The Four-Step Guide to Writing a Great College Admissions Essay: Part I

January 16, 2018 

6156478805_69bde0edc1_z.jpgContributed by: Jake Rosen

No element of the college application process, aside from taking the SAT or ACT, causes students more stress than the college admissions essay/personal statement. Whole books have been written with the goal of explaining what makes for a good admissions essay, and yet, every year, countless high school students find themselves staring at a blank computer screen, wondering how and where to begin. In their Common App admissions essay, they are asked to explain who they are and, ultimately, to provide a reason why they should be selected over thousands of other applicants (without coming off as boastful or repeating the accomplishments delineated in their application) and at the same time, to demonstrate good writing skills, with a hard limit of 650 words. No wonder students are stressed out!

Luckily, this handy step-by-step guide summarizes and simplifies the process. So, how does one write a great college admissions essay? I thought you’d never ask.

Step One: Don’t panic.

This is always a good place to start. Why not panic? Because, although the personal statement is a critically important part of any college application, it is not the end-all-be-all. Unless you are applying with grades and scores that would already put you in the running, a great essay will not earn you admission on its own. That said, an excellent personal statement can be the determining factor in whether a qualified applicant is accepted or rejected. It is often a student’s best chance to become three-dimensional in the eyes of a college admissions department, and thus, to stand out from the sea of other applicants, some of whom have higher GPAs and better test scores.

How to avoid panic when the stakes are so high?

  • No-panic hack #1: Start early. If possible, start working on the essay during the summer after your junior year. Getting in front of this task will save you time and stress in the fall of your senior year.
  • No-panic hack #2: Rest assured that everyone has a story worth telling— the trick is figuring out exactly what that story is, which brings us to. . .


Step Two: Guided Brainstorm

Rather than trying to come up with good “essay ideas” for the personal statement, start with clarifying what makes you who you are. Since YOU are the subject and the main character of the essay, it’s important to understand what makes that character tick. If that sounds daunting, try this: Imagine that friendly aliens have come to earth and are investigating human culture. You have been selected as one of the human subjects, and your task is to pack a single suitcase with the five artifacts that best explain your life and your identity. What would you put in the suitcase? Bonus points if your artifacts are out of the ordinary. When it comes to the personal statement, out of the ordinary is exactly what you’re going for!

Once your suitcase is packed, you’ll need to turn to another tough question: What are your most important values? Possible answers might include kindness, determination, faith, justice, independence, and authenticity. (Google “Core Values List” for help.) There are no right or wrong answers, but knowing the answer to that question will help you write a more compelling essay. Make a list of the values that are most important to you. Narrow the list to just the top three and rank them.  It’s not easy, I know. 

Got a suitcase full of artifacts and a ranked short list of your personal values? Great. Now you’re ready to tell a killer story about who you are and why your prospective colleges and universities should want you in their incoming class.

For Steps Three and Four of the Four-Step Guide, don’t miss next month’s newsletter!

Jake Rosen, Founder & Lead Coach, Launchpad Coaching has more than a decade of experience as a classroom teacher, academic and college advisor, and teenage life-coach. 



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