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How to start your college admissions essay in 10 minutes

March 2019

Through my work as a scholarship application reader, I have read hundreds of admissions essays. These essays can make or (more often) break an application. While an applicant’s personal essay is not weighed as much as their course rigor, GPA, or test scores, it can push a student on the borderline of admission over the edge.

Getting started is often the most difficult part of writing. There are many experiences you could write about, but how do you decide what will make for the most engaging, meaningful, impactful essay? In short, how do you pick a topic that will actually help your chances of admission? This is a daunting task, so instead of trying to narrow down your topic right away, broaden your approach: brainstorm as many ideas as you can before you start writing. To quote the scientist, activist, and educator Linus Pauling,

"The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas."

Five steps to get started:

  1. Set a timer for ten minutes, pull up the list of essay prompts, and write down potential topics for each one. Depending on where you are applying, consult the Common App Essay Prompts, the Coalition App Essay Prompts , or the admissions websites for their perspective colleges. (See a breakdown of these application platforms here.)
  2. Brainstorm lots of ideas without limiting yourself. Write down ideas even if you think they might be cliché, inappropriate, or too personal. Sometimes, a not-so-great idea can generate a better idea down the line. The point is quantity over quality.
  3. Once the timer is up, review your list of topics. Keep these topics in mind over the next few days. Write down new ideas as they come to you.
  4. Write! From your list, pick two or three ideas to focus on. What experiences can you reflect on with depth? What stories showcase an aspect of your personality not captured elsewhere in your app? Start writing without the final product in mind. You might start an essay, then decide that there is not much nuance or depth to it. Or, you might realize that the essay really captures something that makes you special: your drive, your sense of humor, your maturity.
  5. Quiet your inner critic. Let yourself free-write without expectations. You will edit and refine your piece later. Focus on getting your ideas on the page, not on finding the perfect wording. Through writing, you process experiences, make connections, and learn about yourself. Readers can sense when a writer is genuinely reflecting through writing, rather than forcing their story into a predefined narrative about overcoming obstacles and achieving success.

Once you have settled on your essay idea and explored it out through free writing, you can then focus on the elements that will make essay your stand out. The rest of the tips in Admissions Essays series will address what to keep in mind as you write and edit your essay.