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  • Yangyang Guo

5 Tips for Writing a Standout College Application Essay

Girl sitting on sofa working on college application essay.

While regular decision acceptance letters are being sent out to the seniors this week, the counseling team at Blueprint is starting to brainstorm with the juniors for their college application essays.

You probably have heard all different kinds of advice on how to write a good essay, some of which may contradict with others. While we know from our years of working with hundreds of students that there is no one correct way to approach this important task, we have found there are some guidelines that help give essays more focus, depth, and meaning. We’ve also been experimenting with AI to find its most effective use cases in college applications.

We’ve distilled these down into the 5 tips below.

Focus on telling and reflecting on ONE story. Choose a moment that was meaningful to you and helped you grow as a person. Through telling this story, what do you want people to learn about you? How did this experience shape your thinking or values? What did you take away from it? Answering these questions will help you craft the main message that you’re trying to convey. Start with a hook to catch the admissions officer's attention (think about the sheer volume of essays they read). At the end, tie everything together, connecting the narrative with the lessons learned. If you need help getting started, here are a few questions to to kickstart the brainstorming process:

What's the most memorable or unusual encounter you've had?

Can you recall a pivotal decision you made that significantly changed the course of your life?

Have you ever faced a situation where you had to challenge a deeply held belief or value?

Keep the essay in your authentic voice. Writing your college application essay is all about showcasing your uniqueness and personal experiences—you don’t want to fit into a mold. This is your chance to demonstrate what sets you apart and what you can contribute to campus life. The things you write should solely belong to you, meaning no one else should be able to lift sentences from your essay and call it their own. This also means to avoid writing too much content that isn’t about yourself. You might find it necessary to include anecdotes or imagery, but make sure most of the essay is about you and your experiences. Lastly, keep it real and avoid using embellished language or complicated sentences try to fancy—you’ll come across as trying too hard.

Use AI in a smart way. Use it as a thesaurus, a grammar or spell check tool, but not to write your actual story. AI might be efficient at throwing words onto a page, but those machine-generated paragraphs won’t reflect who you are because it’s missing the key details that only you would know. Below is an example of what it might look like when you ask ChatGPT to write from a prompt you provide. Although the paragraph generated is grammatically and structurally correct, it’s extremely vague and doesn’t provide anything insightful on what you actually gained from the experience.

A oor ChatGPT response to a college application essay question

After asking ChatGPT to add a more personal touch with details, the way it’s written makes the essay an unnatural and impersonal read, with ornate and cheesy language.

A more detailed but still poor ChatGPT response to a college application essay question

There are definitely things that ChatGPT are helpful with, such as coming up with resume bullet points or drafting professional emails. However, it’s ineffective for college essays and takes away from your opportunity to write something refreshing and powerful. Lastly, make sure you understand each school's policies regarding AI usage, as some may require disclosure.

Share your essay with a FEW trusted advisors for feedback. Ask them specific questions after they read it, rather than a generic “Did you like it?” Did they understand the key points you were trying to make? What parts did they find confusing? Which aspects were especially impactful or moving? Keep in mind that everyone has a different opinion, so do not ask too many people for feedback. Also, be confident about what you want to convey with your essay. This way, you won’t get confused by contradicting feedback and can make your own decisions about what you want to communicate.

Keep a journal and start collecting ideas now. When something meaningful happens, write it down! It doesn’t need to be an extraordinarily thrilling event. It can be any experience, often new or challenging, that prompts reflection and personal growth. It can be a violin competition that went horribly, the first time you visited your dad or mom at work, or an unforgettable interaction with someone you met at summer camp. Write down what happened and what you learned from it. This way, brainstorming for essay topic ideas will be a lot easier when application season rolls around.

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