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    How to Write a College Essay in 4 Easy Steps

    Posted July 21, 2022, 10:00 am by Prompt

    This article on how to write a college essay is part of TeenLife's brand new 2022 Guide to College Admissions. Featuring more than a dozen articles from college pros and admissions experts, this new TeenLife guide is the perfect resource for tackling college admissions head on. Download it for free today

    How to Write A College Essay in 4 Easy Steps

    How to write a college essay is a question that many students will probably ask themselves at one point or another. And it’s normal to be stressed out at the very idea of writing a college essay. Normal — but not necessary.

    This article will help you cut out the worry that trips up most students when it comes to this vital part of your application. We’ll help you learn how to write a college essay and steer you clear of these time-sucks:

    • Writing beautiful prose. Finding brilliant metaphors. Being a “good writer.”
    • Capturing your “soul” so that the admissions officers can “get to know you.”
    • The agony of the blank page — our method doesn’t wait on the muse to come to you.

    Instead of flailing around those murky waters, let’s look closely at how you right a college essay, which begins with orienting you to what really matters: impressing your audience. Who is your audience? If you guessed “admission officers,” you are correct. 

    Step 1: Show Admissions Officers that You’ll be Successful in College and Beyond

    young male teen writing a college essay

    Before we learn how to write a college essay, let’s go on a little tour. It’s a tour of the college admissions office. Ugh. What is this atmosphere? It’s an atmosphere of stress and hurry. Where are the officers? They’re hidden beneath massive piles of applications. They have so many to read that they generally spend less than 10 minutes reading the entire file.

    Now, what are they looking for in those 10 minutes (or less)? They’re looking for proof you’ll be successful in college and beyond. What do they do when they see such evidence? As they read your essays/activity list/recommendations, their notes will become one score summarizing how much potential they think you have. Just one number for all those essays you’ve worked so hard on! 

    But how exactly do you prove you’ll be successful in college and beyond? How do you get a high personal score? How do you writer a college essay that dazzles? 

    Step 2: Experiences that Demonstrate the “5 Traits” are the Best Way to Show You’ll be Successful

    Female hands typing college essay on computer

    People who are successful generally have one or more of these 5 traits — we call them The 5 Traits Colleges Look for in Applicants:

    1. Drive
    2. Initiative
    3. Contribution
    4. Intellectual Curiosity
    5. Diversity of Experiences


    Your first order of business, before you start on any essay - even the personal statement - is to think about your high school experiences:

    • In class
    • In your extracurriculars
    • At your job
    • In your family/friend life
    • During your summers
    • Learning/reading/pursuing knowledge/crafts/independent artistic pursuits. 

    In a massive brainstorming session (or a few smaller sessions), get all your experiences out on paper. Next, think about which ones exemplify any of the 5 traits. How do you write a college essay that exemplifies these traits? You’ll get a sense of the 1-3 traits that best define you (ex: initiative and intellectual curiosity) and can start building your application around those. 

    Your application is a spotlight. Your job is to shine it on the experiences that best demonstrate the 5 traits and your potential to succeed. For each college you apply to, you need to use every essay and question they give you to highlight as many of the very best experiences that you can to show off your potential. 

    We recommend that you go college-by-college with this process so that each application is cohesive and makes the best use of supplemental essays to spotlight your potential.

    Step 3: Structure Your Essay so that it is Focused on You and the Actions You’ve Taken

    Wooden blocks spelling the word essay

    Remember the admissions officer, looking for one thing only: evidence of potential. Don’t squander that opportunity by waxing philosophical, setting the scene, talking about your love of music, or sport, or algebra. Keep everything focused on actions you’ve taken because not much else demonstrates things that matter to admission officers.

    In addition, for longer essays, we have two structures that can set you up for success (and as a bonus cut down on the time it takes to write):

    • The Journey: For showing a clear progression or personal growth through a specific experience (ie: a Before You, and an After You). Here, you start with a vivid anecdote or intro. Then describe “Before You,” and the actions you took to overcome an obstacle, learn, or grow. Finally, spend a good third of the essay on “After You:” what actions you take now as a result of this growth. 
    • The Theme: For showing either (a) how you developed one trait over many experiences or (b) one meaningful passion over time. Here, again start with a vivid anecdote or intro that introduces the positive trait or meaningful passion. Next, illustrate this theme with a few experiences that each demonstrate one or more of the 5 traits (ideally, cohesively).

    Finally, remember that your reader is going fast. Score points by being direct, clear, and to the point. Don’t confuse them or lose them in florid language. 

    Step 4: Revise Your College Essay for Clarity and for the 5 Traits

    Young black female teen learning how to write a college

    We know it’s predictable, but we’re saying it anyway: great writing is all about revision. So take this last step seriously. 

    There are two ways to revise (1) by yourself (or with a writing coach), and (2) with a trusted adult. 

    As you revise, or if you have a coach who knows admissions well, stay focused on the 5 traits. Which traits are you demonstrating? Can you strengthen any of them by adding a sentence? By swapping out one experience for a better one? By cutting fluff to make room for more action?

    But if you have, say, a parent revising, it is very important that you not let them derail you from your laser focus on those 5 traits that resonate with admissions. (We often see parents want kids to mention some cool award, for example.)

    Ask these revisers to read for clarity. Ask them to circle bits that are unclear. Ask them what questions they are left with. What more do they want to know? 

    If, after this process, your essays shine a crisp light onto your top traits and are crystal-clear, your chances of getting in will be hugely improved. 

    Check out the 2022 Guide to College Admissions for more than a dozen articles like this one from college pros and admissions experts. Download it for free today

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    Prompt is a world leader in writing education, supporting more than 50,000 learners. Prompt provides fully-integrated writing education solutions, combining instruction, curriculum, and feedback. Prompt supports learners of all ages, working directly with educational institutions, companies, and individuals. Feeling inspired? A great place to start is at their College Essay Help Center.