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Ten Tips to Write a Stellar College Admissions Essay

Student at desk writing essay

Your GPA is stellar, you’ve grown into leadership positions in your extracurricular activities, you’re an AP Scholar (and above), and you still manage to fit in high school sports. On paper, you have everything it takes to succeed in college. Aside from all your accolades, the picturesque high school student, what makes you, you?

Your admissions essay provides something important about you that your grades don't—display of a complete, actualized human-being. The essay offers admission officers a sense of what drives you, as well as showcasing your writing skills. Your test scores don’t give an adequate “why” to the story of you.

Admissions essays matter. Really spending time to craft a personalized essay can do wonders for your chances at getting into your dream college. At Peninsula Academy, we’ve developed some general rules to follow when crafting a reflective essay.

1. Organize

Many high school seniors apply to 10-15 colleges and can easily end up writing about 15 essays. Deadlines for these colleges usually vary. It helps tremendously to have an essay writing timeline that aligns with these varied deadlines. For example, if you are considering Early Admission and/or Early Action along with UCs and regular admission for other colleges, you should first focus on the Common App or Coalition main essay (depending on which system you use), then the supplemental essays for the early round colleges, then UC essays, and lastly supplemental essays for regular decision colleges. Prepare for at least three rounds of writing and editing and establish a timeline for yourself accordingly.

2. Brainstorm

Now that you have organized a timeline, you should start the writing process. Know that starting a writing piece is always the hardest part. Brainstorm your strengths, your desires, even your greatest weaknesses. These will clue you into the foundation of your essay. Most often, it helps to brainstorm ideas with a friend, classmate, teacher, or private counselor you can trust. Don’t be shy about sharing your strengths, achievements, or vulnerabilities.

3. Just write

After you've finished brainstorming, create a very general outline to organize your essay and decide where you want real life examples to pop-up. Don't aim for perfection; aim for honesty. Just work on getting your desires and thoughts down on paper. You'll edit more heavily later on.

4. Be specific

Focus on events, experiences, or projects that demonstrate your desires, drives, and growth. Take a specific angle by recounting accomplishments and what they meant to you. Focus on how these experiences helped you grow and define who you are. We encourage you to think hard and provide multiple real-life examples. Avoid using similar examples repetitively in essays for the same college. Make sure every example in your essay supports the same conclusion you are attempting to make.

5. Be honest

You may be tempted to write an essay that makes you sound smart or cool. Don’t do that. You’ve already demonstrated your intelligence and readiness for collegiate work through your high school transcript, standardized test scores, and accomplishments. Speak in a way that’s honest to your voice. Don’t write an essay that you think admissions officers want to see, write an essay that you can proudly say is yours.

6. Get creative

These college admissions officers read through thousands of applications. It’s not hard to imagine that there’s a certain amount of fatigue that sets in when reading rote, formulaic essays. We’re not suggesting you write your essay backwards (this has happened), but don’t be afraid to test out various formats to your essay. However, be sure to get several pairs of eyes on your creative essays; you don’t want to get too crazy.

7. Get feedback

Get feedback on your draft from family, friends or teachers. Be sure to ask if the message is clear and sounds like you. Consider their feedback and make changes, but always remain true to your voice.

8. Recycle carefully

Some of the essay prompts are similar. Other prompts can be very college specific. You will end up recycling ideas, paragraphs, and examples in one essay for another. When it’s crunch time you may be tempted to just copy and paste, word-for-word, a version of your essay in multiple applications. Be careful. Make sure you read the prompt carefully and ensure the examples you recycle support the point you are trying to make.

Student writing essay at coffee shop

9. Edit, edit, edit

Even the most talented writer rarely has the best copy on the first draft. Editing is key and you should begin editing as soon as you finish your first draft. Does the essay really answer the prompt? Is the paper well-organized? Are the transitions between paragraphs smooth? Does the evidence really back up your argument? Is the writing clear?

10. Proofread

Read over your essay carefully to check for typos and grammar errors. It's best to ask someone who hasn't seen it yet to take a look as well. They're likely to see mistakes you won't catch.


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