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College Essay 101

College Essay 101

Much dreaded and oft misunderstood, the college essay is an essential component of your admissions package – and for good reason. The college essay (or personal statement) is your opportunity to speak directly to the admissions committee in your own voice. It allows you to communicate what is most important and integral to YOU, and in doing so, what makes you different from the other applicants.

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College Essay
College Admissions

Much dreaded and oft misunderstood, the college essay is an essential component of your admissions package – and for good reason. The college essay (or personal statement) is your opportunity to speak directly to the admissions committee in your own voice. It allows you to communicate what is most important and integral to YOU, and in doing so, what makes you different from the other applicants.

This guide provides a broad overview of everything you need to know to write a strong college essay. We will primarily be addressing the Common App Personal Statement, which is the main application essay used by over 800 colleges. However, these same principles apply to all of the essays you may be asked to write for your applications.

How important is the college essay?

The college essay is very important. Some competitive universities now base 50% of admissions on what you write in application essays. Nowadays, many applicants have perfect grades, test scores, and a score of impressive extracurricular activities on their resume, but a great college essay allows you to stand out from the crowd.

College Essay Format

How long should a college essay be?

The general rule of the thumb is that the college essay (common app personal statement) should be around 500 words, and no more than 650. Concise and powerful is always preferable to long and rambling. Remember, admissions officers are reading thousands of essays each application cycle. You don’t want to lose their interest by writing an overly long essay.

How many words is a college essay?

Between 400 and 650 words. Aim for 500.

College Essay Topics

What are good college essay topics?

Here’s the thing: your college essay essay can be about literally anything, providing you present the topic in an engaging and original way. There is a famous college essay about shopping at Costco, of all things.

A good topic for your essay should also be something that is personal to you (It’s called the “personal statement” for a reason). A common mistake students make is to write an essay about something that interests them, which may be very interesting and engaging, but fail to relate it back to themselves and their experience.

What are the most common college essay topics?

If you’re asking this question, you’re not thinking about the essay in the right way. A good essay topic should not be something “common.” Rather, the best essay topic is one that is original and unique to you.

What college essay topics to avoid?

It is commonly said that students should avoid “the 5 Ds” when selecting a college essay topic: Death, Divorce, Disease (including Depression), Drugs, and Dating. This is not to say that these topics are not important or worthy of being written about. The problem is many students fail to realize just how common they are as inevitable, albeit difficult components of the human experience. Your parents’ divorce, the death of your grandfather, or your addiction problem are no doubt important to your personal story, but they are not unique to you. When it comes to any of the 5 D’s, the admissions committee has almost certainly seen it before.

This leads to the larger and more important point. When it comes to the college essay, the main rule is to avoid the cliché. It is paramount that your essay be original and unique to you. So in theory, you could write your essay about any of the 5 Ds, provided you approach it from a new angle that the admissions committee has never seen before. This is easier said than done, but it is nonetheless true that an original voice and perspective can transcend even the most commonplace subject matter.

There are still some topics and themes that should generally be avoided, either because they verge into the realm of cliché or may potentially put off the admissions committee:

  • Going on a service trip abroad and “discovering poverty.”
  • Illegal activities or anything that shows compromised judgment - you don’t want to be seen as a liability by schools.
  • The 5 D’s - Death, Divorce, Disease (including Depression), Drugs, and Dating.
  • The word “passion.” The root of the word passion means to suffer. if you haven’t suffered for your passion, don't use the word. You should still write about your passions, but show us it’s your passion instead of telling us.

For more information on college essay do’s and don’t, check out this article.

College Essay Writing Tips

What makes a great college essay?

A great college essay should be engaging, personal, concise, and well-written.

College essay expert Justin Taylor sums up the essential component of a successful college essay with the acronym WOW : Want, Originality, and Wisdom.

Want - Colleges are interested in learning about what motivates you. What do you love more than anything? What is the source of your genuine enthusiasm and drive? Your core “want” will be the driving force behind your college essay.

Originality - Colleges want to hear your authentic voice come through in your essay. Write about what genuinely interests you, about genuine experiences you’ve had, and be your genuine self. Don’t try to be someone you aren’t, or try to sound “impressive.” Remember, the admissions committee is trying to get to know YOU. If you stay true to yourself, you can’t help but be original.

Wisdom - All great college essays have an “ah-ha” moment (or multiple!). What have you learned from your experiences, good and bad? What do your interests and passions reveal about your essential self? The personal statement is an exercise in self-reflection. Colleges want to see that you are someone who is continually learning and growing.

For more information on how to write a WOW college essay, check out our article on the topic here.

How to come up with a college essay topic

Coming up with the right topic for your essay is probably the most important part of the process, and also the hardest. How can you possibly sum up your entire being in 500 words?

One way to start is to look at the prompts provided by the Common App. Check them out here.

These prompts may trigger some ideas for a topic, but don’t worry too much about answering any of them directly. There is still the last prompt that permits you to write about pretty much anything that’s important to you. If none of the prompts speak to you, try answering these questions for yourself and see what you come up with:

  1. What are your passions, big and small? What do you (or could you) stay up until 4am (or get out of bed at 4am) to do, nerd out about, perform, study, build, create?
  2. What daily/weekly/monthly rituals and routines do you enjoy to relax or connect to yourself? Be as specific as possible. “Journaling” is okay. “Journaling in the back of my car in the rain” is much better. “Talk to my friends” doesn’t say enough. “Talking to my friend Susie at the end of the week” is better. (do not put “veg out” activities like play video games, tik tok, watch TV/youtube, eat snacks, and sit on the couch) Get to 10.
  3. List 10 people who or situations that challenged you. Be honest. Tell me what you learned from the challenge when you answer “because.” Omit siblings, divorces, service trips, and the pandemic.
  4. List your 10 favorite places and/or objects (that are not your car or phone). Be specific. If it's your friend’s house, what room? If it’s your bedroom, what part of your bedroom? When you answer “because,” include 1 story about that place or object.

If you complete this exercise, you’re bound to come up with something to explore deeper. This is also a great way to brainstorm topics for the many supplemental essays other than the personal statement you will be asked to write for your applications.

How to start a college essay

We always recommend that students begin writing their essay the summer before senior year. Get the essay done early so there’s one less thing to worry about in the fall, when you’ll also have to juggle normal school, standardized tests, and the rest of your application essays.

Once you’ve landed on a topic, write as much as you can without editing. Aim for 500 + words. This is the initial thought dump that will provide the raw material you can then shape into a finished product. It’s important to remember that it is very normal to write multiple drafts of your college essay, and maybe even change your topic a few times before landing on one that works. Don’t let being a perfectionist prevent you from getting started.

For more tips on how to start your essay, read our article here.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Only you can write your essay, but it’s very common for students to get help from expert advisors who know what the admissions committees are looking for. IVY’s college essay tutors have helped countless students write smash-hit college essays, resulting in multiple offer letters from their top schools. They can help you come up with a great topic and make sure your final draft is hitting all the right notes.

We also offer an intensive College Essay Bootcamp. Work with one our expert essay coaches and complete a polished first draft in just one week!

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