7 Expert Tips for the Common App Essay
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- The Common App college essay is required by most Common App schools.
- This personal essay plays a critical role in many institutions' admission decisions.
- Admissions experts' biggest tips include writing how you speak and focusing on details.
Each year, over a million high school seniors apply for college through the Common Application . This online system enables you to submit one application to multiple schools, meaning you only have to fill out everything once — including a personal statement .
The Common App essay gives colleges the opportunity to learn more about you as a person and what's important to you. You should use this space to tell your story and reveal different facets of your personality.
Here, we explain what the Common App essay entails before diving into admissions experts' biggest tips for crafting a memorable personal statement.
What Is the Common App Essay?
The Common App essay is the main personal statement you'll submit to colleges that use the Common App and require the essay.
You can find the Common App essay prompts and instructions by navigating to the "Common App" tab on your Common App account and clicking on "Writing." You'll get to choose one of seven prompts to respond to, and your essay must be between 250 and 650 words long.
This statement gives you the chance to delve deeper into your interests, experiences, passions, and strengths. You can discuss almost anything you want, provided your topic addresses the prompt you've chosen. There are also no rules on style or how to tell your story.
You must submit the Common App essay to all colleges that require it, though some may ask you to submit one or more supplemental essays as well.
The application form provides you with a box in which to type your essay; however, it's strongly recommended that you compose your essay in Microsoft Word, Google Docs, or another word processor before copying and pasting your final draft into this box.
How Important Is the Common App Essay?
The Common App essay is a key part of your college application. According to a 2019 study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling , 56.4% of colleges surveyed considered the personal statement moderately or considerably important. Highly selective institutions tended to place more emphasis on the essay.
"The more selective the college, the more the essay matters," explained Elizabeth Benedict, a former Princeton writing instructor and the founder and president of Don't Sweat the Essay Inc .
Benedict, who spoke with BestColleges about the Common App essay, has helped students around the world apply to college for over a decade.
"Applying to a hyper-selective college with mediocre or uneven grades and a fabulous essay will likely not get you into that college, [whereas] applying to a hyper-selective college with top grades and scores, outstanding extracurriculars, and a mediocre essay could sink your application," she said.
While most experts agree that a strong Common App essay won't necessarily secure you admission into a highly selective college — especially if your grades and test scores aren't up to par — a well-written statement could act as a tipping point in your favor.
According to Benedict, this often happens at small liberal arts colleges , which tend to take a more holistic admissions approach .
Experts' Top 7 Common App Essay Tips
Admissions officers, higher education administrators, education consultants, and college admissions advisors like Benedict have many tricks for approaching the Common App essay. Here are some of their biggest tips.
1. Don't Mistake a Rare Topic for an Effective Topic
Many students assume their Common App essay must revolve around a unique topic that no other applicant has ever written about, but this is a myth.
"Overuse of a topic doesn't make it a bad topic," Whitney Soule told U.S. News & World Report . Soule currently serves as Bowdoin College's dean of admissions and student aid.
"It's not just about the topic," echoes Jennifer Gayles , director of admissions at Sarah Lawrence College, "but why it's important to you and how you can showcase who you are as a student and an individual through that topic."
Choosing the right Common App essay topic can be tricky, but it's extremely important. "Students I work with run the gamut from having a good idea to having absolutely no idea what to write about," Benedict said. "Often in our brainstorming session, an idea will pop up in discussion, and I'll say, 'That's a good idea,' and the student will be surprised."
To identify potential essay topics, Benedict proposes asking yourself a series of questions. Have you experienced a turning point in your life? Are you deeply passionate about a particular subject?
Ultimately, your essay should excite and inspire you, as well as those who read it. "If an essay topic makes your heart beat fast, that's a good sign," said Benedict.
2. Pick the Best Essay Prompt for You
Not all Common App essay prompts are created equal. Of the seven prompts, some will no doubt work better for you than others.
Lisa Mortini, assistant director of admissions at New York University Abu Dhabi, asks students to think about what version of themselves they want to present to schools and to trust their instincts.
"Don't just jump on the first prompt you read and start writing," she writes in a blog post for NYU. "Ask yourself: Are you excited to talk to us about a specific achievement? Do you want to give us insight into a hardship you faced and conquered?"
In essence, work backward: Start with a topic and then see which essay prompt fits it the best.
This is the same advice given by Thea Hogarth of College Essay Advisors : "Once you have determined the story you really want to tell, you'll know which prompt will make a good fit. All of the Common App options are broad enough to accommodate almost any story."
3. Use Your Space Wisely
Students tend to go one of two ways with the Common App essay: They either write way too much and struggle to trim it down, or they write way too little and end up sounding superficial and generic.
The Common App essay word count range is 250-650 words. But just how long should your statement be? Admissions Blog advises aiming for around 500 words. And former Tufts University admissions officer Becky Leichtling concurs.
"The most common 'personal statement' length is in the ballpark of 500 words," Leichtling writes for Bright Horizons College Coach . "I consider 500 the 'sweet spot,' but don't stress if you write an essay closer to 430 or 620 [words] that you're honestly proud of."
4. Fill Your Story With Details
Details are everything when it comes to the Common App essay, which is why so many experts suggest anchoring your essay in a single anecdote or story.
"Specific anecdotes are your friend when drafting your Common App personal statement," Shirag Shemmassian, founder of Shemmassian Academic Consulting, writes on his company's website . "Try to think of a story you often tell people that shows something about you."
Meredith Reynolds, associate director of admissions at Tufts, similarly recommends that applicants emphasize specifics in their essays. "By focusing on details, you set yourself apart," she says.
In terms of structure, Benedict advises approaching the Common App essay one step at a time. "Break down the topic to the smallest pieces you can and write a paragraph about each," she said.
In other words, discuss specific moments from your life. Relate conversations you've had. Describe how something felt or looked. It's the details in your story — not the topic itself — that will help you stand out the most.
5. Channel Your Authentic Voice
The Common App essay is unlike most essays you've written for school. Instead of analyzing a piece of literature or a historical event, you must showcase your identity. As such, the words you use should sound like they actually come from you — not a thesaurus or an English teacher.
"[Students] are used to writing academic essays and trying to impress with big words and formal-sounding constructions," Benedict said when asked about the most common mistake students make on the Common App essay. "The best essays have a conversational voice — not a stiff, academic one."
Educational consultant Ian Fisher agrees . In a blog post offering language tips for college essays, Fisher expounds on the importance of writing in a way true to how you talk in real life.
"You're going to have to fight the urge to 'impress' your admissions reader with the big words you've learned from your SAT practice," he writes.
Students should, however, avoid using any derogatory, offensive, or inappropriate language. Fisher recommends using words like "debate" instead of "fight" and "undeveloped" instead of "stupid."
Likewise, students should refrain from relying on cliches. This includes phrases such as "happily ever after," "beggars can't be choosers," and "crack of dawn." Benedict advises getting someone to "cliche-proof" your essay.
6. Get Feedback
Before submitting your Common App essay, show it to someone who will not only offer feedback but also edit and proofread your writing.
Shemmassian suggests giving your draft to "a trusted admissions counselor, English teacher, or other advisor." Meanwhile, Reynolds says you should "show your essay to two people — one who is a strong writer, and one who knows you really well."
All recommendations from experts share a common thread: Getting feedback on your Common App essay should be a top priority.
7. Don't Neglect Supplemental Essays
Lots of competitive universities require the Common App essay in addition to supplemental essays and/or short answers. If you have other essays to submit, don't spend all your time working on the Common App essay. After all, all essays can impact your admission chances.
"At the most selective colleges and universities, there are usually supplemental essays as well, and those are part of the overall package, and they are very important," Benedict said.
She also discussed how a great Common App essay combined with weak supplemental essays could reflect poorly on your application and increase your risk of getting rejected .
"I can't stress enough the importance of the supplemental essays," Benedict continued. "For the most selective universities, all of the essays taken together present a 'package' of who you are." And how you choose to put together that package is up to you.
Elizabeth Benedict is the founder and president of Don't Sweat the Essay Inc. , which has been helping students apply to college around the U.S. and all over the world for a dozen years. Elizabeth is a best-selling novelist, a prolific journalist, and an editor of many books. She has taught writing at Princeton, Columbia, MIT, Swarthmore, and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her clients are regularly admitted to top universities and their first-choice colleges.
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How Long Should a College Essay Be? | Word Count Tips
Published on September 29, 2021 by Kirsten Courault . Revised on June 1, 2023.
Most college application portals specify a word count range for your essay, and you should stay within 10% of the upper limit. If no word count is specified, we advise keeping your essay between 400 and 600 words.
You should aim to stay under the specified limit to show you can follow directions and write concisely. However, if you write too little, it may seem like you are unwilling or unable to write a thoughtful and developed essay.
Table of contents
Word count guidelines for different application types, how to shorten your essay, how to expand your essay, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about college application essays.
Each university has a different suggested or required word count depending on which application portal it uses.
Some application portals will allow you to exceed the word count limit, but admissions officers have limited time and energy to read longer essays. Other application portals have a strict limit and will not allow you to exceed it.
For example, in the Common App , the portal will not allow you to submit more than 650 words. Some colleges using the Common App will allow you to submit less than 250 words, but this is too short for a well-developed essay.
For scholarship essays , diversity essays , and “Why this college?” essays , word count limits vary. Make sure to verify and respect each prompt’s limit.
Don’t worry too much about word count until the revision stage ; focusing on word count while writing may hinder your creativity. Once you have finished a draft, you can start shortening or expanding your essay if necessary.
Prevent plagiarism. Run a free check.
On some application portals, you can exceed the word limit, but there are good reasons to stay within it:
- To maintain the admissions officer’s attention
- To show you can follow directions
- To demonstrate you can write concisely
Here are some strategies for shortening your essay.
Stay on the main point
It’s good to use vivid imagery, but only include relevant details. Cut any sentences with tangents or unnecessary information.
My father taught me how to strategically hold the marshmallow pierced by a twig at a safe distance from the flames to make sure it didn’t get burned, ensuring a golden brown exterior.
Typically, my father is glued to his computer since he’s a software engineer at Microsoft. But that night, he was the marshmallow master. We waited together as the pillowy sugary goodness caramelized into gooey delight. Good example: Sticks to the point On our camping trip to Yosemite, my family spent time together, away from technology and routine responsibility.
My favorite part was roasting s’mores around the campfire. My father taught me how to hold the marshmallow at a safe distance from the flames, ensuring a golden brown exterior.
These college essay examples also demonstrate how you can cut your essay down to size.
Delete unnecessary words that clutter your essay. If a word doesn’t add value, cut it.
Here are some common examples of wordiness and how to fix them.
Use a paraphrasing tool
If you want to save time, you can make use of a paraphrasing tool . Within the tool you can select the “short” mode to rewrite your essay in less words. Just copy your text in the tool and within 1 click you’ll have shortened your essay.
If you’re significantly under the word count, you’re wasting the opportunity to show depth and authenticity in your essay. Admissions officers may see your short essay as a sign that you’re unable to write a detailed, insightful narrative about yourself.
Here are some strategies for expanding your essay.
Show detailed examples, and don’t tell generic stories
You should include detailed examples that can’t be replicated by another student. Use vivid imagery, the five senses, and specific objects to transport the reader into your story.
Reveal your feelings and insight
If your essay lacks vulnerability or self-reflection, share your feelings and the lessons you’ve learned.
Be creative with how you express your feelings; rather than simply writing “I’m happy,” use memorable images to help the reader clearly visualize your happiness. Similarly, for insight, include the follow-up actions from your lessons learned; instead of claiming “I became a hard worker,” explain what difficult tasks you accomplished as a result of what you learned.
If you want to know more about academic writing , effective communication , or parts of speech , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.
- Writing process
- Transition words
- Passive voice
- How to end an email
- Ms, mrs, miss
- How to start an email
- I hope this email finds you well
- Hope you are doing well
Parts of speech
- Personal pronouns
Most college application portals specify a word count range for your essay, and you should stay within 10% of the upper limit to write a developed and thoughtful essay.
You should aim to stay under the specified word count limit to show you can follow directions and write concisely. However, don’t write too little, as it may seem like you are unwilling or unable to write a detailed and insightful narrative about yourself.
If no word count is specified, we advise keeping your essay between 400 and 600 words.
If you’re struggling to reach the word count for your college essay, add vivid personal stories or share your feelings and insight to give your essay more depth and authenticity.
If your college essay goes over the word count limit , cut any sentences with tangents or irrelevant details. Delete unnecessary words that clutter your essay.
You can speed up this process by shortening and smoothing your writing with a paraphrasing tool . After that, you can use the summarizer to shorten it even more.
There is no set number of paragraphs in a college admissions essay . College admissions essays can diverge from the traditional five-paragraph essay structure that you learned in English class. Just make sure to stay under the specified word count .
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Sat / act prep online guides and tips, complete strategies: common app essay prompts (2023-24).
You can write about almost anything and make it work, so if you have an idea, don't let the fact that it doesn't fit neatly into one of these categories stop you. Treat these breakdowns as jumping-off points to help you start brainstorming , not the final word in how you need to approach the essay.
Make Sure You Look at This Year's Prompts
The Common App changes its prompts fairly frequently , so make sure you're familiar with the most up-to-date versions of the Common App essay questions . If you have friends or siblings who applied in past years, don't assume that you can take the exact same approaches they did.
This guide will go over the details of all seven current prompts, but first let's talk about some overall advice.
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4 Tips For Finding Your Best Common App Essay Topic
As you're brainstorming and preparing to write your Common App essay, you'll want to keep these tips in mind.
First, it means that you genuinely care about the topic and want to write your college essay on it— no one ever wrote a great essay on a topic that they felt they had to write about .
Second, it means that the topic shows off a quality or trait you want to highlight for the admissions committee . For example, say I wanted to write about my summer job with the Parks Department. It's not enough to simply tell a story about my feud with a raccoon that kept destroying all the progress I made repairing a bench; I would need to make it clear what that experience ;shows about my character (perseverance) and explain what it ;taught me (that there are some things in life you simply can't control).
Remember that the most important thing is that your essay is about you . This advice might sound obvious, but when you're used to writing academic essays, it can be tricky to dive deep into your own perspective.
#2: Take Your Time
Give yourself plenty of time to brainstorm and write so you don't feel rushed into jotting down the first thing you can come up with and sending it right off. We recommend starting the writing process two months in advance of your first college application deadline .
On a similar note, you should take the essay seriously: it's an important part of your application and worth investing the time in to get right. If you just dash something off thoughtlessly, admissions officers will recognize that and consider it evidence that you aren't really interested in their school.
#3: Avoid Repetition
Your essay should illustrate something about you beyond what's in the rest of your application . Try to write about a topic you haven't talked about elsewhere, or take a different angle on it.
A college essay is not a resume —it's the best opportunity to show off your unique personality to admissions committees. Pick your topic accordingly.
#4: Get Specific
The best topics are usually the narrowest ones: essays focused on a single interaction, a single phrase, or a single object. The more specific you can get, the more unique your topic will be to you.
Lots of people have tried out for a school play, for example, but each had their own particular experience of doing so. One student saw trying out for the role of Hamlet as the culmination of many years of study and hard work and was devastated not to get it, while another was simply proud to have overcome her nerves enough to try out for the chorus line in West Side Story . These would make for very different essays, even though they're on basically the same topic.
Another benefit of a specific topic is that it makes coming up with supporting details much easier. Specific, sensory details make the reader feel as if they're seeing the experience through your eyes, giving them a better sense of who you are.
Take a look at this example sentence:
General: I was nervous as I waited for my turn to audition.
Specific: As I waited for my name to be called, I tapped the rhythm of "America" on the hard plastic chair, going through the beats of my audition song over and over in my head.
The first version could be written by almost anyone; the second version has a specific perspective—it's also intriguing and makes you want to know more.
The more specific your essay topic is, the more clearly your unique voice will come through and the more engaging your essay will be.
Breaking Down the 2022-23 Common App Essay Prompts
Now that we've established the basic ideas you need to keep in mind as you brainstorm, let's go through the 2022-23 Common App essay questions one at a time and break down what admissions committees are looking for in responses.
Keep in mind that for each of these questions, there are really two parts . The first is describing something you did or something that happened to you. The second is explaining what that event, action, or activity means to you . No essay is complete without addressing both sides of the topic.
Next, it had to have had some sort of real impact so you can explain how your gratefulness affected you. This means that, even if the event itself was small, it had to have brought about some sort of lasting change in how you live your life.
To start, brainstorm times when something went better than expected/you were happily surprised by an outcome/you were especially grateful/someone restored your faith in humanity. Remember, this has to be, overall, a positive situation, as you're being asked about an event that made you happy or grateful. This is in contrast to prompts 2 and 3 which focus more on challenges you've faced.
Once you have your list, eliminate any instances that didn't affect or motivate you. The key part of this prompt is explaining the impact of your gratitude, so you need to write about a time when gratitude made you do something you normally wouldn't have done. This could be focusing on self-care/self-improvement, paying it forward by helping someone else, shifting your values, etc. Colleges want to see how you changed because of this event.
For example, say you decide to write about your first time traveling through an airport alone. You're not sure where to go, and all the workers look busy and like they're just waiting for their break. You're wandering around, lost, too shy to ask someone for help, when a gruff-looking employee comes up and asks if you need something. When you admit you don't know how to find your gate, they take the time to walk you to it, show you which screen to watch so you know when to board, and tell you to come get them if you need any more help. It's much more help than you thought anyone would give you.
Because of that person's actions (and this is the key part), you now always keep an eye out for people who look lost or confused and try to help them because you know how intimidating it can be to be out of your depth. You also know that many times people feel embarrassed to ask for help, so you need to make the first move to help them. If you have a specific example of you helping someone in need as a result, including that will make the essay even stronger.
Avoid scenarios where you were the first person to help another. The prompt is asking about a time someone was kind to you, and then you reacted in response to that. You need to have the grateful moment first, then the change in behavior.
Additionally, avoid examples where someone treated you badly but you rose above it. This is a situation where someone was kind to you, and you decided to keep that kindness going.
Common App Essay Prompt 6: Your Passion
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?
This prompt is asking you to describe something you're intellectually passionate about .
But in addition to describing a topic of personal fascination and why you're so interested in it, you need to detail how you have pursued furthering your own knowledge of the topic . Did you undertake extra study? Hole yourself up in the library? Ask your math team coach for more practice problems?
Colleges want to admit students who are intellectually engaged with the world. They want you to show that you have a genuine love for the pursuit of knowledge .
Additionally, by describing how you've learned more about your chosen topic, concept, or idea, you can prove that you are self-motivated and resourceful .
Pretty much any topic you're really interested in and passionate about could make a good essay here, just as long as you can put can put an intellectual spin on it and demonstrate that you've gone out of your way to learn about the topic.
So It's fine to say that the topic that engages you most is football, but talk about what interests you in an academic sense about the sport. Have you learned everything there is to know about the history of the sport? Are you an expert on football statistics? Emphasize how the topic you are writing about engages your brain.
Don't pick something you don't actually care about just because you think it would sound good.
If you say you love black holes but actually hate them and tortured yourself with astronomy books in the library for a weekend to glean enough knowledge to write your essay, your lack of enthusiasm will definitely come through.
Common App Essay Prompt 7: Your Choice
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.
You can write about anything for this one!
Since this is a choose-your-own-adventure prompt, colleges aren't looking for anything specific to this prompt .
However, you'll want to demonstrate some of the same qualities that colleges are looking for in all college essays: things like academic passion, maturity, resourcefulness, and persistence. What are your values? How do you face setbacks? These are all things you can consider touching on in your essay.
If you already have a topic in mind for this one that doesn't really fit with any of the other prompts, go for it!
Avoid essays that aren't really about you as a person. So no submitting your rhetorical close-reading of the poem "Ode on a Grecian Urn" you wrote for AP English!
However, if you want to write about the way that "Ode on a Grecian Urn" made you reconsider your entire approach to life, go ahead.
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The Common App Essay Questions: 5 Key Takeaways
We've covered a lot of ground, but don't panic. I've collected the main ideas you should keep in mind as you plan your Common App essay below.
#5: Don't Worry About What You Think You're Supposed to Write
There is no single right answer to these prompts , and if you try to find one, you'll end up doing yourself a disservice. What's important is to tell your story—and no one can tell you what that means because it's unique to you.
Many students believe that they should write about resume-padding activities that look especially impressive, such as volunteering abroad. These essays are often boring and derivative because the writer doesn't really have anything to say on the topic and assumes it'll speak for itself.
But the point of a personal statement isn't to explain what you've done; it's to show who you are .
Take the time to brainstorm and figure out what you want to show colleges about yourself and what story or interest best exemplifies that quality.
For more background on college essays and tips for crafting a great one, check out our complete explanation of the basics of the personal statement .
Make sure you're prepared for the rest of the college application process as well with our guides to asking for recommendations , writing about extracurriculars , taking the SAT , and researching colleges .
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:
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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Make the most of the common app essay word count: your incredible guide.
Before we begin, you should always abide by the college essay word count. Following the word count means you’ll follow the rules on campus. It’s the little things that count.
If you are applying to colleges using the Common Application (Common App), you will have to limit your college essay to 650 words . That’s just over one page of single-spaced type.
- For an essay that’s meant to give admissions officers insight into you, how you would contribute to a college campus, and what sets you apart from other applicants, 650 words doesn’t seem like much.
Even if you aren’t filling out the Common App, most college essays set word limits around 500-750 words.
In the rare case there is no established word limit, most experts recommend not exceeding 900 words for a college essay.
How can you make the most of 650 (or so) words? Follow the tips below to write an impressive, effective Common App essay that sticks to the word limit.
1. Narrow down the topic.
The best way to write a concise, effective essay is to select a topic that’s as specific as possible .
- For example, it would be difficult to thoroughly cover all of your high school volunteer experience in 650 words.
If you attempted to do so, you would likely be forced to leave out all kinds of information. You wouldn’t have enough words to give a close, personal look at your own experiences and how they have shaped you.
If you narrowed this topic down, you might choose to focus on the volunteer work you did with one specific organization. While this is an improvement, it’s still a fairly broad topic.
You could narrow down the topic even more by choosing one specific project, like volunteering at a nursing home.
- Even better would be an essay centered on a particular relationship you formed with a resident in the nursing home, or a favorite afternoon spent with this resident.
As you work on selecting this topic, narrow it down as much as possible.
The more specific the topic, the more likely you will be able to produce a thorough, well-written, and powerful essay.
2. Plan the essay.
The Common App essay word count shouldn’t be a surprise.
Taking time to plan the essay before writing can also help you make the most of your word limit.
As you plan, you should focus on what is essential to include in the essay, cutting information that isn’t necessary or doesn’t add anything important.
To do so, you have to understand the purpose of the college essay:
- To help admissions officers get to know you (beyond the information already included in the application)
- To demonstrate what you might contribute to a college campus
- To set you apart from similarly qualified applicants
You should focus on including information that accomplishes these purposes.
- For instance, you can avoid including too much information that is found elsewhere in the application or that likely applies to most college applicants.
Planning in advance will also help you write an organized, focused essay. This way, you’ll avoid rambling and wasting words as you write your draft.
3. Keep the introduction brief.
This is usually where students go over the Common App essay word limit.
To make sure there are plenty of words left for the “meat” of the essay, it’s important to keep the introduction relatively short.
An effective introduction for a college essay should be engaging, interesting, and brief .
- You don’t need to go into detail about everything you will discuss in the essay.
- Instead, you should provide a brief preview that leaves the admissions officer wanting to know more.
An introduction that’s somewhat intriguing or mysterious can be very effective in a college essay, and this is best achieved with a short, powerful introduction.
The introduction shouldn’t be more than 5-6 sentences unless you have a reason for including key information. Historically, students tend to cram the introduction with too much background detail.
In order to avoid including too much background detail, highlight the critical sentences in your introduction — these are the sentences that create the meaning and essence of the introduction. Evaluate the sentences you didn’t highlight; can you delete them?
As a general rule, if your introduction comprises over 24% of your entire college essay word count, it might be too long.
4. Focus on what’s important.
Regardless of the topic of the essay, it should be largely focused on you. For example, most essays should explain:
- How the essay’s topic has impacted your life
- How the essay’s topic has shaped you as a person
- Why this topic is so significant to you
- What this topic says about you/how it’s linked to your goals and passions
The majority of the 650 words should be devoted to developing these ideas because this is what is most important to admissions officers.
As an example, let’s take a look at one of the prompts for the Common Application.
Prompt #2 for 2018-2019 reads:
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?
If you addressed this prompt, a portion of the essay would be spent describing a “challenge, setback or failure” you have faced.
But the majority of the essay should be devoted to explaining how you overcame the obstacle and what you learned from the experience.
- The essay should demonstrate positive qualities you possess, like determination, resilience, and humility.
No matter what prompt you choose, you can generally follow these guidelines.
The most significant number of words should be reserved for reflection on how your life has been influenced or changed, what you have learned, or why this topic matters to you.
This is a good exercise to ensure you’re focusing on what’s important:
- Highlight all the critical sentences in your essay — topic sentences, supporting sentences, storytelling sentences.
- Evaluate the sentences you did not highlight. What are the purposes of these sentences? Are you repeating things? Can you delete these sentences without diluting the meaning of the essay?
Think of words, phrases, and sentences as $100 bills. You want to spend them wisely.
5. Be concise.
Sticking to such a tight word limit requires concise writing. Concise writing avoids unnecessary words and sentences. It’s succinct and to the point.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t include details or make interesting use of language. However, word choice should be deliberate. Avoid extraneous words such as:
You can also steer clear of using too many adverbs, and repetition. For example, “The reason for _____________ is because…” is repetitive. You don’t need to say “reason” and “because” in the same sentence, because one implies the other.
Avoiding repetition, unnecessary words, and excessive adverbs can help you write concisely and stick to the word limit.
Also, take a look at phrases, quotes, and aphorisms you use. You don’t want to use phrases and quotes that other authors have written.
You want as many words as possible to have been originally written by you. Anything else takes the focus off your voice.
Last, avoid cliches. Plain and simple.
6. Reread and revise.
By following the first five tips, you should be able to meet the word limit while still producing an effective piece of writing.
If, however, the essay still exceeds the word limit, you will need to reread and revise .
- You can do this yourself, but you can also enlist friends, family members, or teachers to assist you. Unnecessary details or sentences can be cut, but the focus will likely be on cutting unneeded words.
Look for words that aren’t strictly necessary or don’t add anything of merit to the essay.
- For example, let’s look at the above sentence. If we needed to trim some words from this article, we could delete, “to the essay” from the end of the sentence, making the sentence: “Look for words that aren’t strictly necessary or don’t add anything of merit.”
You already know that we’re talking about an essay, so those last three words aren’t essential.
We could also cut the adjective “strictly” if needed. We’ve shortened the article by four words already.
If you read carefully through your essay and trim non-essential words, reaching the word limit should be a painless process (And if you’ve followed Steps 1-5, there shouldn’t be too many extra words to cut).
Remember our third piece of advice: Students usually exceed the Common App word limit in their introductions. Trim the introduction and then move down.
Recap: Following the Common App Essay Word Limit
To make the most of the word limit, you should:
- Choose a topic that’s as specific as possible.
- Thoroughly plan the essay before drafting.
- Keep the introduction short.
- Focus on what matters to admissions officers.
- Be concise by avoiding repetition, excessive adverbs, and unnecessary words.
- Read and revise, trimming non-essential words if needed.
Following these tips will help you write an engaging and impressive college essay, all while sticking to the word limit.
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What is the min/max word count for the essays on the Questions page or Writing Supplement?
Jul 25, 2023 • knowledge, information.
Ideal College Application Essay Length
Can you go over the Common App length limit? How long should your essay be?
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The 2019-20 version of the Common Application has an essay length limit of 650 words and a minimum length of 250 words. This limit has remained unchanged for the past several years. Learn how important this word limit is and how to make the most of your 650 words.
Key Takeaways: Common Application Essay Length
- Your Common Application essay must be between 250 words and 650 words.
- Don't assume shorter is better. A college requires an essay because they want to learn more about you.
- Never go over the limit. Show that you can follow instructions and that you know how to edit.
How Strict Is the Limit?
Many wonder whether they can go over the limit, even if only by a few words. What if you feel that you need more space to communicate all of your ideas clearly?
650 words is not a lot of space in which to convey your personality, passions, and writing ability to the people in admissions offices—and the title and any explanatory notes are also included in this limit. The holistic admissions processes of most schools prove that colleges really do want to get to know the person behind your test scores and grades . Since the essay is one of the best places for showcasing who you are, is it worth it to go over?
Most experts recommend adhering to the limit. The Common Application will even prompt its applicants if they exceed the word count to prevent them from going over. Most admissions officers have stated that, while they will read all essays in their entirety, they are less inclined to feel that essays over 650 accomplish what they set out to do. In short: any of the prompts can and should be answered in 650 words or fewer.
Choosing the Right Length
If everything from 250 to 650 words is fair game, what length is best? Some counselors advise students to keep their essays on the shorter end, but not all colleges place the most value in succinctness.
The personal essay is the most powerful tool at your disposal for showing readers your personality without meeting them. If you've chosen a focus that reveals something meaningful about you, you're probably going to need more than 250 words to create a thoughtful, introspective, and effective essay. However, it isn't essential to hit the 650 mark, either.
From the Admissions Desk
"There is no need to meet the full word count  if the essay captures what the student would like to share. Visually, you want to make sure the essay looks complete and robust. As a general rule, I would suggest the essay be between 500-650 words."
–Valerie Marchand Welsh Director of College Counseling, The Baldwin School Former Associate Dean of Admissions, University of Pennsylvania
Each of the Common App essay prompts creates different writing challenges, but no matter which option you choose, your essay should be detailed and analytical, and it should provide a window into some important dimension of your interests, values, or personality. Ask yourself: Will the admissions officers know me better after reading my essay? Chances are, an essay in the 500- to 650-word range will accomplish this task better than a shorter essay
In general, the length of an essay does not determine its effectiveness. If you have answered the prompt in its entirety and feel proud of your work, there is no need to stress about any particular word count. Do not pad your essay with filler content and tautologies to stretch it out, and on the flip side, don't leave important sections out in the interest of keeping the essay brief.
Why You Shouldn't Go Over the Essay Length Limit
Some colleges will allow you to exceed the limit set by the Common Application, but you should avoid writing more than 650 words in all cases for the following reasons:
- College students adhere to guidelines : If a professor assigns a five-page paper, they don't want a 10-page paper and you don't have 55 minutes to take 50-minute exams. The message that you send to a college when you write a powerful essay in 650 words or fewer, even when they accept longer submissions, is that you can succeed under any conditions.
- Essays that are too long can leave a negative impression: Essays over 650 may make you appear over-confident. The word counts have been established by experts for a reason and writing more than you are allowed might make it seem like you think what you have to say is more important than other applicants, who have to follow the rules. Avoid seeming self-important by stopping yourself from going overboard.
- Good writers know how to edit and cut : Any college writing professor would tell you that most essays become stronger when they are trimmed. There are almost always words, sentences, and even entire paragraphs that don't contribute to an essay and can be omitted. As you revise any essay you write, ask yourself which parts help you to make your point and which get in the way—everything else can go. Use these 9 style tips to tighten up your language.
College admissions officers will read essays that are too long but may consider them to be rambling, unfocused, or poorly-edited. Remember that your essay is one of many and your readers will wonder why yours is longer when it doesn't need to be.
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How To Answer the 2023-24 Common App Essay Prompts
Looking for help with the 2023-24 Common Application Essay? Below CEA’s Founder, Stacey Brook, breaks down all you need to know about this year’s prompts.
Stacey Brook, Founder and Chief Advisor
Hello, students and parents of the future class of 2028! The time has come. The Common App essay prompts for 2023-24 have been released and—spoiler alert—they’re exactly the same as last year’s! 2023-24 college applicants, like those who came before them, will have seven (that’s right, seven) essay prompts to choose from. This wide range of questions, meant to inspire candidates in their search for compelling personal stories, is ideal for exploring essay topics of all tones, styles, and subjects. Students’ personal stories and feats of insight will again be relegated to 650 words, which equates to a little more than a single-spaced page. We happen to believe this is the perfect amount of space in which to make a quick and powerful impression with admissions (or write a comprehensive fan letter to Beyoncé), so as far as we’re concerned, you’re golden.
Because we are committed to getting you the most timely and comprehensive essay advice on the interweb, we have made a guide to help you navigate the ins and outs of all seven prompts.
Before you dive (or cannonball!) into our pool of essay advice, we’d like to leave you with one last little secret: the prompts are not actually as important as you think they are . In fact, in our instructional YouTube videos and private advising , we encourage applicants to root around for their most meaningful stories first and consider the prompts later. This is a process we call the Backwards Brainstorm, and you can learn more about it here . For now, the main point we want you to take away is this: The prompts don’t really matter. What matters is the story you want to tell. (And that you floss at least every other day—trust us, it will pay off in the long run.) We are as sure as ever that every single one of you has a valuable story (or two or twelve!) to communicate to admissions. All it takes is ample time for reflection and a little writerly elbow grease to find it. So take a peek at what the 2023-24 application has in store for you, absorb what these prompts are really asking, and then forget about them (really!) as you explore the endless possibilities.
How To Write Common App Prompt #1: The Background Essay
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.
The Common App’s Prompt #1 is the Old Faithful of essay questions. It’s been around for years and offers all the flexibility an applicant could ask for from a prompt, with just enough direction to get those creative fountains flowing. Focus on the key words, “background,” “identity,” “interest,” and “talent,” and use them as launch points for your brainstorming. What about your history, personality, hobbies, or accomplishments might be worth highlighting for an admissions officer? It can be something as small as seeing an episode of a television show (are you living life in the Upside Down?) or as large as the struggle of moving to a foreign country (especially if you had to leave behind grandma’s cooking). The most important thing to consider for this prompt is that your subject and/or perspective is dynamic and specific to you and who you are and no one else.
Some questions to ask yourself as you brainstorm:
- What about my history or background sets me apart from my peers?
- How do I define myself? How do the people who are closest to me define me?
- What have I achieved that has been integral in molding my character and ambitions?
- What, in my seventeen years on this earth, has helped shape the person I am today?
And some examples to consider:
- Has your family’s love of food and your resultant adventurous tastes and culinary curiosity allowed you to connect with cultures from around the world?
- Does your crazy, dyed-blue hair define you?
- Did going to a Picasso exhibit inspire you to start an art collection that has since expanded beyond the borders of your bedroom?
- Have your yearly trips to see your extended family in China revealed something to you about your parents’ ability to overcome challenges and the work ethic you have absorbed as a result?
- What are the challenges and rewards of having same-sex parents? Or of being raised by your siblings? Or of being part of a family made up of stepsisters and stepbrothers?
Overall, this prompt is what we at College Essay Advisors call a “choose-your-own-adventure” prompt. It has historically served as a fabulous catch-all for subjects that don’t fit within the confines of the other prompt options. A recent addition to the Common App’s prompt selection now offers even more freedom to applicants (more on that later), but students should still think of Prompt #1 as a topic of immense choice, reeled in by a few helpful guidelines.
How To Write Common App Prompt #2: The Setback Essay
PROMPT #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?
We have always believed that essays about overcoming obstacles are most effective when they focus more on solutions than problems. Accordingly, Prompt #2 essays should be predominantly filled with a student’s response, outlook, and demeanor when presented with one of life’s many hurdles, rather than a detailed account of the hurdle itself. Applicants should aim to showcase qualities like resilience, determination, and humility. The obstacles you choose to explore can vary widely in nature, especially with the recent additions that allow students to explore challenges and setbacks in addition to failures. They can be as serious as being tormented by bullies, as ingrained as the financial issues that have plagued your family for years, or as seemingly pedestrian as a mistake that costs you a tip while waiting tables. While the possibilities are almost endless, students should be careful not to choose challenges that may seem trite (the inability to achieve an A on an exam and/or secure tickets to that BTS concert) or that illustrate a lapse in good judgment (that time you crashed your car or ate 15 bags of Cheetos in one sitting). Still, if you can isolate an incident of trial in your life and illustrate how you learned from it, this can be a rewarding prompt to explore.
Some key questions to consider:
- How do you deal with hardship?
- What qualifies as a challenge or setback in your life and world?
- Are you the kind of person who can rebound and turn every experience, good or bad, into one from which you can learn something? What experiences might illustrate this quality?
- What have been some of the major challenges you’ve encountered in your life? And was there a silver lining?
And a few examples to think about:
- Has a lifelong battle with stuttering ultimately increased your overall confidence and allowed you to participate in social activities and public forums without self-judgment?
- Did a parent’s fragile health situation challenge you to take on more responsibilities than the average teenager?
- Did a series of setbacks on your road to becoming a child actor introduce you to screenwriting, your professional goal and biggest passion?
- Did your failure to follow directions lead you to a botched home science experiment (root beer explosion!) and an appreciation for a balance of creativity and planned procedure?
Overall, try to keep these stories as positive as possible. Remember, these essays are not contemplative musings on your toughest times or reflections on the hiccups that populate everyday life (though these things can certainly be touched upon); they are about overcoming obstacles and refusing to submit to life’s greatest challenges.
How To Write Common App Prompt #3: The Challenge Essay
PROMPT #3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
This remains one of the most challenging prompts of the Common App’s selection, even though it has become slightly friendlier with the addition of the option to discuss a time you questioned an idea instead of challenged one. This prompt requires a student to speak passionately about beliefs and ideology, which are often onerous subjects that can be difficult to mold into compact stories. It can be one of the hardest questions to steer in a positive, productive direction without traveling into preachy, overly didactic territory. This is also a more precarious prompt than most in that students need to carefully assess the risks of espousing beliefs that might be polarizing for the readers of their applications.
That said, a response to this prompt can be incisive and deeply personal, as it was for a student who stood up to her parents’ old-fashioned outlook on feminism. Applicants who can articulate their thoughts and feelings while showcasing malleability and willingness to thoughtfully consider the ideas of others will likely stand out as valuable additions to any campus. If this prompt jumps out at you because you have a very specific story to tell or opinion to voice, run with it!
Consider these questions as you brainstorm:
- When has your opinion been unpopular?
- Why are you the kind of person who is willing to stand up for what you believe in?
- What is important to you on a fundamental level of morals and values?
- How passionate are you about the things you believe in?
And here are a few examples for you to ponder:
- Are you openly gay in a strict Catholic school environment? What has that meant for your self-esteem and personal relationships?
- Did you work as an intern on a political campaign caught at the center of a scandal? How did you react?
- Did you challenge the idea of horror as a throw-away genre by executing an extensive research paper on the subject, launching a horror movie club at school, and arranging the most elaborate, best-received haunted house your neighborhood has ever seen?
Your essay does not have to be focused around a fundamentally serious or groundbreaking issue (see the horror genre example above). What matters most when responding to this prompt is that you have strong convictions about the belief or idea you are trying to convey, and that you examine the personal effects of this ethos on your life and world. For this reason, Prompt #3 can be a great vehicle for showcasing your consideration, persuasive skills, and passions to admissions.
How To Write Common App Prompt #4: The Gratitude Essay
PROMPT #4: Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
We love Prompt #4, which asks students to talk about a time when they felt gratitude. So many of the Common App prompts set students up to talk about what they do for others. Just as important, however, is how applicants react and respond when they are the recipients of something meaningful themselves. Gratitude is quickly becoming a quality individuals are encouraged to connect to and reflect on regularly, hence the popularity of gratitude journals and exercises. (Brainstorming method alert!) This question is meant to offer students the opportunity to reflect on the role gratitude plays in their lives, as well as how the practice of giving thanks and acknowledging life’s gifts motivates and inspires them.
Students should think about times when they have felt acknowledged, heard, and seen. Moments when they have felt that swelling in their chest, as their heart grows three sizes. Think creatively about what you appreciate in your life. It can be a physical gift, an action, or even just a set of feelings projected in your direction. You can be intimately familiar with the person who has inspired your gratitude, or reflect on the actions of a near stranger or even a public figure who has impacted your life for the better. Just remember that this essay needs to focus on how you process, appreciate and draw inspiration from the action of others, so make sure your response is focused on YOU. Ultimately, admissions wants to know more about how you relate to others in the world, and how you repurpose good intentions.
Some questions to ponder:
- How do you like to pay it forward in your daily life?
- How (and why!) do you express gratitude and appreciation?
- What are your favorite random acts of kindness?
- Has anyone ever restored your faith in humanity? How?
- Do you believe in karma? Why?
And examples to use as food for thought:
- Did a kind gesture from a stranger inspire you to keep paying it forward? How do you do so and what’s become of your wholesome intentions?
- Have you ever received an unexpected gift from someone? Why was this gift so meaningful to you? How did you express your gratitude?
- Do you feel appreciative of a public figure for the work they have done to raise awareness about issues that are important to you? How do you give back?
It’s important that the story you choose to tell is linked to your life and world in a meaningful way. The whole purpose of this exercise is to reveal something valuable about yourself to admissions, so be sure to link the act of kindness you highlight to your passions, actions, or aspirations. And don’t forget to detail how this gift affected you then and still motivates you now. Once you’ve settled into your prompt of choice, following instructions to the fullest and answering all parts of each question are critical.
How To Write Common App Prompt #5: The Accomplishment Essay
PROMPT #5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
There are a few things to note when unpacking this prompt. Keep in mind that the words “accomplishment” and “event” leave themselves open to interpretation; thus, an essay inspired by this question can tackle anything from a formal event to a very small occurrence. A formal event or accomplishment might include anything from obvious landmarks like birthdays or weddings to achievements like earning an award or receiving a promotion. More informal examples might include something as simple as meeting a special person in your life, taking a car ride, or eating a particularly meaningful meal. We have often found that smaller, less formal events make for more surprising and memorable essays; but as with any of the other prompts, as long as you can answer with originality and put a unique twist on your subject matter, all ideas are fair game.
Your reflection on what you have learned and how you have grown will be a source of great insight for admissions, and you want to make sure your essay highlights the intangible qualities that don’t show up anywhere else on an application.
Some other things to consider:
- How do you react to periods of transition? What inspires a change in your perspective?
- When have you had a “eureka” moment, and how has it impacted the way you lived your life thereafter?
- What were the moments in life that fundamentally changed you as a person?
- When did you learn something that made you feel more adult, more capable, more grown up?
- Did your expansion of a handmade stationery hobby into a full-fledged business give you the motivation and wherewithal to combat the effects of a debilitating illness?
- Have you learned to love the football team playback sessions that force you to routinely examine your mistakes, welcome constructive criticism and point yourself toward self-improvement?
- Did a summer-long role as the U.S. President in a mock government and diplomacy exercise bring out leadership skills you never knew you had?
- What did playing bridge at a senior citizens’ home each week show you about the value of enjoyment over competition? How did this change the way you interact and connect with others?
The most important things to keep in mind when searching for these moments are the elements of growth, understanding, and transformation. The event, accomplishment, or realization you discuss should be something that helped you understand the world around you through a different, more mature lens.
How To Write Common App Prompt #6: The Passion Essay
PROMPT #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?
One could argue that college is largely about the pursuit of knowledge, so you can imagine it would be quite appealing for an admissions officer to have a meter for your level of self-motivated learning, along with a better understanding of how and why you choose to pay attention to the things that intrigue you. This is a window into your brain: how you process information, how you seek out new sources of content and inspiration. How resourceful are you when your curiosity is piqued to the fullest? The answer to this prompt should also reveal something to admissions about the breadth or depth of your interests. For example, if you’re interested in studying astrophysics, you might choose to discuss a concept that shows how far your exploration of the sciences truly reaches. How consumed are you by this passion you are choosing to pursue academically?
- What floats your boat? Do you have an appetite for knowledge about something specific? Or, as we asked in the breakdown for Prompt #1: what do you love, and why do you love it?
- What lengths have you gone to in order to acquire new information about or experiences related to a topic of interest?
- How do you typically seek to enrich your knowledge when something appeals to you? Do you have a favorite corner of the library (or internet)? A mentor who is open to answering your burning questions?
- What about the process of learning, especially about subjects that call out to you, is satisfying?
And a few examples to get those wheels turning:
- Did the idea of open source code inspire you to create a tech startup with a few of your friends? What new projects within the company are you most excited to work on?
- Did getting an internship at an accounting firm inspire you to start each day by checking the markets? Do you participate in a mock trading club that allows you to use the expertise you gather from culling through economic news and analysis online and beyond?
- On any given Sunday morning, could we find you lost in the literature of Kurt Vonnegut or immersed in a collection of stories by Isaac Asimov?
- Have you taught yourself to master the compositions of Mozart and Beethoven and break down the songs of Bruno Mars by ear in your spare time?
- Do you have an obsession with pizza so intense it led you to study the culinary arts and keep a pizza journal that documents the 700+ slices you’ve consumed thus far? (We know someone who did this—really.) How is pizza-making more scientific and/or artistic than the average person realizes?
Whatever you’re into, embrace it. Show your feathers. Let your freak flag fly (within reason, obvs). This prompt is about the pursuit of knowledge and your desire to proactively challenge yourself. Whether you are devouring the classics on your Kindle or nerding out over the perfect cheese for calzone-making, your attachment to a subject may inspire admissions to want to learn more about it…and you.
How To Write Common App Prompt #7: Topic of Your Choice
PROMPT #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.
Feared by some, coveted by others, and legendary in its existence; regardless of where you stand on the issue, this was a newsworthy addition to the 2017-18 Common App prompt choices. For years, students have been treating Prompt #1 (which asks about your background, etc.) as topic of your choice *light*—it wasn’t exactly the delicious, full-freedom version students were looking for, but they were able to make it work in a pinch. Applicants around the world likely let out a big exhale when they saw they could still serve up a big scoop of Prompt #7 to admissions in previous seasons. And this year will be no different.
Some questions to consider as you brainstorm, in addition to all of the ones we’ve posed thus far:
- What do you want admissions to know about you that they wouldn’t be able to glean from your transcript, test scores, or teacher recommendations?
- What are the stories that come up over and over again, at the dinner table or in the cafeteria with your friends, that might give admissions some insight into who you are and what is important to you?
- If you had ten minutes alone in a room with an admissions officer, what would you want to talk about or tell him or her about yourself?
- What would you bring to a college campus that no one else would or could?
And a few examples of potential subjects and their related (custom!) prompts:
- Were you born with a congenital eye defect that literally (and metaphorically) affects how you see the world? ( Q: How is your perspective on the world unique?)
- Do you spend 40 minutes each Friday night tutoring a class of elementary school students in Cambodia? How has that impacted the way you mete out your time and assess your commitments? ( Q: What is the value of 40 minutes?)
- Did your parents let your older brother choose your name? What was his inspiration? (Please tell us your name is Gaston .) What does your name represent for you? How has it impacted your interactions in the world? ( Q: What’s in a name?)
While being able to write about whatever you wish sounds great in theory, some students find—especially at the beginning of the brainstorming process—that they are debilitated by the “topic of your choice” option because it offers too much choice. If that is the case, fear not! Use some of the other prompts as starting points for your brainstorming and free writing journeys. Begin keeping a diary ( now! ) and jot down subjects, events, and memories as they float to the surface. Now that you have read our handy-dandy prompt guide and understand what admissions is looking for from these prompts, you could very well have a notebook filled with ideas that are ripe for expansion by the time you sit down to write.
So don’t worry about having too many ideas, or not having enough ideas, especially at the beginning of the topic selection process. Once you figure out what you’d like to say (and maybe even after you draft the crux of the essay itself), see if your concept fits one of the first six prompts. Trying to tailor your essay to a more specific prompt option may inspire an interesting spin on the story you are trying to tell—one you may not have thought of otherwise. Form influences content. If, after careful consideration, your magic essay topic does not work within the confines of Prompts 1-6, you are in luck. The glorious, all-encompassing Prompt #7 will be here to catch you.
With some brainstorming and hard work, every student can uncover a story worth telling in response to one of these prompts. Remember, admissions wants a glimpse of your personality, your values, your interests and your passions. They want to get an idea of what kind of attitude and energy you will bring to the classroom and campus life.
So take a few minutes to probe your memories, collect your stories and strike up that creative core. Every student has a fabulous essay inside of them – these prompts can help you find yours.
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2023-2024 Common App essay prompts
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We are pleased to announce that the Common App essay prompts will remain the same for 2023-2024.
It’s not just for the sake of consistency that we have chosen to keep the essay prompts the same for the upcoming application year. Our past research has shown that overall satisfaction with the prompts exceeded 95% across our constituent groups - students, counselors, advisors, teachers, and member colleges. Moving forward, we want to learn more about who is choosing certain prompts to see if there are any noteworthy differences among student populations.
We know some schools are beginning to have conversations with juniors and transfer students about their college options. As we’ve always said, this is not a call for students to begin writing. We hope that by sharing the prompts now, students will have the time they need to reflect on their own personal stories and begin thinking about what they want to share with colleges. As you assist students with their planning, feel free to share our Common App Ready resource on approaching the essay (in English and Spanish ). You can also visit our YouTube channel to view our breakdown of all 7 Common App essay prompts .
"Moving forward, we want to learn more about who is choosing certain prompts to see if there are any noteworthy differences among student populations." Meredith Lombardi, Director, Education and Training, Common App
Students who are ready to start exploring the application can create their Common App account prior to August 1. With account rollover , we will retain any responses to questions on the Common App tab, including the personal essay.
Below is the full set of essay prompts for 2023-2024.
- 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?
- Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
- 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.
We will retain the optional community disruption question within the Writing section.
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Common App launches direct admissions program with 70 colleges and universities
You can now apply to City Year on the Common App
Common App Essays 2023‒2024
Each year, the Common Application organization releases the prompts for the Common App essays. Often referred to as the “personal statement,” Common App essays are a central part of the college application process. Students can choose from one of seven Common App essay prompts to best showcase who they are to admissions officers.
In this guide, we’ll cover:
- All new Common App prompts for the 2023-24 admissions cycle
- What are Common App essays?
How many Common App essays are required?
- How long your Common App essays should be
- What makes a great college essay
- Each of the prompts for the Common App essays
- Some Common App essay tips
- Good college essay topics
- A timeline to help you write your Common App essay
- More Common Application resources from CollegeAdvisor
To learn how to write compelling Common App essays, read on!
New Common App Prompts for 2023-2024
Common App revisits their prompts every year. Over the past several years, Common App has opted not to release any new Common App prompts.
There will be no new Common App prompts in the upcoming admissions cycle. Instead, the prompts for the Common App essays will remain the same as those used in the 2022-23 admissions cycle.
In general, from year to year, the Common Application essay prompts remain fairly similar . In fact, the Common App essay prompts 2021 are the same as the prompts in use today. The last change took place among the Common App essay prompts 2021, which featured a new essay about gratitude.
Since there are seldom any new Common App prompts, students can use previous years’ prompts to start brainstorming and preparing.
Here are the seven Common App prompts from this year :
7 common app prompts, 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, reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. how has this gratitude affected or motivated you, 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..
We’ll go deeper into the Common App essay prompts and other Common App essay tips later in this guide. We’ll also discuss some Common App essay ideas, and where to find some Common App essay examples that worked . But first, let’s go over the basics of the Common App essays.
What is the Common App essay?
As you begin applying to college, you’ll likely hear a lot about Common App essays (or personal statements). Of course, you’ll complete other essays during the college application process—namely, school-specific supplemental essays. However, when someone talks about “college essays,” or “personal statements,” they are usually referring to the Common App essays.
But what is the Common App essay?
The Common Application is a platform that helps streamline the college application process. And according to Forbes , the number of students who apply to college using the Common App has surged 20% since 2019.
Using the Common App, you can apply to college more easily— over 1,000 schools accept the Common Application. This figure includes Ivies like Yale and Dartmouth , as well as public state universities like Penn State . Once you create your Common App login, you can complete your personal information for every school at once. The Common Application makes it easy to keep track of college application requirements, deadlines , letters of recommendation, and extracurriculars and awards.
Coalition Application vs. Common Application
There are many different types of college applications, of which the Common Application is only one. Though only accepted by 90 member institutions, the Coalition Application is another popular application platform that allows you to collect your application information in one place. Much of the advice on Common App essays in this guide will also apply to the Coalition Application essay.
The Common App essay
Common App requirements include a list of your extracurricular activities, your self-reported grades, and your personal information. Another key section of the Common App is the Common App essay. You will also use the Common App to submit supplemental essays for particular schools.
The Common App essay, often called the personal statement, is sent to every college that accepts the Common Application. This essay will answer one of the Common App essay prompts to showcase something that makes you who you are. The Common App essay word limit is 650 words.
Since students submit their Common App essays to every school, they should be as strong as possible. In this guide, we’ll share some Common App essay tips to help your personal statement shine. We’ll also review the Common App essay requirements and discuss some Common App essay ideas.
There are seven Common App essay prompts. So, how many Common App essays are required?
Only one Common App essay is required. This means that you’ll respond to only one of the Common App prompts.
As you begin your writing process, read through the Common App essay prompts and see which one appeals to you the most. Try brainstorming answers to different prompts or discussing them with a parent, friend, or advisor.
Again, students only need to select one of the Common App essay prompts for their Common App essays. So, you’ll only need to write one essay that meets the Common App essay word limit.
Supplemental essays and the Common Application
Many schools also require students to write supplemental essays. Most supplemental essays will be shorter —usually 200-400 words as opposed to the Common App essay word limit of 650. You’ll submit these essays through the Common App. However, we don’t generally refer to these supplemental essays as “Common App essays.”
How long should the Common App essay be?
The Common App essay word limit is 650 words maximum. However, according to the official Common App essay requirements, the lower stay Common App essay word limit is 250 words.
As you brainstorm topics for Common App essays, make sure that the story you want to tell fits into the Common App essay word limit. Once you create your Common App login, you can familiarize yourself with the Common App essay requirements, including the word limit.
Students should aim for the higher end of the Common App essay word limit range. After all, admissions officers rely on Common App essays a lot within the admissions process. Therefore, you want your personal statement to offer a comprehensive picture of who you are and what matters to you.
Making the most of the Common App essay word limit
Writing Common App essays can feel like a daunting task, especially given the word count. To make the most of the Common App essay word limit, make sure you start your writing process early. That way, you’ll have plenty of time to edit your personal statement so every word counts.
Also, don’t try to explain your whole life story in the relatively short Common App essay word limit. Instead, try to tell an anecdote that encapsulates some aspect of your personality or your upbringing. Then, connect it to broader themes, including your future goals.
What makes a great college essay?
Now, you understand the basic format of Common App essays. Maybe you’ve even made your Common App login and started brainstorming topics. Next, you might be wondering: how can I write the best Common App essay?
Most good college essays and personal statements include similar features:
- A strong story that highlights a key part of the writer’s identity
- An engaging hook
- Strong structural components
- Clear, well-crafted prose
- Flawless grammar and syntax
Though none of these tips are strict Common App essay requirements, your personal statement should meet these criteria.
Good college essays also depend on your ability to be introspective. The best college admissions essays will reveal something unique about the writer. Often, in order to tell a compelling story about who you are, writers look deeply at their upbringing, identity, and values. The best Common App essay ideas aren’t something you can find in a Common App essay tips blog. Instead, they’ll come from your own unique experiences.
If you’re getting started and can’t think of any Common App essay ideas, try brainstorming without answering one of the prompts. The most important part about the Common Application essay is that it showcases a part of your identity that the admissions team won’t glean from your GPA or scores.
In the next few sections, we’ll go over the prompts for the Common App essays. For each of the Common App essay prompts, we’ll offer Common App essay tips. We’ll discuss how you can approach the Common App essays, including some advice on structure, tone, topic choice, and more. Additionally, we’ll look at some Common App essay ideas and the Common App essay requirements.
Common App Essay #1: Share your background
The first of the Common App essays asks you to share something significant about your background. Here’s the first of the Common App prompts:
All of the Common App essays will allow for a degree of customization. As long as essays address the Common App essay prompts—and stay within the Common App essay word limit—there is no limit to possible topics. In fact, when you read Common App essay examples, you’ll see a ton of variation .
The first of the Common App essay prompts is particularly open to interpretation. For some students, this can be exciting. However, for others, the first of the Common App essay prompts might feel a little overwhelming. So, if you want a more direct question, you might be better served by one of the other prompts.
How to approach this prompt
If you have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is deeply meaningful to you, here’s the place to talk about it!
As with all prompts for the Common App essays, there’s no right answer: maybe you were raised Orthodox Jewish. Perhaps you attended a white majority school as a person of color. Or maybe you learned to play the oboe at 4 years old and have since released an oboe EP on Soundcloud. As long as you share something that your application would be incomplete without, the sky’s the limit.
In general, as you write your Common App essays, think about what topics you might cover in your supplemental essays. Try to avoid writing about the same experience twice—after all, you only have so much space on your college applications. So, pick a topic for your main Common App essay with enough depth to fill the Common App essay word limit. Ideally, this topic won’t necessarily fit into a different section of your application.
Common App Essay #2: Navigating a challenge
Let’s look at some other prompts for Common App essays. The second of the Common App essay prompts relates to how you dealt with a challenge:
Comparing the different Common App essay prompts, this question is a bit narrower than the first. Is there a challenge, setback, or failure that you learned from? If you can’t come up with an answer to this question fairly quickly, you might want to select another of the Common App prompts.
Common App essay topics for this prompt
As compared to other Common App essay prompts, this one threatens to attract more cliché responses. Many students gravitate to similar topics: losses in sports, not getting a particular role in a performance, not winning a specific award.
If you choose a challenge like these, try to ensure your essay offers a new perspective. Many other students will likely select this question from the Common App essay prompts because they experienced a similar setback. In light of this, as you compare the different Common App essay prompts, think critically about potential college essay topics. Make sure your personal statement tells the admissions office something unique about how you face challenges.
The next of the prompts for Common App essays discusses a change in perspective. Read on to learn how to think about these types of Common App essay prompts.
Common App Essay #3: Questioning an idea
Has your perspective changed a lot in recent years? Have you had lengthy discussions with your parents or teachers about beliefs of theirs that you might disagree with? If so, the third option for your Common App essays might be a good one for you.
The third of the Common App essay prompts reads:
The best Common App essays often deal with subjects of personal change. These college essay topics may discuss shifts in perspective after learning something new or adjusting to different ideas and beliefs. Overall, colleges want to admit students who are intellectually curious and introspective. So, telling a story about how you developed can show that you embody those ideals.
Choosing the right idea
You don’t have to be politically active or reinvent the wheel to answer this question\ Maybe your guardian(s) is super-athletic and put you on the soccer team, but you fell in love with studio art instead. Challenging expectations is one method of challenging beliefs, so this could be a good framework to discuss your values.
To recap: a strong theme to touch on in any one of these Common App essays is a change in perspective. You can (and should!) also highlight your development in any of the Common App essay prompts.
Common App Essay #4: The gratitude essay
Another prompt that students can choose for their Common App essays is the gratitude essay:
This prompt was one of the new Common App essay prompts. It was originally released as one of the Common App essay prompts 2021.
Like some of the other Common App essay prompts, this prompt is fairly open-ended. It provides a chance to reflect on the positive aspects in your life. This prompt also lets you show that you are introspective and humble.
In the Common App essay prompts 2021, this essay replaced a prompt that asked about a problem you would like to solve. The Common App essay prompts 2021 were adjusted to include this prompt in order to “bring some joy into [each student’s] application experience.”
A word of caution
There is one potential pitfall of choosing the gratitude essay over the other Common App essay prompts. This prompt lends itself to focusing too much on someone other than yourself. Remember, good college essays will always center the writer’s identity and experiences.
Even if your essay is about how much a family member has sacrificed for you, remember that you are the one applying to college. Focus more on the second part of the prompt: how has your gratitude affected or motivated you?
Remember, Common App essays are a way to communicate something important about you to the people reading your application. That’s why it’s often referred to as the personal statement—it’s about you!
Common App Essay Prompt #5: A moment of personal growth
Like the second of the Common App prompts, this next question relates to personal growth or change:
The fifth of the Common App prompts asks about an inflection point in your life: a push to grow and shift perspectives. Like the other prompts, this one depends on introspection. Indeed, a key takeaway of these Common App essay tips, is that there’s never too much self-reflection.
Compared to the other Common App prompts, this one also lets you cover something not mentioned elsewhere in your application. Certainly, it’s less likely that answers to this question will pertain solely to one extracurricular or award. In other words, this personal statement topic can be a great place to tell the admissions team something new.
Next, let’s move onto the final two Common App prompts and offer a few more Common App essay tips.
Common App Essay Prompt #6: What captivates you?
Another of the more open-ended Common App prompts, this Common Application question has endless answers. Essays could cover something as straightforward as your potential college major or as non-academic as your favorite episode of Survivor.
Let’s take a look:
The sixth of the Common App prompts asks about what excites you. This isn’t restricted to lofty academic pursuits, either. With that said, a well-composed essay will reveal something about your values or thought process through your interest.
This prompt gives you a chance to go into detail about a passion, whether it be broad or niche, academic or cultural. The best college admissions essays will highlight something that isn’t present anywhere else in the application. Where else can you explain in excruciating detail your lifelong goal of building the tallest Rube Goldberg machine?
Common App Essay #7: A topic of your choice
Now, we’ve reached the last of the Common App prompts: a topic of your choice.
With this personal statement option, remember that it still must be exactly that: a personal statement. It should be about your unique way of navigating the world.
You might think that you could just submit your award-winning English class essay about the early feminist novel The Awakening . However, unless you discuss how its 1899 societal expectations of femininity affects how you interact with your family today… reconsider. The most important of our Common App essay tips is that above all else, this essay needs to be about you .
Therefore, if you think this Common App prompt is the one for you, make sure you’ve considered every other personal statement prompt first. Don’t think of this prompt as a way to get out of talking about yourself. Instead, use this prompt to talk about a part of yourself that the other questions aren’t reaching. The Common App essay questions are constructed to help you think about your life. In other words, don’t dismiss them just because you can’t think of an answer right away.
Keeping the personal in personal statement
When thinking about answering this question, ask yourself: is this essay a “personal statement?” Does it tell the admissions committee something they don’t know about me? Does it demonstrate something unique or dynamic about my identity, upbringing, values, or perspective?
Now that we’ve gone over all of the Common App prompts, let’s go into more detail on how you can write a great college essay. We’ll discuss some Common App essay ideas and provide some brainstorming exercises to jumpstart your writing process. We’ll also review more Common App essay tips, some Common App essay requirements, and other college application requirements. Lastly, we’ll recommend more resources like Common App essay examples that you might need to tackle the Common Application.
How to Write a Great College Essay
We’ve reviewed each of the Common App essay prompts and discussed the Common App essay requirements. Next, let’s dig into some Common App essay tips. You can also apply these guidelines to your Coalition App essay and other college application requirements.
Every great Common App essay starts with a clear strategy. Again, there are no new Common App essay prompts this year—in fact, they haven’t changed since the Common App essay prompts 2021. In short, rather than waiting for any new Common App essay prompts, you can start considering college essay topics now. After all, the earlier you start working on your Common App essay, the stronger it will be.
Below, we’ve outlined our ideal process to help you write the best college admissions essays you can. Use this structure to help you craft strong Common App essays:
Looking for strong college essay topics? Start with a free-write. Choose one of the Common App essay prompts that speaks to you. Then, set a timer for ten minutes and just start writing .
It won’t be perfect, and it doesn’t have to be. The goal of this exercise isn’t to write your final personal statement—it’s to flex your writing muscles. Don’t stop, edit, or censor yourself. Instead, just try to represent your experiences in a meaningful and authentic way. At this stage, just get ideas into words without worrying about quality or the Common App essay word limit.
Once you’re finished, take a look at what you wrote. What stands out to you? Are there any elements of your free-write you might want to explore in a draft?
Determining a College Essay Topic: Reflection Exercises to Try
If you’re facing writer’s block, try choosing one of the Common App essay prompts and thinking about its central theme. For instance, for the second of the Common App essay prompts, you might choose the idea of challenges .
Then, grab a sheet of paper, set a timer, and start writing down any meaningful challenges you’ve faced. Feel free to connect them to other elements of your life, including ways you’ve grown or changed. Don’t focus on the writing—instead, just try to think about potential college essay topics. Once the timer ends, evaluate whether anything you’ve listed might be worth drafting for your Common App essays. You can also use this strategy to tackle other college supplemental essays.
Once you’ve decided on a potential topic, it’s time to outline.
Good Common App essays often start with a “hook”—an engaging opening that grabs the reader’s interest. Often, the best hooks come from personal stories. One reliable structure for Common App essays opens with a personal story, then connecting it to your identity or character. You might then return to your original anecdote in your final paragraph or line.
In your outline, include your story and your “stakes”—that is, why your story highlights something critical about who you are. Your writing skills won’t matter if your personal statement isn’t, well, personal.
As you outline, feel free to be as descriptive or minimal as you’d like. Above all, your outline should help you write a draft—don’t craft a beautiful outline if it won’t ultimately serve your writing process. Once again, you can follow the same process in your school-specific supplemental essays.
Write a draft
Don’t feel pressured to write your Common App essay sequentially. For instance, if you know exactly how to approach the anecdote but are struggling with your opening line, feel free to jump ahead. You can always return to fill in the gaps of your personal statement.
As you draft, remember the Common App essay requirements, including the Common App essay word limit of 650 words. While the Common App essay word limit gives you more space than most supplemental essays, it’s still relatively short.
Often, leaving a few days between writing sessions can give you a useful perspective. After all, Common App essays (like any good college essay) won’t appear overnight. And since the college process is so competitive, you want your essay to stand out .
Each time you open your Common App essay, take a look at what you’ve written so far. Does it make sense and flow neatly? More importantly, does it use clear language and strong storytelling to highlight something important about your identity? If the answer is yes, you’re on the right track.
Revise, revise, revise
After you complete your Common App essay draft, put it away for a day or two. Then, return to your document to start revising .
Of course, you should edit for grammar, syntax, and spelling. However, a solid revision process will take a fair amount more work. As you read over your Common App essay, take a look at every single sentence. Does it contribute to your personal statement’s overall message? Are there any places where your language is clunky or redundant? Since the Common App essay word limit isn’t high, every word counts.
When you revise, pay careful attention to the beginning and end of your Common App essay. Remember, the opening of your essay gives Admissions Officers their first impression of you.
Additionally, as you edit, return to the Common App essay prompts. While the Common App essay prompts may be weighed differently than school-specific supplements, you should still address them comprehensively. So, don’t neglect the Common App essay requirements—namely, that you answer the prompt.
Finally, make sure that your essay highlights something critical about you. Above all, make sure your essay shows admissions teams who you are. Don’t waste your time with flowery language if it doesn’t serve your point—especially given the Common App essay word limit.
Get a second pair of eyes
Once you’ve edited your draft yourself, consider asking a trusted adult to look over your Common App essay. This could be a teacher, parent, counselor, or advisor.
Often, a second reader will notice things that you won’t. They can help you identify unclear language, fix lingering typos, and ensure your story comes through as strongly as possible. This can also help you meet the Common App essay word limit.
Of course, your Common App essay should be entirely your own work. That is to say, while you can absolutely ask for outside guidance, no one else should be writing your essay for you.
Finalize and submit!
After you receive feedback, complete a final round of revisions on your own. Ask yourself: if I read this essay, would I want to meet the student who wrote it?
When you feel ready, upload your essay using your Common App login. If you need help navigating your Common App login, you can visit the Common App YouTube channel for useful tips. Since there are no new Common App prompts this year, it’s never too early to start brainstorming. Plus, abandoned Common App essay ideas might be a great fit for supplemental essays.
What are some good college essay topics?
Overall, there are plenty of good college essay topics out there. You won’t get the chance to submit multiple Common App essays, so you should choose a topic that means something to you.
Here are some Common App essay tips to help you choose a topic:
Common App Essay Tips
1. discuss a challenge that you overcame. .
Maybe you developed a love and talent for poetry despite having severe dyslexia. Or maybe you conquered your fear of public speaking when asked to give a speech about a cause that mattered to you. The challenge itself doesn’t entirely matter; it’s about what this challenge meant to you.
If you write about a challenge, keep several things in mind. First, make sure the challenge you choose matters to you—that is, it should highlight a critical element of your identity and development. At the end of the day, good Common App essays will illustrate how the writer encountered a challenge and came out the other side.
2. Write about an experience that broadened your perspective.
Common App essays can also center around meaningful experiences. For example, maybe your first meeting with your extended family in India provided a new understanding of your heritage. Or maybe a year of volunteering at a children’s hospital taught you what it meant to find joy even amid pain and suffering. Again, the possibilities are endless; just think about which experiences have made you the person you are.
If you write about an external experience, a word of caution: remember that Common App essays should always come back to the writer’s development. For instance, if you’re writing about volunteering in a clinic, don’t spend all of your time discussing the patients’ specific stories. Ultimately, your essay should center around you.
3. Highlight a key feature of your identity or upbringing.
Good Common App essays will teach the admissions team something they don’t know about a given student. Rather than focusing on an interest you highlight elsewhere, you might write your Common App essay simply about who you are.
In this context, “identity” can mean anything: race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, or religion, to name a few. Choose a part of your identity that matters to you and write about it with passion and authenticity. Additionally, to make your Common App essay more engaging, you might use an anecdote to introduce your topic.
Overall, students can write good Common App essays about a wide variety of college essay topics. Regardless of which of the Common App prompts you choose, a meaningful topic can make for a powerful personal statement. There are many ways to write strong Common App essays. Above all, be authentic and tell your story, all while staying within the Common App essay word limit.
What should you not write in a college essay?
As you choose between the Common App prompts, you might wonder what bad Common App essays look like. So, let’s dig into some Common App essay tips about what not to write.
Most important, Common App essays should show you in a positive light. So, you should not include any explicit language or discussions of illegal activity. You should also, of course, refrain from including anything that a reader might deem offensive. These are all bad topics for Common App essays.
Avoiding the overly personal
As you consider Common App essay ideas, you should also be wary of just how personal your personal statement is. For instance, writers generally avoid overly intense discussions of traumatic events and mental health topics. Indeed, while often personally meaningful, poorly-written essays about these topics can work against you. Given the rigors of life at top universities, essays should assure Admissions Officers that you can face—if not overcome—challenges.
In general, if you wouldn’t discuss it at dinner, you may want to think twice before putting it in your Common App essay. Common App essays should be personal, but not to the point of discomfort. Think about this as you choose between the Common App prompts.
You should also avoid writing Common App essays about high school drama. Doubtless changing friendships and relationships can influence your development and seem ripe for writing about. However, admissions committees likely won’t be interested.
Highlight your strengths
Your essay should also suggest that you would make a positive contribution to any college campus. In light of that, make sure your essay portrays your development in a positive light. For instance, you shouldn’t write about how you learned that you can’t rely on other people. Instead, use the Common App essay prompts to highlight how you’ll be a good community member on your future campus.
Finally, try to avoid clichés, such as the “sports injury essay” or similarly overused Common App essay topics. This doesn’t mean you can’t use these topics at all. However, if you choose to do so, make sure you spin them in an interesting way. After all, admissions teams will read thousands of Common App essays, and you want yours to stand out. Choose one of the Common App prompts that will let you do just that.
For more guidance, you can always read Common App essay examples. These can help you get a better understanding of the Common App essay requirements.
Common Application Essay Timeline
As we’ve discussed, the earlier you start thinking about your Common App essay, the easier the process will be. However, this doesn’t mean you should start drafting your essays during your sophomore year of high school. You’ll grow and change throughout high school, and you’ll likely find many great Common App essay topics along the way.
Below, we’ve outlined our ideal timeline for brainstorming, drafting, and submitting your Common App essay.
Use the timeline above in planning your writing process, from choosing one of the Common App essay prompts to pressing “submit.” You likely won’t create your Common App login until August of your senior year when you apply to college. However, you can still start preparing your responses to the Common App essay prompts early. That way, you’ll have time to write the best college admissions essays you can.
More Common App Resources from CollegeAdvisor.com
Looking for more Common App essay tips, Common App essay ideas, and other resources on the Common App prompts? CollegeAdvisor.com is here to help you tackle all of your college application requirements.
Watch this free webinar for more about the Common Application, from Common App essays to the extracurriculars list, recommendations, and other key materials. You can also check out this expert-led webinar for a deep dive into the Common Application. There, you’ll find even more advice on writing Common App essays as you apply to college. We also have a comprehensive guide to acing the Common App.
How to ace the Common App this college admissions season
For more Common App essay ideas, check out our masterclass on how to choose Common App essay topics.
CollegeAdvisor Masterclass: Brainstorming Your Common App Personal Statement Topic￼
Additionally, you can read an overview of the Common App essay for juniors written by one of our advisors. We also have plenty of Common App essay examples available on our website . Since there are no new Common App prompts since the Common App essay prompts 2021, you can use these Common App essay examples for this year’s Common App essay prompts.
Common App Essay Prompts 2023‒2024: Final Thoughts
Overall, most colleges will accept the Common Application. This makes your Common App essay one of the most critical components of your college applications.
After all, how many Common App essays are required? Just one. So, your Common App essay needs to highlight you in the best possible light. The best college admissions essays can make a huge difference in the application review process.
We hope this guide has given you the tools to write a strong Common App essay that will impress top schools. However, if you want to make the most of your Common App essays, nothing beats personalized support. When you register with CollegeAdvisor.com, you’ll be matched with a hand-picked Admissions Expert who will guide you through every step of the application process, from building your college list to drafting your Common App essay. Click here to schedule a free meeting and learn how CollegeAdvisor can help you maximize your admissions odds.
This guide was written by Rachel Kahn and Abbie Sage. Looking for more admissions support? Click here to schedule a free meeting with one of our Admissions Specialists. During your meeting, our team will discuss your profile and help you find targeted ways to increase your admissions odds at top schools. We’ll also answer any questions and discuss how CollegeAdvisor.com can support you in the college application process.
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21 Stellar Common App Essay Examples to Inspire Your College Essay
What’s covered:, what makes a good common app essay, is your common app essay strong enough.
When you begin writing your Common App essay, having an example to look at can help you understand how to effectively write your college essay so that it stands apart from others.
These Common App essay examples demonstrate a strong writing ability and answer the prompt in a way that shows admissions officers something unique about the student. Once you’ve read some examples and are ready to get started, read our step-by-step guide for how to write a strong Common App essay.
Please note: Looking at examples of real essays students have submitted to colleges can be very beneficial to get inspiration for your essays. You should never copy or plagiarize from these examples when writing your own essays. Colleges can tell when an essay isn’t genuine and will not view students favorably if they plagiarized.
Read our Common App essay breakdown to get a comprehensive overview of this year’s supplemental prompts.
The point of the Common App essay is to humanize yourself to a college admissions committee. The ultimate goal is to get them to choose you over someone else! You will have a better chance of achieving this goal if the admissions committee feels personally connected to you or invested in your story. When writing your Common App essay, you should explore your feelings, worldview, values, desires, and anything else that makes you uniquely you.
It’s Not Cliché
It is pretty easy to resort to clichés in college essays. This should be actively avoided! CollegeVine has identified the immigrant’s journey, sports injuries, and overcoming a challenging course as cliché topics . If you write about one of these topics, you have to work harder to stand out, so working with a more nuanced topic is often safer and easier.
Colleges want good writers. They want students who can articulate their thoughts clearly and concisely (and creatively!). You should be writing and rewriting your essays, perfecting them as you go. Of course, make sure that your grammar and spelling are impeccable, but also put in time crafting your tone and finding your voice. This will also make your essay more personal and will make your reader feel more connected to you!
Compelling Common App essays tell a cohesive story. Cohesion is primarily achieved through effective introductions and conclusions , which often contribute to the establishment of a clear theme or topic. Make sure that it is clear what you are getting at, but also don’t explicitly state what you are getting at—a successful essay speaks for itself.
Common App Essay Examples
Here are the current Common App prompts. Click the links to jump to the examples for a specific prompt, or keep reading to review the examples for all the prompts.
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.
Prompt #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?
Prompt #3 : Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
Prompt #4 : Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you? (NOTE: We only have an example for the old prompt #4 about solving a problem, not this current one)
Prompt #5 : Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
Prompt #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?
Prompt #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.
Note: Names have been changed to protect the identity of the author and subjects.
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.
Prompt #1, example #1.
The room was silent except for the thoughts racing through my head. I led a spade from my hand and my opponent paused for a second, then played a heart. The numbers ran through my mind as I tried to consider every combination, calculating my next move. Finally, I played the ace of spades from the dummy and the rest of my clubs, securing the contract and 620 points when my partner ruffed at trick five. Next board.
It was the final of the 2015 United States Bridge Federation Under-26 Women’s Championship. The winning team would be selected to represent the United States in the world championship and my team was still in the running.
Contract bridge is a strategic and stochastic card game. Players from around the world gather at local clubs, regional events, and, in this case, national tournaments.
Going into the tournament, my team was excited; all the hours we had put into the game, from the lengthy midnight Skype sessions spent discussing boards to the coffee shop meetings spent memorizing conventions together, were about to pay off.
Halfway through, our spirits were still high, as we were only down by fourteen international match points which, out of the final total of about four hundred points, was virtually nothing and it was very feasible to catch up. Our excitement was short-lived, however, as sixty boards later, we found that we had lost the match and would not be chosen as the national team.
Initially, we were devastated. We had come so close and it seemed as if all the hours we had devoted to training had been utterly wasted. Yet as our team spent some time together reflecting upon the results, we gradually realized that the true value that we had gained wasn’t only the prospect of winning the national title, but also the time we had spent together exploring our shared passion. I chatted with the winning team and even befriended a few of them who offered us encouragement and advice.
Throughout my bridge career, although I’ve gained a respectable amount of masterpoints and awards, I’ve realized that the real reward comes from the extraordinary people I have met. I don’t need to travel cross-country to learn; every time I sit down at a table whether it be during a simple club game, a regional tournament or a national event, I find I’m always learning.
I nod at the pair that’s always yelling at each other. They teach me the importance of sportsmanship and forgiveness.
I greet the legally blind man who can defeat most of the seeing players. He reminds me not to make excuses.
I chat with the friendly, elderly couple who, at ages ninety and ninety-two, have just gotten married two weeks ago. They teach me that it’s never too late to start anything.
I talk to the boy who’s attending Harvard and the girl who forewent college to start her own company. They show me that there is more than one path to success.
I congratulate the little kid running to his dad, excited to have won his very first masterpoints. He reminds me of the thrill of every first time and to never stop trying new things.
Just as much as I have benefitted from these life lessons, I aspire to give back to my bridge community as much as it has given me. I aspire to teach people how to play this complicated yet equally as exciting game. I aspire to never stop improving myself, both at and away from the bridge table.
Bridge has given me my roots and dared me to dream. What started as merely a hobby has become a community, a passion, a part of my identity. I aspire to live selflessly and help others reach their goals. I seek to take risks, embrace all results, even failure, and live unfettered from my own doubt.
This student draws readers in with a strong introduction. The essay starts ambiguous—“I led with a spade”—then intrigues readers by gradually revealing more information and details. This makes the reader want to keep reading (which is super important!) As the writer continues, there is a rather abrupt tone shift from suspenseful to explanatory with statements like “It was the final of the 2015 United States Bridge Federation Under-26 Women’s Championship” and “Contract bridge is a strategic and stochastic card game.” If you plan to start with an imagery-heavy, emotional, suspenseful, or dramatic introduction, you will need to transition to the content of your essay in a way that does not feel abrupt.
You will often hear that essays need to “show, not tell.” This essay actually does both. First, the student tells readers the importance of bridge, saying “we gradually realized that the true value that we had gained wasn’t only the prospect of winning the national title, but also the time we had spent together exploring our shared passion” and “I’ve realized that the real reward comes from the extraordinary people I have met.” Then, the student shows the lessons they have learned from bridge through a series of parallel sentences: “I nod… sportsmanship and forgiveness” “I greet… not to make excuses” “I chat… it’s never too late to start anything” and so on. This latter strategy is much more effective than the former and is watered down because the student has already told us what we are supposed to get out of these sentences. Remember that your readers are intelligent and can draw their own conclusions. Avoid summarizing the moral of your story for them!
Overall, this essay is interesting and answers the prompt. We learn the importance of bridge to this student. The student has a solid grasp of language, a high-level vocabulary, and a valuable message, though they would be better off if they avoided summarizing their point and created more seamless transitions.
Prompt #1, Example #2
Growing up, I always wanted to eat, play, visit, watch, and be it all: sloppy joes and spaetzle, Beanie Babies and Steiff, Cape Cod and the Baltic Sea, football and fussball, American and German.
My American parents relocated our young family to Berlin when I was three years old. My exposure to America was limited to holidays spent stateside and awfully dubbed Disney Channel broadcasts. As the few memories I had of living in the US faded, my affinity for Germany grew. I began to identify as “Germerican,” an ideal marriage of the two cultures. As a child, I viewed my biculturalism as a blessing. I possessed a native fluency in “Denglisch” and my family’s Halloween parties were legendary at a time when the holiday was just starting to gain popularity outside of the American Sector.
Insidiously, the magic I once felt in loving two homes was replaced by a deep-rooted sense of rootlessness. I stopped feeling American when, while discussing World War II with my grandmother, I said “the US won.” She corrected me, insisting I use “we” when referring to the US’s actions. Before then, I hadn’t realized how directly people associated themselves with their countries. I stopped feeling German during the World Cup when my friends labeled me a “bandwagon fan” for rooting for Germany. Until that moment, my cheers had felt sincere. I wasn’t part of the “we” who won World Wars or World Cups. Caught in a twilight of foreign and familiar, I felt emotionally and psychologically disconnected from the two cultures most familiar to me.
After moving from Berlin to New York at age fifteen, my feelings of cultural homelessness thrived in my new environment. Looking and sounding American furthered my feelings of dislocation. Border patrol agents, teachers, classmates, neighbors, and relatives all “welcomed me home” to a land they could not understand was foreign to me. Americans confused me as I relied on Urban Dictionary to understand my peers, the Pledge of Allegiance seemed nationalistic, and the only thing familiar about Fahrenheit was the German after whom it was named. Too German for America and too American for Germany, I felt alienated from both. I wanted desperately to be a member of one, if not both, cultures.
During my first weeks in Scarsdale, I spent my free time googling “Berlin Family Seeks Teen” and “New Americans in Scarsdale.” The latter search proved most fruitful: I discovered Horizons, a nonprofit that empowers resettled refugees, or “New Americans,” to thrive. I started volunteering with Horizon’s children’s programs, playing with and tutoring young refugees.
It was there that I met Emily, a twelve-year-old Iraqi girl who lived next to Horizons. In between games and snacks, Emily would ask me questions about American life, touching on everything from Halloween to President Obama. Gradually, my confidence in my American identity grew as I recognized my ability to answer most of her questions. American culture was no longer completely foreign to me. I found myself especially qualified to work with young refugees; my experience growing up in a country other than that of my parents’ was similar enough to that of the refugee children Horizons served that I could empathize with them and offer advice. Together, we worked through conflicting allegiances, homesickness, and stretched belonging.
Forging a special, personal bond with young refugees proved a cathartic outlet for my insecurities as it taught me to value my past. My transculturalism allowed me to help young refugees integrate into American life, and, in doing so, I was able to adjust myself. Now, I have an appreciation of myself that I never felt before. “Home” isn’t the digits in a passport or ZIP code but a sense of contentedness. By helping a young refugee find comfort, happiness, and home in America, I was finally able to find those same things for myself.
Due to their endearing (and creative) use of language—with early phrases like “sloppy joes and spaetzle” as well as “Germerican” and “Denglisch”—readers are inclined to like this writer from the get-go. Though the essay shifts from this lighthearted introduction to more serious subject matter around the third paragraph, the shift is not abrupt or jarring. This is because the student invites readers to feel the transition with them through their inclusion of various anecdotes that inspired their “feelings of cultural homelessness.” And our journey does not end there—we go back to America with the student and see how their former struggles become strengths.
Ultimately, this essay is successful due to its satisfying ending. Because readers experience the student’s struggles with them, we also feel the resolution. The conclusion of this essay is a prime example of the “Same, but Different” technique described in our article on How to End Your College Essay . As the student describes how, in the end, their complicated cultural identity still exists but transitions to a source of strength, readers are left feeling happy for the student. This means that they have formed a connection with the student, which is the ultimate goal!
Prompt #1, Example #3
“1…2…3…4 pirouettes ! New record!” My friends cheered as I landed my turns. Pleased with my progress, I gazed down at my worn-out pointe shoes. The sweltering blisters, numbing ice-baths, and draining late-night practices did not seem so bad after all. Next goal: five turns.
For as long as I can remember, ballet, in all its finesse and glamor, had kept me driven day to day. As a child, the lithe ballerinas, donning ethereal costumes as they floated across the stage, were my motivation. While others admired Messi and Adele, I idolized Carlos Acosta, principal dancer of the Royal Ballet.
As I devoted more time and energy towards my craft, I became obsessed with improving my technique. I would stretch for hours after class, forcing my leg one inch higher in an effort to mirror the Dance Magazine cover girls . I injured my feet and ruined pair after pair of pointe shoes, turning on wood, cement, and even grass to improve my balance as I spun. At competitions, the dancers with the 180-degree leg extensions, endless turns, and soaring leaps—the ones who received “Bravos!” from the roaring audience—further pushed me to refine my skills and perfect my form. I believed that, with enough determination, I would one day attain their level of perfection. Reaching the quadruple- pirouette milestone only intensified my desire to accomplish even more.
My efforts seemed to have come to fruition two summers ago when I was accepted to dance with Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet at their renowned New York City summer intensive. I walked into my first session eager to learn from distinguished ballet masters and worldly dancers, already anticipating my improvement. Yet, as I danced alongside the accomplished ballerinas, I felt out of place. Despite their clean technique and professional training, they did not aim for glorious leg extensions or prodigious leaps. When they performed their turn combinations, most of them only executed two turns as I attempted four.
“Dancers, double- pirouettes only.”
Taken aback and confused, I wondered why our teacher expected so little from us. The other ballerinas seemed content, gracing the studio with their simple movements.
As I grew closer with my Moscow roommates, I gradually learned that their training emphasized the history of the art form instead of stylistic tricks. Rather than show off their physical ability, their performances aimed to convey a story, one that embodied the rich culture of ballet and captured both the legacy of the dancers before them and their own artistry. As I observed my friends more intently in repertoire class, I felt the pain of the grief-stricken white swan from Swan Lake , the sass of the flirtatious Kitri from Don Quijote, and I gradually saw what I had overlooked before. My definition of talent had been molded by crowd-pleasing elements—whirring pirouettes , gravity-defying leaps, and mind-blowing leg extensions. This mindset slowly stripped me from the roots of my passion and my personal connection with ballet.
With the Bolshoi, I learned to step back and explore the meaning behind each step and the people behind the scenes. Ballet carries history in its movements, from the societal values of the era to each choreographer’s unique flair. As I uncovered the messages behind each pirouette, kick, and jump, my appreciation for ballet grew beyond my obsession with raw athleticism and developed into a love for the art form’s emotive abilities in bridging the dancers with the audience. My journey as an artist has allowed me to see how technical execution is only the means to a greater understanding between dancer and spectator, between storyteller and listener. The elegance and complexity of ballet does not revolve around astonishing stunts but rather the evocative strength and artistry manifested in the dancer, in me. It is the combination of sentiments, history, tradition, and passion that has allowed ballet and its lessons of human connection to become my lifestyle both on and off stage.
The primary strength of this essay is the honesty and authenticity of the student’s writing. It is purposefully reflective. Intentional language creates a clear character arc that begins with an eager young ballerina and ends with the student reflecting on their past.
Readers are easily able to picture the passion and intensity of the young dancer through the writer’s engagement with words like “obsessed,” “forcing,” and “ruined” in the second paragraph. Then, we see how intensity becomes pride as they “wondered why our teacher expected so little from us.” And ultimately, we see the writer humbled as they are exposed to the deeper meaning behind what they have worked so hard for. This arc is outstanding, and the student’s musings about ballet in the concl usion position them as vulnerable and reflective (and thus, appealing to admissions officers!)
The main weakness of this essay (though this is a stellar essay) is its formulaic beginning. While dialogue can be an effective tool for starting your essay, this student’s introduction feels a bit stilted as the dialogue does not match the overall reflective tone of the essay. Perhaps, in place of “Next goal: five turns,” the student could have posed a question or foreshadowed the growth they ultimately describe.
Prompt #1, Example #4
My paintbrush dragged a flurry of acrylic, the rich colors attaching to each groove in my canvas’s texture. The feeling was euphoric.
From a young age, painting has been my solace. Between the stress of my packed high school days filled with classes and extracurriculars, the glide of my paintbrush was my emotional outlet.
I opened a fresh canvas and began. The amalgamation of assorted colors in my palette melded harmoniously: dark and light, cool and warm, brilliant and dull. They conjoined, forming shades and surfaces sharp, smooth, and ridged. The textures of my paint strokes — powdery, glossy, jagged — gave my painting a tone, as if it had a voice of its own, sometimes shrieking, sometimes whispering.
Rough indigo blue. The repetitive upward pulls of my brush formed layers on my canvas. Staring into the deep blue, I felt transported to the bottom of the pool I swim in daily. I looked upward to see a layer of dense water between myself and the person I aspire to be, an ideal blurred by filmy ripples. Rough blue encapsulates my amorphous, conflicting identity, catalyzed by words spewed by my peers about my “oily hair” and “smelly food”. They caused my ever present disdain toward cultural assemblies; the lehenga I wore felt burdensome. My identity quivers like the indigo storm I painted — a duel between my self-deprecating, validation-seeking self, and the proud self I desire to be. My haphazard paint strokes released my internal turbulence.
Smooth orange-hued green. I laid the color in melodious strokes, forming my figure. The warmer green transitions from the rough blue — while they share elements, they also diverge. My firm brushstrokes felt like the way I felt on my first day as a media intern at KBOO, my local volunteer-driven radio station, committed to the voices of the marginalized. As a naturally introverted speaker, I was forced out of my comfort zone when tasked with documenting a KBOO art exhibition for social media, speaking with hosts to share their diverse, underrepresented backgrounds and inspirations. A rhythmic green strength soon shoved me past internal blue turbulence. My communication skills which were built by two years of Speech and Debate unleashed — I recognized that making a social change through media required amplifying unique voices and perspectives, both my own and others. The powerful green strokes that fill my canvas entrench my growth.
Bright, voluminous coral, hinted with magenta and yellow. I dabbed the color over my figure, giving my painting dimension. The paint, speckled, added depth on every inch it coated. As I moved the color in random but purposeful movements, the vitality ushered into my painting brought a smile across my face. It reminded me of the encounters I had with my cubicle-mate in my sophomore year academic autism research internship, seemingly insignificant moments in my lifelong journey that, in retrospect, wove unique threads into my tapestry. The kindness she brought into work inspired my compassion, while her stories of struggling with ADHD in the workplace bolstered my empathy towards different experiences. Our conversations added blobs of a nonuniform bright color in my painting, binding a new perspective in me.
I added in my final strokes, each contributing an element to my piece. As I scanned my canvas, I observed these elements. Detail added nuance into smaller pictures; they embodied complexities within color, texture, and hue, each individually delivering a narrative. But together, they formed a piece of art— art that could be interpreted as a whole or broken apart but still delivering as a means of communication.
I find beauty in media because of this. I can adapt a complex narrative to be deliverable, each component telling a story. Appreciating these nuances — the light, dark, smooth, and rough — has cultivated my growth mindset. My life-long painting never finishes. It is ever-expanding, absorbing the novel textures and colors I encounter daily.
This essay is distinct from others due to its melodic, lyrical form. This is primarily achieved because the student’s form follows the movements of the paintbrush that they use to scaffold their essay. As readers, we simply flow through the essay, occasionally picking up bits of information about its creator. Without even realizing it, by the end of the essay, admissions officers will know that this student is a swimmer, was in Speech and Debate, is Indian, and has had multiple internships.
A major strength of this essay is the command of language that the student demonstrates. This essay was not simply written, it was crafted. Universities are, of course, interested in the talents, goals, and interests of applicants, but an essay being well-written can be equally important. Writing skills are important because your reader will not learn about your talents, goals, and interests if they aren’t engaged in your essay, but they are also important because admissions officers know that being able to articulate your thoughts is important for success in all future careers.
While this essay is well-written, there are a few moments where it falls out of the flow and feels more like a student advertising their successes. For example, the phrases “media intern at KBOO” and “autism research internship” work better on a resume than they do in this essay. Admissions officers have a copy of your resume and can check your internship experiences after reading your essay! If you are going to use a unique writing style or narrative form, lean into it; don’t try to hybridize it with the standard college essay form. Your boldness will be attractive to admissions officers.
Readers are easily able to picture the passion and intensity of the young dancer through the writer’s engagement with words like “obsessed,” “forcing,” and “ruined” in the second paragraph. Then, we see how intensity becomes pride as they “wondered why our teacher expected so little from us.” And ultimately, we see the writer humbled as they are exposed to the deeper meaning behind what they have worked so hard for. This arc is outstanding, and the student’s musings about ballet in the conclusion position them as vulnerable and reflective (and thus, appealing to admissions officers!)
Prompt #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?
Prompt #2, example #1.
“You ruined my life!” After months of quiet anger, my brother finally confronted me. To my shame, I had been appallingly ignorant of his pain.
Despite being twins, Max and I are profoundly different. Having intellectual interests from a young age that, well, interested very few of my peers, I often felt out of step in comparison with my highly-social brother. Everything appeared to come effortlessly for Max and, while we share an extremely tight bond, his frequent time away with friends left me feeling more and more alone as we grew older.
When my parents learned about The Green Academy, we hoped it would be an opportunity for me to find not only an academically challenging environment, but also – perhaps more importantly – a community. This meant transferring the family from Drumfield to Kingston. And while there was concern about Max, we all believed that given his sociable nature, moving would be far less impactful on him than staying put might be on me.
As it turned out, Green Academy was everything I’d hoped for. I was ecstatic to discover a group of students with whom I shared interests and could truly engage. Preoccupied with new friends and a rigorous course load, I failed to notice that the tables had turned. Max, lost in the fray and grappling with how to make connections in his enormous new high school, had become withdrawn and lonely. It took me until Christmas time – and a massive argument – to recognize how difficult the transition had been for my brother, let alone that he blamed me for it.
Through my own journey of searching for academic peers, in addition to coming out as gay when I was 12, I had developed deep empathy for those who had trouble fitting in. It was a pain I knew well and could easily relate to. Yet after Max’s outburst, my first response was to protest that our parents – not I – had chosen to move us here. In my heart, though, I knew that regardless of who had made the decision, we ended up in Kingston for my benefit. I was ashamed that, while I saw myself as genuinely compassionate, I had been oblivious to the heartache of the person closest to me. I could no longer ignore it – and I didn’t want to.
We stayed up half the night talking, and the conversation took an unexpected turn. Max opened up and shared that it wasn’t just about the move. He told me how challenging school had always been for him, due to his dyslexia, and that the ever-present comparison to me had only deepened his pain.
We had been in parallel battles the whole time and, yet, I only saw that Max was in distress once he experienced problems with which I directly identified. I’d long thought Max had it so easy – all because he had friends. The truth was, he didn’t need to experience my personal brand of sorrow in order for me to relate – he had felt plenty of his own.
My failure to recognize Max’s suffering brought home for me the profound universality and diversity of personal struggle; everyone has insecurities, everyone has woes, and everyone – most certainly – has pain. I am acutely grateful for the conversations he and I shared around all of this, because I believe our relationship has been fundamentally strengthened by a deeper understanding of one another. Further, this experience has reinforced the value of constantly striving for deeper sensitivity to the hidden struggles of those around me. I won’t make the mistake again of assuming that the surface of someone’s life reflects their underlying story.
Here is a prime example that you don’t have to have fabulous imagery or flowery prose to write a successful Common App essay. You just have to be clear and say something that matters. This essay is simple and beautiful. It almost feels like having a conversation with a friend and learning that they are an even better person than you already thought they were.
Through this narrative, readers learn a lot about the writer—where they’re from, what their family life is like, what their challenges were as a kid, and even their sexuality. We also learn a lot about their values—notably, the value they place on awareness, improvement, and consideration of others. Though they never explicitly state it (which is great because it is still crystal clear!), this student’s ending of “I won’t make the mistake again of assuming that the surface of someone’s life reflects their underlying story” shows that they are constantly striving for improvement and finding lessons anywhere they can get them in life.
The only part of this essay that could use a bit of work is the introduction. A short introduction can be effective, but this short first paragraph feels thrown in at the last minute and like it is missing its second half. If you are keeping your introduction short, make it matter.
Prompt #2, Example #2
Was I no longer the beloved daughter of nature, whisperer of trees? Knee-high rubber boots, camouflage, bug spray—I wore the garb and perfume of a proud wild woman, yet there I was, hunched over the pathetic pile of stubborn sticks, utterly stumped, on the verge of tears. As a child, I had considered myself a kind of rustic princess, a cradler of spiders and centipedes, who was serenaded by mourning doves and chickadees, who could glide through tick-infested meadows and emerge Lyme-free. I knew the cracks of the earth like the scars on my own rough palms. Yet here I was, ten years later, incapable of performing the most fundamental outdoor task: I could not, for the life of me, start a fire.
Furiously I rubbed the twigs together—rubbed and rubbed until shreds of skin flaked from my fingers. No smoke. The twigs were too young, too sticky-green; I tossed them away with a shower of curses, and began tearing through the underbrush in search of a more flammable collection. My efforts were fruitless. Livid, I bit a rejected twig, determined to prove that the forest had spurned me, offering only young, wet bones that would never burn. But the wood cracked like carrots between my teeth—old, brittle, and bitter. Roaring and nursing my aching palms, I retreated to the tent, where I sulked and awaited the jeers of my family.
Rattling their empty worm cans and reeking of fat fish, my brother and cousins swaggered into the campsite. Immediately, they noticed the minor stick massacre by the fire pit and called to me, their deep voices already sharp with contempt.
“Where’s the fire, Princess Clara?” they taunted. “Having some trouble?” They prodded me with the ends of the chewed branches and, with a few effortless scrapes of wood on rock, sparked a red and roaring flame. My face burned long after I left the fire pit. The camp stank of salmon and shame.
In the tent, I pondered my failure. Was I so dainty? Was I that incapable? I thought of my hands, how calloused and capable they had been, how tender and smooth they had become. It had been years since I’d kneaded mud between my fingers; instead of scaling a white pine, I’d practiced scales on my piano, my hands softening into those of a musician—fleshy and sensitive. And I’d gotten glasses, having grown horrifically nearsighted; long nights of dim lighting and thick books had done this. I couldn’t remember the last time I had lain down on a hill, barefaced, and seen the stars without having to squint. Crawling along the edge of the tent, a spider confirmed my transformation—he disgusted me, and I felt an overwhelming urge to squash him.
Yet, I realized I hadn’t really changed—I had only shifted perspective. I still eagerly explored new worlds, but through poems and prose rather than pastures and puddles. I’d grown to prefer the boom of a bass over that of a bullfrog, learned to coax a different kind of fire from wood, having developed a burn for writing rhymes and scrawling hypotheses.
That night, I stayed up late with my journal and wrote about the spider I had decided not to kill. I had tolerated him just barely, only shrieking when he jumped—it helped to watch him decorate the corners of the tent with his delicate webs, knowing that he couldn’t start fires, either. When the night grew cold and the embers died, my words still smoked—my hands burned from all that scrawling—and even when I fell asleep, the ideas kept sparking—I was on fire, always on fire.
This Common App essay is well-written. The student is showing the admissions officers their ability to articulate their points beautifully and creatively. It starts with vivid images like that of the “rustic princess, a cradler of spiders and centipedes, who was serenaded by mourning doves and chickadees, who could glide through tick-infested meadows and emerge Lyme-free.” And because the prose is flowery, the writer can get away with metaphors like “I knew the cracks of the earth like the scars on my own rough palms” that might sound cheesy without the clear command of the English language that the writer quickly establishes.
In addition to being well-written, this essay is thematically cohesive. It begins with the simple introduction “Fire!” and ends with the following image: “When the night grew cold and the embers died, my words still smoked—my hands burned from all that scrawling—and even when I fell asleep, the ideas kept sparking—I was on fire, always on fire.” This full-circle approach leaves readers satisfied and impressed.
While dialogue often comes off as cliche or trite, this student effectively incorporates their family members saying “Where’s the fire, Princess Clara?” This is achieved through the apt use of the verb “taunted” to characterize the questioning and through the question’s thematic connection to the earlier image of the student as a rustic princess. Similarly, rhetorical questions can feel randomly placed in essays, but this student’s inclusion of the questions “Was I so dainty?” and “Was I that incapable?” feels perfectly justified after they establish that they were pondering their failure.
Quite simply, this essay shows how quality writing can make a simple story outstandingly compelling.
Prompt #2, Example #3
The muffled voices behind thin walls heralded trouble.
They were fighting about money.
It wasn’t the first time this had happened and it wasn’t going to be the last. It was one of those countless nights I had to spend curled up under the blanket while pretending to be asleep. My father had been unemployed for five years now, and my mother, a local kindergarten teacher, was struggling to support the family alone. Our situation was bleak: Savings had run out and my parents could no longer hide our lack of money from me. To make matters worse, I was a few weeks away from starting high school, which would inevitably lead to college, yet another financial stressor for my family.
The argument didn’t sound like it would end soon.
“Why did you spend money on that?” my mother said, with an elongated sigh.
“I had to,” my father said, decidedly.
Every fight over the years had left me in despair and the idea of going through another fight daunted me. I had looked forward to my teen years all my life, an age that allows, for the first time, more responsibility. Indeed, after this fateful night, after my fourteenth birthday, I felt a mounting responsibility to help my family, and started brainstorming.
Always being fascinated by computers, I spent my childhood burying myself under computer cabinets, experimenting with computer parts. Naturally, I wondered if my skills in this area might be marketable.
The next morning, my friend, Naba, mentioned that her computer wasn’t working. A tuk-tuk ride later, and I was at her doorstep, and her mother was leading me to her room. I was off to work: I began examining her computer, like a surgeon carefully manages his scalpels and tools. A proper diagnosis was not far from reach, as I realized a broken pin in her computer’s SATA slot. After an hour of work, and a short trip to the hardware store, I successfully fixed the computer. To my pleasant surprise, Naba’s mother drew out two fresh 500 Rupee notes. One covered the cost of the parts I bought and the other was a token of appreciation. Bidding her goodbye, I went straight back home and put one of the 500 Rupee notes inside my family’s “savings-jar.”
Later that day, I devised a plan. I told my friends to spread the word that I was available to fix computers. At first, I got only one or two calls per week. I would pick up the computer from my client’s home, fix it quickly, and return it, thus earning myself a commission. While I couldn’t market my services at a competitive price, because I wasn’t able to buy the parts wholesale, I compensated by providing convenience. All my clients had to do was call me once and the rest was taken care of. Thus, my business had the best customer service in town.
At the beginning of my junior year, after two years of expanding my business through various avenues, I started buying computer parts from hardware suppliers in bulk at a cheaper rate. My business grew exponentially after that.
Before long, I was my town’s go-to tech person. In this journey throughout high school, I started realizing that I had to create my own opportunities and not just curl up under a blanket, seeking only comfort, as I used to. Interacting with people from all walks of life became my forte and a sense of work ethic developed in me. My business required me to be an all-rounder– have the technical skills, be an easily approachable person, and manage cash flow. Slowly becoming better at this, I even managed to sway admins of a local institution to outsource their computer hardware purchases and repairs through me. As my business upsized throughout the years, I went from being helpless to autonomous – the teenager I always aspired to be.
This essay truly feels like a story—almost making you forget you are reading a college essay. The student’s voice is strong throughout the entire essay and they are able to give us insight into their thoughts, feelings, and motivations at every step of the story. Letting the reader into personal challenges like financial struggles can be daunting in a college essay, but the way this student used that setback to establish an emotional ethos to their narrative was well done.
Because the essay is essentially just telling a story, there’s a very natural flow that makes it enjoyable and easy to read. The student establishes the conflict at the beginning, then describes their solution and how they implemented it, and finally concludes with the lessons they took away from this experience. Transitions at the beginning of paragraphs effortlessly show the passage of time and how the student has progressed through the story.
Another reason this essay is so successful is because of the abundance of details. The reader truly feels like they are hiding in the room with the student as their parents yell because of the inclusion of quotes from the argument. We understand the precision and care they have for fixing computers because of the allusion to a surgeon with their scalpel. Not only does this imagery make the story more enticing, it also helps the reader gain a deeper appreciation for the type of person this student is and the adversity they have overcome.
If there were one thing this essay could do to improve, it would be to include a resolution to the conflict from the beginning. The student tells us how this business helped them grow as a person, but we don’t ever get to find out if they were able to lessen the financial burden on their parents or if they continued to struggle despite the student working hard. It doesn’t have to be a happy ending, but it would be nice to return to the conflict and acknowledge the effect they had on it, especially since this prompt is all about facing challenges.
Prompt #3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
Prompt #3, example #1.
When I was younger, I was adamant that no two foods on my plate touch. As a result, I often used a second plate to prevent such an atrocity. In many ways, I learned to separate different things this way from my older brothers, Nate and Rob. Growing up, I idolized both of them. Nate was a performer, and I insisted on arriving early to his shows to secure front row seats, refusing to budge during intermission for fear of missing anything. Rob was a three-sport athlete, and I attended his games religiously, waving worn-out foam cougar paws and cheering until my voice was hoarse. My brothers were my role models. However, while each was talented, neither was interested in the other’s passion. To me, they represented two contrasting ideals of what I could become: artist or athlete. I believed I had to choose.
And for a long time, I chose athlete. I played soccer, basketball, and lacrosse and viewed myself exclusively as an athlete, believing the arts were not for me. I conveniently overlooked that since the age of five, I had been composing stories for my family for Christmas, gifts that were as much for me as them, as I loved writing. So when in tenth grade, I had the option of taking a creative writing class, I was faced with a question: could I be an athlete and a writer? After much debate, I enrolled in the class, feeling both apprehensive and excited. When I arrived on the first day of school, my teacher, Ms. Jenkins, asked us to write down our expectations for the class. After a few minutes, eraser shavings stubbornly sunbathing on my now-smudged paper, I finally wrote, “I do not expect to become a published writer from this class. I just want this to be a place where I can write freely.”
Although the purpose of the class never changed for me, on the third “submission day,” – our time to submit writing to upcoming contests and literary magazines – I faced a predicament. For the first two submission days, I had passed the time editing earlier pieces, eventually (pretty quickly) resorting to screen snake when hopelessness made the words look like hieroglyphics. I must not have been as subtle as I thought, as on the third of these days, Ms. Jenkins approached me. After shifting from excuse to excuse as to why I did not submit my writing, I finally recognized the real reason I had withheld my work: I was scared. I did not want to be different, and I did not want to challenge not only others’ perceptions of me, but also my own. I yielded to Ms. Jenkin’s pleas and sent one of my pieces to an upcoming contest.
By the time the letter came, I had already forgotten about the contest. When the flimsy white envelope arrived in the mail, I was shocked and ecstatic to learn that I had received 2nd place in a nationwide writing competition. The next morning, however, I discovered Ms. Jenkins would make an announcement to the whole school exposing me as a poet. I decided to own this identity and embrace my friends’ jokes and playful digs, and over time, they have learned to accept and respect this part of me. I have since seen more boys at my school identifying themselves as writers or artists.
I no longer see myself as an athlete and a poet independently, but rather I see these two aspects forming a single inseparable identity – me. Despite their apparent differences, these two disciplines are quite similar, as each requires creativity and devotion. I am still a poet when I am lacing up my cleats for soccer practice and still an athlete when I am building metaphors in the back of my mind – and I have realized ice cream and gummy bears taste pretty good together.
This essay is cohesive as it centers around the theme of identity and the ability for two identities to coexist simultaneously (an interesting theme!). It uses the Full Circle ending strategy as it starts with a metaphor about food touching and ends with “I have realized ice cream and gummy bears taste pretty good together.”
The main issue with this essay is that it could come off as cliché, which could be irritating for admissions officers. The story described is notably similar to High School Musical (“I decided to own this identity and embrace my friends’ jokes and playful digs, and over time, they have learned to accept and respect this part of me”) and feels slightly overstated.
At times, this essay is also confusing. In the first paragraph, it feels like the narrative is actually going to be about separating your food (and is somehow going to relate to the older brothers?). It is not entirely clear that this is a metaphor. Also, when the writer references the third submission day and then works backward to explain what a submission day is and that there are multiple throughout the semester, the timeline gets unnecessarily confusing. Reworking the way this paragraph unfolded would have been more compelling and less distracting.
Overall, this essay was interesting but could have been more polished to be more effective.
Prompt #3, Example #2
I walked into my middle school English class, and noticed a stranger behind my teacher’s desk. “Hello,” she said. “Today I will be your substitute teacher.” I groaned internally. “Let me start off by calling roll. Ally?” “Here!” exclaimed Ally. “Jack?” “Here.” “Rachel?” “Here.” “Freddie?” “Present.” And then– “…?” The awkward pause was my cue. “It’s Jasina,” I started. “You can just call me Jas. Here.” “Oh, Jasina. That’s unique.” The word “unique” made me cringe. I slumped back in my seat. The substitute continued calling roll, and class continued as if nothing had happened. Nothing had happened. Just a typical moment in a middle school, but I hated every second of it.
My name is not impossible to pronounce. It appears challenging initially, but once you hear it, “Jas-een-a”, then you can manage it. My nickname, Jas (pronounced “Jazz”), is what most people call me anyway, so I don’t have to deal with mispronunciation often. I am thankful that my parents named me Jasina (a Hebrew name), but whenever someone hears my name for the first time, they comment, and I assume they’re making assumptions about me. “Wow, Jas is a cool name.” She must be pretty cool.“I’ve never heard the name Jasina before.” She must be from somewhere exotic. “Jas, like Jazz?” She must be musical and artsy. None of these assumptions are bad, but they all add up to the same thing: She must be unique.
When I was little, these sentiments felt more like commands than assumptions. I thought I had to be the most unique child of all time, which was a daunting task, but I tried. I was the only kid in the second grade to color the sun red. I knew it was really yellow, but you could always tell which drawings were mine. During snack time, we could choose between apple juice and grape juice. I liked apple juice more, but if everyone else was choosing apple, then I had to choose grape. This was how I lived my life, and it was exhausting. I tried to continue this habit into middle school, but it backfired. When everyone became obsessed with things like skinny jeans and Justin Bieber and blue mascara (that was a weird trend), my resistance of the norm made me socially awkward. I couldn’t talk to people about anything because we had nothing in common. I was too different.
After 8th grade, I moved to Georgia, and I was dreading being the odd one out among kids who had grown up together. Then I discovered that my freshman year would be Cambridge High School’s inaugural year. Since there were students coming in from 5 different schools, there was no real sense of “normal”. I panicked. If there was no normal, then how could I be unique? That’s when I realized that I had spent so much energy going against the grain that I had no idea what my true interests were or what I really cared about.
It was time to find out. I stopped concentrating on what everyone else was doing and started to focus on myself. I joined the basketball team, I performed in the school musical, and I enrolled in Chorus, all of which were firsts for me. I took art classes, joined clubs, and did whatever I thought would make me happy. And it paid off. I was no longer socially awkward. In fact, because I was involved in so many unrelated activities, I was socially flexible. My friends and I had things in common, but there was no one who could say that I was exactly like anyone else. I had finally become my own person.
My father named me Jasina because he wanted my nickname to be “Jazz.” According to Webster, “jazz” is “music characterized by syncopated rhythms, improvisation, and deliberate distortions of pitch.” Basically, jazz is music that is off-beat and unpredictable. It cannot be strictly defined.
That sounds about right.
Right off the bat, this essay starts extremely strong. The description of attendance in a class with ample quotes, awkward pauses, and the student’s internal dialogue immediately puts us in the middle of the action and establishes a lot of sympathy for this student before we’ve learned anything else.
The strength of this essay continues into the second paragraph where the use of quotes, italics, and interjections from the student continues. All of these literary tools help the student express her voice and allow the reader to understand what this student goes through on a daily basis. Rather than just telling the reader people make assumptions about her name, she shows us what these assumptions look and sound like, and exactly how they make her feel.
The essay further shows us how the student approached her name by providing concrete examples of times she’s been intentionally unique throughout her life. Describing her drawing red suns and choosing grape juice bring her personality to life and allow her to express her deviance from the “norm” in a much more engaging and visual way than simply telling the reader she would go against the grain to be different on purpose.
One part of the essay that was a bit weaker than the others was the paragraph about her in high school. Although it was still well written and did a nice job of demonstrating how she got involved in multiple groups to find her new identity, it lacked the same level of showing employed in previous paragraphs. It would have been nice to see what “socially flexible” means either through a conversation she had with her friends or an example of a time she combined her interests from different groups in a way that was uniquely her.
The essay finishes off how it started: extremely strong. Taking a step back to fully explain the origin of her name neatly brings together everything mentioned in this essay. This ending is especially successful because she never explicitly states that her personality aligns with the definition of jazz. Instead, she relies on the points she has made throughout the essay to stick in the reader’s memory so they are able to draw the connection themselves, making for a much more satisfying ending for the reader.
Prompt #4 (OLD PROMPT; NOT THE CURRENT PROMPT): 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.
Prompt #4, example #1.
“Advanced females ages 13 to 14 please proceed to staging with your coaches at this time.”
Skittering around the room, eyes wide and pleading, I frantically explained my situation to nearby coaches. The seconds ticked away in my head; every polite refusal increased my desperation.
Despair weighed me down. I sank to my knees as a stream of competitors, coaches, and officials flowed around me. My dojang had no coach, and the tournament rules prohibited me from competing without one.
Although I wanted to remain strong, doubts began to cloud my mind. I could not help wondering: what was the point of perfecting my skills if I would never even compete? The other members of my team, who had found coaches minutes earlier, attempted to comfort me, but I barely heard their words. They couldn’t understand my despair at being left on the outside, and I never wanted them to understand.
Since my first lesson 12 years ago, the members of my dojang have become family. I have watched them grow up, finding my own happiness in theirs. Together, we have honed our kicks, blocks, and strikes. We have pushed one another to aim higher and become better martial artists. Although my dojang had searched for a reliable coach for years, we had not found one. When we attended competitions in the past, my teammates and I had always gotten lucky and found a sympathetic coach. Now, I knew this practice was unsustainable. It would devastate me to see the other members of my dojang in my situation, unable to compete and losing hope as a result. My dojang needed a coach, and I decided it was up to me to find one.
I first approached the adults in the dojang – both instructors and members’ parents. However, these attempts only reacquainted me with polite refusals. Everyone I asked told me they couldn’t devote multiple weekends per year to competitions. I soon realized that I would have become the coach myself.
At first, the inner workings of tournaments were a mystery to me. To prepare myself for success as a coach, I spent the next year as an official and took coaching classes on the side. I learned everything from motivational strategies to technical, behind-the-scenes components of Taekwondo competitions. Though I emerged with new knowledge and confidence in my capabilities, others did not share this faith.
Parents threw me disbelieving looks when they learned that their children’s coach was only a child herself. My self-confidence was my armor, deflecting their surly glances. Every armor is penetrable, however, and as the relentless barrage of doubts pounded my resilience, it began to wear down. I grew unsure of my own abilities.
Despite the attack, I refused to give up. When I saw the shining eyes of the youngest students preparing for their first competition, I knew I couldn’t let them down. To quit would be to set them up to be barred from competing like I was. The knowledge that I could solve my dojang’s longtime problem motivated me to overcome my apprehension.
Now that my dojang flourishes at competitions, the attacks on me have weakened, but not ended. I may never win the approval of every parent; at times, I am still tormented by doubts, but I find solace in the fact that members of my dojang now only worry about competing to the best of their abilities.
Now, as I arrive at a tournament with my students, I close my eyes and remember the past. I visualize the frantic search for a coach and the chaos amongst my teammates as we competed with one another to find coaches before the staging calls for our respective divisions. I open my eyes to the exact opposite scene. Lacking a coach hurt my ability to compete, but I am proud to know that no member of my dojang will have to face that problem again.
This essay is great because it has a strong introduction and a strong conclusion. The introduction is notably suspenseful and draws readers into the story. Because we know it is a college essay, we can assume that the student is one of the competitors, but at the same time, this introduction feels intentionally ambiguous as if the writer could be a competitor, a coach, a sibling of a competitor, or anyone else in the situation.
As we continue reading the essay, we learn that the writer is, in fact, the competitor. Readers also learn a lot about the student’s values as we hear their thoughts: “I knew I couldn’t let them down. To quit would be to set them up to be barred from competing like I was.” Ultimately, the conflict and inner and outer turmoil is resolved through the “Same, but Different” ending technique as the student places themself in the same environment that we saw in the intro, but experiencing it differently due to their actions throughout the narrative. This is a very compelling strategy!
The main weakness of this essay is that it is slightly confusing at times—how the other students found coaches feels unintentionally under-explained (a simple phrase like “through pleading and attracting sympathy” in the fourth paragraph could have served the writer well) and a dojang is never defined. Additionally, the turn of the essay or “volta” could’ve packed a bigger punch. It is put quite simply with “I soon realized that I would have become the coach myself.” A more suspenseful reveal could’ve served the author well because more drama did come later.
Prompt #5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
Prompt #5, example #1.
Tears streamed down my face and my mind was paralyzed with fear. Sirens blared, but the silent panic in my own head was deafening. I was muted by shock. A few hours earlier, I had anticipated a vacation in Washington, D.C., but unexpectedly, I was rushing to the hospital behind an ambulance carrying my mother. As a fourteen-year-old from a single mother household, without a driver’s license, and seven hours from home, I was distraught over the prospect of losing the only parent I had. My fear turned into action as I made some of the bravest decisions of my life.
Three blood transfusions later, my mother’s condition was stable, but we were still states away from home, so I coordinated with my mother’s doctors in North Carolina to schedule the emergency operation that would save her life. Throughout her surgery, I anxiously awaited any word from her surgeon, but each time I asked, I was told that there had been another complication or delay. Relying on my faith and positive attitude, I remained optimistic that my mother would survive and that I could embrace new responsibilities.
My mother had been a source of strength for me, and now I would be strong for her through her long recovery ahead. As I started high school, everyone thought the crisis was over, but it had really just started to impact my life. My mother was often fatigued, so I assumed more responsibility, juggling family duties, school, athletics, and work. I made countless trips to the neighborhood pharmacy, cooked dinner, biked to the grocery store, supported my concerned sister, and provided the loving care my mother needed to recover. I didn’t know I was capable of such maturity and resourcefulness until it was called upon. Each day was a stage in my gradual transformation from dependence to relative independence.
Throughout my mother’s health crisis, I matured by learning to put others’ needs before my own. As I worried about my mother’s health, I took nothing for granted, cherished what I had, and used my daily activities as motivation to move forward. I now take ownership over small decisions such as scheduling daily appointments and managing my time but also over major decisions involving my future, including the college admissions process. Although I have become more independent, my mother and I are inseparably close, and the realization that I almost lost her affects me daily. Each morning, I wake up ten minutes early simply to eat breakfast with my mother and spend time with her before our busy days begin. I am aware of how quickly life can change. My mother remains a guiding force in my life, but the feeling of empowerment I discovered within myself is the ultimate form of my independence. Though I thought the summer before my freshman year would be a transition from middle school to high school, it was a transformation from childhood to adulthood.
This essay feels real and tells readers a lot about the writer. To start at the beginning, the intro is 10/10. It has drama, it has emotions, and it has the reader wanting more.
And, when you keep going, you get to learn a lot about a very resilient and mature student. Through sentences like “I made countless trips to the neighborhood pharmacy, cooked dinner, biked to the grocery store, supported my concerned sister, and provided the loving care my mother needed to recover” and “Relying on my faith and positive attitude, I remained optimistic that my mother would survive and that I could embrace new responsibilities,” the reader shows us that they are aware of their resilience and maturity, but are not arrogant about it. It is simply a fact that they have proven!
Sometimes writing about adversity can feel exploitative or oddly braggy. This student backs up everything they say with anecdotes that prove and show their strength and resilience, rather than just claiming their strengths. When I read this essay, I want to cheer for its writer! And I want to be able to continue cheering for them (perhaps, if I were an admissions officer, that would make me want them at my school!).
Prompt #5, Example #2
Armed with a red pen, I slowly walked across the room to a small, isolated table with pink stools. Swinging her legs, my young student beamed and giggled at me, slamming her pencil bag on the table and bending over to pick up one of her toys. Natalie always brought some new toy with her to lessons—toys which I would sternly take away from her and place under the table until she finished her work. At the tutoring center where I work, a strict emphasis on discipline leaves no room for paper crowns or rubber chickens.
Today, she had with her a large stuffed eagle from a museum. As she pulled out her papers, I slid the eagle to the other side of the table. She looked eagerly around, attempting to chat with other students as I impatiently called her attention to her papers. “I should name my eagle,” she chimed, waving her pencil in the air. I cringed—there was no wondering why Natalie always had to sit by herself. She was the antithesis of my academic values, and undoubtedly the greatest adversary of my teaching style.
As the lesson progressed, Natalie became more fitful; she refused to release her feathered friend, and kept addressing the bird for help with difficult problems. We both grew increasingly more frustrated. Determined to tame this wryly, wiggling student, I stood my ground, set on converting this disobedient child to my calm, measured ways of study.
As time slowly crept by, I noticed that despite Natalie’s cheerful tone and bright smile, the stuffed eagle was troublesomely quiet and stern-faced. Much like myself. Both the eagle and I were getting nowhere in this lesson—so we hatched a quick plan. Lifting the eagle up in the air, I started reading in my best impersonation of an eagle, squawking my way through a spelling packet. The result provided a sense of instant gratification I never knew I needed. She sang out every letter, clapped her hands at every page, and followed along with the eagle, stopping at every few letters to declare that “E is for eagle” and pet her teacher fondly on the beak.
Despite my ostensibly dissatisfied attitude toward my students, I did not join the tutoring center simply to earn money. I had always aspired to help others achieve their fullest potential. As a young adult, I felt that it was time for me to step out of the role of a pupil and into the influential role of a teacher, naively believing that I had the maturity and skill to adapt to any situation and help these students reach their highest achievements academically. For the most part, the role of a stern-faced, strict instructor helped me get by in the workplace, and while my students never truly looked happy, I felt that it was part of the process of conditioning a child to learn.
Ironically, my transition to adulthood was the result of a stuffed animal. It was indisputable that I always had the skill to instruct others; the only thing needed to instruct someone is knowledge of the subject. However, it was only upon being introduced to a stuffed bird in which I realized that students receive the most help not from instructors, but teachers. While almost anyone can learn material and spit it back out for someone, it takes the maturity and passion of a teacher not only to help students improve in their students, but also to motivate them and develop them into better citizens. From my young pupil and her little bird, I have undergone a change in attitude which reflects a growth in maturity and ability to improve the lives of others that I hope to implement in my future role as a student, activist, and physician. My newfound maturity taught me that the letter “e” stands for many things: empathy, experience, enthusiasm, and eagle.
In this essay, the student effectively explores their values (and how they learned them!) then identifies these values through a reflective conclusion. While the writer humbly recognizes the initial faults in their teaching style, they do not position their initial discipline or rigidity as mean or poorly intentioned—simply ineffective. This is important because, when you are discussing a transition like this, you don’t want admissions officers to think of you as having been a bad person.
My favorite part about this essay is its subtlety. The major shift in the essay comes through the simple sentence “The result provided a sense of instant gratification I never knew I needed.” The facts of this narrative are not too complicated. Simply put, the writer was strict then learned that it’s sometimes more effective not to be strict. The complexity of this narrative comes through reflection. Notably, through the ending, the student identifies their values (which they hadn’t given a name to before): “it takes the maturity and passion of a teacher not only to help students improve in their students, but also to motivate them and develop them into better citizens.”
The final sentence of this essay ties things up very nicely. Readers are left satisfied with the essay and convinced that its writer is a kind human with a large capacity for reflection and consideration. That is a great image to paint of yourself!
Prompt #5, Example #3
When it’s quiet, I can still hear the Friday night gossip and giggles of my friends. It’s a stark contrast from the environment I’ve known all my life, my home. My family has always been one to keep to themselves; introverts with a hard-working mentality—my father especially. He spent most of his time at work and growing up without him around, I came to be at peace with the fact that I’d probably never really get to know him. The thought didn’t bother me at the time because I felt that we were very different. He was stoic and traditional; I was trying to figure out who I was and explore my interests. His disapproval of the American music I listened to and my penchant for wearing hand-me-downs made me see him as someone who wanted to restrain my individuality. That explains why I relied heavily on my friends throughout middle and high school; they liked me for who I was. I figured I would get lonely without my friends during quarantine, but these last few months stuck at home gave me the time to make a new friend: my father.
It was June. I had the habit of sleeping with my windows open so I wouldn’t need to set an alarm; the warmth of the sun and the sounds of the neighborhood children playing outside would wake me. One morning, however, it was not the chirping of birds or the laughter of children I awoke to, but the shrill of a saw. Through the window screen, on the grass below, my father stood cutting planks of wood. I was confused but didn’t question him—what he did with his time was none of my business. It was not until the next day, when I was attempting to work on a sculpture for an art class, that the sounds of hammering and drills became too much to ignore. Seeking answers, I trudged across my backyard towards the corner he was in. On that day, all there was to see was the foundation of what he was building; a shed. My intrigue was replaced with awe; I was impressed by the precision of his craft. Sharp corners, leveled and sturdy, I could imagine what it would look like when the walls were up and the inside filled with the tools he had spread around the yard.
Throughout the week, when I was trying to finish my sculpture for art class—thinking about its shape and composition—I could not help but think of my father. Art has always been a creative outlet for me, an opportunity to express myself at home. For my dad, his craftsmanship was his art. I realized we were not as different as I had thought; he was an artist like me. My glue and paper were his wood and nails.
That summer, I tried to spend more time with my dad than I have in all my 18 years of life. Waking up earlier than usual so we could have our morning coffees together and pretending to like his favorite band so he’d talk to me about it, I took advantage of every opportunity I had to speak with him. In getting to know him, I’ve recognized that I get my artistry from him.
Reflecting on past relationships, I feel I am now more open to reconnecting with people I’ve perhaps misjudged. In reconciling, I’ve realized I held some bitterness towards him all these years, and in letting that go, my heart is lighter. Our reunion has changed my perspective; instead of vilifying him for spending so much time at work, I can appreciate how hard he works to provide for our family. When I hear him tinkering away at another home project, I can smile and look forward to asking him about it later.
This is an outstanding example of the great things that can be articulated through a reflective essay. As we read the essay, we are simply thinking alongside its author—thinking about their past relationship with their father, about their time in quarantine, about aspects of themselves they think could use attention and growth.
While we reflect, we are also centered by the student’s anecdote about the sculpture and the shed during quarantine. By centering us in real-time, the student keeps us engaged in the reflection.
The main strength here is the maturity we see on the part of its writer. The student doesn’t say “and I realized my father was the best dad in the world;” they say “and I realized my father didn’t have to be the best dad in the world for me to give him a chance.” Lots of students show themselves as motivated, curious, or compassionate in their college essays, but a reflective essay that ends with a discussion of resentment and forgiveness shows true maturity.
Prompt #5, Example #4
As a wide-eyed, naive seven-year-old, I watched my grandmother’s rough, wrinkled hands pull and knead mercilessly at white dough until the countertop was dusted in flour. She steamed small buns in bamboo baskets, and a light sweetness lingered in the air. Although the mantou looked delicious, their papery, flat taste was always an unpleasant surprise. My grandmother scolded me for failing to finish even one, and when I complained about the lack of flavor she would simply say that I would find it as I grew older. How did my adult relatives seem to enjoy this Taiwanese culinary delight while I found it so plain?
During my journey to discover the essence of mantou, I began to see myself the same way I saw the steamed bun. I believed that my writing would never evolve beyond a hobby and that my quiet nature crippled my ambitions. Ultimately, I thought I had little to offer the world. In middle school, it was easy for me to hide behind the large personalities of my friends, blending into the background and keeping my thoughts company. Although writing had become my emotional outlet, no matter how well I wrote essays, poetry, or fiction, I could not stand out in a sea of talented students. When I finally gained the confidence to submit my poetry to literary journals but was promptly rejected, I stepped back from my work to begin reading from Whitman to Dickinson, Li-Young Lee to Ocean Vuong. It was then that I realized I had been holding back a crucial ingredient–my distinct voice.
Over time, my taste buds began to mature, as did I. Mantou can be flavored with pork and eggplant, sweetened in condensed milk, and moistened or dried by the steam’s temperature. After I ate the mantou with each of these factors in mind, I noticed its environment enhanced a delicately woven strand of sweetness beneath the taste of side dishes: the sugar I had often watched my grandmother sift into the flour. The taste was nearly untraceable, but once I grasped it I could truly begin to cherish mantou. In the same way the taste had been lost to me for years, my writer’s voice had struggled to shine through because of my self-doubt and fear of vulnerability.
As I acquired a taste for mantou, I also began to strengthen my voice through my surrounding environment. With the support of my parents, peer poets, and the guidance of Amy Tan and the Brontё sisters, I worked tirelessly to uncover my voice: a subtle strand of sweetness. Once I stopped trying to fit into a publishing material mold and infused my uninhibited passion for my Taiwanese heritage into my writing, my poem was published in a literary journal. I wrote about the blatant racism Asians endured during coronavirus, and the editor of Skipping Stones Magazine was touched by both my poem and my heartfelt letter. I opened up about being ridiculed for bringing Asian food to school at Youth Leadership Forum, providing support to younger Asian-American students who reached out with the relief of finding someone they could relate to. I embraced writing as a way to convey my struggle with cultural identity. I joined the school’s creative writing club and read my pieces in front of an audience, honing my voice into one that flourishes out loud as well.
Now, I write and speak unapologetically, falling in love with a voice that I never knew I had. It inspires passion within my communities and imparts tenacity to Asian-American youth, rooting itself deeply into everything I write. Today, my grandmother would say that I have finally unearthed the taste of mantou as I savor every bite with a newfound appreciation. I can imagine her hands shaping the dough that has become my voice, and I am eager to share it with the world.
This essay is structurally-sound, with the student’s journey learning to savor mantou and their journey trying to find their voice serving as outstanding parallels. Additionally, as they describe the journey to find a voice in their writing, they definitely show off their voice! The clear introduction provides a great image and draws us in with an intriguing question. Additionally, their little inserts like “a strand of sweetness” and “falling in love with a voice that I never knew I had” work very well.
When the student describes their first published poem, however, their writing gets a little more stilted. This is a common error students make when writing about their achievements. If this student is writing about the craft that goes into writing, we should hear the details of the craft that went into the poem, instead of simply learning that they “opened up about being ridiculed for bringing Asian food to school at Youth Leadership Forum.” This is interesting information but would be stronger if it were supplemented by descriptions of the voice they created, comparisons to the styles of other poets, and analysis of their stylistic choices. This would make the essay feel more cohesive, centering entirely around concepts of voice and style.
Prompt #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?
Note: We don’t have a stellar example for this prompt, so instead, we’re sharing a couple examples that need improvement, and what can be done to make the essays more engaging.
Prompt #6, Example #1
What factors shape the depth and allure of a literary character? This is the exact question I asked myself as my eyes riveted on the white pages covered with little black letters.
I was reading my old novels. I’ve written three novels and many short stories. Each of them repetitively portrayed the hero as intelligent and funny, and the antagonists as cold and manipulative. I came to the appalling realization that my characters were flat, neither exciting nor original. They just didn’t stand out!
As Oscar Wilde said, ‘Vice and virtue are to the artist material to an art.’ Their mixing makes a novel addictive because its plot is rich with turnarounds and its characters more engaging. In his famous work The Picture of Dorian Gray , Wilde deconstructs the psyche of his characters. He brilliantly plays with the protagonist’s youthful appearance and the decaying portrait to build a truly unique idiosyncratic identity. The persona of Dorian Gray is so complicated a psychologist could analyze it for hours on end!
Inspired by this character, It was my turn to explore good and evil into characters to make my stories more enthralling. I skillfully played with vice and virtue, separating, merging them… My latest novel is the fruit of this exercise. I chose to set it in 20th century London. Its opium dens and exclusive salons; middle-class workers, peasants and politicians breathed the same newly industrialized air; modernity in Blackfriars bridge and tradition in St Paul’s Cathedral; all of these contrasts set the perfect environment for my characters to grow. Following Laclos’ Valmont, Maupassant’s Georges Duroy and Duffy’s Myra Hindley, I played with those contrasts to present an intricate character, truly creative – unlike my previous ones. Insanity, religion, depravity and love are merged into each character, reflecting Edwardian London. As I reflected on my work, I realized vice and virtue altogether made them more human and credible. These characters stood out, they were interesting, I even wanted to know more about them!
After rewriting, erasing, typing, and thinking countless times, I realized writing is a unique exercise. Nothing is definite when you are holding a fountain pen, hearing its screeching sound on the white paper and watching the ebony ink forming letters. When I wasn’t too happy about a change I made in my story, I simply erased and rewrote it. Everything I imagined could happen: white pages are the only place the mouse eats the cat or the world is taken by a zombie attack!
This exact exercise of diversifying my characters satisfied my relentless curiosity. Asking myself ‘how could this character be if she had lost her parents in a maritime tragedy?’ allowed me to view the world from different perspectives (some very dissimilar to my own) and considering how each character would react to different situations brought them to life. As I was writing, I was aiming to change the usual narratives I had previously traversed. I loved experimenting with countless personality traits in my characters – minutes flowing, my hand dancing on the paper as my mind was singing words coming alive….
There were times where my hand just stopped writing and my mind stopped raging. I tried thinking differently, changing a character’s background, the story, the setting. I was inspired by Zola, A.Carter, Fitzgerald, the Brontë sisters… I could observe the different reactions of their characters, and reflect on mine theoretically. But it was only part one of the work: I then had to write, sometimes aimlessly, sometimes frantically, always leading to fresh ideas – I was exploring the practical, trying, erasing and rewriting. Both theory and practice are required to gain intellectual independence and experience, in writing and more globally: before I can change a character, I have to understand it. Before we can change the world, we have to understand it.
The main strength of this essay is the authenticity of the topic the student chose. They aren’t making anything up or stretching the truth. Writing is something that captivates them, and that captivation shines through—particularly through their fourth paragraph (where they geek out over specific plots and characters) and their fifth paragraph (where they joyfully describe how writing has no limitations). Admissions officers want to see this passion and intensity in applicants! The fact that this student has already written three novels also shows dedication and is impressive.
The main weakness of this essay is its structure. Ironically, it is not super captivating. The essay would have been more compelling if the student utilized a “anecdote – answer – reflection” structure. This student’s current introduction involves a reflective question, citations about their past writing experience, then their thoughts on Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray. Instead, this student could’ve provided one cohesive (and powerful!) image of them being frustrated with their own writing then being inspired by Dorian Gray. This would look something like:
“I stayed up three nights in a row studying my own writing—bored by my own writing. The only thing more painful than seeing failure in the fruits of your labor is not seeing a path for improvement. I had written three novels and numerous short stories, and all I could come up with was funny and intelligent heroes going up against cold and manipulative villains. What kind of writer was so consistently cliche? On the third night, I wandered over to my bookshelf. Mrs. Dalloway caught my eye (it has such a beautiful cover). I flipped through. Then, I grabbed Giovanni’s Room . I was so obsessed with my shortcomings that I couldn’t even focus long enough to see what these authors were doing right. I picked up The Picture of Dorian Gray and decided to just start reading. By the end of the night, I was captivated.”
An introduction like this would flow nicely into the student describing their experience with Dorian Gray then, because of that experience, describing how they have altered their approach to writing. The conclusion of this essay would then be this student’s time for reflection. Instead of repeating content about their passion—“I then had to write, sometimes aimlessly, sometimes frantically” and “I was exploring the practical, trying, erasing and rewriting”—, the student could dedicate their conclusion to reflecting on the reasons that writing is so captivating or the ways that (until the day they die) writers will always be perfecting their craft.
This essay is a great example of how important it is to pick a topic that truly excites you. It also illustrates how important it is to effectively structure that excitement.
Prompt #6, Example #2
Astonished by the crashing sound of waves in my ear, I was convinced this magical shell actually held the sound of the big blue sea — my six-year-old self was heartbroken when I couldn’t take the thirty-dollar artificial shell from SeaWorld’s gift shop . It distinctly reminded me of the awestruck feeling I had when I witnessed the churning waves of a windy night by the ocean the previous weekend; I lost track of time gazing at the distant moonlit border dividing our world from the ever-growing black void. Turning to my mom, I inquired curiously, “Can we go to the place where the water ends one day?”
She explained to me I could never reach the end of the ocean because the harsh line I had seen was actually an illusion called the horizon — there was no material end to the ocean. For a mind as young as mine was, the idea of infinity was incomprehensible. As my infatuation with the ocean continued to grow, I finally understood that regardless of how far I travel, the horizon is unattainable because it’s not a physical limit. This idea is why the ocean captivates me — no matter how much you discover, there is always more to explore.
Learning about and exploring the ocean provided an escape from one reality into another; though we are on the same planet, it’s an entirely separate world. Through elementary and middle school, I devoted vast amounts of my free time to learning about simpler concepts like a dolphin’s ability to echolocate and coral reef ecosystems. I rented countless documentaries and constantly checked out books from my local library — my all-time favorite was an episode of the television series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey titled “The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth.” This episode remained memorable because it was centered around the impacts of fossil fuels on marine animals; it was the first time I’d learned about the impending crisis we are faced with due to the human mistreatment of our planet.
Prior to viewing that episode, I relied on the ocean as an outlet — I fueled all of my emotions into studying marine organisms. Once I learned of its grave future, I delved into the world of environmental activism. This path was much more disheartening than studying echolocation — inevitable death due to climate change took a toll on my mental health. I attended two climate strikes in November of my sophomore year. Following the strikes, I joined Sunrise Movement Sacramento, a youth-led climate justice organization advocating for the Green New Deal. While analyzing legislation and organizing protests were significant takeaways from my experience with climate activism, they were not the most important. I became an organizer because of my love for the ocean and I remain an organizer because of my passion for dissolving the disproportionalities marginalized groups face due to the sacrificing of people’s livelihood for the sake of profit. The more I learned about our modern society, the more hopeless I grew that I could see any significant change within my lifetime.
However, this hopelessness comes in waves; every day, I remind myself of the moment I discovered the horizon. Or the moment I first dove into the beautiful waters of the Hawaiian coast and immediately was surrounded by breathtaking seas of magnificent creatures and coral gardens — life felt ethereal and beautiful. I remind myself that like the ocean, the vast majority of the universe has yet to be discovered; that distant border holds infinite opportunity to learn. In a universe as vast as ours, and life as rare as ours, individuals still choose to prioritize avarice over our planet. Despite this grave individualism, the ocean reminds me every day there is hope in the fight for a better world. Though I will never discover every inch of the ocean’s floor, I will forever envision and reach for new horizons.
Sometimes the path to a great essay is taking something normal and using it to show admissions officers who you are and what you value—that is precisely this student’s approach! Finding the ocean fascinating is not unique to this student. Tons of kids (and adults, too!) are obsessed with the ocean. What this student does is take things a step further as they explain their curiosity about the ocean in relation to their pain about the destruction of the environment. This capacity for reflection is great!
This student shows a good control of language through their thematic centering on ocean and horizons that carries through their essay—with ”this hopelessness comes in waves” and “I will forever envision and reach for new horizons.” The details provided throughout are also effective at keeping readers engaged—things like “ my six-year-old self was heartbroken when I couldn’t take the thirty-dollar artificial shell from SeaWorld’s gift shop” and “ my all-time favorite was an episode of the television series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey titled “The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth.”
The main weakness of this essay is the lack of reflection when the student discusses environmental activism. There’s reflection on the student’s connection to the ocean and horizons at the beginning and at the end, but when the student discusses activism, the tone shifts from focusing on their internal thoughts to their external actions. Remember, a lot of students write about environmental activism, but not a lot of students write about an emotional connection to the ocean as an impetus for environmental activism. This student would stand out more to admissions officers if they had dug into questions of what the ocean means to them (and says about them) in the paragraphs beginning “Learning about and exploring the ocean…” and “Prior to viewing that episode.”
Prompt #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.
Prompt #7, example #1.
Scalding hot water cascades over me, crashing to the ground in a familiar, soothing rhythm. Steam rises to the ceiling as dried sweat and soap suds swirl down the drain. The water hisses as it hits my skin, far above the safe temperature for a shower. The pressure is perfect on my tired muscles, easing the aches and bruises from a rough bout of sparring and the tension from a long, stressful day. The noise from my overactive mind dies away, fading into music, lyrics floating through my head. Black streaks stripe the inside of my left arm, remnants of the penned reminders of homework, money owed and forms due.
It lacks the same dynamism and controlled intensity of sparring on the mat at taekwondo or the warm tenderness of a tight hug from my father, but it’s still a cocoon of safety as the water washes away the day’s burdens. As long as the hot water is running, the rest of the world ceases to exist, shrinking to me, myself and I. The shower curtain closes me off from the hectic world spinning around me.
Much like the baths of Blanche DuBois, my hot showers are a means of cleansing and purifying (though I’m mostly just ridding myself of the germs from children at work sneezing on me). In the midst of a hot shower, there is no impending exam to study for, no newspaper deadline to meet, no paycheck to deposit. It is simply complete and utter peace, a safe haven. The steam clears my mind even as it clouds my mirror.
Creativity thrives in the tub, breathing life into tales of dragons and warrior princesses that evolve only in my head, never making their way to paper but appeasing the childlike dreamer and wannabe author in me all the same. That one calculus problem that has seemed unsolvable since second period clicks into place as I realize the obvious solution. The perfect concluding sentence to my literary analysis essay writes itself (causing me to abruptly end my shower in a mad dash to the computer before I forget it entirely).
Ever since I was old enough to start taking showers unaided, I began hogging all the hot water in the house, a source of great frustration to my parents. Many of my early showers were rudely cut short by an unholy banging on the bathroom door and an order to “stop wasting water and come eat dinner before it gets cold.” After a decade of trudging up the stairs every evening to put an end to my water-wasting, my parents finally gave in, leaving me to my (expensive) showers. I imagine someday, when paying the water bill is in my hands, my showers will be shorter, but today is not that day (nor, hopefully, will the next four years be that day).
Showers are better than any ibuprofen, the perfect panacea for life’s daily ailments. Headaches magically disappear as long as the water runs, though they typically return in full force afterward. The runny nose and itchy eyes courtesy of summertime allergies recede. Showers alleviate even the stomachache from a guacamole-induced lack of self-control.
Honestly though, the best part about a hot shower is neither its medicinal abilities nor its blissful temporary isolation or even the heavenly warmth seeped deep into my bones. The best part is that these little moments of pure, uninhibited contentedness are a daily occurrence. No matter how stressful the day, showers ensure I always have something to look forward to. They are small moments, true, but important nonetheless, because it is the little things in life that matter; the big moments are too rare, too fleeting to make anyone truly happy. Wherever I am in the world, whatever fate chooses to throw at me, I know I can always find my peace at the end of the day behind the shower curtain.
This essay is relatable yet personal! The writer makes themself supremely human through discussing the universal subject of showering. That being said, an essay about showering could easily turn boring while still being relatable. This writer keeps its relatable moments interesting and fun through vivid descriptions of common feelings including “causing me to abruptly end my shower in a mad dash to the computer before I forget it entirely” and “the stomachache from a guacamole-induced lack of self-control.”
While describing a universal feeling, this student also cleverly and intentionally mentions small facts about their life through simple phrases like “I’m mostly just ridding myself of the germs from children at work sneezing on me” and “the childlike dreamer and wannabe author in me.” To put it simply, though we are talking about a shower, we learn about so much more!
And, at the end, the student lets us know that that is exactly why they love showers. Showers are more than meets the eye! With this insightful and reflective ending (“the big moments are too rare, too fleeting to make anyone truly happy”), readers learn about this student’s capacity for reflection, which is an important capacity as you enter college.
The one major error that this writer commits is that of using a trite transition. The inclusion of “Honestly though” at the beginning of this student’s ending detracts from what they are trying to say and sticks out in their writing.
Prompt #7, Example #2
Steam whooshed from the pot as I unveiled my newest creation: duck-peppercorn-chestnut dumplings. The spicy, hearty aroma swirled into the kitchen, mingling with the smell of fresh dough. Grinning, I grabbed a plump dumpling with chopsticks, blew carefully, and fed it into the waiting mouth of my little sister. Her eyes widening, she vigorously nodded and held up five stubby fingers. I did a little happy dance in celebration and pulled my notebook out of my apron pocket. Duck-peppercorn-chestnut: five stars.
In my household, dumplings are a far cry from the classic pork and cabbage. Our menu boasts everything from the savory lamb-bamboo shoot-watercress to the sweet and crispy apple-cinnamon-date. A few years ago, my sister claimed she was sick of eating the same flavors over and over. Refusing to let her disavow our family staple, I took her complaint as a challenge to make the tastiest and most unconventional dumplings to satisfy her. With her as my taste tester and Mum in charge of dough, I spent months experimenting with dozens of odd ingredient combinations.
During those days spent covered in flour, my dumplings often reminded me of myself—a hybrid of ingredients that don’t usually go together. I am the product of three distinct worlds: the suburbs of Boston, the rural Chinese village of [location removed], and the coastal city of [location removed]. At school, I am both the STEM nerd with lightning-fast mental math and the artistic plant mom obsessed with funky earrings. I love all that is elegant, from Chinese calligraphy to the rolling notes of the Gourd flute, yet I can be very not elegant, like when my sister and I make homemade slime. When I’m on the streets, marching for women’s rights and climate action, I’m loud, bellowing from the bottom of my gut. In the painting studio, though, I don’t speak unless spoken to, and hours can slip by like minutes. I’m loud and quiet. Elegant and messy. Nerdy and artistic. Suburban, rustic, and metropolitan.
While I’m full of odd combinations, they are only seemingly contradictory. Just as barbeque pork and pineapple can combine beautifully in a dumpling wrapper, different facets of my identity also converge. After my tenth-grade summer, when I spent six weeks studying design at art school and another three researching the brain at Harvard Med, I began asking myself: What if I mixed art and neuroscience together? That fall, I collaborated with my school’s art museum for an independent research project, exploring two questions: How are aesthetic experiences processed in the brain? And how can neuroscience help museums design exhibits that maximize visitor engagement? I combed through studies with results from tightly controlled experiments, and I spent days gathering my own qualitative data by observing museum visitors and asking them questions. With the help of my artistic skills, I could identify the visual and spatial elements of the exhibits that best held visitors’ attention.
By synergizing two of the ingredients that make me who I am—art and neuroscience—I realized I shouldn’t see the different sides of myself as separate. I learned to instead seek the intersections between aspects of my identity. Since then, I have mixed art with activism to voice my opinions nonverbally, created Spotify playlists with both Chinese and western pop, and written flute compositions using music theory and math. In the future, by continuing to combine my interests, I want to find my niche in the world. I can make a positive impact on society without having to choose just one passion. As of now, my dream is to be a neuroscientist who designs art therapy treatments for mental health patients. Who knows though? Maybe my calling is to be a dim sum chef who teaches pottery on the side. I don’t know where I’ll go, but one thing’s for sure—being a standard pork and cabbage dumpling is definitely not my style.
This essay is outstanding because the student seems likable and authentic. With the first image of the student’s little sister vigorously nodding and holding up “five stubby fingers,” we find ourselves intrigued by the student’s daily life. They additionally show the importance of family, culture, and creativity in their life—these are great things to highlight in your essay!
After the introduction, the student uses their weird dumpling anecdote to transition to a discussion of their unique intersections. This is achieved smoothly because weirdness/uniqueness is the focus of both of these topics. Additionally, the comparison is not awkward because dumplings are used as more than just a transition, but rather are the through-line of the essay—the student weaves in little phrases like “Just as barbeque pork and pineapple can combine beautifully in a dumpling wrapper,” “By synergizing two of the ingredients that make me who I am,” and “being a standard pork and cabbage dumpling is definitely not my style.” This gives the essay its cohesive feel.
Authenticity comes through in this essay as the student recognizes that they don’t know what the future holds. They just know what kind of a person they are—a passionate one!
One change that would improve this student’s essay would be focusing on fewer intersections in their third and last paragraph. The student mentions STEM, music, family activities, activism, and painting, which makes it feel like a distraction in middle of the essay. Focus on the most important things you want to show admissions officers—you can sit at intersections, but you can’t be interested in everything.
Prompt #7, Example #3
“Everyone follow me!” I smiled at five wide-eyed skaters before pushing off into a spiral. I glanced behind me hopefully, only to see my students standing frozen like statues, the fear in their eyes as clear as the ice they swayed on. “Come on!” I said encouragingly, but the only response I elicited was the slow shake of their heads. My first day as a Learn-to-Skate coach was not going as planned.
But amid my frustration, I was struck by how much my students reminded me of myself as a young skater. At seven, I had been fascinated by Olympic performers who executed thrilling high jumps and dizzying spins with apparent ease, and I dreamed to one day do the same. My first few months on skates, however, sent these hopes crashing down: my attempts at slaloms and toe-loops were shadowed by a stubborn fear of falling, which even the helmet, elbow pads, and two pairs of mittens I had armed myself with couldn’t mitigate. Nonetheless, my coach remained unfailingly optimistic, motivating me through my worst spills and teaching me to find opportunities in failures. With his encouragement, I learned to push aside my fears and attack each jump with calm and confidence; it’s the hope that I can help others do the same that now inspires me to coach.
I remember the day a frustrated staff member directed Oliver, a particularly hesitant young skater, toward me, hoping that my patience and steady encouragement might help him improve. Having stood in Oliver’s skates not much earlier myself, I completely empathized with his worries but also saw within him the potential to overcome his fears and succeed.
To alleviate his anxiety, I held Oliver’s hand as we inched around the rink, cheering him on at every turn. I soon found though, that this only increased his fear of gliding on his own, so I changed my approach, making lessons as exciting as possible in hopes that he would catch the skating bug and take off. In the weeks that followed, we held relay races, played “freeze-skate” and “ice-potato”, and raced through obstacle courses; gradually, with each slip and subsequent success, his fear began to abate. I watched Oliver’s eyes widen in excitement with every skill he learned, and not long after, he earned his first skating badge. Together we celebrated this milestone, his ecstasy fueling my excitement and his pride mirroring my own. At that moment, I was both teacher and student, his progress instilling in me the importance of patience and a positive attitude.
It’s been more than ten years since I bundled up and stepped onto the ice for the first time. Since then, my tolerance for the cold has remained stubbornly low, but the rest of me has certainly changed. In sharing my passion for skating, I have found a wonderful community of eager athletes, loving parents, and dedicated coaches from whom I have learned invaluable lessons and wisdom. My fellow staffers have been with me, both as friends and colleagues, and the relationships I’ve formed have given me far more poise, confidence, and appreciation for others. Likewise, my relationships with parents have given me an even greater gratitude for the role they play: no one goes to the rink without a parent behind the wheel!
Since that first lesson, I have mentored dozens of children, and over the years, witnessed tentative steps transform into powerful glides and tears give way to delighted grins. What I have shared with my students has been among the greatest joys of my life, something I will cherish forever. It’s funny: when I began skating, what pushed me through the early morning practices was the prospect of winning an Olympic medal. Now, what excites me is the chance to work with my students, to help them grow, and to give back to the sport that has brought me so much happiness.
A major strength of this essay comes in its narrative organization. When reading this first paragraph, we feel for the young skaters and understand their fear—skating sounds scary! Then, because the writer sets us up to feel this empathy, the transition to the second paragraph where the student describes their empathy for the young skaters is particularly powerful. It’s like we are all in it together! The student’s empathy for the young skaters also serves as an outstanding, seamless transition to the applicant discussing their personal journey with skating: “I was struck by how much my students reminded me of myself as a young skater.”
This essay positions the applicant as a grounded and caring individual. They are caring towards the young skaters—changing their teaching style to try to help the young skaters and feeling the young skaters’ emotions with them—but they are also appreciative to those who helped them as they reference their fellow staffers and parents. This shows great maturity—a favorable quality in the eyes of an admissions officer.
At the end of the essay, we know a lot about this student and are convinced that they would be a good addition to a college campus!
Prompt #7, Example #4
Flipping past dozens of colorful entries in my journal, I arrive at the final blank sheet. I press my pen lightly to the page, barely scratching its surface to create a series of loops stringing together into sentences. Emotions spill out, and with their release, I feel lightness in my chest. The stream of thoughts slows as I reach the bottom of the page, and I gently close the cover of the worn book: another journal finished.
I add the journal to the stack of eleven books on my nightstand. Struck by the bittersweet sensation of closing a chapter of my life, I grab the notebook at the bottom of the pile to reminisce.
“I want to make a flying mushen to fly in space and your in it” – October 2008
Pulling back the cover of my first Tinkerbell-themed diary, the prompt “My Hopes and Dreams” captures my attention. Though “machine” is misspelled in my scribbled response, I see the beginnings of my past obsession with outer space. At the age of five, I tore through novels about the solar system, experimented with rockets built from plastic straws, and rented Space Shuttle films from Blockbuster to satisfy my curiosities. While I chased down answers to questions as limitless as the universe, I fell in love with learning. Eight journals later, the same relentless curiosity brought me to an airplane descending on San Francisco Bay.
“I wish I had infinite sunsets” – July 2019
I reach for the charcoal notepad near the top of the pile and open to the first page: my flight to the Stanford Pre-Collegiate Summer Institutes. While I was excited to explore bioengineering, anxiety twisted in my stomach as I imagined my destination, unsure of whether I could overcome my shyness and connect with others.
With each new conversation, the sweat on my palms became less noticeable, and I met students from 23 different countries. Many of the moments where I challenged myself socially revolved around the third story deck of the Jerry house. A strange medley of English, Arabic, and Mandarin filled the summer air as my friends and I gathered there every evening, and dialogues at sunset soon became moments of bliss. In our conversations about cultural differences, the possibility of an afterlife, and the plausibility of far-fetched conspiracy theories, I learned to voice my opinion. As I was introduced to different viewpoints, these moments challenged my understanding of the world around me. In my final entries from California, I find excitement to learn from others and increased confidence, a tool that would later allow me to impact my community.
“The beauty in a tower of cans” – June 2020
Returning my gaze to the stack of journals, I stretch to take the floral-patterned book sitting on top. I flip through, eventually finding the beginnings of the organization I created during the outbreak of COVID-19. Since then, Door-to-Door Deliveries has woven its way through my entries and into reality, allowing me to aid high-risk populations through free grocery delivery.
With the confidence I gained the summer before, I took action when seeing others in need rather than letting my shyness hold me back. I reached out to local churches and senior centers to spread word of our services and interacted with customers through our website and social media pages. To further expand our impact, we held two food drives, and I mustered the courage to ask for donations door-to-door. In a tower of canned donations, I saw the value of reaching out to help others and realized my own potential to impact the world around me.
I delicately close the journal in my hands, smiling softly as the memories reappear, one after another. Reaching under my bed, I pull out a fresh notebook and open to its first sheet. I lightly press my pen to the page, “And so begins the next chapter…”
The structuring of this essay makes it easy and enjoyable to read. The student effectively organizes their various life experiences around their tower of journals, which centers the reader and makes the different stories easy to follow. Additionally, the student engages quotes from their journals—and unique formatting of the quotes—to signal that they are moving in time and show us which memory we should follow them to.
Thematically, the student uses the idea of shyness to connect the different memories they draw out of their journals. As the student describes their experiences overcoming shyness at the Stanford Pre-Collegiate Summer Institutes and Door-to-Door Deliveries, this essay can be read as an Overcoming Obstacles essay.
At the end of this essay, readers are fully convinced that this student is dedicated (they have committed to journaling every day), thoughtful (journaling is a thoughtful process and, in the essay, the student reflects thoughtfully on the past), and motivated (they flew across the country for a summer program and started a business). These are definitely qualities admissions officers are looking for in applicants!
Prompt #7, Example #5
“We’re ready for take-off!”
The tires hit the tarmac and began to accelerate, and I just realized what I had signed up for. For 24 hours straight, I strapped myself into a broken-down SUV whereas others chose the luxury of soaring through the skies for a mere two hours. Especially with my motion sickness and driving anxiety, I would call myself crazy too.
To say I have always remained in my comfort zone is an understatement. Did I always order chicken fingers and fries at a restaurant? Yup! Sounds like me. Did I always create a color-coded itinerary just for a day trip? Guilty as charged. Did I always carry a first-aid kit at all times? Of course! I would make even an ambulance look unprepared. And yet here I was, choosing 1,000 miles of misery from Las Vegas to Seattle despite every bone in my body telling me not to.
The sunlight blinded my eyes and a wave of nausea swept over me. Was it too late to say I forgot my calculator? It was only ten minutes in, and I was certain that the trip was going to be a disaster. I simply hoped that our pre-drive prayer was not stuck in God’s voicemail box.
All of a sudden, I noticed brightly colored rocks in the distance, ones I had been dying to see for years. Their fluorescence popped amongst the magnificent winding hills as the sunset became romantic in hue. The desert glistened with mirages of deep blue water unlike anything I had ever seen. Nevada was home, but home always seemed to be just desert and casinos. For once, I looked forward to endless desert outside my window rather than a sea of clouds.
I never realized how little I discovered of the world beyond home. For years I complained about how there was nothing to do or discover outside. Not once did I set out to prove myself wrong. Instead, I chose a daily routine of homework at the kitchen table and late-night TV. However, as summer vacation ended, I decided to set my stubbornness aside and finally give this drive back home a chance. Little did I know that it would turn out to be my favorite trip of all time.
As we drove along, the world chose to prove me wrong when I discovered Heaven on Earth along Shasta Lake. I stood out of the sunroof, surrounded by lush green mountains and fog. I extended my arms out and felt a sense of flight that no plane could ever take me on. As the water vapor kissed my face, I floated into a dreamland I never wanted to leave. I didn’t have to go to great lengths to discover the beauty of the world; it was right in front of me. From this moment on, comfort and convenience would no longer be my best friends. Rather than only looking for famous travel destinations or following carefully mapped-out routes, I would let curiosity lead the way.
Since then, my daily life has been anything but routine. I’m proud to boast of my family’s homemade kombucha attempts, of flights purchased and taken in one day, and of a home flooded with knick-knacks from thrifting trips. Every day I set out to try something new, see a different perspective, and go beyond normal. Whether it is by trying a new recipe using taro, making a risky fashion choice with wide-legged pants, or listening to a new music genre in Spanish, I always act with curiosity first.
Over the years, I have devoted my time towards learning Swedish, building computers, and swimming. Although my accent is horrid, some computers almost broke, and even a starfish would outswim me, I continue to enjoy activities I once criticized. For me, there is no enjoyment without some risk. Nobody I know is a kazoo-playing, boogie-board loving, boba connoisseur like me.
This essay is an Overcoming Challenges story that centers around a single anecdote. The structure works nicely as the student describes what they were like before their road trip, what happened on the road trip, and what they were like after.
The most major improvement that this essay needs is better-communicated authenticity. At the beginning, it feels a bit gimmicky. The student describes their preparedness, particularly the fact that they always carry a first aid kit, and it’s not super believable. Then, when they write “Was it too late to say I forgot my calculator?” it feels like we are in a sitcom and the student is that funny obsessive kid. Sitcom characters don’t feel real and you want to make yourself appear profoundly real.
On a similar note, the narrative arc of this essay isn’t entirely believable. The student describes a large personality and value shift but doesn’t describe any struggles that accompany the shift. A quick shift like that is far from easy. On the other hand, if the immediacy of the shift was easy, they could write about moments after their shift in mindset when they have felt troubled by residual desires to stay in their comfort zone, instead of writing “I always act with curiosity first.”
The greatest strength of this essay is the paragraphs beginning “I never realized how little…” and “As we drove along…” The fixation on comfort seems much more believable when it involves “homework at the kitchen table and late-night TV.” The descriptions of the drive provide beautiful, evocative imagery. And it’s topped off with some nice reflection! Digging into this great portion of the essay would make this an even stronger essay!
Want to see more examples? Check out this post with 16 strong essay examples from top schools , including common supplemental essay questions.
At selective schools, your essays account for around 25% of your admissions decision. That’s more than grades (20%) and test scores (15%), and almost as much as extracurriculars (30%). Why is this? Most students applying to top schools will have stellar academics and extracurriculars. Your essays are your chance to stand out and humanize your application.
That’s why it’s vital that your essays are engaging, and present you as someone who would enrich the campus community.
Before submitting your application, you should have someone else review your essays. It’s even better if that person doesn’t know you personally, as they can best tell whether your personality shines through your essay.
That’s why we created our free Peer Essay Review tool , where you can get a free review of your essay from another student. You can also improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays.
If you want a college admissions expert to review your essay, advisors on CollegeVine have helped students refine their writing and submit successful applications to top schools. Find the right advisor for you to improve your chances of getting into your dream school!
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How to Shorten a College Essay to Meet the Word Limit
The college application essay is one of the most important components of applying to college. Application essays require a lot of time and effort, so you want to make sure you don’t make easy-to-overlook mistakes such as going over your college application word count.
Unfortunately, many students leave their admissions essay as the last step of their application process after studying for the SAT and learning how to request letters of recommendation. High school students don’t have the time, energy, experience, or organizational skills to prioritize their essay word count and word limits when writing their draft and receiving personal statement editing , recommendation letter editing , or cover letter editing , depending on your admissions documents.
The good news is that being over the word limit in your admissions essay is not the end of the world. You’ve managed to output a lot of writing for your college essay. That’s a good starting point for revisions. All quality and successful admissions essays go through the revision process, and a big part of the revision process includes reducing word count.
This article will explore the following topics:
How flexible is the college essay word limit?
- Can you go over/under the college essay word count?
- Why staying under application essay word limits is so hard
- How to shorten the length of your admissions essay
- Get help to cut down your college essay word count
- FAQ about how to shorten your essay length: Advice from editing experts
Your essay must stay within the required word limit whether you’re applying directly to your university or through the Common Application, which has become synonymous with the college application process.
The Common App specifies the word limit required for each essay. Even though this has changed over the years– from 650 to 500 words in the past –the current Common App essay word count is somewhere between 250 to 650 words.
Can you go over the essay word limit?
You must be careful about staying within the word limit for each application. Look at the essay prompts closely. Unless specified, never go over the word limit for a college application essay .
It might be impossible to go over the essay word limit
Some universities may allow you to mail in a copy of your admissions essay, but most will use online applications with text fields that may cut off your essay if it goes over the maximum word count.
Admissions officers may just stop reading or toss out your essay
Admissions officers are busier than Santa’s elves during the winter holiday season. They read dozens if not hundreds of essays per day, and most of those will be rejected. If you fail your application, make sure it’s due to the content or something else; failing due to a simple word limit mistake would be a waste!
Following directions is a key component of being a student
If you told someone to do something and you were in the position to enforce it, would you accept the wrong result if 100 other people were waiting and did it right? Of course not. Therefore, the least you can do is to follow any instructions regarding college essay word limits to show admissions officers you will be a competent student at their school.
Can you go under the essay word limit?
While going over the word limit is a clear and decisive issue, it’s a bit trickier to determine how short your college application essay should be.
Pay attention to minimum word limits and word ranges
Some essay prompts will have a suggested minimum– for example, 500 to 650 words. As mentioned above, online text input fields may cut you off at the maximum word count. Some may even have some red text reminding you to input at least 500 words. But you should always double-check these word count guidelines.
The essay is your opportunity to shine
Why would you be so lazy as to only write the minimum amount for your personal statement? This is a great opportunity for you to stand above and apart from other applicants, and choosing your words wisely while presenting your story fully is important.
Add some concrete examples
Examples of events and actions can help you meet the correct word count range. This also reduces redundancy in your writing while reinforcing and supporting your main points. College admissions officers love to hear about your unique experiences.
Why do students find essay word limits difficult?
Why staying under essay word limits is so hard
We now know several reasons why keeping your college essay length in the correct word range so you don’t violate any word limit is important. But why is staying under essay word limits so hard?
The essay has no structure or organization
The most effective things are stated simply. And the most effective college admissions essays organize, structure, and communicate efficiently. That doesn’t mean your personal statement will be short; it means that each point should be concise.
For example, split your writing into clear paragraphs. Organize your essay into separate sections for your academic, leadership, volunteer, and personal experiences. Be sure to add a section on extracurricular activities. Make your structure clear to the reader so that word count will only be a minor consideration.
The essay does not focus on the essay prompt
If you are having difficulty cutting your word count, look for sentences or even entire paragraphs that are not relevant to the essay prompt. Adding unnecessary information is an easy trap to fall into. Your anecdotes or stories might be interesting and funny, but do they help illustrate why you want to attend UC or Stanford?
The essay lacks proper vocabulary and verb usage
This tip is more subtle but can really help you reduce essay length and word count. When writing, always use the most appropriate verb, preferably one verb only. It will drastically reduce your word count overall. This is because when you choose the wrong verb, you often must add more words to clarify.
Average/Wordy: “I hit the ball so hard it went over the fence.”
Exceptional/Concise: “I smashed the ball over the fence.”
The verb “hit” is a solely descriptive action verb. It provides no context about the degree to which you hit the ball, which is why “so hard” or other adverbs are naturally added to regular verbs to provide extra information. Changing the verb completely to something more engaging like “smashed” provides all the context you need. And you just saved 4 out of 11 words!
The essay uses a traditional introduction/conclusion structure
Many students applying to college fall into the trap of trying to fit their essay into a traditional structure consisting of an introduction, body, and conclusion.
With only 650 words, you can recover your word count by skipping the formal rigid essay structure. Instead, dive right into your essay. Your content and experiences are the most important components of your application essay, and you need every word.
Tips to reduce the length of your application essay
Here are some simple tips to cut down the length of your essay. Start with some broad admissions essay tips first and move on to the easier grammar and proofreading-related steps below.
Here’s how to find if your admissions essay has a lot of adverbs: Look for “ly” words around your verbs. Often, these types of adverbs are just filler words and a reflection of spoken conversational English rather than accomplishing anything meaningful. Go through your essay and decide if each adverb is truly necessary.
Unnecessary adverbs: “ate quickly”, “ran quickly”
Stronger verbs: “devoured”, “rushed”
Here is a list of common adverbs you can remove to reduce your essay’s word count:
Remove filler words
Filler words are another crutch or may just be used out of habit. Go through your essay right now with “ctrl + f” or “cmd + f” for Mac users and delete every instance of actually and very. We promise they add nothing important to your writing.
Filler words: “I found myself actually surprised about how much I learned”
No filler words: “I was surprised at how much I learned”
The word “actually” is pretty much useless. You must clearly state that you were surprised. Further, “finding yourself” is a conversational filler that comes off as unprofessional.
Avoid using too many prepositional phrases
Prepositions are common linking words such as of , to , for , by , from , in , and on . These are highly dependent on the context of your personal statement, especially when you reference narrative elements in your past. Go through your essay carefully and make changes to reword your sentences and cut down your essay word count.
Too many prepositional phrases: “I struggled to work in a team in order to get a good grade in the group project”
Fewer prepositional phrases: “I struggled with the team aspect of the group project”
There’s no need to verbalize that you worked in a team or to mention the grad aspect. Furthermore, these prepositional phrases add extra length to your sentences, which will not help you meet the essay word count.
Be clear and concise. Cut down your word count.
Be direct and decisive in your writing
Students are often told to avoid overgeneralizing groups of people or ideas but that they should also be precise in their English writing. This can lead to the author failing to commit to a concept and coming off as unsure or weak.
An overreliance on modifier words such as adjectives and adverbs is often the culprit.
Too many modifiers: “Although my high school grades were sometimes slightly less than average, I was able to outperform many of my classmates, who often struggled to improve.”
Stronger verbs and adjectives: “Although my high school grades were inconsistent, I later outperformed my classmates, who struggled to improve.”
You can see how the improved version appears more matter-of-fact, consistent, and even confident despite the admission of lower grades.
Don’t be a narrator
Do not waste time restating the common app essay prompt or telling the reader what you will discuss next. This would be fine for an informative article (like the one you’re reading now), but not for an application essay. Eliminating these structural road markers will greatly cut down your word count.
Too much narration: “I will start by discussing my leadership experiences…” or “The next important part of my academic background was my….”
Less narration: “I gained leadership experience when…” or “One of my academic achievements was…”
Consider college essay editors for extra help
Get help from a professional college essay editor
The college admissions and application essay landscape is very competitive, and this has led students to seek an edge. One reason why application essay editing services are so popular is due to their speed and quality. They free up students to prepare more college applications and focus on the content of their personal statements instead of drilling down things like grammar and essay word limits.
One of the best things applicants can do is write as many college admissions essays as possible without worrying at all about grammar or word count. Organize your essays by the essay prompt category (e.g. “Why X university?” or “Tell us about an obstacle you overcame”).
Then, send ONE type of each essay to a reputable proofreading company that offers college essay editing services . When you get your changes back, apply them to all essays of that category. This minimizes the cost but gets you the most benefits.
FAQ: How to shorten your admissions essay
Advice from our editing experts , can a college essay be longer than 650 words.
- The standard word count for the Common app essay is 650 words. Rule 1) Follow any explicit word limit guidelines. Rule 2) Always go under the limit as opposed to over the word limit.
Can you use contractions and abbreviations in college essays?
- Yes. For college application essays, use contractions and abbreviations.
Do citations count towards the college essay word limit?
- Every word in the text field or on your page counts towards the essay word limit. Avoid using citations in a college essay as it is not an academic paper.
Does the title count towards the college essay word limit?
- Do not restate the essay prompt or add a title to your essay. If you are submitting a separate MS Word document, add the title or essay prompt (along with your name) as the .doc name.
How many pages is 650 words?
- A 650-word college application essay will be under 1 page.
How do you shorten long sentences?
- Start by 1) eliminating helper verbs and adverbs, 2) removing redundancy, 3) remove filler words such as “very” and “actually,” and 4) make sure every sentence supports the overall point of the paragraph.
How many paragraphs is a 650-word essay?
- A 500-word essay is 3 to 4 paragraphs. A 650-word essay is 4-5 paragraphs. Your essay should be less than 1 page single or double-spaced.