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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.

NOT ONLY IS THE COLLEGE

essay a place to showcase writing skills, it's one of the only parts of a college application where a student's voice can shine through.

Unlike test scores and transcripts, the college admissions essay offers students a chance to showcase their personality.

"The essays are important in part because this is a student's chance to really speak directly to the admissions office," says Adam Sapp, senior associate dean 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 admissions 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."

Tips offered by experts emphasize the importance of being concise, coherent, congenial, 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 essay.

Getting Started on 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 nearly 900 schools.

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

How Long Should a College Essay Be?

Though the Common App – which students can submit to multiple colleges – notes that "there are no strict word limits" for its main essay, it suggests a cap of about 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.

How to Pick a College Essay Topic

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. 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.

So, no matter what topic students choose, they'll ultimately be writing about themselves, says Ethan Sawyer, founder of the College Essay Guy website, which offers free and paid essay-writing resources. "What we think of as the topic is just the frame or the lens that we're using to get into other parts of 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. Wassink says students can ask peers or family members questions such as, "What do you think differentiates me?" Or, "What are my quirks?"

The essay should tell college admissions officers something they don't already know, experts say. Students should ensure they're writing about something that isn't mentioned elsewhere in their application, perhaps in the activities section, or expand greatly on the topic if it is noted elsewhere.

Writing the College Essay

Some experts encourage students to outline their essay before jumping into the actual writing.

But there isn't one correct way of doing things, says Sara Newhouse, vice president of admission and financial aid at Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama.

Writing the College Essay

Some experts encourage students to outline their essay before jumping into the actual writing.

But there isn't one correct way of doing things, says Sara Newhouse, vice president of admission and financial aid at Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama.

"Your writing process is your own," she says. Newhouse encourages students to use whatever process worked for them in the past when they completed writing assignments for English and other high school classes.

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."

[ READ: Avoid These Big College Application Mistakes. ]

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: