The Five-Step Guide to the College Application Essay

This is part of a series about writing more effective college application essays.
Previous post: The College Application Essay Basics

Once you know the application essay basics, you’re ready to begin working towards writing your college application essay. If you’re writing your first personal statement, it is important to fully plan and prepare for your essay before you write it. Follow these five steps to set yourself up for a smooth writing process.

Step 1: Reading the Essay Prompts
Step 2: Who Are You? Completing the 50 Words Activity
Step 3: Planning Your Essay
Step 4: Word Vomit
Step 5: Edit, Polish, and Edit Some More

Step 1: Reading the Essay Prompts

Your first job is to find all the essay prompts for the applications that you’re interested in. Most students will apply through the Common App, which provides seven prompts to choose from. Within the Common App, individual colleges and universities will also provide supplemental essay questions. You may also be applying through independent application portals which have their own set of essay prompts. As you go collect these prompts, make a note of which prompts are choice-related (for example, you choose one of the seven Common App prompts), optional (you don’t have to submit an essay for this prompt), and mandatory.

After collecting all the potential prompts, sort them into thematic categories. For example, “overcoming adversity” is a common prompt theme, and you may be able to respond to submit one essay on this topic to multiple applications. “Why are you interested in this university/major/program?” is another common prompt, and you may be able to write a basic essay on this topic and swap out details to tailor it to a specific application.

At this step, you can choose a Common App prompt if you’d like, but keep an open mind as you go into Step 2.

Step 2: Who Are You? Completing the 50 Words Activity

Each essay you write must be structured around a set of takeaways that you want the reader to have. For the Common App essay as well as other more creative, open-ended prompts, these takeaways should be key qualities about yourself that you want the reader to remember. To choose activities and experiences that will help you illustrate these qualities, I recommend you complete the 50 Words Activity.

Step 3: Planning Your Essay

Now that you’ve used the 50 Words Activity to organize your experiences, allow this list to guide you in choosing a Common App prompt. Select the descriptor words and associated experiences that are related to the theme of the prompt and can be woven together in a story. For more support with this step, check out my Avoiding Cliches and Taking Risks for the Common App Essay article.

You should also plan the story that you want to tell by creating an outline. What is the beginning, middle, and end of your story? Where do you add the details that you identified in Step 2? If it’s a story about you personally, do you have a character arc? You can check out my Narrative Structure for the Common App Essay article for more help.

Step 4: Word Vomit

Just start writing! Get all of your thoughts down without worrying about the word limit.

If you’re constantly worrying about where you’re writing the correct thing, here’s my trick: Write with proper paragraph structure. That means the first sentence of the paragraph is your topic sentence. The middle sentences are supporting sentences that grow that idea and provide more details. The concluding sentence sums up the thought and carries it into the next paragraph. Even for more creative narrative writing, starting with proper paragraph structure makes you aware of whether your ideas are being expressed or hidden. You can always make the writing more conversational and creative in Step 5.

Step 5: Edit, Polish, and Edit Some More

Once you have words on the page, it’s time to edit and polish.

Editing means reading the essay with a critical eye to find writing errors and determine the value of each word and each sentence. Find concepts that seem repetitive and trim them down. Find the ideas that haven’t been fleshed out enough and write some more. Follow my Writing Rules to help guide you on what to keep and what to remove or rewrite.

Polishing means to elevate the quality of your writing. How do ideas flow from one sentence to the next? Are there spots that are confusing to the reader? Are there seamless transitions between paragraphs so there are no awkward time jumps or idea changes? Does the first paragraph convince your reader to keep reading?

Switch between editing and polishing until your essay has reached a level that you’re happy with. The final edit should take care to remove all spelling and grammar errors and make sure that the essay is within the word count limit.

Throughout Step 5, ask for help from your teachers, friends, and family members to provide constructive feedback. Ask them to tell you what their takeaways are, and compare it to the intentions you set in Step 3 – you may be surprised at how your writing is perceived by different people! Also keep in mind that you may receive contradictory opinions or feedback that you simply disagree with, and that’s ok! If you trust your writing, don’t feel compelled to include all feedback into your next round of edits.


And those are the 5 Steps! Once you’ve been through the process once, you can usually start from Step 3 to plan and write your next application essay. Hope this helps, and Happy Writing!

To learn more about me and my experiences in writing and editing personal statements (for college applications and beyond) check out my personal introduction post. Check out the other posts in this series for more help:

The Five-Step Guide to the College Application Essay
Authentic and Unique Storytelling with the 50 Words Activity
Avoiding Cliches and Taking Risks for Your College Application Essay
Writing Rules for the College Application Essay
Writing a Concise, Intentional, and Powerful Personal Statement

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