The Only Guide to Writing a College Application Essay You'll Ever Need

Thank you for letting us help you on your journey of writing your college application essay! This free definitive guide to writing your admissions essay will arm you with all the information you need to write the best essay, personal statement, or statement of purpose possible. 

In this three-part guide, we'll answer every question you've ever had about writing your college essay and more in the following 11 sections: 


1) Why Should I Bother Learning from Montevideo About Writing My College Application 

2) Why Is it Important To Understand Higher Education in America Today Before Writing Your Admissions Essay?

3) What Are Universities Looking for In Successful Applicants? 

4) Now It's Time to Brainstorm


5) Okay, Great Tips, But How Do I Find the Right Topic for My Admissions Essay?

6) The Art of Storytelling 

7) How Do I Take the Freewriting I Did Earlier and Start Giving It a Structure? 

8) What the Hell Does Pixar Have to Do With My Admissions Essay?


9) The Moment of Truth

10) What Are Some Common Mistakes I Can Avoid in My College Application Essay? 

11) How Do I Polish and Perfect My Final Draft?

Wanna skip ahead to Part Two or Three now? We got you covered. Click here for Part Two and click here for Part Three. 

Why Should I Bother Learning from Montevideo About Writing My College Application Essay? 

You're smart to ask that question, and besides, it would be rude not to introduce ourselves first before diving in. We are Montevideo, and we create art, apparel, decor & inspiration for creative college students with independent taste.  

Our team of writers and artists has many years of experience in editing. Some of us got accepted to schools like Harvard and Columbia. Others worked for years as professional academic editors.

 We all have a deep appreciation for the power of the written word and believe it opens doors, builds new worlds, and connects old ones. It can remind us who we are and show us who we might become.

A vivid, thoughtful, fine- grained piece of writing can convince an admissions committee to give a student a chance to fight for his or her dreams. We are honored to help you fight for yours.

Now that we’ve properly introduced ourselves and you know this definitive guide wasn't written by a highly talented space monkey after retiring from NASA (or was it…), let's move on to the next section.


Why Is It Important To Understand Higher Education in America Today Before Writing Your Admissions Essay?

Nowadays, attending college is a major predictor of your future. By no means is this trend true only in the U.S.

Many recent studies demonstrate how the global economy is now rooted in an increasingly fast-paced, information-based society. If you are applying to college now, there’s a chance you might take for granted just how quickly and profoundly our world has changed in the last 10 to 15 years.

Perhaps you were born just a few years after the Internet became widely available. Maybe you were in elementary school when social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter first came online.

Maybe you were even fortunate enough to have your own smart phone in high school. Just imagine: that little phone is 10 to 15 times more powerful than the average PC your parents were using in the late 1970s.

Generally speaking, there are three schools of thought today regarding the purpose of receiving a college education: the commercial purpose (pursuing a career), the intellectual purpose (acquiring valuable stores of information and learning how to think), and the moral purpose (developing your inner life and cultivating a deeper sense of purpose beyond just making money).

Have your college advisors and teachers talked to you about these three different views of the purpose of college? Perhaps you’ve heard about two out of these three? Or have they just told you "You should go to college!" and left it at that? 

via GIPHY  

In order to understand how to write the best possible admissions essay or personal statement, it is important to have a general understanding of these three views.

You’re probably wondering why.

Well, the people working on the admissions committee at the university you hope to attend who will be evaluating your essay also share one, two, and in some cases, all three of these views.

While each school may be looking for slightly different qualities in successful applicants, having a broader understanding about the reasons why colleges even exist in the first place will help you present yourself as a mature thinker who has thought seriously about why you're applying to college.

Let’s briefly review each of these three views so you can do just that.

The first and probably most widespread view is the commercial purpose of college. Let’s face it: we no longer live in an industrial economy where low-skill workers can drop out of high school, obtain a factory job, and still reasonably expect to be able to provide for themselves and their families.


In 1959, only 19% of all jobs in the U.S. required at least some college training; by 1997, that figure had increased dramatically: in the emerging knowledge-based economy of the 1990s, 56% of all jobs required some college training.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that jobs requiring a master’s degree are projected to grow the fastest this decade, while those requiring a high school diploma will experience the slowest growth between now (2014) and 2020.

But we think you know this already. You’ve probably heard things like this from nearly everyone around you since you set foot in high school. So let’s examine the second view regarding the purpose of college.

Put simply, we go to college to acquire knowledge and to sharpen our ability to think.

college admissions essays

For those of us who already know what they want to do after college (don't worry, this definitely isn't true for everybody), we go to learn as much as possible about the skills and knowhow needed to pursue our chosen path.

In our high-speed, knowledge-driven world, knowing how to make the best or even just above-average decisions is no small task. Whether you want to become a filmmaker, a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, a financial consultant, or an artist, the complexity and speed of the information surrounding us will have a profound effect on your future career.

This is one of the reasons why obtaining a college education is more important than ever before: developing the discipline, knowledge, and critical thinking skills needed to create value in the face of constantly changing realities. 

This brings us to the third and arguably least discussed purpose of college: finding meaning and purpose to guide your life. 

The privilege to study at a university presents a unique period of freedom in your life where, in many cases, you will be living apart from your family for the first time.

It is a rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood. As science continues to demonstrate, we are all born with more or less the same physical and mental potential.

However, as philosophers and thinking people throughout history have long been telling us, it is only through continuous introspection, observation, learning how to live with our head and heart in harmony, and finding our purpose for living that we are able to construct our own unique self.

For many people, this process of finding a deep sense of purpose in life begins in college. During this period of relative freedom, you can throw yourself headfirst into learning from others, including your professors, your classmates, and some of the greatest thinkers, artists, and historical movers and shakers that ever lived.

finding purpose at college

In short, college means many things to many people. Now that you are preparing to write your admissions essay or personal statement, it is important to begin thinking about what it is going to mean to you.

Insider Tip #1

Check out the essay written by Helen Vendler, a former member of the Faculty Standing Committee on Admissions at Harvard, who writes about the creative qualities admissions committees value in successful applicants. You can find it here.

What Are Universities Looking for in Successful Applicants? 

One question we hear all the time from college applicants goes something like this: “But what do they want from me? What kind of student are they looking for?

Sound familiar?

We imagine that question has probably crossed your mind once or twice late at night as you scroll through the websites of the schools you’re applying to in an attempt to crack their code.

Don’t worry: according to our super unscientific Montevideo poll (meaning we asked our team while we were sitting around drinking coffee on a Monday morning), the majority of our us did it in the past too.

And by “it” we mean looking at the photos of students on our top school’s websites and trying to imagine ourselves in their place; reading carefully over each word in the admissions sections of those same sites like it was some secret code we could crack if only we could read a bit deeper between the lines; and asking our older brother’s or sister’s friends who have friends that went to our dream school how they were lucky enough to get in.


Rather than trying to guess, let’s briefly examine the profile of Harvard’s admitted class of 2018. In recent years, Harvard has begun to focus more and more on admitting a more diverse group of students, both in terms of ethnicity, country of origin, and socioeconomic background.

A quick note: this is not to suggest that you want to or even should apply to Harvard; rather, we will use Harvard as a benchmark.

With that said, let’s take a look at the profile of students who were admitted to the class of 2018 at Harvard (all of this information is publicly available at Harvard’s website, along with a ton of other great resources for students: )


Students     Total

Applicants      34,295

Admitted          2,048

Matriculates         1,662 Admitted from the waiting list                      30

Geographical breakdown of admitted students 

New England


Middle Atlantic















Ethnicity of admitted students

African American


Asian American


Hispanic or Latino


Native American or Pacific Islander



Intended field of concentration of admitted students



Social Sciences


Bio Sciences


Physical Sciences




Computer Science







These statistics give us a big-picture view of the admitted class of 2018, but the question you really care about is why these students and not others.

In other words, what actually happens in the admissions committee during the admissions process? What factors do the people on these committees consider when choosing from so many talented applicants?

Here's a story from one of Montevideo's founders that helps answer this question. He visited Harvard before applying in order to meet with an admissions officer from one of Harvard’s graduate schools.

Within the first five minutes of their conversation, the admissions officer told him something he’d never forget: “To be honest, the single most important component of the application package to a school like Harvard, and most other top Ivy League schools for that matter, is the personal essay.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” the admissions officer continued. “Good grades and strong test scores are still crucial. But it’s the personal essay that enables us to make a decision, to see what type of person, what type of thinker, is the best fit for Harvard. In a sea of overqualified applicants, it’s the only thing that will make you truly stand out.”


With that anecdote as our launching point, let’s take a closer look at the types of factors that influence admissions officers’ decisions during the admissions process.

Generally speaking, admissions committees strive to ensure that the admissions selection process is fair, deliberate, and as thorough as possible. This may be difficult to believe since schools receive thousands of applications each year, but they really do want to know who you are.

They want to better understand the living, breathing student behind the transcript and grades. After they read your admission essay or personal statement, one of the most important questions they are going to ask is, “How much do we know about this person?”

If they feel that they have learned little to nothing about who you are as an individual, chances are your admissions essay or personal statement will be considered unsuccessful.

Beyond learning about the unique experiences, qualities, and personality traits that make you, well, you, admissions committees want to find students who they believe will be able to make the best contribution to their fellow students’ learning and growth.

The best schools are hoping to find students who have the potential to inspire their classmates to make the most of their time in college and beyond.


By now you understand that the admissions essay/personal statement is your chance for the admissions committee to get to know you better.

Whenever we ask admissions officers/application readers to define the purpose of the admissions essay/personal statement, many of them tell us that it is what “humanizes” the applicant.

Consider these other responses we’ve heard:

“It helps us (the admissions committee) understand what truly makes each student tick.”

“It enables me to learn more about the student’s personal values.”

“The admissions essay shows us how each student thinks about themselves and the world.”

“Reading a personal statement is like sitting down over coffee and having a one-on-one conversation with the student.”

As they read and discuss your application – perhaps more than once – they will take some of the following things into consideration (please note that these are not listed in order of importance):

  • They will seek to gain deeper insight into your academic, personal, and extracurricular achievements in light of the opportunities that were available to
  • They will be interested to know if have substantial, meaningful experience with cultures different than your own, particularly since the number of international students at American universities continues to
  • Do you have a proven track record of academic success?
  • If you started out high school with average or below average grades, did you show remarkable improvement over the course of your four years in school?
  • How motivated are you in your studies and in other areas of your life?
  • Are you a person who has demonstrated an ability to take the initiative, whether in campus clubs, sports, in the classroom, or elsewhere?
  • How persistent are you? Are you the type of person who gives up easily? College is by no means easy, and so they will want to be confident that you have the emotional strength, tenacity, and perseverance needed to
  • Have you demonstrated the qualities of leadership? If not, is there anything to suggest that you have potential to become a leader who can inspire and serve others?
  • Have you faced an extraordinary circumstances or hardships in your life? More importantly, they will be interested to learn how you overcame or responded to such challenges.
  • Have you been challenging yourself to expand your capacity in your academics, in your full-time or part-time employment, in extracurricular activities, or in other areas of your life?
  • Have you used your time effectively throughout high school?
  • What sort of character do you have? Are you someone who thinks about and supports others? Or are you a selfish person who can only think about him/herself?
  • Are you passionate about something in your life? Are there certain ideas, interests, or activities that inspire you to grow and become a better person?
  • Are you an open-minded person? In other words, are you willing to learn from new people and ideas?
  • Will you be able to handle the pressures and freedoms of college life in a mature and responsible manner?

It is important to keep in mind that admissions officers are not necessarily looking for all of these things all the time; however, it's safe to say that they will take most of the factors (or very similar factors) into consideration when reviewing your application and reading your admissions essay/personal statement.

Insider Tip #2

Given how challenging and time-consuming the application process can be, a well-planned approach is critical to your success.

Before you even think about sitting down to write your essays, spend as much time as you need to thoroughly research and truly understand a variety of programs. Since the admissions landscape is more competitive than ever today, it is important to apply to at least one or two schools that have admissions standards you can comfortably meet.

While it may be frustrating to realize that different schools have their own application process and (often) a unique set of essay questions, these differences can help you gain a deeper insight into what each school is truly looking for.

That's because the questions a school asks and the values/qualities it emphasizes in the application process/admissions prompt is an excellent way for you to better understand the school’s culture and the qualities it is looking for in successful applicants.

Now It's Time To Brainstorm 


You probably already know from high school English that it can be really helpful to develop a plan or blueprint before you start writing an essay.

Think about it like this: imagine you are leaving from New York City on a flight to sunny Southern California. If the pilots input the wrong flight coordinates into the onboard flight computer, even if they are only off by one or two degrees, they will end up missing their final destination by dozens, if not hundreds, of miles.

Similarly, developing a clear plan of where you are trying to go in your admissions essay/personal statement will help ensure you don’t spend many hours writing only to discover later than you ended up in the wrong place.

Although it may seem like it will just end up taking more of your time, we strongly encourage you to spend that extra hour or two developing an outline, even if it is just an informal sketch that you create based on the brainstorming activities we suggest below. By taking the time to do this, your admissions essay will be more organized, considered, and purposeful.

Here are some general tips for entering the brainstorming zone to find the best college application essay topics:

  • Be sure to set aside a dedicated block of time in your schedule for this brainstorming You know yourself best: if you think you will need one hour, put that much time aside; if you know you work at a slower pace, then set aside two or three hours.
  • If possible, go to the place where you feel most relaxed and comfortable to write, whether that’s your local coffee shop, the dining room table, or your
  • While many of you might be more comfortable writing on a computer, we suggest you use a pen and paper for the brainstorming session because this will help you focus more on freewriting and less on how your ideas look or sound on the

Don’t worry: we’ll focus on shaping your ideas into a coherent narrative in the following sections.

    • Keep your favorite snack and a bottle of water nearby to keep yourself hydrated and alert.
    • Turn off your cell phone and disconnect your WIFI. The urge to check social media will be at an all-time high while trying to write your admissions essay. It is natural to face resistance when you must fill a blank page, and this resistance is often even stronger when the stakes are as high as your college admissions essay.
    • When your mind begins to wander, instead of allowing your mind to get sucked back into checking your friends’ Instagram updates or tweeting about how hard it is to write an admissions essay, allow your mind to wander in the direction of your topic.

Congratulations! You made it to the end of Part One! Ready to move on to Part Two? We've got you covered: click here to read Part Two. 

Feeling ahead of the class and ready for Part Three? Click here to jump ahead to Part Three.

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