how to write college application essay


After working with thousands of students from all over the world on writing the dreaded college application essay for the last eight years, I’ve finally been able to boil down the process to three simple steps.

Yes, just three steps.

If you follow these steps, I believe you will be able to craft a college application essay that will give you an edge in the admissions game.


Each step makes sure that you share information about yourself that will make your essay effective and help you stand out from the competition.

What makes an essay effective?

An outstanding college application essay needs to:


  • Be engaging at the start (hook reader)
  • Reveal something unique about who you are
  • Get personal
  • Connect with your reader
  • Show your grit (raw determination)
  • Express intellectual vitality (how you think and what you value)
  • Have a sharp focus
  • Be memorable


Now, here are the three steps
to crafting your own
college application essay:


college application essay


Share a personal story from your life



college application essay


Explain what you learned
from that moment or experience


college application essay

Explore why what you learned matters



Yup. Just those three steps.

If you can write several paragraphs on each of these topics, and present your essay in this general order, you will have a solid college application essay.

To learn how to develop each step—and flesh it out into cohesive ideas and paragraphs—click on the underscored links to find and read related posts on each topic.


Step One: Writing a College Application Essay


Share a personal story from your life:


Start by finding one of your defining qualities or characteristics, or a core value.

Then brainstorm a moment or incident from your recent past that illustrates the one quality, characteristic or value.

Make sure that moment or incident involves some type of problem.

Craft that moment into an anecdote, which means you recreate that real-life mini-story using fiction-like language.

Include how that moment or incident made you feel.

Provide background to that moment or incident; give it context.


Step Two: Writing a College Application Essay


Explain how you handled that problem:


Share the steps you took to deal with, manage or solve it.

Reflect on what inspired you to deal with the problem.

Explain what you learned in the process of dealing with that problem.


Step Three: Writing a College Application Essay


Explore why it matters that you learned this lesson:


Weave in other examples from your life where you have applied what your learned.

Express how you envision applying what you learned in your future endeavors.


common application essay

Red Flag:

Some students do a great job sharing a personal story, but spend too much of their essay on those details. Make sure at least half or more of your essay explores Step Two and Step Three.

So that’s it. Easy peasy.

Now, you can either get cranking and learn how to crank out all these steps, or read on to see exactly how and why this approach works.

To review, here is how you will knock off all the requirements for writing an effective college application essay:

How STEP ONE Ensures Your College Application Essay Rocks


If you include Step One in your essay, you will give it a sharp focus by only showcasing one defining quality or core value (and you avoid one of the worse essay pitfalls: listing accomplishments and activities and writing a general, dull essay). And you will make sure your essay is engaging at the start by using an anecdote. You will ensure it’s personal by including a real-life story and sharing your feelings. As long as your anecdote or personal story includes some type of problem, you will show your grit.

Above all, your essay will be engaging and memorable!

How STEP TWO Ensures Your College Application Essay Rocks


If you include Step Two in your essay, you will make sure to reveal how you think and reason and what you value when you share what you thought about and how you handled your problem. When you go on to analyze and evaluate what you learned in the process, you will showcase what you care about and value, as well as your ability to learn and grow.

Above all, your essay will showcase your ability to think, reflect, question, learn and grow–also known as “intellectual vitality.”

How STEP THREE Ensures Your College Application Essay Rocks


If you include Step Three in your essay, you will reveal how you are able to take a life lesson beyond how it affected you, as well as your ability to think critically and reflectively. If you include other examples from your life where you applied this life lesson, you will naturally share other specific parts of your life. If you express how you intend to use what you learned in your future goals and dreams, you will present yourself as someone who is forward-thinking, ambitious and idealistic.

Above all, your essay will be meaningful and memorable!

See how all that works so perfectly, simply by following those three steps?

The best news is that you can develop each step by reading the related blog posts (the blue links), and within a couple hours of reading and writing, crank our your own killer college application essay.

Good luck!