Few aspects of the college application process are dreaded more than the admissions essay. It’s not really the essay itself that scares most applicants. If you’re applying to college, chances are that you already know how to write a decent essay and earn a good grade. What's most intimidating about a college essay is that it won’t be graded – at least not in the traditional sense. You won’t receive a letter grade for your college essay, but you'll be judged on it, and that verdict can make or break your chances of getting accepted into that college.

What is a College Essay?

A college essay is, at its core, a personal essay. It's the lens through which school admissions officers hope to see who you are and what you're really made of. Even if you're answering a specific question or prompt, the true star of your college essay needs to be your unique personality. Don’t overthink it and don’t try to force it. Dig deep and make personal connections that highlight your passions and curiosities. Incorporate anecdotes about meaningful moments in your life that have helped mold you into the person you are or pushed you towards the person you hope to be. If it fits within the guidelines specific to the college you're applying to, keep your essay short and sweet with a count of approximately 400 to 500 words. This word count goal can keep you focused on sharing a meaningful glimpse into your world without overdoing it.

College Essay Ideas

Most colleges provide questions or prompts that help guide your thinking for a college essay. Some of the more common prompts include topics that encourage you to reflect on your passions, expound on lessons learned from personal obstacles or describe how you’ve handled conflict in the past. All college essay prompts are designed to invite meaningful self-reflection that ultimately serves to reveal your true colors in all their glory. Take time to brainstorm ideas about topics that are meaningful to you. Think about the milestones in your life, the things that you love and the things that excite you. Brainstorming is all about throwing out as many ideas as possible. Make a list of everything that goes through your head. While you're brainstorming, resist the urge to edit, judge or overthink. Write it all down and once you're done, sort through it and narrow the list down to the topics you're most excited or passionate about. Your passions are the best material for a college essay.

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What Not to Write About in a College Essay

Imagine how many essays a college admissions officer reads during a career. Now imagine how many of those essays are likely regurgitating the same cliched themes. If you don’t want your essay tossed into the ever-growing pile of boring redundancy, take care to avoid certain college essay pitfalls. The first and most common mistake you should avoid is turning your essay into a list of your accomplishments. Your academic record, test scores and recommendation letters are more than enough for touting your achievements, so leave them out of your essay. It’s also a good idea to avoid anything related to sports, illegal activities or controversial topics like politics and religion. Leave your pets out of the college essay even if you’re passionate about them, and steer clear of personal tragedies and other negative experiences unless you can weave it into a story of transformation and success, which is harder to do than it’s likely worth. A touch of humor is acceptable if used appropriately, but don't overdo it with jokes or try too hard to be funny.

About the Author

Kristina Barroso earned a B.A. in Psychology from Florida International University and works full-time as a classroom teacher in a public school. She teaches middle school English to a wide range of students from struggling readers to advanced and gifted populations. In her spare time, she loves writing articles about education for TheClassroom.com, WorkingMother and other education sites.