Writing Your College Essay: How To Get Started

Graphic describing the college essay writing process
Starting Your 

Now that we’ve gone over some important things to include and avoid in college essays (read: Writing Your College Essay: What to Include or Avoid), let’s get started on the essay itself. 

Your college essay is a big part of your application, so make sure you get started on it EARLY and don’t cut any corners. Colleges are looking at this essay as a reflection of who you are as a student and person. You want to wow them!

Personal Statement vs. Supplemental Essays

College essays can also be referred to as “personal statements”. A personal statement is the primary essay in the college application and is focused on you. Some colleges also require supplemental essays that are about a specific topic. Personal statements often run from 400-600 words, while supplemental essays can be anywhere from as little as 10 words and up to 700 words, depending on the school and its specific requirements. 

It is important to follow the word limit very closely. Try to get as close to the maximum word limit as possible without going over. Going over the word limit may result in your essay getting cut off. Furthermore, not sticking to the word limit can show an inability or unwillingness to follow directions, which is not something that colleges want. 

The word limit for personal statements on the Common App (which includes over 900 colleges and universities) is 250-650 words.

Can I Use the Same Essay for Multiple Schools?

Depending on the school’s prompts, you may be able to use the same essays for multiple applications. Since your personal statement is about you, oftentimes you can use it across the board for all the schools on your list, as long as it matches the prompts provided by the school.  

However, supplemental essays are often more specific, either centered on a certain topic or about the school itself. If there are multiple schools that have similar prompts, you may be able to reuse the same supplemental essay either as is or with modifications to fit the application. But be careful- if the prompts are too different, this can look sloppy and admissions boards will think you didn’t put the work in. 

If the prompts are similar enough, then by all means go for it! One good essay you worked hard on is much better than multiple not-so-good ones that were rushed.

Getting Started

Step 1: Organizing

Look up the application requirements for each school you are applying to and write them down in a list or chart.  


Make a note of whichever school’s deadline is first and start with that application. Then, see if there are any supplemental essays for multiple schools that can be consolidated. This will help you figure out your timeline of when to have things done by. 

Be sure to give yourself plenty of time to work on the application for each school!

Step 2: Brainstorming

Start with your personal statement, then move onto the supplemental essays when you’re finished.

  1. Look at the prompts provided by the school, either through the school’s website or through the Common App if the school is part of it. 
  2. Are there any prompts that stick out to you? 
  3. Do a short free write for each prompt and see what comes up. Don’t worry about getting anything perfect right now, this is just for your initial ideas. 
Some questions to ask yourself while brainstorming:

If you’re having trouble with these questions, try asking a friend about how they see you.


Step 3: Choosing a Topic

There is no “perfect topic” when it comes to college essays, it’s all about finding the best topic for you. 

Make a list of potential topics, then start to narrow it down to the strongest ones.

Ask yourself:
Essays that tell a story about a specific moment in time, rather than ones about general experiences and/or vague ideas, are often better received by college admissions boards.

If you’ve gone through your topic list and have ruled everything out, don’t worry. Try looking at your topics from a different angle to see if that sparks any ideas. If this doesn’t work, then set your list aside for a few days and come back to it with a fresh set of eyes. 

Once you’ve picked a topic that you’re happy with, get started on writing! Remember that you will need to write multiple drafts, so don’t expect to get it perfect right away. You may get stuck halfway through writing your essay and realize you don’t like that topic anymore. That’s okay! Find a new, stronger topic and start again.

Answering Prompts

To help you get started, here are some resources on prompts and topics for college essays: 

Need more personalized recommendations?

The above tips and recommendations are broad strokes on College Prep. If you have further questions, feel free to contact us for a personal consultation. We look forward to helping you.

About MathTowne

MathTowne is a locally-based tutoring resource. We are here to support students through the key phases of their academic journey: middle school, the transition to high school, all four years of high school, and college preparationOur staff has years of experience in creating personalized lesson plans for all of our students.

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