The college essay (or personal statement) is one of the most important components of a college application. It gives students a chance to demonstrate their individuality, interests, and values while showing that they can communicate complex ideas clearly and effectively.
While the subjective nature of the college essay often leaves students confused and overwhelmed, we’re here to tell you not to be intimidated by it.
The college essay is your story. It’s not a recounting of grades or test scores or a specific activity. It’s simply a way for college admissions officers to discover who you are.
Every student has a story to tell. Many stories, more than likely! The goal is strategically determining which story to tell and how to best communicate it.
The Objective of the College Essay
A great college essay serves three primary purposes:
- It gives admissions officers a better sense of who you are. College admissions officers are looking for a real person to join their campus—not a number or a statistic. The essay helps a student show that they are a well-rounded person.
- It confirms that you’re not a robot. When assessing candidates, college admissions officers want to see that students can speak for themselves and that they have a genuine and unique voice.
- It shows that you can communicate clearly. Contrary to what some students fear, college admissions officers aren’t sitting there with a red pen looking for errors. However, they do want to see that students can communicate clearly in writing.
What Is the Common App Essay?
The Common App is a user-friendly online application form that students use to apply to more than 1,000 member colleges worldwide. It’s what most students use to apply to college in the United States.
Each year, Common App provides a series of personal essay prompts that students can use to demonstrate their values, personality, and intellectual maturity; prove their ability to communicate complex ideas; and leave a lasting impression on the college admissions committee.
Common App essay prompts may encourage students to:
- Share their story
- Recount a time when they faced a challenge, setback, or failure
- Reflect on a time when they questioned or challenged a belief or idea
- Describe a problem they’ve solved, or they’d like to solve
- Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of themselves and others
- Describe a topic, idea, or concept they find so engaging it makes them lose track of time
- Share an essay on any topic of their choice
The Arc of Your Narrative
A college essay is a personal narrative. It needs to have an arc, and it needs to tell a story. The most effective essays combine a storytelling component with self-reflection. At its most simple, the narrative follows this arc:
- Something happened!
- It affected you personally
- In the aftermath, you changed
It’s important to note that college admissions officers prefer that students cover a recent time frame—not an event that happened when they were younger. Remember that the college admissions officer is looking to see who the student is going to be on the college campus.
8-Step Suggested College Essay Plan
In a recent webinar, Signet Principal Admissions Consultant and college admissions expert Alison M. outlined an 8-step plan for writing an excellent college essay. We’ll briefly review each step here and encourage you to watch the full webinar to learn more!
Brainstorming is a process intended to get a student’s creative juices flowing. A brainstorm can be an organized list, a free-form writing session, or even involve charts or drawings.
- View brainstorming as an active, ongoing process—don’t rush it.
- Write ideas down. Even so-so ones.
- Sift your brainstorms. Pick favorites.
- Now brainstorm for scenes and details.
We also recommend conducting brainstorming exercises, such as jotting down 3-6 roles you play in your life, adding two events that exemplify that role and seeing where those take you.
Another smart approach is making the Common App prompts work for you. Use the prompts as starting points for brainstorms, and don’t worry about “perfectly” fitting a prompt.
2. Exploratory writing
After you’ve completed the brainstorming step, begin doing some exploratory writing.
- Try to tell the story without consciously shaping it.
- Explore all your good ideas—see where your words take you.
- Write some scenes and exposition.
- See where the heat is—whatever you’re excited to write about, go in that direction.
3. Drafting a thesis and an outline
Now, come back and determine what you want the essay to be about. When college admissions officers read your essay, they’ll write down 3-6 words summarizing what they learned about you. Determine what you want them to take away from it.
- Decide what you’re going to write about.
- Try to distill this down to one sentence: “I’m going to write about. . .”
- This is your working thesis—it is a work in progress that could change.
You’ll also want to map out a rough outline:
- Think about the shape of your story.
- Write down what each paragraph should talk about.
- Include a conclusion.
4. Writing a long first draft
It’s time to get writing, and it’s best to start with a long first draft.
- Take your outline, and write!
- Go deep as you write; don’t worry about word limits yet.
- Revise your outline if you can’t come up with a good transition between scenes.
- The first draft won’t be perfect. Don’t stress too much about phrasing.
Next, reverse that outline! This technique allows students to see how well the drafted essay matches the initial outline. After writing a draft, create a “reverse outline” from the drafted content. If the content doesn’t match up or flow logically, the outline, the draft, or both need more revision.
- Write a short summary of the content next to each paragraph.
- Step back and check if your summaries match the order and logic of your outline.
- If they don’t, tweak your outline to make more sense or tweak your paragraphs to fit together better.
5. Revisiting your thesis, finding a core, and rewriting
Writing a college essay is not a one-and-done task. It’s a process. Students must be willing to dig deep, which brings us to this critical step.
- Check in with yourself to see how you’re feeling about your essay.
- Adjust your thesis if needed—where has the writing led you?
- Determine what is essential and where the heart is.
- Experiment! Is there an interesting nugget in the third paragraph to expand on? Move things around or expand on certain areas.
6. Revisiting your clarity and flow
A great college essay is clear, intentional, and follows a logical flow.
- Read your essay out loud and mark parts that sound boring or off or where it seems like an abrupt change occurred.
- Rewrite sections that are confusing or where the writing is not clear or does not evoke a strong image.
- Check the transitions between paragraphs.
- Look out for sections where you might accidentally give the wrong message.
7. Engaging outside readers and editors
Outside readers and editors can provide invaluable insight and feedback.
- Show your revised essay to two outside editors—one who knows you well and one who doesn’t know you very well.
- Ask for feedback—request that they list the three qualities your essay demonstrates about you.
- Don’t let anyone pressure you into sharing your essay, and don’t accept edits you disagree with.
8. Final revising and proofreading
You’re in the home stretch! The last step is revising and proofreading until you’re satisfied with the outcome.
- Don’t burn out. Put the essay away for a few days.
- Reverse outline, read out loud, and revise until you’re happy.
- Use a spellchecker but also proofread by hand very carefully.
Could your student use additional support writing their college essay? Signet’s college admissions tutors are here and ready to help. Reach out today to learn more!