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6 Steps to Start Your College Essay

Getting started on your college essay can be one of the hardest parts of applying to college. Our advice? Take it one step at a time.

Most counselors and students who have applied to college recommend getting started on your college essays early -- the summer prior to senior year, if possible. If you find yourself putting it off, or if you’re experiencing essay anxiety, take a deep breath and try this 6-step plan.

Step 1. Review the essay prompt(s)

Take 15 or 20 minutes to simply look at the essay prompts. The Common Application and Coalition Application release their prompts during the spring prior to senior year.

If you’re applying to colleges that require an essay but don’t accept the Common App or Coalition App, check the website of the colleges to which you are applying to see if their application and essay is available. Most colleges post their applications in August.

Don’t worry about choosing a topic yet. At this point, just think about what you want colleges to know about you, beyond your grades and test scores. As the Colorado College Admissions Department advises: “Take the time to think carefully about what you want us to know about you.”  

Step 2. Start brainstorming

On another day, look at the prompts again. Do any of them invoke personal experiences that demonstrate a unique aspect of your personality? Your academic passions? Your ability to learn and grow from your experiences? Or another quality you want colleges to remember? Write down everything that comes to mind.

Step 3. Test drive a few topics 

Some of the students profiled in CollegeData’s Road to College Student Stories have told us that when they connected with an essay topic they were truly passionate about, their essay practically wrote itself. How do you find that topic?

Spend at least a few afternoons or evenings writing about the experiences you brainstormed in Step 2. Write freely and don’t edit yourself at first -- just get your words and ideas on paper.

When you’re finished free writing, ask yourself:

  • Which topics were easy -- or even fun -- to write about?
  • Where did you have the most to say?
  • Which piece of writing seems to reveal the “real you” and your genuine voice?

Remember that your essay does not have to be about a harrowing hardship, tragic loss, or a jaw-dropping adventure. As the Wellesley Admissions Department advises: "An essay about some small, even insignificant-seeming thing can be more powerful than an essay about how you’ve saved the world or overcome tragedy.”

Step 4. Write a (terrible) first draft or two

Once you have selected your topic, you can start structuring your first draft. But don’t expect your first, or even third or fourth draft, to be perfect. Give yourself time to write multiple versions, and plan to walk away from your essay for at least a couple of days so you can come back to it with a fresh perspective.  

Keep in mind that you may be able to use parts of the early drafts of your essay -- writing that didn't make it into the final version  -- for supplemental essays or other parts of your application.

Warning: Be careful about being overly influenced by online essay examples.

While reading essays submitted by other students can be helpful, reading too many might put the voices of other students in your head. Your essay should be uniquely yours. As the Princeton Admissions Department advises: “This is your opportunity to display your best writing as well as your ability to convey ideas in your own voice.”

Step 5. Get feedback from a teacher, counselor, or other people you trust  

Some questions to ask the readers of your essay:

  • Does the essay ring true to them?
  • Does the language sound like you?
  • Did they find any parts of it unclear or difficult to understand?

Step 6. Write as many drafts as you need to 

Revise and get feedback until you feel confident that your essay says what you want it to say. Then have a teacher, counselor or another person you trust proofread your essay to ensure there are no grammatical or punctuation errors and that it is clear and easy to read.

With your essay finished, you can then work on the other parts of your applications. Good luck!

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