Writing College Essays: Detailed FAQs

Explore QuestBridge's answer to frequently asked questions about college essay mechanics, structure, and content.

View answers to your questions about the following college essay components below:

Questions about college essay mechanics

What are best proofreading practices?

There are three essential elements to proofreading your college essay:

  1. Revise, revise, revise. You should plan on going through many drafts. You shouldn't be afraid to completely start from scratch or change the primary point of your essay. Avoid refusing to change your primary content/topic as you edit; you might find later on that you have a more compelling story to tell than what you began with.
  2. Read your essay out loud. Slowly, backward, sentence by sentence, in as many ways as possible. This will help you catch errors that your eyes gloss over when reading. 
  3. Ask as many people for help as you can. Remember to ask them in person if they are able to help you before sending your essay along, and give them several weeks to review your college essay. The more tips you can get, the better. You don't have to take all the advice they give you — go with what you think will be most helpful. 

For more proofreading advice, we suggest the Proofreading guide and the Editing Checklist of twelve common errors from the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin - Madison.


What grammar essentials should I keep in mind?

Correct grammar and writing mechanics, including spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure, allow readers to easily navigate your college essay and clearly understand the message that you want to convey. An essay with major errors or even consistent minor mistakes will make it difficult for readers to focus on the story you are trying to tell them about yourself. Instead, they may become distracted by these mistakes and struggle to process the meaning of individual sentences.

Consider the difference correct grammar can make between these two sentences.

  1. Incorrect grammar: This is the first time, I had ben told I was special; I wasnt about to let this opportunity slip away as i watched.
  2. Correct grammar: This was the first time I had been told I was special, and I wasn’t about to let this opportunity slip away as I watched.

Carefully proofreading your essay for errors is a critical step in polishing your essay. 

Below are three areas students consistently struggle with:

Spelling: The spell check feature in your word processing program (e.g., Microsoft Word) is your first defense. Keep in mind that a misspelled word may itself be the correct spelling of a completely different word — your spell check may not catch these types of errors. A good resource is the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Than/then, we're/were, there/their, and effect/affect are all examples of common misspellings. 

Punctuation: The Grammarly Handbook includes separate tutorials on individual punctuation marks. Be particularly mindful of how you use commas, semicolons, and dashes, and be careful not to overuse the latter two.

Verb tenses: Verb tenses provide information to the reader about what point in time an action takes place. There are six basic tenses in the English language, three simple (past, present, and future) and three perfect (past perfect, present perfect, and future perfect). You might use only one tense in your essay, but it’s more likely that you will need to use different tenses in different sections of your essay or even within the same sentence (e.g., "In elementary school, I hoped to be an astronaut when I grew up, but now I plan to become a medical researcher").

For example, perhaps you use past tense when relating a specific experience, and then shift back to present tense later in the college application essay when describing who you are now. Be careful to be consistent with your tenses, especially when making lots of revisions (don’t switch back and forth between present and past in the same story). It can be easy to accidentally shift tenses when making lots of edits, so proofread carefully. Here's an example of what a sentence with improper tense use can look like and how to solve it.

  1. Improper mixed tenses: My heart was racing as my dad was opening the door, knowing the impact the next few minutes will have on me.
  2. Resolved (past tense): My heart was racing as my dad opened the door, knowing the impact the next few minutes would have on me.
  3. Resolved (present tense): My heart is racing as my dad opens the door, knowing the impact the next few minutes will have on me.

For more grammar help, two good resources are the Grammarly Handbook and the Grammar, Punctuation, and Style section in Haverford College’s Resources for Writers


What are run-on sentences, and how can I avoid them?

Run-on sentences are two or more sentences joined incorrectly or even just unwisely. Complex sentences, when used carefully, make your writing more sophisticated. However, these sentences must still be grammatically correct and should not be so long that they make it difficult for the reader to follow your thoughts. There are a few different mistakes to avoid:

Fused sentences: A fused sentence is two separate independent clauses (complete sentences on their own) joined without punctuation or conjunctions (and, but, or, however, therefore, etc.).

  • Example: At home my brothers were loud enough for all of us I preferred the quiet escape of books and music.
  • How it can be improved: At home my brothers were loud enough for all of us, and I preferred the quiet escape of books and music.
  • How it can be improved: At home my brothers were loud enough for all of us. I preferred the quiet escape of books and music.

Comma splices: A comma splice is when two independent clauses are joined by a comma without a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet) or with a word that is not one of these conjunctions.

  • Example: I escaped the tension at home by driving to the beach, even then my mind couldn't stay still.
  • How it can be improved: I escaped the tension at home by driving to the beach, but even then, my mind couldn't stay still.
  • Example: I always thought I would attend my local community college, however, my plans took an unexpected turn when I heard about QuestBridge during my sophomore year of high school.
  • How it can be improved: I always thought I would attend my local community college. However, my plans took an unexpected turn when I heard about QuestBridge during my sophomore year of high school.

Sentences that are too long: A complex sentence that is grammatically correct can still, if not constructed carefully and thoughtfully, be unnecessary and hard for readers to understand. Try reading your essay out loud to find any run-on sentences in this category, and then break them into smaller sentences.

  • Example: As we pulled up the driveway, I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, I reached over and grabbed my mom's hand, because I knew we could only get through this together.
  • How it can be improved: As we pulled up the driveway, I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. I reached over and grabbed my mom's hand. I knew we could only get through this together.

Please keep in mind that there is always more than one way to correct run-on sentences; the above examples do not represent all possibilities.


When is it appropriate to use sentence fragments?

A sentence fragment is a group of words that cannot grammatically stand alone as a sentence — it is missing a subject and/or a verb or is a dependent clause. For a good explanation of sentence fragments and how to correct them, please see Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab.

While most sentence fragments should be corrected, thoughtfully and creatively using them for special purposes can strengthen your essay. Specific instances where it's okay to use a sentence fragment include when it:

  • Is used for emphasis
  • Answers a question
  • Functions as a transition
  • Is an exclamation


Is it okay to use a thesaurus as I write a college essay?

A well-written essay will use varied vocabulary that is not overly simplistic, and making good use of a thesaurus can strengthen your essay. However, in an effort to sound more sophisticated, be careful not to rely so much on a thesaurus that your language sounds unnatural and perhaps includes words that even the reader doesn't understand. Your essay should still be in your voice and should not simply include the biggest words you can find. When the reader can tell that a thesaurus was overused, it may become difficult to focus on your message instead of simply the big words that you use. Consider the difference between the following two sentences:

  • Unnatural: I invariably find myself ambushed beneath copious volumes of course-work, laboring to inhale air.
  • Natural: I always seem to be trapped under copious amounts of homework, struggling to grab a breath of air.

You'll notice that the second sentence still contains the word "copious," which is generally not used in everyday conversation. It works well in this case because the sentence is not full of words that appear to be pulled from a thesaurus. Furthermore, the word itself enhances the image the author is trying to convey without being so obscure that the reader has to look up the definition.


Which cliches should I avoid in my college essay?

Certain common phrases become cliche when they are overused and portray a lack of original thought. College admissions officers read dozens, often hundreds, of essays — you want your essay to stand out, not blend in with the crowd. One way to do that is to avoid these types of phrases and instead find a way to creatively convey your thoughts in your own original words. Below are some examples of these types of phrases:

  • In today’s society…
  • At the end of the day…
  • Live life to the fullest…
  • All walks of life…
  • Survival of the fittest…

For more on cliches, including additional examples and strategies to avoid them, see the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Writing Center.

Questions about college essay structure

What is the concept of "flow," and why is it so important?

"Flow" is often used to describe the way that the essay moves from point to point. It can refer to each paragraph or how the paragraphs are connected to one another. An essay that flows well does not include choppy sentences, illogical structure, or paragraphs that are out of sequence. An essay that flows well includes transitions and transitional devices. 

Your essay should also have a common thread that connects each paragraph logically. 


How long should my college essay be?

Determining the appropriate length for your admission essay is an important consideration while applying to colleges. While there is no strict rule regarding the ideal length, it is generally recommended to adhere to the guidelines provided by the institution or application platform. Typically, admission essays range from 250 to 650 words, with some institutions specifying a maximum length of 500 words. It is essential to carefully review the instructions and follow them accordingly to ensure that your essay meets the expectations of the admissions committee.

Essays of this length generally work best with more than one paragraph. These paragraphs can simply follow a typical essay layout: introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion.

In the introduction, grab the reader’s attention and clearly explain the subject of the essay. Avoid repeating the essay prompt so your introduction stands out. Make sure your body paragraphs are in logical order and develop your primary point(s). There is no set number of body paragraphs for an essay and a good paragraph has one central point. In the conclusion, you can summarize your main points and leave your readers with an impactful final sentence.

Remember, you should feel free to use paragraphs in whichever way fits your essay. It's perfectly fine to leave a quote or short phrase as a separate paragraph, just be sure to have someone else review your essay to ensure it reads easily.

College Essay Writing Tip: it's easiest to read essays with a line break between each paragraph!


How can I use transitions to improve the flow of my essay?

Transitions can be a few words or even a few sentences. They connect your ideas and views throughout the essay. A list of transitional devices can be found here.

When writing your college admissions essay, it can be easy to jump from one idea to another, as you might want to talk about many different things. First and foremost, we suggest narrowing your focus to a few key ideas or topics. Then, make sure that every sentence and paragraph leads to each other. You don't want to leave the reader behind as you quickly move from one idea to the next.

Here is an example of how a transition can improve the flow within a paragraph (source):

  1. Before transition: Amy Tan became a famous author after her novel, The Joy Luck Club, skyrocketed up the bestseller list. There are other things to note about Tan as well. Amy Tan also participates in the satirical garage band the Rock Bottom Remainders with Stephen King and Dave Barry.
  2. With transition: Amy Tan became a famous author after her novel, The Joy Luck Club, skyrocketed up the bestseller list. Though her fiction is well known, her work with the satirical garage band the Rock Bottom Remainders receives far less publicity.

Similarly, you should make sure that the reader can understand why one paragraph follows the other. You want your ideas to build off of each other throughout the essay instead of being fragmented. Use transitions to achieve that goal.


What does "full circle" mean and how can I incorporate it into my college essay?

An effective essay is one that successfully concludes all the ideas it has carried throughout. This is done most effectively when there is a common thread that is concluded at the end of your college admission essay. 

For example, a student might write about three different ideas in their college essay:

  1. How their family has taught them to be grateful.
  2. How they have grown into a leader during high school.
  3. Their desire to give back to their community after college.

To come "full circle" they will need to touch on each of these points near the end of their essay. Doing so will tie the ideas together more cohesively in the reader's mind and help them follow the structure of the essay. Similarly, a student might write about just one primary point (for example, how they have grown into a leader during high school). They should still include a summative statement and/or a paragraph near the end that wraps up their thoughts on this matter. Bringing your essay full circle will allow you to emphasize your primary point(s) and leave a lasting impression.

It can also be effective to refer back to your introduction in your final sentences. In this sample college essay, you can see how the author mirrored the same sentence type at the end (with the student calling and speaking to someone on the phone). In doing so, the difference between those two phone calls, and thus the personal growth of the author, is emphasized. This neatly brings the essay and the points therein full circle. 


How can I identify and avoid tangents while writing a college essay?

When you are writing about something that is personal to you or that you are passionate about, you can easily go off on a tangent. When this happens, you lose sight of the point you are trying to make and lead the reader to a completely different topic. The best way to avoid tangents when writing a college essay is to ask someone to proofread your essay for you. Sometimes you may not know that you have strayed off topic.

If you are not comfortable with asking someone to read your essay, read your essay carefully multiple times. If each paragraph and sentence supports the main point of your essay, you have successfully avoided unnecessary tangents.


Questions about college essay content

How can I make a good first impression in my college admission essay?

The reader's first impression of your essay isn’t limited to what you write in your first sentence — the entire first paragraph is filled with opportunities to leave a good first impression. The beginning of your essay is also a space for you to introduce the themes you will use throughout your essay. Remember, you don’t have to start with a conversation, event, or other creative piece of writing, although that is one strategy. One of the most important things is recognizing you can be creative when considering how to start a college essay.

Admissions officers read hundreds of college applications and essays. It takes effort to stand out from the crowd and make them want to thoughtfully read your essay, instead of just skim it. A great first impression will make your essay (and thus, your entire application) stand out.

Sometimes it’s easiest to write your introduction after you’ve written the rest of your essay. You might find that there’s a quote, some symbolism, or other detail you want to start with at the beginning and carry throughout the rest of your essay. If you find yourself spending too much time on the introduction, write other parts of the essay and come back to it later!


What are cliche college essay introductions that I should avoid?

There are many ways to begin an essay, and some are more common than others. Contrary to what you might have been taught in school, you should avoid repeating the essay prompt to make your introduction stand out.

For example, the QuestBridge National College Match biographical essay topic has historically asked students to: “describe the factors and challenges that have most shaped your personal life and aspirations."

Accordingly, many essays begin with some variation of the following: “There have been many factors and challenges that have shaped my life and aspirations.

Avoid falling into the “cliche introduction” trap by never repeating the prompt verbatim. Using a few words from the prompt is acceptable, but often there are more interesting and captivating ways to begin your essay.


What is a "common thread," and why is it important?

The term "common thread" refers to an idea, topic, or theme that is carried throughout your essay. It doesn’t have to be explicit — you don’t have to explain how every paragraph relates to the common thread. However, it should be prevalent enough to ensure your essay is united. It can be particularly difficult to use common threads in biographical essays, but that is where they are most important. Unfortunately, there will never be enough space to tell your complete story. Instead, you should use a common thread to convey the primary point you want admissions officers to understand about yourself. When they finish your essay, what is the one thing you want them to remember about you?

In this sample college essay, the student’s common thread is the process of growing from a follower into a leader. This character growth and maturity are the one thing the student wants to stand out above all else. You can see how this thread is weaved subtly into the essay — it’s present, but not overwhelming.


How am I supposed to make a unique point in my college admission essay?

With thousands of students writing essays in response to the same prompts, certain topics quickly become overused. To avoid these, take time to think about what makes you unique. Here are a few ways you can get started in this brainstorming process:

  • List adjectives that describe you.
  • Make a timeline of your life.
  • Reflect on a memorable event.

There are several cliche college essay topics that you should be aware of: 

  • The Big Issue: I believe that world peace is the most important…
  • Tales of My Successes: I’m student body president and…
  • The Sports Essay: Football taught me the importance of teamwork…
  • The Autobiography: I was born on February 22, 1996…
  • The Significant Relationship: My mom/dad/boyfriend changed my life…
  • Moving: I attended three different middle schools…
  • The Trip: I had to adjust to a different culture in my trip to…
  • The Academic Risk: I took all APs and risked not getting a 4.0…

(Adapted from Harry Bauld’s On Writing the College Application Essay)

While you are welcome to write about any of these topics, please know that many students do write about them. You should be convinced that you have a unique spin on that particular topic that will really make your essay memorable. Also, remember that a college essay topic does not have to be particularly thrilling to be unique. It’s possible to write a compelling essay about something as mundane as working at a fastfood restaurant! What really matters is the time and effort you put into writing your essay.


Why is it so important to focus the essay on myself?

The college admissions essay isn’t just a place to demonstrate your writing skills; it’s also the place where the reader should learn more about you. Many college essays are well written but miss the target because they focus on someone or something besides the student. A perfect example of this is an essay that primarily tells the story of a student’s mother. While it’s entirely possible that the student’s mother is an inspiring person, the college is deciding whether or not to admit the student, not the mother. An essay that doesn’t give the admissions officers more insight into yourself doesn’t pull its weight in your application.

At the same time, you shouldn’t be afraid to talk about people in your life who are important to your development and story. Just be sure to do so in a way that emphasizes the person’s impact on your life and your own personal development. In this college essay example, some details about the student’s parents are included, but the primary focus is on the student.


How and where can I add more detail to my essay?

Your college essay is a perfect place to add in the interesting, descriptive details you might leave out of academic papers. By "details," we mean a few different things:

Adjectives and adverbs — use these to help your story come to life for your reader. In the following examples, the writer is saying essentially the same thing, but by using more descriptive writing, the second example is far more engaging and interesting to read.

  • Little detail: I walked into my first high school class, feeling nervous.
  • More detail: On September 2nd, at 7:58 a.m., I walked into the first class of my high school career. My stomach churned as my nerves overwhelmed my emotions.

Describe a setting, situation, or event with concrete examples to back up your description. In the following example, the writer talks about his/her hometown in two very different ways.

  • Little detail: My hometown is a small town in a very rural area. It is very isolated from the more urban areas of New York.
  • More detail: My hometown, located along the rural stretches of the Columbia River, has a population of 523. 

Speak of broad topics, such as a personal character quality, while offering evidence in support of it. In the following examples, the writer claims to have a strong work ethic, but only in the second example does the writer illustrate this.

  • Little detail: Throughout my life, I have developed a strong work ethic. There have been many things that have taught me the value of hard work. My parents, in particular, made sure I developed a strong work ethic as I grew up. Although I used to have little self-discipline, I am now driven by my strong work ethic.
  • More detail: Beginning in middle school, I was expected to work at my parent’s store during the summer. I stocked shelves, assisted customers, and swept the floor as a full-time employee. Those long summer days allowed me to recognize the value of hard work and gain respect for my parents’ self-discipline. My strong work ethic can be directly credited to those working summers.


How do I strike a balance between writing about challenges and successes?

Students from low-income backgrounds may have encountered many challenges in life. While those challenges and obstacles are worthy of mention, it's important to focus on how they were overcome. The ability to reach high achievement levels in the face of these obstacles is noteworthy, and admissions officers want to hear more about that. They don't, however, want to read an entire essay that is excessively negative — where it seems the writer hasn't learned anything from the challenges they have faced.

Avoid only listing the challenges you have faced when writing a college essay. Instead, mention them but then shift to explaining what you learned as a result, how you were inspired, etc. In doing so, you will show great character development and a maturity that admissions officers are looking for.

To learn more about the college application process as a whole, check out our resource center.