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How to Write Perfect ApplyTexas Essays

Posted by Dr. Anna Wulick | Dec 6, 2015 8:00:00 AM

College Essays



The ApplyTexas college application has many different essay prompts – and each of the most popular colleges in Texas has different requirements for which essays they expect students to answer. 

So how do you get advice on writing your best ApplyTexas essays, no matter which school you are hoping to get into? Look no further than this article, which totally unpacks all five possible ApplyTexas essay prompts. I will explain what each essay prompt is looking for, what admissions officers are hoping to learn about you, give you great strategies for making sure your essay meets all of these expectations, and help you come up with your best essay topics. 


Table of Contents

To help you navigate through this long guide, you can use these links.

What Are the ApplyTexas Essays?

Comparing 3 Similar ApplyTexas Essay Prompts: A, B, and C

Dissecting ApplyTexas Essay Topic A

Dissecting ApplyTexas Essay Topic B

Dissecting ApplyTexas Essay Topic C

Dissecting ApplyTexas Essay Topic D

Dissecting UT Austin Essay Topic S

The Bottom Line


What Are the ApplyTexas Essays?

The ApplyTexas application is basically the Texas state version of the Common Application that many U.S. colleges use: it’s a unified college application process that's accepted by all Texas public universities and many private ones. Note, however, that some schools that accept ApplyTexas applications also accept the Common App. 

There are two good sources for figuring out whether your target college accepts the ApplyTexas application and what your college's requirements are, but the best way to confirm exactly what your school expects to see is to go to its admissions website.


Why Do Colleges Want You to Write Essays?

Admissions officers are trying to put together classes full of interesting, vibrant students who have different backgrounds, strengths and weaknesses, goals, and dreams. One tool for building this kind of diversity of perspective is the college essay. 

What does this mean for you? These essays are a chance for you to show admissions officers those sides of yourself that aren’t reflected in the rest of your application. This is where you describe where you come from, what you believe in, what you value, and what has shaped you. This is also where you make yourself sound mature and insightful, two key qualities that colleges are looking for in their applicants because they want to make sure to find young people who will thrive when faced with the independence of college life.

To go deeper, check out our extensive guide to how essays work in the college application process


body_jellybeans.jpgFilling a freshman class is like dealing with those Every-Flavor jelly beans from Harry Potter: admissions just wants to make sure to avoid the ones that taste like earwax.


ApplyTexas Essay Requirements

There are 4 essay prompts on the ApplyTexas application (Topics A, B, C, and D), and 1 essay prompt that isn’t on the ApplyTexas application, but is an extra essay option for UT Austin (Topic S). There are no word limits for the essays, but colleges suggest keeping the essays somewhere between 1 to 1 ½ pages long.

All Texas colleges and universities have different application requirements, including the essays. Some require essays, some list them as optional, while others use a combination of required and optional essays. Several schools use the essays to determine scholarship awards, honors program eligibility, or admission to specific majors. Here are some essay submission requirement examples from a range of schools.

UT Austin essay requirements:

  • You are required to write an essay on Topic C.
  • You also have to write one other essay on Topic A, B, D or S.  
  • If you're applying to Architecture and the Fine Arts’ Department of Art and Art History, your second essay has to be on Topic D.
  • If you're applying to the Nursing program, the essay your write for Topic C needs to be about your goal of becoming a nurse and/or a career in nursing.

Texas A&M essay requirements:

  • You have to write essays on Topic A and Topic B.
  • If you don't meet automatic admission standards, Texas A&M recommends (but doesn't require) that you write an essay on Topic C.

Southern Methodist University essay requirements:

  • You are required to write an essay on Topic A.
  • You also have the option to write another essay on Topic B.
  • SMU also accepts the Common App and has its own online application, so you have the option to pick and choose the application you most want to fill out.

Texas Christian University essay requirements:

  • You have to write one essay, but it can be on any of the topics.
  • TCU also accepts the Common App and has its own online application, so it's another school where you can figure out which application makes the most sense for you.


body_chihuahua.jpgDazzled by her options, she was overcome with hopeful optimism. And cuteness.


Comparing ApplyTexas Essay Prompts A, B, and C

There are three ApplyTexas essay topics that try to get to the heart of what makes you the person that you are in three different ways. But since Topics A, B, and C all focus on something that has happened to you, it can be difficult to come up with a totally different idea for each – especially since on a first read-through, these prompts can sound fairly similar.

So, before I dissect all five of the ApplyTexas essay prompts one by one in the next section of this article, let’s see how A, B, and C are different from one another. This way, you can keep these differences in mind when trying to come up with ideas of what to write about. (Topics D and S are distinct enough from the others that you’re unlikely to have trouble distinguishing them.)


The Prompts

Topic A

Describe a setting in which you have collaborated or interacted with people whose experiences and/or beliefs differ from yours. Address your initial feelings, and how those feelings were or were not changed by this experience.


Topic B

Describe a circumstance, obstacle or conflict in your life, and the skills and resources you used to resolve it. Did it change you? If so, how?


Topic C

Considering your lifetime goals, discuss how your current and future academic and extra-curricular activities might help you achieve your goals.


How to Tell Topics A, B, and C Apart

One helpful way to keep these topics separate in your mind is to create a big picture category for each one: Topic A is outside, Topic B is inside, and Topic C is the future.

In other words, topic A is asking about the impact of the outside world on you and how you handled that impact. On the other hand, topic B is asking about your inner strength and the ways in which you’ve had to rely on it. Finally, topic C wants to know about your conception of yourself some years down the road.

These very broad categories will help when you’re brainstorming ideas and life experiences to write about for your essay. Of course, it's true that many of the stories you think of can be shaped to fit each of these prompts. Still, think about what the experience most reveals about you. If it’s overall about how you handled a group of others, it’s a good fit for topic A. If it’s best described as a story about overcoming the odds, it should probably be for topic B. And if it’s primarily about an event that you think predicts your future, it will work well for topic C.

For more help, check out our article on coming up with great ideas for your essay topic.


body_frogs.jpgThat time a spilled crate of stuffed frogs made you want to learn everything there is to know about French cooking? Probably Topic C.


Dissecting Essay Topic A

Now, I will do a thorough deconstruction of everything you need to know about Topic A, the first ApplyTexas essay prompt.


The Prompt

Describe a setting in which you have collaborated or interacted with people whose experiences and/or beliefs differ from yours. Address your initial feelings, and how those feelings were or were not changed by this experience.


What’s It Asking?

This prompt wants to see how you handled a very specific kind of conflict. You can tell from the fact that the prompt is split up into two sentences that your essay answer will have two distinct, but interconnected parts.


1. A Potentially Difficult Relationship

The first part of the prompt is all about describing one of the many environments in your life where you have encountered a group of people. The essay prompt wants you to write about one of these groups – with two important qualifiers.

First, the group of people has to be fundamentally different from you in some significant way. Either because they believe in something you don’t, or because their point of view has been shaped by life experiences that you maybe can’t even begin to understand.

Second, you have to have had some kind of personal or professional relationship with the group of people you write about. In this part of the essay, not only will you describe the group itself, but also what your connection to this group was. Why were you interacting with these people in the first place?


2. Transformation Story

The second part of the prompt is asking for a mini therapy session about the conflicted relationship you just described. The assumption is that interacting with people who were different from you in some big way made you have interesting emotions. This part of the essay is trying to get you to be insightful and analytical about the emotions you felt.

But what the prompt is looking for isn’t just a simple "it was bad" or "it was okay" statement. Instead, the language of the prompt’s second sentence suggests that you need to provide a chronological story about your emotions. The story should start with “your initial feelings” when you realized that you’d have to have a relationship with this group, and then documenting the process of your feelings either changing or staying the same.


What Are Readers Hoping to Learn About You?

College life will be unlike any situation that you’ve found yourself in up to now. You’ll be on your own, for the most part, and you’ll be surrounded by people who don’t necessarily have anything in common with you. They come from places you've never been, have different opinions that they are deeply attached to, believe things that you can’t ever imagine believing, and look at the world from totally unfamiliar perspectives.

By asking you to tell them a story where you found yourself in a miniature version of this kind of experience, admissions officers want to make sure that you’ll be able to handle the diversity of college life.

That means that this essay is where you get a chance to show your target college what you’re like in a situation where people don’t automatically agree with you or where you have to connect with people who aren’t on your wavelength.

What do you do when you have to deal with opposition? How do you react to people who just don’t get you – and maybe don’t want to get you? Are you a problem solver? A peacemaker? A diplomat? Do you try to forge common ground or strategically retreat? Do you nurse hurt feelings or take things in stride? Can you empathize with a different point of view? Are you able to assimilate new ideas and change your long-held beliefs accordingly?


body_peas.jpgBeing a tomato in a peapod was hard on Frank, who could never really quite understand the peas' obsession with photosynthesis.


How Can Your Essay Give Them What They Want?

So how can you make sure your essay is really answering the question? Here are some strategies.


When You’re Planning

Pick your group. Topic A is very specific about wanting to hear you talk about dealing with “people” rather than just one person. In fact, let’s just make a blanket rule that this essay calls for a group of at least 3 people. Two people do not a group make.

At first, it’ll seem challenging to figure out how to write about this group dynamic rather than just an argument with an individual. But in reality, group environments are everywhere: your extended family at Thanksgiving, students and teachers in your school, the restaurant staff at your waitressing job, other players on your soccer team, altos in your choir, crafting enthusiasts in your knitting club. Did you work together? Were you dependent on getting their cooperation or help for a project? Are you related? Are these peers or authority figures?

The prompt wants to see what you did in the face of opposing opinion. So for example, picketers you saw out of the window of your car or a protest march you watched on the news wouldn’t cut it here. Make sure your story focuses on multiple people disagreeing with or differing from you in some united way.

Find the success. You want to show that you’re someone who can handle being around people who are different. The best way to do that is to find the silver lining of whatever ended up happening in the situation you describe. Even if you didn’t end up seeing eye to eye with the others, a positive outcome of the event could be your newfound knowledge of other people. Or it could be a new sense of how calm you can stay under pressure. Or the realization that it’s okay for people with different strongly held opinions to coexist and work together.


When You’re Writing

Think of the essay like a movie. Like a good movie script, a college essay needs characters, some action, and a poignant but ultimately happy ending. When you’re planning your personal statement out, try thinking of the story you’re telling in movie terms. This way you can make sure your essay has:

  • Motivation. Everyone in your essay needs to have an explicitly spelled out agenda. Clearly explain what the group that you’re writing about believes that you don’t, or what experiences they’ve had that you can’t immediately identify with. Clearly describe how you know what they think (did they tell you? Act it out in some passive aggressive way?) Clearly spell out what your own conflicting opinion or alternate life experience is and how you let them know what you think.
  • Stakes. Movies propel the action forward by giving characters high stakes. You know: win or lose, life or death. In your essay, the reader also needs to quickly see the reason why you’re interacting with the group, since the easiest way to deal with a conflict is to simply avoid the people that you disagree with. What important thing needed to happen, get done, be resolved, or be accomplished?
  • External conflict resolution. So what did you actually do when faced with a bunch of people who disagreed with you in a fundamental way? Did you launch into a spirited attack on their bias? Try to explain your own point of view to everyone else? Did you try to quietly, slowly convince everyone to your way of thinking one by one? Or did you not confront or challenge the group, and instead focus on the task you were supposed to be accomplishing? Why do you choose to act as you did? However you dealt with the situation, make sure you explain it your essay.
  • Internal conflict resolution. What was the experience of interacting with this group like? In our movie, we would see our hero staring at a rain-soaked window while meaningful music plays in the background. In your essay, you don’t have the option of clichéd visuals, so you have to make sure you use words to explain how this situation made you feel. At the beginning: were you exhilarated by the challenge? Nervous and stressed? Curious to find out about people different from you? Later: were your initial suspicions and worries confirmed? Pleasantly surprised? At the end: Did you change anyone’s mind? Did you change your own?


body_emoticons.jpgDid you feel ALL the feelings? Can you even name all of these feelings? Oh, yeah? Then what's the one on the bottom right called?


Add details, description, and examples. One of the potential problems with this kind of essay is that you’ll sound whiny, over-entitled, or just generally unempathetic. This is particularly likely when you’re writing about an encounter with a group, because it’s very tempting to generalize their opinions/concerns/beliefs into an undifferentiated mass. This can have the unintended effect of making you sound like you don’t see them as individual humans. How do you fight against this problem? By focusing as much as possible on the concrete details of what actually happened.

For example, imagine Karima decides to describe her experiences as a hospital child life volunteer, helping entertain kids with lifelong illnesses. How should she frame her experience?

Version 1:

I was nervous about going to the hospital my first day. In the playroom, all the kids looked a little bored and I could tell they were sick and in pain. At first I didn’t know how I could play with them, but then over time we started to have more fun together.

Version 2:

I felt a mixture of nerves and guilt walking through the hospital doors. How could I entertain kids who were facing so much in their own lives? I was worried they would be angry at my health and at the fact that when playtime was over, I would get to go home. The child life playroom looked like a minimalist classroom, with a couple of blue vinyl armchairs and three or four baskets of board games and books spread around the institutional linoleum floor. After I had been there a couple of minutes, a group of four kids came in, looking at me expectantly. Several were bald from chemo, and one older girl was pulling an IV pole along with her, with thin plastic tubes snaking along her arm. A small, skinny boy that looked about five years old had a serious, pained expression on his face. I tried to hide my awkwardness as I pulled “Chutes and Ladders” out from the game box. “Ok, who wants to be yellow?” I asked in my cheeriest voice, only to be met with silence and slightly bored stares.

Both versions set up the same story, plot-wise, but the second makes the kids (and because of this, the author) come alive through the addition of specific, individualizing details:

  • Visual cues. The reader “sees” what the authors saw through descriptions like “minimalist classroom,” “blue vinyl armchairs,” “baskets of board games,” “bald from chemo,” “pulling an IV pole,” and “thin plastic tubes snaking along her arm.”
  • Emotional responses. We experience the author’s feelings: she “felt a mixture of nerves and guilt,” tried to “hide my awkwardness,” and masked her discomfort with “my cheeriest voice.” We also get a sense of what the kids are feeling both through the author’s thoughts (“I was worried they would be angry”) and through her observations (the kids look “at me expectantly” but then meet her “with silence and slightly bored stares”).
  • Differentiation. Even though the kids are mostly a monolithic group, we get to see some individuals: the boy with the pained face and the girl with the IV pole.


ApplyTexas Topic A Essay Ideas

There's no one best topic for this essay prompt (or any other), but I've included some potential ideas below, to help you get started with your own brainstorming.

  • engaging in a family dispute over changing traditions, gender roles, educational expectations, or another split along the generational divide
  • dealing with public neighborhood displays of religious symbols that don’t represent you
  • being a minority in your school or neighborhood
  • reacting to your school’s objections to particular clothing choice/club/cultural activity
  • facing your school’s objections to a plan for independent study
  • convincing friends to participate in a community service project/get involved in local government or elections
  • working or volunteering to help the underprivileged/undocumented/disabled/homeless
  • moving from one place to somewhere totally different and handling your culture shock


body_ostriches.jpgAnd that's when I realized that I too had become an ostrich, accepted by and adapted into their culture of pecking and running.


Dissecting ApplyTexas Essay Topic B

Let's go through the same process for ApplyTexas Topic B, taking it apart brick by brick and putting it back together again.


The Prompt

Describe a circumstance, obstacle or conflict in your life, and the skills and resources you used to resolve it. Did it change you? If so, how?


What’s It Asking?

Cue the swelling music, because this essay is going to be a two-part story of overcoming adversity against all (or some) odds.


1. Facing a Challenge

The first part of this essay is about problem-solving. The prompt wants to know what you consider a challenge in your life, and how you approach dealing with this kind of setback.

A close reading of the prompt shows that this challenge can be almost anything. The word “circumstance” suggests that the challenge can be accidental, something caused by your environment, or something that affected you without meaning to. The word “obstacle” shows that the challenge can be something that stands in your way: if only that thing weren’t there, then you’d be sure to succeed. Finally, there is an option for interpersonal challenges as well, since the word “conflict” suggests an argument with someone else.

Not only will you describe the challenge itself, but you’ll talk about what you did when faced with it. Here again, the prompt allows a lot of room to make your experience fit. Either you used “skills” to fix the problem, implying that your solution came from some inner trait, characteristic, ability, talent, or knowledge that you have. Or you relied on “resources” to handle things, which means that your solution could be something external or someone whose help you secured.


2. Mirror effect

The second part of Topic B asks you to consider how you now think about the change that you effected. The prompt asks this in kind of a cutesy way. Sure, you changed something else, but did it change you back?

The total open-endedness here means that your answer can be based in almost any kind of change. You could discuss the emotional fallout of having dramatically succeeded, or having altered something that had always been a different way before. You could describe how your maturity level, concrete skills, or understanding of the situation has increased, now that you have dealt with it personally. Finally, you could talk about any beliefs or personal philosophy that you have had to reevaluate as a result of either the challenge itself, or of the way that you had to go about solving it.


body_moss.jpgHer parents had always warned her to avoid cars, but Kate the Moss would find only find out why when she tried growing over the bulging headlight.


What Are Readers Hoping to Learn About You?

In life, dealing with setbacks, defeats, barriers, and conflicts is not a bug – it’s a feature. And colleges want to make sure that you can handle these upsetting events without losing your overall sense of self, without being totally demoralized, and without getting completely overwhelmed. In other words, they are looking for someone who is mature enough to do well on a college campus, where disappointing results and hard challenges will be par for the course.

They are also looking for your creativity and problem-solving skills. Are you good at tackling something that needs to be fixed? Can you keep a cool head in a crisis? Do you look for solutions outside the box? These are all markers of a successful student, so it’s not surprising that admissions people want you to demonstrate these qualities.


How Can Your Essay Give Them What They Want?

Let's explore the best ways to show off your problem-solving side.


When You’re Planning

Define the problem. Not every challenge is automatically obvious. Sure, everyone can understand the potential dangers of being lost in the woods, but what if the obstacle you tackled is something a little more obscure? Make sure your essay explains everything the reader will need to know to understand what you were facing – and to realize just how exciting your success in resolving it was. Talk about:

  • exactly what your problem was
  • how you knew it was a problem
  • how long it had been a problem for
  • who was mainly affected
  • the stakes for fixing whatever went wrong
  • who/what was at fault (as long as you can point this out without sounding whiny or finger-pointing)

Show your work. It’s one thing to be able to say what's wrong, but it’s another thing entirely to demonstrate how you figured out how to fix it. Even more than knowing that you were able to fix the problem colleges want to see how you approached the situation. This is why your essay needs to explain your problem-solving methodology. Basically, we need to see you in action. What did you think would work? What did you think would not work? Did you compare this to other problems you have faced and pass? Did you do research? Describe your process.

Make sure that you are the hero. This essay is supposed to demonstrate your resourcefulness and creativity. The last thing you want is for you to not actually be the person responsible for overcoming the obstacle. Make sure that your story is clear that without you and your special brand of XYZ, people would still be lamenting the issue today. Don't worry if the resource you used to affect a good fix was the knowledge and know-how that somebody else brought to the table. Just focus on explaining what made you think of this person as the one to go to, how you convinced them to participate, and how you explained to them how they would be helpful. This will shift the attention of the story back to you and your doings.


body_ingredients-1.jpgBrody added his special brand of XYZ to everything he ever made for that bro-tisanal touch.


When You’re Writing

Find the suspenseful moment. The most exciting part of this essay should be watching you struggle to find a solution just in the nick of time. Think every movie cliché ever about someone defusing a bomb – even if you know 100% that the guy is going to do it, the movie still ratchets up the tension to make it seem like, well, maybe… You want to do the same thing here. Bring excitement and a feeling of uncertainty to your description of your process to really pull the reader in and make them root for you to succeed.

Watch your tone. An essay describing problems can easily slip into finger-pointing and self-pity. Make sure to avoid this by speaking positively or at least neutrally about what was wrong and what you faced. This goes double if you decide to explain who or what was at fault for creating this problem.

For example, let’s say Andrew wants to write about figuring out how to grow a garden despite his yard being in full shade. He could launch into a rant about the garden store employees not knowing which plants are right for which light, and the previous house owner’s terrible habit of using the yard for a pet bathroom, and the achy knee that prevented him from proper weeding posture, and so on. Or, he could describe doing research on the complex gardens of royal palaces, planning the garden based on plant color and height, using trial and error to see which plants would flourish, and getting so involved with the work that he would lose track of time. One of these makes him sound like someone who can take charge of a difficult situation, and the other makes him sound helpless and whiny.


ApplyTexas Topic B Essay Ideas

Again, there's no single best approach here, but I've outlined some potential topics below:

  • overcoming an injury that required rehab or physical therapy, or a long-term illness
  • overcoming a learning difference like dyslexia
  • figuring out how to fairly/efficiently distribute a limited resource like your mom’s comic book collection or after-school hours at the rec center
  • raising money for a cause you feel passionate about
  • changing an unfair policy at your school or at your job
  • helping a friend who is having trouble in school
  • getting over your shyness/fear of public speaking/stage fright/perfectionism/fear of making mistakes
  • recovering from a disastrous grade on a test in a subject you thought you loved
  • dealing with failing at a creative task like music or art or creative writing
  • handling being treated unfairly by a coach or teacher or parent as compared to other siblings


body_cards.jpgSome days, just getting your solitaire to work is the only obstacle you can overcome. No judgment.


Dissecting ApplyTexas Essay Topic C

Now we can take apart Topic C to get a good handle on how to tackle this future-facing essay.


The Prompt

Considering your lifetime goals, discuss how your current and future academic and extra-curricular activities might help you achieve your goals.


What’s It Asking?

If ApplyTexas Topic A and Topic B were all about your past experiences, Topic C wants you to give readers a glimpse of your imagined possibilities.

For some students, this will be an extremely straightforward question. For example, say you’ve always wanted to be a doctor, and you spend your whole life volunteering at hospitals, helping out in your mom’s practice, and studying biology during the summer time. Then you can just pick a few of the most gripping moments from these experiences and discuss the overall trajectory of your interests, and your essay will be a winner.

But what if you’re not sure about lifetime goals? Or what if you only discovered your academic passion at the very end of high school? Let’s break down what the question is really asking into two parts.


1. Prediction

At first glance, it sounds as if ApplyTexas is expecting you to have already planned out your career before you even get into college. And it’s true that we typically associate the word “goals” with work or study objectives. If you do know what your work or study goals in life are, then wonderful! You can use easily use this essay to explain that to the admissions people.

But you can also take the word “goal” to mean a more general declaration of your values. This way you can take the prompt to mean, “What kind of person you want to have been in your lifetime? What kinds of achievements, qualities, and ways of treating or relating to people, would successfully show that you have indeed become this kind of person?”

This much broader understanding of the term “lifetime goals” opens Topic C up to a discussion of what you find important. For example, you could strive to be the kind of person who helps others in some concrete or spiritual way, or someone who makes the most of their creative gift, or someone who keeps up traditions, or someone who is driven by a love of protecting nature. These are future goals, but they aren't specifically career-focused.


2. Relevance

The second part of this prompt, like the first, can also be taken in a literal and direct way. There is absolutely nothing wrong with explaining that because you love engineering and want to be an engineer you have pursued all your school’s STEM courses, are also involved in a robotics club, and have taught yourself to code in order to develop apps.

On the other hand, you could focus on the more abstract, values-driven goals we just talked about. Then, the way you explain how your academics and extracurriculars will help you can be rooted not in the content of what you studied, but in the life lessons you drew from it. In other words, for example, your theater club may not have created a desire to be an actor, but working on plays with your peers may have shown you how highly you value collaboration. And the experience of designing sets was an exercise in problem-solving and ingenuity. These lessons would be useful in any field you pursue and could easily be said to help you achieve your lifetime goals.


body_babyfishing.jpgThe many hours Renata spent trying to make babies fit into chalk drawings turned out to be great preparation for her career in cat-herding.


What Are Readers Hoping to Learn About You?

If you are on a direct path to a specific field of study or career pursuit, admissions officers definitely want to know that. Having driven, goal oriented, and passionate students is a huge plus for a university. So if this is you, be sure that your essay conveys not just your interest but also your deep and abiding love of the subject, and any related clubs, activities, and hobbies that you’ve done during high school.

But of course, more traditionally, college is the place to find yourself and the things that you become passionate about. So if you’re not already committed to a specific course of study, don’t worry. Instead, you have to realize that in this essay, like in all the other essays, the how matters much more than the what. No matter where your eventual academic, career, or other pursuits may lie, every activity that you have done up to now has taught you something. You learned about things like work ethic, mastering a skill, practice, learning from a mentor, interacting with peers, dealing with setbacks, understanding your own learning style, and perseverance.

In other words, the admissions office wants to make sure that no matter what you study you will draw meaningful conclusions from your experiences, whether those conclusions are about the content of what you learn or about a deeper understanding of yourself and others. They want to see that you’re not simply floating through life on the surface, but that you are absorbing the qualities, skills, and know-how you will need to succeed in the world – no matter what that success looks like.


How Can Your Essay Give Them What They Want?

Here are some ideas for how to use your high school life as a guide to your potential future.


When You're Planning

Give an overview of your goals. Whether you take the lifetime goals idea literally or figuratively, you have to spell out for the reader what you hope for yourself in the future. There’s also no reason why you can’t mix and match these types of goals. Just because you know what you want to do in life, and you’ve taken a lot of classes to get there, doesn’t mean that you have also learned other valuable lessons during that time.

Focus. Find the one main thing you are most excited to tell the college about and make that the centerpiece of your futurescape. Because personal statements are short, you simply won't have time to explain everything you want to do or study and all the things that showed you that in enough detail to make it count. Instead, pick one thing that crystallized your passion for a subject, or one moment that revealed what your working style will be, and go deep into a discussion of what it meant to you in the past and how it will affect your future.

Don’t overreach. It’s fine to say that you’d like to be involved in politics, for example, but it’s a little too self-aggrandizing to claim that you’re definitely going to be president of the United States. Make sure that whatever the future you describe for yourself, it doesn’t come off as unnecessary bragging rather than simple aspiration.

Don’t underreach. At the same time, make sure that the goal you described here is one that makes sense in the context of a college essay. If your biggest dream is to be a stay-at-home mom taking care of your kids, then there is, of course, nothing at all wrong with that  but this may not be the place to share that lifetime goal. After all, you always have to remember your audience. In this case, it's college admissions officers who want to find students who are eager to learn and be exposed to new thoughts and ideas.


When You’re Writing

Avoid treacle by being specific. One of the dangers of this kind of essay is that it can appear overly sappy, full of clichéd platitudes like “I enjoy working with a team” or “I learned to keep going against all odds.” To prevent this from happening, your essay has to rely on specific examples that illustrate the point you’re trying to make. Whenever possible, show rather than tell what exactly it is you enjoyed about the collaborative process, for instance, or about precisely how the moment of success in the face of failure made you recommit to a project.

Imagine Eleanor’s essay is about how her job as a cashier has awakened an interest in business and entrepreneurship. Which best highlights her dawning realization that this is what she wants to pursue?

Version 1

I really liked learning about the customers, especially the store regulars. Sometimes I could help them get what they needed, which made them happy and also increased store profits. I could see how a good business strategy could also be a way of solving people’s problems.

Version 2

The small hardware store where I was a cashier had the usual setup for creating impulse buys – lots of small, tempting displays right around the cash register area. I saw that this worked well for many of the one-time customers, but it always felt a little unfair, like we were tricking them. It also wasn’t a particularly effective on our regular customers, who were mostly contractors or skilled tradesmen who would come in the morning to get ready for their day. Over time, I got to know them by name, and by what they would tend to buy. Once, I noticed that we were running low on the kind of pipe brackets that one of the plumbers preferred, and I made sure we ordered extra. The next day, I saw him looking around, and was able to bring out a box of exactly what he wanted. It was a great feeling – I was solving his problem and, at the same time, helping our business succeed. I realized then that these two things could go hand in hand.


Both versions tell the same story. But only one of them avoids boring clichés by diving deep into both narrative and detailed description. Eleanor explains what experiences made her come to the conclusion that business could be both profitable and non-predatory. First, seeing the difference between the one-time and regular customers, then, getting to know the regular customers, and finally, predicting the needs of one specific regular customer. This way, she earns the potentially sappy conclusion that helping someone else “was a great feeling.”


body_zloty.jpgEleanor's tenure at the hardware store was all about the Władysław II Jagiełłos, baby.


ApplyTexas Topic C Essay Ideas

I've come up with some sample essay ideas for two different approaches to this prompt.


Possibility 1: An Interest That Grew Out of an Experience

  • how a specific class or an extracurricular activity has made you want to pursue that academic field or career
  • how an experience of collaboration (e.g. working in a science lab or participating in a Habitat for Humanity building project) has made you realize that you love to work with other people 
  • how an experience of leadership (could be a straightforward leadership position in a club or a job, or a more indirect or unplanned leadership experience like suddenly having to take charge of a group) has shown you that you would like to pursue politics, or project management, or some other kind of leadership role 
  • how an experience of teaching someone to do something (e.g. by being a tutor or by helping a sibling deal with a particularly challenging class or learning issue) has shown you that you would like teaching to be an aspect of your life, even if not formally 
  • how an experience of public creativity (e.g. being in a play, staging an art show, performing an orchestra, or being involved in dance) has shown you that you want to perform or that you enjoy being on stage in front of other people


Possibility 2: An Interest That Is Helped by an Unrelated Experience

  • you just realized you’d like to pursue science, which will be helped by many things you learned as an Eagle Scout backpacking through the wilderness
  • you’d like to be involved at a high level with charitable organizations, which will be helped by the public speaking skills you learned through model UN and your experience in leadership as class vice president
  • you are interested in coaching, which will be helped both by your own participation in team sports, the time you spent tutoring younger students, and what you learned about winning and losing is a competitive chess player


body_coach.jpgBecoming a driving coach for motorcoach drivers was a no-brainer for the founding member of the homonym club.


Dissecting ApplyTexas Essay Topic D

If you're applying to one of several fine art fields, this mandatory essay is a way to comment on your influences.


The Prompt for Topic D

Personal interaction with objects, images and spaces can be so powerful as to change the way one thinks about particular issues or topics. For your intended area of study (architecture, art history, design, studio art, visual art studies/art education), describe an experience where instruction in that area or your personal interaction with an object, image or space effected this type of change in your thinking. What did you do to act upon your new thinking and what have you done to prepare yourself for further study in this area?


What’s It Asking?

If you’re applying to study architecture, art, or art history at UT Austin, one of the essays you must write is this one. This essay topic is trying to ask as broadly as possible about an experience with art that has moved you in some way. This means that your options for answering the question are quite varied. So what are the two different parts of this prompt?


1. Observation and Reaction

Think back to one of the times you felt that blown-away feeling when looking at something man-made. This is the feeling, experience, and situation that the first part of the essay wants you to recreate. The prompt is primarily interested in your ability to describe and pinpoint exactly what quality made you stop in your tracks.The huge set of inspiring object options the prompt offers tells us that your taste level won't be judged here.

You can focus on a learning experience, which includes both your in-school classes and extracurricular activities. Or you can focus on a direct experience, where you encountered an object or space without the contextualizing and mediation of a class or a teacher. The only limit to your focus object is that it is something made by someone other than you. Your reaction needs to be in conversation with the original artist, not a form of navel-gazing.

The key for this part of the essay is that your description needs to segue into a story of change and transformation. What the essay topic is asking you to show isn’t just that you were struck by something you saw or learned about, but that you also absorbed something from this experience that impacted your own art going forward.


body_angkorwat.jpgWhen you see the Angkor Wat Temple, you can't help but be psyched that at least humans haven't wasted all their time on earth.


2. Absorption

This brings us to the second part of the essay prompt. This is where you need to move from the past into the present, and then at least gesture meaningfully toward the future.

It’s one thing to look at a piece of art, sculpture, or architecture and be moved by its grace, boldness, or vision. But it’s a sign of a mature creative mind to be able to really take to heart what is meaningful to you about this work and somehow transmute your experience into your own work. This essay wants to see that developing maturity in you. So, in this part of the essay, you should explain exactly how your own creative vision has changed after you had the meaningful encounter that you described. What qualities, philosophy, or themes do you now try to infuse into what you create?

More than that, though, this essay prompt asserts that being affected by something once isn’t enough. That’s why in this second part of the topic, you will also need to explain what you’ve been doing to keep having moving encounters with the creative work of others. There is some choice here as well. “What have you done to prepare yourself for further study in this area” can be answered by describing how you’ve sought out other work by the same artist who moved you the first time. Or you can describe investigating new media or techniques to emulate something you saw. Or you could talk about learning about the period, genre, school, or philosophical theory that the original piece of art comes from in order to give yourself more contextualized understanding.


What Are Readers Hoping to Learn About You?

If you’re planning an academic career in the visual arts or architecture, then you’re entering into a long conversation started by our cave-painting ancestors and continuing through every human culture and society since. This essay wants to make sure that you aren’t creating in a vacuum, but that you have had enough education and awareness to be inspired by others. By demonstrating how you react to work that moves you – not with jealousy or dismissal, but with appreciation and recognition of another’s talent and ability – you show that you are ready to start participating in this ongoing conversation.

At the same time, the essay is asking you to show your own creative readiness. Describe not only the work you have produced, but also your ability to introduce new elements into that work – in this case, inspired by the piece you described. That way, you can demonstrate that you aren’t a one-note artist, but are instead someone who is mature enough to alter and develop what you make.


body_pieta.jpgInspired by Michaelangelo's supposed advice to just "chip away the marble that isn't the sculpture," I will now write my essay by just not using the words that aren't supposed to be on the page.


How Can Your Essay Give Them What They Want?

What are some best practices for teasing out the complexities of art in written form? 


When You’re Planning

Pick one piece of art or one learning experience. Once you’ve chosen between these two contexts, narrow down your selection even further. If you are writing about an educational encounter, don’t forget that it doesn’t have to come from a formal situation. Instead, you could write about something you learned on your own from a documentary, museum visit, or art book.

If you're writing about a direct experience of art, don't necessarily fixate on a classical piece. Instead, you could discuss an unexpected piece of public sculpture, a particularly striking building or bridge you saw traveling, or a gallery exhibition. Whatever you end up writing about, make sure you know some of the identifying details. You don’t need to know the answer to all of these questions, but do your best to research at least 2-3: who was the artist, where is the piece, what kind of work is it, what are the materials used, when was it made?

Figure out why you were struck by this work in particular. The make-it-or-break-it moment in this essay will be your ability to explain what you were affected by in the object that you end up writing about. Why is it different from other works that you’ve seen? Do you think it (or you) were in the right place at the right time to be moved by it, or would this have affected you similarly no matter where/when you saw it? Did it speak to you because it shares some of your ideals/philosophies/tastes, or because it was so different from them?

Be careful with your explanation, since it can easily get either so vague as to be meaningless, or so obscure and “deep” that you lose your reader. So, before you start trying to put that down on paper, my advice is to try to talk out what you plan to say either with a friend, a parent, or a teacher. Do they understand what you’re saying, and does it make sense?

Do a timeline of your own creative work. When you think about what you have been making or thinking about making during your high school career, what is the trajectory of your ideas? How have you changed your understanding of the materials you want to work with? The message you want your work to convey? The way you want your work to be seen by others? The reason that you feel compelled to be creative?

Now that you’ve formulated this idea timeline, try to see if your changing thoughts overlap with the art experience that you are planning on describing. Is there a way that you can combine what was so exciting to you about the other work with the way you’ve seen your own ideas about your art changing over time?


When You’re Writing

Use a mix of concreteness and comparisons in your description. It might be true that just as nothing ruins a joke like explaining it, so nothing ruins the wordless experience of looking at art like talking it to death. Still, you need to find a way to use words to give the reader a sense of what the piece that moved you actually looks like – particularly if they don’t happen be familiar with the particular work, or with the artist that created it.

Here is my suggested trick for writing well about art. First, you have to be both extremely specific about the physical object. Discuss its colors, size, what it appears to be made of, what your eye goes to first (bright colors vs darker, more muted ones, for example), what it is representative of (if it’s figurative), where it is in relation to the viewer, whether or not you can see marks of the tools used (brush strokes, scrapes from sculpting tools).

Second, you have to step away from the concrete and let some flights of fancy into your language through comparative description that relies on your imagination to create emotionally resonant similes. Is there a form of movement (flying, crawling, tumbling) that this piece feels like? A piece of the natural world (a falling leaf, forest canopy being moved by wind, waves, sand dunes shifting)? If the work is figurative, imagine what has been happening just before the moment in time it captures. What happened just after? Using these kinds of non-literal descriptors will let your reader understand both the actual physical object and its appeal.


body_discostormtrooper.jpgThe Stormtrooper's hypnotic performance was like plunging into a diamond-studded Sarlacc pit to be  slowly digested over a thousand years by disco music.


Dissecting UT Austin Essay Topic S

The University of Texas at Austin gives its applicants the option to write a different essay explaining a relevant piece of their background.


The Prompt

There may be personal information that you want considered as part of your admissions application. Write an essay describing that information. You might include exceptional hardships, challenges, or opportunities that have shaped or impacted your abilities or academic credentials, personal responsibilities, exceptional achievements or talents, educational goals, or ways in which you might contribute to an institution committed to creating a diverse learning environment.


What’s It Asking?

The University of Texas at Austin allows its applicants to mix and match essays from the ApplyTexas application from its own option – Topic S. If your particular experience doesn’t quite fit under the rubrics of the other essay topics, or if there is something the admissions officers need to understand about your background in order to consider your application in the right context, then this is the essay for you.

The prompt for this essay clarifies that the additional information you may want to share with the admissions team can be either positive or negative – just as long as it qualifies as “exceptional” in some way. They mean this distinction so deeply that the prompt actually uses the word “exceptional” twice, to really cement the idea that the everyday challenges or successes of regular life aren’t what this essay is supposed to highlight.

What this means is that evaluating whether your experiences qualify for this essay is a matter of degrees. For example, did you manage to thrive despite being raised by a hardworking single parent? That’s a hardship that could easily be written about for Topic B. Did you manage to thrive despite living in a succession of foster families only to age out of the system in the middle of your senior year of high school? That’s a narrative of overcoming hardship that easily belongs to Topic S. On the flip side, did you win a state-wide karate championship? Well done, and feel free to tell your story under Topic C. Were you the youngest black belt in the history of the sport to win a national title? Then feel free to write about it for Topic S.


What Are Readers Hoping to Learn About You?

This is pretty straightforward. They are trying to identify students that have unique and amazing stories to tell about who they are and where they come from. If you’re a student like this, then the admissions people want to know:

  • what happened to you
  • who, besides you, was affected
  • when and where it happened
  • how you participated or were involved in the situation
  • how it affected you as a person
  • how it affected your schoolwork
  • how the experience will be reflected in the point of view you bring to campus

The reasons that the university wants this information are:

  • it gives context to applications that otherwise might seem mediocre or even subpar
  • it can help explain times in a transcript where grades significantly drop
  • it creates them the opportunity to build a lot of diversity into the incoming class
  • it’s a way of finding unique talents and abilities that otherwise wouldn’t show up on other application materials


body_highwire.jpgIf you're one of those two guys, you definitely qualify for this essay topic.


How Can Your Essay Give Them What They Want?

Let's run through a few tricks for making sure your essay makes the most of your particular exceptionalism.


When You’re Planning

Double-check your uniqueness. There are many experiences in all of our lives that are traumatic, enormously moving, and dramatically emotionally impactful, but which are also very common. Conversely, there are many experiences that make us feel elated, accomplished, and extremely competent, that are also near-universal. This essay isn’t trying to take the validity of your strong feelings away from you, but it really is looking for stories that are on a different scale. Wondering whether what you went through counts? This might be a good time to run your Topic S idea by a parent, school counselor, or trusted teacher. Do they think your experience is widespread? Or do they agree that you truly lived a life less ordinary?

Connect outward. The vast majority of your answer to the Topic S prompt should be telling your story and its impact on you and your life. But the essay should also point toward how your particular experiences will shape your potential future interactions at UT Austin. One of the reasons that the admissions office wants to find out which of the applicants has been through something unlike most other people is that they are hoping to increase the number of points of view in the student body. Think about, and include in your essay, how you will impact campus life. This can be very literal – if you are a jazz singer who has released several acclaimed albums, then maybe you will perform on campus. Or it can be much more oblique – if you are disabled, then you will be able to offer a perspective that differs from the able-bodied majority.


When You’re Writing

Be direct, specific, and honest. It doesn't matter whether you’re explaining that your GPA fell during your sophomore year because of the death of someone close to you, or whether you’re telling the story of how you came to the US as a refugee, or whether you’re sharing your Olympic medal win. Nothing will make your voice sound more appealing than writing without embellishment or verbal flourishes.

This is the one case where what you’re telling is just as – if not more – important than how you’re telling it. So the best strategy is to be as straightforward in your writing as possible. This means using description to situate your reader in a place/time/experience that they would never get to see firsthand. You can do this by picking a specific moment during your hardship or accomplishment to narrate as a small short story, and not shying away from explaining your emotions throughout the experience. Your goal is to make the extraordinary into something at least somewhat relatable – and the way you do that is by making your writing down to earth.


Possible Topic S Essay Ideas

As I've already described, the most important feature of any topic for this prompt is that it must be genuinely exceptional. I've listed some examples below.


Possibility 1: Exceptional Hardships or Challenges

  • coping with a physical or mental disability
  • growing up in poverty, or with an absent or otherwise problematic parent
  • facing the death of a sibling or parent
  • being a refugee to the US
  • surviving a natural disaster, war, or other crisis
  • being the victim of a serious crime
  • spending time in jail or in juvenile detention
  • living with a chronic illness, or overcoming a very serious illness
  • spending some period of time being homeless


Possibility 2: Exceptional Opportunities

  • being the child of a famous actor, musician, or politician
  • growing up unusually wealthy
  • getting the chance to intern at the White House, at the UN, or NASA


Possibility 3: Personal Responsibilities

  • taking care of younger siblings in the absence of parents or parental figures
  • having to work in order to support the family rather than for personal income
  • being a teenage parent
  • getting emancipated from parents as a minor
  • living alone and having to fend for yourself


Possibility 4: Exceptional Achievements or Talents

  • possessing an unusual level of talent in the performing or visual arts
  • being a chess grandmaster
  • playing sports at an Olympic or close-to Olympic level
  • winning a national or international award for academic work, or getting national or international recognition for an achievement
  • getting a book published, or getting a piece published in a prestigious magazine or journal


body_astronaut-1.jpgOr maybe instead of writing the essay, you could just send them this selfie.


The Bottom Line: Tips for Writing ApplyTexas Essays

  •  The ApplyTexas application features four essay prompts (Topics A, B, C, and D), with different schools requiring different combinations of mandatory and optional essays. UT Austin also includes its own prompt, Topic S, as one of the choices.
  • One way to keep the three similar-sounding 3 essay topics (A, B, and C) separate in your mind is to create a big picture category for each one: Topic A is about your outside, topic B is your inside, and topic C is about your future.
  • Essay Topic A wants you to unpack an encounter with a group of people who don't share your point of view to show that you can handle the diversity of college life.
    • Pick one specific group to discuss
    • Find the silver lining in the situation
    • Make sure your essay spells out everyone's motivation, the encounter's stakes, and explains how the conflict was resolved 
    • Use details to show your ability to empathize
  • Essay Topic B is a place to showcase your problem-solving skills to show that you are resilient and can overcome setbacks.
    • Define the problem you faced
    • Show how you worked to solve it (and make sure you're the one doing the solving)
    • Use suspense and a non-whiny tone to make yourself appealing
  • Essay Topic C asks you to explain how your future career or the values you'll try to embody) will link to your past to show that you can learn from new experiences.
    • Give an overview of your goals
    • Pick goals that neither over- nor under-reach
    • Avoid corniness by being specific
  • Essay Topic D wants you to describe being affected by a work of art or an artistic experience to make sure that you are ready to enter a fine arts field.
    • Pick one piece of art or one specific experience of learning about art
    • Figure out exactly why this work or event struck you
    • Examine your own work to see how this artwork has affected your creativity
    • Use a mix of concrete descriptions and comparisons when writing about the piece of art
  • Essay Topic S is a way for admissions officers to find students with extraordinary life stories or to give context to otherwise lackluster applications.
    • Double-check that your experience (whether negative or positive) is unique and doesn't quite fit under any of the other essay topics
    • Explain how your background will contribute to diversity on the UT Austin campus
    • Be direct, specific, honest, and straightforward


What's Next?

Curious about the other essay choices out there? If your target college also accepts the Common App, check out our guide to the Common App essay prompts to see whether they would be a better fit.

Interested to see how other people tackled this part of the application? We have a roundup of 129 accepted essays from over 15 different colleges.

Stuck on what to write about? Read our suggestions for how to come up with great essay ideas.

Working on the rest of your college applications? We have great advice on how to find the right college for you, how to write about your extracurricular activities, and how to ask teachers for recommendations.


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Dr. Anna Wulick
About the Author

Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.

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