The college application essay provides an opportunity for the student’s personal voice, personality, and perspective to come alive, making it a critical part of the application that mostly focuses on closed-ended responses, numbers, lists, and checked boxes. With many schools becoming test-optional, test-blind, and text flexible since COVID-19, the personal essay has gained even more vitality in the admissions process.

No matter the application completed—The Common Application (also known as the Common App), the Coalition for College application, or a college’s own application—the essay must showcase strong skills in writing, critical thinking, personal reflection, and presentation. A solid, noteworthy, and polished college admissions essay can make a student stand above the competition, providing a glimpse of the unique and motivated individual behind the generic lists of scores and activities.

As a point of reference for the class of 2022, although some criteria and essay topics may change, The Common Application (https://www.commonapp.org/) for the class of 2021 offered 7 different essay prompts to choose from and kept its usual 650 word count for responses. Question four was revamped from writing about a problem you solved to reflecting on something that sparked gratitude. The application also featured a 250-word optional essay for students impacted by COVID-19.

For the Coalition for College’s 2021 MyCoalition application (https://www.coalitionforcollegeaccess.org/), the essay offered five prompt choices with their usual recommended word count of 500 to 650 words. Both applications offer a “topic of your choice” prompt. Visit their respective websites for more information on each application and their essay requirements once applications officially open in August 2021. Some individual colleges also require supplemental essays, usually ranging from 100 to 800 words per response.

Regardless of the prompt you select, the three writing phases outlined below are a clear-cut path to presenting your best essay for your college admissions application. Following these critical steps simplifies the writing process to reduce the stress and uncertainty most students experience while writing their admissions essay.

While most college applications open August 1st, The Common Application and MyCoalition application’s essay prompts usually don’t change much from year to year. Since both admissions platforms allow students to start their applications ahead of finishing their junior year of high school, the earlier you start your application and essays, the better your outcomes will be. It is advised you use the summer months leading into your senior year of high school to finish most of your applications, including the main and supplemental essays.

Step #1: Planning and Selecting 

  • Get started as soon as possible! Procrastinating adds stress and anticipation makes the task seem worse with each passing day
  • Read the essay prompt choices a choose one or two that interest you the most or that align with the topic you want to write about
  • Brainstorm ideas that align with the prompt(s) (make as long of a list as possible at this point; cast a wide net)
  • If none of the prompts interests you more than the others at this point, brainstorm using the prompt that allows “a topic of your choice”
  • If your school of choice does not use The Common Application or MyCoalition application, you will have to address the prompt you are given for that specific school; often, the prompt you chose for The Common Application or MyCoalition application will fit with some revisions
  • If you are doing multiple applications, assess all of your essay choices across the applications and choose similar essay prompt choices so you don’t have to write several different essays for each application platform
  • Next, go over your list of possible ideas to write about and select the most unique, uncommon, and interesting one you jotted down; if none of your ideas qualify, think about which idea(s) you can develop into something interesting with a little bit of creativity
  • Start writing about the idea(s) you selected for 10 minutes or so; this is free writing, without a plan, topic, outcome, or concern for proper grammar, usage, sentence structure, organization, word choice, spelling, or punctuation
  • While it is okay to start with something listed on your application (a sport, activity, academic accomplishment, volunteer experience, award, etc.), this will have to be developed in detail with a “show, don’t tell” approach (you will learn more about this in the next section entitled “During Your Writing”) or you will sound like many other students submitting their essays and will not stand out from the crowd
  • Create a loose outline of what you want to accomplish in each paragraph so your essay will have a progression

Step #2: Writing

  • Just start writing (you can cut out or add parts later to accommodate the word count, once you get the general content down)
  • Show, don’t tell (put the reader in the moment with you through “showing” details and emotions; don’t just “tell” what happened)
  • Stay focused on your topic and outline so you don’t veer off track; if you do veer off track, maybe your essay needs to go someplace else and you have discovered a better topic…go with it, if this is the case!
  • Make sure your essay has these important parts: a strong lead, one focus throughout, personal perspective, prompt alignment, unique voice, personal passion/character, specific details, and a conclusion that shows personal growth and a lesson learned for future application (perhaps at college or in your career)
  • Make sure your essay is somewhat loosely organized, logical, and easy to follow
  • Don’t worry about word count now
  • Don’t pay attention to proper grammar, usage, sentence structure, organization, word choice, spelling, or punctuation at this point

Step #3: Polishing to Perfection

  • Check your word count (cut down or add content as necessary)
  • Make sure you answered all parts of the prompt and have maintained your focus throughout
  • Check that your essay is logical and easy to follow for the reader, as well as interesting
  • Proofread now for proper grammar, usage, sentence structure, organization, word choice, spelling, or punctuation
  • Share your essay with others for constructive comments or suggestions (keep in mind some advice may be well-meaning but wrong; don’t change your essay to be like those your peers wrote)
  • Put the essay aside for a few days, then read it again with fresh eyes; make any revisions you need
  • Proofread it again (see the fourth bullet above)!
  • Have a fresh set of eyes proofread it for you
  • Proofread it one last time (remember the fourth bullet above)!
  • Relax and submit your essay with confidence!

Since 2007, All About Writing has successfully provided undergraduate, MBA, master’s degree, doctoral, medical/dental school, and fellowship/scholarship applicants with admission essay services rooted in decades of expertise specific to this genre of writing. Owner Christa Riddle has worked with students on admission essays since the 1990s.

While other college admissions consultants offer a broad range of financial and school selection advice, our expertise focuses solely on the essay portion of the process. In fact, many of our clients come to us after using college admissions consultants with concerns that their essays are not as strong as they could be; usually, our thorough assessments confirm their concerns.

All About Writing is here to assist with the entire college application essay process, from brainstorming, idea selection, and prompt alignment through detailed content development/analysis and final proofreading.

Visit our website’s “Academic Writing and College Application Essays” page at https://allaboutwritingconsulting.com/academic-papers-and-college-admission-application-essays/ for information our college admissions essay and personal statement consultative services, as well as a list of some of our clients’ colleges.

Call us today to put your mind at ease during a time that is stressful for students and parents alike!

-by Christa Riddle

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