How to Write a College Application Essay: Tips and Tricks

If there’s anything we know, it’s that applying to college is stressful. And while every part of the process brings its own challenges, completing the written portion of your application is one of the most nerve-racking.

To help you get started, we’ve compiled a short list of tips and tricks for how to write a college application essay. We’ve even provided some special advice for tackling UIUC’s written questions, just in case you decide to apply. Here we go!

girl typing on laptop

1. Write about what they ask about.

Sometimes when you’re writing an application response, it can be easy to lose sight of the topic at hand. Since you only have so many words to respond, it’s imperative you don’t stray too far from what the prompt specifically asks you about.

One way to make sure you’re staying on track is to directly reference the prompt in your response. This shows you understand what’s being asked and you’re going to tell colleges exactly what they want to know, which can set your essay apart from other applicants.

Tips & Tricks for UIUC

In our UIUC College Essay Prompt Example blog, we wrote a sample response for the following myIllini essay prompt: “Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? Who or what do you turn to when you want to learn more?”

In our response, we included lines like, “The question of which came first captivates me because it is a question without an answer” and “When I want to learn more about this concept, I turn to my grandfather.” Both of these sentences include phrases from the prompt directly in the answer.

Teenage boy concentrates as he builds a robotic vehicle during engineering class.

2. Directly reference your own experiences. 

Colleges will ask you a variety of different questions in their prompts. No matter the topic, it’s important to be specific about the experiences you’ve had that are unique to you and your educational experience. By including personal details, colleges see that you have a genuine interest in the major you’ve picked. Make sure to clearly explain both what the experience was and how it had an impact on you.

Tips & Tricks for UIUC

One of UIUC’s short-answer questions specifically asks you to reference your own experience, so it’s important to provide concrete examples relevant to what you’re writing about.

We wrote another blog with examples for both UIUC major-specific prompts. In the examples, our lovely (and definitely real) applicant wrote about their experience at a DNA lab and how that affected their decision to apply for the *fake* DNA Analysis major at UIUC.

While you might not have taken the same path to your chosen major as our totally-a-real-person applicant, it’s important to be specific about the experiences you have had.

student proofreading their essay and marking it in red

3. Be concise.

You might think you need to use a lot of words to say what you need to say (just ask John Mayer), but often less is really more. Too many words can confuse the reader and actually detract from the point of your essay.

A good way to ensure you’re being concise is to put your paper through a hardcore spring cleaning. In other words, take what you don’t need and throw it out. Once you get a first draft, read through and cut out any unnecessary words. You might even find whole sentences that seemed important at the time but sound repetitive or irrelevant when you give them a second glance.

Tips & Tricks for UIUC

Being concise is something good to keep in mind when writing anything, but we want to emphasize this point specifically for our major-specific prompts. You only have 150 words apiece to respond, so you’ll want to make those words count.

Students studying for finals week in the Electrical and Computer Engineering building.

4. Edit, edit, edit!

You know the feeling you get when you hear you own voice on a recording and think, “Oh gosh, I can’t believe I sound like that!”? The same thing can happen when you reread something you wrote. That’s why it’s so important to take time to edit your responses before you submit them.

Wait a minute, didn’t we just talk about going back over essays for spring cleaning? Why yes, we did! Checking for brevity is a big part of editing, but if you want to submit the best version of your essay, there are other things to watch out for, too—like spelling, grammar, and clarity, just to name a few.

The best way to start is to start early. The sooner you have a complete draft, the more time there is to walk away and reevaluate your work with fresh eyes. After taking a break, you might catch errors you otherwise would’ve never seen.

Another technique is having a teacher, friend, or parent review your response. They can catch spelling/grammar mistakes you might miss and can give you a nudge in the right direction if you’ve strayed from the topic or lost your voice.

Group of friends smiling and laughing outside of Illini Union

5. Be yourself.

We know you’ve heard this a millions times before, and we know it sounds like corny, cliché advice, but letting your voice shine really does make a difference in your writing. For most of the application process, you tick boxes and answer the same questions as thousands of other applicants. The written portion is your chance to show colleges who you really are (bleh, another cliché).

If you get the urge to fill you essay with cookie-cutter fluff you think colleges want to hear, remember that thousands of other kids are going to write the same cookie-cutter fluff. But there’s only one person who can tell your story.

Tips & Tricks for UIUC

For the full essay, there are many prompts to choose from, so pick the one that means the most to you. Write about why you really want this major, a story that actually affected you, or a topic you’re truly passionate about. When you choose to write about something meaningful, it will not only be easier for you to brainstorm ideas, but will also provide a more genuine glimpse of who you are.

As you write, keep in mind that whatever essay you end up with will be the best essay for your application because it is uniquely you. If you apply these tips and tricks on how to write a college application essay and try your best, you’re going to knock the socks off all of your applications. Good luck!

UIUC Admissions

UIUC Admissions

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  • This is really helpful for getting applicants started on the essay. Indeed it is very insightful and valuable for students to read over!

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    This is the first school that I fell in love with from the website.
    I think it makes me deeply feel that the school sincerely wants to help the students, especially those who are confused