Preparing to Write the College Essay

Preparing to Write the College Essay

The college essay is such an important—and overwhelming—part of a student’s college application that Signet spends significant time covering this topic in one-on-one engagements, blogs, and webinars. 


One of our college admissions essay experts, Andy F., recently hosted a hands-on workshop to help students get more comfortable with writing the college essay. The workshop was a big success, and we received great feedback from those who attended. We’ll definitely host more of them in the future! 


In the meantime, we’re happy to share some of the key insights and advice Andy discussed, including what makes a great college essay, how to write a college essay from brainstorming to final draft, and helpful quick tips to keep in mind. 


What Makes a Great College Essay? 

Before writing a college essay, students understandably want to know what college admissions officers are looking for and the role the essay plays in a college application. Generally speaking, the most effective college essays check these three boxes: 


  • Personality. The college essay is one of the few places where students get to showcase their personality and creativity. How can students best convey their character, values, passions, identity, and ambitions?

  • Self-reflection. A great college essay demonstrates that a student is intellectually and emotionally mature. College admissions officers want to see a student’s capacity for self-reflection, depth of thought and emotion, and growth.

  • Clear and compelling writing. College admissions officers look to the college essay for evidence that students can clearly communicate complex ideas. 


Writing a College Essay: From Brainstorming to Final Draft 

When a student is ready to begin working on their college essay, it’s helpful to have a clear process to follow. These six steps can take students from brainstorming to final draft:


1. Brainstorming 

Begin by brainstorming ideas for your college essay. The wonderful thing about brainstorming is that you can do it anytime, anywhere. You can also do it alone or with other people, such as friends, siblings, and parents. Capture your ideas using the Notes or Voice Memo app on your phone so you don’t forget them.


2. Exploratory writing

Once you have a semblance of an idea (or two), begin free-form writing. Don’t worry about length, structure, or transitions yet—there will come a time for that. Turn off your inner critic and just write. Get all the elements of your story on paper, no matter how they come out. 


3. Drafting a working thesis and outline

Now that you have most of the main elements in place, it’s time for your story to begin taking shape. Put the pieces together into an outline, ensuring they flow in a way that makes sense and tells a story. Distill your essay into one sentence. What is it truly about? 


4. Writing a long first draft 

Use your outline to write a first draft, keeping your thesis (i.e., what your essay is truly about) top of mind. Aim for about 1,000 words—yes, even though the Common App essay word limit is only 650 words. Get everything out on the page. You’ll edit later. 


5. Reviewing, rewriting, refining 

Now is the time to put on your editorial glasses. Read through your first draft and ask yourself: What’s inessential? What’s unclear? What could be tightened or made more convincing? Revise, rewrite, and refine until you have a draft you feel great about. 


6. Bringing in others, completing final revisions, and polishing

When your essay is in a good spot, ask two people you trust to read it: one who knows you well and one who doesn’t know you as well. Be open to their feedback, but don’t feel pressured to agree with or accept the changes they suggest—this is your essay. Make your final changes, polish and proofread your essay, and give yourself a pat on the back for a job well done!


Helpful Quick Tips for Writing the College Essay 

The workshop also covered some helpful quick tips for students to keep in mind when writing a college essay. 


Dos and don’ts



  • Make the essay about you
  • Bare your soul. . . judiciously 
  • Be specific, set the scene, and lure the reader in
  • Show (vs. tell) as much as possible 
  • Be careful when using humor 
  • Revise and get other opinions (but not too many) 



  • Repeat your resume/activities list 
  • Brag or try to impress (aim for being humbly proud instead) 
  • Use cliches or overuse quotes
  • Spend too much time on your pre-high school past
  • Focus too heavily on the negative, trauma, crisis, or adversity 
  • Pretend you’ve figured it all out 
  • Try to cram in everything about you (depth trumps breadth!)


Writing tips

A couple of specific writing tips can help elevate a student’s writing above the rest: 

  • Avoid redundancies. Think carefully about the meanings of the words you’re using together. “Honest truth,” “repeat again,” “advanced preparation,” and “the reason is because” are all common examples of redundancies to avoid.

  • Avoid cliches/platitudes/banalities/truisms. Especially when conveying life lessons, cliches can cheapen the point a student is trying to make. “Every cloud has a silver lining,” “think outside the box,” and “at the end of the day” are all common examples of cliches to avoid. 


The art of editing

Editing is a special skill that even the best writers can struggle to master. When editing a college essay, let the three Cs guide you: 

  • Clear. The essay has main and subsidiary points, organization, reasoning, and storytelling. 
  • Concise. There is nothing extra in the essay—no belaboring, no redundancies, and no unnecessary words. 
  • Compelling. The essay pulls in the reader, elicits engagement, and makes an impression. 

Get College Essay Help from Signet

Many students benefit from outside support when writing the college essay. At Signet, our college admissions essay experts are here to offer targeted guidance and assistance throughout the entire essay-writing process. 

Schedule a free call to learn more!

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