Ultimate Guide to College Essays | Winward Academy


The Ultimate Guide to Writing the College Essay/Personal Statement

You knew this was coming — it’s time to write your personal statement. Not to freak you out, but this is kind of a big deal. This essay will be the focal point of your college applications and will likely be the piece on which you spend the most time. That’s the somewhat scary news. The good news is that this blog will provide tips on brainstorming topics and Dos and Don’ts for writing a stellar college essay.

The main college essay is typically between 500 and 650 words and is required by most colleges. This is your chance to distinguish yourself from the other applicants.

A superior personal statement will accomplish three things:

  1. Demonstrate who you are as you tell a unique story.
  2. Show off your ability to write.
  3. Give admissions officials an idea of how you’ll contribute to life on campus.

Four Ways to Brainstorm Essay Topics

  1. Make a list of things that you love. How do you spend your spare time? Where do you feel the most at home? What hobbies or activities make you lose track of time? After making this list, write down what each of these things mean to you. Why do you love these things? How do these things define you? Your passions will likely help you uncover some small stories that will demonstrate how valuable you will be in an academic or social environment.

  2. Identify a few milestones in your life. Don’t be afraid to ask your friends, parents, teachers, or coaches for their assessment of you. It might feel contrived to list your own accomplishments. Hearing feedback from people you respect and admire might open you up to some ideas that you wouldn’t have thought of on your own. These events could also just be cherished memories. Write them down and see if inspiration strikes.

  3. Explore the little details. Too often, students think that they need to give a broad overview of their entire life story in their personal statements. The most effective college essays tell small stories that illuminate larger personality traits or passions. Talking about your lifelong love for playing basketball is good, but recalling the first time you watched Allen Iverson play, and digging into how it influenced not only your passion for the game, but your habits in other areas of life, is better.

  4. Don’t self-edit. In the early stages, it’s important to silence your inner critic. Don’t cross any ideas out. Add notes to all of your ideas. Give yourself time to focus on each of the topics you come up with and don’t be afraid to step away. A second visit to your notepad might bring up new ideas.

Getting Started

Many students write about a challenge in their personal statement. It’s important to note that this is neither expected by or necessarily favorable to admissions counselors. Unless the challenge you faced is a very strong topic, it might suit you to consider other options.

That being said, you don’t need to come up with something weird or unusual to write a good college essay. However, the more common or “cliché” your topic, the harder you’ll need to work to make uncommon connections. In other words, you’ll need to take your common topic to unexpected places to stand out.

Now that you’ve decided on the topic, you’ll need to find a thematic through line that will unify your essay. Here are some useful steps that you can take.

  1. Write down your topic at the top of a blank page.

  2. Jot down five or six values that you believe connect to the topic.

  3. For each value, write down a specific memory or example that illustrates the connection between the value and the overarching topic.

  4. Once you’ve written down an example for each value and effectively related it back to your topic, you have the makings of the paragraphs that’ll make up your essay.

As you expand on your values and ideas, you’ll likely notice some themes that will tie your piece together. Use what you have so far to write your first draft!

As you write, remember these 10 Dos and Don’ts


Don’t use the essay to repeat your activities and achievements. You’re supposed to be adding a personal perspective – a deeper insight into who you are – without repeating information found elsewhere in the application. The essays should reveal your curiosity, personal growth, motivation, and initiative. They should reflect your unique qualities. The essays aren’t a resume listing what you did. Think of the essays as the “why” behind the “what” in which you should explore – honestly – your character, resilience, and leadership. Give them a deeper insight into what information isn’t visible elsewhere in the application.


Many colleges require more than one essay because they want a holistic sense of who you are. Figure out how to best portray yourself while taking advantage of the multiple prompts to highlight all facets of who you are. Don’t write about the same topic in every single one. Show them a complete picture with distinct topics for each prompt.

The ultimate goal of your essay is to honor your voice and your story. When you pick something about which you genuinely care, your unique voice will come through and your essay will be more engaging and memorable. Tell a story only you can tell, so you give the readers the feeling that they met you. Telling a story just because you think it’s impressive will backfire. You have to dig into what matters to you and share a story that you’ll be proud to put your name on. Having a genuine tone and allowing yourself to be vulnerable are powerful ways to share your story – something that requires a deep examination of your own perspective. That process can be challenging, so allow yourself the reflection needed to honor your voice in the process.


If a question asks you to “evaluate a significant achievement or experience and its impact on you,” then make sure you don’t forget to include its impact. It can be hard to tell your story inside the prompt’s constraints, but you must make sure you’re answering the full question. They want to see your passion, your character, and the way you reason, think, and reflect.


Copying and pasting a 650-word essay into an online field with a 500-word limit will simply cut off the last 150 words of what you copied and pasted. These limits exist for a reason – to give everyone a fair shot. Make sure you answer the question being asked within the length constraints, and do so while remaining true to yourself, your story, and your voice. Remember that editing is an integral part of the writing process.


Students frequently want to talk about a day they volunteered at a retirement home or a week they built a home with Habitat for Humanity. Yes, these efforts are important, but they’re not enough for a striking essay. Students who display dedicated service hours throughout middle and high school, and who show leadership and growth within charitable organizations, have earned the right to discuss service and what it means to them. Sorting cans at a food bank one Saturday morning isn’t going to impress anyone.


Remember that your parents, your teachers, and your friends already know you. So if they read your essay, they might know how to fill in gaps of your story. Consider asking a stranger to read your essay. Make sure the person doesn’t have lingering questions; is there something you left out that makes your essay confusing? Ask the stranger what he or she thinks of you after reading it. Is the person’s impression of you how you want to be perceived?


Use caution trying to use “big words” to “look smart.” You risk using words improperly, which can happen if you don’t subtleties of their usage. You also want to avoid forcing words like ennui, harbinger, and ubiquitous. You risk coming off as overly eager, which won’t impress anyone. Use words that you would use when talking to your grandparents about something meaningful to you.

Trust yourself and choose a topic that you’ll be comfortable writing about. Anything forced or artificial will be obvious to the reader. At the same time, embrace difficult or controversial topics as long as you treat them with respect and maturity. Include humor as long as it’s tasteful, respectful, and not forced. And even though it might feel “genuine” or “authentic” to complain or offer ingratitude about your school or your teachers, the essay is not the section to come off as unappreciative, lazy, cynical, rude, spoiled, self-interested, or materialistic. Be true to yourself and your genuine perspectives but maintain maturity and respect.


You’ve spent months preparing. Spend another 10 minutes giving your essay another careful read before you submit. You might catch something you missed.

The best way to catch mistakes is to read your essays out loud and slowly or ask a parent to read them to you. Just because words are spelled correctly doesn’t mean they’re being used correctly. For example, spellcheck might not catch something like “I considered an agreed” instead of “I considered and agreed.”


Take the essay seriously. It’s an important part of your application, and it’s worth the time it takes to get it right. Rushed essays stick out to readers, and not in a good way. Your task is to push beyond the surface while avoiding clichés and generalizations, which is a challenge. You want to stand out. You want your essay to reveal specific qualities. You must offer personal, specific insights to be remembered. That process takes time, so give yourself that time.


Admissions officers are people. They get tired after reading hundreds of applications every day. Pretend the person picking up your application off the top of the pile has just returned from lunch and is in a food coma. You need to pique their interest from the start, so it’s critical that your first few sentences capture the reader’s interest.

Finally, remember you’re not explaining what you’ve done but sharing who you are. Now, get writing.

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About Winward Academy – Winward Academy is one of the world’s leading innovators in the online education space, providing web-based academic support that enhances students’ knowledge, confidence, and competitiveness in middle and high school academics and in college applications. We help thousands of students every year by providing personalized, comprehensive ACT and SAT test preparation and extensive math curriculum support. The Winward Academy learning platform honors over 40 years of education and cognitive psychology research, incorporating proven techniques that promote effective learning.

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Erin Crowder

Erin Crowder is a recent graduate of Newark’s Cristo Rey High School and is a proud member of Georgetown University’s Class of 2022. Erin graduated in the top of her class and has been honored multiple times by the City of Newark for her scholastic achievements, artistic contributions, community service, and resilience in overcoming seemingly impossible obstacles. Erin has interned at the City Hall of Newark, Sanofi, the Federal Reserve Bank, and NJTV News. She is committed to partnering with and empowering students of color to reduce educational inequities.