Mastering the College Admissions Essay in 2021

The beginning of senior year of high school brings many challenges and opportunities.  Rising seniors often start the most academically rigorous courses of their high school career.  Many seniors take on new leadership roles in sports, the arts, student government, and other extracurricular activities.  Many seniors continue to earn money from part-time jobs while others expand their commitments to community service.  Looming over everything, however, is the college application process.  Filling out college applications is the culmination of a stressful and anxiety-inducing process.  One of the most difficult and potentially overwhelming aspects of that process is writing the college application essay.

While each college and university to which a student applies can require students to respond to a unique prompt, the majority of colleges either copy the prompts posted by the Common Application organization or allow students to write on the topic of their choice.  Either way, it is likely that most students applying to college will only have to write one primary application essay which they can then use in most, if not all, of their applications.

The Common Application organization (Common App), a non-profit founded in the 1970s with the mission to simplify the college application process with the goal of expanding the number of students who apply to college, generally posts seven different prompts when they open their application season each August.  While Common App changes a prompt every few years, most years the prompts remain the same as the previous year.  The prompts tend to be generic questions which are answerable by as many students as possible.  Recent prompts included questions about overcoming obstacles, challenging your beliefs, solving problems, discussing accomplishments, and explaining one’s own background.

Rather than beginning with a prompt, the single best strategy for writing a successful college application essay is to begin with yourself.  What do you want the college admissions officers to know about you?  Most students attempt to answer one of the questions.  Instead, tell a focused and meaningful story about yourself, and then find the prompt which most closely aligns with your story.

Once you begin to tell your story, watch out for narrative traps.  Avoid mistakes that turn your essay from an asset to a hindrance to your application. Don’t try to tell your entire life story in this essay.  The Common App essay has a 650-word limit.  Since the Common App is submitted over the internet, the form in which you submit your essay will not let you enter more than 650 words.  Even colleges that don’t accept applications through Common App match the 650-word limit.

Write about yourself.  An error that many students make is to write about their families, their teachers, their friends, but ignore themselves in the essay.  This is a chance for you to show off who you are and what you have accomplished.  Additionally, many students try to downplay their own successes in order to avoid bragging. The college application essay represents your attempt to impress a group of strangers so much that they offer you admission to a college or university.  Brag a little.

Most importantly, always tell the truth.  Make sure everything you put into your college application essay is true.  This doesn’t mean you have to include all the boring details.  As famed film director Alfred Hitchcock once said, “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.”  You can absolutely make use of narrative storytelling techniques such as condensing time, altering the sequence of events, and combining characters, but make sure the story is real and true.

So, what story should you tell?  Tell a story that is meaningful to you, something that matters. Tell a story that inspired you to grow, change, or achieve something.  Tell a story that makes you feel good about yourself and that helps others understand your character.  Tell a story that makes you look good and engenders a desire in admissions officers to want to meet you and get to know more about you.

Specifically, tell a story that represents a moment in your life.  Rather than write about the entire football season, pick a specific 30-second to 5-minute moment in a single game.  Rather than write about the entire rehearsal process and concert season, pick a specific moment in one piece of music from one concert.  Use that moment to dive into your thoughts, your decisions, your emotions, and allow your readers to get to know you.

Once you have your moment, make it active.  Use descriptive language and use active verbs. Grab a thesaurus and upgrade basic vocabulary to something a little more impressive.  Use figurative language to enhance your writing and give your reader details.  Build a picture in the mind’s eye of your readers with your details.  Help them visualize your story.  If you can do that, you can make them care.

Now that you have your story and you’ve written a detailed narrative full of descriptive language and active verbs, you can pick out which question matches up best with your essay.  Then, get help.  Ask your peers, your parents, your teachers, and your mentors to read your essay and give you feedback.  Listen to their advice and consider all of it, but only make changes that help you focus your narrative on your moment and help you focus your essay on telling the most detailed story possible. Here’s a few tips to summarise what you learned in this article.


  1. Don’t tackle too broad a topic; drill down on a narrow angle of the story; it will allow you to create a more compelling essay. Pick out a specific moment that reflects your wider story.
  2. The essay should help the admission committee to know YOU, not others who may be a part of your story. In fact, in this case study notice how while she does mention lots of other people, the focus remains on her and her interactions with other people.
  3. Let the words flow freely creating a draft at first that you will edit later. This will hopefully result in a response that is too long. That is actually a good thing. It is easier to edit something down to the word limit than trying to fill out a response that is too short.
  4. Be engaging in your writing and avoid cliches. Details matter, and the more specific they are to your unique, individual experience, the more engaging they will be, and the less likely you are to fall into cliche.
  5. Allow enough time so that you may create a draft, set it aside for several days, then come back to it with fresh eyes.
  6. Be sure to respond to the prompt in your essay and draw your reader in from the outset. If you start with your story first, you will likely be able to connect to a prompt at the end of your writing process by editing your essay slightly.


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