How to Start a College Application Essay

A college application essay is potentially one of the most important, and most daunting, things you will ever write. It can often feel like this essay holds your fate in its hands. 

A college application has many important parts, but the essay is what lets your personality shine through to people who have never met you. It can make the difference between getting into the school of your dreams or settling for a backup school.

Where do you even start when writing a college application essay? How do you squeeze all of the most important aspects of yourself into one tiny paper?

In truth, you don’t. College application essays are typically pretty short, and there’s not enough room for you to cover your entire life story. You must be very focused and deliver a powerful, persuasive argument about a specific topic.

Let’s take a look at the most important components of a great college application essay, which can help you narrow your story and hit the ground running.

Learn how to make your college application essay stand out from the crowd and WOW the college of your dreams.
Learn how to make your college application essay stand out from the crowd and WOW the college of your dreams.

What’s the Point of Writing a College Application Essay, Anyway?

College admissions offices want to know what makes you tick. Your life experiences, and how you have handled them, directly impact your academic and personal goals. They are also a reflection of what kind of student you will potentially be at the institution to which you are applying.

What makes you unique? Showcase key strengths have you displayed in the past that will also make you an outstanding student.

College admissions offices are looking for students who have grit, determination, problem-solving skills and leadership potential. They also want to see that you are continuously learning and improving yourself. (Employers are looking for these skills, too, which is something to keep in mind when you’re applying for jobs!) They want to know you’re willing to put in 110% to achieve your goals, because if you are doing well, the college as a whole will also do well.

Show, Don’t Tell: Communicating Your Story

The best way to convey this in a college application essay is to show, not tell. Admissions offices don’t want to hear that you are a “great leader” or a “hard worker.” Anyone can write those words on paper—it doesn’t mean that they’re true. You have to paint a picture for the reader that illustrates a real-life example of when you exhibited these key traits.

Not Sure What Story to Pick for Your College Application Essay? Ask Yourself These Questions:

  1. When have you overcome adversity? Has there been a time when someone told you that you couldn’t do something, but you tried anyway?
  2. When have you fought for something you believed in, no matter how small?
  3. Explore a time you failed, but decided to try again.
  4. Ask your friends and family members (and even trusted teachers and coaches) what about you stands out as a strength, or an example of when you struggled and overcame a challenge. 
  5. When people come to you for advice, with what do they ask for help? In what subject do you consider yourself an expert? (Reminder: Being an expert means that you are knowledgeable and have real, relevant experience on a certain topic, not necessarily that you have a degree in a certain subject.)
  6. It doesn’t have to be a story worthy of the six o’clock news. But it does have to matter to you and your personal journey. It must be a story with a beginning, middle, and end. If you are currently still in the “end” portion of your story, note that in your essay. Maybe getting into the college of your choice will help you achieve a happy ending!
  7. If you have a personal hero (famous or otherwise), do a little research on them for inspiration. What about their story makes you want to tackle your own goals? Maybe they overcame an obstacle, or maybe they are great leaders. Perhaps they have a knack for giving back to their communities, or maybe they are great strategists. What resonates with you? If you need a little inspiration, check out this article from The Muse on “9 Famous People Who Will Inspire You to Never Give Up.”

Even if you are given a specific essay prompt, these are still important questions to ask as you brainstorm and which you can incorporate into your piece.

Telling a brief story at the beginning of your essay can be extremely powerful. It humanizes you and makes you a real person to the people in the admissions office who are reading your application. You cease to be just another number, another name on a list—you are an individual with a colorful and interesting life. They will become invested in you, your story, and your journey.

Dig a Little Deeper

Once you’ve picked the example you want to use to tell your story, you have to back it up with details and examples. It’s not enough to say, “I went out for the basketball team and didn’t make it, but I tried again the next year and got in.” 

What changed in that time? Why was it so important for you to be on the team? Did you train extra hard? Or did you sacrifice time hanging out with friends to work on your layup? Show the reader exactly how you overcame the challenge, the hours you put in, the blood, sweat, and tears. They should be able to visualize it just as if they were watching it on TV. 

Don’t be afraid to include how you FELT as well. In fact, I highly recommend it. Were you angry, frustrated, scared? Embarrassed? Sad? Over time, how did those emotions change? Did you later feel strong, empowered, grateful?

For example, perhaps (using our basketball example), you were doing drills in your first set of tryouts, but you kept losing the ball because your palms were so sweaty with nervousness. Maybe you could feel the heat of embarrassment in your cheeks when your peers watched you chase the ball across the court. Or maybe there was a knot of sadness and anger in your stomach when you found out you didn’t make the team. Perhaps you used that as fuel to train harder, stronger every day after school for the next year, until you were so tired at night that you fell into your bed still in your practice clothes, and woke up with your muscles aching all over.

Use all the senses. What did you see, touch, smell, taste, and hear? Some of these will be more important than others, depending on the situation, but they will still help you tell your story on a deeper, more emotional level.

As with all essays, however, you must spell out the WHY for the reader. You must answer the question: Why was this experience important to you? How did it impact your personal growth, development, and goals? Why did you try again, even when you failed? And how are you going to apply that same WHY and ethic at school?

An Organized College Application Essay Will Win the Day

Another key component to any excellent college application essay is good organization. College admissions offices want to see that you can organize your thoughts onto paper in a clear and persuasive way. Is your story a jumble, or does it flow smoothly and logically from one idea to the next?

This Basic Layout Will Help You Start Your College Application Essay:

  1. Hook the reader with a brief, real story that illustrates the strengths and characteristics you want to highlight. Remember, show, don’t tell! Try to keep it to a few short paragraphs.
  2. Explain the WHY: What was your motivation or drive in this example? What was the ultimate goal? Remember that this “why” needs to be something you can use in your future college experiences as well.
  3. Explicitly state how you will use these characteristics at school. Maybe when you fail, you’re quick to get back up and try again, and again. Or maybe you’re excellent at making interpersonal connections and working with others to meet your goals. Perhaps you have great analytical skills and can look at a problem from many angles with calmness and clarity. Will you apply these traits to a sports team, a pre-med degree, or working in a student organization that helps empower others? What will you bring to the table that will make your learning experience worthwhile? How will you make the college a better place when you leave it than when you first arrived?
  4. Conclusion: Flash back to your original story and tie it all together. This is again a good place to use the senses and emotion. In the conclusion, however, it is more important to look ahead to the future than to reflect on the past. What’s the commitment you are making to the school to which you are applying? For example, “Just as I dedicated myself to training long hours to make the basketball team, at X College/University, I will dedicate myself to…” Fill in the blank.

Don’t be afraid to address any holes in your argument as well. Maybe you went out for the basketball team again, and didn’t make it—again. Are you still training? Have you turned your attention to a new goal?

It doesn’t matter if you ultimately did not achieve your original goal. What matters is the lessons you learned from the experience and how they have shaped you into a more mature person. Maybe you learned the value of hard work and dedication. Or maybe, even though your original goal wasn’t met, other doors opened to you. Perhaps you’re still tenaciously striving toward your goal.

Remember, the most important thing in a college application essay is getting across why you are a good fit for the school to which you’re applying. College admissions offices want to SEE how you handle tough situations, make decisions, and go the extra mile. 

By telling your story, you’re opening a window into your life, your motivations, and your dreams. Show that you are committed, willing to make mistakes, and aren’t afraid to learn tough lessons, and that will make for an incredible, powerful college admissions essay.

Don’t miss my 7 writer’s block and procrastination tricks.

Author: Elise Murrell

After years of slaying all kinds of writing projects and coaching my friends, family members, and coworkers through the writing process, I’m sharing my tried-and-true methods to help you achieve your best writing, ever.

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