Writing the College Application Essay: Finding Your Voice

Filling out college applications is stressful enough, but the college application essay proves to be the most daunting task for seniors with hopes of a successful future at their dream schools. Essay prompts from the colleges are often generalized to suit the variety of students that apply, which challenges students who just want to know what the college wants to hear in order to be accepted. However, college admissions officers are trained to spot transparent phrases and clichés that scream, “I’m only telling you what I think you want to hear.” Colleges want to know what makes you a unique, open-minded, well-rounded individual that is capable of setting and achieving goals—not what you hastily wrote in an effort to please them.

Writing a Winning Essay


How do you make your essay stand out from the crowd? To start, you need to spend a considerable amount of time prewriting. This is often the stage of writing that most students skip, but it is absolutely essential you go into your first draft with a solid plan.

Start with an inventory of all of your favorite activities, experiences, and interests. This will create a list of items that have positively impacted your life. Then, create a list of hardships. It may seem gloomy to write the challenges and obstacles you have faced on paper, but you may find you are more articulate about how those hardships have shaped you into the person you are today than you are about the positives you listed. Finally, create a list of people who inspire you or have helped you learn and grow in your life. That list could include family members, friends, teachers, coaches, or even celebrities or historical figures to whom you look up.

Build an Outline

After you put together your inventory, you may begin working on an outline that will help you refine your focus. Look at the areas of your inventory that overlap. If you find you have similarities among your lists, then you have most likely found the focus for your essay. For example, if you listed music as a main interest, and you wrote about the nerve-wracking audition for your school’s show choir under hardships, then your essay should discuss how music has fashioned you. Or, if you listed your experience in sports under your favorite things and put your basketball coach on the list of people who inspire you, then you know that your essay should focus on the impact being a student athlete has had on your life.

Your First Draft

Once you have whittled your inventory down into a focused outline, the drafting process begins. Do not be afraid to trust your instincts as you write. Students often hesitate to share such personal details about their lives, but colleges love essays that delve into the inner workings of a teenager’s life—that’s what puts your application above the rest.

Make sure you keep the phrase, “Show, don’t tell,” in mind as you write. For example, if you claim that you are motivated or a leader, you need to be able to provide examples to prove it. Anyone could say he is a leader, but if you stepped up to the plate after the captain of your team went down with an injury, then you’re the one who has the story to prove your leadership. Be honest, and be specific. Try to avoid clichés or run-of-the-mill phrases. Write about what truly interests you, and your voice will come out on its own.

Editing: Don't Skip this Part!

Finally, after you produce your first draft, take your essay to someone you trust, whether it be a friend, a parent, or a teacher. Ask that person if the essay sounds like you. It may be difficult for you to share your writing with someone else, but having an outsider read your draft is a crucial step. If you have been stressed out working on this essay for days or weeks, you need to walk away at this point and let someone with a fresh perspective take a look. Often, your proofreader will give you either the confirmation that yes, your essay sounds great, or your proofreader will be able to help you find a way to reorganize and refocus your writing. If you need to spend more time adding details or cutting down your cluttered sentences, then make those necessary corrections. After all, your future may depend on it.

Writing the college application essay may strike fear in the hearts of college-bound seniors, but getting into the right school makes the time and effort worth it. Remember to write about what truly captivates you. That is what colleges want to hear!

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