How to Write a College Essay



To help youth applying to college navigate the college essay in order to submit their best work with their college application.


  1. To understand the importance of a college essay.
  2. To identify the first steps to starting an essay.
  3. To identify key ingredients of a good college essay.
  4. To analyze if disclosing your disability is a good personal choice for you.


One hurdle that you must surmount when planning to go to college is the application process. It can be laborious, time intensive, confusing, and overwhelming. The college essay can feel like the worst part of the application process. Whether writing comes easy or is a struggle for you, writing an essay can be a significant challenge and it can feel like your whole application is riding on that one essay. This module can help you to sort through what you need to do to write the best essay you can write.


  1. What is the college essay or personal statement?
  2. How important is a college essay?
  3. What are typical essay topics?
  4. Should I write about my disability?
  5. How do I get started on my college essay?
  6. What makes a good college entrance essay?

What is the college essay or personal statement?

Nearly all colleges and universities require students to write an essay to supplement their application to attend the institution. Applicants are usually given an essay prompt and a word limit within which to express themselves. The essays usually cover topics relating to the student’s experiences and opinions. The goal of the essay is to provide admission professionals an opportunity to see you, beyond your GPA and test scores, as an individual person with your own unique experiences.

How important is a college essay?

The importance of college essays has increased in the past few years. Twenty-six percent of college admission offices consider the college entrance exam is of “considerable importance” in the admission process (Gabriel, 2011). Some colleges weigh essays higher than other parts of the application. However, the essay is not the most important part of your application when you are applying for college. Your overall Grade Point Average (GPA), college preparation, test results, and the strength of the high school curriculum all outweigh the essay (Gabriel, 2011). However, teacher recommendations and extracurricular activities rank below the college essay (Gabriel, 2011). Therefore, it is extremely important to submit a well-written college entrance essay.

What are typical essay topics?

Essay topics will vary from university to university. However, the Common College Application just released new essay prompts for 2013-2014 school year. The Common College Application is a standardized application that allows students to apply to many colleges at one time (The Common Application, 2013). The common application is accepted by over 400 colleges, including many state universities and Ivy League schools (The Common Application, 2013). These essay prompts vary from year to year. However, the overall theme is similar. The essay prompts for the 2013-2014 school year are:

  • Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  • Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
  • Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  • Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there and why is it meaningful to you?
  • Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family (Abrams, 2013)

A student's essay is usually expected to be between 250-650 words or 1-2 pages. This length will be fairly consistent across institutes of higher education whether you are using the Common Application or an individual schools application. You can find some examples of good answers to these essays in the resource section of this module. Reading essay examples can be helpful in guiding you to writing your own good essay. However, make sure that the essay is completely original. Never copy an essay from the internet or have someone else write it for you. The risks are greater than any benefit you might get by plagiarizing an essay. Do not assume that if someone else writes the essay for you that it will produce a high quality essay.

Should I write about my disability?

There is no definitive answer to disclosing your disability in your college essay. It is a personal decision that will depend on your own disability and how it has affected your life. There is no requirement to disclose your disability anywhere in the college application. In fact, usually the essay is the only way you would be able to disclose your disability. This is a personal decision for you to make on your own. It might help the admissions team to understand you holistically or explain a gap in performance. You may decide that it will not benefit you in anyway to disclose before you are accepted to the university or college. You should discuss the pros and cons of disclosing your disability with your family, friends, and school counselors to decide the right decision for you.

If you do decide to disclose your disability here are some items to keep in mind:

  • Focus on Your Strengths: Discuss how your disability has made you the person you are today. Emphasize how it has made you stronger, think outside the box, or overcome adversity. Do not focus on the things you cannot do or highlight your weaknesses. Acceptance into college is dependent on your strengths and academic abilities. Focus on your strengths for your college essay.
  • Keep it Simple: Remember, your disability is part of who you are but not all of who you are. Do not fall into the trap of describing your disability in great detail. Do not write a textbook explanation of your disability. Disclosing your disability may be important, but explaining every aspect of it and how it affects your life might be more than what the college admissions expect from you. You could describe a situation from your unique point of view (an inside out approach), mention it in passing, or tell a specific story about a situation in which your disability affected the outcome. Your goal in a college application is to stand out. Use your uniqueness to your advantage, not as a hindrance.

If you choose not to disclose your disability in your essay or college application, remember, you may still disclose at any point after you are accepted into the school. You will need to do this to receive any of the accommodations and support services that you might need to be successful.

How do I get started on my college essay?

Getting started can be the hardest part of writing. There is information to share and college admissions officers like to read a good essay. However, once you get started, writing becomes easier. Follow these simple tips to get a strong start on your essay.

  1. Pick an Interesting Topic: You may not always have a choice of your essay topic. However, you will always have a choice on exactly what you write about within the topic guidelines. Write about what matters to you. Your passion about the topic will show through your writing and make your essay stronger. Your motivation to write will become stronger if you are excited about the topic.
  2. Start Early: Don’t procrastinate! Whether writing is a strength of yours or a struggle, it is imperative that you start early on the process of writing your essay. Writing a good essay can take a long time and require several drafts. No one ever gets a piece of writing perfect on his or her first draft. You will need to be patient with yourself and give yourself plenty of time to take breaks, ask advice, and edit your essay.
  3. Pre-Plan your Essay: Using an outline, spider organizer, a concept map, free writing, any other graphic organizer, and/or pre-writing technique that works for you will help you to focus your ideas. You may want to try outlining your essay in multiple formats or the same format multiple times. You may do pre-writing for several different answers to a topic and then pick the best one to write the actual essay. You might want to plan to do one pre-writing essay, wait a few days, and then do another pre-writing exercise. As mentioned in step 2, writing a college essay takes time, but with enough pre-planning the actual essay writing will be easier.
  4. Research the College: Good writers always keep their audience in mind and a college essay is no exception. Colleges and universities have their own personalities and priorities. You should find out more about the college or university of your interest and write an essay specific to that audience.

What makes a good college entrance essay?

Introduce the section before jumping in bulleted sections.

  • Staying on Topic: When writing an essay, it is important for you to answer the prompt completely and stay on topic for the duration. Avoid straying from the topic and getting lost in your paper. It can be easy to add extraneous information into your essay, especially when you are writing about yourself. Writing multiple drafts can help you to cut down on extra information. Even if a phrase or paragraph is extremely well written, it can hurt your overall essay if it is off topic. Remember, you only have 200-600 words. Make every word count!
  • Creativity: Standing out with your college essay is important. College admission counselors read hundreds and thousands of essays every year. You should find a way to make yours stand out. You are a unique individual. Identify the parts of you that set you apart from others and utilize them to write a unique essay. If you are a strong writer, you might also be able to present your topic in a unique and interesting way. You can find some examples of creative essays in the resource section of this module. Again, remember it is important not to plagiarize the ideas of others, but they may help you to get started in writing your essay.
  • Honesty: Be true to yourself. Trust that you are interesting and have powerful stories to tell. Do not make things up or use things that have happened to other people. A strongly written essay about a fight you had with your parent and how you solved the problem will be much better than a made-up story. All colleges take integrity and honesty very seriously. Any uncovered dishonesty would have serious consequences on your future. Anyway, writing about something due to of personal experience will be much easier than writing about something you have had to make-up.
  • Asking for help: Your essay may be your own ideas, words, and writing. However, you do not have to do it alone. Ask people to read your drafts to provide you corrections and advice on your essay. Your teachers, family, friends, school counselors, and community members are all people you might ask to help you create your essay. There are several tutoring services available across the nation; with a little research you should be able to locate an agency near you that may be able to assist you with writing. You should also feel free to use any assistive technology that you are using in school to help write your essay.
  • Proofreading and Editing: It would be tragic to turn in an essay that includes all of the above but is littered with misspellings and grammatical errors. Use the proofreading skills that you have developed to carefully read your drafts. Try reading it out loud to yourself or have someone else read it. Make sure you are reading it carefully and specifically for grammar and spelling. Watch that you are using the same tense and point of view throughout your essay. Also, try and avoid using the passive voice. Always read your essay over for grammatical and spelling errors one last time before you submit your application.


In this module, we have discussed how best to write a college essay in order to put your best first forward. We discussed the following topics:

  • College essays, though not the most important thing, are very important in the application process.
  • Disclosing your disability is a personal choice. You should discuss this decision with adults that you trust.
  • Getting started can be the most difficult part of writing an essay, to get started on the path to success you should write about something you care about, start early, use prewriting strategies and research the college.
  • In order to write a good essay you should be sure to stay on topic, be creative, be honest, ask for help, and edit your work.
A simple internet search will turn up lots of good advice and sample essays to help you get started on your application. Here are some pre-selected resources that may help you:
Sample Essays: Here are some examples of great essays to help you get started:
Checklists: Checklists can help you stay focused and not forget anything while going through the process of writing a college essay. You can make one of your own or use one of the ones below:
Dos and Don’ts: There are several simple list of dos and don'ts for college essays. Below are a few of them. Read the lists before starting your essay. After you’ve written a few drafts of your essay, go back to make sure you’re following them. Remember the tips discussed earlier in the module and try not to get overwhelmed by all the information included in these lists.
Tutors: You may already know of writing tutoring agencies in your area. You may even find one at your high school. Tutoring agencies are often area specific and it will be best for you to search the ones that are local to your area on your own. However, here are a few online tutoring sites. When finding a tutor, always ask for help from an adult to locate a trustworthy certified tutor.


Now that you know a little about college essays follow a couple steps to get you started.

  1. Generate a list of adults that can help you with the writing and application process.
  2. Begin thinking about answers to the common application questions and review the pre-writing techniques.
  3. Make a list of the keys to a good college essay, then list why they are important.
  4. Talk to at least one adult about disclosing your disability in your college essay.


College essays can seem overwhelming, but you are sharing who you are as an individual. Do not get overwhelmed and stressed by the essay. Use this module as an opportunity to develop your essay step by step. Always ask for help and stay focused on your topic. Remember that the college application is important, but not as important as your grades. Relax and enjoy writing your essay.

Rose Bottle works as a high school English teacher at a school for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities. She graduated from The George Washington University with a Master’s Degree in Secondary Special Education and Transition Services in 2013.

Abrams, Tanya (2012, February 5) The Common Application Releases New Essay Prompts. The New York Times. Retrieved from
Gabriel, Trip. (2011, January 7) The Almighty Essay. The New York Times. Retrieved from
The Common Application FAQ (2013, June 18) Retrieved from