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The Ultimate Guide to Writing College Essays

Ah, the age-old advice: “Start your college essays in the summer!” I know, I know, everyone says that, but let’s be honest, you try to start in summer, then you really, really want to just procrastinate these college essays until two weeks before the deadline. Totally not speaking from experience here… Okay, okay fine, but in my defense, the summertime writer’s block is real. But, in hopes of fostering better habits for the young’uns after me, here are my tips and tricks to writing college essays, so you can hopefully get started on brainstorming these essays as soon as possible to finally get some words on that blank Google Document!

This was me during a late-night grind session in December to finish my IB papers and college essays!

When should I start writing my essays?

First of all, look up the deadlines for your schools and programs. Some programs, such as scholarships or special programs, have earlier deadlines, so you have to be aware not to miss them. I recommend putting it all in a spreadsheet, which there are tons online that you can find for a college list organizer. For when to start, the obvious answer might be “as early as possible,” but that might not actually apply to everyone. First of all, what does early actually mean? I would define early as around mid-to-late junior year and summer of senior year. Yet, starting early might not be for everyone, and here’s why. Because college essays are about your experiences throughout your life and during high school, at this time period in your life, your high school journey isn’t actually complete yet. If you know that you will have a major extracurricular activity or accomplishment coming later, or during summer, that event or activity might affect your outlook on life and goals. Starting later means that you’ll have more events to reflect on, so if you’re really, truly stuck about what to write about, and you know that you could potentially have an interesting story to write about a few months down the road, you could consider waiting those few months. Of course, that’s not an excuse to procrastinate, because if you know you’ll be busy during senior year, make sure to start early.

After this “early bird gets the worm (aka will be less stressed and won’t be panicking last minute)” deadline to starting college essays, there is a “okay, if you haven’t started by this point, you really should” deadline. A good time that everyone should probably start working on their essays would be around three months before the first deadlines – which typically means around August to early September. You may be thinking about that time you finished your English essay at 3 AM with the help of several Red Bulls, and wondering, “if I finished that in one night, why do I need three months for a couple college essays?” The reason is, college essays take a long time, not because of the time it takes to write the first draft, but because there’s so much reviewing and revising that goes along with college essays. If you want to ask your friends and family for feedback, you have to give them time to read your essays, make comments, and for you to make revisions. That takes time, even if you can finish one draft in a few hours.

Finally, the “WHAT ARE YOU DOING GO WRITE YOUR ESSAYS OR YOU’RE SCREWED” deadline to start your college essays is… Okay, just don’t get to that point. Look up your deadlines beforehand. I mean if you have to wing it, you wing it, but frantically pressing the submit button a few seconds before the deadline is not a good feeling.

Screenshot of the Common App "My Colleges" Screen
This is what the Common App portal looks like on the “My Colleges” tab. Your Common App essay goes in the “Common App” tab.

Which order should I write the essays in?

Obviously, deadlines first. Look at your deadlines, and make a list of all of the essays that you have to write by a certain date. But in general, I would recommend the following plan to mass-write a crap ton of essays.

Common App Essay

First, start with the Common App essay. This one is the most general that you have to submit to a ton of schools, so you really need to know what the “main idea” of you that you want to convey is. This essay is basically what guides the rest of your application, as your main theme, so you want to have an idea of what that is before you write your supplements that provide additional pieces for the puzzle.

Reusable Supplemental Essays

Secondly, more “general” essays. These are the essays that can be reused for a ton of different schools, such as the intellectual vitality essay, why major essay, or extracurricular essay that are all grouped together under, “technically asking the same questions.” Once you have these, you can knock a lot of supplementals out, because these essays can be reused for different applications.

School-Specific Supplemental Essays

Finally, the very school-specific ones. Some of these prompts, like “why college,” really cannot be reused (and for the record, please do not try to reuse “why college” essays – that’s a sign of a bad “why college” essay). Writing those last gives you a chance to finish large batches of essays first so you get more done.

Of course, this is just my recommendation for what worked for me! Please adjust this however you need. For example, if you have a school that you really, really want to focus on, feel free to spend your time focusing on that school’s essays. However, if you’re in a time crunch and need to speed-run as many essays as possible, this is the framework that helped me finish 60+ essays in two weeks.

Some advice for specific types of essays!

Common App Essay

I have to stress that this essay is very, very important. And this is because this essay is the primary guiding point, or the “perspective” of your application. Even if you’re the most accomplished high schooler on the planet, if you come across as entitled, selfish, spineless, or lazy, the admissions officer will see the rest of your application in a bad light. This essay is the “why” behind everything that you did – make sure your “why” isn’t “because my parents told me to do it” or “because I thought it would get me into college.”

So, how do you find your why? It’s not easy – you actually have to think and reflect a lot in this process. Try to find the guiding principle or important values in your life that you live by, and what inspired you to have these values. This can often be communicated through a single event that changed your perspective, or a “montage” of events that happened in your life that caused you to be who you are. Don’t manufacture something up – both in creating a false story, and that if an event truly was not that impactful for you, then don’t write about it, even if everyone else expects you to write about it. If a story is ingenuine to you, then it’ll be really difficult to write. Finally, don’t overshare or inadvertently share something really bad about yourself. It’s good to be vulnerable and admit to your faults, but make sure not to have anything that purely just reads as irredeemably negative – the best way to find these is to ask someone else to read it.

Silliman Dining Hall at Yale University.
Make sure to thoroughly research your schools! Is Yale’s dining halls a valid reason to apply to Yale? Well…

“Why College” Essays

I’ll admit – I actually kind of enjoy writing these essays. And before you go on thinking, “well that’s just weirdly masochistic,” I find that these essays are actually a great opportunity to truly consider why you want to go to a school in the first place. If you just can’t write this essay for a school, you might want to reconsider if you want to go to the school at all. Research the school thoroughly – find programs, clubs, study-abroads, and anything else that you would be interested in, and compile it into a list. Make yourself excited to go to that school! After all, this is a great way to get to know the college you’re applying to.

When you write the essay, it’s fine to have the same structure for all the “why college” essays, but make sure the contents of them are different. For example, I pretty much used the same structure of “start with a narrative of my life, connect it with programs at the school” for all my essays just to get it started, but inserted it with details about the school that I wrote in my bullet point lists. Don’t worry too much about making these essays “artistic” or “interesting” – just get your point across, and sound genuine while doing it. Make sure to connect it to yourself, so it sounds plausible, not just listing a bunch of facts about the school that you found on Google. By the way, don’t ever mention rankings or “because my parents told me to apply here” in your essays.

“Why Major” Essays

There’s not much of a “trick” to these essays, because you pretty much just answer the question honestly and genuinely. However, make sure that this essay doesn’t overlap with any other essay, such as your Common App essay. If you’re considering your “why major” story for your Common App, keep in mind that many schools have a separate “why major” essay as well. However, if you really need to write the “why major” for your Common App, make sure this essay describes another aspect of you – for example, my Common App was about my fascination with biology, while my “why major” essays were a continuation that described my future career goals in computational biology. If your story of how you came to choose your major is pretty generic, try to find something unique about it that you can talk about – did you do an independent project later on? Did you take any classes on your own initiative?

What if you don’t really know what you want to major in? If you chose a major that you’re not really sure about, just do your best to try to connect your experiences with the major. Even if you’re unsure about the major, make sure to try to convey that you’re enthusiastic, curious, and a go-getter about pursuing different interests. You don’t have to have planned out your life at 17 or 18, but you can at least demonstrate traits that are helpful for allowing you to further explore your interests in college. It’s much better to admit that you’re open to exploring different interests in college than to sound like a dispassionate sellout who just cares about the money. Of course, there are some specialized programs where you need to be very certain about your career path. If you’re truly applying as an undecided major, you can talk about your potential career interests, some of your personal qualities, and what you hope to explore in college.

FInally, make sure you connect the school into this essay. While most of the essay body will be the same across the schools you submit it to, make sure to include points about why you want to attend that specific college for this specific major.

I actually wrote about Lavender + Lab Coats in my extracurricular essay for several colleges!

Extracurricular Essay

These are the types of essays that ask you to elaborate on an extracurricular activity that you did. The activity that you do does matter – choose one that (1.) you’re genuinely passionate about and (2.) could benefit from having more space to explain. Notice that “impressiveness” isn’t necessarily a criteria here. In fact, if you have an activity that probably doesn’t require a lot of explanation, like Science Olympiad, DECA, ro Model United Nations, and you don’t have anything personal to add about it, you’re better off not choosing this activity to write about – even if you’ve won an impressive award from it. Many awards are self-explanatory anyway.

The point of this essay isn’t to show off your accomplishments – it’s to demonstrate your passion for the subject and what the activity means to you. You might get 150 characters in Common App to explain your achievements and accolades, but you don’t have space to explain the time you found community through competing in science fairs or the moment you met someone particularly meaningful to you while volunteering. Use this space for personal stories like these. Unless the prompt specifically says otherwise, you also don’t necessarily have to choose an activity you wrote on the Common App. You can talk about a hobby that you didn’t list on your application, like reading, cooking, or hiking.

Fun Fact: I actually talked about Lavender + Lab Coats for my extracurricular essay! I talked about why I started this blog, and what it ended up becoming for me – which it’s my pride and joy, so thank you everyone for being here throughout my journey 🙂

Diversity Essay

If you’re a straight, cis, white guy, at first glance, it might seem a bit difficult to answer the question of, “how will you contribute to diversity in our community?” However, diversity doesn’t just mean your race, gender, sexuality, or whatever. It also means diversity of experiences. Did you live in several different countries? Did you grow up taking care of your younger siblings? Did you work on your family’s farm? All of these are diverse experiences that you can talk about in your essay, as your experiences contribute to the uniqueness that you bring to campus.

Also, please don’t feel pressured to exploit any part of your identity for this essay if you don’t feel comfortable doing so. I didn’t talk about my race or gender in my essay because I genuinely did not feel like this was a part of my identity that I could meaningfully talk about. Instead, my diversity essay was adopted from a former contender for my Common App essay that ended up being one of my favorite essays ever. It talked about a part of my identity that isn’t necessarily obvious about me, but impacted me deeply and I could talk genuinely and passionately about it. To this day, I’m still kind of sad that I didn’t use the original diversity essay for my actual Common App.

Challenge Essay

While scrolling through my supplemental essay drafts, this prompt was surprisingly not as common as I thought. However, this essay, which asks you, “What is a significant challenge that you’ve faced?,” is often a challenge in itself for students. This essay is a delicate balance between empowering and whiny. First of all, don’t choose a superficial topic (like “I got a B on a test, but then I worked harder and got an A!”) or attempt to be clever (like “My biggest challenge? Writing this essay… Harharhar”). It’s hard to say what topics to write about and what not to write about, but my advice when writing is just to be aware of the world that’s greater than you. If you think you have a chance of sounding insensitive after the admissions officer just finished reading a heart-wrenching story about how a student beat cancer, perhaps rethink how you frame your essay. You can talk about the impact of a challenge on you, but don’t make it a bigger deal than it is. Also, make sure to end it positively, whether that’s through what you’ve gained from the experience or what you did about the challenge.

Streets of Providence, Rhode Island near Brown University.
This was me in Providence, Rhode Island when I went to visit Brown University!

Brown University Program in Liberal Medical Education (PLME) Essays

I swear, I get this question all the time – how do you do the Brown PLME essays? If you don’t know what PLME is, PLME is a BS/MD program at Brown University that guarantees you acceptance into Brown University for undergrad and the Warren Alpert School of Medicine for medical school. I was accepted into the Brown PLME program last year, but ultimately decided not to attend.

I’ll be honest, I did not expect to get in. My extracurriculars are very, very research-focused (in fact, I had zero in-person physician shadowing or hospital volunteering hours), and my essays were pretty research-focused as well. However, while re-reading my essays, I noticed I did several things well. Firstly, I clearly communicated why I wanted to do PLME instead of going the traditional medical school route. PLME is much more than just getting to skip the MCAT – it offers a ton of flexibility that you most likely wouldn’t get otherwise if you applied through the traditional route. You have to be specific about why you want to do a BS/MD and PLME, and not just applying to medical school as usual. Secondly, I had a specific focus and niche in medicine that I wanted to work in, which was to be a computational biology researcher for humanitarian medicine. By having such a clear-cut goal about what I wanted to do, I showed maturity and rational thinking, which are critical skills for a program that prepares you to decide at least the next eight years (if not the rest of your life) at 17 or 18 years old. I made sure to be as genuine as possible in my essays, even if it meant a greater chance of being rejected. I wrote in my PLME essays that I probably wanted to be a researcher, so I was interested in the MD-PhD program. I didn’t pretend that I wanted to be a physician, because I really wasn’t sure about that. I thought I would get rejected because I acknowledged that I wasn’t pursuing a career as a physician, but as it turns out, they ended up accepting me, even as a researcher.

Also, I’ve heard that Brown looks for different things than other BS/MD programs. In other BS/MD programs, they look for technical expertise and medical knowledge. Yet, at Brown, they look for traits that could potentially foster a bright future as a physician, so it’s more about your personal qualities and traits, rather than your current technical expertise.

Should I get someone to edit my essays?

It’s generally a good idea to have someone else read your essays before you submit them, because sometimes you grow so accustomed to your own essay that you don’t realize the flaws in them. You can find someone who has expertise in writing, someone who knows you well, and someone who doesn’t know you well to read your essay. The first one is to give suggestions on your narrative style and make your essays more interesting to read. The second one is to give feedback on whether or not it actually reflects your personality. The third one is to review how you come off as and their impressions of you from the essay – after all, your admissions officers don’t know you, and you want to know what impression you give off. Don’t ask too many more people after that – people give all sorts of contradicting advice, and it gets super confusing if you try to follow it all. Follow your gut, and take everyone’s advice with a grain of salt. Sometimes, if their recommendations don’t make that much of a difference to the overall essay, you can just go with what you want yourself.

Now, should you pay an expert to review your essay? It’s not really that necessary, because most people can tell you if (1.) your essay is boring, or (2.) your essay is offensive, but an expert can be helpful in giving you actual tangible feedback for how to fix these issues. They can also help you with some wording that specifically appeals to college admissions, like making you sound more purposeful, enthusiastic, or engaging. It can help, but it’s definitely not necessary.

And, that’s a wrap to my college essay advice! Got any questions or comments? Comment down below!

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