How to write a college essay! Part 1: The Basics!

Writing about yourself is hard; it's not just you. Learn how to break down the structure to stand out in any scholarship or college application essay.

How to write a college essay! Part 1: The Basics!

Writing about yourself is hard; it's not just you.

Image Credit:

After reading thousands of essays, helping students win millions in scholarships and get into every ivy league, we've boiled down writing your college essay into a few steps that'll help you start! If you or anyone ever needs help moving from these steps into the next level of writing, feel free to submit your essay to Scholarship Junkies for free, expert feedback.

First and foremost, all college admissions officers are looking for a reason to pick you over someone else. While grades and test scores are important, in large crowds, it becomes difficult to truly parse who is the best fit. To stand out, you need to answer two questions: Who are you? Why you do what you do?

Who are you?

'Who are you', seeks to answer what you've gone through. If you timeline your experiences and pick out the strongest moments, which pop-up? Now if we layer your timeline with emotions: what are your happiest, saddest, most frightful, or angriest moments?

Image Credit:

This is important because as you choose a moment to write about, you'll want to center on an emotional tone. Not every story you write has to be sad, nor does it have to be happy, but it does have to create an emotional connection. Emotional connections build new pathways in our brains and allow us to connect at a more fundamental level. In short, it gives the admissions officer something to fight for and personal connection to your story. More complex writing can weave multiple emotional undertones, but that's for another post!

Why you do what you do?

'Why you do what you do', examines your future, your potential impact, and your contribution to your university of choice. Each admissions officer is looking for how your experience has shaped you, helped you grow, and fundamentally makes you the best choice for their school. This question really looks at how your past is pushing you towards what you plan on studying / what you want to do in the future.

College is hard, and understanding where you derive motivation helps admissions officer get insight into how likely you are to bring sustained contribution to the university. At the end of the day, this question is looking to show your growth through your experiences and how it drives you to be that doctor, teacher, artist, lawyer, etc. It allows you to paint a rounded picture of yourself and also gives you room to show what you bring to the student body of the university.

With this in mind, let's focus on essay structure. For your first draft, attempt to bring balance to this approach with the first quarter of your essay talking about the core story, i.e. the difficulty/challenge/life event you went through.

The next 50% should examine how you reacted to the circumstance. What did you do when confronted with your difficulty/challenge/life event?

The last quarter of your essay should hone in on reflection–how did this make you a better person? How did you grow? As your draft evolves this structure will change, but this is a great starting point!

Now that you have a template for thinking of ideas to write about and an understanding on how to structure your essay, you can now get to the actual writing!


Writing these essays is going to come down to two things; telling your story, and standing out. You already knew that, so what we’ll get into is how exactly to do this. Below we outline five techniques we use to turn our experiences into powerful stories.

1. Plan. Plan. Plan. Plan. Plan.

Image Credit:

Make sure you have a rough idea or outline of what you want to write about before you get going. You can list everything, draw a map, use a bubble map, or do whatever it is you do to get your ideas down. Just do something!

In this section of your process, you should have a list of things that make up your life. There may be many things, and while we love your entire life, you only have room to focus in and deeply engage in one maybe two experiences (at the advanced level you can connect more than two ideas, but to start choose one, maybe two).

Here we recommend that you pick one experience, and focus intensely on how this answers two questions; who you are, and why you do what you do. From this moment you'll need to connect how this experience has shaped and impacted your goals for the future.

Ultimately, most of these questions are interested in connecting with you at a deeply personal level and revealing who you are, and who you will be. To do this, we need to be authentic in what we pick, and how we want our reader to feel. When narrowing down, think about what brings out the most profound emotion; happiness, sadness, anger, frustration, confusion. And compare that to which experience best connects with who you want to be. The experience with the highest connection to your future and deepest emotional response is the one you should choose to write about.

2. Write with your heart, edit with your mind.

Image Credit:

Once you know where you’re going just start writing. One of the keys to success lies in inertia. The ability to keep going once you’ve started. Take ten uninterrupted minutes and write before you do any editing. Once you do this, you can begin to clump and organize ideas into a more refined structure.

But please, don’t start by trying to make every sentence perfect. When sculpting your statue, it is essential to begin carving with a chisel and not a needle. After you get a general idea and flow done, then you should start digging into the editing.

Image Credit:

These essays are your time to shine so use the space you have to show the reader who you are. You don’t need extra fluff and filling. This doesn’t mean you can’t add in additional details; instead, you should zoom in on moments to extract the richness of an event. On the contrary, it means don’t worry about padding or stuffing your essays to the point where you’re a pillow. This isn't a summary, it's examining a specific or series of moments to explain your circumstances and why it's important for the university you're applying to.

While gingerbread cookies are delicious, they’re all the same. Make sure you add in your unique details to make your story stand out.

Your job is not only to talk about what you’ve gone through but do so in a way that represents your unique experience. This comes from zooming in on the details that resonate deepest with you.

What about going through your experiences has been defining for you? How does this make you feel now? How did it make you feel then? What did this teach you as you move forward? How was this different for you than someone else going through the same circumstance?

Your goal should be to let the admissions team see not just what you had to go through, but who you are because of it. Now, this is important because they’re looking for who you are now. Not just that you got through it, but how have you changed, how have you grown? This should be a time to build yourself up through circumstance, not shame what you’ve gone through.

4. Be Netflix.

Image Credit:

Think about your favorite shows: Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Grey's Anatomy. The one thing they have in common is their compelling nature to keep viewers coming back. Now, you may have seen the story in 1,000 different places, but you keep coming back for more. Because of the writing. Because of the dialogue. Because it hooks you in from the get-go. We naturally have a good sense of prediction, we tend to very quickly know how the story may end.

The superhero saves the day, the drug dealer goes to jail, the heroes lose their leader.

But just like your story, we don't engage because we know how it ends, but rather because we care about the journey and progress to get there. The admissions officer most likely knows that you got through your situation, or that you're at least in a space to write about your progress. So, be like Netflix and take them on your journey, and make them love your character.

5. Win the talent show.

Image Credit:

For most applications you don’t have the option of sending in a video or interviewing; so your essay will be the best way admissions have to meet you. You are also competing against other applicants, but just like a talent show, it's all about presentation. You may have the coolest talent or the most amazing story, but people won’t receive it well if you simply tell them that you’re the best. You must show them that you’re the best. Do this by describing your situation instead of merely stating it.

You weren’t just anxious as you sat down, but rather that your arms began to shake as you shuffled to your seat.

This technique in writing helps us build worlds for our audience to interact with. It allows us to bring them into our experiences, have them live our lives, feel what we feel, and build emotional truth.

Once you've written a draft then you can revise using literary craft moves to make your imagery more vivid, weave extended metaphors, and bring your reader into the feel of the moment! Stay tuned for our next posts over the next few days that focus on Structure & Tone, Imagery, and Revision. :)

If anyone needs help with their essays, feel free to submit your essays directly at Scholarship Junkies, for free, quick, expert feedback!