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College Essay Prompts: Complete List, Analysis, and Advice

Posted by Alex Heimbach | Sep 8, 2020 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 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: Mayr/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. That being said, a stellar essay can help bring 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 2020 college essay prompts for major state universities, top-50 schools, and other popular schools which have their own unique questions. They're divided by region, with all optional essays listed at the end.

I left off the Common App supplements, as those often require a substantially different approach. I also stuck to four-year schools, meaning I didn't include special two-year programs, such as Deep Springs College or Miami Dade College's Honors Program (both of which require essays).

Finally, note that these prompts are for freshman applicants, so the requirements might be different for transfer students.

 

General Applications

There are three general applications you can use to apply to many different schools at once:

  • Common Application
  • Universal College Application
  • Coalition Application

Each application has its own personal statement requirement. Some schools will ask for additional supplemental essays.

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

 

Common Application

For the Common App essay, you pick one of the prompts and write 250-650 words about it. Here are the prompts for the 2020-21 school year:

Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma—anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

 

Universal College Application

The UCA essay prompt is completely open ended and has a 650-word limit. Here is the 2020-21 prompt:

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.

 

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 500-550 words. Here are the prompts for 2020-21:

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 one short essay (about half a single-spaced page) and two longer essays (approximately one single-spaced page each). Each applicant must respond to the first two prompts and can choose among the other four based on the specific program she's interested in.

Short Essay: Briefly (approximately one-half page, single-spaced) discuss the significance to you of the school or summer activity in which you have been most involved.

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: What does it mean to you to be educated? How might Georgetown College help you achieve this aim? (Applicants to the Sciences and Mathematics or the Faculty of Languages and Linguistics should address their chosen course of study).

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 (Global Health, Health Care Management & Policy, Human Science, 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.

 

For more Georgetown application tips, check out our articles on the Georgetown essays and how to get into Georgetown.

 

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

MIT doesn't ask for a single personal statement but rather asks applicants to respond to a series of questions with just a paragraph or two.

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? (250 words or fewer)

Pick what field of study at MIT appeals to you the most right now, and tell us more about why this field of study appeals to you.

We know you lead a busy life, full of activities, many of which are required of you. Tell us about something you do simply for the pleasure of it. (200–250 words)

At MIT, we bring people together to better the lives of others. MIT students work to improve their communities in different ways, from tackling the world's biggest challenges to being a good friend. Describe one way in which you have contributed to your community, whether in your family, the classroom, your neighborhood, etc. (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)

 

For more details on how to get into MIT, read our other articles on the MIT application process, tips for MIT essays, and an example of a real MIT acceptance letter!

 

Midwest

University of Wisconsin, Madison

 

Indiana University Bloomington

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, share those experiences and how you overcame them. (200-400 words) This essay may be used in scholarship consideration.

 

University of Illinois

The University of Illinois asks for one essay (or two only if you selected a second-choice major other than what's noted on your application). All responses should be 300-400 words.

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.

If you select a second-choice major other than the Division of General Studies on your application, write a second essay explaining your interest in this major, too.

 

If you're applying to UIUC, check out our UIUC essay tips article as well!

 

University of Wisconsin–Madison

All applicants must complete two essays for UW–Madison. The essays should be 300-500 words each (with a max of 650 words) and may be used for scholarship and campus program review. For the first essay, you may also use any of the Common Application prompts if you apply through the Common Application.

This part is all about you. Tell us about something you've done — academically or personally — and what you've learned from it. Was it a success or a challenge? Did it represent a turning point in your life? How did this particular moment in your life influence you, and how will it continue to influence you as you pursue your college education?

Tell us why you would like to attend the University of Wisconsin–Madison. In addition, please include why you are interested in studying the major(s) you have selected. If you selected undecided please describe your areas of possible academic interest.

 


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South

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

 

ApplyTexas

The ApplyTexas application is used by all Texas public universities and some private colleges. There are four ApplyTexas essay prompts. Which ones 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 a topic of their choice.

While there's no set word limit, the online application will cut off each essay at 120 lines (~1000 words).

Topic A: Tell us your story. What unique opportunities or challenges have you experienced throughout your high school career that have shaped who you are today?

Topic B: Most students have an identity, an interest, or a talent that defines them in an essential way. Tell us about yourself.

Topic C: You've got a ticket in your hand – Where will you go? What will you do? What will happen when you get there?

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 the Apply Texas Application. 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/interior design, 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?

 

We go into all the ApplyTexas prompts in detail here!

 

University of Georgia

For UGA, applicants must write two essays, one 200-300 words each and one 250-650 words. The first prompt is required for all applicants. You may choose your other essay from among either the Coalition or Commona App essay prompts.

Required: The college admissions process can create anxiety. In an attempt to make it less stressful, please tell us an interesting or amusing story about yourself from your high school years that you have not already shared in your application.

 

For a more detailed discussion of the UGA essays, read this article.

 

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. Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.
  7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
  8. Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you stand out as a strong candidate for admissions to the University of California?

 

Learn more about the UC essays, the UC application, and how to choose which UC schools to apply to with our complete guides.

 

University of Oregon

The UO is interested in learning more about you. Write an essay of 650 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.

 

Optional second essay: As you've looked into what it will be like to attend Oregon, you've hopefully learned what makes Ducks Ducks. No two are alike, though, so tell us what makes you you, and how that connects to our campus community. We are interested in your thoughts and experiences recognizing difference and supporting equity and inclusion, and choosing one of these two options will guide you in sharing those thoughts. You can learn more about equity and inclusion at Oregon by visiting the Equity and Inclusion website. Maximum statement length is 500 words. This statement is not required.

 

University of Washington

In addition to its specific prompts, the University of Washington gives specific advice about what its admissions officers consider to be good writing before the prompts:

"At the UW, we consider the college essay as our opportunity to see the person behind the transcripts and the numbers. Some of the best statements are written as personal stories. In general, concise, straightforward writing is best, and good essays are often 300-400 words in length.

Essay Prompt (Required): Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped shape it. Maximum length: 500 words.

Short Response (Required): Our families and our 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 UW. Maximum length: 300 words

 

You can also find more tips on the University of Washington essays in this blog article.

 

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 in the US). There's no specific prompt for the personal statement—instead, applicants are required 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/47-line limit.

 

University of British Columbia

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

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

  • Explain how you responded to a problem and/or an unfamiliar situation. What did you do, what was the outcome, and what did you learn from the experience?
  • Briefly describe the culture of your school community and your involvement within it. What impact has the school culture had on you? How would you enhance or change it?
  • Tell us about who you are. How would your family, friends, and/or members of your community describe you? If possible, please include something about yourself that you are most proud of and why.
  • What is important to you? And why?
  • Describe up to five activities that you have pursued or accomplishments achieved in one or more of the following areas. Please outline the nature of your responsibilities within these activities. (50 words per description)
    • Club
    • Family/community responsibilities
    • Creative or performing arts
    • Work/employment
    • Athletics
    • Volunteer
    • Service to others
    • Other(s)
  • Tell us more about one or two activities listed above that are most important to you. Please explain the role you played and what you learned in the process. You will be asked for a reference who can speak to your response.
  • Additional information: You may wish to use the space below to provide UBC with more information on your academic history to date and/or your future academic plans. For example: How did you choose your courses in secondary school? Are there life circumstances that have affected your academic decisions to date? What have you done to prepare yourself specifically for your intended area of study at UBC?
  • Please submit the names of two referees who know you well and can comment on your preparedness for study at UBC. Examples of referees include an employer, a community member, a coach, a teacher/instructor, or anyone who knows you well. One of the referees you select must be able to speak to one of the activities/experiences described in one of your long-answer responses above. For applicants who are currently attending a high school, one of your referees must be a school official (e.g., Grade 12 or senior year counsellor, teacher, or IB coordinator). Neither referee should be a friend, family member, or paid agent.

 


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University of Cambridge

 

Optional Essays

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

 

Arizona State University

Students applying to the Barrett Honors College at ASU must submit two essays of 300 to 500 words each on the following topics:

With an essay of 300 - 500 words, reply to one of the following two prompts. Your response may be critical or creative.

a) All human knowledge is erased. Only one object or one sentence can be shared with the next generation. What one thing should be passed on -or- what single statement would contain the most valuable information in the fewest words? Defend your selection. If you choose to address this prompt with an object, do not select a thumb drive, computer, etc. for its memory storage capacity.

b) Discuss how a piece of art (painting, literature, photograph, etc.) or popular culture (song, comic book, etc.) helped you realize something new about yourself or the world. What was that realization, and how did the piece of art or pop culture bring about this change in your thinking? Do not simply describe the piece of art or pop culture; instead focus on its effect on you.

 

City University of New York

Applicants to Macaulay Honors College must respond to one of two "Personal Reflection" prompts and one of two "Social Issues" prompts. The maximum length is 500 words per response.

Personal Reflection:

  1. Describe an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.

  2. Reflecting on your experience and aspirations, discuss how your life will differ from your parents' lives. Provide concrete evidence to illustrate your position.

Social Issues:

  1. 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.

  2. What is the most urgent problem facing New Yorkers today and how would you address it? Be specific in order to make a strong case.

 

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:

Students requesting appeal or additional review of their admission status must submit a written statement including:

  1. Your goals and educational or professional objectives

  2. An explanation of past academic performance

  3. Information and/or circumstances that may have affected past academic performance

  4. Any other information the student wishes to have considered

 

The Ohio State University

Applicants to the University Honors program or the Ohio State Scholars program must respond to the following prompt:

To what fictional character do you most relate, and why? You may select a character from animation, art, film, literature, television, theater or any other medium.

 

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.

If there is a period of three months or longer that you have not been enrolled in a high school, college, or university, please provide a statement documenting your activities for that period. Examples include language study, vacation, work experience, family responsibilities.

Additionally, applicants to the journalism school are encouraged to write a 250- to 500-word essay "detailing how they want to help shape the future of journalism." For all other applicants, submitting an essay here is optional; however, if you do wish to write an essay, the application states the following:

If an applicant chooses to submit an optional essay, 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.

The OU application goes on to suggest that for the best chance of admission, all students should consider submitting a personal essay on any of the Common App topics.

Those interested in Ohio University's OHIO Honors Program (including the Cutler Scholars Program) are "strongly encouraged" (read: basically required) to answer the following essay prompt (250-500 words):

Describe an outside-the-classroom experience in which you learned something new or came to understand something familiar in a new way.

Finally, those interested in the Honors Tutorial College are must answer the following two essay prompts (in about 500 words each):

HTC Question 1: Please explain why you have chosen your particular program(s) of study.

HTC Question 2: We expect that one reason you seek a tutorial education is for the one-on-one interaction with faculty, but other than that, what interests you about pursuing a tutorial-based undergraduate education? What aspects of your education and life experience have prepared you for a tutorial education with its emphasis on research and creative activity?

 

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

 

Pennsylvania State University

Penn State allows applicants to complete the following optional essay with a limit of 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.

Additionally, applicants to the Schreyer Honors College must answer the following three essay prompts and five short answer questions.

Essay questions (maximum word count of 800 words)

#1:  We hear a lot about effective leadership but typically leadership implies that there are followers. What is effective followership?

#2:  What is fairness in the world? Is merit always the pinnacle of fairness in education?

#3: "Get comfortable with being uncomfortable." What does this statement mean to you and can it affect what you do?

Short answers (ideally under the maximum word count of 400)

#1: Please list any college courses you have received credit for and the school where you took them at. Do not list AP/IB classes or other college-in-high-school courses. If you did not take any, please put N/A.

#2: Please tell us about a book that has influenced you, from any point in your life.

#3: Please list the most important scholastic distinctions or honors you have received, including any special programs in which you have participated, such as international study, summer enrichment programs, internships, or research experiences, etc.

#4: Please give us some information about your principal extracurricular, community, and family activities, work experiences, voluntary service, and hobbies, in the order of their interest to you. For each, be sure to include any major accomplishments such as leadership positions, varsity letters, awards, etc.

#5: Please write a brief paragraph about your most significant activity out of those listed above, and its importance to you.

Lastly, if you took any time off before starting college, you'll need to explain what you did during this time and why in the area of the application titled "Educational Gap Statement."

Educational Gap Statement: Please use this space to explain any time that has elapsed between your high school graduation and your anticipated enrollment at Penn State. Please provide a summary of why that gap occurred. If you attended another college or university during that time, please note it below and ensure that you have entered the information in the COLLEGES & UNIVERSITIES part of the Education section of your Common Application.

 

University of Arizona

Applicants to UA who do not meet the assured admission criteria will go through the comprehensive review process, which allows for an optional personal statement:

The inclusion of an optional short answer, personal narrative or statement to the UA application gives you the opportunity to include unique life experiences and personal achievements in your application.

 

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?

 

For tips on how to write the UCF essays, read this article.

 

University of Kansas

Applicants to KU's honors program must answer one of the following three essay prompts in 500 words or fewer:

The Kansas state motto "Ad Astra per Aspera" is Latin for "To the Stars through Difficulties." What stars are you aiming for, and how have you learned/prepared to face challenges along the way?

There are many questions to ask and problems to explore. If you were to choose a question, problem, idea, or issue (personal, systemic, local, or global) to explore during your undergraduate years at KU, what would it be? What might you create, design, invent, or engineer to explore this topic?

As Jayhawks, our community is committed to a set of core values: To actively foster unity, strive for innovation, advocate for inclusion, and value engagement. 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 KU 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 500-word limit.

Tell us about the experiences that have shaped you as person—the community circumstances you've overcome, your leadership experiences, your career goals, examples of your commitment to help under-served communities and experiences you've had with the global community.

 

University of Utah

Applicants to the Honors College must complete an essay using the Common Application. The maximum word length is 650 words.

From the prompts below, choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response. You may upload a copy of your personal essay for the Common Application section of the application or answer a different prompt.

From the prompts below, choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response. You may upload a copy of your personal essay for the Common Application section of the application or answer a different prompt.

  1. 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.

  2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

  4. 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.

  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

  6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

  7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Applicants to the the Business Scholars Program must complete an essay. There is no word limit, but U of U recommends keeping answers between 250-500 words.

Exploration, perpetual learning and development, and a passion for the world of business are essential traits of Business Scholars. Describe a time in your life when you experienced something impactful, challenging, or new and how that experience encouraged you to be the person you are today and will help you be successful in business.

 

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

 


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Your dedicated PrepScholar Admissions counselor will craft your perfect college essay, from the ground up. We'll learn your background and interests, brainstorm essay topics, and walk you through the essay drafting process, step-by-step. At the end, you'll have a unique essay that you'll proudly submit to your top choice colleges.

Don't leave your college application to chance. Find out more about PrepScholar Admissions now:

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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. Still, many questions are pretty similar to each other and can be grouped into three general types. In this section, we'll break down each type of college essay question to see why colleges ask about it and how you can respond effectively.

 

Type 1: Questions About a Meaningful Experience

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 whereas 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.

 

#1: Overcoming a Challenge

These prompts ask about how you dealt with a particular challenge or solved a problem. Below is a typical example of this question type 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—that is, something that you genuinely struggled with. Even though it can seem as though 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.

 

#2: Engaging With Diversity

Questions about diversity ask how you interact with those who are different from you. See an example below from the Common Application:

Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

When approaching this type of question, you need to show that you're thoughtful about 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, even if you don't necessarily agree with them.

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.

 

#3: 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 another example from the Common App:

Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

For these types of prompts, you want to show personal growth. Explain to the reader not just who you are but also 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'll 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: UW–Madison, University of Washington, UCF

When admissions committees evaluate applicants, they consider how a student will contribute to the college as a whole. These college essay questions ask you to explain what you would bring to the college's community and how you'd fit in with its values.

Here is an example from UW–Madison:

Tell us about something you've done — academically or personally — and what you've learned from it. Was it a success or a challenge? Did it represent a turning point in your life? How did this particular moment in your life influence you, and how will it continue to influence you as you pursue your college education?

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. So make sure to do both!

 

Type 3: Questions About Your Goals

Examples: MIT, University of Illinois, ApplyTexas B

These college essay 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 toward these goals so far.

Take a look at an example from the University of Illinois application:

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.

When addressing this type of question, you'll want to prove to 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 toward it.

As always, 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 of questions 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'll help you exhibit your unique personality and perspective in the most effective way possible.

 

 

How to Plan Your College Essay Writing

Now that you've seen the range of questions you might be asked to answer for your college apps, 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 might have to respond to 10 or more college essay prompts. Therefore, you'll want to make sure that you're organized about what needs to get done.

I recommend creating a chart with the school, its deadline, and its essay's word count in one column, and the prompt(s) in the other. Then, prioritize your essays by deadline and preference. In other words, 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 might be able to reuse essays for more than one college. 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 listed above ask for more than one essay. When completing one of these applications, 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 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, such as 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 anyway!).

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.

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 from yourself.

You can also reuse an essay by submitting an essay originally written for a specific prompt for a more general prompt as well. For example, you could submit your ApplyTexas topic A app (how your family, home, neighborhood, or community shaped you as a person) for the Coalition essay prompt (the one 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 Coalition applications have compatible word limits. In general, you can't reuse a 600-word essay for a prompt with a 250-word limit. Why? 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 that doesn't show much about you (since 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 (say, 500-650 words), I strongly advise against doing this. If you have the space to tell a more in-depth story and explain your 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.)

Ultimately, whether you can use a recycled essay for a given prompt will 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 they are about the school. As such, it's much easier to use them for more than one school.

That being said, as I described above, if the prompts are different sub-types or are 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'd fit in, don't try to use it for more than one school. Admissions officers want to see that you're excited about their school and will bring something interesting or special to their community. It's impossible to show them this 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 core values.

 

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

For questions that ask about your future, you might 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: 3 Key Tips

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

I've summarized our top three 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.

 

#1: 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 your 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.

 

#2: 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.

For example, a lot of people might 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. In short, 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 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 storytelling.

 

#3: 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 might be extremely tempting to just write a draft and call it a day, but revising is a vital step in crafting an engaging essay.

Once you write a first draft, put it 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 be able to 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, such as a parent, teacher, or peer, to read your essay and give you feedback. Really listen to what they say and think about how you can improve your writing.

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 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, consider taking a look at our expert test-prep guides for some helpful advice on whatever you might be struggling with.

 

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

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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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