The College Application Essay: Part III

essay_writing_100-Last week we discussed some tips for getting started on your college application essay, after debunking several myths about the application process itself. By now, hopefully you have brainstormed enough and are feeling ready to pick up a pencil and begin writing. Grab your ‘First Impressions’ sheet we began last week and let’s get started!

[Continue reading for writing tips!]


1. Out of the list(s) of experiences, people, and qualities that you have compiled, select three that seem most promising. How can you tell if something is ‘promising?’ Well, do you think you can write 500 words about it? A subject will be ‘promising’ if it tells a significant story about you. In this case, details are important. A page and a half soliloquizing about your strong character traits without any reference to a particular experience, mentor, or memory will make your reviewer yawn. Recall last week’s blog post in which I discussed choosing an experience that exemplifies your strongest qualities; for example, your experience working in a soup kitchen and speaking with some of the people who ate there. How did your encounter impact your perspective of the world, or inspire you in some fashion? Remember, your subject can be about another person or another experience. But it ultimately has to be about you.

2. Brainstorming part 2 (or 3). Take your three “subjects” and write them out on three separate pieces of paper. Begin the brainstorming process yet again for each subject. The bubble diagram works great for this! Write down anything and everything that comes to mind. If you have chosen a person or mentor, write down key memories of times spent with this person, qualities you admire about them, quotes of theirs, and general information/background about them. If you have selected an experience, brainstorm all background information of this experience, details you recall, impacts, inspirations, and ideas the experience gave you. Try to fill each page, if you can! If you find that you can only come up with a few things for a subject, maybe it isn’t ‘promising.’ Scrap it and choose another.

After you have your three subjects, the next thing to do is begin writing! Choose whichever one you are most excited about, or has the most ideas. Don’t worry: you can always change it. Those other two topics might yet be needed. Pick up a pencil and get started.

3. Jump right in. Scrap the assembly line introduction that goes like this: “I will be a great asset to the undergraduate body of XYZ University, because of _____.” Your introduction should be different, exciting, unique, and/or bold. You only have 500 words (which will quickly seem like very, very little space) so pack every single word with power and punch. Consider beginning creatively (“My friend glared at me over the cafeteria table; oh yes, the eating competition had begun…”) or with a question (“Who knew giraffes at feeding time can be terrifying? I certainly didn’t when I worked as giraffe-keeper at the Olympia Zoo this summer…”). Get right to the main point; do not waste your time on a rambling introductory paragraph. Your reviewers will have seen enough of those!

4. Don’t save your main point for the last paragraph. Make sure you spend enough time on any anecdotes necessary, but also save space for your concluding points: namely, your argument about how your description of a particular experience or mentor relates to you. This is the entire point of the essay, so make sure it gets its worth! Yes, if you are going to write about how your grandmother taught you to cook traditional Hungarian food, you will need to tell a little bit about your grandmother and about that experience. But after providing concise, vivid background information, present (in equally precise, vivid terms) what this background information says about you. A good way to do this is to think about your essay in terms of fractions (halves, fourths, thirds, eighths). Figure out what proportion is best for you: 50% anecdote / 50% thesis is a good place to start. Maybe you find out in the end that anecdote is wrapped up in your thesis; both blend together. Great! It will be different depending upon which subject you have selected.

5. Try ending (or beginning) with humor. As long as you are not aiming for slapstick, humor is a great, tried-and-tested way to grab your reader’s attention and make your essay stand out from the crowd. It’s great to begin an essay, and even better to end: sometimes when you cannot come up with a conclusion, a witty, pithy phrase at the finish is just the way to go. Humor establishes intimacy with your reader and a witty voice on your behalf; both of which are excellent methods for presenting a full picture of you.

6. Edit, edit, edit. DO NOT turn in the first draft to the Common Application. Make sure you have made at least three revisions, and make sure you get valuable assistance from teachers, particularly your English teachers. Many schools have college essay writing built into their curriculum, but if you do not, approach one of your teachers (or recommenders!) and ask if they could help you in the editing process. Ask questions throughout and make sure you stick to the 500-word limit. Cut out unnecessary words (always) and make sure to prioritize concision. Remember: the goal is not to crank out a 5-paragraph formal essay. The form is loose for a reason; your essay does not have to conform to a typical thesis, but it does have to be clear, elegant, and engaging.

7. Be proud of your essay. I’ve said it a hundred times and I’ll say it again: this is a written representation of you. Chances are, in this process you have learned about yourself. Your college application reviewer(s) will have as well. So wherever you end up attending, you at least will be attending with a greater amount of self-knowledge than with which you began. And that makes the entire process absolutely worth it!

Check out the previous posts in this series about the college application essay:

About the author: Kathleen McGunagle is a senior in Princeton University’s English department and Interdisciplinary Humanities Certificate Program. Concentrating in British Renaissance Literature, she will be writing a thesis this spring on Shakespeare and epistolary culture. Kathleen is an Academic Peer Adviser at Princeton, tutor through Princeton Tutoring, and avid performer. She has recently returned from a year of study at Worcester College, Oxford.


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