How to Write a College Essay

Learn what makes a good college essay with these tips and tricks. Make the college application process easier with Naviance.

As you begin to wrap your mind around all the pieces of your college application, you might have questions about the essay portion. Where to begin? What to write about? Who to ask for feedback? Naviance is here to help you! Read on.

How to Write a College Essay 

Writing your college essay is arguably one of the most important tasks that you will undertake in high school. The college essay can seem daunting — it’s one thing to be asked to share a fun fact about yourself as an icebreaker; it’s another to have to explain it in long form writing. Along with a recommendation letter, a college essay is one of the most critical aspects of applying to college. Here we break down the best way to approach writing your college essay.

When to Start Your College Essay

As with so many things in life, it is smart to start working on your college essay early. When is early? In this case, early would be the summer before senior year. Use this time to begin brainstorming topics. You can also reach out to your school counselor and ask for help. Many schools and districts use Naviance’s college readiness programs, which include tips on writing essays and staying organized throughout the college application process. 

How to Pick a College Essay Topic
Before you can begin writing your essay, you need to decide what you’re going to write about. There are many ways to brainstorm ideas for your college essay topic. Start by searching online to find out what topics are popular. Then, read essays on these topics that were successful — in other words, essays that won over admissions counselors and resulted in an acceptance letter. Learn why these essays were successful — did they offer a unique point of view? A fresh angle? An unexpected twist or revelation?

Diving deep will help you understand what makes a good essay, and will help you zero in on your own authentic story. Speaking of zeroing in, spend some time focusing on your school’s values and reflecting on how they align with your own. This exercise can help lead you to really powerful topic ideas. If your school’s mission is rooted in social justice, for example, think about how social justice resonates with you and the part it plays in your own life, and you’ll likely land on a compelling and authentic essay topic.

Draft, Edit, Feedback, Finalize

Ideally, a college essay should not be longer than about 650 words. Though that can feel long when you’re looking at a blank page, it’s important to remember that your first draft is just that — a draft. Start by writing everything you want to say regardless of word count. Then save your work, and don’t look at it for a day or two. 

After a day or two, give your draft a read and cut anything that doesn’t feel true or authentic to your perspective and your experience. After that, cut any parts that are repetitive, irrelevant, or cliché. Keep in mind that the people reading this will begin to glaze over if your sentences run on and the point is unclear. 

Repeating this process a few times will help you hone and polish your draft. When you’ve got it close to the correct word count and you’re generally happy with it, ask some friends and family members — whose writing and editing skills you trust — to review it and provide feedback. From there, you can continue tweaking as needed. Finally, you’ll want to ask someone with a keen eye to give your essay a final spot-check for typos and other errors before you submit it. 

For more on getting started, learn about Naviance’s top three tips for writing a college essay. We’ve also got tips on how to write your resume, and everything you need to know about college scholarships.

At Naviance, we are committed to providing school districts with the capabilities to educate college ready students. Learn more about how Naviance can improve your district’s graduation and college acceptance rates.


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