Admissions Essays Applying to College

Writing the College Essay Isn’t Easy ‘Til Now

Written by CB Experts

Writing a college essay can be a tricky and even overwhelming process. Where do you even start?  Here’s how to go about writing your college application essay in a few easy steps.

Have a plan

Once you have your topic, it’s time to write. The problem is you think you know where your pen will take you, but your pen is stopping in mid sentence and you’re beginning to feel that you can’t write about your great idea! That’s because the pen can’t lead you. You are supposed to lead the pen. It happens the same way with even practiced speakers. They think they know what they’ll say and go to the front of the room “ready” to wing it. Then their words don’t impact, they miss points, they forget the emphasis. Any speaker needs to say what s/he thinks they will speak out loud before they speak. Don’t think you know something until you can write it out or say it. You may think you know it, but you don’t until you can explain it.

The same is true for writing. You need a map of what you will write, an outline. It doesn’t matter that you use a formal outline, but you need to write a plan in some fashion that will give you direction.

  • How will it start?
  • What idea needs to come first, second, third?
  • What ideas should I end with?
  • When do I add description?
  • Do I first have to explain the idea and then support it?
  • Do I contrast and then compare or vice versa?

Plan it out on paper before you start to write because it will allow you to keep going. Change can happen later.

Yes, use the pronoun “I”

Someone may have told you not to use the pronoun “I.” Please forget that piece of information. It is perfectly all right to use “I.” In fact, it is preferable to use “I” in the college essay. Remember, the readers in admissions want to find out about you, so of course they want you to speak personally, and you can not be personal without using “I.” Look at the difference:

White water rafting is an exciting sport.

I happen to enjoy, no, I love white water rafting.

Your tone is important

Too many times, seniors in high school think they are writing to an audience of college intellectuals, and they write to impress. More often than not, the readers for a college or university admissions office are young people, maybe only 3 to 6 years older than you. Also these readers, young or old, intellectual or not, are reading hundreds of essays. Imagine how boring those essays can become, especially if they are dull, too-alike, or stuffy.

So, your tone should be personal. It should also be warm, somewhat humorous, and most of all human. You need to come across to the reader, who is already dull-minded from a spate of words, as an interesting, I-should-be on-your campus-or-you’ll-miss-me person.

Good advice is for you to write your essay as a letter to a friend, without the colloquial language. The same points of interest, the same humor, the same tone that a friend could appreciate is what a beleaguered essay reader will appreciate—minus adolescent, more-than-I-need-to-know detail. A friendly essay written for a reader that the writer treats as a friend is the way to go. Do not write that typical five paragraph essay to your English teacher. In fact, “the college essay” is really mislabeled if it makes students think they are writing a school essay. The college essay is a personal statement written to another individual you might make an adult friend of.

Of course, there is such a thing as decorum, which means distinguish yourself but not in a foolish or unwise way. Humor should be light, not lewd or inappropriate. You should have a friendly tone, but not a good-ole-buddy tone. You need to stay away from thesaurus words and write in a normal, talkative way, but not use four-letter words or street lingo.

Finally, yes, you need to stand out, but don’t try to shock or be too negative. The name of this game is to be favorably noticed and keep the reader’s eyes from closing, but you don’t want the reader to get wide-eyed and want to black list you.

Show, don’t tell

Again, when students hear or read the word essay, they think, whether they realize it or not, of exposition. Exposition exposes ideas by explaining, defining, describing. The college essay may use some exposition to glue the pieces together, but what college admissions readers really want is for you to show them what you are.

You can say: “I believe respecting others is very important.”

But, think about this statement or exposition. Anyone can write it and everyone does.  that’s B-O-R-I-N-G! It is so much better to narrate or tell a story that shows you think respect is a good thing. Myths and folklore are stories that people have used for millennia to get ideas across. Think of fables. It is even said that in business, workers understand stories better than directions or mandates. You should tell a story of something that happened to you or that you saw or that you experienced to show your relationship to respect.

In the same way, don’t tell about what happened, let it happen to the reader. Put the reader into what’s happening rather than use exposition to tell it.

Which do you prefer?

The air was cold and the football field was frozen solid.


The moisture in my nose turned into crystals, which I inhaled hard in anticipation of the frozen turf of the football field scrubbing my elbows bloody.

Make sure the reader walks with you, through your world. Don’t tell about your world as if it were in the past and out of reach. You have to make your world alive and immediate for the reader.

Write with power

Don’t start by whining that you are not a writer. If you have words in your head, you are a writer! What happens to us is we feel we have to be published writers. They may be special, but that doesn’t mean all of us have nothing to write and write well. (After all, it’s easier to write with power than to speak with power because you can take time and edit before what you write is read.)

There are really just three things to remember to make your writing more powerful.

  • The first is to use active voice. Active voice keeps everything immediate and steers you away from exposition, which is discussed above. Active voice makes the subject, what’s being talked about, do something. And, you have to work a little harder to make that subject act.

Don’t write:

The breeze was mild.


The breeze kissed my forehead gently.

Don’t write:

Mr. Crouse was the meanest of all my teachers.


Mr. Crouse would furrow his brow and harden his eyes looking at me without a hint of a smile or understanding.

  • Second, write directly; don’t hedge. If you have an opinion, have an opinion. If you like something, then really like it. Look at the differences:

English is not my best subject in school.


English is a loathsome subject.


The paint on my brother’s bedroom walls was a bit too, well, black.


The paint on my brother’s bedroom walls screamed adolescent angst, making an interior decorator want to run from it begging for merciful light.

  • The third thing to remember in making your writing more powerful is to cut down on verbiage. Keep it clean and simple. Don’t use words that are fillers like this, that, there, which, etc. Keep away from tired or clichéd language. Drop extra words whenever you can.

This sentence drags:

The Civil War, which was the bloodiest of all American wars, can show us that man fighting against his fellow man does not allow triumph at all, but only produces carnage and defeat.


No side triumphed over the bloodiness of the Civil War.

Direct, simple language that works with active voice packs power!

The devil is in the details

Every-day standard writing, text-book-like writing, and vague writing are so ho hum. You can make your writing better by using details. Stay away from nothing words, that is, words that say nothing. What does interesting mean? How large is large? Do you believe some one can see what you have in your head without details? And, think of the other senses; can someone smell, taste, feel, or hear what you are writing about without help? Always lead your reader with as much detail as you can provide.

Don’t write:

My high school is large.

Provide details:

The line of my high school’s roof stretches to the horizon, covering four football field lengths with over 175 classrooms, a gym, a mall-sized cafeteria, and three lobbies that allow students to mingle in groups of 50.

Don’t write:

The most interesting part about my trip to Munich was the contrast of old and new.

Provide details:

Just touring around Munich constantly suggests contrasts like the Nymphenburg Castle in its baroque grandeur compared to the rapid transit system that streamlines through the business district of skyscrapers or the lederhosen and other traditional costume available beside the most modern shops of sophisticated clothing you could find outside Bergdorf Goodman.

Make sure all the good writing you’ve done goes back to the prompt!

Exposition is glue. Too much glue is tacky, but too little means things will fall apart.

You may tell the best story, keeping the reader glued to your elbow as though you and s/he are both reliving it from your page. Your language may be spicy and hard-hitting while you have still maintained a real and likable presence behind the pen. But the reader must then be able to have an “aha!” –that’s how this appplicant is answering the prompt. This reader may have been lost for a moment in a sincere and open sharing with you but eventually has to come back to the real world and the business at hand. When the reader returns, s/he has to know the adventure was in answer to what the essay was asking.

If the prompt calls for you to relate an experience that you learned from, that lesson is the most important part of how you have addressed the prompt. That calls for exposition. But, you have shown, not told. Therefore, you should only need a good few sentences to link writing back to the prompt.

Having brought the reader to your high school football field, you, at some point, need to tell the reader clearly and powerfully why you and s/he were there. Something like the following might do:

There were many impacts that day. I hit the cold air, and the rival team’s tackle hit me. The ground pushed back hard, and the score belted me in the stomach. Maybe the biggest impact for me that day, though, was the words of my coach, “I saw you play your heart out, and that’s what counts.”

‘Nough said.

Make sure you’ve also written to the purpose of the college essay

The college essay offers you the chance to reveal yourself to the admissions office. You have submitted your high school transcript, teacher recommendations, a resume of your activities, and your test scores. The essay is the place where you offer up one more piece, what you haven’t had a chance to describe elsewhere. Make sure you write about what you have not yet revealed.

The essay is the place where you can tell about interests that do not fit on your resume or on your transcript. Maybe you have weird hobbies or areas of expertise like building websites. The essay also demonstrates how you think. Are you a planner? Do you analyze everything? Are you a keen observer? Do you look at little things and relate them to large ideas or are you the type who likes to create unusual paths leading from a big idea?

Write in a way that shows your personality and your passion. Never write what you think they want to hear or what you think packages you in a neat little square box. Don’t try to impress, but do write to impress your reader that you are a unique, thinking, feeling, caring, interesting person. This is your chance!

About the author

CB Experts

Content created by retired College Admissions consultants.