Mastering the Art of College Application Essay Writing

October 7, 2022
College Essays

The writing of personal statements and essays is a vital part of the college admissions process, whether it be for the Coalition and Common App or the wide array of university-specific supplemental essays. A student’s grades, courses, and extracurricular activities demonstrate only a narrow range of qualities, while their personal statements allow them to present unique and nuanced aspects of their identity. Despite understanding their importance, students often underestimate the energy and focus necessary to write essays compelling enough to distinguish them from the ever-expanding sea of applicants.

So, as college admissions season is in full swing, we thought it would be helpful to share some of the most critical considerations and steps necessary for crafting outstanding essays that will impress even the most discerning admissions officers.

Brainstorming & Outlining: A Crucial First Step

Many students believe the act of writing itself is the hardest part of the essay writing process and, as such, it requires the most time and focus. The reality is that the most challenging part is engaging in meaningful self-reflection, brainstorming ideas to come up with an engaging topic, and then effectively crafting this personal narrative.

For many, the very personal nature of application essays makes the whole process more weighted. It’s one thing to write a research paper in, say, history or economics that is based upon established facts and concepts and another to write a personal statement based on your own characteristics, beliefs, and experiences. In essence, students are starting with a proverbial blank canvas (or blank screen!) from which they are expected to share a personal journey they view as pivotal in understanding more about who they are. Coming up with an idea, and an organizational framework can be a real struggle for teenagers who are unlikely to have engaged in too much of this type of personal essay writing in the past.

Because of this, before deciding upon a topic, it’s imperative that students take the necessary time to fully explore their background and identity and bear in mind what admissions officers are looking for. They want to know what helped shape a student into the person they are today and to see that students are persons of character with the potential to be valuable members of the student body—and society. Some questions a student should ask themselves include: What interests you beyond the classroom? What character traits most meaningfully define your personality? What are your perceptions of the world around you? Who or what has been most influential in helping shape you? What beliefs most fundamentally define your sense of identity?

Once you’ve decided upon what you are going to write, the next step is to create a deliberate and thoughtful outline. But many students miss this crucial step altogether. Instead, after they select an essay prompt and then a topic—perhaps even one that is of considerable merit—they immediately begin free-writing their response in paragraph format. This is a big mistake that can cause students to waste valuable time and energy during an already busy period in their lives.

To avoid this, students should build upon their initial period of self-reflection and topic brainstorming by outlining their ideas in various sequences in order to gauge which parts of their chosen topic flow together—and in what order. One highly effective method for accomplishing this task is through the use of a mind map. A mind map is a diagram that allows students to organize various segments of their topic, subtopics, and the connections between them into hierarchies. A strong college application essay will present multiple interconnected ideas under the umbrella of a wider theme. Students who engage in thoughtful and deliberate topic brainstorming and outlining will ensure their essay remains organized, coherent, and focused from beginning to end.

Writing and Revising: A Multi-Step Process That Should Not be Rushed  

The successful completion of brainstorming and outlining should make writing the first draft a rather straightforward process. Why? Because the topic, specific detail, and manner of presentation have already been largely established. This means students can simply write down their existing fragmented thoughts and ideas and start to weave them together into one cohesive—and ideally, compelling—piece. In this process, students should give careful thought and consideration to word choice, transitional sentences, and grammatical structure.

Writing an initial draft is hard work, and feelings of accomplishment are deserved. However, there are still several critical steps to be taken before any essay can be considered complete. Students should expect to go through several revisions of their essays to perfect the content and flow. This involves—often with the help of college counselors or teachers—carefully re-reading every segment of text to assess whether thoughts, ideas, and the presentation of details can be improved upon.

Effectively Prioritizing: The Key to Success and Minimizing Stress

The college application process requires students to reflect on, write, and revise many different essays and supplementals in response to a variety of different topic prompts. Whether students are applying through the Common App, Coalition App, or directly through a university portal, a formal personal statement will be required. In addition, virtually every university expects students to complete anywhere from one to as many as five additional supplemental responses to questions of their choosing.

Consequently, students may have to complete 15 or more written responses for their applications. This is a lot of writing for anyone, let alone students who need to balance school, work, extracurricular activities, and the many other considerations in applying to college.

To do this successfully and minimize stress, it is imperative that students approach these essays carefully and strategically. For starters, students should always focus first and foremost on formal personal statements, which for most, will be their Common App or Coalition App essay. It will be read and considered as part of the application for admission to multiple schools, and as such, it will always be the most important written response a student submits.

Students should complete the first full draft of this essay before starting any other writing requirements. Then students should seek insights and feedback on their first draft from a trusted source such as an AtomicMind advisor, a college counselor, a teacher, or a knowledgeable family member. In the meantime, they should refocus their attention on priority university supplemental essays. And while every university supplemental is important and should be completed thoughtfully, students should prioritize those for any schools they are considering for Early Decision or Early Action. These essays will not only be submitted earliest, but they will also be particularly carefully scrutinized by admissions officers.

Thereafter, students can chart a path for the completion of their remaining supplemental essays by order of priority on their college lists. This strategy will help students ensure they efficiently allocate time, energy, and focus during the college planning process.

In Summary

College application essay writing is a stressful endeavor; there is no way for students or parents to avoid this entirely. Despite this unavoidable reality, there are strategies that can minimize this stress while also helping students write inspired and memorable personal statements. Adopting a carefully structured approach to the writing process is key. Thoughtful and organized brainstorming, outlining, revising, editing, and prioritizing of essays and supplementals will ensure not only the best possible admissions outcomes but also enable students to feel much more in control and less stressed throughout the process.

At AtomicMind, we have decades of experience helping students and families navigate the complexities of highly-effective college essay writing. Our college counselors and essay coaches know how to impress discerning college admissions officers and can guide you on the path to discovering just how strong of a writer you can be. Contact us today for a free consultation.