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College Essay Prompts: Complete List, Analysis, and Advice

Posted by Alex Heimbach | Nov 23, 2015 8:30:00 AM

College Admissions, College Essays

 

When talking about college essays, we tend to focus on the Common Application prompts, and it's true that many students will need to write a Common App essay. However, there are actually quite a few schools, including both public and private universities, that don't use the Common App and instead ask applicants to respond to their own college essay prompts.

Luckily, college essay prompts tend to be pretty similar to each other. In this guide, I'll list all of the college essay questions for popular schools in the US (and a few abroad) and then break down the patterns to help you brainstorm topics and plan how to approach multiple essays efficiently. After reading this guide, you'll be able to strategize which essays you'll write for which colleges.

Feature image: Mary/Flickr 

 

Why Do Colleges Ask For an Essay?

The short answer: the essay gives admissions committees a sense of your personality beyond the statistics on the rest of your application. The essay is your chance to show the committee your unique perspective and impress them with your maturity and insight.

College application essay prompts are written with this goal in mind. Admissions officers want to give you the chance to share your interests, aspirations, and views on the world, so most prompts ask about how your experiences have shaped you or what you're excited about studying or doing in college. I've collected a ton of examples below and provided some analysis to help you begin planning and crafting your own essays.

Keep in mind that the personal statement alone won’t be enough to get you in — your grades and test scores are still the most important factors in your application. However, a stellar essay can help a borderline applicant over the top or give an excellent but not extraordinary student the opportunity to stand out in a competitive applicant pool.

As such, the essay tends to matter most for very competitive schools. Non-competitive schools generally don’t ask you to submit an essay.

 

Complete List of College Essay Prompts

This list collects the 2016 college essay prompts for every major state university and top-fifty private school, plus those for other popular schools. They are divided by region, with all optional essays listed at the end.

I left off the Common App supplements, since those often require a substantially different approach. I also stuck to four-year schools, meaning that I didn't include special two year programs like Deep Springs College and Miami Dade College’s Honors Program that require essays.

Finally, note that these prompts are for freshman applicants. The requirements may be different for transfer students.

 

General Applications

There are three general applications that you can use to apply to many different schools at once: the Common Application, the Universal College Application, and Coalition Application. Each has their own personal statement requirement. Some schools will ask for additional supplemental essays.

Many more schools accept the Common App than do the UCA or the Coalition Application, though some will accept more than one of those applications.

 

Common Application

For the Common App essay, you pick one of the prompts and write 250 - 650 words about it.

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 failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

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 or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

 

Universal College Application

The UCA essay prompt is completely open-ended and has a 650 word limit.

Please write an essay that demonstrates your ability to develop and communicate your thoughts. Some ideas include: a person you admire; a life-changing experience; or your viewpoint on a particular current event.

 

The Coalition Application

For the Coalition Application, you'll pick one of five prompts listed below. While there is no hard word limit, the range guidelines are 300-550 words. 

Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.

Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.

Has there been a time when you’ve had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?

What is the hardest part of being a teenager now? What’s the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?

Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.

 

Northeast/Mid-Atlantic

The Great Dome at MIT

 

Georgetown University

Georgetown asks applicants to write two essays of roughly one page each. Each applicant must respond to the first prompt but will choose between the other two based on the specific program she's interested in.

All applicants: As Georgetown is a diverse community, the Admissions Committee would like to know more about you in your own words. Please submit a brief essay, either personal or creative, which you feel best describes you.

Applicants to Georgetown College: Please relate your interest in studying at Georgetown University to your goals. How do these thoughts relate to your chosen course of study? (If you are applying to major in the FLL or in a Science, please specifically address those interests.)

Applicants to the School of Nursing & Health Studies: Describe the factors that have influenced your interest in studying health care.  Please specifically address your intended major (Health Care Management & Policy, Human Science, International Health,or Nursing).

Applicants to the Walsh School of Foreign Service: Briefly discuss a current global issue, indicating why you consider it important and what you suggest should be done to deal with it.

Applicants to the McDonough School of Business: The McDonough School of Business is a national and global leader in providing graduates with essential ethical, analytical, financial and global perspectives.  Please discuss your motivations for studying business at Georgetown.

 

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

MIT doesn't ask for a single personal statement — instead they ask applicants to respond to a series of questions with just a paragraph or two.

We know you lead a busy life, full of activities, many of which are required of you. Tell us about something you do for the pleasure of it. (100 words or fewer)

Although you may not yet know what you want to major in, which department or program at MIT appeals to you and why? (100 words or fewer)

At MIT, we seek to develop in each member of our community the ability and passion to work collaboratively for the betterment of humankind. How have you improved the lives of others in your community? (This could be one person or many, at school or at home, in your neighborhood or your state, etc.)  (200-250 words)

Describe the world you come from; for example, your family, clubs, school, community, city, or town. How has that world shaped your dreams and aspirations? (200-250 words)

Tell us about the most significant challenge you've faced or something important that didn't go according to plan. How did you manage the situation? (200-250 words)

 

Rutgers University

Rutgers has joined the Coalition for Access and Affordibility, and as such is allowing students to apply through the Rutgers or the Coalition application for 2017. They are using the essay questions from the Coalition. They limit responses to 3,800 characters in length, including spaces. That's roughly 550 - 650 words.

Rutgers requires that you provide a short essay that is your original work. Please address one of the topics:

  • Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.

  • Describe a time you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.

  • Has there been a time when you’ve had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?

  • What is the hardest part of being a teenager now? What’s the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?

  • Submit an essay on the topic of your choice.

 

University of Maryland, College Park

UMD has just joined the Coalition for Access and AffordibilityWhile they won't use the Coalition application until 2017, they are currently usling the Coalition essay questions:

Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.

Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.

Has there been a time when you’ve had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?

What is the hardest part of being a teenager now? What’s the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?

Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.

 

Midwest

University of Wisconsin, Madison

 

Indiana University

IU asks for 200 - 400 words on your plans and interests.

Describe your academic and career plans and any special interest (for example, undergraduate research, academic interests, leadership opportunities, etc.) that you are eager to pursue as an undergraduate at Indiana University. Also, if you encountered any unusual circumstances, challenges, or obstacles in pursuit of your education, you may share those experiences and how you overcame them.

 

Michigan State University

MSU asks applicants to write 400 words on one of two topics. According to their website, "This statement may be considered as a positive factor to enhance admissibility, as well as for scholarship consideration."

Michigan State University recognizes that an assortment of interests, viewpoints, and life experiences are important in student learning and enhance the university community. Describe an experience, passion, or characteristic that illustrates what you would contribute to the MSU community and how this will add to the overall richness of campus life.

Has there been a time when you've had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?

 

University of Illinois

Explain your interest in the major you selected and describe how you have recently explored or developed this interest inside and/or outside the classroom. You may also explain how this major relates to your future career goals. If you're applying to the Division of General Studies, explain your academic interests and strengths or your future career goals. You may include any majors or areas of study you're currently considering. Limit your response to 300 to 400 words.

 

University of Wisconsin, Madison

All applicants need to complete two essays for UW Madison. The essays should be 300-500 words each (with a hard limit of 650 words) and may be used for scholarship and campus program review as well.

Consider something in your life you think goes unnoticed and write about why it's important to you.

Tell us why you decided to apply to the University of Wisconsin–Madison. In addition, share with us the academic, extracurricular, or research opportunities you would take advantage of as a student. If applicable, provide details of any circumstance that could have had an impact on your academic performance and/or extracurricular involvement.

  

South

Kyle Field at Texas A&M (Ed Schipul/Flickr)

 

Apply Texas

The ApplyTexas application is used by all of Texas' public universities and some private colleges. There are four ApplyTexas essay prompts — which you need to respond to will depend on where you're applying. UT Austin, for example, requires applicants to submit one essay responding to Topic A and another on the topic of their choice. There is no set word limit, though the online application will cut off each essay at 120 lines (~1000 words). 

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 extracurricular activities might help you achieve your goals.

Topic D:  (Please Note: The essay in this section is specific to certain college majors and is not required by all colleges/universities that accept ApplyTexas applications. If you are not applying for a major in Architecture/Interior Design, Art, Art History, Design, Studio Art, Visual Art Studies/Art Education you are not required to write this essay.) 

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?

  

Liberty University

This Christian school asks for 200 - 400 words on the topic below.

How will your personal faith and beliefs allow you to contribute to Liberty’s mission to develop Christ-centered leaders?

 

University of Florida

University of Florida is now a member of the Coalition for College Access and Affordibility. As such, they are using the current coalition prompts:

Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.

Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.

Has there been a time when you’ve had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?

What is the hardest part of being a teenager now? What’s the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?

Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.

 

University of Georgia

For UGA, applicants must write three essays: a longer response (200-300 words) to the required prompt and shorter responses (150-200 words) to two prompts of their choice. You don't need to submit an essay if you apply Early Action.

Required: The UGA faculty has defined the qualities that the student body should demonstrate in the Admissions Philosophy Statement.  After reviewing this, help us understand which of your qualities will add value to our community of scholars. 

Choose One: 

Describe a problem, possibly related to your area of study, which you would like to solve. Explain its importance to you and what actions you would take to solve this issue. 

Tell us an interesting or amusing story about yourself that you have not already shared in your application. 

UGA’s First Year Odyssey Program offers more than 300 seminar courses for new freshmen. Some examples include “The History of Horseracing”, “Einstein and the Theories of Relativity” and “The Zombie Plague”. If you could create your own seminar course at UGA in any subject area that interested you, what would it be? What would the course be named and what would you hope to learn?Please write your response in the style of the UGA First Year Odyssey descriptions as seen on their website. 

 

University of South Carolina

University of South Carolina has joined the Coalition for College Access and Affordibility and is using the Coalition essay prompts: 

Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.

Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.

Has there been a time when you’ve had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?

What is the hardest part of being a teenager now? What’s the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?

Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.

 

West

The Campanile at UC Berkeley

 

University of California

Students applying to the UC system must respond to four out of eight short personal insight questions. The maximum word count for each response is 350 words. 

  1. Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes or contributed to group efforts over time.
  2. Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side. 
  3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
  4. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
  5. Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?
  6. Describe your favorite academic subject and explain how it has influenced you.
  7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
  8. What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates applying to the University of California?

 

University of Oregon

Write an essay of 500 words or less that shares information that we cannot find elsewhere on your application. Any topic you choose is welcome. Some ideas you might consider include your future ambitions and goals, a special talent, extracurricular activity, or unusual interest that sets you apart from your peers, or a significant experience that influenced your life. If you are applying to the UO's Robert D. Clark Honors College, feel free to resubmit your honors college application essay.

  

University of Washington

University of Washington has also joined the Coalition for Access and Affordibility. They will accept any of the five Coalition prompts, with a max of 600 words.

Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.

Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.

Has there been a time when you’ve had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?

What is the hardest part of being a teenager now? What’s the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?

Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.

They also require a short response question with a maximum of 300 words.

Our families and communities often define us and our individual worlds.  Community might refer to your cultural group, extended family, religious group, neighborhood or school, sports team or club, co-workers, etc.  Describe the world you come from and how you, as a product of it, might add to the diversity of the University of Washington. 

 

International

Generally speaking, international schools are less likely to ask for an essay, since admission tends to be heavily focused on grades and test results. However, a few popular international schools do ask for a personal statement as part of their application.

 

Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UK Schools)

UCAS is a general application for UK schools (similar to the Common App). There's no specific prompt for the personal statement — instead applicants are asked to write an essay describing what they want to study, why they want to study it, and what they bring to the table. There is a 4,000 character limit.

 

University of British Columbia

UBC asks applicants to fill out a personal profile consisting of a 5-7 short answer questions that vary depending on the program you are applying to. Answers should be 50-200 words. 

While they don't provide specific questions for your program until you start an application, they advise that you think about the following questions as you prepare:

  • What are the qualities you think make for a successful university student? How have you demonstrated such qualities in the past?
  • Think about your first-choice UBC program. What kinds of activities, accomplishments, and insights – learned in or outside of the classroom – do you think would be relevant to this program?
  • Think about your accomplishments and activities. What have you learned from these experiences? When have you taken on a leadership role? What do you excel in at school or outside of school? What do you enjoy learning in school? Or what do you enjoy doing outside of school that has influenced what you want to learn?
  • Think about the role others have played in your accomplishments and experiences.
  • Think about how your favourite teacher would describe you. Why would your teacher describe you this way? Be specific. Try to incorporate this information into your responses.
  • Think about two or three adjectives that best describe you. For each, provide some evidence of why they describe. Be specific. Try to incorporate this information into your responses.

 

University of Cambridge

 

Optional Essays

Some schools don't require an essay from all applicants but do recommend or require it for certain programs. I've listed a selection of those prompts below.

 

Arizona State University

Students applying to the Barrett Honors College must submit an essay of about 500 words on the following topic.

What does it mean to you to be or to become a global citizen, and how do you see the education and opportunities at Barrett advancing your understanding of this concept?

 

Berea College

The essay is optional for all students, but the admissions office "strongly encourages those who have experienced obstacles or adversity to submit this document."

The personal statement is an essay (app. 250-500 words) that describes significant accomplishments and/or challenges you have overcome and your motivations to do so.

 

City University of New York

Applicants to Macaulay Honors College must respond to two of the following prompts. The maximum length is 500 words per response.

Tell us about a time in your life where you had to use your inner resources to overcome an obstacle. What did you learn?

From what frequent activity do you derive your greatest joy? Why is this activity meaningful to you, and how does it shape your perspective on life? 

Pick a story of local, national, or international importance from the front page of any newspaper. Identify your source and give the date the article appeared. Then use your sense of humor, sense of outrage, sense of justice—or just plain good sense—to explain why the story engages your attention.

 

Florida International University

Only applicants who don't meet the criteria for automatic admissions and whose applications undergo holistic review will need to submit a 500-word essay:

With a freshman class profile of a 3.92 HS GPA and 1670 SAT/ 25 ACT, FIU is considered a selective university where those objective measures have been proven to play a role in student success. However, we know that other, more subjective measures such as motivation, drive, courage, perseverance, resolve and strength of character play an important role in students’ ability to succeed at FIU and in life. Please provide us with a 500 word (one page, single spaced) personal statement explaining which of these measures makes you a good candidate for admission to FIU and what strategies you will use to ensure your success in and out of the classroom.

 

Ohio University

For the Ohio University application, students who've been out of a school for more than a year must submit an essay explaining what they've done in their time off from school. Applicants to the journalism school are encouraged to write an essay "detailing how they want to help shape the future of journalism." Applicants to the Honors Tutorial College will submit three essay questions on the HTC supplement. 

For all other applicants, submitting an essay of 250 - 500 words is optional. 

Potential topics could include describing any academic challenges the applicant has faced, the applicant’s academic and career objectives, or the applicant’s involvement in community affairs.

 

Ohio University — in the 1970s (Sent From the Past/Flickr)

 

Pennsylvania State University

Penn State requires you to complete the following section about your activities and interests, with a word limit of 500 words.

Please use this space to discuss your activities (other than academic work) during the last several years (for example: school organizations, jobs, athletics, the arts, community service, religious groups, or other individual interests). We suggest a limit of 500 words or fewer. 

However, the following personal statement prompt is optional. The word limit is 500 words.

Please tell us something about yourself, your experiences, or activities that you believe would reflect positively on your ability to succeed at Penn State. This is your opportunity to tell us something about yourself that is not already reflected in your application or academic records.

 

University of Central Florida

The essays for UCF are optional but recommended. Applicants are asked to pick two of the prompts and compose responses of no more than 500 words (or 7,000 characters) each.

If there has been some obstacle or bump in the road in your academic or personal life, please explain the circumstances.

How has your family history, culture, or environment influenced who you are?

Why did you choose to apply to UCF?

What qualities or unique characteristics do you possess that will allow you to contribute to the UCF community?

 

University of Nebraska, Lincoln

UNL doesn't require applicants to submit an essay, but you will need to write one to be considered for scholarships. There is a 350-word limit.

Tell us about community circumstances you've overcome, your leadership experiences, your career goals, examples of your commitment to help under-served communities, experiences you've had with the global community and any desire to study abroad—basically, the experiences that have helped shape you as a person.

 

This parrot has questions. Do you have answers? (Matthias Ripp/Flickr)

 

The 3 Main Types of College Essay Questions

As you can see above, a few schools ask simply “Tell us something about yourself,” but most have a more specific prompt. Most questions are still pretty similar to each other, and they fall into three general types. Let's break down each type to see why colleges ask about it and how you can respond effectively.

 

Type 1: Questions About a Meaningful Experience

Examples: Common App, Rutgers, University of California

This type of college essay question is the most common. The exact focus of these prompts can vary quite a bit, but they all ask you to reflect on an important experience. Some questions specify a type of experience while others don't, simply opting to have applicants write about whatever matters to them.

There are three basic sub-types that you'll see when dealing with these prompts. Let's look at an example of each one.

 

Overcoming a Challenge

These prompts ask about how you dealt with a challenge or solved a problem.  Below is a typical example from the MIT application.

Tell us about the most significant challenge you've faced or something important that didn't go according to plan. How did you manage the situation?

To address a question like this, you need a topic that has real stakes — something that you genuinely struggled with. Even though it can seem like you should only discuss positive experiences and feelings in your college essay (you want to impress your readers with how awesome you are!), unwavering positivity actually hurts your essay, because it makes you seem fake.

Instead, be honest: if you're writing about a negative experience, acknowledge that it was unpleasant or hard and explain why. Doing so will just make your overcoming it that much more impressive.

 

Engaging With Diversity

Questions about diversity ask how you interact with those who are different from you. See an example below from the ApplyTexas application.

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.

When approaching this type of question, you need to show that you're open to new ideas and perspectives. Colleges are full of students from all kinds of backgrounds and admissions officers want to know that you'll be accepting of the diversity of other students.

Also make sure to pick a specific instance to focus on. Writing a general essay about how you accept others won't impress admissions officers; you need to show them an example of a time that you did so.

 

Growing Up

Finally, this type of prompt asks about a transitional experience or rite of passage that made you feel like an adult. I've reprinted an example from the Common App.

Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

For these types of prompts, you want to show personal growth: explain to the reader not just who you are but how you've changed. (Really, this is a good idea no matter which prompt you're addressing.)

College can be challenging, so admissions officers want to know that you have the maturity to deal with (likely) living on your own, managing your own life, and planning for your future.

 

Regardless of the exact prompt, the key to this type of college essay is to show what you’ve learned from the experience. Admissions officers don't care that much about what happened to you — they care about what you think and feel about that event. That's what will give them a sense of who you are and what kind of college student you will make.

 

How have you changed between graduating from kindergarten and graduating from high school?

 

Type 2: Questions About How You Would Fit Into the Community

Examples: Liberty University, UGA Required, UCF 4

When admissions committees evaluate applicants, they consider how a student would contribute to the college as a whole. These questions ask you to explain what you would bring to the college’s community and how you would fit in with its values. Below is an example from Michigan State's application.

Michigan State University recognizes that an assortment of interests, viewpoints, and life experiences are important in student learning and enhance the university community. Describe an experience, passion, or characteristic that illustrates what you would contribute to the MSU community and how this will add to the overall richness of campus life.

To address this type of prompt, you’ll want to give specific examples of how you embody the traits they’re looking for or what benefits you’d provide to the school’s community. Some prompts will ask you to address more specific ideas about the school than others, but it's always a good idea to touch on the individual school's values or philosophy.

Balancing talking about your experiences and traits with describing what excites you about the school can be tricky, but it's vital that you touch on both. If you don't talk about yourself, you're missing your chance to give the admissions committee a sense of who you are and how you would fit in to their community. And if you don't discuss the school itself, you risk coming off as uninterested. Make sure to do both.

 

Type 3: Questions About Your Goals

Examples: Apply Texas C, Georgetown 2

These questions ask about your professional, personal, or academic goals and how you’ll pursue them. They also often ask you to outline how you’ve worked towards these goals so far. Take a look at an example from the University of Illinois application:

Explain your interest in the major you selected. Describe an experience related to this area of study, what first introduced you to this field, and/or your future career goals. If you're applying to the Division of General Studies, explain your academic interests and strengths or your future career goals. You may include any majors or areas of study you're currently considering. 

When addressing this type of question, you’ll want to show admissions officers that you’re thoughtful about your future and excited about the opportunities college provides. Colleges want to admit students who will be successful, and a big part of finding success is having the drive to work towards it. 

Also, remember to use specific examples to illustrate your point. What relevant experiences have you had or interests have you pursued? What made you think this subject or career would be a good fit for you? Are there related classes or activities you're excited to participate in at the school? The more specific you can be in addressing these questions, the stronger your essay will be.

 

Of course, these three types don't cover every essay prompt, and some questions will be more unusual (especially those for supplemental essays). Nonetheless, you should analyze any prompts you encounter in the same way. Ask yourself why the college is asking that question and what admissions officers are hoping to see — not in terms of specific topics, but in terms of general trends and traits. Understanding what admissions officers are hoping to get out of your essay will help you pick a great topic that will help you exhibit your unique personality and perspective in the most effective way.

 

 

How to Plan Your College Essay Writing

Now that you’ve seen the range of questions you may be asked, let’s discuss how you can plan your college essay writing process most efficiently.

 

Make a Chart of All the Essays You Need to Write

Depending on how many schools you're applying to and what their requirements are, you may have to respond to 10 or more college essay prompts, so you want to make sure that you're organized about what needs to get done. 

I recommend creating a chart with the the school, deadline, and word count in one column and the prompt or prompts in the other. Then, prioritize your essays by deadline and preference (i.e. focus first on essays for the schools with the earliest deadlines and the ones you’re most excited about).

You’ll also want to consider whether you truly need to write a different essay for each school. If the prompts are similar enough, you may be able to reuse essays for more than one school. I'll go over how to make these calls in more depth below.

 

When Writing Multiple Essays for One School, Use Different Topics 

You probably noticed that many of the schools ask for more than one essay. When completing one of these applications, you should make sure your essays aren’t repetitive. You want to take the opportunity to give admissions officers as fleshed out a sense of who you are as you can, so pick topics that show off different sides of your personality. 

For example, let’s consider a student who’s hoping to become an engineer. If she writes her first essay about competing in a science fair, she’ll want to focus on something slightly different for her second essay — perhaps an unexpected interest, like figure skating, or a time that she used her scientific skills to solve an unscientific problem.

 

Be Careful About Reusing Essays

A common question students have is whether you can just write one essay and submit it to every school. The answer is, unfortunately, no. As you can see, college essay questions differ enough that there's no way you could use the same essay for every single one (not to mention the fact that many schools require two or more essays anyways). 

However, it does sometimes work to reuse an essay for more than one school. The key is that the prompts have to be asking about basically the same type of thing. So, for example, you could use the same essay for two prompts that both ask about a time you solved a problem, but you probably wouldn't want to use the same essay for one prompt that asks about a problem you solved and one that asks about a time you interacted with someone different than yourself.

Another case in which you can use reuse an essay is to submit an essay originally written for a specific prompt for a more general one as well. For example, you could submit your ApplyTexas topic B application (about overcoming a specific obstacle) for the Coalition essay prompt 1 (about a meaningful story from your life and what you learned). In that case, you might want to tweak the essay slightly to address the question of what you learned more explicitly, but you could likely use the same personal statement with minimal changes.

The other reason this instance of essay recycling works is because the ApplyTexas and the Coalition application have compatible word limits. You generally can't reuse a 600-word essay for a prompt with a 250-word limit because by the time you've cut out that many words you'll usually be left with something that either doesn't make much sense or doesn't show much about you (because you've only left enough of the story to explain what happened).

Although technically you could use a short essay (200-300 words) for an application with a higher word limit (500 - 650 words), I would strongly advise against it. If you have the space to tell a more in depth story and explain your own perspective and feelings in more detail, you should take it. Reusing a much shorter essay out of laziness is a waste of an important opportunity to impress the admissions committee. (You can, however, write a longer essay on the same topic.)

Whether you can use a recycled essay for a given prompt will ultimately depend on the specific prompts involved and your chosen topic. However, I've outlined some general guidelines below.

 

 

Essays About Experiences Are the Most Easily Transferred Between Schools

There’s a reason the Common App prompts are all type 1: Because they ask about important experiences, these prompts are much more about you than about the school. As such, it’s much easier to use them for more than one school.

However, as I described above, if the prompts are different sub-types, or otherwise clearly distinct from each other, you’ll still need to write unique essays. 

 

Essays About a Specific School Generally Can’t Be Recycled

If a prompt asks about why you’re interested in a specific school or how you would fit in, you shouldn’t try to use it for more than one school. Admissions officers want to see that you're excited about their school and would bring something interesting or special to their community. It's impossible to show them that if you can't be bothered to write a unique essay for their application.

Take the time to think about what appeals to you about the specific school or how you relate to its specific values. 

 

Essays About Your Goals or Interests May Need to Be Customized to Each School

For questions that ask about the future, you may be able to keep the same basic structure — assuming you’re interested in studying the same subject — and simply tweak the section about your plans for the future to reflect each school's specific programs or activities.

However, don’t lie to avoid having to write a new essay. If one school’s music program interests you while another school’s architecture program does, write a unique essay for each.

 

How to Write a College Essay That Works

There's one key takeaway from looking at the many prompts above: colleges are looking for your essay to tell them something about you. As you write and edit your essay, this idea should be your guiding principle.

I've summarized some key college essay writing tips below, but for a more in depth take on the writing process, check out our step-by-step guide to writing a great college essay.

 

Pick A Topic You're Excited About

A great essay requires a great topic, and a great topic is one that you really want to write about. Remember that admissions officers want to get to know you: you'll have to be honest about your interests and perspectives if you want to impress them. 

For more guidance on picking a great topic, check out our guides to brainstorming college essay ideas and finding the best topic for you (coming soon).

 

Focus on Specific Details

No matter how great your topic, your essay won't be compelling without detailed descriptions that put the reader in your shoes and let them see the world from your perspective. Details are what make an essay stand out because they're unique to you — a lot of people may have volunteered with Habitat for Humanity, but only one could have stood outside in a pink hat listening to her high school history teacher drone on about the different types of screws for 25 minutes. Don't settle for telling readers what you did; show them with specific details.

You also need to explain how the experience affected you and/or why your topic is so important to you. Students often get so wrapped up in telling a story that they forget to show why it matters, but your feelings are the most important part of your essay. This aspect of the essay should also include plenty of details. Otherwise it's easy to fall into clichés that bog down your essay.

 

Edit Carefully

As you embark upon the college essay writing process, keep in mind the famous Ernest Hemingway quote: "The only kind of writing is rewriting." It may be extremely tempting to just write a draft and call it a day, but editing and revising is a vital step in crafting an engaging essay.

Once you write a first draft, put in a drawer for a week. Taking some time away from it will allow you to come back to it with fresh eyes. Then, try to read your essay from the perspective of someone who knows nothing about you. Would they understand the story? Do you explain clearly what you learned? Does your intro grab the reader's attention?

It can also be helpful to ask someone you trust (could be a parent, a teacher, or a peer) to read your essay and give you feedback. Really listen to what they say and think about how you can improve your essay.

Finally, try reading your essay aloud. This will help you catch any weird or awkward phrasings.

 

What's Next?

If you're struggling with how to approach your personal statement, consider looking at some college essay examples.

The essay is just one part of the college application process. Check out our complete guide to applying to college for a step-by-step breakdown of what you'll need to do.

Finally, if you're planning to take the SAT or ACT one last time, consider taking a look at our famous test prep guides for some helpful advice on whatever you might be struggling with.

 

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Alex Heimbach
About the Author

Alex is an experienced tutor and writer. Over the past five years, she has worked with almost a hundred students and written about pop culture for a wide range of publications. She graduated with honors from University of Chicago, receiving a BA in English and Anthropology, and then went on to earn an MA at NYU in Cultural Reporting and Criticism. In high school, she was a National Merit Scholar, took 12 AP tests and scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and ACT.



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