With college admissions as competitive as it is today, the application essay can mean the difference between an acceptance or rejection letter.
Admissions officers are increasingly turning to the essay as a means of evaluating students. Many applicants fail to take advantage of the essay—they choose the wrong question, write about an inappropriate topic, or just fail to put together a compelling essay.
So, what should applicants write about? Here, we breakdown the six questions from this year’s Common Application, an online application accepted by more than 450 colleges and universities. (Even colleges that don’t accept the Common App tend to have essay prompts that are the same or similar.)
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1. Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk, or ethical dilemma and its impact on you.
Consider any experience or achievement that is significant to you—it can be big or small. Perhaps you found working with children rewarding because you want to be a teacher someday, or perhaps you created your own workout regimen to get fit. Make sure not to dwell on the experience—instead, talk about how you or your outlook changed because of it. Fewer students will talk about a risk they’ve taken, but remember: It doesn’t have to be bungee jumping! It can be saying no to peer pressure and risking your friendships. If you choose to write about an ethical dilemma, use caution—you don’t want admissions officers questioning your moral integrity.
2. Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.
Here’s a chance to give more context about you. If the matter is personal, that’s easy to do. But if it’s a national or international issue, then it’s tempting to talk about the environment or the war-torn Middle East, for example. But do we learn about you? Make sure the issue ties into your personal experiences and interests.
3. Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.
Don’t tell admissions officers too much about your “influential person.” Instead, talk a little bit about the person, but mostly about how you have changed or reacted because of that person. Maybe you found an academic passion or hobby because of favorite teacher or coach; maybe you changed how you treat others because of the character of a family member or close friend.
4. Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work that has had an influence on you, and explain why.
This is a hard question for most students to answer—again, you don’t want to talk too much about that character, historical figure, or creative work, but instead, describe their influence on you. Perhaps a building’s unique design influenced your desire to study architecture. Maybe a lead character’s actions in a movie or novel oddly paralleled your own actions. Note: If you’re going to write about a fictional character, avoid very common novels that most students read in high school, and instead use a novel that you read independently—it’ll help you stand out.
5. Describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.
Consider diversity in many ways—your geography, academic interests, family background, religion, race, and ethnicity. How would you contribute to a college? Or what do you hope to learn from others who are different from you at that school?
6. The topic of your choice.
If you’re applying to a college that does not accept the Common App, you’ll have to answer their specific essay questions. However, keep in mind that you can simply use that essay for your other applications as well. If it is an open-ended prompt, ask and then answer your own question—it’ll show off your creative side.
Colleges want to get to know more about you. Write clearly and show colleges how you think and what you will contribute to the campus. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter which question you choose—it’s what you do with the answer that matters most.
Coming up with a good topic for your college essays can feel like the ultimate form of writer’s block. After all, what could you possibly write about that will represent you in 500 words or less? The creative process definitely isn’t easy, but these tips and tricks from people who have been through the process should help you get your thoughts flowing and ideas moving.
1. Focus on a moment
One of the easiest ways to think of a college essay topic is to focus on a specific instance that changed you or that represents something about your character. As Madie, a Brandeis University student, puts it, “You don’t need to tell a long and complicated story to have a good college essay. All you need is a moment. Start with a moment, and work out from there. Then come back to that moment at the end of your essay.” In Madie’s Common Application essay, she wrote about the mantra she said to herself every day before she got out of her car to go to school. While that may seem like a rather simple topic to write about, for Madie, that everyday occurrence defined her. So ask yourself: what is a moment in your life that defined you?
Whether it is the time you ate a weird-looking fruit, the peculiar way you brush your teeth, or the time you went skydiving, it doesn’t matter. The moment itself is not important. What that moment says about you is.
Related:Which Common Application Essay Prompt is Right for You?
2. Stand out
It’s true: the college admission process is tougher than ever. Basically every student you will be up against has done some sort of community service. Everyone has some sport or musical instrument or other extracurricular they excel at. Tons of kids work a part-time job in addition to all their other responsibilities. It’s hard to find something you did in high school that will make you unique in an applicant pool. This is not to discount the work you have done; it is just to say that everyone is writing similar essays about similar things.
You want to write about something that will make you stand out. Write about something that the poor admission officer reading all these essays hasn’t read before. So take a second to think: what’s something you’ve done that your classmates haven’t? Was it meaningful to you? If so, get writing.
3. When disaster strikes . . . write about it!
In the college admission process, it can be easy to get caught up in trying to come off as the “perfect” candidate. You have worked so hard to get perfect grades, perfect SAT or ACT scores, perfect extracurricular activities—you get the picture. However, here is a little-known secret about college applications: perfect is boring. The people in admission offices reading your essays read about “perfect” all day. Your essay is the time to spice up your application. Show them a time in your life where maybe everything didn’t go so perfectly. For instance, Jackson, a Division III student-athlete, wrote about the time he injured his ankle in tennis, only to go through extensive and excruciatingly painful rehab to finally get back on the court, where, on his first day back, he injured his other ankle. While revealing any imperfection in a college essay may seem contradictory to the goal of convincing a college to admit you, it often showcases your best qualities. For example, the fact that Jackson was able to stick with tennis and rehab after all of these trials shows that he is persistent and strong. As he put it, “My college essay wasn’t about making myself seem amazing. It was more about reflecting on my past experiences and seeing where they got me today.”
4. Be genuine
Rachel, a student at James Madison University, recalls her Common Application essay with pride, because she was true to herself in everything she wrote. In fact, she says her essay was “the most genuine thing she has ever written.” When Rachel’s prompt asked her what her favorite place was, she knew she shouldn’t pick her bedroom or the beach she went to as a child, because those are everyone’s favorite places. She wanted her favorite place to be her own. So Rachel wrote about swing sets. “Swings are everywhere,” she says, so it was a relatable topic while still being unique to her own personality. Additionally, using swings as her favorite place gave her a lot of imagery to work with in her essay, because she could literally describe what being on the swings felt like. The important lesson to take away here is that if you are truthful and genuine in your essay, it will be easy to write about.
5. Write about your childhood
Your entire college application talks about who you were in high school. Admission officers see what activities you did in high school, what classes you took in high school, and what scores you got—you guessed it—in high school. While these things are important, so much of your personality forms as a child too. My friend Caroline, who was accepted to schools such as George Mason University, Wittenberg University, and Seattle University, wrote about how interest in exploration started as a child. She wrote a narrative about pushing boundaries. As a child, Caroline always rode her bike just a little bit farther than her parents allowed her to. Eventually she ended up riding all the way into the forest and exploring nature, where she developed her passion for saving the environment. By writing about how her interests, tendencies, and passions came from her childhood, Caroline was able to give admission officers a more complete picture of who she is. Think about what you did as a child that says something about your personality now. Write about what makes you, you!
Keep calm and happy writing everyone!
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