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How I Wrote My College Admissions Essay in Three Steps

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Image of a young woman writing with text saying the three steps of writing a college essay: key words, sentences with key words, draft

The dreaded essay is one of the most important parts of a college application. They’re what make you stand out from the thousands of other applicants; they’re what make your college application your college application. But, no pressure, right?

UMass Amherst asks for 2 short essays (100 words each) that answer the questions why you want to attend the university, and why you chose the major you did. The questions are fairly simple, but when you have to say in 100 words what you could say in 2, it can get a little complicated. 

Step One: Key Words

The first thing I did was sit down, think, and jot down a few key words to remember my thoughts.

I asked myself out loud why I wanted to go to UMass Amherst. I first listed all the obvious reasons, and then I thought about where my life was at the moment, and what had prompted me to choose the University of Massachusetts as one of my options.

Since I was transferring from another institution, I decided to focus my essay on why relocating was the right choice for me, and the reasons why the journalism program at UMass Amherst had caught my attention (which was my main reason for transferring).

Even though I had a clear idea of what I wanted to major in, I found the second prompt harder to write about. At the time, I just knew that I wanted to do journalism; I hadn’t really stopped about to think why I wanted to do it. So, I repeated what I did for the first prompt — ask myself the question and think about it. I kept asking myself the question over and over again until I got something to start with.

The process went a little like this:

  • Why? I like to write.
  • Why? Writing is how I make sense of the world.
  • Why? I want to help people make sense of the world through my writing.
  • Why? My grandpa inspired me to read and write from an early age...and so on, and so forth. 

Step Two: Key Words to Sentences

The next thing I did was start writing, but not the essay (yet). I grabbed my key word list and started freewriting and developing my key words into sentences, just to get my brain going. I wrote a few paragraphs not only answering the prompts, but also about where I was in my life and where I saw myself going.

Step Three: Creating and Polishing a Draft Essay

Once I got those words out of my system, I read what I had written and chose the aspects that I liked the most, and developed a draft from there. I then showed the draft to a couple of people who helped me polish it into a good-enough-final-version.

(Side tip: show the draft to only a few people you trust will help you develop your essay, but not so many that you’ll end up with a million different voices except your own).

One important thing I learned when I was writing my essay was that, although it’s important that it’s polished and well-written (to the extent that you can), the most important thing is that it shows who you are and what you have to say.

Writing my essay taught me the importance of the process. Even though those essays tend to be on the shorter side, if you go in blind, I can guarantee that it’s going to take way longer than necessary. If, however, you take the time to think and get your ideas sorted, I promise that writing the actual essay will be the easiest part.

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