Preparing For College Essay

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

It may sound like a chore, and it will certainly take a substantial amount of work. But it's also a unique opportunity that can make a difference at decision time. Admissions committees put the most weight on your high school grades and your test scores. However, selective colleges receive applications from many worthy students with similar scores and grades—too many to admit. So they use your essay, along with your letters of recommendation and extracurricular activities, to find out what sets you apart from the other talented candidates.

Telling Your Story to Colleges

So what does set you apart?

You have a unique background, interests and personality. This is your chance to tell your story (or at least part of it). The best way to tell your story is to write a personal, thoughtful essay about something that has meaning for you. Be honest and genuine, and your unique qualities will shine through.

Admissions officers have to read an unbelievable number of college essays, most of which are forgettable. Many students try to sound smart rather than sounding like themselves. Others write about a subject that they don't care about, but that they think will impress admissions officers.

You don't need to have started your own business or have spent the summer hiking the Appalachian Trail. Colleges are simply looking for thoughtful, motivated students who will add something to the first-year class.

Tips for a Stellar College Application Essay

1. Write about something that's important to you.

It could be an experience, a person, a book—anything that has had an impact on your life. 

2. Don't just recount—reflect! 

Anyone can write about how they won the big game or the summer they spent in Rome. When recalling these events, you need to give more than the play-by-play or itinerary. Describe what you learned from the experience and how it changed you.

3. Being funny is tough.

A student who can make an admissions officer laugh never gets lost in the shuffle. But beware. What you think is funny and what an adult working in a college thinks is funny are probably different. We caution against one-liners, limericks and anything off–color.

4. Start early and write several drafts.

Set it aside for a few days and read it again. Put yourself in the shoes of an admissions officer: Is the essay interesting? Do the ideas flow logically? Does it reveal something about the applicant? Is it written in the applicant’s own voice?

5. No repeats.

What you write in your application essay or personal statement should not contradict any other part of your application–nor should it repeat it. This isn't the place to list your awards or discuss your grades or test scores.

6. Answer the question being asked.

Don't reuse an answer to a similar question from another application.

7. Have at least one other person edit your essay.

A teacher or college counselor is your best resource. And before you send it off, check, check again, and then triple check to make sure your essay is free of spelling or grammar errors.

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About Rob Franek

Rob Franek, Editor-in-Chief at The Princeton Review, is the company's primary authority on higher education. Over his 24-year career, he has served as a college admissions administrator, test prep teacher, author, publisher, and lecturer. Read more and follow Rob on Twitter: @RobFranek

Best College Essay Preparation Tips

As students transition from high school to college, they often notice that there is a significant difference in the way they are expected to research and craft essays. Although it might initially seem overwhelming, it is actually quite straightforward after learning the basics. By working through the process one step at a time, essay writing becomes much more manageable and it can even help to get better grades. Read on for some valuable tips for writing good essays with the following essay writing resources.

Before writing an essay, students need to come up with a topic. The chosen topic will help to bring focus to all the other steps in the process. A great way to brainstorm is to think out loud by discussing ideas with another person. On the other hand, those who prefer to work individually might use a mind map to visually plot out topics related to the class that they are writing the essay for. These college essay tips explain how to brainstorm in different ways to find a viable topic.

Once you have a broad topic, the research stage helps to bring focus to a more specific point to write about. Research is typically done in a library or online. Think on a larger scale too, and try to research in other areas. For example, first-person interviews are a great way to obtain information that might not be available in the usual outlets. While researching, always keep meticulous notes, as well as full details about where the information was sourced. Quoted material should bear quotation marks to avoid plagiarism later on. Use these tips for writing good essays to learn about researching essay topics.

A common situation that invariably tends to bring on writer’s block is staring at a blank document and wondering how to turn it into a multi-page paper. At this point you might wonder, “Where do I start? What should I write about?” An outline is a way of creating the basic skeleton of the essay. It organizes the writer’s thoughts in a succinct manner, so that it is easy to see how and where each argument will be presented. Look at these college essay tips to learn how to create an effective outline.

Writing and Referencing
The writing stage involves fleshing out the essay outline that was previously drafted. Throughout the essay, pay special attention to how you explain the topic and elaborate on arguments. For example, don’t simply state the argument or idea and leave it at that. Instead, state valid points that fully demonstrate your position to give the reader your take on the topic. Remember, any opinion is valid as long as it is properly backed up. While writing, use quotes and examples from your research to lend credibility to the paper. Take special care to clearly denote when an idea is attributable to another person.

Any idea, quote, or sentence in an essay that originated from another person should be cited. For example, a writer who includes an explanation from a scholarly journal, or a snippet from an email interview would need to cite those as external sources. The exception to this is common knowledge. Mentioning that the Earth is round is not a statement that needs to be cited, even if countless other writers have also mentioned it. However, taking a statistic about the Earth’s circumference from a scientific study is an example of a piece of information that would need to be cited. There are several different citation styles; writers should use the one that is most appropriate for their field of study. When in doubt, ask the professor which citation style they prefer. The essay writing resources below offer some insight into when to use a certain style. Ignoring citations will not make a writer get better grades by seeming smarter; instead the implications can be quite serious, often resulting in a failed grade or expulsion.

Editing Your Final Product
Editing is a step that allows writers to fine tune their work into a more precise piece of writing. After initially writing the essay, take a break from it to give your mind a chance to relax. Later on, read the essay out loud to another person. Ask them to question when an idea doesn’t make sense or if it is not explained well enough. Incorporate any changes and then take another look through the paper. This time check the grammar, spelling, punctuation, and word usage. Beware of using complicated words or jargon simply for the sake of it. It is much easier to get the point across to the reader by using simpler and more concise language. The college essay tips in the links below elaborate on the process of editing, revising, and proofreading.

By Scott Shrum

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