Skip to main content
Photo: Verto Education student celebrating while sea kayaking

Implement these tips into your college essay and you’ll be doing a victory dance at your dream college (or in a kayak on your semester!) in no time.

We know you’ve been reading up on “College Essays that Worked” threads on Reddit for weeks.

Every essay you read seems so unique and well-done… It’s like every applicant has some wildly special story and a magical way of stringing their words together, and you’re thinking, how in the world can I top that?!

We’re here to tell you that you don’t have to have hiked Mount Everest or started a non-profit to stand out (although it’s awesome if you have!). You don’t even have to be an amazing writer. You just need to be yourself and give the reader a glimpse into your mind.

If you have no idea how to even get started, we’re here to help. Read on for our best tips for writing a college essay that will make YOU stand out!

student in library

Get some inspiration! Perhaps that means talking with a friend, entering a new environment, or researching something interesting. A semester abroad is jam-packed with all three, even in quiet moments of reflection like this Milan student.

PHASE 1: The Brainstorm

Writer’s block is no joke and getting started is always the hardest part.

It can be especially discouraging when you feel the pressure to come up with some big, grand, dramatic story about yourself. The good news is, you don’t.

Whether you’ve experienced some challenging and unique situations or are more of an average-Joe, we know you have a wealth of life experiences that make you, you. To find what those experiences are, you may have to dig deep though.

To start off, give yourself the chance to reflect by doing a freeflow brainstorm.

Sit with an empty document or piece of paper and just bullet point any and every idea that comes to you, no judgment, no matter how lousy it may seem.

Some questions to ask yourself in the brainstorm: What is one moment in your life that you can’t get out of your head and why? What traits would you use to describe yourself? What motivates you to try your best? What do you value most? What do your friends think is unique about you?

The New York Times shares some great questions to get you thinking as well.

To get a fresh perspective, talk to friends, family, and other people in your life that you trust and that know you well. Ask for feedback on their observations about you, challenges they’ve seen you overcome, unique talents you consistently show up with, or some of your quirks. Document this and sit with it.

If you notice some themes being repeated over and over again by different people, those could potentially be great leads.

And if you need some extra support with the brainstorming phase, The College Essay Guy offers two really helpful brainstorming activities to try out here and here.

Once you have your ideas, pick your favorite idea so far, and just start writing. Let yourself write completely freely at first. Do this with a few other ideas until you find one that clicks and says something bold about you.

Our Tips:

Don’t share something any other student could share.

For example, avoid topics like your parent’s divorce, a sports injury, or when your team won a game, unless you have a really unique angle on that topic or it is deeply connected to who you are.

In general, the more a story is specific and unique to you, the better.

Don’t be afraid to get playful! We’ve seen people write about some super niche and personal topics: someone who was made fun of for being short wrote about how what she lacks in height she makes up for in her big personality and strong leadership. One student used her bad habit of burping as a metaphor to describe how she marches to the beat of her own drum. Another talked about how the spines on their bookshelf represent the different facets of their personality.

Feel free to be quirky and be you.

Avoid general topics.

While these might be great themes to explore, spending an entire essay rambling about your love of science or your passion for writing is going to make for a pretty boring read.

Instead, use those themes as starting points, but get really specific about a particular incident or moment that illustrates exactly what you want to say.

If you struggle with writing, don’t write.

If it’s the writing part that’s getting you stuck, no worries at all, record a voice memo on your phone and just start talking freely. Then, transcribe what you said and work on your draft from there.

Don’t put off starting or expect to get it done in one sitting.

This is a project to put your heart into and the earlier you get started on this the better.

In particular, the summer before senior year is a great time to work on this since you won’t have to juggle your studies at the same time. We recommend aiming to at least have a very rough draft ready by the time school starts.

If you’re already getting a bit of a late start, don’t panic. You can totally pull this off, you just have to push yourself to take that first leap and begin the process today.

London phonebooth

It may help to put yourself in comfortable surroundings as you prepare to write – check out the view from students’ desks on a London semester.

PHASE 2: Go Time

Getting the perfect draft is a long process and should not be done like an “assignment.”
This project should be an opportunity for reflection and creativity. Don’t stop until you LOVE it.

As you refine your essay, look to other great writers for inspiration. Some great resources are Kindra Hall (she talks about storytelling that sticks) and The College Essay Guy.

You can also check out some examples of other student work like pieces from the New York Times personal narrative essay contest. Try to notice what that author does well and what parts of their essay most draw you in.

Our Tips:

✓ Get super clear on your goals for the essay.

What do you want the reader to understand about you when they finish reading your essay? How does this show what you will contribute to a college?

✓ Tell a story.

You can think about it in this framework:
Who is the old person and what were they like?
What is/are the situation(s) that happened?
BOOM – who is the new you and how do they act/look like now?

✓ Use your voice.

How would you describe your voice or the voice you want to use? What are its most noticeable and important qualities?

We all have different styles of speaking that we use for different situations, so think about what you want your tone to convey.

No matter which of your voices you choose, this essay should sound undeniably like you.

This article gives some great questions to think about:

“Do you use a lot of slang? Do you love “big” words? Do you tend to go off on tangents when you talk, or do you stick to the point? Are you loud or quiet? Funny or serious? Do you speak quickly or slowly? Are you self-deprecating or confident? What makes your way of speaking and writing unique?”

If you’re not sure, you can record yourself having a conversation about your essay with a friend or family member. Notice the type of language you use to express yourself, the length and structure of your sentences and where you put your emphasis.

Another trick to capture your voice in writing is to think of someone in your life who you are close to and can always be honest with, and then write your essay as if you’re writing to that person.

✓ Show, don’t tell.

The college admissions officer who is reading your essay probably reads dozens of essays a day, and hundreds of essays a week. If you want to capture their attention, you have to use language that is going to make your piece engaging to read.

Remember, admissions officers are human beings too, so the key is to remember that you are writing for a real-life audience, not a “perfect-applicant” algorithm.

The reader should be able to visualize the situation you are describing– so much so that they feel like they are in the experience with you.

This article gives some more great examples:

Don’t say: ‘My sister ran off.’
Instead, say: ‘My sister jumped a foot in the air and disappeared behind the closest tree.’;

Don’t say: ‘Everyone felt on edge.” Instead, say: “We were all afraid to breathe. Nobody made a sound.’”

When sharing about something you learned or a new trait you developed, really explain what that looks like in practice and how your behaviors are different now. For example:

Instead of: “I learned not to make judgments about people based on their appearances.”

You could try: “The next time I encountered a similar situation, instead of jumping to conclusions, I became curious about the reason behind their behavior. I asked more questions. I listened more carefully. I dove deeper to learn the whole story and I reminded myself to have empathy and compassion by choosing to keep an open mind.”

✓ Be authentic.

Don’t get caught up in trying to impress the reader or make grand statements. Focus on describing specific details that are really true to you.

A great essay is less about using fancy words, and more about successfully sharing the quality of your ideas. Although you do want to demonstrate your writing skills and use descriptive imagery, you don’t want to get so zoomed into that that you miss the point of sharing the deeper meaning behind your story.

You don’t need to try to make yourself “sound smart.” You are smart! Have that confidence and be playful and relaxed with your writing.

class in CR

The big moment! When it’s time to send, have confidence that you’ve put your best foot forward, like these Latin America students completing a final project at their base house.

PHASE 3: Ready, Set, Send

Once you have a final draft that you’re feeling really good about, it’s time to put the essay through a few rounds of constructive scrutiny.

It’s critical that you enlist the help of others to proofread. These people should review not just for spelling, punctuation, typos, and grammar, but also for the content. Ask them to describe to you what they learned about you from reading this piece. Does it match what you’re trying to say?

Ask someone you trust, but also someone who will not be afraid to give you feedback to help you grow. If you are going to someone because you know they will make you feel good about yourself – choose someone else!

Our tips:

✓ Read your essay out loud.

And have someone else read it out loud to you. Do any parts sound awkward or feel hard to read?

✓ Does it pass the bff test?

If your best friend found your essay in the hallway at school without your name on it, would they undoubtedly know it’s you?! That’s the level of personal and individualized you want it to be.

✓ Check in with your feelings.

How do you feel when you read your essay? Are you proud of yourself? If you’re not feeling excited or moved after reading it, the admissions officer won’t either.

When your essay passes these tests, take a deep breath, count to three, and click send!

This work might feel draining now, but it’s going to be so rewarding knowing that you gave this opportunity your absolute best shot. Plus, it will be so fun to look back on your college essays and have that great insight into your sense of self from back in the day. So have fun with it and get to work!

At Verto, we want to help students put their best foot forward when it comes to success in college and beyond. We’d love to chat if you want to learn more about how we can make an incredible start to college possible for you.