College Essay – Definition & How to Write It

Time to read: 3 Minutes

A college essay shows your qualities, communicates your values and gives more information about you. This type of writing intends to set you apart from other students and explain why you should enroll at a particular college.

This article uses examples to explore the steps of writing an effective college essay.1

College Essay – In a Nutshell

Start to organize your college essay early, especially the summer before joining college. Use an essay tracker sheet to help you beat deadlines for different applications and ample time to revise, review, and edit your essays and topics.2

Ensure to make your essay stand out by:

  • Choosing a unique and personal topic
  • Writing a compelling and well-structured narrative
  • Using a clear and creative writing style
  • Putting evidence of insights and self-reflections

Definition: College essay

A college essay is a paper that contains an engaging personal story: it’s similar to creative non-fiction or memoir.

College essays are rich with personal introspection, self-awareness statements, and reflections. Its primary purpose is to show admissions officers your perspectives and experiences.

The length of a college essay

Most applications will specify the word count for college essays. However, the recommended maximum word count is often 650 words, so make your final word count between 400 and 600 words.

The topic of a college essay

First, outline your positive attitudes and brainstorm stories that highlight them. Next, think about your memorable life events and identify the values they show you.

A good college essay topic is:

  • Personal and meaningful to you
  • Unique or has an unusual angle
  • Reflects something different from the rest of your application

How to write a college essay

Start by effectively brainstorming on the best topic that highlights your values.3 Then, answer some questions like;

  • Do you have personal values?
  • What are they?
  • What sets you apart?
  • What are your successes and failures?

Next, use an essay outline to organize your ideas.4 The two standard college essay writing methods are vignettes and single narrative structures.

You can also use a creative approach to structure your essay and employ storytelling techniques.

Vignettes are a series of stories that converge on a common theme. Vignettes highlight your qualities and values and end with a future outlook.

In contrast, a single-story structure shows your character development over time. You start with a single story and deliver the various lessons learned and the changes you’ve made.

The college essay structure is similar to typical essay writing; it has the following sections:

Introduction: Write an engaging introduction that captures your audience's attention here.
Body: Here, use a creative style and tone, and strive to create an emotional response.
Conclusion: End your essay with a deep insight that leaves a lasting impression on your readers.

Revise and review your work to remove style, content, and grammar mistakes. Please adhere to the word count, check it several times, and get feedback from colleagues if possible.

College Essay: Dos and Don’ts

The table below shows the dos and don’ts of writing college essays:

Show what you know about the college. Avoid reusing essays for different college applications.
Reflect on the part of your life or world. Don't say what you assume that the admissions officer wants to know.
Proofread your work. Avoid relying on spell check alone.
Always seek feedback. Don't panic.
Use your voice. Your personal statement shouldn't reflect your resume.

College essay example

The below college essay is called “Grandma’s Kimchi”: An example submitted at the Common App:



Yes. However, ensure the question leads to an idea and does not just pose a rhetorical question.

You can reuse an essay for different applications, though it’s not advisable. However, this isn’t always the case because writing prompts change with various applications.

Most college essays don’t need a title, but you can title your college essay to make it stand out.


1 Johns Hopkins University. “Essays That Worked.” Accessed January 2, 2023.

3 Common App. “First-year essay prompts.” Accessed January 2, 2023.

4 Shorelineschools. “Collega Application Essa Brainstorming Questions from Mrs. Stephens.” Accessed January 2, 2023.

5 Linford, John. “Essay Planning: Outlining with a Purpose.” San Josè State University Writing Center. Accessed January 2, 2023.