The College Essay in 10 Simple Steps

Step 1: Understand the Prompt

Before choosing a topic, make sure you understand what the prompt is asking and how the essay fits into the application. Focus on what readers already know about you, as well as what they can’t find out from the rest of your application.

Step 2: Brainstorm Ideas

Consider several topics. For each, consider the prompt, the story idea, and the positive characteristic(s) the story illustrates. You might be surprised by which one you choose.

Step 3: Focus on Theme

Every essay needs a theme to help you focus. The theme includes both 1) What happened? (What story are you sharing?) and 2) Why does it matter? (What will readers learn about you?)

Step 4: Free Write for Details

This is your chance to capture details, focusing on the What happened? aspect of your theme.

Step 5: Write Draft 1

Draft 1 is a content draft. It’s okay to go over the word limit. Don’t over-think it or try to make the essay perfect. You’ll focus on structure and polish later.

Step 6: Review Prompt & Theme

We read first drafts with the prompt and theme in mind, then give writing exercises to help students focus the essay and add details where needed. This review is for content only.

Step 7: Write Draft 2

Step back to review the work you’ve completed so far, from Step 1 through Step 6. Then write draft 2, focusing on both content and structure.

Step 8: Review Content & Structure

For second drafts, we add notes in the margin, pointing out what works and places for improvement, based on each student’s willingness and ability to take the essay further.

Step 9: Write Draft 3

Step back again and read the essay with fresh eyes. Tie up loose ends and make sure it is clean, but don’t revise your work beyond recognition.

Step 10: Final Review and Proofread

We read final drafts for clarity and consistency, focusing on grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Perfection is not the goal. College applicants should sound like high school students, not professional writers.

Download a free PDF with these 10 tips here: