Complete Guide to Writing a College Application Essay

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Help! How do I start this College Essay thing?!

I know, I know…starting to work on your college essay can seem like a daunting task! However, it doesn’t have to be!! By simply breaking it down and following some helpful tips below, you CAN conquer this!

According to The Princeton Review,  there are nearly 700 colleges that accept the Common Application. The good news for you is that you can apply to several colleges by completing one application. The challenge is to make sure your application showcases your best skills and talents.

6 Steps to Start Your College Essay

  1. Review the essay topic(s) & take 15 or 20 minutes to simply think. What comes to mind with each topic?
  2. Start brainstorming – make a list of the points you want to cover
  3. Test drive a few topics
  4. Write a first draft (it will probably be terrible)
  5. Get feedback from a teacher, counselor, parent, or other people you trust
  6. Write as many drafts as needed

You’ve got questions?? We’ve got answers!

When should I start my college essay?

Aim to start your college essays during the summer before your senior year. After all, once your senior year is underway you’ll also have to juggle coursework and other commitments, so having a draft or two completed will put you in the best possible position to submit polished, compelling essays.

Is the college essay the most important thing?

After your grades, (GPA) and SAT/ACT scores (if applicable), yes, it would fall under the next most important thing, so be sure you take the time to make it count!

How long should my essay be?

The general rule of thumb is about a 250 – 600-word essay, but some schools will tell you an exact word count, be sure to look for any specific instructions.

Can I re-use the essay for multiple schools? Yes, if you are applying through the Common Application. If your college does not accept the Common Application, you can probably use the same essay as long as you change specific important information such as the college name or program name, etc.

Selecting the Topic

The best topic for you to write about is one that is personally meaningful to you or reflects your personal beliefs. Below are four essay topics from the 2021 Common Application. Each topic is followed with suggestions for writing your essay.

1. Tell your story essay

“Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.”

This essay prompt is asking you to “share your personal story.” Do you have an interesting family background or personal experience that makes you stand out? Tell your story.

2. Overcoming obstacles essay

“The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?”

This is not the place to point out your weaknesses. However, if you have struggled with something difficult, and you persevered until you succeeded, this would be a great topic to write about.

3. Stand your ground essay

“Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?”

This essay topic asks you to take a stand and argue a moral or ethical belief. Was there a time or event that challenged your beliefs? Are you able to describe the details of the situation and how you faced and resolved the challenge? Then this could be a good topic for you to write about.

4. Time to boast essay

“Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.”

Maybe you are just good at everything you do, or maybe you are a stellar soccer player or musician. Maybe you have worked for years on becoming an Eagle Scout. If you have worked hard and accomplished something truly outstanding, this is the time to boast. Be sure to describe the process of your accomplishment and credit those who helped you along the way. Also, discuss the life skills you learned from the task. In other words, you will want to describe how you prepared for and what you did to accomplish this amazing feat, and what the process taught you that you will apply to the next challenge – time-management skills, perseverance, commitment, etc.


The most important thing is to be prepared! You ARE a great student, and you CAN do this! It really comes down to being confident in yourself, having the tools you need to succeed, and putting your best foot forward! You will be so proud of yourself when it is complete. Now…get to work! 😊

Whitmore Schoolaccredited by Cognia (formerly AdvancED), offers four Diploma Programs for students wishing to enroll full-time to earn their high school diploma. Additionally, students looking to get back on track to graduate on time can enroll in individual courses. Students enroll and begin any time, work at their own pace, and may take up to 12 months to complete their courses. Click here to read more about Whitmore School’s flexible mastery-based learning environment. It might just be the right choice for you.

RachelWritten by: Rachel, Guidance Counselor

March 28, 2022 in

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