How to Write a College Essay That Works

A teenage girl holds a pencil to her face and looks reflectively at her computer.

How to Write a College Essay That Works

Published May 17, 2024

A teenage girl holds a pencil to her face and looks reflectively at her computer.

Millions of high school students apply for college each year, and many have to write at least one college application essay — often several. While writing essays isn’t everyone’s favorite pastime, you can succeed with the right approach. Here’s a guide on how to write effective essays for college applications.

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How Do I Write a Good Essay for College?

To write a good college essay, reflect on your valuable traits and unique experiences. Match them with an essay prompt or topic that can showcase the real you. Then, craft an outline with a compelling thesis. Now, you’re ready to write your essay, using vivid examples to support your points. 

The best essay will show who you are and the potential you have. It will demonstrate why colleges should consider you. You should use specifics and examples, not platitudes and generalities. You need to show, not just tell.

The people evaluating essays have limited time. They may read hundreds of essays, giving some less than a minute. That’s why you need to grab them with something memorable that persuades them to place you in the “yes” group.

ChatGPT and other AI tools are not a good path to an effective essay. These tools don’t know you and your experiences, so they write in generalities. Colleges have become adept at identifying these, and many use AI detection tools.

Who Reads Your Essay, and What Do They Want?

Your essay reviewers could include professional readers, admissions officers, and faculty members. As you plan and write your essay, consider how they might perceive it. This is helpful advice in any communication: Consider your audience.

Also, think about what traits that colleges might want in their students. If you have some of those key traits, reflect them in your essay. These could include:

  • Drive: Show that you’re motivated to achieve. 
  • Curiosity: Show that you’re intellectually curious and seek answers.
  • Resourcefulness: Show how you find ways to succeed amid challenges.
  • Giving: Show how you serve your community.
  • Empathy: Show how you care about others.
  • Leadership: Show how people follow your lead.
  • Expression: Show how you express yourself effectively.

Types of College Essays

The three main types of college essays are the Common App essay, college supplemental essays, and scholarship essays. 

Here’s a quick rundown of each type of college essay:

  • Common App essay: The Common Application, a standardized application used by more than 1,000 colleges, includes an essay known as the personal statement. Students select one of seven prompts to answer for their essay. Students tend to put the most effort into this 650-word essay, though all three essay types play important roles. 
  • Supplemental essays: Colleges often require additional essays, usually shorter than the Common App essay. They range from 150 words to 600 words and above, depending on the topic. They typically ask highly specific questions on topics they value as a school, such as service, diversity, or mission. Although some of these essays are short, answering them well is vital.
  • Scholarship essays: Many merit scholarships require an essay, although some don’t. So these essays could mean money to help pay for school. 

How to Write a Common App Essay in 10 Steps

1. Reflect on Your Traits and Experiences

A good essay starts with a good idea. If the idea isn’t good, the best writing in the world won’t save it. Think about the traits mentioned above and how you’ve demonstrated them in your life. Reflect on who you are, your formative experiences, and why colleges should want you. Be specific. 

For example, you might say you’re passionate about science, but what have you done regarding that passion? You need to give compelling examples that grab a college reader’s interest. They need to see you as someone they want on their campus.

2. Choose Your Prompt and Topic

Now, review the Common App prompts. Given your traits and experiences, decide which you can most effectively answer. If you’re uncertain, talk it out with a teacher, parent or someone else whose opinion you value.

The topic you choose matters less than your approach to it. You will hear advice to never write about certain things. However, the more important factor is how to reflect who you are and your potential. That said, it can be hard to do that if you choose limiting topics. For example, writing about another person makes it hard to show your traits, experiences and potential.   

3. Organize Your Ideas With an Outline and Thesis

List key points and ideas that help answer your chosen prompt. Arrange them in a logical sequence. Outlining will help you maintain focus and accomplish your goal of a memorable, authentic essay showing why a college should admit you.

Include a concise, one-sentence thesis that is the overarching point of the essay. This will help you to focus on your core intent. 

4. Grab Interest with a Memorable Opening

The opening of your essay should capture the reader’s attention and make them want to read more. Use a hook, such as a vivid scene, realization, or statement that relates to your thesis and sets the tone for your essay.

5. Stick to Your Thesis

Every paragraph and thought should relate to and support your thesis. Don’t include unrelated thoughts or give a laundry list of your achievements. Answer the prompt specifically and memorably. You can list other information in your Common Application.

6. Use Examples to Illustrate and Support

For each point you make, provide specific examples. Details will bring your essay to life and explain who you are. You want to be vivid, not generic. Practiced readers will see the authenticity or lack of it.

7. Create Transitions for Natural Flow

Good transitions connect your paragraphs and ideas smoothly. Use transitional words and phrases to show the relationships between your points and ensure a logical flow.

8. Finish with a Concluding Thought

Your conclusion should reinforce your main points without being overly repetitive. Leave the reader with a powerful thought about who you are and what you hope to become. You might tie back to your opening, even with just a mention. The idea is to make your ending as engaging as your opening.

9. Edit Yourself

Take a break and read your essay with fresh eyes. Does it convey what you planned? Is it within the word limit? Check for grammatical errors, awkward phrasing, flow and clarity. Make it as good as you can. But remember, you’re not done yet. It’s time for feedback.

10. Get Feedback and Adjust Your Essay

Finally, have someone else read your essay — a teacher, a counselor, a parent or a friend. They can provide valuable feedback on how to improve your content, structure, and style. Be open to constructive criticism and use it to refine your essay. 

You might also get professional essay coaching, like Road2College offers. You can get help with editing or coaching from the idea phase through essay completion.

How to Write Supplemental College Essays

Don’t give supplemental essays short shrift. These essays are often short, but colleges expect good responses to the topics they’ve chosen. It’s a mistake to spend all your time on the personal statement and then dash off responses to the supplement essay questions.

Start by reflecting on why the college might be asking the question. It must be about a topic they value, so you must think about how to respond authentically and effectively. Think about your main points and how to support them. 

Then, follow the same steps as for the longer Common App essay.

How to Write Essays for College Scholarships

Many merit scholarships require an essay. Students may tire of writing essays, but these can be worth money. Follow a process similar to that of supplemental essays. Think about what they want to find out from you. Then, consider how you can best respond. If you sound fake or forced, they will pick that right out.

Examples of Good Essays

The New York Times invites students to share their college essays on money, work, and other topics each year, and columnist Ron Lieber follows up with his thoughts on their effectiveness. Here are examples from the past three years. 

Get Essay Coaching from the Road2College Team

Road2College offers essay coaching and Common App reviews. We also offer a bundle of the two services

Anyone can benefit from a professional coach, whether you’re at the idea phase or have a completed essay for review. We’re here to help no matter where you are in the process. 


Use R2C Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.  

👉 Looking for expert help on the road to college? See our Preferred Partner List!

Other Articles You Might Like:

College Essay Examples, Why They Worked, and Essay Tips

10 Tips for Staying Sane While Writing College Application Essays

5 Things Colleges Look for in a College Essay




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