How to write a college application essay that stands out

A little brainstorming and planning goes a long way. Credit: Photodisc A little brainstorming and planning goes a long way.
Credit: Photodisc


Writing a college application essay is a stressful process is an understatement, to say the least. Many high school students end up struggling as they attempt to describe their personalities in roughly 500 words or less.



Gabrielle Glancy has been coaching high school students through the college application process for nearly 30 years. In her new book “The Art of the College Essay,” Glancy details how college applicants can make their essays stand out in the increasingly competitive crowd.


“I think students aren’t taught what a narrative personal statement is,” says Glancy. Once students get a little guidance, she continues, they often come up with essays that shine.

Glancy shares some pointers on how students can fight writer’s block and get writing.

Don’t start at the beginning

“Students have been taught that essays should have a strong introduction,” Glancy notes. But, she says, it’s not possible to have a strong introduction if you don’t know what you are going to be writing about in the end.

Take the time to brainstorm

Before you commit to officially writing your essay, take some time to just free-write and get creative. “I try to get them to brainstorm possible moments of their lives, and to describe the world you come from,” Glancy says of her students.

“Just write, write, write,” Glancy says of the brainstorming phase. “Don’t care about your grammar or spelling.” The important thing is to start.

Draw your reader in

The goal of your essay’s first sentence is to make your reader instantly interested in reading more. Glancy says too many students start their essays with sentences that simply reword the question, i.e. “I want to go to Big State University because.” Instead, students should try to paint a picture for their readers. “Start in the middle of the story,” she advises.

One of Glancy’s favorite stories to tell is about a student of hers who was a highly recruited lacrosse athlete who wanted to write about when he was knocked unconscious during a game. “He started his essay with, ‘The next thing I know I was looking at the sky,’” says Glancy, noting that most readers would probably be instantly intrigued.

The outline:

A successful essay, says Glancy, should follow this basic format:

• Start in the middle of the story to catch your reader’s attention and create suspense.

• The next sentence should create some context for your opener.

• Every sentence after must make you want to read further.

Follow Lakshmi Gandhi on Twitter @LakshmiGandhi.

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