Planning to write your college essays

Use this page with the My college essay plan form to map out how you’ll write your college essays

If you want to write a college essay, you should have a plan, even if it’s a basic one. Knowing what’s coming can help you map out your journey and give you a sense of what’s to come.

Use this simple form (mostly checkboxes) to make sure you’ve covered the basics of writing your college essays.

This is a fillable PDF file.

On this page

What you need to know about college essays

Other kinds of essays you may have to write

When your college essays are due

When you should start working on your college essays

Resources to help you write better college essays

What you need to know about college essays

If you don’t know what a college essay looks like, odds are you won’t write a good one. Assume you know nothing.

When people talk about “college essays,” they usually mean the 650-word Common or Coalition Application essay. Over 1100 colleges and universities, public and private, use one of these applications. So odds are, you’ll need to write one of these essays. And if not, you’ll probably have to write something similar.

Almost any site or article will tell you something like this:

a college essay is an engaging, authentic short story that shows who you are.

But most students and parents still aren’t clear on what that all means, and high schools don’t teach that kind of writing. This is why admissions officers say that most college essays aren’t effective.

  • In College Essay 101, you’ll learn at a deep level what makes a great college essay and why.
  • In College Essays 102, you’ll learn how you can go about writing your own college essays.

We created these self-directed, 20-minutes programs from our 7 Secrets for a Great College Essay workshop. We’ve led that to thousands of students, parents, college counselors, and admissions officers.


On the My college essay plan form, check off how you’ll learn about college essays.  

These are unlocked pages within our EssayQuest online program. You don’t need an account to see them.

We’re also sharing the best collection of college essays anywhere. The more sample essays you read, the better. We suggest that you take College Essays 101 first so you know what to look for.

Other kinds of essays you may have to write

There’s a good chance you’ll have to write at least one, or maybe many, types of essays. These are the most common.

To be safe, check Supplemental essays on the form.

On the My college essay plan form, check off each type of essay you think you may have to write.  

University of California essays
All of the UC schools use the same application. You’ll write four 350-word essays, choosing from eight prompts. UC admissions officers are scanning quickly for information and don’t want stories like in the Common Application essays. 

Essays for schools not on a shared application
Many public colleges and universities have their own applications, some with essays similar to the Common/Coalition Application. Others have their own essays or sets of short questions. You may have to register on their website and start the application just to find the essay prompts. Do this as soon as possible so you have no surprises.

Essays for Canadian or other foreign schools
Many foreign university systems don’t use essays at all. Those that do usually ask questions about your academic and career interests. Some schools, including many Canadian schools, are moving towards the Common/Coalition Application style essay. 

Supplemental essays
You’ll probably have to write at least a few of these ranging from 50 words to hundreds of words each. The most common questions are about your intellectual interests and choice of major, what you want to go to the college, your community or background, and extracurricular activities or work experience. And, there are some quirky ones, like Stanford’s famous write a letter to your roommate prompt and the University of Chicago’s crazy options, including Where is Waldo, Really? and What’s so odd about odd numbers?

When college essays are due

You may not be sure yet, but what application deadlines do you think you’ll have? If you’re not sure about a deadline, check it for now.

In the past couple of years, colleges have changed deadlines even after they were announced. Please stay on top of deadlines! Make sure there are no unexpected earlier deadlines for specific majors, honors programs, scholarships, etc.  

On the My college essay plan form, check off each deadline you think you may have.  

Most schools have deadlines between November 1 and January 15

  • Super early or rolling deadlines (before November 1)
  • Early decision/action (November 1–15)
  • U. of California/other state universities (November 15–30)
  • Most regular decision deadlines (January 1–15)
  • Later deadlines (after January 15)

When you should start working on your college essays

We recommend starting as soon as you’re done with Junior year classes and standardized tests. It takes longer than you think to write a college essay; the earlier you start the better off you’ll be.

Keep a few things in mind:

  • At the end of junior year, don’t let college essays get in the way of grades or preparing for standardized tests. Do your best to show schools what you can do academically.
  • Don’t try to write all of your essays all at once. You may have a lot of work to do and we recommend starting with the Common or Coalition application essay (if you have to write one) and then moving on from there.
  • Give yourself time to think, ponder, and play around. Writing well takes time and there’s no way around that.
  • Plan for the unexpected, whether it’s a new demand on your time or discovering that your first choice school has more essays than you imagined.
  • Aim to get each essay done at least two weeks before the deadline.


On the My college essay plan form, check off each when you’ll start to work on your essays.  


Hear what Spencer has to say about college essays.
He got into all 11 schools he applied to and was offered $145,000 in scholarships he didn’t apply for.

Read about Spencer’s writing journey in College Essays 101.

Resources to help you write better college essays

Even if you write well, you’ve probably never written anything like this before. Where will you get support, guidance, and feedback? Anyone helping you should learn about college essays from the same source as you. You all need to be on the same page.

On the My college essay plan form, check off the resources you’ll use.  

Use an online program to guide you through a process
We’re biased, but we think EssayQuest is the best thing out there. And, it may not be the best fit for you. We partnered closely with the teens we mentor personally to create a program that’s straightforward, intuitive, and easy to use. Of course, you still have to do the thinking and the work, but we take the mystery out of writing college essays.

EssayQuest isn’t the best fit for everyone. If you want something less comprehensive, or a program you can work through in a weekend, there are several out there you may want to consider.

Learn more about EssayQuest

Hire an expert
We’re experts! And we’re not the only ones. You may be interested in our premium personal mentoring program or a more limited program through one of our partners. Or, you could work with another essay specialist or college admissions generalist.

It’s important to find the right fit for a college. And, it’s important to find the right fit for someone to support you through writing your college essays.

Learn more about our personal mentoring programs and schedule a free parent consultation

Have a friend or family member give you support and feedback
Again, there’s some risk in this. Few people know what effective college essays look like, and fewer know how to help students write one. Be sure that anyone supporting you or giving you feedback has gone through College Essays 101 so that they’re on the same page as you.

Work with your English teacher or college counselor
This is a solid choice, but please go through College Essays 101 so that you’re clear about what colleges are looking for. Even the best English teachers spend little time with college essays and don’t have much experience in teaching them. They also may have 150+ students and not much time to spend with each.

Go it alone
That’s okay, but risky. Even great English students from the best schools in the country write essays that aren’t what colleges are looking for. You may not have many people or resources to help you, but at least take College Essays 101, so you know what you need to write.