How to Write a College Essay Step-by-Step (2022)

How to Write a College Essay Step-by-Step (1)

TABLE OF CONTENTS

(Click to scroll)
  • Brainstorming your college essay topic
  • Montage structure
    • The difference between a boring and a stand-out personal statement
    • A quick word on “common” or “cliché” topics
    • The “home” essay: a quick case study
    • Five (more) ways to find a thematic thread for your personal statement
    • Montage structure FAQ’s
  • Narrative structure
    • Narrative structure FAQ’s

First, what is the college essay (i.e., the personal statement)?

This is your main essay. Your application centerpiece. The part of your application you’re likely to spend the most time on. But, of course, I’d say that—I’m the College Essay Guy.

The personal statement is likely to be 500-650 words long (so about a page) and many of the colleges you’re applying to will require it.

What’s its purpose? Jennifer Blask, Executive Director for International Admissions at the University of Rochester, puts it beautifully: “So much of the college application is a recounting of things past—past grades, old classes, activities the student has participated in over several years. The essay is a chance for the student to share who they are now and what they will bring to our campus communities.”

Basically, college admission officers are looking for three takeaways in your college essay:

  1. Who is this person?

  2. Will this person contribute something of value to our campus?

  3. Can this person write?

Let’s do this.

Brainstorming your college essay topic

Below are the five exercises I have every student complete before I meet with them:

  1. Essence Objects Exercise: 12 min.

  2. Values Exercise: 4 min.

  3. 21 Details Exercise: 20 min.

  4. Everything I Want Colleges to Know About Me Exercise: 20 min.

  5. The Feelings and Needs Exercise: 15-20 min.

I recommend recording all the content from your exercises in one document to keep things neat. If you’ve been working as you go, you’ve already completed these, so make sure to do this step now. You can use our downloadable Google doc with these exercises if you’d like.

Would you Rather watch instead?

How to structure & outline a college essay

At the start of the essay process, I ask students two questions:

  1. Have you faced significant challenges in your life?

  2. Do you want to write about them?

Because here’s an important qualifier:

  • Even if you’ve faced challenges, you do not have to write about them in your personal statement.

I mention this now because, in my experience, many students are under the impression that they have to write about challenges—that it’s either expected, or that it’s somehow better to do so.

Neither is true.

I’ve seen many, many incredible essays—ones that got students into every school you’re hoping to get into—that had no central challenge.

If your answer is “Maybe … ?” because you’re not sure what qualifies as a challenge, it’s useful to think of challenges as being on a spectrum. On the weak end of the spectrum would be things like getting a bad grade or not making X sports team. On the strong end of the spectrum would be things like escaping war. Being extremely shy but being responsible for translating for your family might be around a 3 or 4 out of 10.

It’s possible to use Narrative Structure to write about a challenge anywhere on the spectrum, but it’s much, much harder to write an outstanding essay about a weaker challenge.

Sometimes students pick the hardest challenge they’ve been through and try to make it sound worse than it actually was. Beware of pushing yourself to write about a challenge merely because you think these types of essays are inherently “better.” Focusing myopically on one experience can sideline other brilliant and beautiful elements of your character.

If you’re still uncertain, don’t worry. I’ll help you decide what to focus on. But, for the sake of this blog post, answer those first two questions with a gut-level response.

1. Challenges? Yes/No
2. Vision for your future?Yes/No

In the sections that follow, I’ll introduce you to two structures: Narrative Structure, which works well for describing challenges, and Montage Structure, which works well for essays that aren’t about challenges.

Heads-up: Some students who have faced challenges find after reading that they prefer Montage Structure to Narrative Structure. Or vice versa. If you’re uncertain which approach is best for you, I generally recommend experimenting with montage first; you can always go back and play with narrative.

Montage Structure

A montage is, simply put, a series of moments or story events connected by a common thematic thread.

Well-known examples from movies include “training” montages, like those from Mulan, Rocky, or Footloose, or the “falling in love” montage from most romantic comedies. Or remember the opening to the Pixar movie Up? In just a few minutes, we learn the entire history of Carl and Ellie’s relationship. One purpose is to communicate a lot of information fast. Another is to allow you to share a lot of different kinds of information, as the example essay below shows.

Narrative Structure vs. Montage Structure explained in two sentences:

In Narrative Structure, story events connect chronologically.

In Montage Structure, story events connect thematically.

Here’s a metaphor:

Imagine that each different part of you is a bead and that a select few will show up in your essay. They’re not the kind of beads you’d find on a store-bought bracelet; they’re more like the hand-painted beads on a bracelet your little brother made for you.

The theme of your essay is the thread that connects your beads.

You can find a thread in many, many different ways. One way we’ve seen students find great montage threads is by using the 5 Things Exercise. I’ll get detailed on this a little bit later, but essentially, are there 5 thematically connected things that thread together different experiences/moments/events in your life? For example, are there 5 T-shirts you collected, or 5 homes or identities, or 5 entries in your Happiness Spreadsheet.

And to clarify, your essay may end up using only 4 of the 5 things. Or maybe 8. But 5 is a nice number to aim for initially.

Note the huge range of possible essay threads. To illustrate, here are some different “thread” examples that have worked well:

(Video) HOW TO WRITE COLLEGE ESSAYS - A STEP BY STEP PROCESS

  • Sports have had a powerful influence on me, from my understanding of history, to numbers, to my relationships, extracurricular activities, and even my career choice.

  • I lived with 5 different families as an exchange student, and each one taught me something valuable that I’ll carry with me to college.

  • Crassulaceae plants, which can reproduce via stem or leaf fragments, are a great analogy for not only how I make art, but how I choose to live each day.

  • Binary star systems are a metaphor for my relationship with my parents.

  • I am “trans” in so many ways … let me describe a few.

  • To understand who I am, you must understand how I cook.

  • Pranks have shaped my life in a variety of ways.

  • The number 12 has influenced so much in my life, from my relationship to sports, to how I write, to my self-esteem.

All of these threads stemmed from the brainstorming exercises in this post.

We’ll look at an example essay in a minute, but before we do, a word (well, a bunch of words) on how to build a stronger montage (and the basic concept here also applies to building stronger narratives).

To frame how to think about possible topics ...

Imagine you’re interviewing for a position as a fashion designer, and your interviewer asks you what qualities make you right for this position. Oh, and heads-up: That imaginary interviewer has already interviewed a hundred people today, so you’d best not roll up with, “because I’ve always loved clothes” or “because fashion helps me express my creativity.” Why shouldn’t you say those things? Because that’s what everyone says.

Many students are the same in their personal statements—they name cliché qualities/skills/values and don’t push their reflections much further.

Why is this a bad idea?

Let me frame it this way:

The difference between a boring and a stand-out personal statement

  • A boring personal statement chooses a common topic, makes common connections, and uses common language.

  • A stand-out personal statement chooses an uncommon topic, makes uncommon connections, and uses uncommon language.

Examples:

Important: I’m not saying you should pick a weird topic/thread just so it’ll help you stand out more on your essay. Be honest. But consider this: The more common your topic is ... the more uncommon your connections need to be if you want to stand out.

What do I mean?

For example, tons of students write doctor/lawyer/engineer essays; if you want to stand out, you need to say a few things that others don’t tend to say.

How do you figure out what to say? By making uncommon connections.

They’re the key to a stand-out essay.

The following two-part exercise will help you do this.

2-minute exercise: Start with the cliché version of your essay.

What would the cliché version of your essay focus on?

If you’re writing a “Why I want to be an engineer” essay, for example, what 3-5 common “engineering” values might other students have mentioned in connection with engineering? Use the Values Exercise for ideas.

Collaboration? Efficiency? Hands-on work? Probably yes to all three.

Once you’ve spent 2 minutes thinking up some common/cliché values, move onto the next step.

8-Minute Exercise: Brainstorm uncommon connections.

For example, if your thread is “food” (which can lead to great essays, but is also a really common topic), push yourself beyond the common value of “health” and strive for unexpected values. How has cooking taught you about “accountability,” for example, or “social change”? Why do this? We’ve already read the essay on how cooking helped the author become more aware of their health. An essay on how cooking allowed the author to become more accountable or socially aware would be less common.

In a minute, we’ll look at the “Laptop Stickers” essay. One thing that author discusses is activism. A typical “activist” essay might discuss public speaking or how the author learned to find their voice. A stand-out essay would go further, demonstrating, say, how a sense of humor supports activism. Perhaps it would describe a childhood community that prioritized culture-creation over culture-consumption, reflecting on how these experiences shaped the author’s political views.

And before you beg me for an “uncommon values” resource, I implore you to use your brilliant brain to dream up these connections. Plus, you aren’t looking for uncommon values in general; you’re looking for values uncommonly associated with your topic/thread.

Don’t get me wrong ... I’m not saying you shouldn’t list any common values, since some common values may be an important part of your story! In fact, the great essay examples throughout this book sometimes make use of common connections. I’m simply encouraging you to go beyond the obvious.

Also note that a somewhat-common lesson (e.g., “I found my voice”) can still appear in a stand-out essay. But if you choose this path, you’ll likely need to use either an uncommon structure or next-level craft to create a stand-out essay.

Where can you find ideas for uncommon qualities/skills/values?

Here are four places:

1. The Values Exercise

This is basically a huge list of qualities/skills/values that could serve you in a future career.

2. O*Net Online

Go to www.onetonline.org and use the “occupation quick search” feature to search for your career. Once you do, a huge list will appear containing knowledge, skills, and abilities needed for your career. This is one of my favorite resources for this exercise.

3. School websites

Go to a college's website and click on a major or group of majors that interest you. Sometimes they’ll briefly summarize a major in terms of what skills it’ll impart or what jobs it might lead to. Students are often surprised to discover how broadly major-related skills can apply.

4. Real humans

Ask 3 people in this profession what unexpected qualities, values, or skills prepared them for their careers. Please don’t simply use their answers as your own; allow their replies to inspire your brainstorming process.

Once you’ve got a list of, say, 7-10 qualities, move on to the next step.

A quick word on “common” or “cliché” topics

Common personal statement topics include extracurricular activities (sports or musical instruments), service trips to foreign countries (aka the “mission trip” essay where the author realizes their privilege), sports injuries, family illnesses, deaths, divorce, the “meta” essay (e.g., “As I sit down to write my college essays, I think about...”), or someone who inspired you (common mistake: This usually ends up being more about them than you).

While I won’t say you should never write about these topics, if you do decide to write about one of these topics, the degree of difficulty goes way up. What do I mean? Essentially, you have to be one of the best “soccer” essays or “mission trip” essays among the hundreds the admission officer has likely read (and depending on the school, maybe the hundreds they’ve read this year). So it makes it much more difficult to stand out.

How do you stand out? A cliché is all in how you tell the story. So, if you do choose a common topic, work to make uncommon connections (i.e., offer unexpected narrative turns or connections to values), provide uncommon insights (i.e., say stuff we don’t expect you to say) or uncommon language (i.e., phrase things in a way we haven’t heard before).

Or explore a different topic. You are infinitely complex and imaginative.

Sample montage essay:

MY LAPTOP STICKERS

My laptop is like a passport. It is plastered with stickers all over the outside, inside, and bottom. Each sticker is a stamp, representing a place I’ve been, a passion I’ve pursued, or community I’ve belonged to. These stickers make for an untraditional first impression at a meeting or presentation, but it’s one I’m proud of. Let me take you on a quick tour:

We <3 Design,” bottom left corner. Art has been a constant for me for as long as I can remember. Today my primary engagement with art is through design. I’ve spent entire weekends designing websites and social media graphics for my companies. Design means more to me than just branding and marketing; it gives me the opportunity to experiment with texture, perspective, and contrast, helping me refine my professional style.

Common Threads,” bottom right corner. A rectangular black and red sticker displaying the theme of the 2017 TEDxYouth@Austin event. For years I’ve been interested in the street artists and musicians in downtown Austin who are so unapologetically themselves. As a result, I’ve become more open-minded and appreciative of unconventional lifestyles. TED gives me the opportunity to help other youth understand new perspectives, by exposing them to the diversity of Austin where culture is created, not just consumed.

Poop emoji, middle right. My 13-year-old brother often sends his messages with the poop emoji ‘echo effect,’ so whenever I open a new message from him, hundreds of poops elegantly cascade across my screen. He brings out my goofy side, but also helps me think rationally when I am overwhelmed. We don’t have the typical “I hate you, don’t talk to me” siblinghood (although occasionally it would be nice to get away from him); we’re each other’s best friends. Or at least he’s mine.

Lol ur not Harry Styles,” upper left corner. Bought in seventh grade and transferred from my old laptop, this sticker is torn but persevering with layers of tape. Despite conveying my fangirl-y infatuation with Harry Styles’ boyband, One Direction, for me Styles embodies an artist-activist who uses his privilege for the betterment of society. As a $42K donor to the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, a hair donor to the Little Princess Trust, and promoter of LGBTQ+ equality, he has motivated me to be a more public activist instead of internalizing my beliefs.

Catapult,” middle right. This is the logo of a startup incubator where I launched my first company, Threading Twine. I learned that business can provide others access to fundamental human needs, such as economic empowerment of minorities and education. In my career, I hope to be a corporate advocate for the empowerment of women, creating large-scale impact and deconstructing institutional boundaries that obstruct women from working in high-level positions. Working as a women’s rights activist will allow me to engage in creating lasting movements for equality, rather than contributing to a cycle that elevates the stances of wealthy individuals.

Thank God it’s Monday,” sneakily nestled in the upper right corner. Although I attempt to love all my stickers equally (haha), this is one of my favorites. I always want my association with work to be positive.

And there are many others, including the horizontal, yellow stripes of the Human Rights Campaign; “The Team,” a sticker from the Model G20 Economics Summit where I collaborated with youth from around the globe; and stickers from “Kode with Klossy,” a community of girls working to promote women’s involvement in underrepresented fields.

When my computer dies (hopefully not for another few years), it will be like my passport expiring. It’ll be difficult leaving these moments and memories behind, but I probably won’t want these stickers in my 20s anyways (except Harry Styles, that’s never leaving). My next set of stickers will reveal my next set of aspirations. They hold the key to future paths I will navigate, knowledge I will gain, and connections I will make.

— — —

Cool, huh? And see what I mean about how you can write a strong personal statement without focusing on challenges you’ve faced?

Going back to that “thread and beads” metaphor with the “My Laptop Sticker” essay:

  • The “beads” are the different experiences that link to the values of creativity, open-mindedness, humor, courage, and entrepreneurialism.

  • The “thread” (i.e., the theme that ties everything together) is her laptop stickers. Each one represents a quality of the author’s personality. Actually, there’s a second thematic thread: Those qualities will also serve her in her women’s rights activism. Bonus!

The outline that got her there

Here’s the outline for the “My Laptop Stickers” essay. Notice how each bullet point discusses a value or values, connected to different experiences via her thread, and sets up the insights she could explore. (Insight, though, is the toughest part of the writing process, and will probably take the most revision, so it’s fine if you don’t have great insights in an outline or first draft. But you’ll want to get to them by your final draft.)

She found this thread essentially by using The Five Things Exercise in conjunction with the other brainstorming exercises.

Thread—Laptop Stickers

  • We <3 data-preserve-html-node="true" Design → art, design, experimentation

    • Ex: spent weekend designing websites, graphics for my companies

    • Developed my own style

  • Common Threads → authenticity, open-mindedness

    • Ex: street artists, musicians in Austin

    • Creating not just consuming culture

  • Poop emoji → family, goofy side

    • Brother, interactions, thinking rationally

    • vuln...

  • Lol ur not Harry Styles → equality, activism, confidence

    • Various activism as motivation/reminder to act vs just internalize

    • My growth with acting/speaking up

  • Catapult → entrepreneurship, social justice, awareness, meaningful work

    • Threaded Twine, women’s rights, breaking cycles

    • Discovered my career

      (Video) How to Write an Essay: 4 Minute Step-by-step Guide | Scribbr 🎓

  • Thank God it's Monday → enjoyable work

    • Importance of experience/framing

    • Want work to always be this way

  • The Team → collaboration

    • Model G20 Econ Summit, group collaboration

  • Kode with Klossy → community, social justice

    • Promoting women in underrepresented fields

Okay, so if you’re on board so far, here’s what you need:

  1. Some stuff to write about (ideally 4-10 things) that will make up the “beads” of your essay, and

  2. Something to connect all the different “beads” (like a connective theme or thread)

First, let’s talk about ...

How to generate lots of ‘stuff’ to write about (aka the beads for your bracelet)

Complete all the brainstorming exercises.

Already did that? Great! Move on!

Didn’t do that? Go back, complete the exercises, and then ...

Case study: How to find a theme for your personal statement (aka the thread that connects the beads of your bracelet)

Let’s look at an example of how I helped one student find her essay thread, then I’ll offer you some exercises to help you find your own.

The “Home” essay: A quick case study

First, take a look at this student’s Essence Objects and 21 Details:

My Essence Objects

  1. Bojangle’s Tailgate Special/Iced Tea

  2. Light blue fuzzy blanket

  3. A box containing my baby tooth

  4. Band-Aid

  5. Car keys

  6. Gold bracelet from my grandfather

  7. Orange, worn Nike Free Run Sneakers

  8. Duke basketball game ticket

  9. Palestine flag rubber wristband/ISEF Lanyard

  10. Friendship bracelet

  11. A pair of headphones

  12. Smores

  13. Yin-yang symbol

  14. Worn, green Governor’s School East lanyard

My 21 Details

  1. I’ve been known to have terrible spatial awareness despite being a dancer. Just last week, my shoelace got caught in an escalator and I tripped about 20 people.

  2. Zumba and kickboxing are my favorite forms of exercise and I’m hopefully going to become certified to teach Zumba soon.

  3. I have misophonia--sometimes I even have to eat dinner in a different room from my family.

  4. My go-to drinks are Hi-C and Sweet Tea.

  5. I became a pescatarian this year to avoid fried chicken, and I can honestly get a life’s worth of meat out of cod, salmon, tilapia, shrimp, you name it.

  6. I collect funky socks--at this point, I have socks with tacos, snowmen, Santa, and even animals wearing glasses.

  7. I’ve gotten different Myers-Briggs personality types every time I took the test. The most recent ones are ENFJ and ENFP.

  8. I have no immediate relatives in America besides my mom, dad, and sister.

  9. I am a diehard Duke basketball fan, and I can identify all of the Duke basketball fans at my high school on one hand.

  10. I love discussing psychology, but sometimes I psychoanalyze.

  11. Singing while driving is honestly one of my favorite pastimes.

  12. My alarm for school every morning is at 5:42 am.

  13. I hope to complete a half and full marathon within the next four years, despite not having run a 5k yet.

  14. I realized the tooth fairy wasn’t real after I lost my second tooth, but I pretended that I still believed in it until I was in 5th grade for the tooth fairy’s “gifts”.

  15. I could eat fruits for every single meal.

  16. I don’t do well with confrontation.

  17. Airports are hands-down my favorite place to be, but I hate airplanes.

  18. If I’m not busy or working, you can usually find me in my hammock in the backyard.

  19. I find that I form the deepest connections with people after 12am.

  20. Sometimes, I like TV spoilers.

How this author found her thematic thread

When I met with this student for the first time, I began asking questions about her objects and details: “What’s up with the Bojangle’s Iced Tea? What’s meaningful to you about the Governor’s School East lanyard? Tell me about your relationship to dance ...”

We were thread-finding ... searching for an invisible connective [something] that would allow her to talk about different parts of her life.

Heads-up: Some people are really good at this—counselors are often great at this—while some folks have a more difficult time. Good news: When you practice the skill of thread-finding, you can become better at it rather quickly.

You should also know that sometimes it takes minutes to find a thread and sometimes it can take weeks. With this student, it took less than an hour.

I noticed in our conversation that she kept coming back to things that made her feel comfortable. She also repeated the word “home” several times. When I pointed this out, she asked me, “Do you think I could use ‘home’ as a thread for my essay?”

“I think you could,” I said.

Read her essay below, then I’ll share more about how you can find your own thematic thread.

HOME

As I enter the double doors, the smell of freshly rolled biscuits hits me almost instantly. I trace the fan blades as they swing above me, emitting a low, repetitive hum resembling a faint melody. After bringing our usual order, the “Tailgate Special,” to the table, my father begins discussing the recent performance of Apple stock with my mother, myself, and my older eleven year old sister. Bojangle’s, a Southern establishment well known for its fried chicken and reliable fast food, is my family’s Friday night restaurant, often accompanied by trips to Eva Perry, the nearby library. With one hand on my breaded chicken and the other on Nancy Drew: Mystery of Crocodile Island, I can barely sit still as the thriller unfolds. They’re imprisoned! Reptiles! Not the enemy’s boat! As I delve into the narrative with a sip of sweet tea, I feel at home.

“Five, six, seven, eight!” As I shout the counts, nineteen dancers grab and begin to spin the tassels attached to their swords while walking heel-to-toe to the next formation of the classical Chinese sword dance. A glance at my notebook reveals a collection of worn pages covered with meticulously planned formations, counts, and movements. Through sharing videos of my performances with my relatives or discovering and choreographing the nuances of certain regional dances and their reflection on the region’s distinct culture, I deepen my relationship with my parents, heritage, and community. When I step on stage, the hours I’ve spent choreographing, creating poses, teaching, and polishing are all worthwhile, and the stage becomes my home.

Set temperature. Calibrate. Integrate. Analyze. Set temperature. Calibrate. Integrate. Analyze. This pulse mimics the beating of my heart, a subtle rhythm that persists each day I come into the lab. Whether I am working under the fume hood with platinum nanoparticles, manipulating raw integration data, or spraying a thin platinum film over pieces of copper, it is in Lab 304 in Hudson Hall that I first feel the distinct sensation, and I’m home. After spending several weeks attempting to synthesize platinum nanoparticles with a diameter between 10 and 16 nm, I finally achieve nanoparticles with a diameter of 14.6 nm after carefully monitoring the sulfuric acid bath. That unmistakable tingling sensation dances up my arm as I scribble into my notebook: I am overcome with a feeling of unbridled joy.

Styled in a t-shirt, shorts, and a worn, dark green lanyard, I sprint across the quad from the elective ‘Speaking Arabic through the Rassias Method’ to ‘Knitting Nirvana’. This afternoon is just one of many at Governor’s School East, where I have been transformed from a high school student into a philosopher, a thinker, and an avid learner. While I attend GS at Meredith College for Natural Science, the lessons learned and experiences gained extend far beyond physics concepts, serial dilutions, and toxicity. I learn to trust myself to have difficult yet necessary conversations about the political and economic climate. Governor’s School breeds a culture of inclusivity and multidimensionality, and I am transformed from “girl who is hardworking” or “science girl” to someone who indulges in the sciences, debates about psychology and the economy, and loves to swing and salsa dance. As I form a slip knot and cast on, I’m at home.

My home is a dynamic and eclectic entity. Although I’ve lived in the same house in Cary, North Carolina for 10 years, I have found and carved homes and communities that are filled with and enriched by tradition, artists, researchers, and intellectuals. While I may not always live within a 5 mile radius of a Bojangle’s or in close proximity to Lab 304, learning to become a more perceptive daughter and sister, to share the beauty of my heritage, and to take risks and redefine scientific and personal expectations will continue to impact my sense of home.

— — —

Rad essay, huh?

But here’s the question I get most often about this technique: How do I find my thematic thread?

Five (more) ways to find a thematic thread for your personal statement

1. The “Bead-Making” Exercise (5-8 min.)

In the example above, we started with the beads, and then we searched for a thread. This exercise asks you to start with the thread of something you know well and then create the beads. Here’s how it works:

Step 1: On a blank sheet of paper, make a list of five or six things you know a lot about.

For example, I know a lot about …

  • Words/language

  • Games

  • Productivity

  • Voices/accents

  • Self-help books

If you can only think of 3 or 4, that’s okay.

Step 2: Pick one of the things you wrote down, flip your paper over, and write it at the top of your paper, like this:

How to Write a College Essay Step-by-Step (4)

(Video) How to write an effective College essay | Complete guidance in 1 Hour l GotoUniversity

This is your thread, or a potential thread.

Step 3: Underneath what you wrote down, name 5-6 values you could connect to this. These will serve as the beads of your essay. You can even draw a thread connecting your beads, if you want, like this:

How to Write a College Essay Step-by-Step (5)

Step 4: For each value, write down a specific example, memory, image, or essence object that connects to that value. Example:

My thread: Games

My beads: Connection, creativity, fun/laughter, family, competition, knowledge

Here are my examples/memories/images/essence objects:

  • Connection: One memory I have is playing “I love” in a circle at camp with 20 friends and strangers. I still marvel at how quickly it helped us bond.

  • Creativity: After I understand how a game works, I like to try to improve it by tweaking the rules. Two examples: 1) I remember when I was young trying to find the right amount of money for the Free Parking space in Monopoly, and 2) recently, I learned the game Guesstimation is so much better if you add wagers. I see my 4-year-old daughter tweaks games too, which drives my wife crazy, as she likes to play by the rules of the game.

  • Fun/laughter: As I’ve aged, so much of my life has become planned/programmed, but I can still enjoy losing track of time with board games. Two weeks ago, for example, I laughed so hard I cried while playing Drawful with Lisa, Andy, and Sage.

  • Family: We played games like Charades and Jeopardy when I was young. (My dad was the Game Master who would come up with the categories. As I grew older, I took over the role of Game Master.)

  • Competition: People don’t know this about me because I seem so chill, but I am incredibly competitive. Things I rarely lose at: ping pong, Tetris, foosball, and corn hole. I’ve gotten much better over the years at hiding my competitive side, but it’s still there.

  • Knowledge: Can’t really think of much on this one—maybe something related to Jeopardy?

This is an actual brainstorm I did using this exercise.

And, as I write these things down, I notice a theme of youth/old age emerging. Games have changed for me as I’ve gotten older. Note that I couldn’t come up with something for the last one, “knowledge,” which is fine.

The point is this: If you know a thing well, odds are good you’ll be able to make a lot of connections to your values. And if you can find specific examples for each value, that can make for interesting paragraphs in your personal statement.

If you’re willing to spend a few more minutes, ask “so what?” of each example to see if a specific insight emerges.

And, in case you want a formula for what I’m describing, here you go:

One bead = value + example + insight

… and all that = one paragraph

Once you’ve written down the values and at least one example (e.g., a memory, image, essence object) for each bead, see if you have enough content for an essay.

Still haven’t found your theme? Here are ...

More ways to find a thematic thread for your personal statement

2. The “Five Things” Exercise

(Special thanks to my colleague, Dori Middlebrook, for this one.)

I mentioned this when we first started talking about Montage Structure. Similar to the “bead-making” exercise above, you identify the thread first and then develop the beads.

Step 1: Write down 5 similar things that are meaningful to you in different ways.

  • Examples: Five Pairs of Shoes I’ve Worn, Five Houses I’ve Lived In, Five Photographs in My Room, Five Ways Cooking Has Influenced Me, etc.

Step 2: Begin by simply naming the 5 different items.

  • Example: High-top tennis shoes, flip-flops, heels, cleats, bunny slippers

Step 3: Add physical details so we can visualize each one.

Step 4: Add more details. Maybe tell a story for each.

  • Pro tip: Try connecting each of the 5 to a different value.

Step 5: Expand on each description further and start to connect the ideas to develop them into an essay draft.

3. Thread-finding with a partner

Grab someone who knows you well (e.g., a counselor, friend, family member). Share all your brainstorming content with them and ask them to mirror back to you what they’re seeing. It can be helpful if they use reflective language and ask lots of questions. An example of a reflective observation is: “I’m hearing that ‘building’ has been pretty important in your life … is that right?” You’re hunting together for a thematic thread—something that might connect different parts of your life and self.

4. Thread-finding with photographs

Pick 10 of your favorite photos or social media posts and write a short paragraph on each one. Why’d you pick these photos? What do they say about you? Then ask yourself, “What are some things these photos have in common?” Bonus points: Can you find one thing that connects all of them?

5. Reading lots of montage example essays that work

You’ll find some here, here, and here. While you may be tempted to steal those thematic threads, don’t. Try finding your own. Have the courage to be original. You can do it.

Montage Structure FAQs

Q: How do I work in extracurricular activities in a tasteful way (so it doesn’t seem like I’m bragging)?

A: Some counselors caution, with good reason, against naming extracurricular activities/experiences in your personal statement. (It can feel redundant with your Activities List.) You actually can mention them, just make sure you do so in context of your essay’s theme. Take another look at the eighth paragraph of the “My Laptop Stickers” essay above, for example:

And there are many [other stickers], including the horizontal, yellow stripes of the Human Rights Campaign; “The Team,” a sticker from the Model G20 Economics Summit where I collaborated with youth from around the globe; and stickers from “Kode with Klossy,” a community of girls working to promote women’s involvement in underrepresented fields.

A description of these extracurricular activities may have sounded like a laundry list of the author’s accomplishments. But because she’s naming other stickers (which connects them to the essay’s thematic thread), she basically gets to name-drop those activities while showing other parts of her life. Nice.

One more way to emphasize a value is to combine or disguise it with humor. Example: “Nothing teaches patience (and how to tie shoes really fast) like trying to wrangle 30 first-graders by yourself for 10 hours per week,” or “I’ve worked three jobs, but I’ve never had to take more crap from my bosses than I did this past summer while working at my local veterinarian’s office.”

In each of these examples, the little bit of humor covers the brag. Each is basically pointing out that the author had to work a lot and it wasn’t always fun. No need to push this humor thing, though. Essays don’t need to be funny to be relatable, and if the joke doesn’t come naturally, it might come across as trying too hard.

Q: How do I transition between examples so my essay “flows” well?

A: The transitions are the toughest part of this essay type. Fine-tuning them will take some time, so be patient. One exercise I love is called Revising Your Essay in 5 Steps, and it basically works like this:

  1. Highlight the first sentence of each of your paragraphs in bold, then read each one aloud in order. Do they connect, creating a short version of your essay? If not:

  2. Rewrite the bold sentences so that they do connect (i.e., flow) together. Once you’ve done that …

  3. Rewrite each paragraph so it flows from those bolded sentences.

  4. Read them aloud again. Wash, rinse, repeat until the ideas flow together.

This is a great way to figure out the “bones” (i.e., structure) of your essay.

Q: What am I looking for again?

A: You’re looking for two things:

  1. Parts of yourself that are essential to who you are (e.g., values or “islands of your personality”), and

  2. A theme that connects them all.

Your theme could be something mundane (like your desk) or something everyone can relate to (like the concept of home), but make sure that it is elastic (i.e. can connect to many different parts of you) and visual, as storytelling made richer with images.

Each of the values creates an island of your personality and a paragraph for your essay.

Montage step-by-step recap:

  1. Review your brainstorming exercises and look for threads that connect 4-7 different values through 4-7 different experiences.

  2. Choose an order for your examples. Consider describing one example per paragraph.

  3. Create an outline.

  4. Write a first draft. Once you do ...

  5. Consider using the Revising Your Essay in 5 Steps Exercise to clarify your transitions.

Q: This is hard! I’m not finding it yet and I want to give up. What should I do?

A: Don’t give up! Remember: be patient. This takes time. If you need inspiration, or assurance that you’re on the right track, check out Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk, “Your Elusive Creative Genius.”

All right, moving on.

Narrative Structure

If you answered “yes” to both questions at the beginning of this guide, I recommend exploring Narrative Structure. I’ll explain this in more detail below.

My favorite content-generating exercise for Narrative Structure is the Feelings and Needs Exercise. It takes about 20 minutes (but do feel free to take longer—more time brainstorming and outlining leads to better, faster writing). Here’s how it works:

The Feelings and Needs Exercise

Time: 15-20 minutes

Instructions: You’ll find them here.

If you haven’t completed the exercise, please do it now.

(Video) A step-by-step guide to writing awesome college essays

(And this is a dramatic pause before I tell you the coolest thing about what you just did.)

...

You may notice that your completed Feelings and Needs chart maps out a potential structure for your personal statement. If you’re not seeing it, try turning your paper so that the challenges are at the top of your page and the effects are below them.

Voila. A rough outline for a narrative essay.

To clarify, this isn’t a perfect way to outline an essay. You may not want to spend an entire paragraph describing your feelings, for example, or you may choose to describe your needs in just one sentence. And now that you see how it frames the story, you may want to expand on certain columns. However, the sideways Feelings and Needs chart can help you think about how the chronology of your experiences might translate into a personal statement.

Here’s an essay that one student wrote after completing this exercise:

The Birth of Sher Khan

The narrow alleys of Mardan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan where I spent the first 7 years of my life were infiltrated with the stench of blood and helplessness. I grew up with Geo news channel, with graphic images of amputated limbs and the lifeless corpses of uncles, neighbors, and friends. I grew up with hurried visits to the bazaar, my grandmother in her veil and five-year-old me, outrunning spontaneous bomb blasts. On the open rooftop of our home, where the hustle and bustle of the city were loudest, I grew up listening to calls to prayer, funeral announcements, gunshots. I grew up in the aftermath of 9/11, confused.

Like the faint scent of mustard oil in my hair, the war followed me to the United States. Here, I was the villain, responsible for causing pain. In the streets, in school, and in Baba’s taxi cab, my family and I were equated with the same Taliban who had pillaged our neighborhood and preyed on our loved ones.

War followed me to freshman year of high school when I wanted more than anything to start new and check off to-dos in my bullet journal. Every time news of a terror attack spread, I could hear the whispers, visualize the stares. Instead of mourning victims of horrible crimes, I felt personally responsible, only capable of focusing on my guilt. The war had manifested itself in my racing thoughts and bitten nails when I decided that I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, let it win.

A mission to uncover parts of me that I’d buried in the war gave birth to a persona: Sher Khan, the tiger king, my radio name. As media head at my high school, I spend most mornings mastering the art of speaking and writing lighthearted puns into serious announcements. Laughter, I’ve learned, is one of the oldest forms of healing, a survival tactic necessary in war, and peace too.

During sophomore year, I found myself in International Human Rights, a summer course at Cornell University that I attended through a local scholarship. I went into class eager to learn about laws that protect freedom and came out knowledgeable about ratified conventions, The International Court of Justice, and the repercussions of the Srebrenica massacre. To apply our newfound insight, three of my classmates and I founded our own organization dedicated to youth activism and spreading awareness about human rights violations: Fight for Human Rights. Today, we have seven state chapters led by students across the U.S and a chapter in Turkey too. Although I take pride in being Editor of the Golden State’s chapter, I enjoy having written articles about topics that aren’t limited to violations within California. Addressing and acknowledging social issues everywhere is the first step to preventing war.

Earlier this year, through KQED, a Bay Area broadcasting network, I was involved in a youth takeover program, and I co-hosted a Friday news segment about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, the travel ban, and the vaping epidemic. Within a few weeks, my panel and interview were accessible worldwide, watched by my peers in school, and family thousands of miles away in Pakistan. Although the idea of being so vulnerable initially made me nervous, I soon realized that this vulnerability was essential to my growth.

I never fully escaped war; it’s evident in the chills that run down my spine whenever an untimely call reaches us from family members in Pakistan and in the funerals still playing on Geo News. But I’m working towards a war-free life, internally and externally, for me and the individuals who can share in my experiences, for my family, and for the forgotten Pashtun tribes from which I hail. For now, I have everything to be grateful for. War has taught me to recognize the power of representation, to find courage in vulnerability, and best of all, to celebrate humor.

— — —

Fun fact: This essay was written by a student in one of my online courses who, as she shared this version with me, called it a “super rough draft.”

I wish my super rough drafts were this good.

I share this essay with you not only because it’s a super awesome essay that was inspired by the Feelings and Needs Exercise, but also because it offers a beautiful example of what I call the ...

Narrative Structure

You can think of a narrative essay as having three basic sections: Challenges + Effects; What I Did About It; What I Learned. Your word count will be pretty evenly split between the three, so for a 650-word personal statement, 200ish each.

To get a little more nuanced, within those three basic sections, a narrative often has a few specific story beats. There are plenty of narratives that employ different elements (for example, collectivist societies often tell stories in which there isn’t one central main character/hero, but it seems hard to write a college personal statement that way, since you’re the focus here). You’ve seen these beats before—most Hollywood films use elements of this structure, for example.

  • Status Quo: The starting point of the story. This briefly describes the life or world of the main character (in your essay, that’s you).

  • The Inciting Incident: The event that disrupts the Status Quo. Often it’s the worst thing that could happen to the main character. It gets us to wonder: Uh-oh … what will they do next? or How will they solve this problem?

  • Raising the Stakes/Rising Action: Builds suspense. The situation becomes more and more tense, decisions become more important, and our main character has more and more to lose.

  • Moment of Truth: The climax. Often this is when our main character must make a choice.

  • New Status Quo: The denouement or falling action. This often tells us why the story matters or what our main character has learned. Think of these insights or lessons as the answer to the big “so what?” question.

For example, take a look at “The Birth of Sher Khan” essay above.

Notice that roughly the first third focuses on the challenges she faced and the effects of those challenges.

Roughly the next third focuses on actions she took regarding those challenges. (Though she also sprinkles in lessons and insight here.)

The final third contains lessons and insights she learned through those actions, reflecting on how her experiences have shaped her. (Again, with the caveat that What She Did and What She Learned are somewhat interwoven, and yours likely will be as well. But the middle third is more heavily focused on actions, and the final third more heavily focused on insight.)

And within those three sections, notice the beats of her story: Status Quo, The Inciting Incident, Raising the Stakes/Rising Action, Moment of Truth, New Status Quo.

How does the Feelings and Needs Exercise map onto those sections?

Pretty directly.

At the risk of stating the blatantly obvious, The Challenges and Effects columns of the Feelings and Needs Exercise … are the Challenges + Effects portion of your essay. Same with What I Did and What I Learned.

The details in your Feelings and Needs columns can be spread throughout the essay. And it’s important to note that it’s useful to discuss some of your feelings and needs directly, but some will be implied.

For example, here’s the Feelings and Needs Exercise map of the “Sher Khan” essay. And I know I just mentioned this, but I want you to notice something that’s so important, I’m writing it in bold: The author doesn’t explicitly name every single effect, feeling, or need in her essay. Why not? First, she’s working within a 650-word limit. Second, she makes room for her reader’s inferences, which can often make a story more powerful. Take a look:

  • Challenge 1: She grows up surrounded by war, which is explicitly stated.

  • Challenge 2: She comes to the U.S. to find safety (a need), which is implied, but instead, she is villainized, which is explicitly stated.

  • Effects: She is ostracized after arriving in the U.S. “Every time news of a terror attack spread,” she writes, “I could hear the whispers, visualize the stares.” Other effects are implied, and we are left to imagine—and feel for ourselves—the kind of impact this might have had on her, and on us. Vulnerability creates connection.

  • Feelings: Growing up in the aftermath of 9/11 leaves her feeling confused, and after she is shunned, she describes being unable to mourn the victims of horrible crimes, instead feeling “personally responsible, only capable of focusing on [her] own guilt.” She explicitly names confusion and guilt, but she doesn’t name all the things she felt, of course, as there’s no need. Here, naming 1-2 key emotions helps us understand her inner world. If you choose to do the same in your essay, it’ll help readers understand yours.

  • Needs: As I read this essay, I can imagine the author needed safety, order, love, respect, reassurance, connection, and many more. But these are implied by the story events and need not be explicitly stated. In fact, spelling these things out might have made the essay sound weird. Imagine if she’d said, “I needed safety and order” at the end of the first paragraph and “I needed respect, reassurance, and connection” at the end of the second paragraph. That might sound awkward or too obvious, right? While identifying your needs is a great tool for understanding your story (and self) on a deeper level, there’s no need to explicitly state them at each juncture.

  • What She Did About It: The author developed a radio persona called Sher Khan, attended a summer course on human rights, founded an organization dedicated to youth activism, wrote articles on restrictive blasphemy laws and the forced repatriation of refugees, and probably other things that weren’t even mentioned.

  • What She’s Learned/Gained: She found a sense of purpose and discovered “everything [she has] to be grateful for.” She writes: “War has taught me to never take an education or a story for granted, to find beauty in vulnerability, to remain critical of authority figures, to question what’s socially accepted, and best of all, to celebrate humor.”

Got it?

Cool. Here’s another narrative example:

What Had to Be Done

At six years old, I stood locked away in the restroom. I held tightly to a tube of toothpaste because I’d been sent to brush my teeth to distract me from the commotion. Regardless, I knew what was happening: my dad was being put under arrest for domestic abuse. He’d hurt my mom physically and mentally, and my brother Jose and I had shared the mental strain. It’s what had to be done.

Living without a father meant money was tight, mom worked two jobs, and my brother and I took care of each other when she worked. For a brief period of time the quality of our lives slowly started to improve as our soon-to-be step-dad became an integral part of our family. He paid attention to the needs of my mom, my brother, and me. But our prosperity was short-lived as my step dad’s chronic alcoholism became more and more recurrent. When I was eight, my younger brother Fernando’s birth complicated things even further. As my step-dad slipped away, my mom continued working, and Fernando’s care was left to Jose and me. I cooked, Jose cleaned, I dressed Fernando, Jose put him to bed. We did what we had to do.

As undocumented immigrants and with little to no family around us, we had to rely on each other. Fearing that any disclosure of our status would risk deportation, we kept to ourselves when dealing with any financial and medical issues. I avoided going on certain school trips, and at times I was discouraged to even meet new people. I felt isolated and at times disillusioned; my grades started to slip.

Over time, however, I grew determined to improve the quality of life for my family and myself.

Without a father figure to teach me the things a father could, I became my own teacher. I learned how to fix a bike, how to swim, and even how to talk to girls. I became resourceful, fixing shoes with strips of duct tape, and I even found a job to help pay bills. I became as independent as I could to lessen the time and money mom had to spend raising me.

I also worked to apply myself constructively in other ways. I worked hard and took my grades from Bs and Cs to consecutive straight A’s. I shattered my school’s 1ooM breaststroke record, and learned how to play the clarinet, saxophone, and the oboe. Plus, I not only became the first student in my school to pass the AP Physics 1 exam, I’m currently pioneering my school’s first AP Physics 2 course ever.

These changes inspired me to help others. I became president of the California Scholarship Federation, providing students with information to prepare them for college, while creating opportunities for my peers to play a bigger part in our community. I began tutoring kids, teens, and adults on a variety of subjects ranging from basic English to home improvement and even Calculus. As the captain of the water polo and swim team I’ve led practices crafted to individually push my comrades to their limits, and I’ve counseled friends through circumstances similar to mine. I’ve done tons, and I can finally say I’m proud of that.

But I’m excited to say that there’s so much I have yet to do. I haven’t danced the tango, solved a Rubix Cube, explored how perpetual motion might fuel space exploration, or seen the World Trade Center. And I have yet to see the person that Fernando will become.

I’ll do as much as I can from now on. Not because I have to. Because I choose to.

— — —

There’s so much to love about this essay.

Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at how the author wrote this essay so you can figure out how to write yours:

First, the author brainstormed the content of his essay using the Feelings and Needs Exercise.

Did you spot the elements of that exercise? If not, here they are:

  • Challenges: Domestic abuse, alcoholic step-dad, little brother Fernando’s birth, family’s undocumented status

  • Effects: Author and his brother shared the mental strain, father was arrested, funds were tight, mom worked two jobs, brothers took care of one another, they kept to themselves when dealing with financial and medical issues, avoided going on certain school trips, at times author was discouraged from meeting new people, grades started to slip

  • Feelings: Confused yet understanding, anxious, worried, relieved, alone, lost, vulnerable, lonely, disconnected, alone, heartbroken, ashamed, disillusioned

  • Needs: Order, autonomy, reassurance, growth, safety, understanding, empathy, hope, support, self-acceptance

  • What He Did About It: Took care of his youngest brother; became his own teacher; learned how to fix a bike, swim, socialize; found a job to help pay bills; improved his grades; broke a school swimming record; learned to play instruments; became the first student in his school to pass the AP Physics 1 exam; took a leadership role in clubs; and tutored and counseled friends and peers

  • What He Learned: He’s proud of what he’s done, but wants to do more: dance the tango, solve a Rubix Cube, explore perpetual motion, see the World Trade Center, see his little brother grow up … and do you notice the value here? Hunger. That was his number one value, by the way. And he ends by saying he’ll do these things not because he has to, but because he chooses to. This sounds like autonomy. Another one of his top values.

That’s why I love beginning with this exercise. With just 15-20 minutes of focused work, you can map out your whole story.

Next, the author used Narrative Structure to give shape to his essay.

Did you spot the Narrative Structure elements? If not, here they are:

  • Inciting Incident: While the author is brushing his teeth, his father is arrested for domestic abuse.

  • Status Quo: His father had hurt his mom physically and mentally, and the author and his brother had shared the mental strain. “It’s what had to be done,” he writes.

  • Raising the Stakes: The entire second and third paragraphs, which describe how living without a father meant money was tight. Things improved for a while after his mother remarried, but his stepdad’s chronic alcoholism (raise the stakes) plus a new little brother (raise the stakes again) made things even tougher. As if that weren’t enough, the author raises the stakes even further by revealing that his family was undocumented at the time.

  • Moment of Truth: At his lowest point, he decides to do something about it. “I grew determined to improve the quality of life for my family and myself,” he writes, then goes on to tell us all the amazing things he taught himself, the skills he learned, and interests he pursued. It’s inspiring.

  • New Status Quo: Remember that the initial Status Quo was the author doing “what had to be done.” Not so, by the end of the essay. In the final lines, he writes, “I’ll do as much as I can from now on. Not because I have to. Because I choose to.”

And again, notice that those fit within the framework of:

  • ⅓: Challenges he faced and their impacts on him

  • ⅓: What he did to work through them

  • ⅓: What he learned through the process

Montage Structure FAQs

Q: Are there any situations where I may not want to write about my life struggles?

A: Yes. Sometimes it can be too difficult to discuss them. Or you may be actively dealing with a challenge. If this is the case, reach out to your counselor, a trusted mentor, or, if possible, a therapist.

If money is an issue (i.e., you feel you can’t afford a therapist) and you don’t feel comfortable sharing your struggles with your counselor, ask them if they can refer you to a therapist or counselor who works on a sliding scale. Many mental health professionals work with clients at low rates or for free.

You may also choose to write about the struggles you’ve faced without getting into all the details. Saying, for example, that you experienced verbal abuse from your father, for example, may be enough; you don’t necessarily need to share the specifics.

Q: Should I write about mental health challenges?

A: Mental health can be very difficult to write about for a few reasons:

  1. If a student is still very much struggling through the challenges they describe, the admission reader may wonder if the student is ready for college.

  2. In some cases, the admission officer may feel that a student is ready for college, but their institution may not be adequately equipped to help them thrive (not all colleges have the same kinds of resources, unfortunately).

  3. Unfortunately, mental health challenges have become so common these days that many students write personal statements about them, and so it can be difficult to stand out. If you’re feeling compelled to write about a mental health challenge, consider brainstorming some uncommon connections.

Questions to ask yourself if you’re considering writing about mental health challenges:

  • Do I have any other topics I could write on? Are there other interesting parts of myself I’d like to share that could reveal important skills, qualities, and values? Or must I write about this? (Beware the trap discussed earlier of feeling like you must write about a challenge to write a great personal statement—it’s not true! The authors of theMy Laptop Stickers” essay the "Home” essay were students who faced challenges but chose not to write about them.)

  • Have I truly worked through this? Am I able to devote the middle third of my essay to actions I’ve taken to work through the challenge and the final third to what I’ve learned? (You may not know the answers to these questions until you’ve done some writing. Maybe run your challenge through the Feelings and Needs Exercise to see what surfaces. Even if this doesn’t end up being your personal statement topic, you might learn something important about yourself.)

  • If I were an admission officer reading this essay, would I feel like this student has their situation handled and they are truly ready for college? (If you’re unsure, it’s a great idea to have 2-3 folks read it who have a good understanding of what colleges are looking for.)

  • Could the mental health challenge be a brief explanation in the Additional Info section? To see if this might work for you, see how briefly you can describe your mental health challenge using factual bullet points. Devote one bullet point to the challenge, another bullet point to what you’ve done about it, and a final bullet point describing briefly what you’ve learned.

Important: If you have a counselor, I strongly recommend consulting with them as you decide whether to discuss a mental health challenge in your personal statement. If your counselor is writing a letter on your behalf, some of the information you’d like to share may already be accounted for. Talk to them and find out.

Q: Are there any situations where I may not want to write about my career in my personal statement … even if I know what it is?

A: For sure. Say you’re interested in becoming a doctor, but you’re applying to a medical program with a supplemental prompt asking why you want to become a doctor. If you want to avoid repetition, you might not explicitly mention becoming a doctor at the end of your personal statement (you don’t have to discuss your career at all in a personal statement; many students are unsure.). Instead, you might describe how you’ve developed qualities that will equip you for a career as a doctor (e.g., creativity, for example, or the ability to lead a team).

Narrative Structure step-by-step recap:

  1. Complete the brainstorming exercises, as these will help no matter which structure you choose. Take special care to complete the Feelings and Needs Exercise, as it will help you outline your essay.

  2. Create an outline using the Narrative Structure described above.

  3. Write a first draft.

    (Video) How to Write the BEST College Application Essay | Step by Step Guide to Writing a Personal Statement

Check out my blog for more Narrative Structure examples.

FAQs

How to Write a College Essay Step-by-Step? ›

Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a College Application Essay
  1. Explore essay prompts and select a topic.
  2. Start your college essay outline before jumping in.
  3. Write the essay and leave time for multiple drafts.
  4. Edit and proofread your essay.
  5. Submit your essay.

What is the format of an essay for college? ›

Line Spacing: Use a 1.5 or double line spacing. Although you may be able to submit your work in single line spacing, this makes your essay easier to read. Paragraphs: Indent the first line of each paragraph with a tab. Fonts: Use a standard, easy-to-read font like Times New Roman, Arial or Calibri in 12-pt type.

What are the three parts of a college essay? ›

The main parts (or sections) to an essay are the intro, body, and conclusion.

How long is a college essay? ›

College essays are usually pretty short: between 150 and 650 words. Admissions officers have to read a lot of them, after all! Weigh your words carefully, because they are limited!

How long do college essays take to write? ›

While timelines will differ depending on the student, plan on spending at least 1–3 weeks brainstorming and writing the first draft of your college admissions essay, and at least 2–4 weeks revising across multiple drafts.

How do you start an introduction for a college essay? ›

Start with a vivid, specific image

If your topic doesn't lend itself to such a surprising opener, you can also start with a vivid, specific description. Many essays focus on a particular experience, and describing one moment from that experience can draw the reader in.

What should you not do in a college essay? ›

College Essay Topics to Avoid
  • Controversial Topics. Controversial topics, such as current political hot buttons, should be avoided at all costs. ...
  • Highly Personal Topics. ...
  • Personal Achievements and Accomplishments. ...
  • Most Important Place or a Role Model. ...
  • Creative Writing. ...
  • Athletic Topics. ...
  • Humorous Topics or Jokes. ...
  • Tragic Events.
Sep 3, 2020

How many paragraphs is a college essay? ›

There is no set number of paragraphs in a college admissions essay. College admissions essays can diverge from the traditional five-paragraph essay structure that you learned in English class. Just make sure to stay under the specified word count.

What's the best way to start an essay? ›

Your essay introduction should include three main things, in this order: An opening hook to catch the reader's attention. Relevant background information that the reader needs to know. A thesis statement that presents your main point or argument.

How do you get an A in an essay? ›

6 Essay Writing Tips 2022: How To Get an A+
  1. Start by doing research. Source: unsplash.com. ...
  2. The thesis is the most important part. Source: unsplash.com. ...
  3. Make a plan. Source: unsplash.com. ...
  4. Find reliable sources. Source: unsplash.com. ...
  5. The style you choose will affect your grade. Source: unsplash.com. ...
  6. Reread and proofread.
Jan 13, 2021

What makes a good essay? ›

An essay should have a single clear central idea. Each paragraph should have a clear main point or topic sentence. Each paragraph should support or expand the central idea of the paper. The idea of each paragraph should be explained and illustrated through examples, details, and descriptions.

How do you start a college paragraph? ›

Start with an attention grabber. The very first sentence of your essay should be the “hook” or “grabber.” This sentence “hooks” readers or “grabs” their attention, making them want to read more. This first sentence should provide rich details, engage a reader's curiosity, or otherwise stand out from the rest.

What is the most important part of the college essay? ›

Thesis Statement. Almost every college essay should include a thesis statement, which explains the general topic or purpose of the essay. A good thesis statement specifies the focus of the essay and outlines the paper's organizational style.

How many paragraphs is an essay? ›

No rule says an essay needs to have a certain number of paragraphs, but an essay must be at least three paragraphs. Many people say an essay should be five paragraphs, but it's an extremely limiting rule, and unless you've been instructed to write a five-paragraph essay, there's no reason to stick to it.

Can a college essay be sad? ›

The college essay should relate one moment, one characteristic, one experience, or one single thing that succinctly captures the student's persona and motivation. It can be happy. It can also be sad or challenging as long as the student shows growth, self-awareness, and hope by the end of the essay.

How do I choose a college essay topic? ›

Here are some guidelines for a good essay topic:
  1. It's focused on you and your experience.
  2. It shares something different from the rest of your application.
  3. It's specific and original (not many students could write a similar essay)
  4. It affords the opportunity to share your positive stories and qualities.
Oct 25, 2021

How do you start your first paragraph? ›

The introductory paragraph of any paper, long or short, should start with a sentence that piques the interest of your readers. In a typical essay, that first sentence leads into two or three more sentences that provide details about your subject or your process. All of these sentences build up to your thesis statement.

How early should I apply for college? ›

When should I start applying to college? You should start the application process the summer before your senior year. However, you can do a lot of prep work in your junior year, such as taking the SAT, researching and visiting campuses, getting recommendation letters, adding to your extracurriculars, etc.

How many colleges should I apply to? ›

Every year, prospective college students wonder, "How many colleges should I apply to?" As a general rule of thumb, some admissions experts recommend submitting applications to 4-12 schools.

How do you end a college essay? ›

  1. Endings to avoid. A bad conclusion can bring your whole essay down, so make sure to avoid these common mistakes. ...
  2. Option 1: Return to the beginning. ...
  3. Option 2: Look forward. ...
  4. Option 3: Reveal your main point. ...
  5. Option 4: End on an action. ...
  6. Frequently asked questions about college application essays.
Oct 16, 2021

Do you introduce yourself in a college essay? ›

A college essay is absolutely a way to introduce yourself to the college, but it shouldn't be taken so literally. Rewriting your application in the form of an essay is a waste of valuable time, for both you and the college admissions officer.

Do colleges really look at your essay? ›

Usually one to two admissions officers read an essay. Some colleges do not look at essays. Some colleges will choose only to look at your GPA, Course Rigor and SAT/ACT scores. If you GPA and Test Scores are high enough, they may not feel that and essay is necessary.

What are the most common college essay topics? ›

Tackling the Common App Essay Prompts
  • Prompt #1: Share your story.
  • Prompt #2: Learning from obstacles.
  • Prompt #3: Challenging a belief.
  • Prompt #4: Solving a problem.
  • Prompt #5: Personal growth.
  • Prompt #6: What captivates you?
  • Prompt #7: Topic of your choice.
  • Describe a person you admire.

Is it OK to use first person in a college essay? ›

Not only is it fine to make “I” statements in your application essays, but colleges expect your essays to sound like you, too! Always be yourself in your application, not the candidate you think admissions committees want to see.

What is a good way to start a college essay? ›

An effective college essay introduction should “wow” admissions officers. It should be creative, intriguing, and unique. Make sure you start with a strong “hook” or “grabber.” It's a good idea to follow this first sentence with a vivid anecdote, which you will then connect to the overall topic of your essay.

How do you write an introduction to a college essay? ›

Introduction. Your intro tells your reader what to expect from your essay. Think of it as a brief roadmap that begins with an intriguing opening line, includes a quick summary of the topic and ideas you'll present, and concludes with a thesis statement. It's important to draw your reader in from the very first sentence ...

How do you begin an essay? ›

Your essay introduction should include three main things, in this order: An opening hook to catch the reader's attention. Relevant background information that the reader needs to know. A thesis statement that presents your main point or argument.

How do you start an essay example? ›

Intriguing ways to start an essay
  1. Share a shocking or amusing fact.
  2. Ask a question.
  3. Dramatize a scene.
  4. Kick it off with a quote.
  5. State your thesis directly.
  6. Pick the right tone for your essay.
  7. When you're stuck, work backwards.
Jun 2, 2022

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2. How to Write EVERY TYPE of College Essay STEP BY STEP - The Ultimate Guide to Craft Your Story
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4. How I got a First Class in EVERY Essay at University (Part 1) | The Best Essay Technique
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