You already know how to write an academic essay: you start with an introduction, throw in a thesis statement, find about three paragraphs’ worth of evidence, and wrap it all up with a tidy conclusion…
Now forget all that, because a successful college application essay is totally different.
Here's the thing: your college application essay needs to breathe life into your application. It should capture your genuine personality, explaining who you are beyond a series of grades, test scores, and after-school activities. But that’s not nearly as scary as it seems, because you get to choose what to share and how to share it.
Take a minute and think about the college or university admission officers who will be reading your essay. How will your essay convey your background and what makes you unique? If you had the opportunity to stand in front of an admission committee to share a significant story or important information about yourself, what would you say? The college application essay is your chance to share your personality, goals, influences, challenges, triumphs, life experiences, or lessons learned. Not to mention why you're a good fit for the college or university—and why it's a good fit for you. These are the stories behind the list of activities and leadership roles on your application.
One of the most common struggles students encounter is resisting the urge to squeeze everything they’ve seen, done, and heard into their essay. But your application essay isn’t your life story in 650 words. Instead, pick one moment in time and focus on telling the story behind it.
Admission officers realize that writing doesn’t come easily to everyone, but with some time and planning, anyone can write a college application essay that stands out. One way to do that is to work step-by-step, piece-by-piece. The end result should be a carefully designed, insightful essay that makes you proud. Take advantage of being able to share something with an audience who knows nothing about you and is excited to learn what you have to offer. Brag. Write the story no one else can tell.
1. Get to know your prompt
Ease yourself into the essay-writing process. Take time to understand the question or prompt being asked.
The single most important part of your essay preparation may be simply making sure you truly understand the question or essay prompt. When you are finished writing, you need to make sure that your essay still adheres to the prompt.
College essay questions often suggest one or two main ideas or topics of focus. These can vary from personal to trivial, but all seek to challenge you and spark your creativity and insight.
- Read the essay questions and/or prompts. Read them again. Then, read them one more time.
- Take some time to think about what is being asked and let it really sink in before you let the ideas flow.
- Before you can even start brainstorming, define what it is you’re trying to accomplish. Is this essay prompt asking you to inform? Defend? Support? Expand upon?
- If it doesn’t already, relate the question back yourself by asking, “How does this—or how could this—apply to me?”
- Avoid sorting through your existing English class essays to see if the topics fit the bill. These pieces rarely showcase who you are as an applicant.
Get your creative juices flowing by brainstorming all the possible ideas you can think of to address your college essay question.
Believe it or not, the brainstorming stage may be more tedious than writing the actual application essay. The purpose is to flesh out all of your possible ideas so when you begin writing, you know and understand where you are going with the topic.
- Reflect. You have years to draw from, so set aside time to mentally collect relevant experiences or events that serve as strong, specific examples. This is also time for self-reflection. “What are my strengths?” “How would my friends describe me?” “What sets me apart from other applicants?”
- Write any and all ideas down. There’s no technique that works best, but you’ll be thankful when you are able to come back to ideas you otherwise might have forgotten.
- Narrow down the options. Choose three concepts you think fit the college application essay prompt best and weigh the potential of each. Which idea can you develop further and not lose the reader? Which captures more of who you really are?
- Choose your story to tell. From the thoughts you’ve narrowed down, pick one. You should have enough supporting details to rely on this as an excellent demonstration of your abilities, achievements, perseverance, or beliefs.
3. Create an outline
Map out what you’re going to write by making an outline.
Architects use a blue print. A webpage is comprised of code. Cooks rely on recipes. What do they have in common? They have a plan. The rules for writing a good essay are no different. After you brainstorm, you’ll know what you want to say, but you must decide how you’re going to say it. Create an outline that breaks down the essay into sections.
- All good stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Shape your story so that it has an introduction, body, and conclusion. Following this natural progression will make your essay coherent and easy to read.
- Strategize. How are you going to open your essay? With an anecdote? A question? Dialogue? Use of humor? Try to identify what the tone of your essay is going to be based on your ideas.
- Stick to your writing style and voice. It’s particularly important when writing a piece about yourself that you write naturally. Put the words in your own voice. By planning the layout of your essay ahead of time, you’ll avoid changing your writing style mid-story.
Related:College Application Essays: A Step-by-Step Example
4. Write the essay
Once you are satisfied with your essay in outline format, begin writing!
By now you know exactly what you will write about and how you want to tell the story. So hop on a computer and get to it. Try to just let yourself bang out a rough draft without going back to change anything. Then go back and revise, revise, revise. Before you know it, you will have told the story you outlined—and reached the necessary word count—and you will be happy you spent all that time preparing!
- Keep your essay’s focus narrow and personal. Don’t lose your reader. Start with your main idea, and follow it from beginning to end.
- Be specific. Avoid using clichéd, predictable, or generic phrases by developing your main idea with vivid and detailed facts, events, quotations, examples, and reasons.
- Be yourself. Admission officers read plenty of application essays and know the difference between a student’s original story and a recycled academic essay, or—worse—a piece written by your mom or dad or even plagiarized. Bring something new to the table, not just what you think they want to hear. Use humor if appropriate.
- Be concise. Don’t use 50 words if five will do. Try to only include the information that is absolutely necessary.
The last step is editing and proofreading your finished essay.
You have worked so hard up until this point, and while you might be relieved, remember: your essay is only as good as your editing. A single grammatical error or typo could indicate carelessness—not a trait you want to convey to a college admission officer.
- Give yourself some time. Let your essay sit for a while (at least an hour or two) before you proofread it. Approaching the essay with a fresh perspective gives your mind a chance to focus on the actual words, rather than seeing what you think you wrote.
- Don’t rely solely on the computer spelling and grammar check. Computers cannot detect the context in which you are using words, so be sure to review carefully. Don’t abbreviate or use acronyms or slang. They might be fine in a text message, but not in your college essay.
- Have another person (or several!) read your essay, whether it’s a teacher, guidance counselor, parent, or trusted friend. You know what you meant to say, but is it clear to someone else reading your work? Have these people review your application essay to make sure your message is on target and clear to any audience.
- Read your essay backwards. This may sound a bit silly, but when reading in sequential order, your brain has a tendency to piece together missing information, or fill in the blanks, for you. Reading each sentence on its own and backwards can help you realize not only typos and mistakes in grammar, but that you may have forgotten an article here and there, such as “a” or “the.”
- Read your essay out loud. This forces you to read each word individually and increases your chances of finding
- a typo. Reading aloud will also help you ensure your punctuation is correct, and it’s often easier to hear awkward sentences than see them.
- Check for consistency. Avoid switching back and forth from different tenses. Also, if you refer to a particular college in the essay, make sure it is the correct name and is consistent throughout the piece. You don’t want to reference two different schools in the same paper!
6. Tie up loose ends
Celebrate finishing what you started.
Writing the college essay takes time and effort, and you should feel accomplished. When you submit your essay, remember to include your name, contact information, and ID number if your college provided one, especially if you send it to a general admission e-mail account. Nothing is worse than trying to match an application essay with no name (or, worse, an e-mail address such as email@example.com) to a file. Make sure to keep copies of what you sent to which schools and when—and follow up on them! Be certain the college or university you are applying to received your essay. You don’t want all that hard work to go to waste!
Looking for more college application essay help? We have tons—tons—here, including lots of real-world examples!
P.S. What did you end up writing your college application essay about? We wanna know! Leave a comment or get in touch here.
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0.1) If you’ve been asked to submit a paper in MLA style, your instructor is asking you to format the page and present the content in a specific way. Just as football referees dress a certain way, and Japanese chefs cook a certain way, writers in certain disciplines follow a certain set of conventions. This document will show you how to format an essay in MLA style.
For the most complete information, check your campus library or writing center for the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 8th ed.
1. Document Settings
Your word processor comes with default settings (margin, line height, paragraph spacing, and typeface) that will likely need adjustment. For MLA style, you need:
|(Jump directly to instructions for adjusting MS-Word settings in Windows or Mac; or, skip ahead to 2) Page Header.)|
1.1 Adjusting Document Settings in MS-Word (Windows)
My copy of Microsoft Word for Windows defaults to
- 1-inch margins all around
- 1.15 line height
- 10pt spacing between paragraphs
- Calibri 11-point typeface.
Changing to MLA Style (Windows)
- The default margins in my test run were fine, but if you need to change them:
Page Layout -> Margins -> Normal (1-inch all around)
- The default line height is too low. Change it to 2.0.
Home -> Line Spacing -> 2.0.
(You could try fudging it to 1.9 or 2.1 to meet a page count, but any more than that and your instructor may notice.)
- The MS-Word default adds extra space after paragraphs.(MLA Style instead requires you to signal paragraph breaks by indenting the first line.)
CTRL-A (select all your text)
Home -> Line Spacing -> Remove Space After Paragraph
- Change the typeface to Times New Roman 12-point.
Home-> Font Face Selector (change to Times New Roman)
Home -> Font Size Selector (change to 12)
1.2 Adjusting Document Settings in MS-Word (Mac)
My copy of Microsoft Word for Mac defaults to
- 1.25 inch left and right margins, 1 inch top and bottom
- 1.0 line height
- no extra spacing after paragraphs
- Cambria 12-point typeface
Changing to MLA style (Mac)
- In my test run, the left and right margins are too big. To change them:
Layout -> Margins -> Normal (1-inch all around)
- The default line height is too low. Change it to 2.0.
Home -> Line Spacing -> 2.0
- My Mac copy of MS-Word does not add extra spaces after paragraphs. If yours does:
Home -> Line Spacing -> Line Spacing Options… (a new window will pop up)
Don’t add space between paragraphs of the same style (check this box) -> OK
- The 12-point Cambria will probably be fine, but to change the typeface:
Home -> Font Face Selector (change to Times New Roman)
Home -> Font Size Selector (change to 12)
2. Page Header
In the top right of every page, use your word processor’s “Page Header” function add an automatic page number and your surname.
2.1 Adding the Page Header in MS-Word (Windows)
- Insert -> Page Number -> Top of Page -> (choose the right-justified “Plain Number” option)
- The cursor will jump automatically to the right place for you to type your surname.
- Click anywhere in the body of the paper to exit the header area.
2.2 Adding the Page Header in MS-Word (Mac)
- Insert (in the top menu) -> Page Numbers… -> (Set “Position” to “Top of Page (header)” and “Alignment” to “Right”)
- Click just to the left of the new page number, and type your surname.
- On my test document, my name was too far over to the left; grab the triangular tab adjuster just above your name, and drag it a notch to the right.
3. Title Block
In the upper left corner, type your name, your instructor’s name, the course number and section, and today’s date. Centered on the next line, type an informative title that actually informs the reader of your main point (not just “English Paper” or “A Comparison between Hamlet and Macbeth”).
- Like all the other text in an MLA style paper, the title block is double-spaced.
- The title is in the same font as the rest of the paper — it is not boldface, or enlarged.
- There is no extra space above or below the title.
- A truly informative title will include the general topic, and your precise opinion on that topic. (So, if you pan to compare Hamlet and Macbeth, your title should state the unique point you want to make about Hamlet and Macbeth. Reuse part of your thesis statement.)
This handout presumes you already know why you should cite your sources (to establish your authority, to introduce persuasive evidence, to avoid plagiarism, etc.), These instructions focus on how you format the page. (For a resource to help you determine how to cite a specific source, see the MLA Bibliography Builder).
To fully cite a source requires two stages. The first happens in the body of your paper (the “in-text citation”) and the second happens on a separate page at the end of your paper (see “Works Cited List,” below.)
4.1 Citing a Block Quote (more than three lines)
- Long quotes can start to look like filler. Only use a block quote if you have a very good reason to include the whole passage. (You can usually make your point with a shorter quote.)
- If you do have a good reason to quote a passage that is several lines long:
- Select the text and click the “Increase Indent” icon (see image, right).
- Place the parenthetical citation (the author’s name and the page number) after the period. (This is different from inline quotes, below.)
- There is no comma between the author’s name and the page number.
- If the quotation runs across more than one page: (Wordsworth-Fuller 20-21) or (Wordsworth-Fuller 420-21).
- Skip wordy introductions such as, “In his informative guide The Amazing Writing Book, published by Elizabeth Mount College in 2010, the noted composition expert Maxwell Wordsworth-Fuller describes the importance of citations in MLA style papers.” Cutting the filler leaves more room to develop your own original ideas. (See “Integrating Quotations.”)
4.2 Citing an Inline Quotation
When the passage you want to quote is less than three lines long, use inline style. Here we have two brief passages, taken from the same page of the same source, so we can handle both with a single parenthetical citation.
- The parenthetical citation appears outside the quoted material.
- The period that ends the sentence comes after the close parenthesis. (This is different from block quotes, above.)
- In this example, we have changed the first word a little, lowercasing it in order to fit it into our own sentence. To let the reader know what we changed, we put  around it.
- Again, note the absence of a full sentence that explains who Wordsworth-Fuller is and where the quote comes from. All that info will be in the Works Cited list, so we leave it out of the body of the paper.
4.3 Citing a Paraphrase
Let’s imagine we want to reference Wordsworth-Fuller’s general idea about citation as a way to establish credibility, but we don’t need to include any of the technical details. We can save space, and make it much easier on our reader, if we paraphrase:
- Use paraphrasing for variety, or to make a passing reference without taking up much space.
- If we use an author’s idea, rephrased in our own words, we must still cite the idea.
5. Works Cited List
A research paper isn’t a research paper unless you end with full bibliographical details on every source you cited. This part can be tedious and tricky; leave yourself plenty of time to do it.
- Start a new page.
- MS-Word Wind: Insert -> Page Break -> New Page.
- MS-Word Mac: Document Elements -> Break -> Page.
- Title your new page: Works Cited
MLA style calls for no extra spaces above or below the page title; no special formatting.
5.1. How to Create an Individual Works Cited Entry
Exactly what goes into each item in your bibliography depends on what kind of item it is. The following pages give you some questions to answer, then let you push a button to get an individual works-cited entry.
MLA-Style Bibliography Builder: Create Works Cited Entries by Filling in a Form
- Article (in a periodical, or chapter; printed or electronic)
- Book (printed or electronic)
- Web Page (corporate web page, blog entry, YouTube video, etc.)
If you prefer a more narrative explanation, see Purdue OWL’s handouts for how to create a bibliography entry for a book, an article in a periodical (such as a journal or newspaper), or an electronic source (such as an email, web page or a YouTube clip). See also this list of other common sources (such as a personal interview or a movie).
5.2. How to Organize Your Works Cited list
Sort the entries alphabetically by the author‘s last name.
- If the author is an organization (such as a government agency or non-profit foundation), alphabetize according to the name of the organization.
- If you are citing a painting, or a composer, then obviously “author” has to be interpreted a little loosely.
- Unless your instructor ask you to organize your Works Cited list differently, everything should be alphabetized together, in a single list. MLA does not require that you separate works of different kinds, or that you cite works in the order that they appeared in your paper, or that you write annotations to go along with each item.
- Use double-spaced line height. (in my copy of Word, I select the text and choose Format -> Paragraph -> Line spacing -> Double -> OK.)
- Use hanging indent paragraph format. (In my copy of word, I select the text then choose Format -> Paragraph -> Indentation -> Special -> Hanging Indent.)
29 May 2011 — new document posted, replacing outdated handout written in 1999.
06 Jun 2011 — expanded section on organizing the Works Cited list, since several readers asked for clarification.
07 Jun 2011 — reorganized for emphasis
19 Apr 2012 — added numbers to more subheads
24 Mar 2014 — added details on Works Cited paragraph formatting.
02 Oct 2016 — updated with MLA 8th Edition details.
30 Nov 2016 — added annotated Works Cited sample image.
Related Writing Links
|Dennis G. Jerz|
Researched Papers: Using Quotations Effectively
If your college instructor wants you to cite every fact or opinion you find in an outside source, how do you make room for your own opinion? Paraphrase, quote selectively, and avoid summary.Dennis G. Jerz
MLA Works Cited Citation Builder
Choose a form, fill it out, and push the button… you will get an individual entry for a “Works Cited” page, which you may then copy and paste into your word processor. The BibBuilder is more like a guide than a full-fledged utility, but you may nevertheless find it helpful.
|Jerz’s Literacy Weblog|