CommonLounge Archive

How to Write the Perfect College Application Essay: Tips and Advice

July 06, 2017

The College Application Essay – it’s one of the most important thing that can make or break a good application. You may think that it is what you do that matters, not so much how your present it. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Getting Started with Brainstorming

Time yourself for five minutes and just jot down whatever comes to your mind when you think about yourself and the activities you like. And then analyze, even if you haven’t written much, what comes to your mind first. It’s most likely going to be what you consider your most significant achievement or what interests you the most. Talk to related people – and you may just have the beginning ideas of a brilliant essay.

Protip: Use The Most Dangerous Writing App to just get started with writing. If you stop for a few seconds, well…it’ll just delete what you’ve written so far! While you should not write your final version this way, it’s a good way to get over the initial hurdle of just writing down your thoughts.

Also practice describing, in a line or two, the extra-curriculars and activities you’re involved in (a lot of applications including the CommonApp ask you to do that anyway). From experience, it’s way harder to write 50 words about something that impassions you rather than 500 words about it.

“Ok now I know what to write about – how do I start writing about it?”

Most people get stuck here for so long, and it’s easy to procrastinate at this point. Here’s a strategy that a lot of writers employ to overcome the proverbial ‘writer’s block’. Write down the topic of the essay – so for example if the topic is ‘Describe the world you come from and how it has shaped your activities and interests as an individual’, start by writing ‘When I think of the world I come from and how it has shaped my activities and interests as an individual….’ and continuously keep writing furiously for three minutes, without taking your pen off the paper. You may write absolute rubbish, even include ‘blah blah I don’t know what to write here’, but eventually at this level of pressure your subconscious will take over and will automatically guide you through what you need to write next.


Once you’ve gone through a few iterations of your essay, it’s time to collect feedback. Ask your English teacher to do a review of syntax, grammar, and make sure the essay is concise and to the point. The Hemingway Editor is a good starting point to highlight some common mistakes in writing, such as passive voice, complex sentences, etc.

Have your friends or family read it and ask them about their reaction. Did they feel the same emotions you were trying to evoke? Did they understand the central premise?


  • Allow yourself time to ideate.
  • The best ideas will not appear in Eureka! moments, as much as they will through sustained incubation of a tiny thought. (If you’ve got time, listen to this TED talk: Where good ideas come from)
  • Don’t bore the already over-burdened Admission Committee with hackneyed writing. If you want to be noticed, be original. Interesting. Specific. Creative. Funny. Think about how many essays the admissions counselor are reading - you want your’s to stand out.
  • Focus on a theme for the essay. You don’t want to be all over the place, instead, focus on a particular aspect you want to highlight and mold a story around that.
  • Be a good story-teller. Weave a story, tell a tale. Paint the reader a vivid picture with sufficient detail, but don’t get too lost within the prose. Know how to be concise, this maintains the energy and momentum in your writing. Write only that which makes absolute sense.
  • First impressions matter. Don’t have a dull/boring/cliche opening.
  • Ask for help
  • Get reviews from a few, selected trustworthy sources. While you want a range of opinions that give you a balanced feedback, you don’t want to get confused hearing a million irreconcilable points of view. Be picky as to who to accept advice from – even if they’re your parents or school teachers, they are not infallible. And at the risk of sounding cliché, we’d recommend you to go with what your heart says.
  • Sometimes universities have questions like ‘Describe yourself in five words’. Ask not just your best friends, but also people who don’t know you too well – they may be totally inaccurate, but at least you will know what first impressions people have of you.
  • One of the most important aspects of the essay is simply to be genuine – this is the first time you are applying but admissions committees have been looking at thousands of essays for decades of years – and they can tell when you’re faking it.
  • Proof-read over and over
  • Make sure that your essay is technically superior, and avoids these common errors: Misspellings, incorrect punctuation, tense and pronoun inconsistencies, inappropriate diction (use Standard English)
  • In addition, pay special attention to: prose morphology (paragraphing, indentation, varied line length), formatting, structural organization of contents, use of clever rhetoric and literary devices.


  • Wait until the last minute (just a reiteration of ‘Start Early’, above) but I’ve added it again just to reiterate its importance.
  • Use heavy jargon just to impress.
  • Pump “air” or “fluff” into it to make it longer. You’re trying to show the admissions counselor a brief yet comprehensive view into your lives in just a few paragraphs, so every word matters.
  • Exceed word or character limits. The Admissions Committee adds these restrictions for a reason. Please respect that in the interest of fairness and equality between all applicants. Everyone has a lot to say about their lives, why should you alone get the extra space?
  • Use the essay to explain low test or exam scores. If there is a genuine reason, let your school counsellor know, and they will include the same in their comments.
  • Try to be cute. Smileys, hearts, and all those attempts at pictorial representations of the human expression that we term emoticons are an absolute no-no. Exclamations, in moderation for dramatic effect, may be just about on the threshold of acceptability.
  • Repeat information found elsewhere.
  • It may be tempting to highlight a particularly intense passion of yours, but genuinely, it’s boring to read the same thing paraphrased twice.

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