How Do I Start a College Essay?

Most colleges require that you submit an essay or personal statement as part of your college application.

Many students dread writing their essays, and many put off writing them until the very last minute. Fear and procrastination are both silly and counter-productive. A well-written essay can be your opportunity to tip the admissions scales in your favor. Because college admissions committees receive applications from many worthy students with similar scores and grades, a great essay can set you apart. An excellent essay can make the difference between getting accepted and not getting accepted.

Begin the Essay Process by Picking a Meaningful Personal Experience

Admissions officers read thousands of college essays. Most of these essays are forgettable. How can you stand out from the crowd? We advise our students to be honest, be genuine, and let your story express you. We suggest that you focus on a personal experience that has meaning to you. It does not have to be grand or meaningful to the world at large. This is not about impressing the admissions officers. Colleges are looking for thoughtful, motivated students who can express themselves in writing.

The Common App Essay Prompts Provide Ideas to Help You Get Started

Many schools use the Common App and will assign an essay based on their prompts.

Here are the 2020-2021 Essay Prompts:

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.

2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma — anything of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

What do all of these essay prompts have in common?

On the surface, not a lot, perhaps. But look closely, and you’ll notice each topic is all about YOU: your reflections, your growth, your solution.

So, Now that You Know the Essay Prompts, How Do You Begin Writing? Follow these Tips.

Start by Drafting Ideas for a Personal Story

Write about something that’s important to you. Your essay topic could be an experience, a book, a piece of art, a person, anything that has left an impact on your life. No single college essay topic is suitable for all. The topic should be interesting to you and connect with who you are. You should explain things in detail, with nuance, instead of being vague. Your essay must be able to capture the reader’s attention.

Don’t Just Retell a Story – Provide Reflection

It’s easy to write about a trip to Paris by recounting and retelling your itinerary. But it’s more meaningful to describe what you learned and felt from that experience and how it changed you. It’s easy to talk about the stats of your cross country track season, but it’s more valuable to write about the journey you took to get there. A good essay does not have to be a magnum opus. In fact, often the best essays are simple, small observations of life.

Don’t Try Too Hard

Avoid one-liners, limericks, and anything off-color. Your essay can be funny, it can be poignant, it can discuss a universal truth, but the point of the essay is to showcase who you are and how you think. Admissions counselors don’t want to read about your awards, your accomplishments, your grades. They already know that from your transcripts and activities. The essay is an opportunity to introduce the qualities that make you uniquely you and worthy of acceptance into their next freshman class.

Start Early and Write Many Drafts

This is crucial to all writing. Write, then set it aside for a few days. Then reread it out loud. This is critical in being able to hear what the reader will perceive and find grammatical errors as well. Ask yourself: Is the essay interesting? Do the ideas flow logically? Does it reveal something about me? Is it written in my own voice? This essay should leave an impression on the reader.

Seek the Advice of a College Essay Coach

Signature College Counseling provides essay coaching designed to help you find your personal narrative and hone your writing technique skills. Our students find this very valuable. Our essay coaches have been working with students on their college essays for years, working with hundreds of students.

Share Your Essay with Another Person

A teacher, your college counselor, or a parent should read your essay. No one should rewrite your essay, but they can help by pointing out issues regarding the flow, and let you know if your words left an impression on them.

Be Sure to Check – and Recheck – Spelling, Grammar and Content

You must be sure your essay is free of spelling and grammar errors. Consider using a checker like Grammarly, which automatically detects grammar, spelling, punctuation, word choice, and style mistakes in your writing. Grammarly’s algorithms flag potential issues in the text and suggest context-specific corrections for grammar, spelling and usage, wordiness, style, punctuation, and even plagiarism. Speaking of which…

Don’t Plagiarize, Don’t Buy or Take an Essay from Someone Else

We’re sure you know this, but it bears repeating. The essay must be yours. It must be original. Taking work from another or paying someone to write your essay is not an option. Getting into college is a serious commitment to yourself and your future. Cheating to get there is a terrible way to start adulthood. And, you will get caught and that will devastate your future.

Read Lots of Essays

The essay is a wonderful art form. Take time to read essays by famous essayists like George Orwell, James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Mark Twain, Susan Sontag, Benjamin Franklin, David Sedaris. Some of the most famous literary works are essays, written by great authors and writers. Look at student essay samples too. There are many samples available online.

Just Get Started. Just Do it.

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and starting on the first one.”― Mark Twain

Mr. Twain is correct. Just get started. I know it sounds like I’m oversimplifying this; I’m not. Start writing and see where it takes you. You may start a dozen essays before you feel a connection with your words. That’s fine. Relax, breathe, and think of this as a learning and growing experience. One last note: keep your college essay. Years from now, it will be fun to look back and get a glimpse into the world of your 17-year-old self!