Beginner’s Guide to College Applications: Get Writing

By Ashley McCarrick

The essay is undoubtedly the most fear-inducing portion of the college application process, so we will face it head-on this week. It is hard for a high-school student to talk about his/her strengths without going to extremes, either bragging or being overly humble. Here’s how to showcase your best self, get your thoughts on paper, and tell your story successfully.

Step 1: Determine your purpose.

When a college admissions officer finishes reading your essay, what do you hope she has learned about you? Are you hard-working, witty, full of optimism, or empathetic? Write your most important traits down on paper and judge your final essay based on whether you have conveyed these traits to the reader. You should also answer these questions: How will you use the college’s resources? In what ways you will contribute to the college community?

Step 2: Choose your essay prompts and brainstorm

If you have a choice of essay prompts, choose the ones you relate to most. Then sit down with a pen, a piece of paper, and no limitations. Writing a successful college admissions essay takes honesty and originality, so if you can think of a topic that truly inspires you, you are more likely to write an impactful essay. Parents can be a big help during this part of the process, since they can often look at you more objectively and help you think of characteristics or experiences that are unique to you. Avoid common concepts that many students will write about.

Step 3: Outline your thoughts, then start your rough draft

Your essay should not be a listing of your accomplishments; college admissions officer will see these on your resume. The essay is a place to show your personality. Speak from the heart and be positive. Think of the essay as a one-sided interview in which you can tell the college how the campus will be better by having you on it.

Step 4: Write

Set a timer and write for 40 minutes each day. If you try to write the essay all at once, you are likely to feel overwhelmed. Break it down into small pieces. This lets you look at your writing with fresh eyes and not feel rushed.

Step 5: Revise, revise, revise

Your essay is not about how good your initial writing is, but about how good your rewriting is. One outstanding application essay is the culmination of approximately 25 hours of work. This includes writing, having others review and edit the essay, revising, and rewriting. You should seek out feedback while still keeping your voice and intent. Don’t think you can write an essay in one night, which means you should not wait until the last minute to get started.

Step 6: Get professional help, if needed.

KD College Prep offers help for college admissions essays for an additional fee. Whether you need help getting started, or you want a final review of your essay, we can help. Call your KD campus for details and scheduling.

Advice from former students who have been there:

“Start early and do your best to stay cognizant of deadlines. 250 words might seem easy to formulate, but when every word is significant and creativity comes in bouts, it can take longer than most would think.” – A first year student at Barnard

“Present a positive but realistic image of yourself. Think of something that makes you unique and discuss it. Be honest and detailed, and don’t be afraid to spend time editing and outlining.” – A second year student at the University of Alabama

Coming Next: The Resume

Ashley McCarrick is an Executive Director at KD College Prep. She has been serving KD students since 2007 and enjoys helping teenagers discover their dreams. In her free time, Ashley delights in spending time with her daughter, Lilley, and volunteering with various local organizations. You may contact her at


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