At the most basic level, there are two types of essays you’ll be writing for college applications: your personal statement and your supplemental essays. The personal statement is the big, 650-word essay you send to many of the schools you apply to, while the supplementals are more college-specific and often times shorter in length (although not always).
There are different techniques for tackling each type of essay that you should know about before you start writing. Let’s start with the biggun’.
Part 1: Tackling the Personal Statement
Step 1: Brainstorm
It’s important to begin with some juicy brainstorming exercises. These will help you clarify who you are “on paper.” Here are a couple different brainstorming options here for you to choose from:
Option #1: If you really knew me…
Begin by saying the phrase “If you really knew me…” and share something personal with yourself or with a partner. Share something you’ve never told anyone.
Go for it! Surprise yourself.
Option #2: I love…
Set a timer for one minute and finish the phrase “I love…” aloud by naming a series of things that you love. Do this repeatedly until the buzzer beeps. Try and list as many as you can. This is a pretty fun free association game to get your creativity flowing.
Option #3: Gratitude Check-In
Gratitude helps us identify what we value most. Take turns with a partner sharing something you’re grateful for. Get as specific and as personal as you can.
Once you’ve spent a bit of time warming up with these brainstorming activities, it’s good to move into a more essay-focused activity we like to call the Essence Objects Exercise. We consider the Essence Objects exercise the most complete exercise for the college essay. It helps describe the world you come from. By the end you should have almost all of the material you need to know how to write a college essay (seriously!). Definitely find a quiet space and dive in. Writing this assignment by hand produces the best results. Here’s how it goes:
Imagine a box.
In this box is a set of objects.
Imagine that each one is one of your essence objects.
What does this mean?
Each object represents one of your fundamental qualities.
Thus, each object is more than just an object.
For instance in my (Luci’s) essence object box, I put my phone case, which is covered pop-art style tiny tin cans that say “Cool Beans” on them. For me, this case is a daily reminder to take life in stride and to focus on happy moments rather than get bogged down in negativity. I also say “cool beans” a lot in real life because it’s just objectively a great go-to expression.
In other words, by picking this object, I’m learning to connect a tangible, physical thing in my life to my core values of happiness, positivity, and being present.
Try making a list of about 20 objects. Afterwards, survey your list and see what values are reflected in the objects you chose. If you feel like there are values you haven’t yet touched on through your list, try brainstorming a few more. This is a great way to start thinking about potential subjects or values you want to incorporate into your personal statement.
Another great brainstorming activity is the Values Exercise. Here’s a link to a description of how it works. This is useful for identifying both your core values and your aspirations. It will help connect your experiences to what you value most and give you ideas for insights and uncommon connections you want to share with your reader.
Once you’ve done some brainstorming, it’s time to move on to thinking about how you want to organize your essay.
Step 2: Structure
There are four possible paths for writing your college essay.
To figure out which path might work best for you, ask yourself two questions:
Have you faced significant challenges? (You define “significant.”)
Do you know what you want to study?
Based on these two answers, take a look at this chart and see which essay approach might work for you:
It’s important to remember that these categories are interchangeable and you can move from one to the other upon further brainstorming or reflection. So rather than thinking of these as “types of students,” think of them as “different paths for a personal statement.”
No matter which path you choose, we believe a good college essay should either:
Go deep, discussing one moment that fundamentally changed your life, or
Go wide, discussing many different elements of your life.
The Narrative Structure will help you go deep while the Montage Structure will help you go wide. We’ll discuss both structures in the next two sections.
For a Narrative Essay, a great place to start is by doing the Feelings and Needs Exercise. This will give you a sense of how a specific story in your life connects to your broader needs and values in a college setting.
For the Montage Essay, you want to start developing what’s called a “focusing lens.” This is normally an interest, object, career path, or some other theme that connects several of your interests or values. This focusing lens will eventually become your way of highlighting several seemingly disparate parts of yourself in your final essay. For examples of great montage essays, go here. Essays 3, 4 and 7-0 are Montage; the rest use the Narrative structure.
Step 3: Write and Revise
Once you’ve found a topic you feel personally invested in and a structure that your excited to explore with your topic of choice, you’re ready to start writing!
Don’t be afraid to just start. There’s no right or wrong first draft. Just get your ideas on paper and you can do plenty of revising later on.
Feeling stuck? Click here for a separate guide on how to begin your college essay.
Once you’ve got a first draft, you want to start combing back through it to see if your essay is doing its job. Here are four qualities of a great personal statement:
Core Values (AKA: information)
These are the values you would fight for (Ex. family, freedom, empathy). As you read through your essay, ask yourself: which values are kind of there, but could be clearer? Or which values should be coming through but maybe aren’t yet?
This is where you can FEEL the writer coming through. Test your essay by reading it aloud to someone who knows you. Ask them two questions: “Do you feel closer to me?” and “What did you learn about me that you didn’t already know?”
Insight (aka “So What?” Moments)
Try working 4-5 of these moments into your essay. The ends of the paragraphs are a great place to put these. Look at the claims you’re making and ask: what do they say about me? And are these insights obvious or unpredictable?
Craft is when you know why each paragraph, each sentence and, yes, each word is there. Make sure all are necessary. Comb through your entire essay with the word “necessary” in mind.
And that, in broad strokes, is how you should go about writing your personal statement. If you want more specific details or some essay examples from previous years that worked, check out this free 1-hour guide.
Now, let’s talk supplementals.
Part 2: Writing Your Supplemental Essays
Ultimately, a lot of the writing you do for these essays is similar to what you do for your personal statement. Here’s a general idea of what the writing process for supplementals should look like:
Step 1: Gather all your topics into one spreadsheet
Research all the essay topics (you’ll find most on the Common App–if not, try the school’s website) for the colleges on your list and put them into one spreadsheet.
Then, play the overlapping prompt game: read through all your prompts and decide which might potentially overlap. This will give you a clearer sense of how many essays you need to write from scratch and how many you can just shift around a bit to fit multiple prompts.
Step 2: Brainstorm topics for a “Super Essay”
One great way to save yourself time is to brainstorm an essay that will work for several prompts. I call this a “Super Essay.” A great way to find one is to consider the activities, projects, or clubs that either a) you’ve spent a lot of time on, or b) are impressive. Make a list of 2-3 of these. To figure out which one may yield more (and better) content, ask yourself these questions:
What did I actually do? Make a bullet point list of your responsibilities, with active verbs at the start of each one (Ex: organized meeting notes, facilitated conversations, etc.)
What problems have I addressed or solved through this project/activity/club?
What lessons/values/skills did I develop? What am I better at than I was before?
What impact did I have–on my self, school, community, or world?
How did (or could) I apply this to other areas of my life?
If you read through these and it’s clear that a particular activity, project, or club will yield more content, it might be a sign that it’s a great “Super Essay” candidate.
Once you’ve got a topic you’re satisfied with, go back to all your essay prompts and see how many of them your topic of choice could potentially work for. Sometimes you might have to get a little creative to make it work, but don’t be afraid to think outside of the box a little bit.
Step 3: Structure and write!
Pick a structure:
Narrative Structure: great for essays in which you overcame or worked towards overcoming a challenge. If you go with this structure, try breaking it down like this:
Challenge I/we faced
Why it was a big deal
What we did about it
What my particular role was
Results + impact
Montage Structure: great for everything else. If you go with this structure, use the Values List to brainstorm 4-6 lessons you learned through the project/activity/club. Tip: try to not choose the values that every other student will choose (ex: discipline, hard work, etc.) and instead strive for uncommon connections.