Application Essays


Welcome to the essay-writing portion of the college application. In this section, we will get comfortable with every step of the process from understanding what purpose application essays serve, how to approach the writing process, as well as providing some essay examples to provide food for thought.

Why Essays Matter?

Admissions decisions are made holistically; that is, they are made by considering everything the applicant brings to the table. Your numbers give proof that you can succeed at a 4-year institution, but they do not indicate anything about you as a person, and they don’t say anything about how you can fit into their culture—how well your goals and ambitions match up with what a specific institution offers or with the broader school culture. Admissions officers look to application essays to determine how much research the applicant undertook before deciding that their college is the right place to be, and whether you are the kind of person they want to have in the new learning community they build every year. They want to see that the applicant was thoughtful when choosing where to apply. And while thoughtful can mean a lot of things, an essay that flows logically and is enjoyable to read can certainly demonstrate your fit. In other words, a well-crafted essay can carry you past the finish line.

The essay-writing portion is significant, as it is where applicants have the greatest opportunity to shape their own narratives. So it is no wonder that for many applicants, writing college essays will be the most stressful part of the whole application process. Having to differentiate oneself amongst tens of thousands is tough work. But think of the essays as less of a challenge and more of a self-reflection journey, an exercise in communicating who you are.

Preparing to Write

A well-written essay requires time, patience, and preparation.

Give yourself adequate time to prepare: Writing is a process, not a single task. Start brainstorming how to address the essay prompts at least three months in advance of the application deadline. Give yourself enough time to process and tackle wording problems, editing dilemmas, and spatial issues, and you’ll facilitate those “Ah-ha!” moments.

Know your reasons for applying (and do your research!): When admissions officers look at a candidate's fit with the school, they want to know: does the candidate know why they want to study here? Admissions teams, especially those at highly selective colleges, reject many great candidates every year for not adequately expressing how a specific university will help them achieve their goals. To distinguish yourself from the rest, you need to know exactly what you can gain from the specific schools you’re applying to. Some things to consider:

  • What academic department/majors, professors, resources (e.g. libraries and research centers) are unique to the school and support your goals?

  • What about the school's community and extracurricular opportunities is appealing?

  • Where would you want to contribute to the above listed categories?

Doing this level of thinking will serve two valuable purposes: first, it will refine your own view of why you are applying and help you craft your own personal story in your essay, and second, it will provide a level of specificity that will set you apart from other applicants.

Devote time to meaningful reflection: An essay provides an important opportunity to reflect on where you are in your life and assess what you want to be in future. Think of this reflection as doing your research to answer important questions about yourself that only you can answer.

  • What do I value most and why?

  • What are my greatest strengths and weaknesses? (Try asking people who know you well.)

  • What are the experiences and relationships that have had the greatest impact on who I am?

  • What made me want to pursue college (and my specific major)?

  • What are my career goals, or goals for the next 5-10 years?

  • What experiences (successes and failures) have I learned the most from?

Regardless of the prompt, essays want to get a sense of who you are; if you feel confident in the answers to these core questions, you will find it a lot easier to communicate who you are, using personal stories that will be memorable to a reader.

Choosing What to Write

First, your essay must address the prompt. It is a painfully obvious point, but it should not get lost. The essay is an opportunity to control your narrative; it is also a chance to see if you can respond in writing articulately and succinctly to a question that is common to all applicants. The prompts are almost always sufficiently open-ended that you can still show a great deal of creativity in how you respond.

Avoid the temptation to write an expository essay or position paper. These essays are easily forgotten (no matter how well-written or insightful) because anyone could write them. A personal narrative, on the other hand, allows the reader to step into the author’s shoes and feel what the author wants the reader to feel. The personal essay can span decades and even a lifetime. The personal essay can cover singular moments, too, like a painting. Your story should convey what you want the reader to feel and to know about you.

Admissions officers aren’t looking for a specific answer, but they do want to hear your voice come out. Most applicants miss out on a chance to tell a story only they can tell by choosing to write about a global issue. No matter how they phrase their question, they are actually asking you to write about YOU. So, our advice for choosing your topic, regardless of the prompt, is to write about something that is authentically unique to you.

Finally, keep in mind that essays have word and character limitations. To be as personal as possible, you want your topic to be as specific as possible. It is easier to describe a single experience from deployment than it is to describe the whole deployment in a few paragraphs. Specificity allows for greater clarity and more details.

Crafting your essay


  • Start with an outline: Even though you are telling a story, an outline can be a really helpful way to frame your thinking and ensure that your essay has a logical structure a reader can follow and that you incorporate all of the ideas you want to communicate.

  • Don't write your first draft for the word count: Pick your story and logic and try to flesh it out fully. Cutting words later to reach your word count is much easier than trying to create coherence in an incomplete story.

  • Avoid military jargon: Your audience is a college admissions committee that has little experience in working with veterans. Try to find words that can be used in place of jargon. Instead of “MOS” use the word “job”; replace “NCOIC” with “supervisor” or “team leader”. Write in a way that any civilian would understand.


Editing is simply part of the broader writing process, so it’s important to give it adequate time and mental preparation. You will not be done with the heavy lifting after you have a full first draft. Your first draft won’t be your best work; in fact, your last draft may look completely different from what you first started with. Effective editing in early drafts may require restructuring and/or rewriting entire sections of your essay. Later drafts will progress to smoothing the rough edges of your previous drafts, which may include cutting significant numbers of words (and details in your stories), clarifying your wording, and making sentences more concise.

  • Edit with fresh eyes: You will have to make a lot of your own revisions. To do this effectively, you will need to be able to read your own writing with some measure of objectivity. Always, put your most recent draft away long enough so that what you wrote isn’t fresh on your mind before you start editing.

  • Ask others for input: We suggest having someone else look at your work after your second or third draft. Having an outside set of eyes can be a reliable indicator on what you’ve done well, and what needs to change. In particular, it is helpful to have:

    • A civilian: They will easily spot military jargon that admissions officials won’t understand. Ask them if there is anything they are confused about, and try to see what they can glean from your essay. It will give you a fresh perspective.

    • A veteran: Other veterans know what you are trying to say as it pertains to your military background. They’ve lived similarly to you, and will be helpful in framing how to tell your story.

  • Prioritize what is most important to say: There will be a lot of emotion wrapped up in the story you want to tell. It is critical to be honest about what details are important for telling the story effectively. You will never be able to fit every detail and nuance of a particular experience, so knowing what really lands your point will help you balance brevity and richness in your story.

  • Take your editors seriously, but it is your essay: You shouldn’t change your work based on every little comment someone makes. Fact: your editors are humans, too. At the end of the day, you are the final arbiter as to whether or not to incorporate a certain piece of feedback. At S2S we often tell our applicants that although we are providing feedback, we want them to know that they should be the ones deciding whether to disregard or implement it.

Personal Essay Examples

Some colleges and universities display the best examples of essays they've received over the course of an admissions cycle. Johns Hopkins has a page called Essays that Worked, as does Hamilton College. However, take these examples with a grain of salt: they are, obviously, the best of what those colleges received. We are sharing these links so you know what those colleges are looking for.

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