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How to Write a College Application Essay Step-by-Step

Over the last few years, particularly since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the admission rates of several colleges have dropped significantly. As a high school student, a parent, or an educator, it’s likely that you’ve heard something about this topic in the news, even if only in passing, as many media outlets wrote about this issue.

If some colleges are becoming increasingly selective during their admissions process, it’s also true that the rise of the test-optional (and test-free) phenomenon, especially throughout the pandemic, has been a major contributor to this trend.

Essentially, many colleges have started to make it optional for students to share their ACT or SAT scores when they apply for undergraduate degrees. This is what’s referred to as test-optional policies. In comparison, a test-free policy essentially means that colleges don’t want students to share ACT or SAT scores in their applications and won’t consider them even if these are included.

While some colleges had already adhered to these policies, given that a lot of students were unable to take these tests due to the pandemic, more institutions decided to make tests optional. As a result, many colleges saw an influx in the volume of applications as students possibly felt that they had a better chance of being accepted under the new selection parameters.

However, while there may have been an influx in applications, colleges generally maintained the number of available spots. This led to a decrease in the admission rates in many colleges. So, if you were concerned about the declining rates of acceptance in some colleges, consider that this may have been a contributing factor.

Don’t be deterred from applying to any given college due to these changes. Instead, focus on building a strong application, particularly, a good essay.

More than ever, you want to ensure that you create a stand-out essay to boost your chances of being accepted, as you’ll likely be competing with a large number of students for a spot.

If you’re feeling lost about how to write an impactful college essay, stay tuned as we share our writing guide and some helpful tips!

The College Essay

Essays are one of the key components of any college application, along with grades and extracurricular activities. Your application essay is essentially a way for admissions officers to judge if you can write well and, most importantly, to understand what you’re like as a human beyond your academic performance and how well you’d fit into their college.

If you look closely, this is reflected in the type of prompts that are given for the essays, as we’ll explore further in the “Prompts” section.

They may seem intimidating at first, but as we break them down, prompts are a great indication of what you should focus on in your essay. In general, colleges use either the Coalition or Common App platforms for their applications (some colleges even provide you with both options!), so you don’t have to prepare a series of widely different essays for each college. The prompts available are typically very similar between years, making it easier to find good examples of essays, and in the end, you only have to write up to 650 words.

If the task still seems very daunting, perhaps because you don’t consider yourself to be a good writer or don’t know what to write about, don’t stress out – with adequate planning and our advice, this task will become much more manageable.

Formulating a plan

As you begin planning your essay, you should focus predominantly on yourself. Independently of what theme you choose to write about, the main focus of your text will always have to be you. That is what the admission officers are looking for – learning more about who you are.

As such, the first step we’d recommend is self-reflection. This may seem daunting, especially if you’re not accustomed to this type of exercise, but it is essential to build the foundations for a great essay.

You want to consider questions like these:

  • What are some of your strengths?
  • What flaws have you overcome (or are trying to overcome)?
  • How would those closest to you describe you?
  • What do you value most in the world and other people?
  • Reversely, what do you dislike the most in others?
  • What brings you the most joy and satisfaction?
  • If you suddenly had a free day, with no responsibilities to consider, and could do anything, what would you choose?

If you think it could help, you could ask some of your friends and your family to help you formulate some ideas. In the end, you should end up with a list that reflects some of your most important traits and values, as well as your interests and passions.

Within this list, you then want to identify what you think represents you best as a person. What amongst all of these things would you want admission officers to know about you? What are the most important pieces on that list to you?

Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to find the perfect parts to focus on right away; you’re just planning, and you’ll likely end up going back and forth in this process as you draft your essay, so don’t overthink it.

Next, you can try to find links between the aspects of your list that you selected, as well as some of your experiences, hobbies, and accomplishments. Essentially, you want to ensure that you have proof to demonstrate the characteristics and interests that you want to transmit in your essay.

This feeds into a common piece of writing advice that you’re likely to have heard: “show, don’t tell”. Don’t forget that admission officers don’t know you so if you just state that you’re passionate about something and that you have all of these strengths, they have no reason to just believe you. You need to tell them a story that shows them your interests and your best traits.

To help you understand how to link the pieces you wish to portray, you can consider some of the main strategies that are often employed in essays and explore some examples. In general, personal essays tend to fall into one of these categories:

1. The challenge

This type of essay focuses on a particular challenge that you’ve faced in your life and in how you eventually overcame it. It may highlight traits that you possess that helped you throughout it or present as a journey of personal growth.

To listen to an example of this type of essay watch the following video.

2. The defining experience/event

In this case, the essay focuses on an experience that had a large impact on you. This doesn’t necessarily have to be associated with a negative event, but rather just something that has been significant to your life. Typically, in this case, you should prioritize conveying the impact an event had on you and how you used the experience afterward.

Watch this video for an example of this type of essay.

3. The inspiration

Some students choose to write an essay that highlights something or someone that inspired them, describing how that has changed them. One point of caution with this type of essay is not to focus too much on whatever or whoever was an inspiration. The essay should always be primarily focused on you and, in this case, what this inspiration led you to do.

4. The common thread

Essays don’t necessarily have to be linear narratives. Rather, in some cases, students choose a theme rather than a specific story and may reference several events and experiences that fall into this theme.

One example of this type of essay is presented in this video.

When you consider events or challenges that had a large impact on you, keep in mind that you don’t have to write about the absolute most impactful or even traumatic moment for you.

While you want to make sure that your topic isn’t extremely common, you don’t need to expose parts of your life that perhaps you wouldn’t be comfortable telling strangers.

It’s important to stand out, but sometimes even ordinary events can become memorable depending on how you adapt them to showcase yourself. It’s a fine balance so you must consider the options you have and understand what you’re willing and comfortable in writing.

Further, as you’re writing it’s important that you don’t focus exclusively on the past. The main goal for admission officers when reading the essay is to understand whether you’d be a good addition to their college. So even if you choose to focus on a past experience, don’t forget to explain how that has impacted who you are today. Did this event change who you are today? Did it impact the interests you’re pursuing? Or did it lead you to an activity that you’re still involved in (for example, by leading you to become a volunteer or to start an organization)?

Importantly though, don’t talk about activities you haven’t even started yet. The only time you should probably mention plans for the future is if you’re discussing, for example, how you plan to apply a lesson or use a specific trait when you’re in the college you’re applying to.

Finally, an important aspect to consider is honesty. When you’re writing your essay, you don’t want to focus on what you think admission officers want to hear. Don’t try to portray yourself as someone you’re not because that’s what you think colleges are looking for. Whenever students opt to do that, it becomes clear in their writing that what they’re telling isn’t a good representation of who they are, and admission officers will be able to tell.


If you’re still unsure what topic you should focus on or how to build your essay around it, it may be helpful to look at the essay prompts. For the Common App prompt list click here. For the Coalition prompt list click here.

Read the prompts carefully, to understand what the key parts of each one are. What stands out the most to you? Then, consider the aspects in your list that you’d like to convey and compare them to the prompts. Which prompts do you think fit in better with your list?

You don’t need to know exactly what you want to focus on just yet; when I start each article, I usually don’t know exactly what I’ll write or what approach I should take. The key is to select the aspects in your list and the prompts that stand out the most to you because the most important thing when writing your essay is to ensure that your topic reflects your interests and resonates with you as a person.

Keeping in mind your list and the prompts you selected, try to brainstorm a few ideas for your essay. You can focus on each prompt and try to think of how you’d answer them, keeping in mind your self-reflection list.

Alternatively, you can just focus on your list, drawing inspiration from the prompts, as you can later choose a specific prompt to answer in accordance with your final essay. Just ensure that whatever prompt you pick is used in your favor and that you answer it adequately.

Further, when I’m brainstorming ideas for articles, I find it helpful to write a short summary of each one because it not only helps me remember exactly what my idea was, but also because it gives me a better sense of whether I can develop that idea.

Standing Out

One important aspect of the personal essay is standing out. Admission officers have to read thousands of essays every year as part of the application process. So, as you can imagine, it’s important to pay close attention to ensure that your essay captivates your reader so that, even amongst all the candidates, you stand out as someone that they’d want in their college.

One way to stand out is through the theme of your essay. Most students will share a series of similar experiences, so some topics commonly become the focus of applications. Amongst these overused topics are academics, common extracurricular activities like sports or debate, life experiences like going through the pandemic and the death, illness, or divorce of relatives, as well as themes like understanding your privilege.

The fact is, if you’re relying on one of these to write your essay, you likely won’t stand out from the crowd. That said, don’t think you shouldn’t write about any of these topics – just don’t rely on them. An essay focused on only these can still be a good one depending on your approach to the subject and how you choose to enrich your writing.

You want to show admission officers that you’re more than just another average student, that you’d fit into the community in a given college, and that you have values and objectives that align with theirs. So, don’t focus solely on academics and typical experiences – make uncommon connections between your ideas and adhere to a creative and unique approach.

Moreover, if you specifically opt to write about a challenge in your essay, be careful not to focus on minimal difficulty challenges, like receiving a bad grade or losing a competition. Those will likely make for a boring and very typical essay unless you have an incredible spin for your story.

You don’t need to go to the other extreme and write about the most traumatic situation that you’ve ever been in; as we said previously, you need a balance between what you’re comfortable sharing with strangers and what you think will still make for an interesting essay.

Just ensure that whatever the topic, you try to be as creative (within reason) as you can.

The STEAM in AI Research and Build Program

If you’re looking to gain some extra experience to include in your essay and help you stand out in your applications, why not try out the STEAM in AI College Prep Program?

DataEthics4All has expanded the concept of STEAM areas to not only include Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics but also Sociology, Technical Education, Ethics, Analytics, and Mentoring.

As part of our organization’s commitment to promoting STEAM education for all, we created the STEAM in AI Mentoring Program which allows high school students to create a unique STEAM project under the mentoring of a professional in their field of interest.

If you have an interest in a STEAM area, this could be a great experience for you to receive guidance. Further, developing your own original project would not only allow you to gain valuable knowledge but could also be used to show admission officers that you’re passionate, determined, and creative.

One of the main goals of this would be to give you a more realistic experience of what working in a particular field is like. As research shows, it can be extremely beneficial for students to participate in activities and programs that allow them to freely explore an area with limited risk.

If you think that the STEAM in AI Research and Build Program could be for you, click here to apply.

Writing Advice

Now that you have some ideas of what to write about, it’s time to start your draft. In this section, we’ve compiled and organized some tips that you may find helpful as you craft your essay.

Technical Points

1. Be mindful of the tone of your essay. Keep in mind that the admission officers don’t know you so it’s important to consider how your writing may sound to someone with no knowledge of your way of thinking. For example, trying to come off as funny or sarcastic may not always translate correctly to admission officers.

2. Pick your words carefully, avoiding unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. Don’t just add in words as fillers to meet a specific word count, because it will not only sound unnatural but will also steal words that you could be using to develop your ideas. Cutting unnecessary words will also help you ensure that the essay flows well and is easy to read.

3. Structure your essay. While personal essays don’t have to follow a rigid structure in the same way as argumentative pieces, for example, it’s important to ensure that you have an introduction, body of text, and conclusion, independently of what theme you chose. You also don’t need to stick to a specific number of paragraphs or sentences, as long as you ensure that your essay has the appropriate readability and flow between sections.

It can be beneficial to start your essay with a hook, which is essentially something that immediately draws the attention of your reader. However, it’s not as essential as some people make it out to be. If you can make your overall text interesting and captivating, having a hook becomes less important. It may indeed be better to focus on building a consistent essay that can, in itself, stand out, and then think about adding a hook.

Ensure that you don’t use too much of your essay to describe situations or events, rather than highlight yourself, your traits, and your values. As we mentioned before, the focus of the essay, no matter the topic, should always be you. To give you an example, you can watch the following video, displaying some feedback on an essay that fails exactly on this point.

Writing Style

1. Show, don’t tell. While incredibly overused, this is a writing tip that remains crucial to follow, especially in this type of written piece. Whether you’re trying to convey your feelings and thoughts about a situation/activity/person/idea or just describing an event in your life, you always need to focus on showing the reader your perspective, rather than just telling them. For example, if you want to show someone you have an interest in technology, don’t just tell them that; rather, you could demonstrate your passion by describing your personal experience in activities, classes, or competitions in tech that you were involved in.

2. Be precise and detailed in your descriptions. While you don’t want to overuse adjectives and adverbs, it’s important that you emphasize your feelings and ideas around whatever you choose to focus on throughout your essay. The point is, for example, if you’re talking about your time volunteering in a homeless shelter, for example, that the reader can infer your personality and values by your unique thoughts on that experience.

3. Focus on the personal meaning and reflect. To build on the previous point, as you develop your essay, you need to ensure that what you describe shows how it is meaningful specifically to you. The purpose is for admission officers to understand who you are from these descriptions so don’t just tell them a story but rather reflect on it and highlight your feelings, how you see things, how you shaped an event, or how you were impacted by an experience.

4. Simplify. Most of all you want your essay to be clear and impactful. To do so, you don’t just need to cut out unnecessary words, you also need to simplify what you choose to focus on. What this means is that many times, it’s better to just focus on one main idea and take time to properly explore it, than to try to combine too many ideas into a single essay and not have them be properly explored or even connect well with each other.

General Tips for Improve your Writing

1. Write consistently. If you want to improve your writing, it can be extremely beneficial to simply practice writing. This is like any other skill and, thus, making a habit of practicing it by jotting down even just a few sentences each day, can help you significantly improve your style and writing efficiency. In particular, you could consider writing about yourself, which could be particularly helpful when crafting your personal essay.

2. Read other people’s writing. Whether you opt to read books, articles, blog posts, or something else, reading can inspire you for your writing. Further, reading can be a great learning exercise on how to write if you take a critical stance and analyze what you read carefully.

3. Read other people’s essays. Reading what others have written can help you familiarize yourself with the style and content type and understand how to structure and write your essay. One key aspect here is to maintain some perspective – never start with the mindset that you’ll never reach a certain level of writing.

4. Practice writing essays by following the prompts. Your final essay may not end up following any of the prompts you use to practice. The principle behind this exercise is to get you writing, to make you familiar with this style and format, and allow you to find your voice, how you like to write, and test what you’d prefer to showcase in the essay you submit.

5. Don’t be afraid to scrap or to re-write essays. It’s very likely that, as part of this process, you’ll end up writing several drafts of the same essay. You may even start off writing about one topic and end up realizing that that’s not the best option. It’s good if you allow yourself to explore different ideas on topics, structures, and styles because you’ll begin understanding what works and doesn’t, likely leading you to write a more thought-out and well-written essay.

After Writing (what comes next?)

Let’s say you finally finished writing your draft. First of all, congratulations, that’s great progress!

It may be possible that that is the draft that you’ll end up submitting in your applications but first you need to ensure to do two very important things: proofreading and getting feedback.

Proofreading is essential not just to make sure there are no grammatical mistakes within your text, but also to understand if the essay flows well, is coherent, and that it represents your message clearly. 

Firstly, you may want to run the essay by an editing tool outside of your word processor, such as Grammarly. In general, these tend to spot a few mistakes that neither you nor the program you wrote in spotted. Then, going back to the word processor, you should read your essay again to ensure that everything in your essay is clear, easy to read, and makes sense. A few tricks that may help you with this are to read the text out loud and change the font and sizing of your text.

Then comes feedback. You can ask a teacher, counselor, or even someone close to you like a friend or parent, to read your essay and give you their honest feedback. This is very important because as you’re writing, you generally know what you mean to say with each sentence. By giving it to someone else to read, you can ensure that your essay comes across in the way you intended.

It’s crucial that at this point you’re open to hearing criticism of your work. Finally, ensure that you ask questions so that you can fully comprehend whether people understood your words as you wished them to.

Hopefully, as you followed this guide, you were able to withdraw pieces of information that may help you. I wish you all the luck as you write your essay and apply to college.

For more information and advice during your application journey, read our other articles. For example, click here if you want guidance on how to choose your major, or here if you want to hear some tips on how to deal with the stress of college applications.

Finally, consider joining the STEAM in AI Mentoring Program to create your own STEAM project and receive mentoring from professionals.

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