Dos and Don’ts to a Strong College Essay

Dos and Donts of a Strong College Essay

Even professional writers get stage fright in front of a blank page. There’s too much possibility, too many directions things can go, and too many choices for what will become the final draft. So if you’re procrastinating on your college essay, you’re not alone.

And ever since many colleges made SAT and ACT scores optional, the college essay carries more weight than ever before. At the nation’s top 250 schools, your college essay counts for about 25% of your application, so it’s even more important than your grades. 

At top schools, there are typically 4 academically qualified prospective students for every open spot. Your essay can push you into first place for that opening. Check out these additional stats:

  • Harvard applicants within similar academic profiles have 10x higher admissions chances when they have a strong college essay.
  • 3 in 4 students with strong college essays get accepted at one or more selective colleges, even if their academic profile is below the average admitted student.

How do you make your college essay stand out from the rest? Keep reading:

1. For a Successful and Strong College Essay, Know What’s Required

The first step is knowing where to start. Each school can set their own requirements for the college essay. Know what length essay they require, what topics they accept, and if they want additional writing samples. Check with each of the colleges you’re interested in to see if their requirements vary.

Many schools accept the Common Application, which requires a 250-650 word personal essay in response to a supplied prompt. (Here’s a list of the 2021-2022 Common App essay prompts.)

2. Understand What They’re Looking For

This is your opportunity to share who you are. They already know about your grades and your extracurricular activities from your application. Your college essay is your chance to let them behind the magic curtain and see your personality and your values. 

The admissions team who reads your essay should feel like they know you after they’re done reading it. You can talk about your hobbies, interests, a challenge you’ve overcome, or one of your strengths. They want to feel as though they’re walking the road with you, seeing how you’ve grown, how you think, or how you respond to things. 

They really just want to know who you are, what unique perspective you provide, and what value you’ll bring to their school. (Oh, and whetherd you can write, too.) So write to set yourself apart, 

3. Start Early

Your college essay is important and good writing takes time. Yes, the average essay is only around 500 words, but you’ll need to narrow down your concept, hone your rough draft into a masterpiece, and then have someone review and edit it for you. 

Scribbler, a paid editing service, suggests spending 1-3 weeks on brainstorming, researching your prompt, and writing the first draft. Then an additional 2-4 weeks to revise that rough draft. 

Your topic and outline must captivate, but it doesn’t have to be grandiose. One student used an essay about laptop stickers to share his values. Another wrote about kombucha. And yet another about shoes

4. Write and Rewrite

First, ask yourself what you love

What lights you up? What sets you apart? As the examples above show, your main theme can be simple. How can you unfold who you are in a personal, engaging manner? Your perspective on your chosen theme sets you apart:

  • How you think
  • How you make decisions
  • Who you’ve become because of those decisions
  • Where you’re headed

Outline your topic

What order will you tell your story? Outline it either chronologically or thematically. Run your ideas by people who know you well. What is their reaction? Do they have thoughts to add? 

Start your first draft

Remember, this first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. The key is to keep writing. Get all your thoughts out on paper. Don’t try to impress. Don’t try to be funny. Repeat nothing that’s shared in other parts of your application. Instead, write to share who you are. 

Get some distance

Walk away for at least a day, then read what you wrote with fresh eyes. Read the first sentence of each paragraph out loud. Do they make sense? How well do they flow together? Do they tell a complete story? 


Write a new outline that tightens things up and tells the specific story you want to tell. Then make sure that each paragraph of your new draft is specifically about each point in your outline. You may need to do this several times to make your story as compelling as possible.

Grab their attention

After you’ve written a more final draft, take some time for your introduction. The first sentence should hook your reader’s attention and make them want to keep reading. Keep working at this until you land on just the right words. They should spark curiosity, give a surprising statistic, or create a strong emotional reaction.


Run your essay through a spelling and grammar checker. Grammarly offers a great one, as does

5. Get Others to Proofread Your Essay

When you’ve made things as clear, concise, and engaging as possible, ask someone to proofread it for you. This may be your English teacher, a family member, or mentor. Have several people read through it, each with a different purpose. Maybe one can comment on your authentic story. Another for grammar suggestions. Think about who is qualified for what part and have them target their area of expertise as they read.

When you follow these 5 steps, you’ll be well on your way to a strong college essay that will likely win you a spot at your college of choice.