June 14, 2024

Application Essay Writing 101: Three Tips to Get Started

For most students, applying for college has a few essential parts. There’s transcripts, a record of your grades through the prior year. There’s test scores, the results of several standardized tests meant to evaluate your capacity as a student. Then, finally, there’s the application essay.

Around 650 words in length, the college application essay is meant to be an opportunity for you, the college applicant, to demonstrate your personality and writing skills. While it can seem small compared to all the other forms and documents you need to fill out, it can play a big role in whether a college decides to admit you. It gives colleges a window into who you are as a person and whether you might be a “good fit” for the school, specific programs, scholarships, and more.

This big role means that many students get anxious about the college essay—but it doesn’t need to be stressful. In this blog, we’ll give you three tips we’ve learned from working with students around the country. We’ll show you how you can write an essay that stands out from the crowd and make a lasting impression that can carry you over the finish line.

Be Clear with Your Point

When writers develop books, articles, and short stories, they enter into the process with some understanding of the idea they want to tackle. Whether it’s a journalist writing in a newspaper or an author writing a book, most writers have a purpose that they want the reader to understand. Strong pieces will be explicit with what their aims are and then reinforce that throughout the longer piece.

College application essays operate in much the same way. Strong college application essays tend to be those pieces that have an understandable thesis, an argument or claim that will be defended in the larger piece. A student writing about their background might write about how it has informed their values and use each subsequent paragraph to explain what those values are. A student responding to a prompt about a period of personal growth might use their 650 words to explain the different ways their experience made them a better leader.

Critically, it is important that this thesis be clear and explicit

Most strong writers will introduce their thesis at the start or end of their first paragraph (the introduction) and then structure the essay in such a way that each subsequent paragraph adds a new piece of supporting evidence to the central argument. For example, a strong essay about the leadership abilities a student learned in mock trial would be followed with paragraphs, each providing a different, real example of the different ways they demonstrated that leadership or the kinds of challenges they encountered within the competition that made them develop their leadership skills.

In short, students might think of their essay as a tree, with the thesis serving as the “trunk” from which all other parts grow. If a part of the essay cannot be considered an outgrowth of the thesis, it likely doesn’t belong in the piece at all.

Keep the Focus on You

Students are shaped by their environment and the people in their lives. Given these facts, many students feel compelled to write about things of importance to them—sports and hobbies, role models, and family members who have made a big difference to them. They want the reader to understand why these things and people are important to them.

These feelings are understandable and they can be a good starting point for an essay. However, students should keep one fact in mind: Your college application essay is about you. 

Indeed, a college application essay may talk about the writer’s grandmother, but ideally this will provide a window into the writer’s own thoughts and feelings. If the writer wants to talk about the struggles their grandmother went through as a child, the goal of these paragraphs should not be to highlight how exceptional their grandmother is but how knowledge of those struggles has made an impact on the writer’s life, how it has inspired them to act. Their own thoughts, actions, and attitudes should be obvious.

To use a book metaphor, you are the protagonist of your own story, not just the narrator. You should demonstrate agency and make decisions instead of relaying the decisions of other people. You should express your own thoughts instead of regurgitating the thoughts of others, even if the actions of others have inspired you. 

Be sure to keep yourself the focal point while writing so that your college can understand why you are an exceptional candidate.

Avoid Cliches

We all get inspiration from what we watch, listen to, and read. It’s an unavoidable part of existing as part of the world. However, great college application essays often involve some level of originality, structurally and on a sentence by sentence.

In terms of overarching structure, that means avoiding easy and overdone narratives unless there is some aspect of your experience that can stand out as unique. 

For example, many student athletes suffer some kind of injury and have to go through the painful process of recovery and rehabilitation. It might be attractive to write about this incident because it made an impact on your life, but ask yourself what about your recovery process might have been different from other people? Why should the college admissions board care about your recovery versus the many other student athletes? Did you do something unique during that time?

It can be great to demonstrate the ways in which you’ve “overcome adversity” or “persevered against the odds”, but again it is important to ask yourself what about this experience might stand out to someone else. If the story you were telling were a movie, would you be able to predict every major plot beat or would there be moments of shock or surprise? Is there a unique angle? An ending that might not have been predicted?

It is also important to also think about cliches in other aspects of writing to make sure the reader remains invested. Do sentences rely heavily on very common turns of phrases (e.g. “ignorance is bliss,” “the grass is always greener”) that might seem obvious? It might be a good idea to go through your essay and delete and replace them with more evocative imagery. Do the people who appear in your essay fit very common stereotypes (e.g. the “mean teacher,” the “inspiring coach”)? Think about how you can portray their real personalities to make them seem like the living people they are instead of archetypes.

It can be good to think about cliches at the outset, especially in terms of structure, but often this work is best handled in the editing phase. Once you have an idea on paper, it’s easier to refine it in ways that remove the obvious and highlight what about your essay is original.



These are just a few of the ways that you might approach a college essay, but our Class 101 College Advisors have dozens more tips that they’ve developed from working with thousands of students across the country.

If you found this blog useful and are interested in more, sign up for a meeting with a Class 101 College Advisor today.


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