How to Write an Impressive College Essay: A Step By Step Guide
For current juniors, it might feel a little early to be thinking about college essays, but this is actually the perfect time to begin. You’ll need a killer idea, flawless execution, relevant significance (more on that later), and seamless integration with the rest of your application. This kind of writing takes work and revision to land effectively. No pressure.
More important than any of this, though, is that you have to be happy with the essay. It’s the best representation of you and your accomplishments to date, which means that you have to be proud and excited when you read it. Honesty is key. Don’t make up a story or exaggerate the importance of an event. Admissions officers can usually spot a lie.
There’s more than one way to structure a college essay, but an easy and common framework is the STAR model: situation, task, action, and result. STAR is used for all sorts of things, including job interviews, but it’s a useful way to organize your thoughts around a problem you faced (situation), how you resolved to fix it (task), what you did (action), and what happened (result).
Read more for more details on how to apply this framework to your story, and what else to look out for as you go. If you’re planning on using a different format, there’s still plenty of advice you can use, and you’ll find insight on alternative structures at the end of this post.
It’s Not What, It’s How
Award-winning French author André Gide once said, “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.” In other words, nothing that anyone can write is truly, purely original in the sense that no one’s ever seen anything like it before. And this is doubly true for college essays.
College admissions specialists are used to seeing certain types of stories come across their desk. At the University of Notre Dame, for example, many of their students got varsity letters in high school. A large percentage of Notre Dame college applicants write their essays on sport injuries. Fortunately, some of those essays end up in acceptances, so clearly the subject isn’t off-limits.
It’s not the idea (the Situation in STAR) that has to be unique, it’s the way you tell that story. Do you have a killer anecdote or metaphor to start things off and drive the rest of the essay? Are there plot points or details that make your problem original? An example of each:
1. I’m in the zone, pulverizing the water with every stroke. In the corner of my eye, I can see I’m neck and neck with the swimmer beside me. I brace for my final flip turn. Then, as my feet hit the wall: snap. The pain is immediate, jolting up my left leg and shivering through my entire body. My underwater scream is inaudible to the fans clustered at the side of the pool, but it’s hard to miss that I’m clutching my foot and slowly sinking.
2. The cast on my foot is much cooler than I am. It’s gotten the autograph of our star basketball player and most of the soccer team. Our art teacher drew a mandala on it. It even snagged its own photo in the yearbook. I’m thinking of getting it framed, once it comes off…
In both cases, the starting hook (idea) is memorable and makes the reader want to know more about the situation. The hook needs to be exciting, unusual, and eye-catching, and then it needs to drive the rest of your story. Get a good hook, and the rest of the essay will fall into place more easily.
Show, Show, Show
You’ve probably heard this “show, don’t tell” advice, but it’s harder than it sounds. In the hooks above, for example, the student is showing commitment to a sport, excellence, humor, implied conflict/struggle, and hints at resilience (something colleges look for). It’s tempting to say, instead, “I had a terrible sports injury when I was in 11th grade—and it nearly ruined my chances of getting to the Junior Olympics. I was so worried I would fail my team and myself…”
One of the ways to spot the difference is that the words in a strong hook are action-oriented and less cliché (pulverize, brace, snap, scream) than a weak hook (terrible, ruined, worried). Another way they differ is the motion of the sentences. In a strong essay, each sentence builds on the last and propels the reader forward. In a bad essay, each essay is self-contained and falls a bit flat. The reader has to work to maintain interest and care about what happens next.
Another trap to avoid is summarizing what happened to you. It’s much better to imply than to state. For example:
1. Two months later, I’m screaming at my physical therapist that I can’t, I just can’t move my foot one centimeter more or it’s literally going to snap. Ignoring me, she holds my leg as she presses my toes outward. I whimper that she is definitely the worst human I’ve ever met. “Shut up and push,” she replies pleasantly.
2. I had to have three months of grueling physical therapy. It was incredibly agonizing; my therapist had to relengthen my foot muscles and work the re-healed tendons into shape. Swimming felt like it was a million miles away and that I might never get back in the pool.
#1 shows the story (and also indicating that time has passed, PT is agonizing, and recovery is slow) and lightens the suffering with a tiny bit of humor, whereas #2 just tells the facts. #1 is much more interesting, and a little humorous, and in present tense to make it feel like the story is happening right now. For your Task and Action sections, it’s critical to keep your momentum and interest going.
At some point, #1 will have to provide a little information about whether the foot healed and how long it took, but the writer can weave information in between these anecdotes to tie everything together.
Tell Them Why It Matters
Remember that your audience is made up of college admissions experts. Every time you sit to write your essay, consider things from their perspective at least for a few minutes. They get dozens of essays a day. Some are boring, or arrogant, or desperate (“This is my dream school so please accept me!”). They might be feeling a little jaded. Then they get your essay.
You’ve already done the work to make it readable, and exciting, and approachable. You’ve been honest and balanced the dark with the light. Now it’s time to bring it home. While still showing instead of telling, you need to speak to the results of your hardship. That Result in the STAR model is critical to provide closure and impact. It also helps you to finish your essay without sounding too trite.
1. Gasping, I glance over at the scoreboard. I’ve placed fourth. Not what I wanted. As I wince internally and rip off my swim cap, I look at the scoreboard again. I’ve beaten my best time by a full three seconds. And my foot throbs, but I haven’t reinjured myself. It’s still a win. I smile.
2. My event at the Junior Olympics had finally arrived. I swam as hard as I could, but I only placed fourth. But I still beat my best time, and I was proud of myself for getting back in the pool after such a bad injury. I’ve learned so much from my experiences, and I won’t let anything hold me back again.
The result is the same in both examples: disappointment, but pride and a lesson learned. But the first example doesn’t spell it out in agonizing detail or make some sort of grand, preachy statement about what it meant but simply demonstrates that, for the writer, a loss is still a win because of the determination and effort it took to get there. Less is more here.
It’s tempting to tie this into a future college major or some lesson you took to apply to the rest of your life and, in some cases, that might be appropriate. But you don’t necessarily need it, when simple and short will work just as well.
Now You Need Feedback
There are lots of ways to structure an essay if this format doesn’t work for you. You could tell a story or reflection about an event that simply shows off your beautiful writing skills (this type is especially relevant for a future creative writing/English major). You also don’t have to try and make a story exciting if the facts themselves are unique or surprising enough—if you got to interview Oprah, for example. You can also highlight a moment that caused you to reflect about something, as opposed to doing something with the revelation.
No matter what you pick, though, you have to run the idea and essay by others. Something you think is hilarious might come off as haughty to someone else. If you think you have a truly unique life event, someone else might clue you in to the fact that it’s not.
The mechanics of the essay will also matter. Sentence variation is key. Avoiding repetition is too. Using the right word in the right context—not just the longest, most complex word incorrectly—is tricky but necessary. Loop in your parents if you think it’ll help, but also prioritize working with people who know you and know writing.
The more you can get constructive and useful feedback, the better. Which means the earlier you start, the more opportunities you have to turn this into the perfect college essay for you.
CollegeVine offers a ton of essay-writing and application resources. Once you’ve got a good draft going, a specialist can do a Rapid Essay Review. Be sure to also check out the Near Peer Mentorship Program to get more in-depth insight of how students like you wrote stellar essays and integrated them into their applications. They got accepted at top universities and can help you do the same.