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How to Start a College Application Essay

The College Essay Getting Started

The college admissions essay is one of the essential parts of the application process. It's a chance to showcase your unique personality, accomplishments, and ambitions to help you stand out from other applicants. However, starting your essay can be a daunting task. So how do you grab the readers' attention and make them want to keep reading?

There are a number of formulas out there for writing these personal statement admission essays. Some encourage you to stick to the traditional opening-body-conclusion formula, while others insist you should take a risk to spice up the admission officer's reading experience.

None of them are wrong, but it doesn't mean they're right for you. As the name implies, writing a personal statement is a personal experience, making it a little different for everyone. Not just the process, but the actual statement itself, too.

Are you a natural-born writer, or is it literally the last thing you want to do? Whichever way you lean, in this article, we discuss strategy, implementation, and getting 'er done. But first, an overview of why your hard work matters.

Why College Application Essays Matter

Writing a good college application essay requires hard work and dedication. So there might be times you start to wonder if all the effort matters.

We caught up with Robin Eurgubian, a college counselor, instructor, and admissions expert who is incredibly knowledgeable about college admissions essays. Robin has worked with thousands of students, helping them craft the perfect essay. So she knows what's most important to colleges and how you can stand out with your story. 

Robin told us that colleges want to know more about you than just your high school grades. Instead, they want to understand how you earned those grades.

"This is where college admission essays come in," Robin shared. "It's the only place you can explain the details of your life: opportunities, challenges, life at home, family expectations, and personal responsibilities. Use your essay to provide a backdrop to your academic record and, ultimately, a deeper understanding of you as an applicant."

Steps for Starting Your College Application Essay

Now that you know why your essay is critical to your application, it's time to start. But if you're looking for tips to wrap up your essay, you can find them here:

Do Some Brainstorming

The first step in writing a college essay is brainstorming. This is the time to reflect on the parts of your life that make you unique and what you can contribute to the college's community.

Robin said it's "crucial that you begin with a personal brainstorm before tackling a single college essay prompt. Start by listing your values, skills, experiences, setbacks, accomplishments, and challenges so that you have a full picture of yourself."

"From there, look for connections and patterns that indicate the type of student you are and how you would contribute to a college's campus. That is ultimately the question behind every prompt: what will you contribute? To answer that you need to really know yourself first. So, journals out!"

Thoroughly Understand the Prompt

One of the most critical steps when writing an essay is understanding the prompt fully. The prompt provides essential guidelines you'll want to follow to ensure that your essay meets the admissions committee's expectations.

Therefore, it is essential to take the time to read and understand the prompt carefully. Don't just skim through it; read it multiple times and ensure you know every word and phrase. In addition, pay attention to the essay's topic, tone, and purpose, as these will help you decide on your essay's approach and structure.

Check Out Some Example Essays

If brainstorming fails to spark any flames, you can always look for inspiration in examples. Head over to Google and type in "[school name] admission essays" because there's a chance that the institution will provide you with the holy grail of application essay ideas and examples.

Johns Hopkins has their Essays That Worked page, which shows personal statements from the most recently accepted class. Sometimes seeing what others have done before you is all it takes to get your mind working fully.

Get Your Thoughts Down on Paper

Once you know what you will write about, it's time to create an outline. This will help you organize your thoughts and ensure your essay has a clear structure. Your outline should include the following:

  • An introduction that hooks the reader and provides context for your essay
  • Body paragraphs that discuss your topic and provide supporting evidence
  • A conclusion that ties everything together and leaves a lasting impression

Your outline doesn't have to be detailed but should give you a clear roadmap for your essay. 

Embrace a Rough First Draft

Any writer will tell you the truth about writing: no first draft is perfect, and you can't edit a blank page. So don't sit down to write the provocative and captivating essay that will blow every other personal statement out of the water and get you admitted to the Ivies!

That's far too much pressure for a first draft. That's too much pressure for a second or third draft, come to think of it.

Sit down and write about a project that you're proud of. Talk about organizing an event or participating in a community service project that opened your eyes. Type up an honest page about someone you admire, the moment you discovered your favorite word, or why you don't trust anyone who doesn't like macaroni and cheese.

Serious or silly, proper punctuation or not that first draft is just literally to get something, anything, onto the page. Then, once it's there, it's just a matter of refining and rewriting until it represents you.

Remember the Goal of the Essay

Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the mindset of this must-be-done that we forget the primary reason for crafting a college admissions essay. These papers, which usually clock in around 700 words, are designed to add depth to your application, often made up of numbers and facts.

Those numbers and facts can apply to a lot of people. An admissions counselor can have a whole stack of applications filled with 3.2 GPAs, all with a solid handful of extracurriculars from college prep high schools. As we explained above, your admissions essay, also known as your personal statement, is where you breathe life into your application. The golden rule for writing this short, reflective essay is straightforward: be yourself.

Don't Let Writer's Block Get You Down

Writer's block can hinder even the best college or university admissions essay ideas. This is understandable, as a lot of pressure is associated with writing a good essay. Here are a few ways to make sure your writing sings.

Free write

Don't stare at a blank document and wait for the perfect first sentence to emerge. Many people find it helpful to write incomplete sentences, make bullet points, or jot down notes to get the ideas flowing.

If this strategy doesn't appeal to you, record yourself talking about your essay or ask someone to ask you questions and take notes on what you say. Talking about a topic often is easier than writing about it.

You also can answer an essay question out loud while recording yourself, then transcribe the recording. Most people write or type at about 30 to 60 words per minute, but they speak at about 200 words per minute. 

Set deadlines

Set realistic deadlines for yourself. The first time you sit down, know you'll just write an outline. The second time, finish a rough draft.

If you sit down to write and stare at a blank page for 30 minutes, get up and take a walk. If you start early enough, you'll have the luxury to write when it comes more easily. 

Take breaks

Taking a break is a good thing, especially if you're working for a while. There's nothing wrong with doing something fun for an hour and getting back to work. 

If you're worried about productivity, use that time to research prospective schools or review other work. Good ideas often come when you least expect them. 

Looking for Additional Colleges to Apply to? 

So you know all about starting a college essay. But do you have a well-rounded list of colleges to apply to? With Appily, you can easily build a balanced list of match, reach, and safety schools, so you're sure to get into a college you'll love.

To get a curated list of perfect-match schools based on what's most important to you —from budget to majors to style, click the link below and create a free Appily account. 

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