College Application Essays

College application essays are one of my favorite assignments to work on with students. They are a chance for me to get to know my students better as we brainstorm topics for their personal essays. I get to hear about childhood memories, unique family traditions, and uncommon hobbies. I love helping students find their voice and tell their unique stories to colleges.

My students do not share my enthusiasm for application essays. They feel immense pressure to produce their best pieces of writing to impress colleges. They have also probably heard vague tidbits of advice on how to accomplish this: stand out, don’t be cliché, and be interesting. It’s no wonder that a lot of students have trouble finding a place to start. Here are a few tips to make college application essays less scary:

1. Reading other essays: Read other well-written college application essays. Many colleges release strong application essays from previous years. Reading an array of these essays gives students an idea of the wide range of appropriate topics and the different ways to write about them.

2. Don’t worry about being cliché: Some students think all of their ideas sound cliché. As long as students are very specific in their topic and write a detailed essay, their piece will usually come off as fresh and interesting.

3. Topics to avoid: I do advise avoiding some topics. Breaking up with a significant other or losing a grandparent often simply take more emotional distance than many students are capable of.
4. Take time to thoroughly revise and edit: I cannot emphasize this point enough. Revising and editing writing are the most important parts of the writing process. It took me three separate revising and editing sessions just to write this post!

College essays are a chance for students to write a narrative that represents them in some small way. Have fun with it! Do you have any tips for writing college application essays? Please share below. And to my students-good luck writing!


I also love working with students on personal essays. I agree with all of these points! It's a great list. I would just qualify the point about being cliché. I think students will likely avoid being cliche inadvertently if the follow all the other steps on this list, being specific, revising, avoiding certain topics, etc. But I find that often, if a student isn't careful, the first time they write their essay, it sounds exactly like every other essay I've read.  


Elisabeth W.

UVA Grad with MA in English Teaches Reading, Writing, and Test Prep

400+ hours
if (isMyPost) { }