5 tips for writing a standout college admissions essay

The college admissions process is now more competitive than ever, and making your application stand out can feel like a daunting task — but your personal essay could be the key to helping you shine.

Most universities and colleges require you to submit a personal essay or statement as part of the first-year application process. Beyond looking at high school grades and test scores, admissions officers will review letters of recommendation and personal essays to get a sense of who you are — and where you want to go.

While all of this can sound difficult to navigate, writing memorable college essays will ultimately give you an opportunity to shine during the admissions process.

Here are five tips for writing impactful application essays that will set you apart from other candidates:

  • Choose a prompt that works for you.
  • Tell your story and share what you envision for your future.
  • Have someone review your essay and make sure it flows.
  • Take advantage of online resources.
  • Keep track of admissions requirements and deadlines.

1. Choose a prompt that works in your favor.

Are you asking yourself, “What should I write my college essay about?” The Common Application, as well as some individual schools, will give you a list of prompts that are useful starting off points to help you tell your own story. While the Common Application prompts can change each year, some examples include:

  • Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  • Discuss an accomplishment, event or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  • Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
  • 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?
  • 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.

These prompts invite students to think about challenges they’ve overcome or experiences that have made them grateful. It’s an opportunity to write about growth, strength and what makes a candidate who they are.

The advice that I give to students is to think of this as your interview. We would love to meet and interview all of our applicants, but we are unable to do so. This is your opportunity to tell us about you — the person outside of your grades and GPA.

Paula LaManna Cincinnati Regional Admissions Coordinator

The University of Cincinnati also asks college-specific questions like, “Why did you apply to each of the academic programs listed on your application?”

2. Tell your story — and let them know where you’re going.

The college admissions essay is all about you. Before you start to write your essay, admissions experts advise that you do a reflection exercise with yourself. Ask yourself questions like, “What do I have to offer the world? What are my quirks? What makes me stand out? Who am I at my core? What do I want out of my college experience at this school?”

A couple specific points to remember:

  • Don’t be repetitive. Your essay shouldn’t just repeat what’s listed in your resume. It should highlight what makes you a fantastic candidate beyond grades, extracurricular activities and test scores.
  • Stay specific. You can’t fit your entire life story into a 650-word essay, so try not to be too broad. Hone your essay in on a specific topic, life story or lesson you’ve learned.    

3. Edit. Then edit again.

Once you’ve written your essay, take a couple days to step away from it. Reread it with fresh eyes to see if it flows, makes sense and uses clear language. You should aim to write in your own voice — not in a formal academic tone. Ask a trusted teacher, tutor or counselor to review and edit your piece. While your essay should be written in your own style, an editor can help you expertly craft a final version free of spelling and grammar errors.

4. Take advantage of resources.

You don’t have to go through the application essay process alone. Universities and nonprofits offer a wide range of online admission resources, including:

5. Confirm your requirements and deadlines.

Stay organized. Treat the application process like a test run for college courses — you’ll have plenty of deadlines to meet for assignments and tests in your first semesters during college. Admissions officers recommend keeping a spreadsheet or document detailing the universities you’re applying to, each university’s requirements and deadlines, and a checklist of what you’ve completed.