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Guide to the college application essay

Throughout your time at school, you’ve probably written quite a few essays. The skills you have developed through writing those essays will help you when writing your college application essay, however, there are some key distinctions. The college application essay is an opportunity for college admissions to get to know you better and learn more about your personality, context and specific situation. Not all schools require that you submit an essay with your application, and some schools require more than one essay. Be sure to check the school’s application requirements.

Let’s look at a few tips and strategies to really help your essay shine and highlight everything you can contribute to your future college community!

Essay Content Tips

Be Yourself

It can be tempting to try to write your college application essay mimicking the voice of some “ideal student” in your mind, but colleges want to know your personality, tone of voice, and how experiences made you feel. Campuses need students who are serious, funny, passionate, calm, sarcastic, and more. Afraid the tone of your essay might be too honest? Imagine talking about it with a teacher you trust. Would the content work then?

Go Deep Not Wide

Another common pitfall of college application essay writing is trying to squeeze in every accomplishment and experience you’ve had inside your essay. The base of your essay should be one to three moments in your life. Don’t forget that your college already has your resume. Repeating the items on your resume is an unwise use of your essay. Instead, focus deeply on how you felt and the choices you made in a situation. You can still add details about your hard work and qualifications.

Respond to the Prompt

Be sure that your essay responds to the prompt. Your essay should be a response to the specific topic and within the word count selected by the college. You can find more information about essay requirements for Texas public schools through ApplyTexas. For information about essay requirements for private schools or out-of-state schools, you will need to check the school’s website.

Let’s Compare

Take this comparison of the same situation. Which one tells you more about the applicant? Which is more engaging? What details are likely included in this student’s resume?

I am very committed to perfecting the piano. I have studied under four different piano teachers for over ten years. My awards include six blue ribbons from local competitions and first prize in our high school talent show in tenth grade. Last year, I was selected to play the entrance music at school when the state governor visited. These skills, and my dedication to practice, will allow me to excel as a piano major at your university.


A promise is a promise. “You said you would do this, so you need to go through with it”, I told myself. My hands shook and my feet begged me to run away. All the confidence from years of practice, all the blue ribbons, suddenly faded away. I had agreed to play a piano piece that I was not familiar with for the governor! The GOVERNOR! I took a deep breath, remembering all the kind words and support from my family and friends, stood up straight, and stepped out onto the stage.

Essay Style

Show Don’t Tell

A great way to create a college application essay that is engaging and that will stand out among the rest is to show, not tell. Telling the reader what has happened usually involves directly stating your emotion, quality, or situation. This can make your essay less interesting than it could be and sometimes seems untrue. “Showing” usually appeals to your senses (sight, touch, taste, hearing, scent). When you “show” something, use creative language to PROVE to the reader that what you are saying is true.

Take the example above. What tells you that the writer is nervous? Would it be as strong if they had just stated, “I was really nervous” instead?

Try It Yourself!

What are some ways you could show, instead of tell, admissions counselors the following things?

  1. I want to help people.
  2. My family doesn’t have a lot of money.
  3. Having to work and go to school is hard, but I’m working hard to do both.
  4. I take school more seriously than I did in the past.

Qualities over Skills

Schools definitely care about your skills: academics, sports, language, etc., but you should highlight these skills in other aspects of your application. Your application essay should focus on your qualities.

Are you hard working? Empathetic? Do you care deeply about social issues? Commitment, creativity, leadership, curiosity, and critical thinking are just some of the qualities that universities look for in candidates. You should certainly include skills in your essay if appropriate, but focusing on your strength of character makes for a much more engaging and convincing essay.

Be Aware of Sentence Length

Sentence length should vary to keep it interesting. Make sure you have a mix of long and short sentences throughout. Check for very long sentences and see if there is a place to break them into two distinct sentences.

Avoid Cliches

Imagine your job, all day, is to read college application essays. You spend hours reading through them. How would you feel if you read an essay about the same thing, in the same way, for the tenth or eleventh time that day? Some college admissions officers only have 12 minutes to read an application. The tips we’ve listed above can help your essay stand-out, but it’s still important to keep this in mind.

So, what’s a cliche? A cliche is an idea, usually expressing a popular or common thought or opinion, that has lost originality and impact by overuse. Your task in an admissions essay is to think of a way to tell your personal story with details and examples that are specific to you and make it your own.

Try It Yourself!

What are some ways these stories could be special and unique instead of a cliche?

  1. My mom is really great and has helped me a lot.
  2. I scored a goal that helped us win the game.
  3. I worked really hard to get to where I am.
  4. I care about the environment.

Proofread Your Essay

When proofreading your essay, it’s a good idea to read it several times and have one to two people you trust read it too. You can use the Microsoft Word speak and read-aloud feature or the speech-to-text feature in Google Docs to listen to your essays. Reading out loud is a great way to catch mistakes, but sometimes you can read what you intended to write and not what is actually on the page. Text-to-speech tools will say what is on the page correctly. Now you can proof-listen to your college application essay.

Here are some great things to check for when proofreading your essay.

Proofreading Checklist

Read over your college application essay to make sure it accomplishes all of these goals.

  • Follows the prompt
  • Adheres to the word count
  • Uses correct punctuation
  • Has correct spelling
  • Has an interesting introduction
  • Uses both long and short sentences
  • Avoids cliches
  • Shows instead of telling
  • Goes deep, not wide

Next Steps

Do you have a good draft of your college application essay? Next, let’s take a look at the college entrance exams like the ACT and SAT!

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