How to Write & Format a College Admissions Essay
MSt, Women's, Gender & Sexuality Studies (University of Oxford)
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Approaching your College Admissions Essay
Your college admissions essay, also called a personal essay or personal statement, is an integral part of your college application. This is your opportunity to show the admissions committee who you are — beyond the grades on your transcript or activities on your resume.
The Common App asks students to write a personal essay between 250 and 650 words. While some colleges do not require this essay, many do — and many applications are improved by including this essay even when it is optional. Even if you’re applying through a different admissions portal — a smaller coalition of schools or a college’s individual site — you will likely need to write some kind of personal essay during the application process.
The college essay is a particular type of personal essay. It responds to particular expectations and serves a particular purpose: to show the admissions committee that you would be a good member of their college community. The perfect college essay both understands this purpose and shares an authentic part of your story.
In this guide, we break down the elements of a good college essay and share our tricks for writing a memorable personal statement. We answer these questions:
- What makes for a good college essay?
- How do I choose a topic?
- What are examples of good topics to write about?
- How do I structure/format my essay?
- What should I avoid?
Choosing your topic
The biggest hurdle when writing a college essay is often figuring out what to write about. It feels like you can write about anything, yet, at the same time, nothing seems quite right. You want to share an authentic part of yourself, but it needs to make for an interesting essay — and somehow show the admissions committee that you’re a good candidate.
A good college essay:
- tells a story
- shows how you’ve grown or changed over time
- teaches the reader something about you beyond accomplishments or activities
- feels specific and authentic to you
A good college essay does not:
- try to pack a life story into 600 words
- talk more about another person or topic than you
- feel like an academic paper
Here are good questions to ask yourself as you’re choosing a topic:
- Imagine yourself around a campfire with family friends. What story do you tell?
- What communities are particularly meaningful to you, and why?
- When is a time that you were particularly proud of yourself? Why was that?
- Think about a time when you changed your mind about something. What caused that change?
- Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- Think about a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did you handle the situation? What did you learn?
- Reflect on a time when you worked well with others to accomplish a goal — or when you particularly struggled to do that. What did you learn from those experiences?
- What are one or two adjectives that best describe you? Think about stories that show those qualities in action.
- Is there something that you feel your application would be incomplete without, an interest or experience that is core to who you are? What does it mean to you and how has it affected you?
Notice how these questions invite stories about growth. In your essay, you want to show how you’ve changed over time, responded to a challenge, or developed a new perspective.
A growth narrative works well in a college essay because it has a built in story structure and focuses on you. Not every college essay needs to be about facing and surmounting a major obstacle, but every essay should have some element of growth to it. That development will keep your readers engaged.
Look at the Common App prompts to help you brainstorm ideas and understand the kinds of essays colleges want to see, but don’t feel boxed in by them. You don’t need to choose a prompt before beginning your essay. The Common App always gives the option for you to share an essay “on any topic of your choice.” This prompt gives you the ability to write your story however suits you best. It might end up fitting under one of the other prompts anyway!
Examples of college essay topics
Almost any topic can work as a college essay if it’s presented in the right way. Unexpected topics can make for the most memorable essays. Still, there are certain types of essays — more like genres than formulas — which tend to work well. You don’t need to write an essay unlike any before it — that’s impossible — but do think about how you can make your essay specific to you.
See if your ideas fit into these categories or if these categories help spark new ideas.
Personal Quirk or Talent
Do you have a passion, interest, or experience the admissions committee wouldn’t necessarily expect? Is there a personal trait or talent that feels particularly defining for you? What’s something that you love to do or are particularly good at?
When writing about a quirk or talent, make sure to think about growth over the course of the essay. Instead of listing facts or things you’ve done, talk about what this talent/quirk means to you, how you discovered it, what you’ve learned from it, and/or a particular story related to it.
Major Life Experience
Are there any experiences that really changed your life? Is there a pivotal experience that helps explain who you are or who you’ve become?
When we think of major life experiences, we might first think about traumatic or difficult events — a diagnosis, a loss of a loved one, a natural disaster. But these experiences can also be positive or meaningful in smaller ways. Maybe you got the chance to work with a state senator or you traveled to another country to meet your grandparents for the first time.
The college admissions process is often criticized for making students feel like sharing traumatic experiences will help them get into college. But you don’t need to write about a horrible or huge experience to have a good college essay. Even if you do have an experience like this in your life, you don’t need to write about it unless you actually want to and it helps the reader get to know you.
When writing about a major event, keep yourself in focus: what did you do during the experience? What did you learn from it?
Facing a Challenge
Is there a particularly memorable time you faced an obstacle or a time when your abilities or beliefs were challenged? How did you approach the situation, and what did you learn from it?
Challenges can come in different scales, and they don’t necessarily need to be the biggest challenges you’ve ever faced to make for a compelling essay. The main priority is focusing on how you responded to the challenge and what you learned from it, how you brought about a change in yourself or others.
Learning a Lesson or Changing Your Perspective
What was an experience that really changed you, when you learned something about yourself or reconsidered how you see the world? Were your beliefs ever challenged — or maybe you challenged someone else’s?
An essay about a lesson you learned or a perspective that shifted has a clear growth narrative and encourages self-reflection. Consider what you did to help cause this change and how it affected your actions. Avoid preaching to the admissions committee or trying to get them to change their mind. Focus instead on your story.
Is there an academic subject or research interest you could talk about for hours? Do you pursue this academic passion even outside of school? Have you worked on a particularly interesting project related to this subject area?
Many schools have supplemental essay questions that ask about academic interests, and many schools don’t require students to know what they want to study before applying, so don’t feel like you need to write about academic interests. If you do want to write about your academic interests, tell a compelling story or provide an unexpected perspective. Make sure to include yourself as a person, not just a student, in the essay.
As always, find the growth in the narrative. Don’t give the admissions committee a lecture; show them something about you or how you see the world through your academic interests.
Check out our examples of good college essays to see strong essay topics in action.
Cliches to avoid
While choosing your essay topic, keep in mind the following cliches. They might seem like promising topics, but the admissions officers have already read many essays that follow these formulas. No one has entirely unique experiences, but your essay should feel specific to you.
“I didn’t want to move. It was hard. But now I’m okay.”
Moving is a major life event, and it can be very difficult (especially if you moved during high school or from a different country). But almost anyone who moves can tell this version of the story: they didn’t want to go to a new place, struggled initially, but now are okay.
This doesn’t mean you can never write about moving, but if you do, focus on what you did rather than what happened to you. How did you adjust to life in a new place? Is there something unusual about your moving story? Did you face a challenge other people wouldn’t expect? Maybe moving is the starting point for your story, but the essay is really about how you built a friendship with your elderly neighbor or how you and your friends from your hometown started writing letters to each other.
“Online school was really hard during the pandemic.”
Online learning was challenging for everyone. While that’s a real obstacle you faced, it was also faced by almost everyone else applying to college. You should probably avoid focusing on it in your essay — unless you have a very specific or unusual story.
“We worked really hard and then we won.”
It’s exciting to win a championship game or a robotics competition, but just writing about winning, even if you emphasize working hard for it, doesn’t make for the most interesting essay. Were there particular challenges that you faced along the way or at the competition? Is there something that marks your experience as successful other than the actual results of the competition — a new skill you learned, a conflict that was resolved, a way you helped your team? Is there something that you’re not particularly good at — something you often lose at or are just okay at — that actually taught you valuable lessons?
“I got burnt out, but now I know how to manage my time better.”
Burn out is a serious issue, but it is, unfortunately, a common one, particularly among high school students applying to colleges. Many students could write about feeling overwhelmed and overcommitted. Often these stories involve a feeling of obligation — “I took these classes because my parents wanted me to” or “I thought these activities would look good on a college application.” While that might be true, you don’t want to give the admissions committee the impression that you did everything out of obligation rather than genuine interest.
Could you write about your decision to quit a certain activity and what that meant to you? Is there a hobby that isn’t an organized activity that’s particularly meaningful to you (crocheting, hiking, gardening)?
In general, when writing, try to focus on what you did rather than what happened to you. There are lots of outside forces that shape our lives, and you’ll likely mention them in your essay, but you want to show the admissions committee how you acted and shaped yourself. What did you do to cause your change?
Formatting your college admissions essay: step-by-step
Once you’ve figured out your topic, follow these steps to format your essay:
- Hook the reader.
- Set up your story.
- Narrate specific scenes.
- Activate the turning point.
- Stick the landing.
Let’s break down these steps.
1. Hook the reader.
Grab your reader’s attention from the start. Admissions officers read hundreds if not thousands of applications, so you need to pull them in right from the beginning. Your hook should catch the reader a bit by surprise and make them want to keep reading.
Here are examples of good hooks (and hooks to avoid):
The roar of the crowd rings in my ears as I step onto the diving board. I have done this so many times, but my stomach still lurches when I look over the edge. The pool is a blue sheet of glass, miles below me. I breathe in, my nostrils filling with the sharp smell of chlorine, and I picture myself entering the water without a splash.
The writer pulls the reader into the scene with sensory details — what she sees, hears, and smells. It is clear the writer is telling a story, and the reader wants to know what happens next. The essay might stop here, then zoom out and give the reader context before revealing what happened.
Now, imagine this essay started like this:
Last year, I went to the state championship for diving. I had trained really hard, but I was still nervous. It was a major competition, and I knew a lot was riding on how I did. There was a problem with booking pool time in the lead up to the competition, so I wasn’t able to practice as much as I wanted to. When I finally finished my dives, I didn’t care what happened; I was just glad it was over.
Not as effective, right?
Avoid starting with an extended summary. Either include the story as a scene for your reader, or summarize it in a sentence and move on. You don’t have much room in your essay, and you don’t want the reader wondering where you’re going with it.
Start with dialogue. Pull the reader into the scene by starting with something a “character” said. This is particularly effective when it’s something unexpected or an idea you return to throughout the essay.
Take this example:
“She gets her voice from me,” my grandma always said. She meant it as a joke — she was notoriously tone deaf — but there was truth in her statement: I may not get my singing voice from my grandma, but she taught me to speak up for myself.
You can also start with dialogue that isn’t attributed to just one person.
“Why does your skin look like that?” Growing up with vitiligo, I got used to answering this question.
Avoid starting with a famous quotation. Starting with a well-known quote or a famous person’s words implies you couldn’t come up with words of your own. These openers feel cliche and lack a personal connection to you.
Start with an unexpected phrase or fact. Grab the reader with an interesting piece of information or quirky sentence, something that makes your reader want to continue and that captures the topic of your essay in an interesting way. Here are some examples:
- I was never interested in politics. Then, my high school banned high heels.
- When I tell people my favorite food is flowers, I tend to get some strange looks. But once they try my cooking, they understand.
- At age 10, I told everyone I was going to be both a doctor and a movie star.
Avoid cliches or proverbs, like “actions speak louder than words.”
2. Set up your story.
After you hook the reader, it’s good to zoom out a bit and introduce the story you’re trying to tell. You don’t need an extended introduction or a thesis statement, but help the reader get their bearings by introducing the main conflict or topic of the essay.
3. Narrate specific scenes.
Pick several moments in the story and narrate them as though you were writing fiction. Where are you? Who is with you? What do you see, hear, smell, feel? What are you trying to accomplish? What is the conflict?
Put these scenes in a logical order. It can be effective to start in the middle of a scene as the hook of your essay before going back to the beginning of your story and telling it from there. But otherwise, tell the story in the most clear, intuitive order possible. If your essay is more about a theme than a series of events, still move logically from idea to idea and find places where you can include scenes to ground your writing.
You’ve probably heard the advice “show, don’t tell.” You will need some “telling” in your essay, your reflections on what you learned and why this story is important. But show the reader your story through dialogue and specific details. Rather than summarizing what happened, guide your reader through different scenes and explain how they relate to each other. Don’t just say how you felt; show what you did and why.
4. Activate the turning point.
About three-quarters of the way through, many essays feature a turning point, a moment when you changed your behavior, realized something new, or took initiative. A turning point can also indicate a shift in perspective on the topic you’re writing about; in the moment, you thought one thing, but looking back, you realize something else.
Your turning point should be active. Some changes feel like they “just happened” or were caused by outside forces, but this essay is about you. Describe yourself as an active player — either causing the change or responding to it.
5. Stick the landing.
Conclude your essay with some reflection. What did you learn? What did this experience mean to you? How have you changed? Your conclusion indicates for the reader what exactly they should know about you thanks to your essay. Who does this story show you to be?
Finish your essay with a memorable line or moment. You can return to something you brought up earlier in the essay (even your hook), show a deeper understanding you gained, or finish with a clever, well-written line.
Other college essay do’s and don’ts
- Be authentic. You’re probably thinking a lot about what a college essay “should” look like, but almost anything can be your topic if presented the right way. Write about something that you care about and that reveals a part of you.
- Remember your audience and purpose. For better or worse, your personal statement is not supposed to be the most artistically interesting essay you’ve ever written. It’s supposed to show how you’d be a good community member at a college/university. Choose a topic that highlights your best qualities, and tell a clear story: give necessary background information, follow a clear structure, and use transitions between paragraphs to guide the reader..
- Pretend to be the reader. When you finish drafting, read over the essay as though you are an admissions officer. What do you learn about this candidate from this essay? What qualities do they exhibit? Is there any information that doesn’t make sense, that feels out of place, or that needs more explanation?
- Don’t just recount — reflect. For college essays, this advice is even more important than “show, don’t tell.” Don’t just narrate what happened or list things you care about. Reflect: What did you learn? Why do you care about that? What does your topic mean to you? How have you changed? Consider deeper themes and emotions beyond the events themselves.
- Revise, revise, revise. Good writing is good re-writing. Give yourself time for several rounds of edits. Your ideas will develop as you write, and your topic might shift once you see it on paper. Start early so you can polish your work.
- Proofread. You could write the most fascinating essay, but if it’s riddled with grammatical errors and typos, it will seem like you threw it together at the last minute or didn’t take it seriously. Proofread your final draft. Read the essay out loud to yourself, or change the font size and style so you can catch errors you might have missed.
- Proofread again once you’ve pasted it in. Once you paste your completed essay in the box in the Common App (or any admissions portal), check to make sure you’re still under the word count (sometimes these portals count differently than Microsoft Word or Google Docs) and make sure your formatting is correct.
- Make your essay about someone other than you. There might be someone really important in your life that you want to include in your essay — a mentor, a family member, a friend. Writing a college essay about your relationship with this person isn’t off limits, but be careful: the essay should be about you. Don’t get so invested in describing this other person and what they’ve done that we lose you. You’re the one the admissions committee wants to get to know.
- Write about what happened to you, not what you did. Keep yourself an active player in your essay. Focus on your actions and responses to situations.
- Try to be funny. If you’re naturally funny, that sense of humor can come out in your college essay. But remember that what’s funny to you might not be funny to the admissions officers. Let your voice feel authentic and respectful of your audience. If that allows for a bit of humor, great, but don’t force it.
- Repeat from other parts of your application. The personal essay gives you the chance to talk about what you couldn’t elsewhere in your application. Don’t reiterate what you’ve already included in your activities list. Show your reader who you are as a person, outside of those prescribed categories.
- Finish by talking about college unless it’s relevant. You don’t need to conclude your personal statement by talking about college. Your readers know that you’re applying to college, and supplemental essay questions usually give you space to talk specifically about the school you’re applying to. Unless your personal statement is specifically related to college, don’t bring it up at the end of your essay.
College Admissions Essay FAQs
Follow the given instructions regarding word count: the Common App, for example, gives you 250 to 650 words. In general, we recommend you use the space you’re given. You don’t need to be exactly at the word count, but this is your opportunity to tell the admissions committee about yourself; take full advantage of it.
On the other hand, don’t add content just to fill space. A slightly shorter, but punchy and purposeful essay is likely better than an essay that reaches the word limit but feel like it was rambling in order to get there.
There is no magic number of paragraphs your essay should be. This isn’t an academic essay, so you can also play around with the length of your paragraphs for effect.
You don’t need to. In most cases, you’ll be pasting into a textbox in a portal, so adding a title is not very intuitive. If you feel like a title really adds to your essay, you can use one, but make sure you count it in your word count. You don’t want your title to put you over!
For most college essays, you will paste your response into a portal’s textbox which removes formatting, so it is easiest and clearest to use paragraph breaks. If you’re using some kind of platform that allows you to upload a document, you can use either, but be consistent.
Don’t rely on italics or bold text. In most cases, you’re pasting into a textbox which won’t allow you to use italics or bold. Try to use sentence structure and phrasing to create a sense of emphasis.
When it comes to font type, size, and color for essays you are uploading, keep it standard. Use a font like Times New Roman, Arial, or Georgia, something professional that you would use for a cover letter. Stick to 11 or 12 point black font. While your essay’s content should be unusual and unexpected, its formatting should not be.
MSt, Women's, Gender & Sexuality Studies (University of Oxford)
Paige Elizabeth Allen has a Master’s degree in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from the University of Oxford and a Bachelor’s degree in English from Princeton University. Her research interests include monstrosity, the Gothic tradition, illness in literature and culture, and musical theatre. Her dissertation examined sentient haunted houses through the lenses of posthumanism and queer theory.