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Articles / Applying to College / 3 Steps To Writing a Strong College Essay

3 Steps To Writing a Strong College Essay

L Written by Laurel Rayburn, Neal Adolph Akatsuka and the GradeSaver Editorial Team | Oct. 11, 2021
Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

How To Write an Excellent College Application Essay

3 Simple Steps to Tell Your Story

You brew a cup of coffee, you fire up the old laptop, you take a deep breath and focus your mind on the wealth of significant and transformative life experiences you’ve had in your short 17 years. You’re really doing it. You’re writing your Common Application essay. The words will soon flow out of you like…like something. Some simile. You’ll figure that out later. Just need to get started. Just get a few words down and then surely the rest will follow. Let the genius of your inner child emerge…wait, child?

And then you stop. Nothing is coming. You consider slamming your head against the desk but then realize you’re really going to need those brain cells if you want to get this done.

In our over twenty years of essay editing experience at GradeSaver, we’ve seen that most students struggle with the story-telling aspect of the college application essay. In fact, for most people, writing is not an effortless process—nor should it be. Still, you do need a process to guide you in your planning, drafting, and revising.

In this article, we’ll take a structured approach to writing the essay. First, we’ll suggest some questions that will lead you to a story topic. Next, we’ll guide you in finding an angle that allows your unique voice to emerge on the page. The angle will inform how you structure the essay, or how you present your thoughts in a logical way for your reader to follow. Finally, we’ll explain how reflection allows you to show your capacity for self-knowledge. Here, you’ll demonstrate how you understand yourself more profoundly now that you’ve lived through the story you’re telling.

Take heart! Your days of banging your head on the desk are over.

1) Brainstorming the Topic: What’s Your Story?

Students confuse the beginning of their thinking process with the beginning of their essay. They wonder, “how should I start the essay?” In fact, where you start your thought process about your essay and where you start the essay itself are two different questions.

Your thought process needs to start with a story topic.

The Common Application essay tells a personal narrative. It is a story, fundamentally no different from a story you might read in a novel or watch on television or in a movie. It has a beginning, middle, and end. The difference here is that the main protagonist is you.

Intuitively, you already know what makes for a good story. You’ve read or watched hundreds of stories already and know that a story has a main character. Events happen to the character. Good characters have depth—they are psychologically complex and they change from the beginning to the end. The difference here is that the main protagonist is you.

When you begin to brainstorm possible topics for your essay, consider the story implicit in the topic.

  • What story are you telling?
  • What character changes did you go through as a result of this experience?
  • How did you grow, develop, or shift your perspective about yourself, others, or the world?

As an example, let’s take a successful admissions essay about participating in a Scrabble competition. To write this essay, the writer had to identify an experience that would make for a good story. The essay describes a tense final match between the narrator and a man named Frank. The entire essay takes place over just a couple of minutes, but those minutes are extraordinarily dramatic.

Significantly, two sentences early on in the essay clearly state the writer’s story topic. (Note that these are not the first sentences of the essay):

"As the result of my transformation from mild-mannered schoolboy to board game connoisseur and Scrabble junkie, I had been feverishly studying until this very moment: the climax of my amateur Scrabble career.

The score is 386 to 326, my favor, and there is only one tile left in the bag."

The topic of the story—participating in a high-stakes Scrabble tournament—tells us something about the author: he is a wordsmith, a competitor, someone who loves language. Specifically, he is a “board game connoisseur” and a “Scrabble junkie.” And yet, as we will see, this story topic is effective because it allows him to reveal a shift in his perspective or a moment of growth. By the end of the essay, we understand that his identity as a high-achieving Scrabble player is only the first layer of his character.

A successful essay always narrates this kind of shift or change. What if, looking back on your seventeen years, you can’t think of any ways in which you’ve changed or developed? You have to think on it a bit more. Consider it this way: you are comprised of a particular bundle of likes and dislikes, thought and behavioral patterns, ways of feeling, tendencies, and perspectives. Unless you are a genetically engineered super human born fully grown in a lab, somehow, you came to be this way.

Let’s say, for instance, that you are particularly passionate about the welfare of animals. How did you come to be that way? Was there one moment or a group of moments that sparked this passion for you? Or perhaps you are inclined toward feminist activism. What led you there? What particular experiences have you had that encouraged your convictions? Or maybe you’ve noticed that you value politeness over confrontation. What encounters led you to become this kind of person? How did that value emerge?

You might also consider, as our example essay does, how one of your interests or passions led you to understand yourself or your values differently. The big question is, how did you get to be you?

To answer that question, think as concretely as you can. What particular experiences have you had that stand out to you as important? Was there a moment or hour or day when you felt that your thoughts or feelings about something (the welfare of animals, feminism, politeness) suddenly solidified? What happened?

This brings us to the second part of our process: finding the angle.

2) Finding the Angle

Now, let’s say you’ve found an experience or topic that you think has significantly affected your life, but it’s a common topic. After all, not everyone can write about the time that they cured a rare genetic disorder while discovering the last living unicorn.

Just because a topic is common doesn’t mean you can’t write a great essay about it. There’s no such thing as a bad topic, only bad angles. The challenge is to find an interesting angle—a perspective that other essays about the same topic likely won’t take.

Maybe you want to write about your love of playing the guitar. Well, a lot of people love playing guitar and are good at it, so if this is your only relationship to guitar, it doesn’t help the committee distinguish between you and everyone else who loves it. In order to write something that admissions officers will remember, you need to demonstrate the specific ways in which playing the guitar has shaped you as a person.

Now what do you do if, upon reflection, you decide that guitar hasn’t really changed you? Or if the only ways you can identify that it has changed you are vague platitudes—it turned you into a hard worker or it helped you appreciate music more. This tells you that the topic doesn’t have real significance for you.

An interesting angle almost always involves concrete detail, or those details that make your story specific. Let’s return to our example essay about the Scrabble game, “Good Game, Frank.” The first two sentences of the essay actually announce the angle for us, although we might not recognize it as such until we finish reading:

"There he is, clad in his “World’s Biggest Fish Fry” baseball cap, neon orange diabetic footsoles, and multicolored top hat à la Dr. Seuss. Four hundred and twenty pounds, bound to his high-backed leather armchair (driven with tender care all the way from humble Cincinnati), and a powerful, scruffy beard eclipsing his oxygen plug: this is Frank Lee, my final opponent at the National Scrabble Championship."

Here, the essay’s angle is the startling compassion and unique perspective of the narrator’s opponent. While the angle is not obvious at this point in the essay, the almost hyper-specific description of Frank establishes a focus to this Scrabble game that we are not expecting. We literally have a particular “view” or angle of vision; we’re looking right at Frank. Note the close relationship between the angle of the story and the specificity of the imagery: a “Fish Fry” hat, “four hundred and twenty pounds,” “humble Cincinnati.” We can’t help but feel that this story is unique.

If a “topic” is the broad subject of your story, the “angle” helps you narrow your focus. Here we see how concrete details are essential to this narrowing process; while the details in this essay are largely visual, sensory imagery will likely go beyond the visual to include touch, smell, hearing, and taste.

Importantly, the angle of your story informs how you structure the essay: what comes first, next, last. In “Good Game, Frank,” the angle is the personality and compassion of the opponent. As we’ll see in the next section, Frank’s actions precipitate the narrator’s reflection or commentary on his experience, which is one of the most significant parts of the essay.

How do you know if your angle is clichéd? This is tricky and often comes down to the question, what is interesting? Such things can be somewhat subjective.

You might consider, though, whether your essay gives admissions readers a sense of the way you think in contrast to the way many people think.

It can be a good idea, at this stage, to seek the advice of people you trust: a peer, a counselor, teacher, or essay tutor. Sometimes, we can become so close to a piece of writing that it’s impossible to see it clearly without outside assistance.

3) Reflection to Demonstrate Self-Knowledge

So, you have a story topic that you know helped you grow or change in some way. You have an angle or frame to the story that makes it unique. But there’s something you may be missing. That something is reflection.

Reflection or commentary on your story often appears at the end of the essay, although it can also be woven throughout. This commentary or reflection shows that you have self-knowledge, that you have used whatever experience you had to help you understand who you are. As you move more deeply into your topic, you need to consider how you’ve developed psychologically or socially because of the experiences you’ve had. How did your understanding of yourself, others, and the world change? How did your tendencies or habits change? How did your feelings change?

Students sometimes think that admission officials are reading essays looking for students who have led to most interesting and fantastic lives, but that’s not the case. A successful essay has less to do with the topic, which may be anything from a visit to an animal shelter to a political rally to a conversation with a grandparent to a Scrabble game. The most effective essays show how the particulars of any one experience helped the writer learn more about herself. Such reflection exemplifies maturity and suggests a higher level of both cognitive skill and emotional intelligence—the very qualities you will need to succeed in a rigorous college environment.

You might think of this reflection as narrating a kind of “second story.” The second story is the way you read or interpret what happened to you. It is an analysis of how you understand your own self in a way you didn’t before; you can name, in retrospect, the cognitive and emotional processes you were going through.

As “Good Game, Frank” draws to its conclusion, it appears the narrator has bested Frank. However, a slight miscalculation costs him the match. The narrator begins to berate himself, but his opponent is so gracious in his win that something changes in the narrator’s perspective:

"The words, the points, and the money all disappear. I look around the room and realize that I am not surrounded by diehard competitors who play this odd game for fame and glory, but by people just like me who had wanted to join this eccentric subculture, who had wanted to finally be accepted in their lives. For us, Scrabble is not about satisfying a vain addiction to competition, but rather about the heartfelt players like Frank Lee who have come together to support one another and their love for the game, foibles and all. I am not playing this game for dollars and cents; I am playing it for a sense of family."

This is where the narrator demonstrates self-knowledge. He is able to describe, in retrospect, the complex psychological process that had unfolded within him, reframing for himself his own motivations. They are not driven by word-obsessed competition, but by a desire to belong within a community.

Want more on why this essay stands out?

See commentary on "Good Game, Frank" from GradeSaver Editors, plus three steps for writing a good college essay.

Stay tuned for more on GradeSaver's upcoming Ask Me Anything! event to ask your essay questions (and have a chance to see more successful essays!) - and on the College Confidential forums.

Written by


Laurel Rayburn, Neal Adolph Akatsuka and the GradeSaver Editorial Team

Laurel Rayburn graduated from Harvard in 2000 with a BA in English, and went on to earn a Ph.D. from Brown in English and American Literature and Culture. She is now General Manager of GradeSaver.

Neal Adolph Akatsuka earned his BA in Anthropology with a minor in American Studies and certificate in Japanese from the University of Hawai’i. He later graduated with his AM in Social Anthropology and ALM in Digital Media Design from Harvard University. He is one of GradeSaver's most senior editors.

GradeSaver was founded in April 1999 by two Harvard undergraduates who spent most of their college years editing each other’s essays. They soon realized that students all around the world would benefit from having someone edit, revise and offer suggestions on their essays. As the company grew, they recruited Harvard students and alumni as editors. Now in its 22nd year, GradeSaver is one of the top editing and literature sites in the world.

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