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College Essays

How to Write a College Application Essay

Picture of Kevin McMullin
By Kevin McMullin on September, 13 2021 | 4 minute read

The college essay often feels like a treasure hunt where every applicant is searching for an elusive magic formula. I’ll let you off the hook—there isn’t one. If there were one perfect way to write a college essay, someone would have unearthed it and it would be circulating virally online. But at Collegewise, we believe there are universal principles when writing a college essay, strategies that work no matter what the topic or school. If you can embrace these tips, you’re guaranteed to improve your chances of finding and sharing a compelling story. 

Related: Tackling the Common App Personal Essay


1. Just tell the truth.

If you choose your topic based on what you think will sound impressive to an admissions reader, you’re already on the wrong path. Just about every other applicant is doing the same thing, and they end up very similar essays. Sounding just like everybody else is no way to stand out. Instead, just tell the truth. What’s your honest answer to the prompt? What would you say if an adult you knew and liked asked you the same question? Not every honest answer makes for a perfect college essay response. But it will get you a lot closer than trying to impress the readers will.


2. Share a story only you could tell.

We remind our Collegewise students to “own their stories” by writing essays only they could write. You do that by injecting detail. Your experience playing basketball or growing up with a single parent or working 20 hours a week during high school is not the same as every other student who experienced something similar. So as you’re writing your essay, keep asking yourself if someone else could tell the same story. If they could, inject more detail. And if you can’t find enough detail to take ownership, consider choosing a different story. 


3. Don’t repeat information from your application. 

Your application—particularly your descriptions of your activities—reveals a lot about your high school career. So don’t repeat the same information in your essays. It’s fine to write about something you’ve already listed, like an activity that’s meant a lot to you. Just make sure it shares something about that topic that wasn’t already made apparent in the application. A reader has a good idea what happens when a student participates in the marching band or plays volleyball or works at a part time job. What is it about your experiences that might not be so obvious (see tip #2)? Introduce new information, or enhance what’s already there. Just don’t repeat it.

Related: How to Start a Personal Statement Essay


4. Sound like you.

I don’t believe that any athlete in the history of high school sports has ever said to a teammate, “Playing sports taught me the importance of hard work and committing to my goals.” Even if the feeling is true (and it often is), it doesn’t sound like something a 17-year-old high school student would express. So describe it in a way that sounds like you. Maybe not how you’d say it to a peer, but a teacher you liked and respected. This is not an academic essay to earn a grade in a high school English class; it’s a personal essay to help a college get to know you and what makes you tick. You can’t do that unless you sound like you.

Be honest. Own your story. Don’t repeat what’s already been shared. And sound like you while you’re sharing it. It’s not a magic formula for admissions. But it’s a guaranteed path to better college essays.


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About Us: With more than twenty years of experience, Collegewise counselors and tutors are at the forefront of the ever-evolving admissions landscape. Our work has always centered on you: the student. And just like we’ve always done, we look for ways for you to be your best self - whether it’s in the classroom, in your applications or in the right-fit college environment. Our range of tools include counselingtest prepacademic tutoring, and essay management, all with the support of our proprietary platform, leading to a 4x higher than average admissions rates. 


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