How to Write a College Application Essay
| TBS Staff
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College Essay Prompts, Topics, Tips, and Examples
The college essay is a required part of the application process for most selective colleges and universities. College admissions officers — the people who decide whether you’re in or out — must consider thousands of applicants every year. Many of these applicants have grades, class ranks, and extracurricular résumés exactly like yours. The college application essay is your opportunity to distinguish yourself as something more than an anonymous collection of academic stats and achievements. But it helps to know what college admissions officers are looking for in a college essay. With this in mind, we’ve:
- Compiled some of the most common college essay prompts;
- Highlighted a few of the more unusual topics you might have to write about;
- Provided proven tips for writing a great college essay; and
- Cited a few real-world examples of college essays that actually worked.
We also enlisted the help of a qualified expert in the field. Meredith Lombardi, Associate Director of Outreach and Education at the Common Application, offers a few tips on exactly what admissions officers are seeking from a great application essay.
Depending on your comfort level with the written word, crafting a college application essay is either an exciting opportunity to share something meaningful about yourself with the college of your choice, or it’s a terrifying exercise in academic purgatory.
If you fall into the excited category, consider this a complimentary resource. We’ll spotlight some of the essay prompts you’re likely to see, and we provide a few examples of essays that have actually earned students passage into the colleges and universities of their choice. Consider this a good set of references as you hammer out your ideas, and work through your essay drafts.
If you fall into the terrified category, don’t panic! (Sorry for yelling. That probably didn’t help.) Anyway, there’s no need to freak out. You got this. Just follow our tips and write from the heart. Then — unless your heart has perfect grammar and diction — seek support from a trusted source. We’ll get to that step. But first…
Tell Us Something We Don’t Know
Of course, your college application essay is just one part of your admissions package, along with your GPA, your class rank, and your extracurriculars. Every college weighs these factors differently. But those colleges which require an essay are giving you a unique opportunity to set yourself apart from all the other students who also have awesome grades, ran for student body president, and volunteered at a retirement home.
This is the opportunity to show admissions officers who you are, how you express yourself, and what distinctive qualities you’ll add to the student body. Take that opportunity and run with it.
College Essay Prompts
Many selective colleges and universities have their own essay prompts. Other colleges may simply offer you free writing space to provide a personal statement. However, the Common Application is perhaps the best starting point for anticipating likely college essay prompts.
The Common Application, which is accepted by nearly 800 colleges and universities, is a single-serving college application that allows you to create one admissions package for submission to multiple schools. Meredith Lombardi explains that "For students applying to multiple institutions, the Common App streamlines the application process by eliminating the redundancy of filling out multiple applications. Our application provides students with the necessary tools to showcase themselves and their talents while providing a unique picture of who they are as an individual."
The Common App is also a great way to save time and money. Lombardi points out that "Students with financial need can take advantage of Common App’s streamlined fee waiver request process. Last year, Common App members provided more than $65M in need-based fee waivers."
The Common App also comes with 24/7/365 support, access to financial aid resources, and even connection to several partnered scholarship foundations.
The Common Application also gives you the option of responding to one of 7 different essay prompts. If you will be using the Common App, you’ll be able to choose, and write about, one of these prompts. If you don't plan on using the Common App, these prompts can still offer insight into a topic you'll likely be writing on for your school of choice. So whether you’re seeking flexibility in your college admission essay or you’re just doing a little preliminary research on likely essay prompts, the Common App is a good place to start.
As Associate Director of Outreach and Education for the Common Application, Meredith Lombardi’s role is to “engage with students and the counseling community to ensure Common App resources are relevant and support college access initiatives," as well as to educate "the counseling community on the latest developments with the Common App.” Prior to joining Common App, Lombardi worked as a counselor in both Georgia Washington, D.C. area public high schools.
From this vantage point, Lombardi shared some awesome expert-level college essay tips.
On the subject of essay prompts, Meredith points out that the 7 variations offered by the Common App are designed to give all applicants the opportunty to share something meaningful about themselves. She notes that "The prompts allow students to showcase different personal attributes, such as personal growth, facing adversity, problem solving, or intellectual curiosity. We hope that students can see themselves in one or more of the prompts and that by having a range of options to choose from, they will feel excited rather than intimidated by the writing process."
And once again, if you plan to apply to a school that doesn’t accept the Common App, these 7 variations on the college essay prompt can still be a great source of insight and practice as you prepare for your actual college essay.
The Common Application gives you a space of between 250 and 650 words to respond to one of the following prompts:
- Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure . How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
- Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma — anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
- Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
- Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
According to Common Application’s own reporting, the 2017-2018 application year saw 23.6% of respondents selecting Topic #5 and 22.5% selecting Topic #1.
To learn more, check out The Common Application Guide.
College Essay Topics
Based on the prompts above, you can see that college essay topics generally fall into a few major categories. For many colleges, you can anticipate writing about something relating to:
- Obstacles Overcome or Challenges Bested
- Interests, Ideas, Passions, and Plans
- Accomplishments, Achievements and Accolades
You might alternately be given a space in which to craft a “personal statement” of your own design. When given this freedom, choose a topic that seems inherently interesting to you. Tell a story that best illustrates who you are and how you can contribute to the unique makeup of a student body. Avoid boasting or merely listing accomplishments. Instead, find an area in which you are naturally confident, and use that area of your life to drive this story. The story will, in turn, provide context for your accomplishments.
Be warned that some college essays demand more creativity than others. Consider the cultural identity of your prospective school as you formulate your topic. Some colleges are more formal than others. Some may embrace a tradition of creative thinking. In some instances, you can actually see this cultural identity reflected in an essay prompt. Approach your writing topic accordingly.
Some colleges and universities are actually notorious for their unusual — and in some cases, genuinely strange — college application essay prompts. According to Business Insider, Tufts University and the University of Chicago have both earned reputations for their out-of-left-field essay questions.
For instance, University of Chicago once asked its applicants:
Have you ever walked through the aisles of a warehouse store like Costco or Sam’s Club and wondered who would buy a jar of mustard a foot and a half tall? We’ve bought it, but it didn’t stop us from wondering about other things, like absurd eating contests, impulse buys, excess, unimagined uses for mustard, storage, preservatives, notions of bigness…and dozens of other ideas both silly and serious. Write an essay somehow inspired by super-huge mustard.
Amherst College once posed the following dilemma for prospective students:
Sartre said, "Hell is other people," but Streisand sang, "People who need people/Are the luckiest people in the world." With whom do you agree and why?
And as long as we’re paying tribute to history’s great philosophers and singers, Tufts University once designed its prompt around somebody we respect even more than Sartre and Streisand:
Kermit the Frog famously lamented, "It’s not easy being green." Do you agree?
So what’s the takeaway from this array of unexpected, possibly even bizarre essay questions? Well, first of all, you can presume that some admissions officers are just bored of essays about challenges you’ve overcome or experiences that have changed you. They’d rather read about mustard and Muppets. Second, they want to see your creativity. They want to see how you think when challenged. They want to see how you function when removed from the safe confines of formula and expectation.
In other words, when confronted with an unusual topic, use it as an opportunity to demonstrate your creativity, showcase your individuality, and make the case that you would make a unique contribution to the student body. And if the topic is weird, feel free to write a weird essay.
Perhaps the University of Notre Dame said it best in one year’s brilliantly succinct essay prompt:
You have 150 words. Take a risk.
College Essay Tips
Whatever the essay prompt or topic, there are a few universal tips for writing an awesome college essay:
Be yourself, but be the interesting version
Admissions officers don’t need to hear more about your amazing grades, your standout mock trial performance, or your heroic volunteer work. That stuff is all in your application. This is a place to tell your story, but make sure it’s a story that really feels personal and meaningful to you. (Not too personal, of course. Avoid crossing the line into TMI.)
Lombardi advises "When it comes to the college application essay, the ball is fully in your court. What you write is entirely up to you. Instead of writing about what you think colleges want you to hear, write about yourself — about what you love, where you come from, what you aspire to, how you spend your time, what bugs you, what inspires you, who is important in your life."
Lombardi quotes an admissions officer Ursinus College — a Common Application member school — who observed “To expect students to come to us as fully formed human beings is antithetical to the mission of higher education. Often, the best writing sections showcase a student’s willingness to be challenged to become a more engaged learner and citizen.”
Start early, draft often
Putting your ideas into the right words may take time. Be sure that you give yourself that time. Don’t procrastinate on this part of your application. Once you zero in on your topic, it’s time to organize your ideas. You might want to use an outline, laying out your main points, developing supporting ideas, and sequencing your thoughts logically. This should help you to organize a clear rough draft. If you begin taking these steps well ahead of your deadline, you should have plenty of time to read through your own work, make revisions, share your essay with others, and incorporate feedback into future drafts.
Get to the point and get out
The goal of your essay is to make an impression on an admissions officer, but you don’t have much time to do it. Look for a strong opening line that really grabs the reader’s attention. According to Erica Curtis, a former Admissions Evaluator at Brown University, "we really had to keep up a rigorous reading pace with the regular decision applicant pool. We were expected to read 5 applications per hour, which equates to twelve minutes per application. In those twelve minutes, I reviewed the application, standardized test scores, the transcript, the personal statement, and multiple supplemental essays–all while taking notes and making a decision on the admissibility of the applicant."
Your writing should be sharp, focused, and relevant. And of course, whatever you write, make sure it actually addresses the prompt. Make sure you’re answering the question, making the point, or illustrating the feature that you’ve been asked to. Be creative, but also be concise. Tell a story that is short, sweet, and narrowly focused on a single event or idea. And never, ever exceed the instructed word count.
Show, don’t tell
This advice applies to most creative writing situations. We assume some well-meaning English teacher shared this advice with you in high school. Well…respect to your English teacher. It’s still great advice. Admissions officers aren’t interested in a timeline of events or a bullet-list of accomplishments. What they’re really seeking is a story, a personal narrative, a reflection that carries subtext. Instead of writing an essay in which you tell the reader that you’re really hard-working, dedicated, and generous, tell the story about the summer you toiled by day on an offshore oil rig, but swam ashore every evening, met up with former President Jimmy Carter, and built Habitat for Humanity houses until dawn. That story shows your hard work, dedication, and generosity without ever referring explicitly to these fantastic qualities. Of course, your story should also be true.
Find your voice, then say awesome things with it
Part of making your story true is finding your voice. This means establishing a style but also writing in language that feels natural. Don’t strain for poetic language if you feel more comfortable writing in a straightforward style. Don’t try to be a comedian if you don’t know how to deliver a punchline. Don’t write in French if you only speak English. You get the idea.
Lombardi advises, "the biggest mistake a student can make with the essay is not using their authentic voice. This can result from writing their essay in a way they think schools want to hear or using words that are not in their everyday vocabulary. A student’s original voice can also get lost from having too many edits from external readers. I always think it’s a good idea for students to read their essays out loud. Do the words coming out sound like their own? Like other parts of the application, writing is a process. Students who give it the time it deserves will have more time to write, step away, rewrite, and ultimately submit an essay that truly reflects who they are.
Speaking of future drafts, one of the best things you can do is run your essay by a trusted family member, educator, advisor, or friend. Get feedback from somebody whose opinion you respect. This feedback will give you a sense of how well your ideas are coming across to the reader, how compelling your story is, and how you might be able to improve your essay. These additional eyes are also critical when it comes to proofing your work, catching typos you might have missed, and helping to refine writing that is unclear or off-topic.
Meredith from Common App advises that students in search of help "don’t have to look far from their own schools. Their schoolwork and teachers are preparing them to make the transition to college, and their teachers and counselors are there to help guide them through the process. Students can take advantage of writing centers, classes, or workshops that are being offered for free at their schools or in their communities. A lot of organizations are meeting students where they are — online — hosting webinars and live twitter chats to share writing tips and advice. We are proud to work with the American College Application Campaign and others committed to helping students access higher education. Students can also check out #WhyApply for great resources."
College Essay Examples
The following examples are excerpts drawn from actual essays submitted by students who successfully earned admission into various schools of choice. These have been shared publicly by the schools identified below and should provide you with a sense of the features that admissions officers are looking for in a strong college essay
Write a killer opening line
Write an Intriguing Opening Line, and tell us why it matters. For istance, Tufts cites Joseph from the class of ’21, who wrote:
When problems arise, I solve them using copper fittings.
I first discovered this versatile building material as a seven-year-old visiting my father’s HVAC shop. While waiting for him to finish working one night, I wandered from the modestly finished space at the front of the building to the shop in back, which featured high ceilings and imposing stacks of shelves. I was fascinated by the dusty machines with tubes, knobs, and old cracked nozzles. When Dad found me shoulder-deep in the scrap copper bin — which I later referred to as "the world’s coolest trash can" — he determined that it was time to teach me to solder. Thirty minutes later, armed with a bowl haircut, a pair of safety glasses, and a healthy dose of self-confidence, I was ready to take on the world.
Give the reader a compelling setup
Create a compelling connection between your personal experience and why it makes you unique, why it distinguishes you from other applicants, and why it qualifies you to be a part of a school’s campus, community, and student body. For instance, Curtis, a member of the Johns Hopkins University Class of 2022, wrote:
Some instruments are built to make multiple notes, like a piano. A saxophone on the other hand doesn’t play chords but single notes through one vibrating reed. However, I discovered that you can play multiple notes simultaneously on the saxophone. While practicing a concert D-flat scale, I messed up a fingering for a low B-flat, and my instrument produced a strange noise with two notes. My band teacher got very excited and exclaimed, “Hey, you just played a polyphonic note!” I like it when accidents lead to discovering new ideas.
I like this polyphonic sound because it reminds me of myself: many things at once.
Trace your own journey
Take the reader on a journey that involves a change in the central character (which is you, of course!) Demonstrate the way that you’ve been changed for the better by the story at the heart of your essay. For instance, Tommy from the Hamilton College Class of 2018, wrote:
I was born with two speech impediments. I was a shy kid, with a crooked smile, who couldn’t pronounce any words correctly. Participating in theatre was the last thing anyone expected of me. Yet I wanted to sway crowds with my voice, make them cry, laugh and shout for joy. I was a terrified 10-year-old the first time I stepped on stage, and equally frightened moments before I finally performed at Lincoln Center. I walked slowly to my position full of fear, but when the spotlight hit my face, there was no trepidation, only a calmness and quiet determination. In that moment all the long hours of struggle fell into place. I had already accomplished what I had set out to do before my final performance. Just being there, having worked as hard as I had, made all the worry dissipate. It was just me and the light.
Provide a clearly defined takeaway
Drive your story home by showing how your journey shaped who you are today. For instance, Emma from Connecticut College’s Class of ’21 wrote:
Mesimeri, meaning midday, is a special time in Greece. A collection of moments specifically allotted to enjoying a meal with family, and when rest in encouraged. Without the luxury of a designated mesimeri, I have been compelled to put aside my own time to live presently. Whether it be a trip to my favorite boba tea shop, or merely to the local 24-hour CVS, I put aside the task at hand, almost always accompanied by a dear friend. During these outings, I find “eternity in each moment” and return to my obligations with a new sense of rejuvenation.
Create closure with your clincher
Leave the reader with something to think about, a strong conclusion that ties up your essay, reiterates your main point, and delivers the reader to a meaningful final destination, ideally a destination that shows you are ready for college. For example, Evan, from The University of Chicago Law School’s Class of 2013 wrote:
After discovering the salvation it held for me, I believed that I was reliant on snowboarding. Yet, being forced to face the grueling process of rehabilitation without it allowed me to take the final step to recovery from the trauma of my childhood. I realized I am much stronger and more resilient than I had previously believed. I realized that courage is not something that snowboarding gave me but something that has always been within me. These realizations have prepared me to broaden the scope of my dedication to justice. Secure in the knowledge that the courage and determination I have shown will help shape my future success, I am now ready to take on this new challenge: the study and practice of law.
The examples, tips, topics and prompts outlined above should help you rock your college application essay. And hopefully, this is an illuminating part of the process, one that not only helps you get into the college of your choice, but one that also helps prepare you for success once you get there.
Visit our Writing Lab for more writing tips, pertaining both to your college essay, and to the array of other writing challenges you’ll face in college or graduate school.
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