Writing a Powerful College Application Essay: Tips and Examples

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You’ve toured campuses, taken your necessary exams, and narrowed down your selection of colleges to apply to. You’ve been saving it for last, but you have to get to that college application essay at some point. It’s a daunting requirement and not without its confusion, but your college essay can be the tool that gets an admissions office to say, “Yes, please attend our prestigious school.”

What Is a College Application Essay?

College application essays are a type of essay reserved specifically for applying to college. These essays typically require you to choose from a prompt (or several prompts) presented by your college of choice. However, the prompts are intentionally pretty broad and open-ended, allowing you to write to your own strengths and make the essay your own.

What Is the Purpose of a College Application Essay?

The purpose of the college application essay is two-fold. First, the essay gives admissions an idea about your writing and communication skills, both of which are pretty important in college, regardless of your major.

Second, the essay helps to round you out as a human being. Beyond just grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities, the essay gives admissions officers a brief window into you, your passions, and your personality. Your transcript doesn’t show that you’re a fun, adventurous person who completed a marathon and organized a walkout for better conditions for your teachers. Your essay does.

What Are the Different Types of College Essays?

You’ll typically encounter two types of college essays: the personal statement and supplemental essays. They are different in terms of length and format, but they both serve the same role of teaching admissions about you and your life.

Personal Statements: The Main College Essay

Personal statements are your primary college essay. They can be open-ended, meaning that you come up with a topic of your own, or the college may have a broad question or prompt. In either case, the main role of the personal statement is to ask, “Who are you, and what makes you tick?”

Certain topics for personal statements (and, to a lesser extent, supplemental essays) come up so often that they can almost be considered types of personal statements on their own. This can include:

  • Leadership essay
  • Essay about a meaningful hobby or activity
  • Essay about a trip that changed your life
  • Volunteer work essay
  • Overcoming obstacles essay

Supplemental Essays: Extra Essays for Certain Colleges

You write supplemental essays in addition to a personal statement. You may have to write one to three supplemental essays, which usually answer specific questions and provide more insight into your life (your favorite hobby, your most meaningful accomplishment, the reason you’re interested in your planned major) or stretch your creative muscles.

All colleges will require a personal statement. Not all colleges require supplemental essays.

How To Write a Good College Application Essay

There unfortunately isn’t a magic pill or one-size-fits-all solution to writing a college essay that’ll immediately get you through the entry gates. But that’s part of the beauty! You don’t have to copy other prospective students. You just have to write to your own strengths.

How To Format a College Application Essay

One thing you can rely on: Most college application essays are formatted the same way, using a basic 5-paragraph outline. A personal statement is usually organized with:

  • An introduction paragraph that hooks the reader and restates the prompt
  • The body paragraph(s) that goes into detail to answer the question
  • A conclusion that sums things up and acts as a call-to-action for admissions

The main variable here is the body. You may have more or fewer paragraphs in the body depending on the word limit of the essay.

For short supplemental essays, take that format and squish it down to one paragraph.

  • An introductory sentence that directly addresses the prompt
  • The rest of the paragraph to discuss and support the topic
  • A concluding sentence or two

How Long Is a Personal Statement?

On average, a personal statement will be about 500 to 800 words. Some schools might also dictate one- or two-page limits. Thankfully, if you’re ever unsure, you can easily just check the requirements for the essay.

If there isn’t a stated word limit, aim for up to 1,000 words. You generally shouldn’t exceed two pages, double-spaced.

How Long Is a Supplemental Essay?

Supplemental essays have a much higher degree of variation. Some of them are closer to short answer responses at about 150 to 250 words. Some are on-par with personal statements, going as high as 1,000 words.

Tips for Writing a College Application Essay

Admissions officers have to go through literally thousands of applications. That also means that you can easily get lost in the piles and piles of other student applications. So how do you make yourself stand out? 

Hook Them in Right From the Start

You wrote an amazing conclusion that summed up all your greatest fears, delving deep into the human condition while making some grander statement about global politics. Unfortunately, the admissions officer never saw it because the beginning of your essay was a real snoozefest.

It’s sad to say, but admissions officers don’t always have time to read the entirety of every single essay that lands on their desks. That means you have to grab their attention almost immediately with a good hook in the intro. A good hook is surprising, funny, sincere, and/or a little strange. Consider going ironic, unexpected, or contrary to what the general public might think, and then bring it back to your thesis.

A cappuccino. A bag of raisins. The SpongeBob SquarePants theme playing on the TV. These are the mundane things I remember about that morning before my life completely changed…

Don’t Worry About Happy Endings

It might seem counterintuitive, but you don’t have to end your personal statement with a happy ending or some sort of all-encompassing answer to your life’s purpose. Obviously, if you do have a happy conclusion, by all means get into it, but don’t force a “happily ever after” for the sake of it.

There were 12 seconds on the shot clock. I had trained all year, learned all the drills, the X’s and O’s of every play. I had spent hours shooting from every spot on the court. The midrange, the three-pointer, half-court. My team believed in me, and I believed in my team. The clock ticked down, and in the final seconds, my point guard passed me the ball. He’d told me before the game, “If it comes down to it, you take the last shot.” The ball left my fingers right as the buzzer rang, my form as perfect as it had ever been. The ball hit the rim and the backboard, but it never hit the bottom of the net.

Don’t Write What You Think They Want To Hear

This is semi-related to the tip above. You should obviously stay on topic and answer the prompt, but don’t cater too much to the admissions officers. Counterintuitive, we know, but admissions offices want to learn about you and who you are. Writing what you think they want to hear will more often sound fake and hide your own unique journey.

Do This:

At first, volunteering at the senior home was the last thing I wanted to do with my Saturday mornings. I wanted to sleep in, eat cereal, and rot my brain in front of the TV all day. I still do want those things, but if my mom had not made me volunteer, I would have never met Mrs. Skinner. She always had a smile on her face and always had a bag of candy for me, even though I told her I was not a huge fan of sweets. She was a former therapist, which showed in how easily she listened to everyone else at the home, and…

Not This:

As a model student who got great grades, led the debate club, and volunteered at the senior home every weekend, this gave me the tools to pursue my journey in psychology, which I hope to utilize to make this world a better place.

Talk About How You Grew

It's easy to get caught up in the narrative and exposition of your experience, but college admissions officers are more interested in growth. Focus less on describing and more on the “Why does this matter?” 

One of my greatest talents is overthinking. Am I wearing the right shirt? Should I say this thing or that thing? Then I became a hiker. While there is plenty to think about, I found my mind finally quieting on the trail. I took in the mountain air, the wind blowing through the trees, and the incredible views from every peak. While I could easily overcome the physical challenges of climbing summits and withstanding the elements, the real growth came from me understanding my own personal challenge of being so in my own head that I failed to engage with the world outside me.

Consider introspective questions like: 

  • How did a life moment change you?
  • How has a personal experience helped you engage more with your community?
  • How has it influenced your future aspirations?
  • What have you learned from your new hobby that applies to your real life?