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How to Write Your College Essay: The Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide

Getting ready to start your college essay? Your essay is very important to your application — especially if you’re applying to selective colleges.

Become a stronger writer by reviewing your peers’ essays and get your essay reviewed as well for free.

We have regular livestreams during which we walk you through how to write your college essay and review essays live.

College Essay Basics

Just getting started on college essays? This section will guide you through how you should think about your college essays before you start.

  • Why do essays matter in the college application process?
  • What is a college application theme and how do you come up with one?
  • How to format and structure your college essay

Before you move to the next section, make sure you understand:

How a college essay fits into your application

What a strong essay does for your chances

How to create an application theme

Learn the Types of College Essays

Next, let’s make sure you understand the different types of college essays. You’ll most likely be writing a Common App or Coalition App essay, and you can also be asked to write supplemental essays for each school. Each essay has a prompt asking a specific question. Each of these prompts falls into one of a few different types. Understanding the types will help you better answer the prompt and structure your essay.

  • How to Write a Personal Statement That Wows Colleges
  • Personal Statement Essay Examples
  • How to Write a Stellar Extracurricular Activity Essay
  • Extracurricular Essay Examples
  • Tips for Writing a Diversity College Essay
  • Diversity Essay Examples
  • Tips for Writing a Standout Community Service Essay
  • How to Write the “Why This Major” Essay
  • How to Write a “Why This Major” Essay if You’re Undecided
  • How to write the “Why This College” Essay
  • How to Research a College to Write the “Why This College” Essay
  • Why This College Essay Examples
  • How to Write The Overcoming Challenges Essay
  • Overcoming Challenges Essay Examples

Identify how each prompt fits into an essay type

What each type of essay is really asking of you

How to write each essay effectively

The Common App essay

Almost every student will write a Common App essay, which is why it’s important you get this right.

  • How to Write the Common App Essay
  • Successful Common App Essay Examples
  • 5 Awesome College Essay Topics + Sample Essays
  • 11 Cliché College Essay Topics + How to Fix Them

How to choose which Common App prompts to answer

How to write a successful Common App essay

What to avoid to stand out to admissions officers

Supplemental Essay Guides

Many schools, especially competitive ones, will ask you to write one or more supplemental essays. This allows a school to learn more about you and how you might fit into their culture.

These essays are extremely important in standing out. We’ve written guides for all the top schools. Follow the link below to find your school and read last year’s essay guides to give you a sense of the essay prompts. We’ll update these in August when schools release their prompts.

See last year’s supplemental essay guides to get a sense of the prompts for your schools.

Essay brainstorming and composition

Now that you’re starting to write your essay, let’s dive into the writing process. Below you’ll find our top articles on the craft of writing an amazing college essay.

  • Where to Begin? 3 Personal Essay Brainstorming Exercises
  • Creating the First Draft of Your College Application Essay
  • How to Get the Perfect Hook for Your College Essay
  • What If I Don’t Have Anything Interesting To Write About In My College Essay?
  • 8 Do’s and Don’t for Crafting Your College Essay
  • Stuck on Your College Essay? 8 Tips for Overcoming Writer’s Block

Understand how to write a great hook for your essay

Complete the first drafts of your essay

Editing and polishing your essay

Have a first draft ready? See our top editing tips below. Also, you may want to submit your essay to our free Essay Peer Review to get quick feedback and join a community of other students working on their essays.

  • 11 Tips for Proofreading and Editing Your College Essay
  • Getting Help with Your College Essay
  • 5 DIY Tips for Editing Your College Essay
  • How Long Should Your College Essay Be?
  • Essential Grammar Rules for Your College Apps
  • College Essay Checklist: Are You Ready to Submit?

Proofread and edited your essay.

Had someone else look through your essay — we recommend submitting it for a peer review.

Make sure your essay meets all requirements — consider signing up for a free account to view our per-prompt checklists to help you understand when you’re really ready to submit.

Advanced College Essay Techniques

Let’s take it one step further and see how we can make your college essay really stand out! We recommend reading through these posts when you have a draft to work with.

  • 10 Guidelines for Highly Readable College Essays
  • How to Use Literary Devices to Enhance Your Essay
  • How to Develop a Personalized Metaphor for Your College Applications

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How to Write a Personal Essay for Your College Application

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What does it take to land in the “accept” (instead of “reject”) pile?

How can you write an essay that helps advance you in the eyes of the admissions officers and makes a real impression? Here are some tips to get you started.

  • Start early.  Do not leave it until the last minute. Give yourself time when you don’t have other homework or extracurriculars hanging over your head to work on the essay.
  • Keep the focus narrow.  Your essay does not have to cover a massive, earth-shattering event. Some people in their teens haven’t experienced a major life event. Some people have. Either way, it’s okay.
  • Be yourself.  Whether writing about a painful experience or a more simple experience, use the narrative to be vulnerable and honest about who you are. Use words you would normally use. Trust your voice and the fact that your story is interesting enough in that no one else has lived it.
  • Be creative.  “Show, don’t tell,” and that applies here — to an extent. The best essays typically do both. You can help your reader see and feel what you are describing by using some figurative language throughout your piece.
  • Make a point. As you finish your final body paragraphs ask yourself “So what?” This will help you hone in on how to end your essay in a way that elevates it into a story about an insight or discovery you made about yourself, rather than just being about an experience you had.

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Where your work meets your life. See more from Ascend here .

We’ve all heard about the dreaded “college essay,” the bane of every high school senior’s existence. This daunting element of the college application is something that can create angst for even the most accomplished students.

  • AA Amy Allen is a writer, educator, and lifelong learner. Her freelance writing business,  All of the Write Words , focuses on providing high school students with one-on-one feedback to guide them through the college application process and with crafting a thoughtful personal essay. A dedicated poet, Amy’s work has also been published in several journals including  Pine Row Press ,  Months to Years,  and  Atlanta Review .

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College admissions

Course: college admissions   >   unit 4.

  • Writing a strong college admissions essay
  • Avoiding common admissions essay mistakes
  • Brainstorming tips for your college essay
  • How formal should the tone of your college essay be?
  • Taking your college essay to the next level
  • Sample essay 1 with admissions feedback
  • Sample essay 2 with admissions feedback
  • Student story: Admissions essay about a formative experience
  • Student story: Admissions essay about personal identity
  • Student story: Admissions essay about community impact
  • Student story: Admissions essay about a past mistake
  • Student story: Admissions essay about a meaningful poem

Writing tips and techniques for your college essay

Pose a question the reader wants answered, don't focus exclusively on the past, experiment with the unexpected, don't summarize, want to join the conversation.

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College Admissions , College Essays

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The personal statement might just be the hardest part of your college application. Mostly this is because it has the least guidance and is the most open-ended. One way to understand what colleges are looking for when they ask you to write an essay is to check out the essays of students who already got in—college essays that actually worked. After all, they must be among the most successful of this weird literary genre.

In this article, I'll go through general guidelines for what makes great college essays great. I've also compiled an enormous list of 100+ actual sample college essays from 11 different schools. Finally, I'll break down two of these published college essay examples and explain why and how they work. With links to 177 full essays and essay excerpts , this article is a great resource for learning how to craft your own personal college admissions essay!

What Excellent College Essays Have in Common

Even though in many ways these sample college essays are very different from one other, they do share some traits you should try to emulate as you write your own essay.

Visible Signs of Planning

Building out from a narrow, concrete focus. You'll see a similar structure in many of the essays. The author starts with a very detailed story of an event or description of a person or place. After this sense-heavy imagery, the essay expands out to make a broader point about the author, and connects this very memorable experience to the author's present situation, state of mind, newfound understanding, or maturity level.

Knowing how to tell a story. Some of the experiences in these essays are one-of-a-kind. But most deal with the stuff of everyday life. What sets them apart is the way the author approaches the topic: analyzing it for drama and humor, for its moving qualities, for what it says about the author's world, and for how it connects to the author's emotional life.

Stellar Execution

A killer first sentence. You've heard it before, and you'll hear it again: you have to suck the reader in, and the best place to do that is the first sentence. Great first sentences are punchy. They are like cliffhangers, setting up an exciting scene or an unusual situation with an unclear conclusion, in order to make the reader want to know more. Don't take my word for it—check out these 22 first sentences from Stanford applicants and tell me you don't want to read the rest of those essays to find out what happens!

A lively, individual voice. Writing is for readers. In this case, your reader is an admissions officer who has read thousands of essays before yours and will read thousands after. Your goal? Don't bore your reader. Use interesting descriptions, stay away from clichés, include your own offbeat observations—anything that makes this essay sounds like you and not like anyone else.

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Technical correctness. No spelling mistakes, no grammar weirdness, no syntax issues, no punctuation snafus—each of these sample college essays has been formatted and proofread perfectly. If this kind of exactness is not your strong suit, you're in luck! All colleges advise applicants to have their essays looked over several times by parents, teachers, mentors, and anyone else who can spot a comma splice. Your essay must be your own work, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with getting help polishing it.

And if you need more guidance, connect with PrepScholar's expert admissions consultants . These expert writers know exactly what college admissions committees look for in an admissions essay and chan help you craft an essay that boosts your chances of getting into your dream school.

Check out PrepScholar's Essay Editing and Coaching progra m for more details!

Want to write the perfect college application essay?   We can help.   Your dedicated PrepScholar Admissions counselor will help you craft your perfect college essay, from the ground up. We learn your background and interests, brainstorm essay topics, and walk you through the essay drafting process, step-by-step. At the end, you'll have a unique essay to proudly submit to colleges.   Don't leave your college application to chance. Find out more about PrepScholar Admissions now:

Links to Full College Essay Examples

Some colleges publish a selection of their favorite accepted college essays that worked, and I've put together a selection of over 100 of these.

Common App Essay Samples

Please note that some of these college essay examples may be responding to prompts that are no longer in use. The current Common App prompts are as follows:

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. 2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? 3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? 4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you? 5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. 6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Now, let's get to the good stuff: the list of 177 college essay examples responding to current and past Common App essay prompts. 

Connecticut college.

  • 12 Common Application essays from the classes of 2022-2025

Hamilton College

  • 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2026
  • 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2022
  • 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2018
  • 8 Common Application essays from the class of 2012
  • 8 Common Application essays from the class of 2007

Johns Hopkins

These essays are answers to past prompts from either the Common Application or the Coalition Application (which Johns Hopkins used to accept).

  • 1 Common Application or Coalition Application essay from the class of 2026
  • 6 Common Application or Coalition Application essays from the class of 2025
  • 6 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2024
  • 6 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2023
  • 7 Common Application of Universal Application essays from the class of 2022
  • 5 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2021
  • 7 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2020

Essay Examples Published by Other Websites

  • 2 Common Application essays ( 1st essay , 2nd essay ) from applicants admitted to Columbia

Other Sample College Essays

Here is a collection of essays that are college-specific.

Babson College

  • 4 essays (and 1 video response) on "Why Babson" from the class of 2020

Emory University

  • 5 essay examples ( 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 ) from the class of 2020 along with analysis from Emory admissions staff on why the essays were exceptional
  • 5 more recent essay examples ( 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 ) along with analysis from Emory admissions staff on what made these essays stand out

University of Georgia

  • 1 “strong essay” sample from 2019
  • 1 “strong essay” sample from 2018
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2023
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2022
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2021
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2020
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2019
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2018
  • 6 essays from admitted MIT students

Smith College

  • 6 "best gift" essays from the class of 2018

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Books of College Essays

If you're looking for even more sample college essays, consider purchasing a college essay book. The best of these include dozens of essays that worked and feedback from real admissions officers.

College Essays That Made a Difference —This detailed guide from Princeton Review includes not only successful essays, but also interviews with admissions officers and full student profiles.

50 Successful Harvard Application Essays by the Staff of the Harvard Crimson—A must for anyone aspiring to Harvard .

50 Successful Ivy League Application Essays and 50 Successful Stanford Application Essays by Gen and Kelly Tanabe—For essays from other top schools, check out this venerated series, which is regularly updated with new essays.

Heavenly Essays by Janine W. Robinson—This collection from the popular blogger behind Essay Hell includes a wider range of schools, as well as helpful tips on honing your own essay.

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Analyzing Great Common App Essays That Worked

I've picked two essays from the examples collected above to examine in more depth so that you can see exactly what makes a successful college essay work. Full credit for these essays goes to the original authors and the schools that published them.

Example 1: "Breaking Into Cars," by Stephen, Johns Hopkins Class of '19 (Common App Essay, 636 words long)

I had never broken into a car before.

We were in Laredo, having just finished our first day at a Habitat for Humanity work site. The Hotchkiss volunteers had already left, off to enjoy some Texas BBQ, leaving me behind with the college kids to clean up. Not until we were stranded did we realize we were locked out of the van.

Someone picked a coat hanger out of the dumpster, handed it to me, and took a few steps back.

"Can you do that thing with a coat hanger to unlock it?"

"Why me?" I thought.

More out of amusement than optimism, I gave it a try. I slid the hanger into the window's seal like I'd seen on crime shows, and spent a few minutes jiggling the apparatus around the inside of the frame. Suddenly, two things simultaneously clicked. One was the lock on the door. (I actually succeeded in springing it.) The other was the realization that I'd been in this type of situation before. In fact, I'd been born into this type of situation.

My upbringing has numbed me to unpredictability and chaos. With a family of seven, my home was loud, messy, and spottily supervised. My siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing—all meant my house was functioning normally. My Dad, a retired Navy pilot, was away half the time. When he was home, he had a parenting style something like a drill sergeant. At the age of nine, I learned how to clear burning oil from the surface of water. My Dad considered this a critical life skill—you know, in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed. "The water's on fire! Clear a hole!" he shouted, tossing me in the lake without warning. While I'm still unconvinced about that particular lesson's practicality, my Dad's overarching message is unequivocally true: much of life is unexpected, and you have to deal with the twists and turns.

Living in my family, days rarely unfolded as planned. A bit overlooked, a little pushed around, I learned to roll with reality, negotiate a quick deal, and give the improbable a try. I don't sweat the small stuff, and I definitely don't expect perfect fairness. So what if our dining room table only has six chairs for seven people? Someone learns the importance of punctuality every night.

But more than punctuality and a special affinity for musical chairs, my family life has taught me to thrive in situations over which I have no power. Growing up, I never controlled my older siblings, but I learned how to thwart their attempts to control me. I forged alliances, and realigned them as necessary. Sometimes, I was the poor, defenseless little brother; sometimes I was the omniscient elder. Different things to different people, as the situation demanded. I learned to adapt.

Back then, these techniques were merely reactions undertaken to ensure my survival. But one day this fall, Dr. Hicks, our Head of School, asked me a question that he hoped all seniors would reflect on throughout the year: "How can I participate in a thing I do not govern, in the company of people I did not choose?"

The question caught me off guard, much like the question posed to me in Laredo. Then, I realized I knew the answer. I knew why the coat hanger had been handed to me.

Growing up as the middle child in my family, I was a vital participant in a thing I did not govern, in the company of people I did not choose. It's family. It's society. And often, it's chaos. You participate by letting go of the small stuff, not expecting order and perfection, and facing the unexpected with confidence, optimism, and preparedness. My family experience taught me to face a serendipitous world with confidence.

What Makes This Essay Tick?

It's very helpful to take writing apart in order to see just how it accomplishes its objectives. Stephen's essay is very effective. Let's find out why!

An Opening Line That Draws You In

In just eight words, we get: scene-setting (he is standing next to a car about to break in), the idea of crossing a boundary (he is maybe about to do an illegal thing for the first time), and a cliffhanger (we are thinking: is he going to get caught? Is he headed for a life of crime? Is he about to be scared straight?).

Great, Detailed Opening Story

More out of amusement than optimism, I gave it a try. I slid the hanger into the window's seal like I'd seen on crime shows, and spent a few minutes jiggling the apparatus around the inside of the frame.

It's the details that really make this small experience come alive. Notice how whenever he can, Stephen uses a more specific, descriptive word in place of a more generic one. The volunteers aren't going to get food or dinner; they're going for "Texas BBQ." The coat hanger comes from "a dumpster." Stephen doesn't just move the coat hanger—he "jiggles" it.

Details also help us visualize the emotions of the people in the scene. The person who hands Stephen the coat hanger isn't just uncomfortable or nervous; he "takes a few steps back"—a description of movement that conveys feelings. Finally, the detail of actual speech makes the scene pop. Instead of writing that the other guy asked him to unlock the van, Stephen has the guy actually say his own words in a way that sounds like a teenager talking.

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Turning a Specific Incident Into a Deeper Insight

Suddenly, two things simultaneously clicked. One was the lock on the door. (I actually succeeded in springing it.) The other was the realization that I'd been in this type of situation before. In fact, I'd been born into this type of situation.

Stephen makes the locked car experience a meaningful illustration of how he has learned to be resourceful and ready for anything, and he also makes this turn from the specific to the broad through an elegant play on the two meanings of the word "click."

Using Concrete Examples When Making Abstract Claims

My upbringing has numbed me to unpredictability and chaos. With a family of seven, my home was loud, messy, and spottily supervised. My siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing—all meant my house was functioning normally.

"Unpredictability and chaos" are very abstract, not easily visualized concepts. They could also mean any number of things—violence, abandonment, poverty, mental instability. By instantly following up with highly finite and unambiguous illustrations like "family of seven" and "siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing," Stephen grounds the abstraction in something that is easy to picture: a large, noisy family.

Using Small Bits of Humor and Casual Word Choice

My Dad, a retired Navy pilot, was away half the time. When he was home, he had a parenting style something like a drill sergeant. At the age of nine, I learned how to clear burning oil from the surface of water. My Dad considered this a critical life skill—you know, in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed.

Obviously, knowing how to clean burning oil is not high on the list of things every 9-year-old needs to know. To emphasize this, Stephen uses sarcasm by bringing up a situation that is clearly over-the-top: "in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed."

The humor also feels relaxed. Part of this is because he introduces it with the colloquial phrase "you know," so it sounds like he is talking to us in person. This approach also diffuses the potential discomfort of the reader with his father's strictness—since he is making jokes about it, clearly he is OK. Notice, though, that this doesn't occur very much in the essay. This helps keep the tone meaningful and serious rather than flippant.

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An Ending That Stretches the Insight Into the Future

But one day this fall, Dr. Hicks, our Head of School, asked me a question that he hoped all seniors would reflect on throughout the year: "How can I participate in a thing I do not govern, in the company of people I did not choose?"

The ending of the essay reveals that Stephen's life has been one long preparation for the future. He has emerged from chaos and his dad's approach to parenting as a person who can thrive in a world that he can't control.

This connection of past experience to current maturity and self-knowledge is a key element in all successful personal essays. Colleges are very much looking for mature, self-aware applicants. These are the qualities of successful college students, who will be able to navigate the independence college classes require and the responsibility and quasi-adulthood of college life.

What Could This Essay Do Even Better?

Even the best essays aren't perfect, and even the world's greatest writers will tell you that writing is never "finished"—just "due." So what would we tweak in this essay if we could?

Replace some of the clichéd language. Stephen uses handy phrases like "twists and turns" and "don't sweat the small stuff" as a kind of shorthand for explaining his relationship to chaos and unpredictability. But using too many of these ready-made expressions runs the risk of clouding out your own voice and replacing it with something expected and boring.

Use another example from recent life. Stephen's first example (breaking into the van in Laredo) is a great illustration of being resourceful in an unexpected situation. But his essay also emphasizes that he "learned to adapt" by being "different things to different people." It would be great to see how this plays out outside his family, either in the situation in Laredo or another context.

Want to build the best possible college application?   We can help.   PrepScholar Admissions combines world-class admissions counselors with our data-driven, proprietary admissions strategies. We've guided thousands of students to get into their top choice schools, from state colleges to the Ivy League. We know what kinds of students colleges want to admit and are driven to get you admitted to your dream schools. Learn more about PrepScholar Admissions to maximize your chance of getting in:

Example 2: By Renner Kwittken, Tufts Class of '23 (Common App Essay, 645 words long)

My first dream job was to be a pickle truck driver. I saw it in my favorite book, Richard Scarry's "Cars and Trucks and Things That Go," and for some reason, I was absolutely obsessed with the idea of driving a giant pickle. Much to the discontent of my younger sister, I insisted that my parents read us that book as many nights as possible so we could find goldbug, a small little golden bug, on every page. I would imagine the wonderful life I would have: being a pig driving a giant pickle truck across the country, chasing and finding goldbug. I then moved on to wanting to be a Lego Master. Then an architect. Then a surgeon.

Then I discovered a real goldbug: gold nanoparticles that can reprogram macrophages to assist in killing tumors, produce clear images of them without sacrificing the subject, and heat them to obliteration.

Suddenly the destination of my pickle was clear.

I quickly became enveloped by the world of nanomedicine; I scoured articles about liposomes, polymeric micelles, dendrimers, targeting ligands, and self-assembling nanoparticles, all conquering cancer in some exotic way. Completely absorbed, I set out to find a mentor to dive even deeper into these topics. After several rejections, I was immensely grateful to receive an invitation to work alongside Dr. Sangeeta Ray at Johns Hopkins.

In the lab, Dr. Ray encouraged a great amount of autonomy to design and implement my own procedures. I chose to attack a problem that affects the entire field of nanomedicine: nanoparticles consistently fail to translate from animal studies into clinical trials. Jumping off recent literature, I set out to see if a pre-dose of a common chemotherapeutic could enhance nanoparticle delivery in aggressive prostate cancer, creating three novel constructs based on three different linear polymers, each using fluorescent dye (although no gold, sorry goldbug!). Though using radioactive isotopes like Gallium and Yttrium would have been incredible, as a 17-year-old, I unfortunately wasn't allowed in the same room as these radioactive materials (even though I took a Geiger counter to a pair of shoes and found them to be slightly dangerous).

I hadn't expected my hypothesis to work, as the research project would have ideally been led across two full years. Yet while there are still many optimizations and revisions to be done, I was thrilled to find -- with completely new nanoparticles that may one day mean future trials will use particles with the initials "RK-1" -- thatcyclophosphamide did indeed increase nanoparticle delivery to the tumor in a statistically significant way.

A secondary, unexpected research project was living alone in Baltimore, a new city to me, surrounded by people much older than I. Even with moving frequently between hotels, AirBnB's, and students' apartments, I strangely reveled in the freedom I had to enjoy my surroundings and form new friendships with graduate school students from the lab. We explored The Inner Harbor at night, attended a concert together one weekend, and even got to watch the Orioles lose (to nobody's surprise). Ironically, it's through these new friendships I discovered something unexpected: what I truly love is sharing research. Whether in a presentation or in a casual conversation, making others interested in science is perhaps more exciting to me than the research itself. This solidified a new pursuit to angle my love for writing towards illuminating science in ways people can understand, adding value to a society that can certainly benefit from more scientific literacy.

It seems fitting that my goals are still transforming: in Scarry's book, there is not just one goldbug, there is one on every page. With each new experience, I'm learning that it isn't the goldbug itself, but rather the act of searching for the goldbugs that will encourage, shape, and refine my ever-evolving passions. Regardless of the goldbug I seek -- I know my pickle truck has just begun its journey.

Renner takes a somewhat different approach than Stephen, but their essay is just as detailed and engaging. Let's go through some of the strengths of this essay.

One Clear Governing Metaphor

This essay is ultimately about two things: Renner’s dreams and future career goals, and Renner’s philosophy on goal-setting and achieving one’s dreams.

But instead of listing off all the amazing things they’ve done to pursue their dream of working in nanomedicine, Renner tells a powerful, unique story instead. To set up the narrative, Renner opens the essay by connecting their experiences with goal-setting and dream-chasing all the way back to a memorable childhood experience:

This lighthearted–but relevant!--story about the moment when Renner first developed a passion for a specific career (“finding the goldbug”) provides an anchor point for the rest of the essay. As Renner pivots to describing their current dreams and goals–working in nanomedicine–the metaphor of “finding the goldbug” is reflected in Renner’s experiments, rejections, and new discoveries.

Though Renner tells multiple stories about their quest to “find the goldbug,” or, in other words, pursue their passion, each story is connected by a unifying theme; namely, that as we search and grow over time, our goals will transform…and that’s okay! By the end of the essay, Renner uses the metaphor of “finding the goldbug” to reiterate the relevance of the opening story:

While the earlier parts of the essay convey Renner’s core message by showing, the final, concluding paragraph sums up Renner’s insights by telling. By briefly and clearly stating the relevance of the goldbug metaphor to their own philosophy on goals and dreams, Renner demonstrates their creativity, insight, and eagerness to grow and evolve as the journey continues into college.

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An Engaging, Individual Voice

This essay uses many techniques that make Renner sound genuine and make the reader feel like we already know them.

Technique #1: humor. Notice Renner's gentle and relaxed humor that lightly mocks their younger self's grand ambitions (this is different from the more sarcastic kind of humor used by Stephen in the first essay—you could never mistake one writer for the other).

My first dream job was to be a pickle truck driver.

I would imagine the wonderful life I would have: being a pig driving a giant pickle truck across the country, chasing and finding goldbug. I then moved on to wanting to be a Lego Master. Then an architect. Then a surgeon.

Renner gives a great example of how to use humor to your advantage in college essays. You don’t want to come off as too self-deprecating or sarcastic, but telling a lightheartedly humorous story about your younger self that also showcases how you’ve grown and changed over time can set the right tone for your entire essay.

Technique #2: intentional, eye-catching structure. The second technique is the way Renner uses a unique structure to bolster the tone and themes of their essay . The structure of your essay can have a major impact on how your ideas come across…so it’s important to give it just as much thought as the content of your essay!

For instance, Renner does a great job of using one-line paragraphs to create dramatic emphasis and to make clear transitions from one phase of the story to the next:

Suddenly the destination of my pickle car was clear.

Not only does the one-liner above signal that Renner is moving into a new phase of the narrative (their nanoparticle research experiences), it also tells the reader that this is a big moment in Renner’s story. It’s clear that Renner made a major discovery that changed the course of their goal pursuit and dream-chasing. Through structure, Renner conveys excitement and entices the reader to keep pushing forward to the next part of the story.

Technique #3: playing with syntax. The third technique is to use sentences of varying length, syntax, and structure. Most of the essay's written in standard English and uses grammatically correct sentences. However, at key moments, Renner emphasizes that the reader needs to sit up and pay attention by switching to short, colloquial, differently punctuated, and sometimes fragmented sentences.

Even with moving frequently between hotels, AirBnB's, and students' apartments, I strangely reveled in the freedom I had to enjoy my surroundings and form new friendships with graduate school students from the lab. We explored The Inner Harbor at night, attended a concert together one weekend, and even got to watch the Orioles lose (to nobody's surprise). Ironically, it's through these new friendships I discovered something unexpected: what I truly love is sharing research.

In the examples above, Renner switches adeptly between long, flowing sentences and quippy, telegraphic ones. At the same time, Renner uses these different sentence lengths intentionally. As they describe their experiences in new places, they use longer sentences to immerse the reader in the sights, smells, and sounds of those experiences. And when it’s time to get a big, key idea across, Renner switches to a short, punchy sentence to stop the reader in their tracks.

The varying syntax and sentence lengths pull the reader into the narrative and set up crucial “aha” moments when it’s most important…which is a surefire way to make any college essay stand out.

body-crying-upset-cc0

Renner's essay is very strong, but there are still a few little things that could be improved.

Connecting the research experiences to the theme of “finding the goldbug.”  The essay begins and ends with Renner’s connection to the idea of “finding the goldbug.” And while this metaphor is deftly tied into the essay’s intro and conclusion, it isn’t entirely clear what Renner’s big findings were during the research experiences that are described in the middle of the essay. It would be great to add a sentence or two stating what Renner’s big takeaways (or “goldbugs”) were from these experiences, which add more cohesion to the essay as a whole.

Give more details about discovering the world of nanomedicine. It makes sense that Renner wants to get into the details of their big research experiences as quickly as possible. After all, these are the details that show Renner’s dedication to nanomedicine! But a smoother transition from the opening pickle car/goldbug story to Renner’s “real goldbug” of nanoparticles would help the reader understand why nanoparticles became Renner’s goldbug. Finding out why Renner is so motivated to study nanomedicine–and perhaps what put them on to this field of study–would help readers fully understand why Renner chose this path in the first place.

4 Essential Tips for Writing Your Own Essay

How can you use this discussion to better your own college essay? Here are some suggestions for ways to use this resource effectively.

#1: Get Help From the Experts

Getting your college applications together takes a lot of work and can be pretty intimidatin g. Essays are even more important than ever now that admissions processes are changing and schools are going test-optional and removing diversity standards thanks to new Supreme Court rulings .  If you want certified expert help that really makes a difference, get started with  PrepScholar’s Essay Editing and Coaching program. Our program can help you put together an incredible essay from idea to completion so that your application stands out from the crowd. We've helped students get into the best colleges in the United States, including Harvard, Stanford, and Yale.  If you're ready to take the next step and boost your odds of getting into your dream school, connect with our experts today .

#2: Read Other Essays to Get Ideas for Your Own

As you go through the essays we've compiled for you above, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Can you explain to yourself (or someone else!) why the opening sentence works well?
  • Look for the essay's detailed personal anecdote. What senses is the author describing? Can you easily picture the scene in your mind's eye?
  • Find the place where this anecdote bridges into a larger insight about the author. How does the essay connect the two? How does the anecdote work as an example of the author's characteristic, trait, or skill?
  • Check out the essay's tone. If it's funny, can you find the places where the humor comes from? If it's sad and moving, can you find the imagery and description of feelings that make you moved? If it's serious, can you see how word choice adds to this tone?

Make a note whenever you find an essay or part of an essay that you think was particularly well-written, and think about what you like about it . Is it funny? Does it help you really get to know the writer? Does it show what makes the writer unique? Once you have your list, keep it next to you while writing your essay to remind yourself to try and use those same techniques in your own essay.

body-gears-cogs-puzzle-cc0

#3: Find Your "A-Ha!" Moment

All of these essays rely on connecting with the reader through a heartfelt, highly descriptive scene from the author's life. It can either be very dramatic (did you survive a plane crash?) or it can be completely mundane (did you finally beat your dad at Scrabble?). Either way, it should be personal and revealing about you, your personality, and the way you are now that you are entering the adult world.

Check out essays by authors like John Jeremiah Sullivan , Leslie Jamison , Hanif Abdurraqib , and Esmé Weijun Wang to get more examples of how to craft a compelling personal narrative.

#4: Start Early, Revise Often

Let me level with you: the best writing isn't writing at all. It's rewriting. And in order to have time to rewrite, you have to start way before the application deadline. My advice is to write your first draft at least two months before your applications are due.

Let it sit for a few days untouched. Then come back to it with fresh eyes and think critically about what you've written. What's extra? What's missing? What is in the wrong place? What doesn't make sense? Don't be afraid to take it apart and rearrange sections. Do this several times over, and your essay will be much better for it!

For more editing tips, check out a style guide like Dreyer's English or Eats, Shoots & Leaves .

body_next_step_drawing_blackboard

What's Next?

Still not sure which colleges you want to apply to? Our experts will show you how to make a college list that will help you choose a college that's right for you.

Interested in learning more about college essays? Check out our detailed breakdown of exactly how personal statements work in an application , some suggestions on what to avoid when writing your essay , and our guide to writing about your extracurricular activities .

Working on the rest of your application? Read what admissions officers wish applicants knew before applying .

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points?   We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download them for free now:

The recommendations in this post are based solely on our knowledge and experience. If you purchase an item through one of our links PrepScholar may receive a commission.

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Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.

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14 Best College Essay Services for 2024 (40 Services Reviewed)

Research conducted by Emily Kierkegaard , PhD, and expert-reviewed by Kevin Wong, PrepMaven Co-founder

Not sure which college application essay coaching and editing service is the best? We compared the top 40 services, created in-depth reviews for 14 of them, and narrowed it down to the 4 best that will help guide you through the process of writing amazing college application essays.

What is the Best College Essay Service?

  • PrepMaven  – best college application essay service overall
  • College Essay Mentor  – best for individual consultants
  • The College Essay Guy  – best for unlimited essay assistance
  • College Vine  – best of the big platforms

The best of the rest:

Individual essay consultants:

  • College Essay Editor  – small editing team
  • Allison Karpf  – former English teacher helping students
  • Your College Vision  – former journalist with more affordable rates
  • The College Guru  – good on paper but unresponsive
  • Sofia Zapiola – budget-friendly application assistance

Mid-size teams:

  • Lotus Learning  – focus on health sciences

Large platforms:

  • Study Point  – larger platform with mystery editors
  • Ivy Select  – larger platform with mystery editors
  • Empowerly  – larger platform with mystery editors
  • BeMo  – expensive and aggressive with wrong expertise

starting to write college essay

Schedule a college essay consultation

Best College Application Essay Services in 2024

#1 – prepmaven.

Our Verdict — Best College Essay Assistance Overall Price: $79–349/hour (minimum $510 package) PrepMaven’s one-on-one college essay assistance is the best option overall. Founded by brothers and Princeton grads Greg and Kevin, almost all of PrepMaven’s essay coaches have Ivy-League experience, primarily from Princeton and Harvard. All essay coaches also undergo a thorough training program in PrepMaven’s methods, developed by professional writers with deep understanding of the college admissions process, for helping students to discover the most compelling stories for their essays. Unlike other services, PrepMaven offers college essay assistance at several different price points. At the most accessible rate, students can work with current Ivy-League undergraduates who specialize in writing and have recently aced the college application process. At higher rates, students can work with coaches who are both Ivy-League grads and professional writers (screenwriters, journalists, editors) with many years of experience helping students to craft compelling essays. Interested students can even work directly with founders Greg and Kevin, who have over 15 years of experience helping students through the entire essay-writing process. PrepMaven’s services combine many of the best features of other good options into one, and it’s hard to beat their experience.

Sign up for PrepMaven’s college essay help now

Any student wanting college essay help, at any point in the process, with a range of budgets.

At a glance:

  • Cost: $79–349/hour (minimum $510 package)
  • Writing coach qualifications: Princeton graduates and professional writers (or current Princeton students); all trained

What we like:

  • Ivy League experience —most of their writing coaches are Princeton grads or current students, with some from Harvard and other Ivies
  • Different pricing options to meet different families’ circumstances
  • More flexible and greater capacity to take on new students compared to individual consultants

Sign up for PrepMaven’s college essay help

Princeton University

#2 – College Essay Mentor

Our Verdict — Best of the Individual Consultants Price: unknown but high Some college essay consulting services consist of just one expert. Of these individual essay consultants, Chris Hunt at College Essay Mentor is our favorite. He combines writing experience as a journalist for the Economist and the Wall Street Journal with personal experience as a graduate of Dartmouth. However, he only works with a small number of students each year, and students need to apply to work with him — he only accepts students with top grades and test scores who are already strong applicants for top schools. Chris offers the option for one-time written feedback, but this only gives big-picture generalizations. (And written-only feedback is always limited.) In order for help with the essay process, students need to purchase a complete essay package.

Students with top grades and test scores who want to work with a one-person business, who have a sizable budget, and who are ready to get started early.

  • Cost: $210 for a one-time written essay feedback (big picture only), then $110 per draft feedback; pricing for essay process packages unknown
  • Essay coach qualifications: professional journalist, Dartmouth grad
  • Professional writing experience as a journalist
  • Extensive experience working with college applicants
  • Partners with Debra Felix, former Director of Admissions at Columbia, for full application review

What we don’t like:

  • One-on-one work is limited to very high-achieving students, who need to apply with a resume : “I limit my one-on-one work to students who I believe will be strong applicants to elite universities. As a rule, this means having high grades in challenging classes, a test score of ACT 34+ or SAT 1500+, and substantial activities outside of the classroom.”
  • Works with a limited number of students (60 per year), so often no availability
  • All-or-nothing packages don’t allow students to work with Chris for just a few hours or for part of the essay-writing process
  • Secretive about pricing (he’ll only give pricing details once he’s reviewed the student’s resume and agreed to work with them), but we expect the minimum cost of working one-on-one to be several thousand dollars

#3 – The College Essay Guy

Our Verdict — Best for Unlimited Essay Assistance Price: $4900 for application to 3 schools, $8050 for application for 10 schools We’re fans of Ethan Sawyer, the original “college essay guy”— his book, College Essay Essentials , is a great guide to the essay-writing process. Ethan doesn’t work directly with many students these days, but he now has a team of consultants who help students follow his principles. Their assistance is really all-or-nothing — they prefer to work with students from the very beginning of the process, and their minimum package is $4900, which includes assistance with essays for three schools. If students are applying to ten schools (a more realistic number for students aiming at competitive colleges), the fee is a hefty $7400.

Students who want unlimited help through the entire process, who have a sizable budget.

  • Cost: $4900 (supplemental essays for 3 schools) – $7400 (supplemental essays for 10 schools)
  • Essay coach qualifications: mix of Ivy grads and former teachers, some writers/screenwriters; all trained
  • Great free resources about the essay-writing process
  • Their Matchlighters Scholars Program gives back to the community by providing admissions consulting for select qualifying students
  • All-or-nothing packages have a high minimum fee and don’t work for students who want just a few hours of feedback or help with just part of the process

#4 – College Vine

Our Verdict — Best of the Big Platforms Price: $140–180/hour There are plenty of large platforms with large stables of part-time tutors and coaches available to work with students. Of these big platforms, we think CollegeVine has the best offerings. Compared to other large companies, CollegeVine provides more information about their tutors, and students can pick individual tutors to work with from their roster. However, this model is really just a way of finding individual tutors to hire. Tutors don’t receive any training and don’t share a common approach, so it’s a mixed bag. Their rates are fairly high for part-time tutors who don’t have specific expertise and training in college essay consulting. Because CollegeVine is really just a marketplace where individual tutors can find students, the quality and price will vary widely.

Students who want to work with a big company, or those who want a quick session or two to go over their essays.

  • Cost: Typically $140–180/hour
  • Essay coach qualifications: no specific qualifications, but a few are Ivy League graduates
  • Possible to select individual editors to work with from their roster.
  • Easy to schedule ad-hoc sessions with a tutor through the website.
  • No training or common approach for tutors
  • Editors are part-time , with no option to work with full-time college admissions experts
  • Relatively expensive for this level of expertise

College Essay Editing Alternatives (that Didn’t Make the Cut)

Individual essay consultants, #5 – college essay editor.

Our Verdict — Small Editing Team Price: Roughly $5,950 for applications to 10 schools College Essay Editor comprises two graduates of Stanford. This means that they have personal experience applying to highly competitive schools. One member of the team also has a college counseling certification, which is a good background for college essays. Based on their website, they appear to focus on the editing and proofreading phase of the essay-writing process. This can be helpful to students, but we recommend working with a service who can help students to uncover their values and brainstorm really great material that allows them to really shine—and if this doesn’t happen at the beginning of the process, it’s much harder to add in later on.

  • Cost: $195/1000 words for proofreading, $495/1000 words for 3 rounds of editing and proofreading, or $595/1000 words for unlimited rounds of editing and proofreading; for the purposes of comparison, complete applications to 10 competitive colleges would be around 9,650 words, or $5950.
  • Writing coach qualifications: Stanford graduates, one of whom has college counseling certification
  • Editors are graduates of Stanford University , and one is a member of NACAC, the national association of college counselors
  • They focus on editing and proofreading only , not on the crucial earlier steps of brainstorming and strategy
  • Small team with very limited availability
  • All asynchronous editing so you won’t be able to cultivate a real relationship with your essay coach.

#6 – Allison Karpf

Our Verdict — Former English Teacher Helping Students Price: $385/hour or $3850 package for application to one school Another option for students looking to hire an individual consultant is Allison Karpf. Allison is a former high school English teacher and a graduate of UC Berkeley who also holds a Masters of Education from Stanford. Her rates are definitely on the higher side, especially for someone who doesn’t have a professional writing background, but she does have extensive experience working with students to craft their essays.

  • Cost:  $385/hour or $3850 unlimited counseling (includes supplemental essays for one college)
  • Essay coach qualifications: former high school English teacher; Berkeley grad, Stanford MEd
  • Lots of experience helping students improve their college essays
  • Very quick to respond to client requests
  • No professional writing experience or Ivy-Plus undergraduate experience
  • High rates relative to other options
  • Limited availability , since she works alone

#7 – Your College Vision

Our Verdict: Former Journalist with More Affordable Rates Price: $180/hour, or packages starting from $3500 Laurie Lande is another individual consultant who helps students through the essay-writing process. She comes recommended by other consultants like Chris from College Essay Mentor . Laurie did not herself attend a highly competitive school, so she doesn’t have that personal experience of going through the selective admissions process, but she does have a professional writing background as a journalist for the Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong.

  • Cost: $180/hour or packages starting at $3500
  • Essay coach qualifications: journalism background
  • Affordable pricing , relative to other options
  • Not a graduate of a highly selective school

#8 – The College Guru

Our Verdict — Good on Paper but Unresponsive Price: unknown Yet another individual essay consultant is Geanine Thompson from The College Guru. Geanine attended Dartmouth as an undergraduate and also holds an MBA from Duke. She also has a professional writing background as an assistant book editor at Berkley Publishing Group. Like Greg and Kevin at PrepMaven , she combines experience in the business world and at Wall Street firms with experience in education.

  • Cost: unknown
  • Essay coach qualifications: former assistant book editor; Dartmouth grad, Duke MBA
  • Dartmouth graduate and former book editor
  • Not responsive to emails and client requests

#9 – Sofia Zapiola

Our Verdict — A budget-friendly, personal essay editor. Price: $80/hour Yet another individual essay consultant is Sofia Zapiola, who offers a mix of essay editing and college application counseling services.

  • Cost: $80/hour
  • Essay coach qualifications: M.A. from Harvard; certificate in College Counseling from UC San Diego.
  • Individual approach, budget-friendly rates, commitment to working within families’ budgets.
  • Very few testimonials, so it’s difficult to evaluate how effective she is.

student writing college essay on laptop

Mid-size Teams

#10 – lotus learning.

Our Verdict — Expensive for Tutor Background Price: $165/hour Founded by a Harvard grad who is a former teacher and veteran of the publishing industry, Lotus learning offers college essay help in the Boston area. They have a small team of tutors, mostly recent grads from good but not Ivy-Plus colleges, and mostly with focus in health sciences.

  • Cost: $165/hour (minimum 8 hours)
  • Essay coach qualifications: tutors are recent grads, but not Ivy-Plus schools
  • Reasonable pricing with flexible packages
  • Essay editors aren’t graduates of Ivy-Plus schools and don’t have professional writing experience

Large platforms

#11 – study point.

Our Verdict — Larger Platform with Mystery Editors Price: Rates Between $60 and $120/hr Study Point is a larger essay editing service. They claim to have several decades of experience helping students to craft their college essays, but they do not give information about who their essay coaches are and what qualifications they might have.

  • Cost: $60-120/hr, depending on tutor experience
  • Essay coach qualifications: unknown
  • Larger company with several decades of experience
  • Unclear who the essay coaches are
  • Lack of statistics about their results

#12 – Ivy Select

Our Verdict — Larger Platform with Mystery Editors Price: unknown Ivy Select makes a lot of big promises on their website about having the best college essay consultants in the business, but they offer no information on who these consultants are, or on their backgrounds. They also brag that each consultant “only” works 20 students in one application cycle, but in our experience, that’s quite high.

  • Long list of impressive (but anonymous) testimonials
  • Only work with “top students”
  • No information on their website about who the editors are
  • Each essay coach works with up to 20 students at one time

#13 – Empowerly

Our Verdict — Larger Platform with Mystery Editors Price: High, from $6000/year Empowerly has over 60 college counselors who each work with an average of 5 students per year, in order to have more time to devote to each student. Their counselors come from “different educational backgrounds,” and while they do not provide specific biographical details we can assume that most of their essay coaches did not attend highly selective schools.

  • Cost: typically from $6000/year
  • Essay coach qualifications: college counselors
  • Counselors work with just a few students per year
  • You have to upgrade to “Empowerly Elite” to guarantee a counselor with a more selective educational background
  • No professional writing experience

#14 – Prepory

Our Verdict — Expensive but with Good Expertise Price: $325/hr Prepory is a college application and career counseling service that offers a comprehensive program for college applications at any stage of the process (including as early as 9th grade). They make a lot of impressive claims about the expertise of their coaches, but it’s quite difficult to actual find much information about their essay coach qualifications.

  • Cost: $325/hr
  • They have a comprehensive college application program that begins as early as 9th grade.
  • Limited information about essay coaches
  • High prices

Top 40 College Essay Services Considered

  • College Essay Editor
  • The College Essay Guy
  • College Vine
  • College Essay Mentor
  • Study Point
  • Allison Karpf
  • The College Guru
  • Lotus Learning
  • Summit Prep
  • Sofia Zapiola
  • Ivy Global / New Summits
  • College Essay Solutions
  • Your College Vision
  • Essay Edge*
  • ServicEscape*
  • PapersForge*
  • QuickWriter*
  • JustEditMyEssay*
  • JustDoMyEsssay*
  • ExpertWriting*
  • SpeedyPaper*
  • GradeMiners*

* A number of services will edit essays directly for students, or even write portions of the essay for students. We do not condone this. Admissions officers can tell when essays have been written or edited by adults and this can have severe consequences. We have excluded these services from our reviews.

student writing college essay

Why are college application essays important?

Can a great college essay alone get you into Harvard?

No. You’ll need your grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities (as well as letters of recommendation and interview) to be outstanding.

But can a mediocre essay be the reason you didn’t get into Harvard?

Yes. There are thousands of amazingly-qualified students who graduate from high school each year. Great grades and test scores might be a prerequisite for admission to a competitive college, but they alone aren’t enough.

Harvard University

College essays are a key component of a student’s application . When done well, they transform a collection of numbers—GPA, class rank, SAT or ACT scores , number of AP classes taken, AP scores—into a glimpse of a real, individual person.

Essays do many things. Good college essays can highlight extracurricular achievements which otherwise would be overlooked in a sterile list. Strong essays often indicate the student’s future plans —how they plan to leave a mark on their college campus and on the world. They can shine a light on unique challenges that a student may have had to face on their journey.

College admissions officers only have a few minutes to spend on each application. College essays need to be original, interesting, and memorable . They need to grab the attention of the admissions officer and persuade them that this is the student out of hundreds or thousands of other similarly-qualified applicants who should be admitted.

College admissions essays are usually unlike any other kind of writing that students have done before. They’re a combination of memoir and marketing pitch, and they need to be creative but also highly strategic. That’s a tough assignment!

What’s more, students are left to figure this assignment out on their own. A thoughtful and generous high school English teacher may provide guidance or offer to read essays and give feedback, but these teachers are responsible for many students, and they’re (usually) not experts in admissions strategies.

There’s another reason college essays are especially important from 2024 on. After the recent Supreme Court decision, the application essay has become one of the main ways that you can communicate how your racial identity has affected your life.

In fact, the New York Times published an article about how important it can be for students to discuss race in their college application essays!

Princeton University

Why work with a college essay service?

You may want to consider a college essay service if:

  • You have no idea where to start in order to write your college application essays
  • You feel overwhelmed by all of the different ideas you have and don’t know what would be the most strategic for college admissions—and what topics to definitely avoid for college essays
  • You don’t know how to craft a compelling stor y
  • You’re not sure how to edit and refine what you’ve written
  • You have a hard time keeping yourself on track and want an external structure to hold you accountable
  • You’re tired of conflict between students and parents about college essays
  • You’re aiming at a competitive college (not just the Ivy League!) and know that you need your essays to be outstanding
  • Your grades, test scores, and extracurriculars aren’t exceptional, so you need your essay to make your essay stand out from the pack
  • You’re unfamiliar with the US college admissions process (a common situation for international students and first-generation families in the US)

Any of these are strong reasons to consider working with a college essay service!

It’s also worth remembering that a lot of the free advice on college’s website isn’t always very clear. For example, NYU’s admissions Senior Assistant Director of Admissions says that “There is no right or wrong way to answer as long as your answer is genuine to you.”

While that’s true, that doesn’t offer much guidance on how to actually write the essay!

Though many college applicants might not mention it, more and more students are using professional college application consultants. Research at the University of Chicago has shown that over a quarter of high-achieving seniors employed private specialists to help with the college application process.

In fact, according to NPR , some companies are even offering college admissions counseling to their top employees as an incentive–that’s just how important professional help can be in the current landscape of college admissions.

It’s important to note that a good college essay service will not write your college application essays for you . This is unethical and illegal. That’s not just coming from us: take it from a school like Princeton, whose website insists on the importance of writing your own application essays.

A good college essay service will guide you through each step of the process , teaching you how to self-reflect and write well while sharing insider insight about admissions strategy .

Yale University

What makes a good college essay service?

We strongly believe that students need to write their own college essays , and we do not condone plagiarism or “buying” a college essay.

However, writing college application essays requires a completely new set of skills that is rarely taught in high school!

Writing a personal essay is much more creative than simply writing a good paper for English class. It requires a compelling narrative and a great deal of writing craft . A good essay service will teach how to do this kind of writing.

There are many college essay services that will provide only written feedback to students, usually in the form of comments added to an essay draft. (Remember, it’s important that students write their own essays, so avoid any college essay service that will make edits directly to an essay document .)

Written comments can be an effective component of good essay coaching. However, writing college essays is a deeply personal process , and it’s incredibly difficult to guide a student through the process of self-reflection, brainstorming, and planning purely through written comments.

In addition, a great college essay coach will teach students how to do this entire process of brainstorming, planning, outlining, writing, and revising . It’s difficult to learn why an essay coach is advising certain changes through written comments alone.

For these reasons, look for a college essay service with live, one-on-one services , not just written feedback. These days, it’s easy to work with the best college essay consultants in the country over Zoom!

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Students need to reflect on their goals, their passions, and what drives them to be the person they are. This requires a great deal of self-awareness and self-analysis . An experienced college essay coach can help draw these ideas out of students through tested introspection techniques and brainstorming exercises .

On top of all of that, students need to be cognizant of which traits and accomplishments will be most appealing to colleges , and which stories will be cliche and boring. Personal statements and supplementary essays need to fit together to tell a cohesive story, and they need to work together with the rest of the student’s application (extracurriculars, grades, and other accomplishments).

In other words, there’s a great deal of strategy here! An experienced college essay service can help students decide how to present themselves in the best possible light .

Furthermore, most students don’t know how to edit effectively . A really top-notch college essay service will also teach students how to edit their own writing —how to reorder sections for better flow, cut unnecessary words to meet a word count, eliminate passive verbs, and make their writing vivid and exciting. Our students are routinely amazed by how transformative this step can be, and how much they learn by doing it together with the essay coach.

Finally, the best college essay services can also help students to make a writing plan and keep them on track , so that parents don’t have to be involved directly.

Ready to work on your college essays? Schedule a free 15- to 30-minute consultation with Jessica or one of our founders.

Best overall: PrepMaven’s tutors offer the highest quality at the best price. With three tiers of tutors, they make it easy to work with an Ivy League undergraduate for as little as $79/hr. Or, families can work with education professionals or Ivy League graduates from $150/hr. PrepMaven’s track record means that you can be sure every hour is being spent productively, so that you can expect real results from the work.

Best for individual consultants: College Essay Mentor. In theory, College Essay Mentor would offer an unparalleled level of individual attention and guidance: his website boasts of some very impressive results. You might find it hard to actually schedule with him, however, since he’s very selective about his clients.

Best for unlimited essay assistance: The College Essay Guy might not offer that personalized attention you get from live, face to face essay coaching, but they do offer unlimited essay editing for up to 10 schools (if you’re comfortable paying a hefty package price).

Best of the big platforms: College Vine will always be a bit of a gamble. Because it’s a tutor marketplace, your results (and costs) will really depend on how lucky you get with your consultant. From our research, however, many of their essay coaches look to have solid track records.

Ready to work on college essays with one of our experienced writing coaches? Schedule a free test prep consultation with Jessica (Director of Tutoring) or one of our founders to see what would be the best fit for your family.

It’s always best to start early and not wait until the last minute to write your college essays! Remember that essays can be used to earn scholarships as well as college admission, so a few months of writing now can pay off with up to $300,000 in tuition saved later. 

We work with students at all stages of the writing process, from I-have-no-idea-what-to-write to final edits. To start working with an Ivy-League writing coach today, set up a quick free consultation with our team.

Schedule a free college essay consultation

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Top College Essay Posts

  • 14 Best College Essay Services for 2023 (40 Services Reviewed)
  • Qualities of a Successful College Essay
  • 11 College Essays That Worked
  • How to Answer the UC Personal Insight Questions
  • How Colleges Read your College Applications (A 4-Step Process)
  • How to Write the Princeton Supplemental Essays
  • The Diamond Strategy: How We Help Students Write College Essays that Get Them Into Princeton (And Other Ivy League Schools)
  • What is the College Essay? Your Complete Guide for 202 4
  • College Essay Brainstorming: Where to Start
  • How to Write the Harvard Supplemental Essays
  • How to Format Your College Essay

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Emily graduated  summa cum laude  from Princeton University and holds an MA from the University of Notre Dame. She was a National Merit Scholar and has won numerous academic prizes and fellowships. A veteran of the publishing industry, she has helped professors at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton revise their books and articles. Over the last decade, Emily has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay. 

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  • How to Write a College Essay

College admissions experts offer tips on selecting a topic as well as writing and editing the essay.

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Students can go online to review essay requirements for the colleges they want to apply to, such as word limits and essay topics. Many students may start with the Common App, an application platform accepted by more than 1,000 schools.

For college applicants, the essay is the place to showcase their writing skills and let their unique voice shine through.

"The essays are important in part because this is a student's chance to really speak directly to the admissions office," says Adam Sapp, assistant vice president and director of admissions at Pomona College in California.

Prospective college students want their essay, sometimes called a personal statement, to make a good impression and boost their chances of being accepted, but they have only several hundred words to make that happen.

This can feel like a lot of pressure.

"I think this is the part of the application process that students are sometimes most challenged by," says Niki Barron, associate dean of admission at Hamilton College in New York, "because they're looking at a blank piece of paper and they don't know where to get started."

That pressure may be amplified as many colleges have gone test optional in recent years, meaning that ACT and SAT scores will be considered if submitted but are not required. Other schools have gone test-blind and don't consider such scores at all. In the absence of test scores, some admissions experts have suggested that more attention will be paid to other parts of an application, such as the essay.

But just as each applicant is unique, so are college admissions policies and priorities.

"Being test optional hasn't changed how we use essays in our selection process, and I wouldn't say that the essay serves as a substitute for standardized test scores," Barron wrote in an email. "A student's academic preparation for our classroom experience is always front and center in our application review process."

On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court ruled against college admissions policies that consider an applicant's race. The ruling, though, does not prohibit students from writing essays on how their race has affected them, which experts say could significantly affect how students approach this portion of their applications.

Essay-writing tips offered by experts emphasize the importance of being concise, coherent, congenial, unique, honest and accurate. An applicant should also flex some intellectual muscle and include vivid details or anecdotes.

From brainstorming essay topics to editing the final draft, here's what students need to know about crafting a strong college application essay.

Getting Started on the College Essay

How long should a college essay be, how to pick a college essay topic, writing the college essay, how the affirmative action ruling could change college essays, editing and submitting the college essay.

A good time for students to begin working on their essays is the summer before senior year, experts say, when homework and extracurricular activities aren't taking up time and mental energy.

Starting early will also give students plenty of time to work through multiple drafts of an essay before college application deadlines, which can be as early as November for students applying for early decision or early action .

Students can go online to review essay requirements for the colleges they want to apply to, such as word limits and essay topics. Many students may start with the Common App , an application platform accepted by more than 1,000 schools. Students can submit that application to multiple schools.

Another option is the Coalition Application, an application platform accepted by more than 130 schools. Students applying through this application choose from one of six essay prompts to complete and include with their application.

In addition to the main essay, some colleges ask applicants to submit one or more additional writing samples. Students are often asked to explain why they are interested in a particular school or academic field in these supplemental essays , which tend to be shorter than the main essay.

Students should budget more time for the writing process if the schools they're applying to ask for supplemental essays.

"Most selective colleges will ask for more than one piece of writing. Don't spend all your time working on one long essay and then forget to devote energy to other parts of the application," Sapp says.

Though the Common App notes that "there are no strict word limits" for its main essay, it suggests a cap of about 650 words. The Coalition Application website says its essays should be between 500 and 650 words.

"While we won't, as a rule, stop reading after 650 words, we cannot promise that an overly wordy essay will hold our attention for as long as you'd hoped it would," the Common App website states.

The word count is much shorter for institution-specific supplemental essays, which are typically around 250 words.

The first and sometimes most daunting step in the essay writing process is figuring out what to write about.

There are usually several essay prompts to choose from on a college application. They tend to be broad, open-ended questions, giving students the freedom to write about a wide array of topics, Barron says.

The essay isn't a complete autobiography, notes Mimi Doe, co-founder of Top Tier Admissions, a Massachusetts-based advising company. "It's overwhelming to think of putting your whole life in one essay," she says.

Rather, experts say students should narrow their focus and write about a specific experience, hobby or quirk that reveals something personal, like how they think, what they value or what their strengths are. Students can also write about something that illustrates an aspect of their background. These are the types of essays that typically stand out to admissions officers, experts say. Even an essay on a common topic can be compelling if done right.

Students don't have to discuss a major achievement in their essay – a common misconception. Admissions officers who spoke with U.S. News cited memorable essays that focused on more ordinary topics, including fly-fishing, a student's commute to and from school and a family's dining room table.

What's most important, experts say, is that a college essay is thoughtful and tells a story that offers insight into who a student is as a person.

"Think of the college essay as a meaningful glimpse of who you are beyond your other application materials," Pierre Huguet, CEO and founder of admissions consulting firm H&C Education, wrote in an email. "After reading your essay, the reader won't fully know you – at least not entirely. Your objective is to evoke the reader's curiosity and make them eager to get to know you."

If students are having trouble brainstorming potential topics, they can ask friends or family members for help, says Stephanie Klein Wassink, founder of Winning Applications and AdmissionsCheckup, Connecticut-based college admissions advising companies. Klein Wassink says students can ask peers or family members questions such as, "What are the things you think I do well?" Or, "What are my quirks?"

The essay should tell college admissions officers something they don't already know, experts say.

Some experts encourage students to outline their essay before jumping into the actual writing, though of course everyone's writing process differs.

The first draft of an essay doesn't need to be perfect. "Just do a brain dump," Doe says. "Don't edit yourself, just lay it all out on the page."

If students are having a hard time getting started, they should focus on their opening sentence, Doe suggests. She says an essay's opening sentence, or hook, should grab the reader's attention.

Doe offered an example of a strong hook from the essay of a student she worked with:

"I first got into politics the day the cafeteria outlawed creamed corn."

"I want to know about this kid," she says. "I’m interested."

The key to a good college essay is striking a balance between being creative and not overdoing it, Huguet says. He advises students to keep it simple.

"The college essay is not a fiction writing contest," Huguet says. "Admissions committees are not evaluating you on your potential as the next writer of the Great American Novel."

He adds that students should write in the voice they use to discuss meaningful topics with someone they trust. It's also wise to avoid hyperbole, as that can lose the readers' trust, as well as extraneous adverbs and adjectives, Huguet says.

"Thinking small, when done right, means paying close attention to the little things in your life that give it meaning in unique ways," he says. "It means, on the one hand, that you don’t have to come up with a plan for world peace, but it also means thinking small enough to identify details in your life that belong only to you."

The Supreme Court's ruling on affirmative action has left some students feeling in limbo with how to approach their essays. Some are unsure whether to include racial identifiers while others feel pressure to exclude it, says Christopher Rim, CEO and founder of Command Education, an admissions consulting company.

"For instance, some of our Asian students have been concerned that referencing their culture or race in their essay could negatively impact them (even moreso than before)," Rim wrote in an email. He noted that many students he works with had already begun crafting their essays before the ruling came. "Some of our other students have felt pressure to disclose their race or share a story of discrimination or struggle because they expect those stories to be received better by admissions officers."

Some of the uneasiness stems from what feels like a contradictory message from the court, Rim says. In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., said the ruling shouldn't be construed "as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise." But he added that colleges may consider race only if it's tied to an applicant’s individual experiences or qualities, such as demonstrating courage against discrimination.

Personal essays shouldn't serve as a way for universities to ask students about their race as a means to admit them on such basis, Roberts added.

Rim says he expects there to be a lot of confusion from parents and students as they navigate that line when writing their essay. He says his guidance will vary with each student depending on their specific situation.

"For a student from an immigrant family, sharing their racial and cultural background may be integral to understanding their identity and values and therefore should be included in the essay," he says. "On the other hand, a student who has never meaningfully considered ways in which their race has shaped their life experience and worldview should not push themselves to do so in their essay simply because they believe it will better their chances."

While admissions officers try to learn about students via the essay, they are also gauging writing skills, so students want to make sure they submit top-notch work.

"The best writing is rewriting," Sapp says. "You should never be giving me your first draft."

When reviewing a first essay draft, students should make sure their writing is showing, not telling, Huguet says. This means students should show their readers examples that prove they embody certain traits or beliefs, as opposed to just stating that they do. Doing so is like explaining a joke to someone who's already laughed at it, he says.

"Let’s say, for example, that the whole point of a certain applicant’s essay is to let admissions officers know that she thinks outside the box. If she feels the need to end her essay with a sentence like, 'And so, this anecdote shows that I think outside the box,' she’s either underestimating the power of her story (or the ability of her reader to understand it), or she hasn’t done a good enough job in telling it yet," Huguet says. "Let your readers come to their own conclusions. If your story is effective, they’ll come to the conclusions you want them to."

After editing their essay, students should seek outside editing help, experts recommend. While there are individuals and companies that offer paid essay help – from editing services to essay-writing boot camps – students and families may not be able to afford the associated fees. Some providers may offer scholarships or other financial aid for their services.

The availability and level of feedback from free essay advising services vary. Some college prep companies offer brief consultations at no charge. Free essay workshops may also be available through local high schools, public libraries or community organizations. Khan Academy, a free online education platform, also offers a series of videos and other content to guide students through the essay writing process.

Colleges themselves may also have resources, Barron notes, pointing to pages on Hamilton's website that offer writing tips as well as examples of successful admissions essays. Likewise, Hamilton also holds virtual panel discussions on writing admissions essays.

Students have other options when it comes to essay help. They can ask peers, teachers, school counselors and family members for help polishing an essay. Huguet says it's typically wise to prioritize quality over quantity when it comes to seeking feedback on essays. Too many perspectives can become counterproductive, he says.

"While it can be valuable to have different perspectives, it's best to seek out individuals who are experts in the writing process," he says. "Instructors or professors can be helpful, particularly if they possess subject expertise and can provide guidance on refining arguments, structure and overall coherence."

Proofreaders should not change the tone of the essay. "Don't let anyone edit out your voice," Doe cautions.

And while proofreading is fair game, having someone else write your essay is not.

When an essay is ready to go, students will generally submit it online along with the rest of their application. On the Common App, for example, students copy and paste their essay into a text box.

Sapp says even though students often stress about the essay in particular, it's not the only thing college admissions officers look at. "The essay is the window, but the application is the house," he says. "So let's not forget that an application is built of many pieces."

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Conquer college applications

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College Admission Glossary: Learn the Lingo

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What does admission mean? What is a transcript? What's the difference between early action and early decision? When applying to college, you're bound to come across unfamiliar collegiate terms. This glossary can help you make sense of all the college terms you're sorting through.

A standardized college admission test. It features four main sections: English, math, reading and science — and an optional essay section.

Admissions Process

The entire process you go through to get into college. To define admissions, you need to include a number of components. The process starts early in high school as you begin building your GPA and ends when you move into your dorm. Your research, college visits, applications, letters of recommendation, high school transcripts, and admissions essays are all important parts of the admissions meaning.

Admissions Decisions

The decisions made by the college admissions committee about which applicants receive acceptance letters and which applicants do not. Early decisions are available to students who submit their applications within each school's early decision timeline. See "Early Decision (ED)" for further information.

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Admission Tests

Also known as college entrance exams, these are tests designed to measure students' skills and help colleges evaluate how ready students are for college-level work. The ACT and the College Board's SAT are two standardized admission tests used in the United States. The word "standardized" means that the test measures the same thing in the same way for everyone who takes it. Read more about admission tests .

Articulation Agreement

An agreement between two-year and four-year colleges that makes it easier to transfer credits between them. It spells out which courses count for degree credit and the grades you need to earn to get credit.

Bachelor's Degree

When you complete the required courses and earn enough credits, typically after four years in college, you will earn a BA or bachelor's degree. Depending upon your major, you may earn a bachelor of arts (BA), bachelor of science (BS), or bachelor of fine arts (BFA).

Candidates Reply Date Agreement (CRDA)

An agreement many colleges follow that gives applicants until May 1 to accept or decline offers of admission. This deadline gives students time to get responses from most of the colleges they have applied to before deciding on one.

A measurement of how your academic achievement in high school compares with that of other students in your grade. Your class ranking is primarily based on your GPA. Some schools calculate class rank differently than others, so check with your school officials for information on how your school calculates GPA.

Coalition Application

A standard application form accepted by members of the Coalition for College. You can use this application to apply to any of the more than 90 colleges and universities that are members of the Coalition.

College Application Essay

An essay that a college requires students to write and submit as part of their application. Some colleges offer applicants specific questions to answer, while others simply ask applicants to write about themselves. Colleges may refer to this as a “personal statement.” Learn more about college application essays .

College Credit

What you get when you successfully complete a college-level course. You need a certain number of credits to graduate with a degree. Colleges may also grant credit for scores on exams, such as those offered by the College Board’s AP Program® and CLEP. Learn more about AP and CLEP . 

College Financial Aid Offer

An offer of financial assistance to those who receive acceptance to a college. The offer includes all the monetary assistance available to you to pay for college. Also called an award letter, a financial aid award letter, or simply an offer, your letter will include the need-based assistance you qualify to receive based on your FAFSA® (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and any other required forms such as the CSS Profile or an institutional form.

Common Application

A standard application form accepted by all colleges that are members of the Common Application association. The definition of the Common Application is synonymous with college application. You can fill out the Common App once and submit it to any one or several of the nearly 700 colleges that accept it. Go to the Common Application .

Deferred Admission

Permission from a college that has accepted you to postpone enrolling in the college. The postponement is usually for up to one year. Often, a college requires a good-faith deposit to hold your place for the deferment period. Additionally, your college may ask you to account for your experiences during deferment.

Demonstrated Interest

An action that demonstrates you have a sincere interest in attending a particular college. Many admissions committees consider this factor in making their decisions. Some of the ways you can demonstrate an interest in attending include a campus visit or virtual tour participation, having an initial interview, conversations with admission representatives, and applying for early admission.

Early Action (EA)

An option to submit an application to your first-choice college before the regular deadline. When you apply early decision, you get an admission decision earlier than usual. Early decision plans are binding. You agree to enroll in the college immediately if admitted and offered a financial aid package that meets your needs. Some colleges have an early decision option called ED II, which has a later application deadline than their regular ED plan. Learn more about applying early .

Early Decision (ED)

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Everyone planning to attend college should fill in and submit a FAFSA prior to their first year. It determines if you qualify for financial assistance with tuition so you can attend the school of your choice. Your college offer may be based on your FAFSA results.

Financial Aid

Money given or loaned to you to help pay for college. Financial aid can come from federal and state governments, colleges, and private organizations. It might also include work-study assistance. Learn more about financial aid .

Grade Point Average (GPA)

A number that shows overall academic performance. It's computed by assigning a point value to each grade you earn. It is also a key factor in determining your class rank.

Legacy Applicant

A college applicant with a relative (usually a parent or grandparent) who graduated from that college. Some colleges give preference to legacy applicants (also called "legacies").

Need-Blind Admission

A policy of making admission decisions without considering the financial circumstances of applicants. Colleges that use this policy may or may not offer enough financial aid to meet a student's full need.

Open Admission

A policy of accepting any high school graduate, no matter what his or her grades are, until all spaces in the incoming class are filled. Almost all two-year community colleges have an open-admission policy. However, a college with a general open-admission policy may have admission requirements for certain programs.

Placement Tests

Tests that measure the academic skills needed for college-level work. They cover reading, writing, math, and sometimes other subjects. Placement test results help determine what courses you are ready for and whether you would benefit from remedial classes. They can also determine whether you need to take a basic course. Read more about placement tests . 

Priority Date or Deadline

The date by which your application—whether it's for college admission, student housing, or financial aid—must be received to be given the strongest consideration.

The college official who registers students. The registrar may also be responsible for keeping permanent records and maintaining your student file.

Rolling Admission

An admission policy of considering each application as soon as all required information (such as high school records and test scores) has been received, rather than setting an application deadline and reviewing applications in a batch. Colleges that use a rolling admission policy usually notify applicants of admission decisions quickly.

College Board’s standardized college admission test. It features three main sections: math, reading and writing, which includes a written essay. Learn more about the SAT .

Sophomore Standing

The status of a second-year student. A college may grant sophomore standing to an incoming first-year student if they have earned college credits through courses, exams, or other programs at a previous school.

The official record of your coursework at a school or college. Your high school transcript is usually required for college admission, and for some financial aid packages or scholarship applications.

Transfer Student

A student who enrolls in a college after having attended another college. Before transferring, you should check with your current and future colleges to find out which credits will transfer.

Undergraduate

A college student who is working toward an associate degree or a bachelor's degree.

Universal College Application

A standard application form accepted by all colleges that are Universal College Application (UCA) members. Established in 2007, this application offers shortcuts—such as no recommendation letter requirement—that may help you complete your package sooner. However, not all colleges accept it, so check with your school to make sure. Go to the Universal College Application .

Waiting List

The list of applicants who may be admitted to a college if space becomes available. Colleges wait to hear if all the students they accepted decide to attend. If students don't enroll and there are empty spots, a college may fill them with students who are on the waiting list. Learn more about waiting lists .

Weighted Grade Point Average (GPA)

A grade point average that's calculated using a system that assigns a higher point value to grades in certain classes, typically more difficult ones. For example, some high schools assign the value of 5.0 (instead of the standard 4.0) for an A earned in an AP class.

Virtual College

Online college classes. Some colleges are entirely virtual and do not maintain an actual campus, while others offer online and in-person courses. While virtual college classes are often more convenient because they allow you to set your own schedule, some subjects, such as science labs, require hands-on participation that you cannot do online.

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A first-generation college student’s guide to navigating the application process.

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Senior Associate, JPMorgan Chase

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If you’re the first person in your immediate family who’ll be attending college, you may be on your way to becoming a first-generation college student. While this may feel intimidating, know that you aren’t alone. According to recent data by the Center for First-Generation Student Success, about one in four college students have parents who didn’t attend any form of schooling after high school.

Being the first person in your family to attend college is an outstanding achievement. Not only will you be furthering your education, but you’ll also set yourself up for future career success . While you don’t need a college degree to land a job, some estimates show that having a bachelor’s degree may help you earn 84% more than having only a high school diploma . A college degree may also serve as a buffer during an economic downturn.

Understanding the benefits of college is one thing, but navigating applying and enrolling in college as a first-generation college student is another. How do you get started on your college application journey and ensure your transition is a successful one?

Keep reading as we break down the college application process for first-generation college students and provide resources that may help you on your journey.

What’s a first-generation college student?

First things first, what’s a first-generation college student? According to the federal government, a first-generation college student is someone whose parents did not complete a bachelor's degree or some kind of higher education. In a scenario in which you only lived with one parent your whole life who cared financially for you (and this could be for many reasons), and this parent didn’t complete a bachelor’s degree, and you end up attending college, you too count as a first-generation college student under this definition. This definition is important to understand because the federal government uses it to determine eligibility for financial aid programs like the TRIO programs, for instance.

The definition of what a first-generation college student is may vary among colleges and universities, though. For instance, the University of Pennsylvania definition includes students whose parents received a degree outside of the U.S.

Given that institutions define first-generation student differently and offer benefits and resources to first-generation students specifically, you may want to check with college and university admissions offices during the application process to see if you qualify as a first-generation student, according to their unique standards.

How to apply to college as a first-generation student

The college application process may feel daunting, especially if you don’t have parents or immediate family who’ve attended college to guide you. During the process, you’ll have to research colleges, study for standardized exams, fill out school applications, potentially apply for financial aid, and decide where to attend. Fortunately, many resources are at your disposal to make these responsibilities easier.

Checklist for first-generation college students applying to college

Here’s a list that may help you prepare for college applications.

1. Start preparing early (like in your sophomore year of high school)

  • Research potential colleges and universities to understand their offerings, campus culture, and admissions requirements.
  • Identify the type of college experience you want (size, location, majors, extracurriculars).

2. Understand the academic requirements you need to meet

  • Understand your target schools’ grade point average (GPA) and standardized test score requirements.
  • Consider meeting with your high school academic advisor and college counselor often to ensure you’re enrolled in the right classes and overall tracking toward your goal of attending college.

3. Prepare for standardized tests

  • Register for the SAT or ACT exams and check if your desired schools require or recommend taking them.
  • Prepare for these exams using online resources, books, or classes.

4. Research and apply for financial aid and scholarships

  • Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA ® ) to determine if you're eligible for federal financial aid along with other types of financial aid.
  • Consider researching and applying for scholarships. Consider looking for those that specifically support first-generation students (see below for tips for this).

5. If you’re able to, plan college visits

  • Schedule campus visits if it’s feasible for you to get a feel for the environment and ask questions.
  • Attend college fairs in your area and meet with college admissions representatives.

6. Tee up your letters of recommendation

  • Identify teachers, counselors, or mentors who can write strong, personal recommendations.
  • Request these letters well in advance of deadlines.

7. Prepare your personal statement and essays

  • Start brainstorming and drafting your college essays early (see below for tips for this).
  • Have teachers, counselors, and others review your essays for feedback.

8. Complete your college applications

  • Familiarize yourself with the Common App (which you can use to apply to over 1,000 U.S. colleges) and individual college applications.
  • Complete all sections of applications carefully and accurately.

9. Keep track of deadlines to make sure you meet them

  • There are many deadlines to keep track of during the college process, including college application deadlines, financial aid deadlines, and scholarships deadlines.
  • Consider Early Decision or Early Action applications in which you’d apply to colleges earlier in the process.

10. Utilize all the resources that you can

  • Connect with organizations and programs that support first-generation college students.
  • Look for mentorship programs at potential colleges and within your community to help with the college process.

11. Undergo interview preparation

  • If interviews are required, prepare by practicing with teachers, counselors, or mentors.
  • Research common interview questions and think about your responses.

12. Do a final review and submit your applications

  • Review all materials for completeness and accuracy.
  • Submit applications and confirm receipt with each college.

13. Start preparing to enroll in college

  • Prepare for potential waitlist or deferral outcomes that may come from your college applications.
  • Accept an offer and complete any necessary steps for enrollment.

First-generation college student essay tips

As covered briefly above, you’ll likely need to write one or several personal essays during the college application process. As a first-generation college student, your college essay is a unique opportunity to showcase your perspectives, experiences, and the obstacles you’ve overcome on your road to college.

You may want to begin by reflecting on your journey — what being the first in your family to attend college means to you, the challenges you’ve faced, and how these experiences have shaped your ambitions and character. By crafting a compelling essay, you may help admissions officers understand your background and the resilience you bring to your educational pursuits.

As you write your essay, you may want to focus on specifics rather than generalities to bring your story to life. Instead of simply stating that you’ve faced challenges, describe a moment that illustrates how you’ve been challenged and how you responded. Remember, the goal is to let college admissions committees see the world through your eyes and appreciate the context of your achievements.

After you have a draft of your essay or essays ready, don’t hesitate to seek feedback from teachers, mentors, and counselors who understand the college application process. They may be able to provide valuable insights into how college admissions officers might perceive your essays. 

First-generation college student scholarship tips

As briefly covered above, alongside the college application process, if you’re looking for financial aid to support your college journey, you may consider looking into scholarships specifically for first-generation college students. Some organizations and nonprofits are specifically seeking to help students like you.

Here are a few scholarships you may consider as a first-generation college student:

  • The Thurgood Marshall College Fund and The Sallie Mae Fund Completing The Dream Gap Scholarship
  • Esperanza Scholarship Foundation Dollars for Scholars Scholarship
  • The National Society of High School Scholars First Generation Scholarship
  • EducationDynamics Minority First Generation Scholarship Contest

Programs that support first-generation college students

If the steps involved in applying for college seem overwhelming, the good news is that many programs aim to support first-generation college students on their educational journey. Here are a few.  

College Track Scholar Program

College Track is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping students with limited resources achieve their dream of attending college. The organization works with students from the time they’re in ninth grade through college to help them on their journey to receiving a bachelor’s degree.

At the high school level, they help students through academic learning labs, college counseling, and even individualized coaching. When students reach college, the organization helps with career readiness, community building, and financial wellness activities. Finally, they provide early career support in the first two years after a student’s college graduation.

Let’s Get Ready

Let’s Get Ready prioritizes admittance for students who meet specific criteria, such as first-generation college students or students from historically underrepresented communities. It provides students with free college application support with help from peer-led coaches and virtual SAT exam prep courses, and other tools. For those who’d like to seek help from someone who’s been in their shoes, Let’s Get Ready pairs program participants with current college students who act as mentors.

America Needs You

For first-generation students already enrolled in college, America Needs You is a nonprofit organization with a Fellows Program that supports low-income, first-generation college students with resources to help them successfully graduate college, succeed in their careers, and remain competitive in today’s workforce. The Fellows Program helps with internship placements, provides up to $1,000 in grant funding annually, and offers one-on-one mentorship to all enrollees.

Navigating the summer before college starts as a first-generation college student

After you commit to college, you may want to see if any summer orientation programs or bridge programs at your chosen college specifically for first-generation students are available to you before you start school.

Some colleges offer orientation programs that bring together faculty, students, and in some cases, family members to help ensure first-generation students have an easy transition into college life.

If the college you’re enrolling in offers one of these programs, consider taking part. They typically last from between two to four weeks during the summer months. During these programs, you can also ask questions related to everything from picking out classes to navigating dorm life if you plan to live on-campus. You can also start to make college friends.

Final thoughts

If you’re a first-generation student embarking on your college journey, know that it may feel confusing at first, though many resources are available to help. Above all else, as you undergo this journey, you should feel proud that you’re the first in your family to start this path toward higher education. You may inspire many others in your professional and personal circles for years to come.  

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