How to write a US college admissions essay

A step-by-step guide to writing your personal essay for US college applications
October 5 2016

If you’re one of the thousands of students that have decided to study in the US this year, you may be aware that unfortunately you cannot escape the dreaded piece of personal writing, even as an international student.

While there is certainly no Ucas system as there is in the UK, you’ll still be required to write a college admissions essay as part of your application. There are three types of applications:

The Common Application and the UCA are used by many US universities and colleges, and you’ll find that if you can write an essay for one of these, you’ll have no problems with any other individual applications.

The key to a successful essay is to start early – with the Common Application this means choosing which one of the five prompts you wish to answer and getting down some initial thoughts.

Think about each prompt carefully and decide whether your skills and life experience relate to one more than the others. Look at the individual words such as “background” and “interest” to help you, and if you still can’t decide, ask your family and friends which prompt they think might suit you best.

Remember that these prompts are just that, and not questions that must be “answered”. If you’re applying to institutions that use the UCA or set their own admissions essay, you won’t have to worry about this part, but the advice that follows will still apply.

When you’ve made a decision, sit down for a brainstorming session and make notes on how the topics below might be used in your essay:

  • After school clubs and extracurricular activities
  • Holidays and other trips abroad or around the UK
  • Hobbies and interests
  • Work experience
  • Family members and friends
  • Special occasions and other life experiences that have influenced you

When you have a few sentences down for each point, you can begin to put together your introduction.

Like the Ucas personal statement, an attention-grabbing opening sentence is crucial if you’re going to highlight yourself as an interesting person who the admissions faculty would want on their course.

Don’t start with something generic, such as “when I go into the city, I visit the museums because I like history”. Everyone goes to museums to learn more about history, so this isn’t a personal story.

Make sure you launch straight into telling the reader why you’re unique, without wasting time restating the prompt or describing what you’re going to write about.

Once you have a solid opening paragraph, think about how you can use your notes to construct several more paragraphs that will make up the bulk of your essay.

You are only given a maximum of 650 words for the UCA personal statement and the Common Application essay, which isn’t a lot of space, but at this stage it’s better to have too much written down that you can then trim, than not have enough. Institutions that set their own essays may offer more words than this, but it’s best to check the application form or their website first.

Think about how your notes from earlier can be used in relation to the prompt you have chosen, and try to link each paragraph so the essay flows well as a whole.

For example, if you’re writing an essay for prompt number five of the common application, “Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family”, you might choose to talk about wanting to get your drivers’ licence as soon as possible. Paragraphs might then be broken down into:

  • Your parent’s view of this and any compromises you had to make with them
  • What you did to prepare for both the theory and practical tests
  • Parts of the learning experience you found difficult and how you overcame them
  • How you paid for lessons and/or a car once you had passed, e.g., getting a part-time job
  • What the experience taught you, e.g., managing money, being organised, etc. and how it improved any of your personal skills or qualities, such as communication, teamwork or problem-solving

Looking at some example admission essays may also be useful in structuring your own.

The conclusion must round off your essay in a way that leaves a lasting good impression upon the admissions tutor. It should be a summary of what you have learned from your experiences and how they have shaped you into the person you are today.

Explain how this will benefit you on the course and make you a valuable asset to the university. You can also include a brief sentence or two about your career path or any other plans you have for the future that your university education will enable you to achieve. Tutors will want to see that you have thought ahead and considered how you’re going to use your degree later on in the field.  

When your first draft is complete, don’t rely on a spellchecker to correct spelling and grammar mistakes; ask tutors, family and friends to look at it and give you their feedback. Make sure you go through at least several rounds of this, and you’ll achieve a polished essay that will give you the best chance of success with your US college applications.

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