How to Write a College Application Essay: In 3 Easy Steps

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. (more…)

5 Top Tips on Finding Topics for College Admissions Essays


College Admissions Essays: Five Tips for the Perfect Topic

Still looking for a college application essay topic
that will set you apart from the pack?


Here are my Top Five Tips on finding compelling and memorable topics:


1. Start with a defining quality (curious, self-disciplined, creative), and then look for “times” or examples of when you either demonstrated this quality, had this quality challenged or developed this quality.

Click HERE to find my Jumpstart Guide to help you with that approach.

Don’t know your defining qualities? Click HERE to find them.

2. Try to find something “unexpected” to write about, either something that happened to you that no one would expect to happen to someone like you (you love knot-tying but got stuck in a tree because you used the wrong knot); or something you love or pursue that no one would ever expect of you (a football player who loves to bake cakes.); or some personal trait or characteristic that no one would guess has affected you (you are not even 5-feet-tall but wear a size 9 shoe.)

Click HERE and HERE to read more about that.

3. Troll your past for “mundane” or everyday topics as opposed to ones you think might be impressive. Examples: The Day I Washed Dishes at My Dad’s Restaurant; People Think I’m Mean Because I Weigh 300 Pounds; How I Grew to Love Public Busses; I’m a Formal Guy Even Though I Live in Surf City.

Click HERE for more posts on the power of mundane topics.

4. Read sample essays. If you are stuck, it’s so worth the little bit of time to get your hands on a cheap collection and skim through them. First, you will see the range of topics that other students have used, and chances are it will trigger your own ideas.

Secondly, you will get a feel for the looser, narrative style and structure of these essays, which will help you write yours. Click HERE for books of sample essays. And HERE is a post with online sample essays.

5. Go down memory lane and try to remember “times” when you faced a problem. If you can find a problem, you will find a story. (Problems come in many different shapes and sizes: challenges, change, mistakes, obstacles, phobias, fears, bad luck, physical traits, etc.)

If you have a little story (also called an anecdote), chances are you can write an engaging essay. Click HERE to learn more about how this works.

Are you a visual learner? You might find How to Answer Common Application Prompt 4, a free video tutorial, a huge help!


Jumpstart Your Personal Statement! All You Need is a Juicy Problem!

College Admissions Essays:

How to Start Your Core College Application Essay


If you are writing a college admissions essay that responds to a prompt that asks you to tell about yourself, or about “a time,” or describe a quality, background, interest, identity, talent, characteristic, experience or accomplishment (such as The Common App prompts or Prompt #2 for the UC app.), then your essay is also known as a personal statement.

The most effective personal statements are written as narrative essays, meaning they relate an experience using a story-telling style.

To share an incident or moment from your past, you only need two components to make a story: a character and a conflict.

So one magic way to create a personal narrative is to search your recent past for a conflict. (You are the “character.”)

Thinking back to English class, remember that conflicts can come from many different places—from within yourself (internal: you have a personal issue or hang-up that caused you pain or trouble) to outside yourself (external: something happened to you.)

To put it simply, a conflict is a problem.

Problems come in all shapes and sizes.

They do not need to be traumas or a crises, although those can work, too.

(HINT: Basic, everyday problems work best! Check out this post about “mundane” topics.)

Here are other words for a conflict or problem: challenge, failure, obstacle, mistake, hang-up, issue, a change, dilemma, fears, obsessions, etc.

Examples of conflicts or problems: you are shy, competitive, stubborn, were bullied, are obsessed with Twilight, didn’t make the team, got injured, have big feet, frizzy red hair, smile too much, someone quit at your work, don’t have own car, can’t spell, adhd, ocd, don’t eat meat, perfectionist, slob, lazy, drunk driving, have a mean grandparent, no money, etc…

Man, there are a lot of problems out there! But for the purposes of writing these dreaded essays, that’s a good thing for once!

Once you remember a juicy problem, follow these steps:

1. Describe the time you had a problem or describe a strong example of your problem.

(Include what happened and how it made you feel. Try to start at the moment it hit, or happened for the best impact!  Include the 5Ws—who, what, when, where and why! Stick to one or two paragraphs.)

These mini-stories are also called anecdotes, and you can learn more by reading my post on how to write an anecdote.

RELATED: My Video Tutorial on How to Write an Anecdote: Part One


Still Stuck? Here’s a Quick Brainstorm Guide

College Admissions Essays

A Step-By-Step Guide to Telling Your Story


Step 1: Write down 3-5 “defining qualities” about yourself.

Think of how one of your parents would sum you up to a stranger.

My Julie, why, she’s creative, ambitious, caring and has a mean stubborn streak. (You can use short phrases, too. “always tries hard,” “takes risks,” “is a fast study.”)

Step 2: Take one of those qualities and try to think of a time–it doesn’t have to be earth-shaking and probably only lasted about 5 minutes or so–when that quality was challenged, or formed, or tested, proven, or affected/changed.

HUGE HINT: Think about a problem, or an obstacle, conflict, challenge or some type of trouble, that involved you and that quality.

Step 3: If you can find an interesting moment, incident, experience or story to convey about a time when things went wrong for you, BINGO, you could have found a great topic!

ANOTHER HUGE HINT: The incident does not have to be when you fell off a cliff or were hit by a car.

Problems can take many forms, including a personal idiosyncrasy, or phobia, a challenge, or something (big or little, real or in your mind) that tried to stop you from doing something you wanted.

I will stop here. But in a nutshell, you can now relay the problem (in story form, called an “anecdote”) and then explain what you learned, and why, by dealing with it.

Yes, it’s a bit formulaic, but this might help you get going. Read my other posts, How to Write an Anecdote, Show don’t Tell, and Mundane Topics for more great advice.