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How to Write a Compelling College Application Essay

How to Write a Compelling College Application Essay

The college admissions process can cause students great stress, but nothing seems to bring on anxiety like the admissions essay. This blog uses our blueprint methodology to ensure your essay is a key component to acceptance into top tier colleges.

John Morganelli
John Morganelli
College Essay
College Admissions

Photo by Vlada Karpovich

The college admissions process can cause students great stress, but nothing seems to bring on anxiety like the admissions essay. Students frequently spend an incredible amount of time seeking a unicorn, the one topic guaranteed to earn them entrance to their top-choice school. This typically turns into a hunt for something so unique that the student will stand out from novelty alone. What will drive a great college essay, however, is a cohesive theme, or ethos, that runs through the essay itself and the overall application.

How to Write a Good College Essay

Start with an Overall Theme

Before you even begin to write your essay - and even before you know the topic of that essay  - we recommend working on  an “ethos statement.” Think of this as a personal thesis statement. It should combine your unique perspective, the activities throughout high school, and your academic goal for college. We call this method the PAGE method (P-Perspective, A-Activities, G-Goal, E-Ethos). In this blog, we will look specifically at how the PAGE method informs your essay, but you can learn how to leverage it for your overall application strategy here.

Choose a Goal

In terms of both your essay and your overall application, you want your goal (G) to be academic or career-oriented. It should include your intended major or program of study. If you know precisely what you want to specialize in during your time at college or in your career, that’s great to include. However, the goal can be general - study biology - if you’re still unsure of your plans. Keep in mind, too, that this doesn’t tie you to any outcome in the future. Plenty of students enter college thinking to pursue one thing and end up falling in love with a field of study they never considered. Right now, your job is to outline an academic goal that informs your overall application strategy - it’s not to decide your entire life.

Examine Your Perspective

Perspective refers to a belief or opinion based on a personal quality of the student. Perspective is how you let the admissions reader know who you are. This could include a belief in unorthodox thinking, being a planner, knowing how to communicate effectively, etc. There are a plethora of options. If you’re stuck, consider taking a personality test to discover your strengths, asking those close to you what they think your best qualities are (typically, adults in your life will be more helpful here than your peers), or working with a college admissions counselor to find themes and patterns in your experiences that have shaped your worldview.

Build Your Ethos Statement

The final step before writing is to build your ethos statement. You want to combine your perspective and academic goal into a personal statement, like a personal brand. If you can incorporate one of your activities and explain how it relates to your goal and shift in perspective, even better.

Here’s an example: Your academic goal (G) is to study Political Science, specifically political economy. You grew up in a family that valued civic participation, and you’ve always considered yourself at ease when talking to many different people (personal attribute - good communicator). In your Sophomore year, you decided to knock on doors for a state senate candidate (highlighting an activity), which led you to realize how much the local economy was impacting the election (shift in P-Perspective). This makes you interested in the intersection of politics and the economy, which leads to your academic goal.

One last note on the ethos statement: you don’t need to specifically write it anywhere in your essay (or your application). Instead, you’re using it to guide your writing and allow the reader to discover your ethos through the content instead of spelling it out.

Look at the Essay Topics for Your School(s)

Before you write a single word of your essay, look at the applications for your school. We recommend writing your essay for your top choice school first. Then, if additional schools require an essay on a different topic, move on to those. If you’re unsure what your top choice is, begin by writing for your most competitive school. Many schools use the Common Application, which has already released its essay topics for the 2024-2025 school year. These essays are 650 words or less, and most schools then ask for a 250-word supplemental essay that’s particular to their school. When looking through the essay topics, your goal is to decide on one that you feel confident/excited about and to pick one that will allow you to showcase your ethos statement best.

5 Tips for Better Essay Writing

Avoid Common Traps

There’s an adage among college admissions departments that says to “avoid the three D’s,” meaning Death, Divorce, and Disease. All three of these are typically - and understandably - the most life-altering events 17- and 18-year-olds have experienced, making them the first thing many students think to write about in their admissions essays. The mistake that most students make in writing about these topics is assuming that having experienced them makes them stand out. In reality, these tragedies are more common than anyone would wish, divesting them of their “unique” nature in college admissions.

This is not to say that you cannot write on these topics. However, before doing so, make sure that you can clearly show how this event shaped the perspective (P) that informs your Ethos (E) statement. Do not count on the event/experience itself to make for a good essay. For any event or experience to positively impact your college essay, you must show how it changed your point of view and how that new outlook relates to your Goal (g).

Here are two examples to better illustrate this point.

Example 1: A Good Use

You’ve always loved kids and long thought you wanted to be a grade school teacher. You got cancer in high school and were treated at a Children’s Hospital where you were one of the oldest patients. You use your application to show how this experience changed your goal to be a Pediatric Nurse because it would allow you to leverage your experience and skills with children to help future sick kids and their families.

Example 2: An Ineffective Use

You’ve always loved kids and long thought you wanted to be a grade school teacher. You got cancer in high school and were treated at a Children’s Hospital where you were one of the oldest patients. Your essay details how hard it was to go through chemo and how it caused you to miss out on your Junior Year dance season when the team made it to the State Finals. Your essay conclusion is along the lines of “I discovered I could survive hard things.”

In the first example, the student used their hardship in their essay to show growth, demonstrate a change of perspective, and share how it informs their current academic goal for college. In the latter, the student relies on sympathy to carry the essay and does not show how the experience impacted their outlook or future goals.

Showing is Better than Telling

Remember that one of the telltale signs of good writing is backing up your point. Wherever you can, don’t just state that something impacted your perspective or led to your academic goal; give examples and/or show your thought process. Rarely do we come to conclusions based on a single epiphanic moment. Instead, it’s often a series of small events that lead us to a new worldview. You will best back up your Ethos and Perspective by showing these events, small or large.

Focus on Writing First

It’s tempting to want to get each sentence perfect before moving on to the next. Or to obsess over concise sentences and word count. These will thwart your forward progress. Instead, write first. Get all your ideas and thoughts on the topic in your document (or on paper if you’re feeling old school). If the ideas are flowing for your introduction and conclusion but not for the middle content, start there. Or vice versa. Don’t be afraid to start in the middle if that’s where your best ideas are coming from when you start. If you’re struggling to get started, consider using a brainstorming technique to get the ideas flowing.

Edit Several Times

A piece of advice that you’ll see all over the internet about essay writing is to start early. We’ve skipped it on our list, but that doesn’t make it bad advice. One of the reasons it’s helpful is that a good final draft is predicated on several earlier drafts - which take time. Consider this editing strategy:

  1. Write a first draft with no concern for word count/conciseness.
  2. Let it sit for 2-3 days.
  3. Do a second draft on your own, this time editing your first draft for the four c’s of effective writing: clarity, conciseness, completeness, and correctness.
  4. Once you feel you’ve gotten it as far as you can on your own, hand it off to 2 to 3 trusted proofreaders—a peer who writes well, a teacher, a parent, a guidance counselor, etc. If you’re working with a tutor or college admissions expert, this is the time to get them involved.
  5. Do a third draft based on your proofreaders’ recommendations.
  6. Print out a copy. We know this sounds passé, but most people read 25-30% less effectively on a screen, primarily due to resolution. So do yourself a favor and do a last round of edits with a printed copy and a colored pen.
  7. Hand off a fourth draft to one person. You should have a pretty solid essay; too many voices could cause confusion. So, give this last draft to your best resource.
  8. Make any edits necessary to your fourth draft, and you will have arrived at your final copy.

This is a long process, and if you find yourself behind, all these steps might not be possible. However, using a multi-draft scenario puts you in the strongest position for a great essay.

Consider Expert Support

If you feel stuck or unsure where to start, working with a college admissions expert, like Ivy Tutors Network, can provide you the guidance and forward momentum you need. It’s common for students to feel like they don’t have a worldview or perspective yet. A good admissions expert will help you discover your unique strengths and outlook to build a perspective and ethos statement that does not feel disingenuous and will drive the achievement of your academic goals. Reach out to Ivy Tutors to get started.


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