Lock in current tuition rates by June 30th

Join our next webinar to learn how the Plan works

How to Write a Great College Essay

By Jonathan Sparling

  • January 30, 2023
  • 12 min listen


girl writing college essay

The college essay is one piece of the admissions application that receives considerable attention. For some students, the opportunity to share a personal story is easy. For others, the process can seem overwhelming.

We spoke to Clairissa Talley, Admissions Counselor at Baylor University, to discuss the college essay, how it fits into the admissions application and best practices for students.

Listen to the full conversation here:


Why an essay

Beyond requirements like a student’s GPA and high school transcript, the college essay exists to add a human element to the application and create a holistic view of each student.

“[The essay] helps sometimes to fill in the gaps that maybe we don’t see through all the numbers on the transcript and test scores and resume,” says Clairissa.

And when it comes to the content of the essay, Clairissa reminds us that students have control. Topics can cover anything from personal accomplishments to overcoming obstacles.


Stand out for all the right reasons

Clairissa recalls one student who used the letters of her first name to highlight personal strengths, like R for responsibility. Another student dropped Clairissa into the middle of his story. She also remembers students who used a defining moment in their life to share how they felt and what they learned.

For Clairissa, standout essays show a deep sense of self-awareness. “[The students] could clearly articulate who they are, what they value, and where they want to go in college and in life.”

On the flip side, Clairissa warns against mistakes that could put students at a disadvantage, like spelling errors, naming the wrong college or even using expletives.


How to start writing

Essay prompts can help students get started, especially if they’re feeling overwhelmed or uninspired.

“The Common App is great because you have seven essay prompts to pick from,” says Clairissa. Students should focus on the two or three essay prompts that spark inspiration. From there, carve out an hour or more of time, minimize distractions and start writing down ideas.

“It doesn’t need to be perfect,” stresses Clairissa.


Time is on your side – if you let it

“It’s helpful when a student writes [their essay] early, like end of your junior year or summer before your senior year,” says Clairissa. “It’s much more difficult to make time to be creative or be articulate and have time to write a great essay once your senior year begins.”

As a final word of advice, Clairissa cautions students against comparing themselves to others. “We don’t expect you to be a teenage prodigy.”

Everyone has a story to share. And the most important thing is authenticity. Colleges want to know about a student, what drives them and why they would be a good fit. Let the college essay say all that.

Recommended for you

Our 529 Plan

Protect against rising tuition

Lock in tuition at hundreds of colleges nationwide. Guaranteed prepaid tuition with no fees and no state residency requirements to save.