I get this question all the time. So how do we get that application essay off to a great start? Here are five practical tips for writing the best application essay possible.

First, don’t waste time worrying about whether you have found a “good topic.”

Any topic can be a good topic. When you are starting to write, you just have to ask, “Does this topic have a good chance of showing who I am and what matters to me?” If your answer is “Yes,” then good news -- you know enough to start writing. It’s that simple.

Second, write 1,000 words about your topic.

Forget outlining, forget thinking, and forget waiting for inspiration. Outlining, thinking, and waiting are not writing. Writing is writing. You need to start typing. Is 1,000 words a lot of words? Yes. But most of those words will be terrible, which is fine. You might have a topic, but that doesn’t mean you know what perspective you want to take on that topic. That is why you have to write so many words. The more words you write, the sooner your unique angle on your topic will emerge.

Third, ask yourself, “What do I not know?”

Most students come to the essay with a predetermined idea about what they want to say. For example: “I want to write about how community service taught me empathy.” Or some other variation of “This taught me that.” I get that. Students are used to timed essays for SAT, ACT, or AP tests where they will crash and burn if they don’t know their main point before they start writing. But -- this college application essay is not a timed writing exercise. It is an exercise in self-reflection. The most interesting writing happens only after you reach the point where you say to yourself, “Actually, I don’t really know what I think about that experience.” When you start to wonder what something means, then writing becomes an act of self-discovery (sounds pretentious, I know), and you have a better chance of saying something novel. Find that point of not knowing, and write even more words.

Fourth, focus on details about the external world (sights, sounds, actions) instead of details about the internal world (thoughts, feelings, realizations).

Many students I work with assume that the internal details are more profound. In real life, yes, this is true -- what is more profound than realizing something big for the first time? But in writing, no, this is not always true. “I realized the value of X” is special for you but not for the admission officer who has seen it 1,000 times before. Your thoughts and feelings are not unique. But the external details -- the sights, sounds, and actions -- giving rise to those thoughts and feelings? Yes, those sights, sounds, and actions are special. No one else has lived what you have lived. So share those outside details. These external details are the raw material that let the admission officer step into your shoes and experience what you experienced.

Fifth, answer the “So what?” question.

You have found a topic. You have written lots of words. You have figured out something you don’t know about yourself. You have expanded on external details such as sights, sounds, and actions. But why? So what? Why must a college know all this to understand you? The right topic and the right details count for nothing if you don’t explain why they are essential to understanding you better.

Final Thoughts

Writing is not a magical process. If you grind it out, you will gain insight into who you are and end up with a better application essay.


P.S. If you have questions about this post or about anything college, join Free College Counseling, our private Facebook group for parents!