Colleges are usually looking for four things in an essay:

  1. Your writing ability
  2. Who you are as a person
  3. If you’d be a good fit for the school
  4. Your critical thinking skills (more on this later)

Read on and find out how to craft a killer essay. You’ve got this, and we’re here to help!

Choose your topic

Most schools will give you a choice of topics. Some will let you come up with your own topic. What you choose to write about will reveal your creativity, personality, and values to the admissions office, so think carefully about your topic. Since many schools require more than one essay, it’s a good idea to outline your responses to several essay prompts.

Tips for Choosing a Topic

  • Be unique: Choose a topic that lets you write something specific to you. Don’t write a generic essay that could have been written by any other student.
  • Be passionate: Find the topic that you can write most passionately and effectively about.
  • Find inspiration in your own work: Remember that great paper you wrote for sophomore English? Look back at your own writing to get ideas and inspiration.
  • Be careful: There are almost no forbidden topics. But use caution with sensitive or overused subjects.

How to Write It

Ready to crack open your laptop and get down to business? Here’s how to produce a thoughtful and well-written essay.

Tackle the questions

  • Stay on topic: Answer the question you’re being asked.
  • Brainstorm: Spend some time thinking about details you’ll use to make your point. Jot things down as they come – you can organize them (or scrap them) later.
  • Tell a story: Grab your reader’s interest and hold it until the end. This isn’t a research paper – make sure you’re telling a story.

Write, edit, revise, repeat

  • Make it sound like you: Avoid long, complicated sentences and fancy words from the thesaurus.
  • End on a positive note: Find something hopeful or positive to say.
  • Take your time: You might need to write several versions to get it right.
  • Recruit editors: Ask family, friends, even your English teacher to read your essay. Fresh eyes and new perspectives can really help.

Show critical thinking

Critical thinking means analyzing and evaluating information. This can be information you’ve read, heard, observed, or experienced. Colleges want to see critical thinking because it shows them you’re ready for higher learning. Every college student is expected to think critically about the subject they’re studying, no matter what it is.

How can I show critical thinking?

Whatever your topic, be sure to show some analysis or big-picture understanding of it. For example:

  • Have you learned a lesson?
  • Do you plan to act differently or make a change because of something you observed or experienced?
  • Can you connect your experience to a bigger issue in society?

Instead of just telling a story about an experience, show what you’ve learned from or thought about it.

Focus on the “why”

Answer “why” so your reader won’t have to ask “so what?” Wrestling with your topic and what it means to you helps your essay stand apart. Think like a toddler and just keep asking “why”:

  • Why did you choose your topic?
  • Why does this topic reveal a value or trait of yours?
  • Why do you want to share this part of yourself in your application?
  • Why is this important to your career and life goals?

Stand out from the crowd

Find what makes you different from everyone else. Standing out will leave your reader with a lasting impression of you. Here’s how:

  • Pick a personal topic: Tell the reader something new about you that they couldn’t find anywhere else in your application. Your essay should sound like something only you could write.
  • Use a hook: Capture your reader’s interest and make them think, “Tell me more.”
  • Make it come to life: Use descriptive words and action words to create an image in your reader’s mind.
  • Be human: Connect with your reader – be open, likeable, and humble. Most of all, be yourself. Admissions counselors often ask themselves, “Would this student make a good roommate?” Keep this in mind as you write and edit.
  • Be memorable: Leave your reader with a takeaway. Give the admissions office a reason to remember you.

Essay Dos and Don'ts


  • Be authentic: Own it. Colleges truly want to know who you are.
  • Proofread: Give yourself time to step away. Come back later to read your essay with fresh eyes.
  • Read out loud: Read your essay out loud to yourself or someone else. This can help you see if it flows and reads well.


  • Rely on a thesaurus: Write like you speak. Don’t be tempted to use “impressive” words if everyday language sounds more authentic.
  • Use AI to help you: Using AI (artificial intelligence) to help write your essay might be tempting, but it’s not a good idea. Your essay must be written in your original voice, which is something a robot could never do. Your essay is your opportunity to let your personality shine! Colleges are on high alert for AI, so resist the temptation.
  • Write what you think they want to hear: Focus on something that’s truly important to you. If you’re bored writing it, admissions counselors will be bored reading it.
  • Over-edit: Ask a few trusted people to edit your essay. Too many opinions can make you lose your authentic voice. And you voice is what admissions staff want to hear.
  • Be afraid to start over: If your topic isn’t working or you’re not happy with the direction your essay is taking, start over! If you’re stuck or not excited about it, your essay isn’t doing its job.

Looking for more essay help?

Check out our College Prep Series.

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