The average personal statement length required by colleges is generally around 500 words. Doesn't sound like a big deal, right?

But if you find that putting together your college application essay is one of the most brutal parts of the entire process, you're not alone. This is a super common place to find yourself stuck!

If you feel yourself starting to sweat at this point in the process, don't worry! We've put together an easy to follow process with some helpful hints to get you started.

Remember: your essay will be used by admissions departments to get a better sense of who you are and who you hope to become after completing higher ed. Your GPA and resume represent what you've done; your essay demonstrates your personality and your goals.

With that in mind, let's break down exactly how to do this step-by-step.

Step 1: Choose a Topic

It might seem silly, but this is the stage most of us get stuck at. Lost before we even get started!

If you are fortunate enough to have a school that has offered a clear prompt, you're already ahead in the game. Feel free to skip down to step 2!

If, on the other hand, the school has given you dealer's choice on your essay, it's time to get kickstarted on some good old fashioned brainstorming.

First, common app has prompts available if you're using their site to submit multiple applications. If instead you're submitting directly to the school of your choice, you can start by looking up some college application essay examples. These will help you think of general topics and see what has worked for others in the past.

Don't forget: these examples are for inspiration only. Any copying of someone else's essay is a surefire way to get your application in the rejection pile.

Once you've spent some time looking at personal narrative examples, get out a sheet of paper and start a list of your own ideas. As you're thinking, ask yourself these questions:

  • What significant events in your life would you like to share with the admissions committee?

  • What image are you trying to portray?

  • What moment in your life offers a glimpse of your personality and style?

Set a timer for 5–10 minutes and just let your pen fly. No idea is off-limits at this point.

Once you've brainstormed some ideas, it's time to narrow things down. Ideally, choose a topic where you can not only share a big personal moment but how that experience has shaped you and prepared you for the college experience.

Instead of listing the 12 times you finished first in the track meet, tell about the one time you finished dead last because you tripped over every hurdle. This "failure" shows how you persevere and keep trying no matter what.

Step 2: Create an Outline

A college application essay format isn't always an exact science. After learning how to craft a basic, 5-paragraph essay for years (thesis statement, supporting arguments, conclusion), it's time to step out of that mold a bit.

Depending on the type of essay you have chosen, there can be variations in how you format your essay. Your individual style and voice might determine the need for a slightly different plan of attack for your outline.

Regardless of your topic, the general rule of thumb is to include these three essential ingredients:

1. An engaging introduction

  • What is your hook?

  • Why should anyone care?

  • How will you capture your reader's attention?

2. A story with details

  • How can you show (not tell) what happened?

  • Which details are most important (and interesting)?

  • Which specifics help demonstrate who you are?

3. A conclusion with intention

  • How can you tie this all up with a nice connection to your life?

  • What is the overall deeper meaning you are trying to convey?

While you may be tempted to dive right in and start writing, creating an outline is an essential step in this process. Plotting your introduction, your story details, and your conclusion will help guarantee a more fluid, clear, organized, and purposeful essay. Taking the time to outline pays off in the end when you don't have to revise an essay that lacks substance and organization.

Step 3: Write the Essay

Once you have outlined your essay to ensure all of the pieces are in place, it's time to create a draft. At this point, you have the freedom to write as much as you want. Don't worry about limitations too much; just focus on getting the message out. However, keep in mind that revisions will need to be made and your word count will need to be appropriate eventually.

What's an appropriate word count for a college essay? Generally, 350-500 words will suffice.

A 500-word essay is long enough to offer insights about who you are but short enough to keep your reader's interest. Of course, if the college gives you a limit, be sure to stick with whatever they ask.

After you have completed your first draft, you need to make sure to chop out any extraneous information and make your essay precise, engaging, and clear. Don't drone on and on if things can be told succinctly and appropriately. You will probably have to write and revise a few drafts until you find one that seems to be the right fit for you.

Step 4: Edit Your Work

You've finished your draft and are pretty happy with what you have. Time to send it off, right? Not quite!

You want this essay to be as well-written as possible. There is plenty of editing to be done.

You are the first proofreader. Do everything in your power to make this piece amazing:

  • Use spell-check

  • Run it through an online grammar check

  • Read it aloud to see if the flow is natural

Then ask others to look over your essay. Teachers, parents, and friends can all be a great help in making sure your essay flows well and doesn't have any errors.

Once you've completed all four of the above steps, your essay is ready to be submitted!

Brainstorming, outlining, writing, and editing are all crucial steps to crafting your perfect college application essay. By following these steps, you can be sure that your essay will catch the attention of the admissions committee for all of the right reasons. And with hard work and a little luck, you'll soon be writing more essays...at the college of your choice!