, staring at the screen, and reading and rereading it, chances are, you’re not even seeing the words as they truly are anymore. Over time, your mind will subconsciously fix spelling errors and fill in the blanks of what’s truly written on the page. That’s because you knew what you intended when you wrote your piece and your mind is reading it as such. This is why getting a second (third, fourth, or fifth) opinion is so important. Ask a friend, relative, or teacher to read your college essay. They can tactfully give constructive criticism and also point out any grammatical or spelling errors you might have made. While we all become protective and defensive over our writing, try not to take this process personally. Your loved ones are trying to help you craft the best college essay possible, so listen to their suggestions with an open mind.

Revise and Submit

After taking suggestions into consideration and proofreading your own work, it’s time to craft that final draft and submit your college essay. Incorporating helpful tips and suggestions from others is important but not required. Of course, you’ll need to address any spelling or grammatical issues, but at the end of the day, the essay is yours and yours alone. You need to be proud of what you submit and accepting of the final product. And once you are, all you can do is submit and hope for the best.

When writing your college essay, you need to take your time and create a well-thought out plan. Make sure you understand the questions being asked and brainstorm innovative ways of answering them. Do so by putting a unique spin on your story, but without veering too far off topic. There’s no guarantee recipe for a successful college essay, but these tips can help you craft an essay that best represents you and showcases your skills.

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