How to Make Your College Application Essay the Best Writing You’ve Ever Done (#5 of 25)

Everyone going to college already knows the fifth way to make their college application essay the best writing they’ve ever done. Yet, too often, aspects of this step are overlooked.

#5. Brainstorm, Freewrite, Outline, Draft, Revise, Polish

This are the basic rules of good writing and must be applied scrupulously to your essays.


I have posted blogs about brainstorming in the past, it could be helpful to check my archives and read them. In a nutshell, however, brainstorming means letting your mind roam free in a spontaneous manner, within the parameters of the specific subject you’re exploring. People do this in different ways – tossing ideas with a friend or into a tape recorder, typing on their computer or writing longhand, lying on their bed with the lights out, listening to music, taking a hike, riding their bike on a tree-lined country road – and I encourage you to find one that works well for you. The key here is to relax and let ideas emerge.


Once you’ve brainstormed, write down your ideas as quickly as possible, anything that occurs to you in any form – sentences, fragments, bold headings, flowery descriptions. Don’t worry about grammar or organization or anything else. Keep writing until you’ve exhausted what is currently in your head. Then put it away without rereading. Read again the next day and write some more. Ideally, this process will not only get your writing muscles warmed up, it will also stimulate more ideas.


It doesn’t matter if you outline formally, or simply jot down words and phrases that provide a structure for your essay, this step cannot be skipped. Outlining provides a road map for your essay that will keep you from getting lost and keep the essay clear and succinct. It’s also important to revise the outline several times before you start writing. Move points around, add or delete examples or concepts, stay alert for repetition or ideas that don’t relate to the whole. Making changes at this stage is a whole lot easier than after you’ve already written a draft.


I’ve mentioned this in a recent tweet but it deserves repeating here. Rather than get hung up on first draft, second, etc., call your first three drafts a “rough draft.” This will keep you from pushing too hard for the finish line and thinking you’re done with your essay when you can still improve it. Once you think you’ve written a good essay, call that your first draft


Once you’ve accepted what you’ve done as your first draft, reread critically, get feedback from knowledgeable readers, and continue to improve the essay through subsequent drafts.


A polish is different from a revision in that the polish doesn’t occur until you’ve written several drafts and are reasonably happy with the concept, structure, opening, closing, and flow of your essay. In fact, you could probably turn that version in and feel confident it would represent you well. To take your writing to a higher level, however, comb through the essay for ways to further improve it. These can include elevating vocabulary, tweaking a simile or metaphor, removing a phrase that slows your pace, sharpening or adding a description, capturing or recasting an emotional moment. Wherever you can make your essay even a syllable better, do it.

All of these steps are critical to producing an outstanding college application essay. Commit to them – all of them – and write the best essay you can possibly write.

For more personal help with the Common Application essay, supplemental or any other college application essays, please contact Craig Heller at, or 818-445-4697.

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