How To Write a Compelling College Application Essay

No Need for an Opinion on World Peace

Depending on the academic level of the college to which you’re applying, the college application could require no essay, or only a brief essay, or a single main essay, or a main essay and two or three “short” essays. In this “how to” explanation, we’ll be focusing on a main essay.

And in preparation for this “how to,” you might want to go to a major bookstore and browse through all the books offering samples of successful college application essays. Pay particular attention to the topics of these essays. Especially look for examples of truly trivial topics that resulted in compelling essays that made the student applicant stand out as someone the college would want to accept.

Step 1

Read the question very carefully several times to ensure you really understand the question. If the application also asks for other “short” essays, read these “short” essay questions and consider how these “short” essays might complement the main essay you plan to write.

Step 2

Brainstorm with your parents, friends or mentors how you can answer this main application question in a way that will showcase your brand – how you are positioning yourself in this particular college application. (You may be positioning yourself differently for different college applications.) For example, you may be branding yourself as someone who wants to swim on the college swim team. Even though the main essay question may not lend itself to being about your high school swim team experiences, you may be able to include a reference to the swim team in the main essay. (Warning: Only include the reference if it is appropriate to the essay.)

Step 3

When choosing a topic to write about, do NOT decide to write your opinions on world peace unless the essay question specifically asks you to write on world peace. Most young people do not have enough worldly knowledge to write a compelling essay about world peace or any other “weighty” topic. THE WHOLE GOAL OF THIS ESSAY IS TO MAKE YOU STAND OUT IN THE COLLEGE’S ADMISSION OFFICE AS SOMEONE THE COLLEGE WANTS TO ACCEPT. It is very hard to stand out in an essay about world peace. (Of course, if you volunteered in Darfur for a summer and write about that experience, you can include that you volunteered there as your part in helping world peace.) The way to stand out is to write a compelling essay about yourself – and this can be on the simplest of topics.

Step 4

Choose a topic that is very personal to you and on which you can put your own stamp. My nephew Ben wrote an essay on volunteering at a youth home as a mentor to a troubled boy. The volunteering at a youth home was not that unusual. But one line in his essay stood out: he wrote that on his way home each Sunday from working with this troubled boy, Ben would evaluate what had worked and hadn’t worked with this boy, and then try to come up with new ideas to try out the following Sunday. This is a compelling picture (yes, the essay reader can picture this scene in his/her mind) that makes this college application essay stand out.

Step 5

Start writing. Don’t sit starring at blank paper because you’re trying to write the perfect essay the first time. Just write. Once you get something down on paper, you have something with which to work.

Step 6

Show your first draft to someone else. Ask whether you appear to be on the right track or should try a different topic. If you appear to be on the right track, now you rewrite and rewrite, taking into consideration the recommended word count for the essay. (Do NOT go over the limit and do NOT go way under.)

Step 7

When you have the essay as good as you think you can get it (and have run spell check several times), look at the first paragraph. Is it a grabber? Or does it seem weak compared to the second paragraph? Most people write weak first paragraphs and strong second paragraphs. See if you can eliminate the weak first paragraph and start your essay with the strong second paragraph. If you’re unsure of what is a strong paragraph – keep in mind the best opening paragraph paints a strong picture in the mind of the reader that is directly connected to the rest of the essay. A reader should be able to come back to your essay after two hours of reading other essays and be able to remember the main points of your essay just be reading the first paragraph.

Step 8

It’s also a good idea to check your concluding paragraph. Does it support everything you’ve written before or does it come out of left field? Sometimes it may be better to eliminate that tagged-on last paragraph and end on a strong paragraph about your topic.

Step 9

Read your essay aloud. See if you are missing any words you didn’t notice while reading to yourself. Run spell-check again and double-check all the common errors that spell-check doesn’t pick up, such as their and there, you’re and your, it’s and its.

Step 10

Show your essay to others to check for any errors you may have missed or anything that is unclear. Then after you make any corrections, go back and repeat step 9. Read your essay aloud to check for missing or incorrect words. Keep repeating steps 9 and 10 until you are confident that your essay is error-free.

I always tell young people – if your essay makes me cry when I read it, that’s a good sign that it is compelling.

Phyllis zimbler Miller is the authof of MRS. LIEUTENANT: A SHARON GOLD NOVEL and the co-author of the Jewish holiday book SEASONS FOR CELEBRATION. She blogs at as well as at, which gives advice on applying to colleges along with applying for internships and jobs.

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