Simple Writing Tips To Write A Great College Essay

January 4, 2022

Many great colleges expect you to submit an essay or personal statement as part of your application.

It is a huge burden, and it will surely take a lot of time and effort. But it's also a novel opportunity that can make a difference in your life. 

Admissions committees put the utmost weight on your high school grades and your test scores. Nevertheless, selective colleges receive applications from many deserving and meritorious students with similar scores and grades—too many to admit. So they use your essay, along with your letters of recommendation and extracurricular activities, to find out what sets you apart from the other worthy candidates.

Narrating Your Story to Colleges

Things that can set you apart 

Every single person has a different background, hobbies, and personality. You have a great opportunity to tell your story (or at least part of it). The most excellent way to tell your story is to write a personal, reflective essay about something that has a deep purpose for you. Be honest and true, and your unique qualities will shine through.

Admissions officers have to examine numerous college essays, most of which are forgettable. Many students try to sound smart rather than sound like themselves, which easily spoils their essays. Many other students try to write about a topic that they don't care about or dislike but think hopefully when they will impress admissions officers during the sophomore year.

You don't need to have started your own million-dollar business or have spent the summer hiking the Everest trail. Colleges are simply looking for thoughtful, sensitive, and motivated students who will add something to the first-year class.

Simple Tips To Write a Unique College Application Essay

1. Compose something that's valuable to you

It could be an experience, a person, or a book—anything has hugely impacted your life.  

2. Don't just narrate—you’ve to reflect! 

Every student can write about how they won the big game in some competition,   or the summer they spent in India. When recollecting these events, you need to provide more than the play-by-play. Explain what you gained from the experience and how it changed you.

3. Be Funny

If you can make your admissions officer laugh, your application will never be lost in the shuffle. But keep in mind this thing. What you think is funny and what an adult of 50 years of age working in a college for years thinks is funny are probably different. We warn against one-liners, limericks, and anything off-color.

4. Start soon and create many drafts

Make time for a few days and read it again. Put yourself in the shoes of an admissions officer: Start asking questions to yourself like; Is the essay exciting? Do the ideas flow rationally? Does it communicate something about the applicant? Is it written in the applicant’s own voice?

5. Avoid repeats and contradictions 

While writing your essay or personal statement make sure you don’t contradict any part of your application–also you shouldn’t repeat anything. Your essay is not the right place to list your awards or talk about your grades or test scores.

6. Answer the question being asked

Avoid reusing an answer to a similar question from another application.

7. Have someone edit your essay

Your family member, any friend who has already written an essay, a teacher, or a college counselor is your best resource. And before you submit your essay make sure to check it, check it again and again, and then triple-check to make sure your essay is free of spelling or grammar errors.

How To Structure & Outline A College Essay 

When starting your essay ask yourself two questions:

  1. Have you ever gone through significant challenges in your life?
  1. Do you really want to write about them? 

Because here’s a vital qualifier: 

Even if you’ve faced any challenges, you do not have to write about them in your personal statement. 

Because many students are under the impression that they have to write about challenges—that it’s either expected or that it’s anyhow better to do so. Neither of these is true. 

I’ve seen several essays which were outstanding—ones that got students into every school you have ever dreamt of—that had no central challenge.

If you don’t have any idea that’s because you don’t know what qualifies as a challenge, it’s important to think of challenges as being on a spectrum. On the weak end of the spectrum would be things like getting a bad grade or not making it into your dream sports team. 

On the strong end of the spectrum, there are things like escaping war. Being extremely shy but being responsible for changing for your family might be around a 3 or 4 out of 10. 

You can use Narrative Structure to write about a challenge anywhere on the spectrum, but it’s very difficult to create an outstanding essay about a weaker challenge.

Students sometimes pick the most difficult challenge they’ve been through and try to make it sound worse than it actually was. Beware of pushing yourself to write about a challenge merely because you think these types of essays are inherently “better.” Focusing myopically on one experience can sideline other brilliant and beautiful elements of your character.

If you’re still unsure, don’t worry. I’ll help you decide what to focus on. But, before that answer these two questions with a gut-level response.

  1. Challenges?   Yes/No
  1. Vision for your future?   Yes/No

Further, we’ll discuss two structures: Narrative Structure, which goes well for describing challenges, and Montage Structure, which works well for essays that aren’t about challenges.

Montage Structure

In simple words, a montage is a series of moments or story events connected by a common thematic thread. 

Examples from movies include “training” montages, like those from Rocky, or Footloose, or when two people fall in love montage from most romantic comedies. Or can you recall the opening to the Pixar movie Up? In just a few minutes, we learn the entire history of Carl and Ellie’s relationship. 

One objective is to communicate a lot of information fast. Another is to allow you to share a lot of different kinds of information, as the example essay below shows. 

Narrative Structure vs. Montage Structure explained in two sentences:

In Narrative Structure, story events connect chronologically.

In Montage Structure, story events connect thematically.

Sample montage essay:

My Laptop Stickers

My laptop is like a passport. It is plastered with stickers all over the outside, inside, and bottom. Each sticker is a stamp, representing a place I’ve been, a passion I’ve pursued, or a community I’ve belonged to. These stickers make for an untraditional first impression at a meeting or presentation, but it’s one I’m proud of. Let me take you on a quick tour: 

“We <3 Design,” bottom left corner. Art has been a constant for me for as long as I can remember. Today my primary engagement with art is through design. I’ve spent entire weekends designing websites and social media graphics for my companies. Design means more to me than just branding and marketing; it gives me the opportunity to experiment with texture, perspective, and contrast, helping me refine my professional style.

   “Common Threads,” bottom right corner. A rectangular black and red sticker displaying the theme of the 2017 TEDxYouth@Austin event. For years I’ve been interested in the street artists and musicians in downtown Austin who are so unapologetically themselves. As a result, I’ve become more open-minded and appreciative of unconventional lifestyles. TED gives me the opportunity to help other youths understand new perspectives, by exposing them to the diversity of Austin where culture is created, not just consumed.

Poop emoji, middle right. My 13-year-old brother often sends his messages with the poop emoji ‘echo effect,’ so whenever I open a new message from him, hundreds of poops elegantly cascade across my screen. He brings out my goofy side, but also helps me think rationally when I am overwhelmed. We don’t have the typical “I hate you, don’t talk to me” siblinghood (although occasionally it would be nice to get away from him); we’re each other’s best friends. Or at least he’s mine. 

“Lol ur not Harry Styles,” upper left corner. Bought in seventh grade and transferred from my old laptop, this sticker is torn but persevering with layers of tape. Despite conveying my fangirl-y infatuation with Harry Styles’ boyband, One Direction, for me Styles embodies an artist-activist who uses his privilege for the betterment of society. As a $42K donor to the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, a hair donor to the Little Princess Trust, and promoter of LGBTQ+ equality, he has motivated me to be a more public activist instead of internalizing my beliefs.  

“Catapult,” middle right. This is the logo of a startup incubator where I launched my first company, Threading Twine. I learned that business can provide others access to fundamental human needs, such as economic empowerment of minorities and education. In my career, I hope to be a corporate advocate for the empowerment of women, creating large-scale impact and deconstructing institutional boundaries that obstruct women from working in high-level positions. Working as a women’s rights activist will allow me to engage in creating lasting movements for equality, rather than contributing to a cycle that elevates the stances of wealthy individuals. 

“Thank God it’s Monday,” sneakily nestled in the upper right corner. Although I attempt to love all my stickers equally (haha), this is one of my favorites. I always want my association with work to be positive. 

And there are many others, including the horizontal, yellow stripes of the Human Rights Campaign; “The Team,” a sticker from the Model G20 Economics Summit where I collaborated with youth from around the globe; and stickers from “Kode with Klossy,” a community of girls working to promote women’s involvement in underrepresented fields. 

When my computer dies (hopefully not for another few years), it will be like my passport expiring. It’ll be difficult leaving these moments and memories behind, but I probably won’t want these stickers in my 20s anyways (except Harry Styles, that’s never leaving). My next set of stickers will reveal my next set of aspirations. They hold the key to future paths I will navigate, knowledge I will gain, and connections I will make.

Narrative Structure 

If you answered “yes” to both questions at the beginning of this guide, I recommend exploring Narrative Structure. 

Usually, the narrative essay consists of three basic sections: Challenges + Effects; What I Did About It; What I Learned. You have to divide your essay and word count evenly into three sections, so for a 650-word personal statement, 200ish each.

 During sophomore year status Quo: The starting point of the story. This briefly describes the life or world of the main character (in your essay, that’s you).

  • The Inciting Incident: The event that disrupts the Status Quo. Often it’s the worst thing that could happen to the main character. It gets us to wonder: Uh-oh … what will they do next? or How will they solve this problem?
  • Raising the Stakes/Rising Action: Builds suspense. The situation becomes tenser and tenser, decisions become more important, and our main character has more and more to lose.
  • Moment of Truth: The climax. Often this is when our main character must make a choice.
  • New Status Quo: The denouement or falling action. This often tells us why the story matters or what our main character has learned. Think of these insights or lessons as the answer to the big “so what?” question.

Let’s look at the “The Birth of Sher Khan” essay. 

The Birth of Sher Khan  

The narrow alleys of Mardan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan where I spent the first 7 years of my life were infiltrated with the stench of blood and helplessness. I grew up with Geo news channel, with graphic images of amputated limbs and the lifeless corpses of uncles, neighbors, and friends. I grew up with hurried visits to the bazaar, my grandmother in her veil and five-year-old me, outrunning spontaneous bomb blasts. On the open rooftop of our home, where the hustle and bustle of the city were loudest, I grew up listening to calls to prayer, funeral announcements, gunshots. I grew up in the aftermath of 9/11, confused. 

Like the faint scent of mustard oil in my hair, the war followed me to the United States. Here, I was the villain, responsible for causing pain. In the streets, in school, and in Baba’s taxi cab, my family and I were equated with the same Taliban who had pillaged our neighborhood and preyed on our loved ones. 

War followed me to freshman year of high school when I wanted more than anything to start new and check off to-dos in my bullet journal. Every time news of a terror attack spread, I could hear the whispers, visualize the stares. Instead of mourning victims of horrible crimes, I felt personally responsible, only capable of focusing on my guilt. The war had manifested itself in my racing thoughts and bitten nails when I decided that I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, let it win. 

A mission to uncover parts of me that I’d buried in the war gave birth to a persona: Sher Khan, the tiger king, my radio name. As media head at my high school, I spend most mornings mastering the art of speaking and writing lighthearted puns into serious announcements. Laughter, I’ve learned, is one of the oldest forms of healing, a survival tactic necessary in war, and peace too. 

During sophomore year, I found myself in International Human Rights, a summer course at Cornell University that I attended through a local scholarship. I went into class eager to learn about laws that protect freedom and came out knowledgeable about ratified conventions, The International Court of Justice, and the repercussions of the Srebrenica massacre. To apply our newfound insight, three of my classmates and I founded our own organization dedicated to youth activism and spreading awareness about human rights violations: Fight for Human Rights. Today, we have seven state chapters led by students across the U.S and a chapter in Turkey too. Although I take pride in being Editor of the Golden State’s chapter,  I enjoy having written articles about topics that aren’t limited to violations within California. Addressing and acknowledging social issues everywhere is the first step to preventing war.

Earlier this year, through KQED, a Bay Area broadcasting network, I was involved in a youth takeover program, and I co-hosted a Friday news segment about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, the travel ban, and the vaping epidemic. Within a few weeks, my panel and interview were accessible worldwide, watched by my peers in school, and family thousands of miles away in Pakistan. Although the idea of being so vulnerable initially made me nervous, I soon realized that this vulnerability was essential to my growth. 

I never fully escaped war; it’s evident in the chills that run down my spine whenever an untimely call reaches us from family members in Pakistan and in the funerals still playing on Geo News. But I’m working towards a war-free life, internally and externally, for me and the individuals who can share in my experiences, for my family, and for the forgotten Pashtun tribes from which I hail. For now, I have everything to be grateful for. War has taught me to recognize the power of representation, to find courage in vulnerability, and best of all, to celebrate humor. 

Notice that roughly the first third focuses on the challenges she faced and the effects of those challenges.

Roughly the next third focuses on actions she took regarding those challenges. (Though she also sprinkles in lessons and insight here.)

The final third contains lessons and insights she learned through those actions, reflecting on how her experiences have shaped her.

And within those three sections, notice the beats of her story: Status Quo, The Inciting Incident, Raising the Stakes/Rising Action, Moment of Truth, New Status Quo.

Let’s look at another narrative example:

What Had To be Done 

At six years old, I stood locked away in the restroom. I held tightly to a tube of toothpaste because I’d been sent to brush my teeth to distract me from the commotion. Regardless, I knew what was happening: my dad was being put under arrest for domestic abuse. He’d hurt my mom physically and mentally, and my brother Jose and I had shared the mental strain. It’s what had to be done.

Living without a father meant money was tight, mom worked two jobs, and my brother and I took care of each other when she, thea brief period of time the quality of our lives slowly started to improve as our soon-to-be step-dad became an integral part of our family. He paid attention to the needs of my mom, my brother, and me. But our prosperity was short-lived as my step dad’s chronic alcoholism became more and more recurrent. When I was eight, my younger brother Fernando’s birth complicated things even further. As my step-dad slipped away, my mom continued working, and Fernando’s care was left to Jose and me. I cooked, Jose cleaned, I dressed Fernando, Jose put him to bed. We did what we had to do.

As undocumented immigrants and with little to no family around us, we had to rely on each other. Fearing that any disclosure of our status would risk deportation, we kept to ourselves when dealing with any financial and medical issues. I avoided going on certain school trips, and at times I was discouraged to even meet new people. I felt isolated and at times disillusioned; my grades started to slip.

Over time, however, I grew determined to improve the quality of life for my family and myself.

Without a father figure to teach me the things a father could, I became my own teacher. ed how to fix ahow to swim, and even how to talk to girls. I became resourceful, fixing shoes with strips of duct tape, and I even found a job to help pay bills. I became as independent as I could to lessen the time and money mom had to spend raising me.

I also worked to apply myself constructively in other ways. I worked hard and took my grades from Bs and Cs to consecutive straight A’s. I shattered my school’s 1ooM breaststroke record, and learned how to play the clarinet, saxophone, and the oboe. Plus, I not only became the first student in my school to pass the AP Physics 1 exam, I’m currently pioneering my school’s first AP Physics 2 course ever.

These changes inspired me to help others. I became president of the California Scholarship Federation, providing students with information to prepare them for college, while creating opportunities for my peers to play a bigger part in our community. I began tutoring kids, teens, and adults on a variety of subjects ranging from basic English to home improvement and even Calculus. As the captain of the water polo and swim team I’ve led practices crafted to individually push my comrades to their limits, and I’ve counseled friends through circumstances similar to mine. I’ve done tons, and I can finally say I’m proud of that. 

But I’m excited to say that there’s so much I have yet to do. I haven’t danced the tango, solved a Rubix Cube, explored how perpetual motion might fuel space exploration, or seen the World Trade Center. And I have yet to see the person that Fernando will become.  

I’ll do as much as I can from now on. Not because I have to. Because I choose to. 

You Might Also Like

Free College Essay Guide

  • Strategies required to write a stellar college essay
  • Exploration Worksheets to help you brainstorm
  • 3 Exemplar Personal Statements
  • Framework to help you Audit your College Essays
Download the College Essay Guide