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4 Tips for Writing a Great UIUC Essay

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Posted by Hannah Muniz | Sep 14, 2021 1:00:00 PM

College Info , College Essays



Thinking of attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign? Then you've come to the right place. For this highly ranked public school, you'll need to submit a personal statement with your application. But what should you include in your UIUC essay to make you stand out?

Read on to learn what the current UIUC essay prompt is and how to write a great UIUC essay. We also show you a real UIUC essay example to give you an idea of what a great statement looks like.

Feature Image: Adam Jones/Flickr


What Is the UIUC Essay?

All applicants must write one UIUC essay as part of their application for admission. You’ll get to choose one prompt to respond to from several options. The prompts you’ll get to choose from are determined by the application you use to apply. 

If you apply through the UIUC application portal, called myllini, you have five prompts to choose from. Here are this year’s myllini 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.
  • Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  • 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?
  • Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.

Students who apply through the Common application or the Coalition application are also required to select one essay prompt from a range of choices and write a response. The essay questions for the Common and Coalition applications are listed on their websites and are different from the myllini essay prompts. 

You can view the full list of Coalition application essay prompts here and all seven of the Common application essay prompts here

The UIUC essay must be 250-650 words in length, making it a bit shorter than your typical college essay, which is usually 500-600 words long.


How to Write the UIUC Essay: Topics and Tips

The University of Illinois essay is an important part of your application since it's the only personal essay you'll write for the school. This makes it the only area on the UIUC application in which you can show off your personality, academic passion, and storytelling skills.

The overall point of this statement is for UIUC to learn more about you as a person and what qualities you'll bring to the school if you enroll. 

UIUC is pretty clear about what it's looking for in your application essay. In fact, the official University of Illinois website offers applicants six key tips on how to approach the UIUC essay:

  • Be memorable
  • Be prepared
  • Be yourself
  • Be focused
  • Be current
  • Be professional

In addition, UIUC has a YouTube series on admissions counseling that includes some useful videos with tips on how you can write an effective UIUC essay:

Now that you have a general sense of what UIUC will be looking for in your application essay, let’s break down each UIUC application essay prompt one by one. 


Myllini Prompt 1

Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it. (250 to 650 words)

Don’t mistake this prompt for an invitation to list off all of your best qualities. Instead, you need to show rather than tell, and you can do this by telling a true and compelling story from your life.

Instead of telling a story that you think will sound impressive to the admissions committee, choose one that is meaningful to you. Your story could involve a challenge you overcame, a contribution you made, or a memory from early childhood. It could even be about something kind that another person did for you!

Whatever story you choose to tell, you need to write about it using vivid descriptions, specific details, and a reflection on how it shaped your character. Above all, be honest and genuine. The way you tell your story will give UIUC admissions a window into the character and values that you’ll bring to their school. 

This essay is your chance to show that you’re reflective, adaptable, and willing to learn...which are all important qualities of a UIUC student!


Myllini Prompt 2

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. (250 to 650 words)

This prompt is your opportunity to show UIUC how you use your talents, skills, and interests to make a positive difference in the world. To do this, you need to tell a story about something concrete you did to help someone besides yourself.

Now, this essay prompt might seem like it’s only fit for applicants who have solved world hunger or stopped climate change. But don’t be fooled! Your experience doesn’t have to be big and flashy, but it does need to be something that was meaningful to you and to the other people involved.

A good response will explain why you chose to make this contribution, include vivid details about how you achieved your goals, and highlight how and why it was meaningful to you and the people you worked with to make it happen. 

To make your essay top-notch, you also need to reflect on your feelings about your contribution. It’s important to be honest about what contributing to the greater good was like for you--even if you have to describe some challenges. Giving an honest take on your experience will show that you’re able to persevere through difficult situations to achieve important goals and help others. 


Myllini Prompt 3

Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? (250-650 words)

For this prompt, you’ll need to tell a story about a real situation when you took a stand on an issue. An effective response will explain what the issue was, why you chose to question or challenge it, who was involved in the situation, and what happened as a result. 

Keep in mind that this prompt isn’t asking you to stage a debate. Instead, it’s important that you explain what motivated you to challenge the belief or idea that you’re writing about. UIUC admissions wants to learn more about how you handle situations involving conflicting perspectives--and why! 

It’s also crucial to describe your reflections on the situation. Did you learn something from challenging that belief or idea that has shaped who you are today? How did you grow or change as a result? The best kind of response to this question will show that you think critically about beliefs and ideas and that, when conflict arises, you can handle it with grace and empathy. 


Myllini Prompt 4

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? (250 to 650 words)

This prompt is your chance to write about a topic or idea that you’re passionate about. Your response to this prompt will help UIUC admissions understand your core interests and how you explore them in your life. 

To write an effective response, you’ll need to identify one topic, idea, or concept that you find engaging. This essay isn’t the time to write every fact you can remember about the Marvel Cinematic Universe or recite your favorite author’s biography. Instead, you need to explain why you are so intrigued by your topic or idea. Explaining why that topic makes you lose all track of time will help your passion shine through in your essay. 

You’ll also need to explain where you turn when you want to learn more about your topic. Whether it’s a mentor in your life or a fanfiction site, you should identify a real resource you use to enhance your understanding of your topic and explain why it’s your go-to. This will help UIUC understand what your values are when it comes to expanding your knowledge about the topics you’re passionate about. 


Myllini Prompt 5

Submit an essay on a topic of your choice. (250 to 650 words)

If none of the other prompts appeal to you, you also have the option to choose your own topic! Though this prompt is open-ended, you can take some cues from the previous four essay prompts to help you get a sense of what would be an appropriate topic for this essay.

For instance, the first four essay prompts are asking you to tell stories that reveal something deeper about who you are. The previous prompts encourage you to reveal your character (Prompt 1), show what motivates you to help others (Prompt 2), demonstrate your capacity to handle conflict (Prompt 3), and illustrate how your passions motivate you to learn and grow (Prompt 4). If you can’t think of what to write, try choosing a topic that lets you reveal the same kind of info about yourself that the first four essay prompts are getting at.  

Another option is to choose one of your best essays from high school and rework it to fit the requirements for this UIUC essay. You’ll probably need to condense things down and refocus the essay, but if you wrote something in high school that would help UIUC admissions see why you’re a perfect fit for their school, you could definitely use it here. 



A Real UIUC Essay Example + Analysis

To help give you a better idea of what your own UIUC essay could look like, here is one real UIUC essay example we found online, written by an admitted student.

Note that this essay responds to a slightly different prompt (though it's still pretty similar to the current UIUC essay prompt) and has a slightly shorter word limit of 300 instead of 400 words.

Here is the prompt:

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? (250 to 650 words)


And here is the essay:

The chicken, or the egg? The hours I’ve spent pondering this question are countless. People frequently debate the seemingly simple idea of which came first. To me, it is more than just a question, but an example of how human beings think.

The question of “Which came first?” captivates me because it is a question without an answer. It has been asked for centuries and no progress has been made, but it still continues to be brought up. I think this is because humans prefer clear-cut answers. Like in any kind of competition, ending with a tie between teams or individuals isn’t a satisfying conclusion. People would rather the competition continue for extra time than admit there’s no real winner, or in this case, no real answer. So even though it’s obvious there will be no agreement, the debate over chickens and eggs continues.

When people label something a “chicken-egg” situation, it means there is no way to establish the order of cause and effect, again leaving a feeling of uncertainty. But human nature is to seek an answer. The chicken-egg question shows humanity’s inability to accept unfinished business, and this fascinates me most. People want closure in all aspects of life, and big questions like this are no exception. I think the question “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” is so interesting because people will always try to answer it knowing they will never find a solution. It shows that humans desire understanding above all else.

When I want to learn more about this concept, I turn to my grandfather. He doesn’t have a degree in philosophy or psychology, yet he’s a reliable source on almost any subject given his extensive years spent at the University of Life. With so many experiences under his belt, he understands unanswerable questions much better than I do. “The only truth is uncertainty,” he tells me when I once again dive deep into the possibility of eggs without chickens or chickens without eggs. In his words, the most beautiful parts of life are the questions we can’t answer but spend out whole life trying to.
My own desire for answers keeps me thinking about this question for hours on end. I think there’s good points to grandpa’s perspective, but as an eighteen-year-old entering college, I don’t know if I can accept that the only answer is no answer just yet. Until I can, I’ll gather my own evidence and continue to spend my days wondering whether Aristotle was eating chicken and waffles or omelettes for breakfast.


What Makes This UIUC Essay Work?

  • It’s got a great hook. The applicant starts the essay with a familiar philosophical question: “The chicken, or the egg?”. This pulls the admissions committee into the essay by making them ponder the question too. The applicant then analyzes the question and provides their own unique interpretation of what it’s really getting at. As the applicant says at the end of the first paragraph, “To me, it’s more than just a question, but an example of how human beings think.” By stating their unique take on the chicken vs egg dilemma, the applicant shows the admissions committee that they can interpret complex ideas and analyze tough questions. These are qualities that UIUC wants their incoming class of students to have!

  • It’s clear, focused, and easy to follow: A topic like this one could easily go off the rails, but the applicant keeps the essay focused by responding to exactly what the prompt is asking in the correct order. The first paragraph states the idea that the applicant finds engaging. The next two paragraphs explain why the applicant finds this idea “captivating” and connects their engagement with the idea to deeper meanings about human nature, which also demonstrates why this topic causes the applicant to “lose all track of time.” The fourth paragraph states who the applicant turns to when they want to learn more about this question, and explains what they have gained from exploring this question with their grandpa. The applicant wraps up the essay with a conclusion that describes how their approach to the chicken vs egg question relates to the kind of student they will be at UIUC. The clear structure, clean prose, and adept analysis all make this essay easy to understand and exciting to read


How Could This UIUC Essay Be Even Better?

  • It could be more specific about why the idea is captivating: Although this UIUC essay is well written and tightly focused, it isn't super specific about why the applicant personally relates to the question about the chicken and the egg. The applicant does a great job explaining what they feel this debate reveals about human nature, but doesn’t say much about why that debate is meaningful to them.

  • It could have a stronger conclusion:Although the applicant makes a great attempt at tying their essay response into why they will be a great fit for UIUC, the conclusion could do a bit more to show how this is the case. Reframing the last paragraph so it explains how the applicant’s approach to uncertainty makes them the perfect UIUC candidate could make this essay even stronger.




4 Essential Tips for Writing a Great UIUC Essay

To wrap up, here are four essential tips to keep in mind as you write your U of I application essay.


#1: Don't Just List Your Accomplishments

At first glance, some of the UIUC essay prompts may seem like an invitation to list all of your amazing accomplishments. But none of these prompts actually want you to do that! Instead, you need to use expertly crafted stories to convey everything you have to offer as an applicant to UIUC.

The point of the UIUC essay is to give the admissions committee more detailed and personal commentary on why you've chosen their school and why you would be a great addition to their student community. Leave the list of accomplishments for your resume. Telling a genuine story is the best way to show how your life experiences have shaped you into the perfect candidate for admission to UIUC.


#2: Pace Yourself

You've only got one major essay to write for the UIUC application, so definitely take your time with it! This year, the UIUC deadlines are November 1 for priority admission and January 5 for regular decision.

I recommend starting your U of I application essay at least two months before the application is due. This should give you plenty of time to brainstorm potential topics, write a rough draft, edit your draft, and get feedback (see Tip 4 for more details on how to do this final step).


#3: Highlight Your Passion

While the essay prompts all have a different focus, the main goal of each one is to draw out what you’re passionate about and why. With each prompt, what you're really trying to do is demonstrate your passion to the UIUC admissions committee.

In other words, what motivates you to learn? What drives you more than anything else? And why are you so enthusiastic about bringing your ideas, experiences, and character to UIUC?

By highlighting your passions and interests, you're also showing the UIUC admissions committee who you are and what's important to you, both academically and more broadly.

To really make your passion stand out in your University of Illinois essay, take the following steps:

  • Be as specific as possible—give us real names and use visceral descriptions to make us feel as though we're there experiencing and feeling everything with you
  • Be honest—the admissions committee wants to get to know the real you, and it can only do this if you're writing in an authentic voice that's true to who you are


#4: Polish and Proofread

My final tip is to give yourself plenty of time to polish and proofread your UIUC essay.

In your rough draft, keep an eye out for obvious typos and technical mistakes, such as errors in punctuation, grammar, and spelling. Also, look for any areas that are awkward, incomplete, out of place, or unclear.

Once you've edited your essay on your own, give it to someone else to read, such as a parent, teacher, or tutor. Ask them to make technical corrections as needed and to offer you advice on what you might be able to improve in terms of story, cogency, and overall effectiveness.


What's Next?

Applying to other colleges in the midwest? Check out our expert guides to how to write the UChicago essays, the Notre Dame essays, and the Michigan State essay.

If you're using the Common App to submit your college applications, you'll need to figure out which essay prompt is the best one for you.

Learn more about how to get into the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign by visiting our UIUC admission requirements page.


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Hannah Muniz
About the Author

Hannah received her MA in Japanese Studies from the University of Michigan and holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern California. From 2013 to 2015, she taught English in Japan via the JET Program. She is passionate about education, writing, and travel.

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