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4 Key Strategies to Write the Perfect College Essay

Student Life

July 14, 2023

College essays... there's so much advice about how to write them, what to say, and what to avoid saying. Even with all that information, the whole process seems ambiguous.

You might not feel ready yet, but the best time to draft your personal statement is now – during the summertime. Most of us have more control over our schedules and can carve out at least an hour or two every week to brainstorm topics.

Stuck on where to begin? Me too. It can be intimidating!

So, I asked a college essay expert, Kate Stone, who’s coached 500 teens, 92% of whom have been accepted to their dream university. She shared 4 keys to writing an essay that represents you and stands out to colleges.

If you’ve made it this far, you’ve already got the first one checked off.

1. Start Early

Ideally, you’ve been thinking about potential essay topics by August 1st. Students often underestimate how much time it takes to write something as creative as college essays. It’s more open-ended than an English class assignment, and you want to create a final product that sounds different from anyone else’s. You want the essay to be uniquely your story.

Kate mentioned that most essays take 10-14 drafts, which may be 9-13 more than you’d like to write.

Unfortunately, I’ve found writing about myself to be more challenging than researching a complicated topic. And as with anything you’re procrastinating, the longer you put it off, the more stressful it becomes. Giving yourself more time than you think you need leaves space for you to be inspired and to experiment, so you ultimately end up with a piece you’re proud of.

An added bonus of starting early? It'll be easier to get feedback from teachers or guidance counselors or even consultants.

2. Be Vulnerable

Think about what pieces of yourself you want to incorporate into your essay. Maybe that’s lessons learned from visiting a new city, moving across the country, or how a specific piece of art changed how you think. Maybe that’s what the objects in your room mean to you.

How do you pull all those pieces together to form a cohesive essay?

Think about the impact you’ve made on your community through doing work that excites you. Did you help out at a summer camp? Plan activities for a summer camp? Make your own summer camp (wow, go you!)? Did you do something entirely unrelated to summer camps? Being real and honest about these experiences shows that you're an active part of your community and will make a great college student.

3. Highlight Where You've Taken Initiative

This ties in with leadership. What have you done to solve problems you see in the world? Examples include:

  • Starting a business
  • Reviving a school club
  • Researching public health
  • Creating a short film
  • Recording music you've written
  • Meeting people with interesting jobs and documenting them
  • Teaching yourself photography
  • Advocating for something you believe in

4. Share the Full Picture

When writing a college essay, it can be tempting to only talk about your accomplishments and where you are now. But “distance traveled” is an important element as well. How did you get to where you are today?

What was that emotional, mental, or physical journey like? If you only talk about shiny successes, without the context of challenges faced, it can seem too good to be true.

Admissions officers aren’t looking for you to attend expensive summer programs at large colleges. While that won’t hurt, they’re more interested in you making a change in the place where you live.

Maybe a few ideas, lessons you’ve learned, or memories of difficult experiences are coming to the surface. Write those down – they could become part of your outline.

After essays are drafted, what divides the good ones from the great ones? It’s not too different from any other piece of writing. Kate told me that it comes down to the thought that was put into each sentence.

What is each sentence contributing to the overarching story? Are there uncommon ideas, or just repeated cliches? The most well-thought-out ideas come later in the drafting process, after rewriting and revisions. Admissions officers are reading hundreds of essays, so what makes yours stand out?

Now that you know the basics of what college admissions officers are looking for, the only thing that will make this less daunting is to start.

One book I’m (slowly) reading through is College Admission Essentials by Ethan Sawyer. It has a ton of exercises designed to help students find an essay topic. Another resource is Kate’s College Essay Bootcamp – it’s free, and it’s a great next step in the essay-writing process. However you gather information about writing these essays, don’t let it become just information on the back shelf. Do something, write down your ideas, and take a step forward.

Anna B.
5,000+ pageviews

Writer since May, 2022 · 5 published articles

Anna started an Etsy shop when she was 12, which led to endless hours making greeting cards, hosting an online event for 250 teens, and even giving a TEDx talk. She's the host of Soaring Stories, a podcast bringing you behind the scenes to hear the untold stories of small business owners… the challenges, mistakes, and not-so-overnight successes.