How to Write College Essays

Applying to a college is not usually a quick process. University applications may require multiple steps ranging from details such as personal information to test scores, educational accomplishments, and official identification. 

Further, private or esteemed colleges may request one or more essays to demonstrate proficiency, as well as an application letter to explain the purpose of requesting to study at that university. Colleges look for application essays because they present the applicant’s unique viewpoint and demonstrate a thinking process, problem-solving approach, or type of learning style. Additionally, college essays show how much effort the applicant is willing to invest in his or her education, which says quite a lot about a person in general. 

Homeschool high school transcripts are necessary for college applications, but courses and grades only reveal so much about a person. Homeschooling high school credits are a necessary element of college acceptance, but especially for esteemed schools, admissions dig deeper. 

The essay gives the admissions office a window into who the applicant is beyond the numbers on his or her records. The end goal is not necessarily to be exclusive but to make sure the student is a good fit so no one wastes time, money, or resources.

Here are the main topics you’ll find discussed in this guide:

  • What to include in a college essay
  • Examples of college essays
  • How to write a college application cover letter
  • Additional resources for homeschooling a high schooler

What to Include in a College Essay

While certain colleges may provide application essay topics, most students are expected to choose a topic for themselves. The selected topic itself reveals initial information about a student and, therefore, is a helpful tool for the admissions offices. However, the process can be nerve-wracking for students. 

We have several helpful ideas for choosing an essay topic!

There are a few key concepts to include in your college essay. Colleges want to see a unique perspective, reflection on life experiences, a problem-solving approach, and an authentic voice. Strong writing skills are ideal but are not the main purpose of the essay. 

In your college admission essay, make sure that you are not arguing a particular point. You should not be trying to persuade, convince, or explain. Instead, you want to tell admissions a story about yourself and your unique perspective of the world.

But…you’re probably wondering, “What does that even mean?”

First, aim to be as authentic and honest as possible. 

Second, pick an experience that demonstrates a deep life lesson you learned, an experience that meant something important to you (and why), or a memory that stands out. These moments might seem insignificant overall, but if they stand out to you, there’s a reason! Use critical thinking strategies (for example, starbursting, root cause analysis, or the Ladder of Inference) to break apart the experience and find the foundational elements for building your essay.

Here are a few ideas to consider for your college application essay:

  • Outdoor activities
  • Sports
  • Personal challenges
  • Academic challenges
  • A family experience
  • Lessons from failures
  • Commitments

Now with a few ideas, here are points and suggestions for the writing process!

  • Research
  • Outline
  • Find at least three credible sources
  • Decide on a citation style
  • Write a clear introduction with a solid thesis statement
  • Include topic sentences in each paragraph
  • Ensure each fact is supported by properly-cited evidence
  • Write a clear conclusion summarizing the paper and revisiting the thesis
  • Complete the essay with a Works Cited or References page
  • Reverse outline
    • See if your paragraphs match your outline. 
    • This is a chance to notice gaps or sidetracked information. You may need to cut, reword, or reorder the content.

Advice for Ivy League Applicants

If your teen has his or her heart set on an Ivy League school, there are a few important elements to keep in mind:

  • Ivy League schools are looking for students who stand out academically and in character
  • Ivy League schools are looking for students who could be the next leaders in their fields
    • This means they are looking for active learners who are passionate in their field and intrinsically motivated for future studies.
  • Ivy League schools look for students with a history of commitment and dedication
    • This means that a few bad grades or skipped classes may impact your chances for admission.

If attending an Ivy League university is the dream, start recording and documenting all academic and extracurricular activities as early as possible. Ivy League admissions will examine the student as a person throughout their life. There is a reason the Ivy Leagues are so competitive. You will have to demonstrate why you are a good candidate for their prestigious programs.

While you may be tempted to add as many extracurriculars as possible for your transcript, this strategy could backfire with Ivy League schools. While they are looking for students who are well-rounded with a developed experience, they are specifically looking for excellence. You’ll want to avoid becoming a “jack of all trades — but master of none.” Instead, consider a few pursuits you are passionate about, and see where those lead. You’ll need to demonstrate excellence in your fieldnot in everything. Actually, by not targeting a certain field, students can come across as lacking direction or drive. A ship without sails.

When it comes to your extracurriculars for Ivy League schools, look for ways that you can demonstrate innovative thinking and leadership. Choose your electives and activities wisely according to your preferred field, and if a group does not exist for your ideal elective, consider creating one. Similar leadership traits and quality over quantity will go far with Ivy League admissions.

Here are a few extracurricular ideas to stand out in the Ivy League admissions process:

  • Volunteering
  • Sports
  • Political Involvement
  • Prestigious Competitions
  • Internships
  • Excellence in Fine Arts
    • Music
    • Theater
  • School Journalism
  • Research Papers
    • Consider submitting these to a journal for publication!

Examples of College Essays

Examples are always helpful when learning something new. Solid examples can help us grasp vague concepts, show how it’s done, and clarify information. Examples of college essays can be helpful for various learning styles. 

Additionally, reviewing college application essays written by successfully-admitted students not only helps when submitting your first college application but also for improving skills for secondary and backup schools.

Here are three websites with examples of strong essays by top students!

How to Write a College Application Cover Letter

Another essential element of the college application is the cover letter. Just as with a job application cover letter, a college application cover letter explains more about yourself and why you are well-suited to the school and vice versa. The cover letter will highlight your strengths, goals, passions, and interests. 

This letter is a chance to demonstrate your unique position for studying at the school, especially if you have struggled with your grades or testing scores. The cover letter offers a chance to show who you are beyond academic skills. After all, not a single person can be fully represented by numbers.

Take a look at this list to make sure you have included these important points in your cover letter.

  • Narrow your focus to your specific situation.
      • This is about you, your education, and your ambitions.
  • Why do you want to attend this school?
  • What are you interested in studying?
  • How does this school meet your academic and career goals?
  • What are your long-term goals?
  • How does your background make you a strong candidate?
  • How do your future interests make you a strong candidate?
  • Do you have any important connections to the school?
      • Sentimentality
      • Family alumni
  • Explain any relevant details about your application documentation
      • Is there anything they need to know about your homeschool high school transcript?
      • Do they need more details to validate your homeschool high school diploma?
      • Do they need any other testing scores than what you have included?
  • Ask courteously for them to consider you for admission

Additional Resources for Homeschooling a High Schooler