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How to Write a Personal Essay for Your College Application

college entrance essay tips

What does it take to land in the “accept” (instead of “reject”) pile?

How can you write an essay that helps advance you in the eyes of the admissions officers and makes a real impression? Here are some tips to get you started.

  • Start early.  Do not leave it until the last minute. Give yourself time when you don’t have other homework or extracurriculars hanging over your head to work on the essay.
  • Keep the focus narrow.  Your essay does not have to cover a massive, earth-shattering event. Some people in their teens haven’t experienced a major life event. Some people have. Either way, it’s okay.
  • Be yourself.  Whether writing about a painful experience or a more simple experience, use the narrative to be vulnerable and honest about who you are. Use words you would normally use. Trust your voice and the fact that your story is interesting enough in that no one else has lived it.
  • Be creative.  “Show, don’t tell,” and that applies here — to an extent. The best essays typically do both. You can help your reader see and feel what you are describing by using some figurative language throughout your piece.
  • Make a point. As you finish your final body paragraphs ask yourself “So what?” This will help you hone in on how to end your essay in a way that elevates it into a story about an insight or discovery you made about yourself, rather than just being about an experience you had.

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We’ve all heard about the dreaded “college essay,” the bane of every high school senior’s existence. This daunting element of the college application is something that can create angst for even the most accomplished students.

  • AA Amy Allen is a writer, educator, and lifelong learner. Her freelance writing business,  All of the Write Words , focuses on providing high school students with one-on-one feedback to guide them through the college application process and with crafting a thoughtful personal essay. A dedicated poet, Amy’s work has also been published in several journals including  Pine Row Press ,  Months to Years,  and  Atlanta Review .

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How to Write a College Application Essay

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Your essay reveals something important about you that your grades and test scores can't─your personality. It can give admissions officers a sense of who you are and showcase your writing ability. Here are some things that admissions officers look for in a personal essay for college.

1. Open Strong.

Knowing how to start a college essay can create a strong opening paragraph that immediately captures the reader’s interest. You want to make the admissions officer reading your essay curious about what you say next.

2. Show You Can Write.

Colleges want to see that you have a command of the basics of good writing, which is a key component of success in college.

3. Answer the Prompt.

Admissions officers also want to see that the student can give a direct answer while sticking to a comprehensive narrative. When writing college essays, consider the point you want to make and develop a fleshed-out response that fits the prompt. Avoid force-fitting prewritten pieces. Approach every personal essay prompt as if it's your first.

4. Stick to Your Style.

Writing college essays isn't about using flowery or verbose prose. Avoid leaning too heavily on the thesaurus to sound impressive. Choose a natural writing style that’s appropriate for the subject matter.

Also, avoid stressing about trying to write what you think colleges want to see. Learning how to draft a good essay for college is about showcasing who you are. Stay true to your voice. Keep in mind that authenticity is more important than anything else.

5. Proofread.

Correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling are essential. Proofread several times after you've finished. Then ask a teacher, parent, or college English major to give it a quick read as well.

6. Keep Track of Length.

Finally, admissions officers value succinctness. Remember to pay attention to the recommended essay length or word count.

Bonus Tips and College Essay Writing Help

For more on how to write a college essay, check out these Tips for Writing Your College Admissions Essay .

What is the college application essay?

A personal essay for college applications is an opportunity for admission admissions panels to get more insight into who you are and what you have to offer. It's often the most personal component of the application, going beyond grades and standardized test scores. Essays usually have open-ended prompts, allowing you to flex your writing skills and make a personal statement.

Does my college application essay really matter?

Learning how to write a successful essay for college is crucial. This essay's exact weight on your chances of acceptance varies from one school to the next. But it's an element of your application that all admissions teams consider. Your essay could be the thing that gets you off a waiting list or gives you a competitive edge over other applicants.

What are colleges looking for in my application essay?

Knowing what to include in a college essay is half the battle. Admissions teams look for many things, but the most influential are authenticity, writing ability, character details, and positive traits. The purpose of the essay is to shed light on your background and gain perspective on your real-world experiences.

When should I start writing my college essay?

Because you'll want to tailor each application to each school, expect to write multiple personal essays. Advisers typically recommend starting these pieces during the summer before your senior year of high school. This will give you ample time to concentrate on writing a college essay before you're hit with schoolwork.

What can I do to write an effective college essay if I'm not a strong writer?

Good writing skills matter, but the best college essay is about the quality of your response. Authentic stories in a natural voice have impact. The story you want to tell about yourself will work better for you if it’s told in language that’s not overly sophisticated. Work with a writing coach for help with the academic aspects. Make responding with substance a priority.

How can I write my college essay if I have no monumental experiences?

You don't need life-changing moments to impress an admissions panel. Think about your personal experiences. Describe moments that left a lasting impact. The important thing is to have a fleshed-out narrative that provides insight into your life and way of thinking. Some of the best essays revolve around meaningful moments rather than flashy ones.

How should I start brainstorming topics for my college essay?

Most colleges provide open-ended prompts. Using the topic as inspiration, think about critical milestones or essential lessons you learned during your academic career. Tell stories about real-life experiences that have shaped the person you are. Write them down to brainstorm ideas. Choose stories that highlight your best traits.

What is a good list of essay topics to start with? What essay topics should I avoid?

Good topics when writing college essays include personal achievements, meaningful lessons, life-changing challenges, and situations that fostered personal growth. It's best to avoid anything too intimate or controversial. You want to open up, but it's not a good idea to go overboard or alienate members of the admissions panel.

What format should I use for my college essay?

Read the prompt and essay instructions thoroughly to learn how to start off a college essay. Some colleges provide guidance about formatting. If not, the best course of action is to stick with a college standard like the MLA format.

How long should my essay be?

The average length of a personal essay for college is 400─600 words. Always read the prompt. Follow the instructions provided in the application.

Who should I ask to review my college essay?

Turn to your school counselor for review. They understand what college admissions panels are looking for, and they can provide valuable insight into your piece's quality. You can also reach out to English teachers and other educators for proofreading.

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12 Strategies to Writing the Perfect College Essay

College admission committees sift through thousands of college essays each year. Here’s how to make yours stand out.

Pamela Reynolds

When it comes to deciding who they will admit into their programs, colleges consider many criteria, including high school grades, extracurricular activities, and ACT and SAT scores. But in recent years, more colleges are no longer considering test scores.

Instead, many (including Harvard through 2026) are opting for “test-blind” admission policies that give more weight to other elements in a college application. This policy change is seen as fairer to students who don’t have the means or access to testing, or who suffer from test anxiety.

So, what does this mean for you?

Simply that your college essay, traditionally a requirement of any college application, is more important than ever.

A college essay is your unique opportunity to introduce yourself to admissions committees who must comb through thousands of applications each year. It is your chance to stand out as someone worthy of a seat in that classroom.

A well-written and thoughtful essay—reflecting who you are and what you believe—can go a long way to separating your application from the slew of forgettable ones that admissions officers read. Indeed, officers may rely on them even more now that many colleges are not considering test scores.

Below we’ll discuss a few strategies you can use to help your essay stand out from the pack. We’ll touch on how to start your essay, what you should write for your college essay, and elements that make for a great college essay.

Be Authentic

More than any other consideration, you should choose a topic or point of view that is consistent with who you truly are.

Readers can sense when writers are inauthentic.

Inauthenticity could mean the use of overly flowery language that no one would ever use in conversation, or it could mean choosing an inconsequential topic that reveals very little about who you are.

Use your own voice, sense of humor, and a natural way of speaking.

Whatever subject you choose, make sure it’s something that’s genuinely important to you and not a subject you’ve chosen just to impress. You can write about a specific experience, hobby, or personality quirk that illustrates your strengths, but also feel free to write about your weaknesses.

Honesty about traits, situations, or a childhood background that you are working to improve may resonate with the reader more strongly than a glib victory speech.

Grab the Reader From the Start

You’ll be competing with so many other applicants for an admission officer’s attention.

Therefore, start your essay with an opening sentence or paragraph that immediately seizes the imagination. This might be a bold statement, a thoughtful quote, a question you pose, or a descriptive scene.

Starting your essay in a powerful way with a clear thesis statement can often help you along in the writing process. If your task is to tell a good story, a bold beginning can be a natural prelude to getting there, serving as a roadmap, engaging the reader from the start, and presenting the purpose of your writing.

Focus on Deeper Themes

Some essay writers think they will impress committees by loading an essay with facts, figures, and descriptions of activities, like wins in sports or descriptions of volunteer work. But that’s not the point.

College admissions officers are interested in learning more about who you are as a person and what makes you tick.

They want to know what has brought you to this stage in life. They want to read about realizations you may have come to through adversity as well as your successes, not just about how many games you won while on the soccer team or how many people you served at a soup kitchen.

Let the reader know how winning the soccer game helped you develop as a person, friend, family member, or leader. Make a connection with your soup kitchen volunteerism and how it may have inspired your educational journey and future aspirations. What did you discover about yourself?

Show Don’t Tell

As you expand on whatever theme you’ve decided to explore in your essay, remember to show, don’t tell.

The most engaging writing “shows” by setting scenes and providing anecdotes, rather than just providing a list of accomplishments and activities.

Reciting a list of activities is also boring. An admissions officer will want to know about the arc of your emotional journey too.

Try Doing Something Different

If you want your essay to stand out, think about approaching your subject from an entirely new perspective. While many students might choose to write about their wins, for instance, what if you wrote an essay about what you learned from all your losses?

If you are an especially talented writer, you might play with the element of surprise by crafting an essay that leaves the response to a question to the very last sentence.

You may want to stay away from well-worn themes entirely, like a sports-related obstacle or success, volunteer stories, immigration stories, moving, a summary of personal achievements or overcoming obstacles.

However, such themes are popular for a reason. They represent the totality of most people’s lives coming out of high school. Therefore, it may be less important to stay away from these topics than to take a fresh approach.

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Write With the Reader in Mind

Writing for the reader means building a clear and logical argument in which one thought flows naturally from another.

Use transitions between paragraphs.

Think about any information you may have left out that the reader may need to know. Are there ideas you have included that do not help illustrate your theme?

Be sure you can answer questions such as: Does what you have written make sense? Is the essay organized? Does the opening grab the reader? Is there a strong ending? Have you given enough background information? Is it wordy?

Write Several Drafts

Set your essay aside for a few days and come back to it after you’ve had some time to forget what you’ve written. Often, you’ll discover you have a whole new perspective that enhances your ability to make revisions.

Start writing months before your essay is due to give yourself enough time to write multiple drafts. A good time to start could be as early as the summer before your senior year when homework and extracurricular activities take up less time.

Read It Aloud

Writer’s tip : Reading your essay aloud can instantly uncover passages that sound clumsy, long-winded, or false.

Don’t Repeat

If you’ve mentioned an activity, story, or anecdote in some other part of your application, don’t repeat it again in your essay.

Your essay should tell college admissions officers something new. Whatever you write in your essay should be in philosophical alignment with the rest of your application.

Also, be sure you’ve answered whatever question or prompt may have been posed to you at the outset.

Ask Others to Read Your Essay

Be sure the people you ask to read your essay represent different demographic groups—a teacher, a parent, even a younger sister or brother.

Ask each reader what they took from the essay and listen closely to what they have to say. If anyone expresses confusion, revise until the confusion is cleared up.

Pay Attention to Form

Although there are often no strict word limits for college essays, most essays are shorter rather than longer. Common App, which students can use to submit to multiple colleges, suggests that essays stay at about 650 words.

“While we won’t as a rule stop reading after 650 words, we cannot promise that an overly wordy essay will hold our attention for as long as you’d hoped it would,” the Common App website states.

In reviewing other technical aspects of your essay, be sure that the font is readable, that the margins are properly spaced, that any dialogue is set off properly, and that there is enough spacing at the top. Your essay should look clean and inviting to readers.

End Your Essay With a “Kicker”

In journalism, a kicker is the last punchy line, paragraph, or section that brings everything together.

It provides a lasting impression that leaves the reader satisfied and impressed by the points you have artfully woven throughout your piece.

So, here’s our kicker: Be concise and coherent, engage in honest self-reflection, and include vivid details and anecdotes that deftly illustrate your point.

While writing a fantastic essay may not guarantee you get selected, it can tip the balance in your favor if admissions officers are considering a candidate with a similar GPA and background.

Write, revise, revise again, and good luck!

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  • How to Write a College Essay

College admissions experts offer tips on selecting a topic as well as writing and editing the essay.

college entrance essay tips

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Students can go online to review essay requirements for the colleges they want to apply to, such as word limits and essay topics. Many students may start with the Common App, an application platform accepted by more than 1,000 schools.

For college applicants, the essay is the place to showcase their writing skills and let their unique voice shine through.

"The essays are important in part because this is a student's chance to really speak directly to the admissions office," says Adam Sapp, assistant vice president and director of admissions at Pomona College in California.

Prospective college students want their essay, sometimes called a personal statement, to make a good impression and boost their chances of being accepted, but they have only several hundred words to make that happen.

This can feel like a lot of pressure.

"I think this is the part of the application process that students are sometimes most challenged by," says Niki Barron, associate dean of admission at Hamilton College in New York, "because they're looking at a blank piece of paper and they don't know where to get started."

That pressure may be amplified as many colleges have gone test optional in recent years, meaning that ACT and SAT scores will be considered if submitted but are not required. Other schools have gone test-blind and don't consider such scores at all. In the absence of test scores, some admissions experts have suggested that more attention will be paid to other parts of an application, such as the essay.

But just as each applicant is unique, so are college admissions policies and priorities.

"Being test optional hasn't changed how we use essays in our selection process, and I wouldn't say that the essay serves as a substitute for standardized test scores," Barron wrote in an email. "A student's academic preparation for our classroom experience is always front and center in our application review process."

On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court ruled against college admissions policies that consider an applicant's race. The ruling, though, does not prohibit students from writing essays on how their race has affected them, which experts say could significantly affect how students approach this portion of their applications.

Essay-writing tips offered by experts emphasize the importance of being concise, coherent, congenial, unique, honest and accurate. An applicant should also flex some intellectual muscle and include vivid details or anecdotes.

From brainstorming essay topics to editing the final draft, here's what students need to know about crafting a strong college application essay.

Getting Started on the College Essay

How long should a college essay be, how to pick a college essay topic, writing the college essay, how the affirmative action ruling could change college essays, editing and submitting the college essay.

A good time for students to begin working on their essays is the summer before senior year, experts say, when homework and extracurricular activities aren't taking up time and mental energy.

Starting early will also give students plenty of time to work through multiple drafts of an essay before college application deadlines, which can be as early as November for students applying for early decision or early action .

Students can go online to review essay requirements for the colleges they want to apply to, such as word limits and essay topics. Many students may start with the Common App , an application platform accepted by more than 1,000 schools. Students can submit that application to multiple schools.

Another option is the Coalition Application, an application platform accepted by more than 130 schools. Students applying through this application choose from one of six essay prompts to complete and include with their application.

In addition to the main essay, some colleges ask applicants to submit one or more additional writing samples. Students are often asked to explain why they are interested in a particular school or academic field in these supplemental essays , which tend to be shorter than the main essay.

Students should budget more time for the writing process if the schools they're applying to ask for supplemental essays.

"Most selective colleges will ask for more than one piece of writing. Don't spend all your time working on one long essay and then forget to devote energy to other parts of the application," Sapp says.

Though the Common App notes that "there are no strict word limits" for its main essay, it suggests a cap of about 650 words. The Coalition Application website says its essays should be between 500 and 650 words.

"While we won't, as a rule, stop reading after 650 words, we cannot promise that an overly wordy essay will hold our attention for as long as you'd hoped it would," the Common App website states.

The word count is much shorter for institution-specific supplemental essays, which are typically around 250 words.

The first and sometimes most daunting step in the essay writing process is figuring out what to write about.

There are usually several essay prompts to choose from on a college application. They tend to be broad, open-ended questions, giving students the freedom to write about a wide array of topics, Barron says.

The essay isn't a complete autobiography, notes Mimi Doe, co-founder of Top Tier Admissions, a Massachusetts-based advising company. "It's overwhelming to think of putting your whole life in one essay," she says.

Rather, experts say students should narrow their focus and write about a specific experience, hobby or quirk that reveals something personal, like how they think, what they value or what their strengths are. Students can also write about something that illustrates an aspect of their background. These are the types of essays that typically stand out to admissions officers, experts say. Even an essay on a common topic can be compelling if done right.

Students don't have to discuss a major achievement in their essay – a common misconception. Admissions officers who spoke with U.S. News cited memorable essays that focused on more ordinary topics, including fly-fishing, a student's commute to and from school and a family's dining room table.

What's most important, experts say, is that a college essay is thoughtful and tells a story that offers insight into who a student is as a person.

"Think of the college essay as a meaningful glimpse of who you are beyond your other application materials," Pierre Huguet, CEO and founder of admissions consulting firm H&C Education, wrote in an email. "After reading your essay, the reader won't fully know you – at least not entirely. Your objective is to evoke the reader's curiosity and make them eager to get to know you."

If students are having trouble brainstorming potential topics, they can ask friends or family members for help, says Stephanie Klein Wassink, founder of Winning Applications and AdmissionsCheckup, Connecticut-based college admissions advising companies. Klein Wassink says students can ask peers or family members questions such as, "What are the things you think I do well?" Or, "What are my quirks?"

The essay should tell college admissions officers something they don't already know, experts say.

Some experts encourage students to outline their essay before jumping into the actual writing, though of course everyone's writing process differs.

The first draft of an essay doesn't need to be perfect. "Just do a brain dump," Doe says. "Don't edit yourself, just lay it all out on the page."

If students are having a hard time getting started, they should focus on their opening sentence, Doe suggests. She says an essay's opening sentence, or hook, should grab the reader's attention.

Doe offered an example of a strong hook from the essay of a student she worked with:

"I first got into politics the day the cafeteria outlawed creamed corn."

"I want to know about this kid," she says. "I’m interested."

The key to a good college essay is striking a balance between being creative and not overdoing it, Huguet says. He advises students to keep it simple.

"The college essay is not a fiction writing contest," Huguet says. "Admissions committees are not evaluating you on your potential as the next writer of the Great American Novel."

He adds that students should write in the voice they use to discuss meaningful topics with someone they trust. It's also wise to avoid hyperbole, as that can lose the readers' trust, as well as extraneous adverbs and adjectives, Huguet says.

"Thinking small, when done right, means paying close attention to the little things in your life that give it meaning in unique ways," he says. "It means, on the one hand, that you don’t have to come up with a plan for world peace, but it also means thinking small enough to identify details in your life that belong only to you."

The Supreme Court's ruling on affirmative action has left some students feeling in limbo with how to approach their essays. Some are unsure whether to include racial identifiers while others feel pressure to exclude it, says Christopher Rim, CEO and founder of Command Education, an admissions consulting company.

"For instance, some of our Asian students have been concerned that referencing their culture or race in their essay could negatively impact them (even moreso than before)," Rim wrote in an email. He noted that many students he works with had already begun crafting their essays before the ruling came. "Some of our other students have felt pressure to disclose their race or share a story of discrimination or struggle because they expect those stories to be received better by admissions officers."

Some of the uneasiness stems from what feels like a contradictory message from the court, Rim says. In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., said the ruling shouldn't be construed "as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise." But he added that colleges may consider race only if it's tied to an applicant’s individual experiences or qualities, such as demonstrating courage against discrimination.

Personal essays shouldn't serve as a way for universities to ask students about their race as a means to admit them on such basis, Roberts added.

Rim says he expects there to be a lot of confusion from parents and students as they navigate that line when writing their essay. He says his guidance will vary with each student depending on their specific situation.

"For a student from an immigrant family, sharing their racial and cultural background may be integral to understanding their identity and values and therefore should be included in the essay," he says. "On the other hand, a student who has never meaningfully considered ways in which their race has shaped their life experience and worldview should not push themselves to do so in their essay simply because they believe it will better their chances."

While admissions officers try to learn about students via the essay, they are also gauging writing skills, so students want to make sure they submit top-notch work.

"The best writing is rewriting," Sapp says. "You should never be giving me your first draft."

When reviewing a first essay draft, students should make sure their writing is showing, not telling, Huguet says. This means students should show their readers examples that prove they embody certain traits or beliefs, as opposed to just stating that they do. Doing so is like explaining a joke to someone who's already laughed at it, he says.

"Let’s say, for example, that the whole point of a certain applicant’s essay is to let admissions officers know that she thinks outside the box. If she feels the need to end her essay with a sentence like, 'And so, this anecdote shows that I think outside the box,' she’s either underestimating the power of her story (or the ability of her reader to understand it), or she hasn’t done a good enough job in telling it yet," Huguet says. "Let your readers come to their own conclusions. If your story is effective, they’ll come to the conclusions you want them to."

After editing their essay, students should seek outside editing help, experts recommend. While there are individuals and companies that offer paid essay help – from editing services to essay-writing boot camps – students and families may not be able to afford the associated fees. Some providers may offer scholarships or other financial aid for their services.

The availability and level of feedback from free essay advising services vary. Some college prep companies offer brief consultations at no charge. Free essay workshops may also be available through local high schools, public libraries or community organizations. Khan Academy, a free online education platform, also offers a series of videos and other content to guide students through the essay writing process.

Colleges themselves may also have resources, Barron notes, pointing to pages on Hamilton's website that offer writing tips as well as examples of successful admissions essays. Likewise, Hamilton also holds virtual panel discussions on writing admissions essays.

Students have other options when it comes to essay help. They can ask peers, teachers, school counselors and family members for help polishing an essay. Huguet says it's typically wise to prioritize quality over quantity when it comes to seeking feedback on essays. Too many perspectives can become counterproductive, he says.

"While it can be valuable to have different perspectives, it's best to seek out individuals who are experts in the writing process," he says. "Instructors or professors can be helpful, particularly if they possess subject expertise and can provide guidance on refining arguments, structure and overall coherence."

Proofreaders should not change the tone of the essay. "Don't let anyone edit out your voice," Doe cautions.

And while proofreading is fair game, having someone else write your essay is not.

When an essay is ready to go, students will generally submit it online along with the rest of their application. On the Common App, for example, students copy and paste their essay into a text box.

Sapp says even though students often stress about the essay in particular, it's not the only thing college admissions officers look at. "The essay is the window, but the application is the house," he says. "So let's not forget that an application is built of many pieces."

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By submitting my email address. i certify that i am 13 years of age or older, agree to recieve marketing email messages from the princeton review, and agree to terms of use., crafting an unforgettable college essay.

Most selective colleges require you to submit an essay or personal statement as part of your application.

college essay

It may sound like a chore, and it will certainly take a substantial amount of work. But it's also a unique opportunity that can make a difference at decision time. Admissions committees put the most weight on your high school grades and your test scores . However, selective colleges receive applications from many worthy students with similar scores and grades—too many to admit. So they use your essay, along with your letters of recommendation and extracurricular activities , to find out what sets you apart from the other talented candidates.

Telling Your Story to Colleges

So what does set you apart?

You have a unique background, interests and personality. This is your chance to tell your story (or at least part of it). The best way to tell your story is to write a personal, thoughtful essay about something that has meaning for you. Be honest and genuine, and your unique qualities will shine through.

Admissions officers have to read an unbelievable number of college essays, most of which are forgettable. Many students try to sound smart rather than sounding like themselves. Others write about a subject that they don't care about, but that they think will impress admissions officers.

You don't need to have started your own business or have spent the summer hiking the Appalachian Trail. Colleges are simply looking for thoughtful, motivated students who will add something to the first-year class.

Tips for a Stellar College Application Essay

1. write about something that's important to you..

It could be an experience, a person, a book—anything that has had an impact on your life. 

2. Don't just recount—reflect! 

Anyone can write about how they won the big game or the summer they spent in Rome. When recalling these events, you need to give more than the play-by-play or itinerary. Describe what you learned from the experience and how it changed you.

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3. Being funny is tough.

A student who can make an admissions officer laugh never gets lost in the shuffle. But beware. What you think is funny and what an adult working in a college thinks is funny are probably different. We caution against one-liners, limericks and anything off–color.

4. Start early and write several drafts.

Set it aside for a few days and read it again. Put yourself in the shoes of an admissions officer: Is the essay interesting? Do the ideas flow logically? Does it reveal something about the applicant? Is it written in the applicant’s own voice?

5. No repeats.

What you write in your application essay or personal statement should not contradict any other part of your application–nor should it repeat it. This isn't the place to list your awards or discuss your grades or test scores.

6. Answer the question being asked.

Don't reuse an answer to a similar question from another application.

7. Have at least one other person edit your essay.

A teacher or college counselor is your best resource. And before you send it off, check, check again, and then triple check to make sure your essay is free of spelling or grammar errors.

Read More: 2018-2019 Common Application Essay Prompts (and How to Answer Them)

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college entrance essay tips

How to Write Your College Essay: The Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide

Getting ready to start your college essay? Your essay is very important to your application — especially if you’re applying to selective colleges.

Become a stronger writer by reviewing your peers’ essays and get your essay reviewed as well for free.

We have regular livestreams during which we walk you through how to write your college essay and review essays live.

College Essay Basics

Just getting started on college essays? This section will guide you through how you should think about your college essays before you start.

  • Why do essays matter in the college application process?
  • What is a college application theme and how do you come up with one?
  • How to format and structure your college essay

Before you move to the next section, make sure you understand:

How a college essay fits into your application

What a strong essay does for your chances

How to create an application theme

Learn the Types of College Essays

Next, let’s make sure you understand the different types of college essays. You’ll most likely be writing a Common App or Coalition App essay, and you can also be asked to write supplemental essays for each school. Each essay has a prompt asking a specific question. Each of these prompts falls into one of a few different types. Understanding the types will help you better answer the prompt and structure your essay.

  • How to Write a Personal Statement That Wows Colleges
  • Personal Statement Essay Examples
  • How to Write a Stellar Extracurricular Activity Essay
  • Extracurricular Essay Examples
  • Tips for Writing a Diversity College Essay
  • Diversity Essay Examples
  • Tips for Writing a Standout Community Service Essay
  • How to Write the “Why This Major” Essay
  • How to Write a “Why This Major” Essay if You’re Undecided
  • How to write the “Why This College” Essay
  • How to Research a College to Write the “Why This College” Essay
  • Why This College Essay Examples
  • How to Write The Overcoming Challenges Essay
  • Overcoming Challenges Essay Examples

Identify how each prompt fits into an essay type

What each type of essay is really asking of you

How to write each essay effectively

The Common App essay

Almost every student will write a Common App essay, which is why it’s important you get this right.

  • How to Write the Common App Essay
  • Successful Common App Essay Examples
  • 5 Awesome College Essay Topics + Sample Essays
  • 11 Cliché College Essay Topics + How to Fix Them

How to choose which Common App prompts to answer

How to write a successful Common App essay

What to avoid to stand out to admissions officers

Supplemental Essay Guides

Many schools, especially competitive ones, will ask you to write one or more supplemental essays. This allows a school to learn more about you and how you might fit into their culture.

These essays are extremely important in standing out. We’ve written guides for all the top schools. Follow the link below to find your school and read last year’s essay guides to give you a sense of the essay prompts. We’ll update these in August when schools release their prompts.

See last year’s supplemental essay guides to get a sense of the prompts for your schools.

Essay brainstorming and composition

Now that you’re starting to write your essay, let’s dive into the writing process. Below you’ll find our top articles on the craft of writing an amazing college essay.

  • Where to Begin? 3 Personal Essay Brainstorming Exercises
  • Creating the First Draft of Your College Application Essay
  • How to Get the Perfect Hook for Your College Essay
  • What If I Don’t Have Anything Interesting To Write About In My College Essay?
  • 8 Do’s and Don’t for Crafting Your College Essay
  • Stuck on Your College Essay? 8 Tips for Overcoming Writer’s Block

Understand how to write a great hook for your essay

Complete the first drafts of your essay

Editing and polishing your essay

Have a first draft ready? See our top editing tips below. Also, you may want to submit your essay to our free Essay Peer Review to get quick feedback and join a community of other students working on their essays.

  • 11 Tips for Proofreading and Editing Your College Essay
  • Getting Help with Your College Essay
  • 5 DIY Tips for Editing Your College Essay
  • How Long Should Your College Essay Be?
  • Essential Grammar Rules for Your College Apps
  • College Essay Checklist: Are You Ready to Submit?

Proofread and edited your essay.

Had someone else look through your essay — we recommend submitting it for a peer review.

Make sure your essay meets all requirements — consider signing up for a free account to view our per-prompt checklists to help you understand when you’re really ready to submit.

Advanced College Essay Techniques

Let’s take it one step further and see how we can make your college essay really stand out! We recommend reading through these posts when you have a draft to work with.

  • 10 Guidelines for Highly Readable College Essays
  • How to Use Literary Devices to Enhance Your Essay
  • How to Develop a Personalized Metaphor for Your College Applications

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  • College essay

How to Write a Great College Essay Introduction | Examples

Published on October 4, 2021 by Meredith Testa . Revised on August 14, 2023 by Kirsten Courault.

Admissions officers read thousands of essays each application season, and they may devote as little as five minutes to reviewing a student’s entire application. That means it’s critical to have a well-structured essay with a compelling introduction. As you write and revise your essay , look for opportunities to make your introduction more engaging.

There’s one golden rule for a great introduction: don’t give too much away . Your reader shouldn’t be able to guess the entire trajectory of the essay after reading the first sentence. A striking or unexpected opening captures the reader’s attention, raises questions, and makes them want to keep reading to the end .

Table of contents

Start with a surprise, start with a vivid, specific image, avoid clichés, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about college application essays.

A great introduction often has an element of mystery. Consider the following opening statement.

This opener is unexpected, even bizarre—what could this student be getting at? How can you be bad at breathing?

The student goes on to describe her experience with asthma and how it has affected her life. It’s not a strange topic, but the introduction is certainly intriguing. This sentence keeps the admissions officer reading, giving the student more of an opportunity to keep their attention and make her point.

In a sea of essays with standard openings such as “One life-changing experience for me was …” or “I overcame an obstacle when …,” this introduction stands out. The student could have used either of those more generic introductions, but neither would have been as successful.

This type of introduction is a true “hook”—it’s highly attention-grabbing, and the reader has to keep reading to understand.

Prevent plagiarism. Run a free check.

If your topic doesn’t lend itself to such a surprising opener, you can also start with a vivid, specific description.

Many essays focus on a particular experience, and describing one moment from that experience can draw the reader in. You could focus on small details of what you could see and feel, or drop the reader right into the middle of the story with dialogue or action.

Some students choose to write more broadly about themselves and use some sort of object or metaphor as the focus. If that’s the type of essay you’d like to write, you can describe that object in vivid detail, encouraging the reader to imagine it.

Cliché essay introductions express ideas that are stereotypical or generally thought of as conventional wisdom. Ideas like “My family made me who I am today” or “I accomplished my goals through hard work and determination” may genuinely reflect your life experience, but they aren’t unique or particularly insightful.

Unoriginal essay introductions are easily forgotten and don’t demonstrate a high level of creative thinking. A college essay is intended to give insight into the personality and background of an applicant, so a standard, one-size-fits-all introduction may lead admissions officers to think they are dealing with a standard, unremarkable applicant.

Quotes can often fall into the category of cliché essay openers. There are some circumstances in which using a quote might make sense—for example, you could quote an important piece of advice or insight from someone important in your life. But for most essays, quotes aren’t necessary, and they may make your essay seem uninspired.

If you want to know more about academic writing , effective communication , or parts of speech , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

Academic writing

  • Writing process
  • Transition words
  • Passive voice
  • Paraphrasing

 Communication

  • How to end an email
  • Ms, mrs, miss
  • How to start an email
  • I hope this email finds you well
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The introduction of your college essay is the first thing admissions officers will read and therefore your most important opportunity to stand out. An excellent introduction will keep admissions officers reading, allowing you to tell them what you want them to know.

The key to a strong college essay introduction is not to give too much away. Try to start with a surprising statement or image that raises questions and compels the reader to find out more.

Cliché openers in a college essay introduction are usually general and applicable to many students and situations. Most successful introductions are specific: they only work for the unique essay that follows.

In most cases, quoting other people isn’t a good way to start your college essay . Admissions officers want to hear your thoughts about yourself, and quotes often don’t achieve that. Unless a quote truly adds something important to your essay that it otherwise wouldn’t have, you probably shouldn’t include it.

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39 Essay Tips from CollegeAdvisor.com’s Admissions Experts

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Check out the article below for tips from  CollegeAdvisor.com ’s Admissions Experts on how to write a great college essay. For more guidance on personal essays and the college application process in general,  sign up to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.

Q: What tip or tips would you have for writing a good college essay (personal statement, CommonApp Essay, supplemental essays, etc.)?

“Be yourself. Show who you are, not who you think the reader thinks you should be. Do research on the schools and be certain you are aware of the schools’ offerings.”

– Gerene K., Former Admissions Officer

“Be yourself! I think many times people try and present themselves trying to sounds too impressive, but the most powerful essays show who you are as a person. Likable, hardworking individuals are most compelling.”

– Grant R., Harvard University

“Write on trains, planes, on walks. Leave your phone behind. Listen to Adele. Write poetry and incorporate it into your prose.”

– Finn B., Harvard University

“Before you decide on the topic, decide on what values and personality traits you want to get across in the essay. Once you’ve decided on that, it will be easier to come up with a topic. For example, ask yourself, “what experiences could I talk about that demonstrate my leadership skills and my passion for music?”

– Elinor M., Brown University

“Be authentic! Admissions Officers know when you are writing an essay about something that is not truly meaningful to you. Be sure to avoid bragging in your essay, and don’t compare yourself to your peers. Instead, stick to the principle of “show, don’t tell” while telling stories that highlight who you are. During the essay process, talk over your ideas with friends, family members, or teachers to see how receptive they are and how they think you can frame your experiences and interests. Be sure to proofread the essays many times, reading it aloud or even using text-to-speech software to make sure everything sounds natural and has no grammatical or spelling mistakes.”

– Lara V.R., Harvard University

“Aim to tell a story that no one else can replicate. What has happened in your life that is unique? How can you draw unique connections between the events that have been happened in your life? Don’t try to silo yourself into talking about an extracurricular in your Common App essay; I recommend talking about more personal and interpersonal elements of who you are.”

– Caroline M., Notre Dame University

“I advise students to tell a story in their personal statement. How an event impacted them, what they learned, and how they will remember that for the future.”

– Zoe E., University of California – Berkeley

“Be authentic! What’s most important is that the college gets a sense of you. Try to stay away from “I-Statements” and instead use descriptive language to show (not tell) what you want the reader to get from your essay.”

– Kaitlin L., University of California – Berkeley

“Reflect on how your life experiences have influenced you.”

– Carolyn H., Stanford University

“Narrow down what’s most important to you, and move from there. It could be a talent, subject, family member, anything.”

– Richa G., Stanford University

“Write more first, then revise/cut it down to the word limit after.”

– Lily X., Washington University in St. Louis

“Being genuine and vulnerable can pay off really well — lots of people’s essays are really dry and are just checking off boxes with their content, so make sure to include your own unique voice and personality!”

– Sami E., Yale University

“Be genuine and write from what you know, not what you think the Admissions Office wants to see.”

– Lillian E., Bowdoin College

“My first tip is that no topic is insignificant. Any topic, no matter how mundane you think it is, can be written about in an engaging way as long as it is important to you. My second tip is to the think about telling the story in an hourglass shape: start by thinking about how you can draw the reader in, create a pivot point somewhere in the middle, and then end on a bigger picture that allows the reader to feel comfortable imagining you outside of the story you have just told.”

– Alli H., Stanford University

“Be specific, showing moments that were important to you and that really emphasize what you are trying to say.”

– Leonor W., Georgetown University

“After reading your personal statement, I should feel like I know you. It’s always helpful to indicate what unique traits you have and tell a story as opposed to just listing what’s on your resume.”

– Allison T., Harvard University

“Write about something you actually think about and talk about a lot (and would enjoy writing about on some level in any context). Not just something you got out of a Princeton Review book.”

– Daphne M., University of Chicago

“Be honest!”

– Mariko R., Yale University

“Show, not tell, the reader your main point and let your passion shine through!”

– Marisa P., Yale University

“Be genuine to yourself, but also try to avoid cliches and tell a story with a message instead of just making a personal brag sheet.”

– Arham H., University of Pennsylvania

“It’s important to talk about *why* your experiences were so meaningful, what you learned/took away from them, and how you plan to carry that sentiment with you moving forward.”

– Lucas W., Harvard University

“My biggest tip is to make it personal but also not to force it! I always tell the students I am working with that my CommonApp essay came from a random idea I had when driving; I parked and wrote streamline of sentences in my notes app that ended up being my essay’s first draft!”

– Bryan A., Stanford University

“Include anecdotes. As you are cutting down, every single word should matter.”

– Katie C., Brown University

“Have a good theme and structure because style is almost as important as the content of the essay.”

– Maria A.R., Harvard University

“Talk about something that matters to you! Oftentimes people write essays that they think an admissions committee would want to hear, but in my opinion, the best essays are personal and a bit quirky.”

– Austin B., Stanford University

“Telling a story is important, but being reflective is even more important. Show how you’ve grown, changed, and learned.”

– Bailee P., Brown University

“1) Read your essay out loud and edit anything that sounds awkward when spoken – you want your essay to read like a story. 2) Given that you have a limited number of words, every word should serve a purpose. Try to remove any filler or roundabout phrasing. 3) Show, don’t tell. Let your actions and experiences speak for themselves!”

– Henry S., Stanford University

“Being very vulnerable and sharing an important story. It is NOT about your resume.”

– Arman R., University of Pennsylvania

“Through and through, be authentic and be YOU. The personal statement is one of the only spaces (other than the interview) when you are able to speak to the Admissions Officers in your own words on your own terms. Use that space to the utmost by being yourself and sharing an honest and truthful account of yourself. At the end of the essay, make sure that the readers come away from your writing with a little slice, a little introduction of you.”

– Kaveh B., Princeton University

“Don’t just write about accomplishments or an extracurricular. Choose a topic that represents who you are and how you’ve grown — and don’t be afraid to show vulnerability and talk about your weaknesses.”

– Phillip H., Massachusetts Institute of Technology

“Keep it centered around your values — what is the one thing about your character you want schools to know?”

– Gagan V., Duke University

“Don’t worry about writing ‘the perfect essay’ and make sure you let your personality and passion come through.”

– Emma K., Cambridge University

“Think about how unique the story is that you’re trying to tell. Try to make it personal and genuine.”

– Rouhin G., University of California – Berkeley

“”Think a lot about not what you did, but how experiences and activities made you grow as a person. Also, reading a few (2-4) common app essay of some family friends helped me think about what I wanted to write about.”

– Ishaani K., Brown University

“Make sure your own personal story or thoughts are highlighted in the paper. Avoid being direct and try to weave your point into a smaller story that speaks for itself.”

– Sumona H., Harvard University

“Revisit the hardest moments in your life. What did you learn from them? How have you grown since then? Show colleges that you’re capable of taking lessons you’ve learned from low points of your life and applying them to grow as a person.”

– Ruqaiyah D., Yale University

“Try to write about something that has a lot of personal significance for you and something that resonates with you emotionally. You’re going to be spending a lot of time thinking about this topic, so it should be something you care about! That passion will also shine through in the essay.”

– Genevieve L., Harvard University

“The topic of an essay does not matter as much as the quality of writing and your ability to demonstrate your personality.”

– Tara B., Dartmouth College

college entrance essay tips

This article was based on interviews with  CollegeAdvisor.com ’s Admissions Experts. If you want to get 1-on-1 help with your college applications from a  CollegeAdvisor.com  Admissions Expert ,  register with CollegeAdvisor.com today.

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Essays That Worked

college entrance essay tips

The essays are a place to show us who you are and who you’ll be in our community.

It’s a chance to add depth to something that is important to you and tell the admissions committee more about your background or goals. Below you’ll find selected examples of essays that “worked,” as nominated by our admissions committee. In each of these essays, students were able to share stories from their everyday lives to reveal something about their character, values, and life that aligned with the culture and values at Hopkins.

Read essays that worked from Transfer applicants .

Hear from the class of 2027.

These selections represent just a few examples of essays we found impressive and helpful during the past admissions cycle. We hope these essays inspire you as you prepare to compose your own personal statements. The most important thing to remember is to be original as you share your own story, thoughts, and ideas with us.

college entrance essay tips

Ordering the Disorderly

Ellie’s essay skillfully uses the topic of entropy as an extended metaphor. Through it, we see reflections about who they are and who they aspire to be.

college entrance essay tips

Pack Light, But Be Prepared

In Pablo’s essay, the act of packing for a pilgrimage becomes a metaphor for the way humans accumulate experiences in their life’s journey and what we can learn from them. As we join Pablo through the diverse phases of their life, we gain insights into their character and values.

college entrance essay tips

Tikkun Olam

Julieta illustrates how the concept of Tikkun Olam, “a desire to help repair the world,” has shaped their passions and drives them to pursue experiences at Hopkins.

college entrance essay tips

Kashvi’s essay encapsulates a heartfelt journey of self-discovery and the invaluable teachings of Rock, their 10-year-old dog. Through the lens of their companionship, Kashvi walked us through valuable lessons on responsibility, friendship, patience, and unconditional love.

college entrance essay tips

Classical Reflections in Herstory

Maddie’s essay details their intellectual journey using their love of Greek classics. They incorporate details that reveal the roots of their academic interests: storytelling, literary devices, and translation. As their essay progresses, so do Maddie’s intellectual curiosities.

college entrance essay tips

My Spotify Playlist

Alyssa’s essay reflects on special memories through the creative lens of Spotify playlists. They use three examples to highlight their experiences with their tennis team, finding a virtual community during the pandemic, and co-founding a nonprofit to help younger students learn about STEM.

More essays that worked

We share essays from previously admitted students—along with feedback from our admissions committee—so you can understand what made them effective and how to start crafting your own.

college entrance essay tips

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Our interactive workshops—on topics like the college search process and essay preparation—will help you build your strongest application when you’re ready to apply.

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Choose Your Test

Sat / act prep online guides and tips, the college entrance essay: what not to do.

College Admissions

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What’s the point of the essay?

Put yourself in the admissions officers’ shoes. They’ve got hundreds, maybe thousands of data sets to review, one for each potential student. Imagine the big conference table where these folders are spread out under the fluorescent lights. You’re just one folder in a pile, and the essay is their one window into who you are.

What about the rest of my application?

Sure, grades show you can study and that you care about academic success; test scores show something of critical thinking skills; extracurriculars and volunteer work show you’re “well-rounded.” But everyone knows that these things, for most college-bound students, are standard. People have been telling you they’re “important for college” since you were in 8th grade, and admissions officers know that. So there’s a limited amount even a 4.0 GPA and a perfect score on the SAT can say about your readiness for many aspects of college.

College isn’t high school 2.0

See, college isn’t just classes and parties; it’s a transition between childhood and adulthood. Plenty of kids with high GPAs and great test scores can have a hard time in college due to the lack of supervision and the less defined reward structure. In other words, high schoolers with determined parents can be coaxed or bribed into hundreds of hours of AP studying, varsity sports practice and all kinds of SAT prep. Those kids might build great applications that get them the acceptance letters they want. But none of that stuff will help them once they’re on campus.

In addition to possessing academic prowess, students who get the most out of college know what they want and are willing to work for it. They are mature, self-motivated, curious, and able to think outside the box. In short, they’re (mostly) ready to be responsible adults.

Why do different schools have different prompts?

Different schools are looking for different variations on this ready-for-adulthood theme; Juilliard wants students who apply this maturity and determination to their art. Tiny liberal arts schools want students who will bring their passions to enriching the community on campus. Ivies want students who are clearly head and shoulders above their peers.

But all colleges want students who, as alumni, will enhance their alma mater’s reputation, whatever it may be. And the admissions essay is unique in its ability to convey much of the information that could convince a school you’ll be able to handle the job of succeeding, not just in school, but in life. To that end, here are our top 3 tips on what not to write in your college admissions essay.

#1: Don’t write about the easiest thing

High schoolers have a bad reputation for being shallow . Adults tend to think of them as Facebook-obsessed, smartphone-dependent text-monsters who do whatever (and only) what their friends do. Along with these charming characteristics, teenagers are also seen as closed minded and self-obsessed. The essay is a chance to prove definitively that you are not one of these teenage whiners who thinks only of themselves, and one way to do that is to really put some thought into your topic.

In other words, don’t write about the first thing you think of, or the thing you think you could most easily tailor to the prompt. Let’s look at an example: one of the 2014-2015 Common Application essay prompts  is, “Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure.  How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?”

If you ask the average high schooler this question, some of the most common answers will be not making the team, not getting a desired grade, or losing the student government election. These are easy kinds of failure to talk about; they are the most obvious. But you want to show that you understand all the things failure can mean: disappointing someone you love, doing something you know is wrong, giving up when you could’ve persevered. Some kinds of failure are painful to think about, but hiding from painful feelings is exactly what teenagers are expected to do. Be unexpected. Think about the prompt from multiple perspectives and try to make it your own.

#2: Don’t write about something lots of kids have done

This one might seem obvious, but let’s examine it using another prompt from the current Common App: “Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.” Again, do not write about the most obvious things: graduating to Eagle Scouts, your Bar Mitzvah or your first job (unless you have an amazing twist on those old tales).

Even events that may seem less common than the ones above aren’t: thousands of kids each year write essays about their mission trips, their parents’ divorces, and moving to new towns or schools. Maybe it seems like nobody at your school has done it, but that doesn’t mean kids at other schools all over the country aren’t doing it right now. Do a little research, give it some thought, and reach for an essay that will make the admissions counselors think, “oh, right, that’s the kid who was in the circus for a year.”

#3: Don’t write about something that happened to you, write about something you did

This one is less about your topic and more about the way you frame it. Let’s examine it using another Common App prompt: “Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content.  What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?”

This might seem like an impossible prompt to answer with something you do, and that’s why I chose it. When most people think of the word ‘content,’ they think of relaxing or lounging in a private space. But content actually means “in a state of peaceful happiness,” or “satisfied with a certain level of achievement, good fortune, etc., and not wishing for more.” Peaceful, here, doesn’t mean restful: it means untroubled, complete. This state can easily be attained through doing.

See, they don’t really care about the place or environment you’re describing. They care about how your answer reflects your personality, maturity, and ability to think and write creatively. Note the question “What do you do or experience there?”

So while a ton of students will answer this prompt with “my bedroom,” or “the hammock in the garden,” they’re losing ground by not considering the other varieties of contentment: a strong tennis player practicing forehands, a musician picking out strings for his guitar, a volunteer working with infants in the hospital nursery. Don’t worry about seeming weird or being wrong; the point isn’t to “do it right,” as it is in so many high school courses. The point is to communicate something unique and deep about yourself.

#4: Consider the Bigger Picture

The essay is only one part of the college application.  Other parts include your GPA, extracurricular activities, and SAT / ACT score.  If you're late in junior year or already in senior year though, you don't have too much leverage to increase your GPA and activities -- those have already been set by your high school career.

The only two things you can affect at this point would be the essay, which you should write well, and your SAT / ACT score.  Be sure to ensure your SAT score is good enough or ACT score is good enough .  If not, seriously consider retaking it, as even a couple of weeks of study can boost your admissions chances a lot.

For more information on admissions essays, see these resources:

New York Times lesson plan for Common Application essay prep

Essay Tips from the Admissions Office at Lewis & Clark

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