How to Write a College Admissions Essay

By Emily Brehe

Students often consider the college admissions essay to be one of the most challenging aspects of the application process.

These essays are time consuming, hard to write, and sometimes the defining factor as to whether a student gets admitted to a competitive college.

We turned to our resident college admissions expert for his top 10 tips on how to write a college application essay.

Steve Peifer, CEP is the Vice President of College Counseling at KD College Prep. He has helped students receive admittance from their top choice colleges for more than 20 years. In 2007, he won the CNN® Hero for Championing Children Award and the Yale University Counseling Award. Since then, he has won numerous additional college counseling awards, including the NACAC Excellence in Education Award.

Over the years, Steve has reviewed college applications for several prominent colleges, so he has first-hand experience with the other side of the application process.

10 Tips for Writing an Awesome College Application Essay

1. Give Yourself Enough Time

Essay writing is time consuming, and a college admissions essay is probably unlike many of the research papers or book reports you wrote in English class.

It will probably take a few rough drafts until you find a topic you really like. We always recommend students plan to finish testing by the end of junior year so that they have time to focus on college applications and essays starting the summer before 12th grade.

Of course, it never looks good to submit an application at 11:59 p.m. the day that it’s due. Don’t let the essay be what’s holding you back.

Plan ahead and give yourself plenty of time to really dive into your college admissions essays. Dedicate a couple hours per week to reviewing and perfecting your writing.

If you want to get a head start on your essays, we offer the APPLY NOW! Boot Camp in which our college counseling team guides students through the college application process. During this four-day event, students work through two edited college essays, an edited personal resume and activity list, and the Common App® and ApplyTexas® application.

2. Avoid Risky Topics

Cliche Essay Topics

Many students tend to write the same type of essay. The three topics we recommend students steer away from are “the Divorce,” “the Disease or Death of a Relative,” and “the Big Game.”

“This is hard to say, but sometimes what’s fresh, raw, and personal to a student has been written the same way a million times,” Steve said.

Receiving advice from someone experienced with the admissions process has its benefits. He or she will identify the types of topics excessively written about by students.

Risky Essay Topics

Young adult and post-modern fiction are crawling with drama-filled, risque stories about sex, drugs, and alcohol. While a teenager may enjoy reading this type of story in his or her free time, a college admissions essay is not the place to experiment with this type of writing.

Your college admissions essay should demonstrate that you’re a responsible young adult. Colleges are not keen on admitting students who are fascinated by the vices of life.

Another topic students should avoid is political beliefs. You don’t want the reader to be affected by his or her own personal opinions when reading your essay. It’s hard to gauge whether someone would agree with you on such a topic, so it’s best to avoid it entirely.

3. Find Your Voice

While students sometimes tell stories the same way, every once in a while a student finds a way to put a new spin on the story.

For example, Steve had a student who originally wrote the typical “Death of a Relative” essay about her grandfather. When they met to discuss the essay, he asked her questions to help spark some meaningful memories.

As they talked, Steve learned that her grandfather used to always take her out for ice cream, but the strange thing was that he would never get any for himself, despite the fact that he loved ice cream.

Steve had a hunch and asked how her grandfather would pay for the ice cream. There was a long pause.

“With coins,” she said. “He made a sacrifice for me every time, and I didn’t even notice…What else have I missed?”

The student went back and rewrote the essay, and it became a really powerful message about how she wanted to live her life differently so that she didn’t miss the beauty in people.

When writing your college application essay, try to find your own voice. This is the part of your application in which you can show a little personality. If you’re a funny person, weave your sense of humor into it. If you’re a deep thinker, find a way to communicate that in your story.

4. Show, Don’t Tell

Steve remembers a student who originally struggled with finding a topic that was unique to her experience. Her first essay draft was about volunteering in a hospital. The teenager wrote a story about getting up early, losing much needed sleep, and finding out she gained more than she gave.

Steve knew that this type of story had been told many times before. So he said, “In my family, when I started doing my parent’s taxes, that’s when they stopped treating me like a kid. How do you become an adult in your family?”

She answered, “When you learn how to cave dive, hold your breath for at least four minutes, and go where the lobsters are; when you can approach a lobster without getting clawed and get to the surface without killing it; and most importantly, when you can prepare it in a way so that Uncle Leonard won’t yell at you because you screwed up a good lobster. That’s when they take you seriously.”

“That’s it. That’s your essay. No one else is going to write that essay,” Steve said.

When you read the student’s response, did you visualize what that process would look like? Many of us have zero experience catching or preparing lobsters, but when the student describes this unique experience, we can picture it.

Use of imagery and descriptive language helps paint a picture for the reader. This tactic can help make your essay memorable.

Later on, an admissions officer at an Ivy League college reached out to Steve to say that she was blown away by the essay. Sharing a unique experience in a way that readers can visualize can really make an impact.

For more tips on deciding what to write about, read “How to Choose a College Essay Topic.”

5. Hook Your Reader

Did you know that the first sentence or two is by far the most important piece of your college admissions essay?

By the time your application comes across an admissions officer’s desk, he or she may have been reading applications nonstop for three months straight.

“At that point, if your first sentence doesn’t grab them, then they’re reading it, but not for content,” Steve said.

Remember, admissions officers spend about eight minutes per application. However, time spent reviewing applications may vary depending on the college. Colleges often use rating systems, such as categorizing an essay as positive, neutral, or negative.

“If you lose them right away, then you have a neutral essay,” Steve said.

6. Stay on Topic

If you’ve chosen to answer a particular essay prompt, make sure you’re answering the questions being asked. Too often, students become consumed in the process and forget to stay on topic.

If none of the specific prompts inspire you, choose one of the open-ended prompts.

For example, one of the Common App prompts says, “Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.”

7. Make Every Word Count

According to the Common App, you should limit your college admissions essay to 650 words or less. Remember, admissions officers spend about eight minutes per application. Essays get even less time than this.

What you write should be concise, so choose every word carefully. If you’re having trouble sticking to this limit, it may be time to consider another topic.

8. Keep Parent Involvement to a Minimum

To some parents, it may be tempting to “help” or even write your student’s college application essays entirely. But this is often a very poor choice.

“Parents, please do not write essays for your kids,” Steve said. “If I can figure it out, then the colleges definitely can.”

A healthy level of involvement is for parents to check in every once in a while and see how a student is doing so far in the process. However, it’s important for a parent to know his or her boundaries. Parents should let their students take charge of their essays.

Admissions officers know that 17- and 18-year-old students write these essays. Do not use the essay to prove proficiency in the English language. Test scores and high school transcripts will demonstrate that. Instead, the essay should show a student’s personality and perspective.

If a parent goes in and inserts more sophisticated language or deletes a student’s voice, it may jeopardize the student’s chances of acceptance.

9. Consider Your Audience

Remember, college admissions officers are the ones that read your essay. Think about how someone in their position may interpret your writing.

One common mistake Steve says students make is they turn their essay into a lecture rather than tell a story.

“I think adults dislike students who pontificate and lecture, but students who tell stories remind adults of why they wanted to work with kids,” Steve says.

As a teenager, you may seem wise when talking to your peers, but to a 45-year-old admissions officer, you may come off as young and naive.

When reviewing essays, admissions officers are looking for a reason to say yes. You just have to give it to them.

“I think what admissions officers hope for is that they get to know someone,” Steve says. “You want their takeaway to be, ‘This is a nice, smart kid who would be an asset to our college.’”

10. Spellcheck Is Not Enough

Spelling or grammar errors in your essay are a no-go.

While admissions officers look for reasons to say yes when reviewing your essay, they’re also looking for reasons to say no. If you have a stellar essay topic, but your grammar and spelling are subpar, your application may move to the rejection stack.

A simple spellcheck is not enough to consider your application clean. You really need to have someone else look at it.

We don’t recommend that you give this task to your peers or parents as they probably do not have experience with this type of essay.

Instead, trust someone who has experience proofreading college application essays (like your high school counselor or a professional college admissions expert).

Need advice for applying to college?

We offer a wide range of test prep and college counseling services to help you get into the college of your dreams. For years, we have provide college essay editing and assistance to students across the country. Contact us to get started.

Emily Brehe is a marketing specialist at KD College Prep.

WE’RE ALWAYS READY TO CHAT

Reach out to schedule your free consultation today.


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My feedback can only be positive, given how much you helped me get ahead with my application process. I really appreciated how much work both of you put into helping me write the best essay possible, especially reviewing my essays twice to polish them completely. In addition, I have noticed that writing my resume has released a lot of stress off my shoulder when it comes to making sure I have all the things necessary to apply to schools.
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“I attended KD for the last 3 years, and I was blessed with the opportunity to take the SAT® test one last time last month. I got a 1430 on the test. I wanted to take the time to say I have finished college applications, and I would love to thank all the teachers and aides at KD for giving me the score that I got on the test. Without the extra practice, I wouldn't have been able to get through to the score I got. These past 3 years went by so fast, and it is so fun to look back at where I started and how much I have come out with flying colors. Thank you so much!”
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Kareena A. – Class of 2021

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Advika R. – Class of 2022

“I shifted toward taking practice tests and going to workshops because I felt those were the best ways to apply the concepts (I was) learning in class. I started applying the tips and tricks that the teachers were showing me in class. In conjunction, those two things helped me raise my score a lot because I was not a math kid before KD or high school. The repetition and being able to practice in a non-stressful environment and simulating that testing experience is something that was very beneficial for me... “The college counseling team was super patient and honest about the work I was submitting. I know for a lot of kids, it’s hard to articulate who you are through 250-300 words. It was definitely... Read more...
“I shifted toward taking practice tests and going to workshops because I felt those were the best ways to apply the concepts (I was) learning in class. I started applying the tips and tricks that the teachers were showing me in... Read more...

Blaine W. – Class of 2021

“Both of my sons have been guided by KD College Prep counselor Steve Peifer on their journey to finding the right college for them, and we could not have had a better experience and outcome. My oldest son is now a rising junior at the University of Miami, and my youngest son is an incoming freshman at Vanderbilt University. Steve’s help in navigating the complicated college landscape and finding the BEST FIT for my two sons is what has made this resource invaluable. “What made the biggest difference for my two sons was the depth and breadth of knowledge Steve has of the many universities and colleges in the U.S. First, by getting to know my kids on a one-on-one basis, he was able to... Read more...
“Both of my sons have been guided by KD College Prep counselor Steve Peifer on their journey to finding the right college for them, and we could not have had a better experience and outcome. My oldest son is now a... Read more...

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“My daughter loved the program—the program materials and the teachers both online and in person. She participated in a year of online and a year of in person. It was incredible enrichment and helped her keep her skills sharp over the... Read more...

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“I wanted to say thank you to all of the teachers and directors at KD for helping me get a great score on the SAT® test. I started with a 1250 on the first KD test I took, and I got... Read more...

Vyom S. – Class of 2022

"Our twin 16-year-old boys used KD College Prep to study/practice for the PSAT test, and we believe the classes and coaching were invaluable. Very professional and concise. Worth every penny!"
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Mithra A. – Class of 2022

"The resources that KD offers have greatly prepared me for the college admissions process. Without KD, I would not have been this prepared and confident... I am a rising senior, and I ended up receiving a 1570 on my SAT® test (third time) and a 35 on my ACT® test (first time). I remember the first ever practice test I took for the SAT test was a 1230 (about 1.5 yrs ago) and the first ever practice test I took for the ACT test was a 31 or 32 (about 6 months ago)."
"The resources that KD offers have greatly prepared me for the college admissions process. Without KD, I would not have been this prepared and confident... I am a rising senior, and I ended up receiving a 1570 on my SAT® test... Read more...

Elise P. – Class of 2022

“I want to thank KD College Prep for helping both of my kids over the last years reach successful outcomes on their SAT® and ACT® scores, which helped them get into great colleges. I found the college prep class for parents very informative and helpful during the process as well.  My son (Jacob) graduated in 2018 and got a 32 on the ACT test. got accepted into Texas A&M but chose Baylor for Health Sciences.  My daughter (Morgan) graduated in 2020 and got a 1450 on the SAT test and a 32 on the ACT test. got into an Ivy League school (Cornell) for Engineering.  Both my kids say that they apply the test taking skills they learned at KD Prep to... Read more...
“I want to thank KD College Prep for helping both of my kids over the last years reach successful outcomes on their SAT® and ACT® scores, which helped them get into great colleges. I found the college prep class for parents... Read more...

Jon D. – Parent

“Coming into this whole process, I had absolutely no idea what anything was, and your help was invaluable—your encouraging words, strategic advice, and wholesome stories and jokes really got me through a stressful time! I'm still on the waitlist at Harvard and other schools, but I've really started to immerse into the Emory culture, especially their debate team. Not having to pay for college and still attend a private institution is really a dream come true, and it wouldn't be possible if it were not for you.”
“Coming into this whole process, I had absolutely no idea what anything was, and your help was invaluable—your encouraging words, strategic advice, and wholesome stories and jokes really got me through a stressful time! I'm still on the waitlist at Harvard... Read more...

Shreyas R. – Class of 2020

“The most beneficial guidance I received during my College Counseling experience was being taught that it's completely ok to not know what I want to do with the rest of my life at 17/18 years old. Steve told me that a good school will help me find my path. Also, Steve's knowledge about what colleges were wanting to see in potential admissions candidates was a huge help... “There was not one specific beneficial moment or turning point in my time working with Steve, there were many. He encouraged me during the entire application process and brought to my attention many colleges I wouldn't have considered or heard about without his help.”
“The most beneficial guidance I received during my College Counseling experience was being taught that it's completely ok to not know what I want to do with the rest of my life at 17/18 years old. Steve told me that a... Read more...

Jake W. – Class of 2020

"I'm very happy my daughter chose KD as her learning partner to achieve her goals. All the experiences with KD and the Directors there are fabulous. My daughter has improved significantly."
"I'm very happy my daughter chose KD as her learning partner to achieve her goals. All the experiences with KD and the Directors there are fabulous. My daughter has improved significantly."

Zarni, Daughter – Class of 2021

"I took KD classes the summer before my junior year, and I was finished with my SAT® test by December...The test prep classes also helped me earn the award of National Merit® Finalist."
"I took KD classes the summer before my junior year, and I was finished with my SAT® test by December...The test prep classes also helped me earn the award of National Merit® Finalist."

Claire I. – Class of 2020

"It's been super helpful, and I've noticed my scores go up both on my SAT®/ACT® scores as well as test scores in school... Overall, I believe this to be the best college prep that money can buy."
"It's been super helpful, and I've noticed my scores go up both on my SAT®/ACT® scores as well as test scores in school... Overall, I believe this to be the best college prep that money can buy."

Gopi C. – Class of 2021

"KD helped me come up with a game plan for the colleges I wanted to attend, as well as any backups, and how to manage my time during this stressful period. They helped to ease the stress and made sure that I would be successful in whichever college I picked, and I am eternally grateful for all their help and hard work!"
"KD helped me come up with a game plan for the colleges I wanted to attend, as well as any backups, and how to manage my time during this stressful period. They helped to ease the stress and made... Read more...

Omar S. – Class of 2020

"My initial goals when I first started working with the KD Counseling crew was to compile a list of colleges that I would be somewhat interested in attending and fit my career goals. I think that this step I was by far the most concerned about. I didn’t know how exactly I should go about choosing which places to apply to and if I were to be accepted, if they would fit me. The team did a wonderful job considering my likes and dislikes and helped me compile a list of colleges that suited my tastes and would further my academic career. "After this integral first step, my focus turned towards time management and writing quality essays that would stand out to colleges. I got... Read more...
"My initial goals when I first started working with the KD Counseling crew was to compile a list of colleges that I would be somewhat interested in attending and fit my career goals. I think that this step I was by... Read more...

Nina H. – Class of 2020

"I was thankful for all the help I received from KD in preparing for my SAT® and ACT® exams. The workshops they offered, as well as the practice exams, gave me the tools I needed to do my very best."
"I was thankful for all the help I received from KD in preparing for my SAT® and ACT® exams. The workshops they offered, as well as the practice exams, gave me the tools I needed to do my very best."

Morgan D. – Class of 2020

"KDCP is a must for students wanting to stay a step ahead of the game for getting into college. My son has gained huge insight from the ACT®/SAT® practice workshops, practice tests, and essay class."
"KDCP is a must for students wanting to stay a step ahead of the game for getting into college. My son has gained huge insight from the ACT®/SAT® practice workshops, practice tests, and essay class."

Tiffany – Son, Class of 2021

"KD helped to increase the efficiencies of how I took the national exams. I was also able to implement these efficiencies in my daily school studies within the IB program at PESH. I would (and have) recommend KD to those students wanting an edge on their national test scores!"
"KD helped to increase the efficiencies of how I took the national exams. I was also able to implement these efficiencies in my daily school studies within the IB program at PESH. I would (and have) recommend KD to those students... Read more...

Daniel J. – Class of 2020

"Not only have I been able to significantly improve my test scores, I have learned a tremendous amount of information about the college application process due to complimentary events that KD offers."
"Not only have I been able to significantly improve my test scores, I have learned a tremendous amount of information about the college application process due to complimentary events that KD offers."

Sam H. – Class of 2020

"I came to KD the summer before my senior year with only my determination and big goals! KD provided me with the resources necessary to improve my test score to increase my chances at my dream school, Notre Dame, with the help from amazing teachers and staff. I am so grateful for KD!"
"I came to KD the summer before my senior year with only my determination and big goals! KD provided me with the resources necessary to improve my test score to increase my chances at my dream school, Notre Dame, with the... Read more...

Matt K. – Class of 2020

"I started classes at KD the summer before 9th grade. I...made a perfect score on the PSAT (earning the National Merit® scholarship) and, after taking the SAT® test only once (a relief!), scored a 1590/1600."
"I started classes at KD the summer before 9th grade. I...made a perfect score on the PSAT (earning the National Merit® scholarship) and, after taking the SAT® test only once (a relief!), scored a 1590/1600."

Thomas D. – Class of 2019

"In just one year, I was able to raise my score by 300 points and get into my dream school."
"In just one year, I was able to raise my score by 300 points and get into my dream school."

Piper F. – Class of 2020

"Having our recent GHS graduate attend KD was life changing. It provided our son with choices and opportunities that he might not have had otherwise."
"Having our recent GHS graduate attend KD was life changing. It provided our son with choices and opportunities that he might not have had otherwise."

Kathy – Son attends Mizzou

test prep testimonial grace
“I came to KD College Prep after already using another tutoring service which we were not seeing results with. Due to time constraints, the traditional classes were not going to be feasible for my daughter. They took the time to figure out a personal plan that would work for her and were always available for our questions and helping her reach her goals. Every employee from the managers to the students working at their locations are top notch.”
“I came to KD College Prep after already using another tutoring service which we were not seeing results with. Due to time constraints, the traditional classes were not going to be feasible for my daughter. They took the time to figure... Read more...

Tracy – Daughter, Class of 2020

"The KD College Prep course not only provided test practice but also motivated her to work hard for her college applications. It gave her the confidence to dream big!"

"The KD College Prep course not only provided test practice but also motivated her to work hard for her college applications. It gave her the confidence to dream big!"

Prema – Daughter attends Rice

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