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How to Outline & Write Your College Application Essay

Last updated September 29, 2022

How to Outline and Write Your College Essay

A college application essay (also known as a personal statement) is a critical component of a student's college applications. It allows them to tell stories in their own authentic voice, helping the schools they're applying to truly get to know them outside of their resumes and applications. The "best" college application essay is one that's just as unique as the student writing it. There isn't one perfect example or template that works for everyone's story - so the key is finding a way to express who you are through good organizational structure, original story-telling, and self-reflection while sticking to the provided essay prompt. Here are some tips for outlining and writing your college essay!

Use a 5-paragraph structure

When writing your application essay, you'll typically want to write one that sticks to a 5-paragraph structure. Here’s a quick outline of how it works:

  1. Introduction paragraph (your thesis statement): Your intro paragraph addresses the prompt, question, or topic you’ll be discussing, and includes your thesis statement. A thesis statement is a declarative sentence that states the main point (or argument) of your essay, and outlines the 3 main points or examples you’ll be discussing to support that point. Often, this paragraph starts with a "hook" - a sentence, statement, or introduction that grabs your reader's attention and draws them into the rest of the paragraph and the story you will be sharing throughout the rest of the essay.
  2. Body Paragraph 1: The first paragraph should correspond to the first example or point in your into paragraph. It includes specific examples that support this main point, and reflections that make it personal, tie back to your unique story, and show how you’ve grown, changed, or prepared before college.
  3. Body Paragraph 2: The second paragraph relates back to the second example or point in your into paragraph. It follows the same structure as body paragraph one - specific examples, anecdotes, or reflections to support your essay and your overall response to the prompt you have chosen.
  4. Body Paragraph 3: The third paragraph, is the third and final example or point in your essay. It follows the same structure as body paragraphs one and two.
  5. Conclusion: This is a place to wrap up the story you’ve outline and discussed in the previous paragraphs, and potentially, show the reader what you hope lies ahead for you in the future. You can talk about how you’ve grown, what you’ve learned, or why you believe the college you are applying to is the perfect fit in your story.

Download our College Essay Checklist to help you write the strongest college or scholarship application essay!

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Write about a topic that you find interesting

Choosing a topic you're passionate about will breathe energy and life into your essay. This will help it stand out from the thousands of essays that college admissions reviewers will read this fall. No matter what topic you choose, your response should tell a story and give the reader insight into your personality: what fascinates and excites you, what are you curious about intellectually, and more. Your essay shouldn't just speak to why you want to go to a certain college, but how you think you'll benefit from becoming part of their school's community and culture.

Keep your essay focused

It's essential that your essay fully answers the prompt you choose. You want your essay topic to be an inch wide and a mile deep. What does that mean? Don't try to talk about your whole life! Pick a specific story or example (inch wide) but tell it in full with lots of detail (mile deep) so the reader feels like the fully understand the story and its impact on who you are as a person. 

Now that you know what goes into a great college essay, it's time to start writing! When you finish, let us help! Send us your personal statement, college essay, or scholarship essay to review - all for free! We'll have it back to you within a week.

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