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How to Write a Personal Essay for Your College Application
What does it take to land in the “accept” (instead of “reject”) pile?
How can you write an essay that helps advance you in the eyes of the admissions officers and makes a real impression? Here are some tips to get you started.
- Start early. Do not leave it until the last minute. Give yourself time when you don’t have other homework or extracurriculars hanging over your head to work on the essay.
- Keep the focus narrow. Your essay does not have to cover a massive, earth-shattering event. Some people in their teens haven’t experienced a major life event. Some people have. Either way, it’s okay.
- Be yourself. Whether writing about a painful experience or a more simple experience, use the narrative to be vulnerable and honest about who you are. Use words you would normally use. Trust your voice and the fact that your story is interesting enough in that no one else has lived it.
- Be creative. “Show, don’t tell,” and that applies here — to an extent. The best essays typically do both. You can help your reader see and feel what you are describing by using some figurative language throughout your piece.
- Make a point. As you finish your final body paragraphs ask yourself “So what?” This will help you hone in on how to end your essay in a way that elevates it into a story about an insight or discovery you made about yourself, rather than just being about an experience you had.
Where your work meets your life. See more from Ascend here .
We’ve all heard about the dreaded “college essay,” the bane of every high school senior’s existence. This daunting element of the college application is something that can create angst for even the most accomplished students.
- AA Amy Allen is a writer, educator, and lifelong learner. Her freelance writing business, All of the Write Words , focuses on providing high school students with one-on-one feedback to guide them through the college application process and with crafting a thoughtful personal essay. A dedicated poet, Amy’s work has also been published in several journals including Pine Row Press , Months to Years, and Atlanta Review .
Choose Your Test
Sat / act prep online guides and tips, 177 college essay examples for 11 schools + expert analysis.
College Admissions , College Essays
The personal statement might just be the hardest part of your college application. Mostly this is because it has the least guidance and is the most open-ended. One way to understand what colleges are looking for when they ask you to write an essay is to check out the essays of students who already got in—college essays that actually worked. After all, they must be among the most successful of this weird literary genre.
In this article, I'll go through general guidelines for what makes great college essays great. I've also compiled an enormous list of 100+ actual sample college essays from 11 different schools. Finally, I'll break down two of these published college essay examples and explain why and how they work. With links to 177 full essays and essay excerpts , this article will be a great resource for learning how to craft your own personal college admissions essay!
What Excellent College Essays Have in Common
Even though in many ways these sample college essays are very different from one other, they do share some traits you should try to emulate as you write your own essay.
Visible Signs of Planning
Building out from a narrow, concrete focus. You'll see a similar structure in many of the essays. The author starts with a very detailed story of an event or description of a person or place. After this sense-heavy imagery, the essay expands out to make a broader point about the author, and connects this very memorable experience to the author's present situation, state of mind, newfound understanding, or maturity level.
Knowing how to tell a story. Some of the experiences in these essays are one-of-a-kind. But most deal with the stuff of everyday life. What sets them apart is the way the author approaches the topic: analyzing it for drama and humor, for its moving qualities, for what it says about the author's world, and for how it connects to the author's emotional life.
A killer first sentence. You've heard it before, and you'll hear it again: you have to suck the reader in, and the best place to do that is the first sentence. Great first sentences are punchy. They are like cliffhangers, setting up an exciting scene or an unusual situation with an unclear conclusion, in order to make the reader want to know more. Don't take my word for it—check out these 22 first sentences from Stanford applicants and tell me you don't want to read the rest of those essays to find out what happens!
A lively, individual voice. Writing is for readers. In this case, your reader is an admissions officer who has read thousands of essays before yours and will read thousands after. Your goal? Don't bore your reader. Use interesting descriptions, stay away from clichés, include your own offbeat observations—anything that makes this essay sounds like you and not like anyone else.
Technical correctness. No spelling mistakes, no grammar weirdness, no syntax issues, no punctuation snafus—each of these sample college essays has been formatted and proofread perfectly. If this kind of exactness is not your strong suit, you're in luck! All colleges advise applicants to have their essays looked over several times by parents, teachers, mentors, and anyone else who can spot a comma splice. Your essay must be your own work, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with getting help polishing it.
And if you need more guidance, connect with PrepScholar's expert admissions consultants . These expert writers know exactly what college admissions committees look for in an admissions essay and chan help you craft an essay that boosts your chances of getting into your dream school.
Check out PrepScholar's Essay Editing and Coaching progra m for more details!
Want to write the perfect college application essay? Get professional help from PrepScholar.
Your dedicated PrepScholar Admissions counselor will craft your perfect college essay, from the ground up. We'll learn your background and interests, brainstorm essay topics, and walk you through the essay drafting process, step-by-step. At the end, you'll have a unique essay that you'll proudly submit to your top choice colleges.
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Links to Full College Essay Examples
Some colleges publish a selection of their favorite accepted college essays that worked, and I've put together a selection of over 100 of these.
Common App Essay Samples
Please note that some of these college essay examples may be responding to prompts that are no longer in use. The current Common App prompts are as follows:
1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. 2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? 3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? 4. 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? 5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. 6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
Now, let's get to the good stuff: the list of 177 college essay examples responding to current and past Common App essay prompts.
- 12 Common Application essays from the classes of 2022-2025
- 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2026
- 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2022
- 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2018
- 8 Common Application essays from the class of 2012
- 8 Common Application essays from the class of 2007
These essays are answers to past prompts from either the Common Application or the Coalition Application (which Johns Hopkins used to accept).
- 1 Common Application or Coalition Application essay from the class of 2026
- 6 Common Application or Coalition Application essays from the class of 2025
- 6 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2024
- 6 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2023
- 7 Common Application of Universal Application essays from the class of 2022
- 5 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2021
- 7 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2020
Essay Examples Published by Other Websites
- 2 Common Application essays ( 1st essay , 2nd essay ) from applicants admitted to Columbia
Other Sample College Essays
Here is a collection of essays that are college-specific.
- 4 essays (and 1 video response) on "Why Babson" from the class of 2020
- 5 essay examples ( 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 ) from the class of 2020 along with analysis from Emory admissions staff on why the essays were exceptional
- 5 more recent essay examples ( 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 ) along with analysis from Emory admissions staff on what made these essays stand out
University of Georgia
- 1 “strong essay” sample from 2019
- 1 “strong essay” sample from 2018
- 10 Harvard essays from 2023
- 10 Harvard essays from 2022
- 10 Harvard essays from 2021
- 10 Harvard essays from 2020
- 10 Harvard essays from 2019
- 10 Harvard essays from 2018
- 6 essays from admitted MIT students
- 6 "best gift" essays from the class of 2018
Books of College Essays
If you're looking for even more sample college essays, consider purchasing a college essay book. The best of these include dozens of essays that worked and feedback from real admissions officers.
College Essays That Made a Difference —This detailed guide from Princeton Review includes not only successful essays, but also interviews with admissions officers and full student profiles.
50 Successful Harvard Application Essays by the Staff of the Harvard Crimson—A must for anyone aspiring to Harvard .
50 Successful Ivy League Application Essays and 50 Successful Stanford Application Essays by Gen and Kelly Tanabe—For essays from other top schools, check out this venerated series, which is regularly updated with new essays.
Heavenly Essays by Janine W. Robinson—This collection from the popular blogger behind Essay Hell includes a wider range of schools, as well as helpful tips on honing your own essay.
Analyzing Great Common App Essays That Worked
I've picked two essays from the examples collected above to examine in more depth so that you can see exactly what makes a successful college essay work. Full credit for these essays goes to the original authors and the schools that published them.
Example 1: "Breaking Into Cars," by Stephen, Johns Hopkins Class of '19 (Common App Essay, 636 words long)
I had never broken into a car before.
We were in Laredo, having just finished our first day at a Habitat for Humanity work site. The Hotchkiss volunteers had already left, off to enjoy some Texas BBQ, leaving me behind with the college kids to clean up. Not until we were stranded did we realize we were locked out of the van.
Someone picked a coat hanger out of the dumpster, handed it to me, and took a few steps back.
"Can you do that thing with a coat hanger to unlock it?"
"Why me?" I thought.
More out of amusement than optimism, I gave it a try. I slid the hanger into the window's seal like I'd seen on crime shows, and spent a few minutes jiggling the apparatus around the inside of the frame. Suddenly, two things simultaneously clicked. One was the lock on the door. (I actually succeeded in springing it.) The other was the realization that I'd been in this type of situation before. In fact, I'd been born into this type of situation.
My upbringing has numbed me to unpredictability and chaos. With a family of seven, my home was loud, messy, and spottily supervised. My siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing—all meant my house was functioning normally. My Dad, a retired Navy pilot, was away half the time. When he was home, he had a parenting style something like a drill sergeant. At the age of nine, I learned how to clear burning oil from the surface of water. My Dad considered this a critical life skill—you know, in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed. "The water's on fire! Clear a hole!" he shouted, tossing me in the lake without warning. While I'm still unconvinced about that particular lesson's practicality, my Dad's overarching message is unequivocally true: much of life is unexpected, and you have to deal with the twists and turns.
Living in my family, days rarely unfolded as planned. A bit overlooked, a little pushed around, I learned to roll with reality, negotiate a quick deal, and give the improbable a try. I don't sweat the small stuff, and I definitely don't expect perfect fairness. So what if our dining room table only has six chairs for seven people? Someone learns the importance of punctuality every night.
But more than punctuality and a special affinity for musical chairs, my family life has taught me to thrive in situations over which I have no power. Growing up, I never controlled my older siblings, but I learned how to thwart their attempts to control me. I forged alliances, and realigned them as necessary. Sometimes, I was the poor, defenseless little brother; sometimes I was the omniscient elder. Different things to different people, as the situation demanded. I learned to adapt.
Back then, these techniques were merely reactions undertaken to ensure my survival. But one day this fall, Dr. Hicks, our Head of School, asked me a question that he hoped all seniors would reflect on throughout the year: "How can I participate in a thing I do not govern, in the company of people I did not choose?"
The question caught me off guard, much like the question posed to me in Laredo. Then, I realized I knew the answer. I knew why the coat hanger had been handed to me.
Growing up as the middle child in my family, I was a vital participant in a thing I did not govern, in the company of people I did not choose. It's family. It's society. And often, it's chaos. You participate by letting go of the small stuff, not expecting order and perfection, and facing the unexpected with confidence, optimism, and preparedness. My family experience taught me to face a serendipitous world with confidence.
What Makes This Essay Tick?
It's very helpful to take writing apart in order to see just how it accomplishes its objectives. Stephen's essay is very effective. Let's find out why!
An Opening Line That Draws You In
In just eight words, we get: scene-setting (he is standing next to a car about to break in), the idea of crossing a boundary (he is maybe about to do an illegal thing for the first time), and a cliffhanger (we are thinking: is he going to get caught? Is he headed for a life of crime? Is he about to be scared straight?).
Great, Detailed Opening Story
More out of amusement than optimism, I gave it a try. I slid the hanger into the window's seal like I'd seen on crime shows, and spent a few minutes jiggling the apparatus around the inside of the frame.
It's the details that really make this small experience come alive. Notice how whenever he can, Stephen uses a more specific, descriptive word in place of a more generic one. The volunteers aren't going to get food or dinner; they're going for "Texas BBQ." The coat hanger comes from "a dumpster." Stephen doesn't just move the coat hanger—he "jiggles" it.
Details also help us visualize the emotions of the people in the scene. The person who hands Stephen the coat hanger isn't just uncomfortable or nervous; he "takes a few steps back"—a description of movement that conveys feelings. Finally, the detail of actual speech makes the scene pop. Instead of writing that the other guy asked him to unlock the van, Stephen has the guy actually say his own words in a way that sounds like a teenager talking.
Turning a Specific Incident Into a Deeper Insight
Suddenly, two things simultaneously clicked. One was the lock on the door. (I actually succeeded in springing it.) The other was the realization that I'd been in this type of situation before. In fact, I'd been born into this type of situation.
Stephen makes the locked car experience a meaningful illustration of how he has learned to be resourceful and ready for anything, and he also makes this turn from the specific to the broad through an elegant play on the two meanings of the word "click."
Using Concrete Examples When Making Abstract Claims
My upbringing has numbed me to unpredictability and chaos. With a family of seven, my home was loud, messy, and spottily supervised. My siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing—all meant my house was functioning normally.
"Unpredictability and chaos" are very abstract, not easily visualized concepts. They could also mean any number of things—violence, abandonment, poverty, mental instability. By instantly following up with highly finite and unambiguous illustrations like "family of seven" and "siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing," Stephen grounds the abstraction in something that is easy to picture: a large, noisy family.
Using Small Bits of Humor and Casual Word Choice
My Dad, a retired Navy pilot, was away half the time. When he was home, he had a parenting style something like a drill sergeant. At the age of nine, I learned how to clear burning oil from the surface of water. My Dad considered this a critical life skill—you know, in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed.
Obviously, knowing how to clean burning oil is not high on the list of things every 9-year-old needs to know. To emphasize this, Stephen uses sarcasm by bringing up a situation that is clearly over-the-top: "in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed."
The humor also feels relaxed. Part of this is because he introduces it with the colloquial phrase "you know," so it sounds like he is talking to us in person. This approach also diffuses the potential discomfort of the reader with his father's strictness—since he is making jokes about it, clearly he is OK. Notice, though, that this doesn't occur very much in the essay. This helps keep the tone meaningful and serious rather than flippant.
An Ending That Stretches the Insight Into the Future
But one day this fall, Dr. Hicks, our Head of School, asked me a question that he hoped all seniors would reflect on throughout the year: "How can I participate in a thing I do not govern, in the company of people I did not choose?"
The ending of the essay reveals that Stephen's life has been one long preparation for the future. He has emerged from chaos and his dad's approach to parenting as a person who can thrive in a world that he can't control.
This connection of past experience to current maturity and self-knowledge is a key element in all successful personal essays. Colleges are very much looking for mature, self-aware applicants. These are the qualities of successful college students, who will be able to navigate the independence college classes require and the responsibility and quasi-adulthood of college life.
What Could This Essay Do Even Better?
Even the best essays aren't perfect, and even the world's greatest writers will tell you that writing is never "finished"—just "due." So what would we tweak in this essay if we could?
Replace some of the clichéd language. Stephen uses handy phrases like "twists and turns" and "don't sweat the small stuff" as a kind of shorthand for explaining his relationship to chaos and unpredictability. But using too many of these ready-made expressions runs the risk of clouding out your own voice and replacing it with something expected and boring.
Use another example from recent life. Stephen's first example (breaking into the van in Laredo) is a great illustration of being resourceful in an unexpected situation. But his essay also emphasizes that he "learned to adapt" by being "different things to different people." It would be great to see how this plays out outside his family, either in the situation in Laredo or another context.
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Example 2: By Renner Kwittken, Tufts Class of '23 (Common App Essay, 645 words long)
My first dream job was to be a pickle truck driver. I saw it in my favorite book, Richard Scarry's "Cars and Trucks and Things That Go," and for some reason, I was absolutely obsessed with the idea of driving a giant pickle. Much to the discontent of my younger sister, I insisted that my parents read us that book as many nights as possible so we could find goldbug, a small little golden bug, on every page. I would imagine the wonderful life I would have: being a pig driving a giant pickle truck across the country, chasing and finding goldbug. I then moved on to wanting to be a Lego Master. Then an architect. Then a surgeon.
Then I discovered a real goldbug: gold nanoparticles that can reprogram macrophages to assist in killing tumors, produce clear images of them without sacrificing the subject, and heat them to obliteration.
Suddenly the destination of my pickle was clear.
I quickly became enveloped by the world of nanomedicine; I scoured articles about liposomes, polymeric micelles, dendrimers, targeting ligands, and self-assembling nanoparticles, all conquering cancer in some exotic way. Completely absorbed, I set out to find a mentor to dive even deeper into these topics. After several rejections, I was immensely grateful to receive an invitation to work alongside Dr. Sangeeta Ray at Johns Hopkins.
In the lab, Dr. Ray encouraged a great amount of autonomy to design and implement my own procedures. I chose to attack a problem that affects the entire field of nanomedicine: nanoparticles consistently fail to translate from animal studies into clinical trials. Jumping off recent literature, I set out to see if a pre-dose of a common chemotherapeutic could enhance nanoparticle delivery in aggressive prostate cancer, creating three novel constructs based on three different linear polymers, each using fluorescent dye (although no gold, sorry goldbug!). Though using radioactive isotopes like Gallium and Yttrium would have been incredible, as a 17-year-old, I unfortunately wasn't allowed in the same room as these radioactive materials (even though I took a Geiger counter to a pair of shoes and found them to be slightly dangerous).
I hadn't expected my hypothesis to work, as the research project would have ideally been led across two full years. Yet while there are still many optimizations and revisions to be done, I was thrilled to find -- with completely new nanoparticles that may one day mean future trials will use particles with the initials "RK-1" -- thatcyclophosphamide did indeed increase nanoparticle delivery to the tumor in a statistically significant way.
A secondary, unexpected research project was living alone in Baltimore, a new city to me, surrounded by people much older than I. Even with moving frequently between hotels, AirBnB's, and students' apartments, I strangely reveled in the freedom I had to enjoy my surroundings and form new friendships with graduate school students from the lab. We explored The Inner Harbor at night, attended a concert together one weekend, and even got to watch the Orioles lose (to nobody's surprise). Ironically, it's through these new friendships I discovered something unexpected: what I truly love is sharing research. Whether in a presentation or in a casual conversation, making others interested in science is perhaps more exciting to me than the research itself. This solidified a new pursuit to angle my love for writing towards illuminating science in ways people can understand, adding value to a society that can certainly benefit from more scientific literacy.
It seems fitting that my goals are still transforming: in Scarry's book, there is not just one goldbug, there is one on every page. With each new experience, I'm learning that it isn't the goldbug itself, but rather the act of searching for the goldbugs that will encourage, shape, and refine my ever-evolving passions. Regardless of the goldbug I seek -- I know my pickle truck has just begun its journey.
Renner takes a somewhat different approach than Stephen, but their essay is just as detailed and engaging. Let's go through some of the strengths of this essay.
One Clear Governing Metaphor
This essay is ultimately about two things: Renner’s dreams and future career goals, and Renner’s philosophy on goal-setting and achieving one’s dreams.
But instead of listing off all the amazing things they’ve done to pursue their dream of working in nanomedicine, Renner tells a powerful, unique story instead. To set up the narrative, Renner opens the essay by connecting their experiences with goal-setting and dream-chasing all the way back to a memorable childhood experience:
This lighthearted–but relevant!--story about the moment when Renner first developed a passion for a specific career (“finding the goldbug”) provides an anchor point for the rest of the essay. As Renner pivots to describing their current dreams and goals–working in nanomedicine–the metaphor of “finding the goldbug” is reflected in Renner’s experiments, rejections, and new discoveries.
Though Renner tells multiple stories about their quest to “find the goldbug,” or, in other words, pursue their passion, each story is connected by a unifying theme; namely, that as we search and grow over time, our goals will transform…and that’s okay! By the end of the essay, Renner uses the metaphor of “finding the goldbug” to reiterate the relevance of the opening story:
While the earlier parts of the essay convey Renner’s core message by showing, the final, concluding paragraph sums up Renner’s insights by telling. By briefly and clearly stating the relevance of the goldbug metaphor to their own philosophy on goals and dreams, Renner demonstrates their creativity, insight, and eagerness to grow and evolve as the journey continues into college.
An Engaging, Individual Voice
This essay uses many techniques that make Renner sound genuine and make the reader feel like we already know them.
Technique #1: humor. Notice Renner's gentle and relaxed humor that lightly mocks their younger self's grand ambitions (this is different from the more sarcastic kind of humor used by Stephen in the first essay—you could never mistake one writer for the other).
My first dream job was to be a pickle truck driver.
I would imagine the wonderful life I would have: being a pig driving a giant pickle truck across the country, chasing and finding goldbug. I then moved on to wanting to be a Lego Master. Then an architect. Then a surgeon.
Renner gives a great example of how to use humor to your advantage in college essays. You don’t want to come off as too self-deprecating or sarcastic, but telling a lightheartedly humorous story about your younger self that also showcases how you’ve grown and changed over time can set the right tone for your entire essay.
Technique #2: intentional, eye-catching structure. The second technique is the way Renner uses a unique structure to bolster the tone and themes of their essay . The structure of your essay can have a major impact on how your ideas come across…so it’s important to give it just as much thought as the content of your essay!
For instance, Renner does a great job of using one-line paragraphs to create dramatic emphasis and to make clear transitions from one phase of the story to the next:
Suddenly the destination of my pickle car was clear.
Not only does the one-liner above signal that Renner is moving into a new phase of the narrative (their nanoparticle research experiences), it also tells the reader that this is a big moment in Renner’s story. It’s clear that Renner made a major discovery that changed the course of their goal pursuit and dream-chasing. Through structure, Renner conveys excitement and entices the reader to keep pushing forward to the next part of the story.
Technique #3: playing with syntax. The third technique is to use sentences of varying length, syntax, and structure. Most of the essay's written in standard English and uses grammatically correct sentences. However, at key moments, Renner emphasizes that the reader needs to sit up and pay attention by switching to short, colloquial, differently punctuated, and sometimes fragmented sentences.
Even with moving frequently between hotels, AirBnB's, and students' apartments, I strangely reveled in the freedom I had to enjoy my surroundings and form new friendships with graduate school students from the lab. We explored The Inner Harbor at night, attended a concert together one weekend, and even got to watch the Orioles lose (to nobody's surprise). Ironically, it's through these new friendships I discovered something unexpected: what I truly love is sharing research.
In the examples above, Renner switches adeptly between long, flowing sentences and quippy, telegraphic ones. At the same time, Renner uses these different sentence lengths intentionally. As they describe their experiences in new places, they use longer sentences to immerse the reader in the sights, smells, and sounds of those experiences. And when it’s time to get a big, key idea across, Renner switches to a short, punchy sentence to stop the reader in their tracks.
The varying syntax and sentence lengths pull the reader into the narrative and set up crucial “aha” moments when it’s most important…which is a surefire way to make any college essay stand out.
Renner's essay is very strong, but there are still a few little things that could be improved.
Connecting the research experiences to the theme of “finding the goldbug.” The essay begins and ends with Renner’s connection to the idea of “finding the goldbug.” And while this metaphor is deftly tied into the essay’s intro and conclusion, it isn’t entirely clear what Renner’s big findings were during the research experiences that are described in the middle of the essay. It would be great to add a sentence or two stating what Renner’s big takeaways (or “goldbugs”) were from these experiences, which add more cohesion to the essay as a whole.
Give more details about discovering the world of nanomedicine. It makes sense that Renner wants to get into the details of their big research experiences as quickly as possible. After all, these are the details that show Renner’s dedication to nanomedicine! But a smoother transition from the opening pickle car/goldbug story to Renner’s “real goldbug” of nanoparticles would help the reader understand why nanoparticles became Renner’s goldbug. Finding out why Renner is so motivated to study nanomedicine–and perhaps what put them on to this field of study–would help readers fully understand why Renner chose this path in the first place.
4 Essential Tips for Writing Your Own Essay
How can you use this discussion to better your own college essay? Here are some suggestions for ways to use this resource effectively.
#1: Get Help From the Experts
Getting your college applications together takes a lot of work and can be pretty intimidatin g. Essays are even more important than ever now that admissions processes are changing and schools are going test-optional and removing diversity standards thanks to new Supreme Court rulings . If you want certified expert help that really makes a difference, get started with PrepScholar’s Essay Editing and Coaching program. Our program can help you put together an incredible essay from idea to completion so that your application stands out from the crowd. We've helped students get into the best colleges in the United States, including Harvard, Stanford, and Yale. If you're ready to take the next step and boost your odds of getting into your dream school, connect with our experts today .
#2: Read Other Essays to Get Ideas for Your Own
As you go through the essays we've compiled for you above, ask yourself the following questions:
- Can you explain to yourself (or someone else!) why the opening sentence works well?
- Look for the essay's detailed personal anecdote. What senses is the author describing? Can you easily picture the scene in your mind's eye?
- Find the place where this anecdote bridges into a larger insight about the author. How does the essay connect the two? How does the anecdote work as an example of the author's characteristic, trait, or skill?
- Check out the essay's tone. If it's funny, can you find the places where the humor comes from? If it's sad and moving, can you find the imagery and description of feelings that make you moved? If it's serious, can you see how word choice adds to this tone?
Make a note whenever you find an essay or part of an essay that you think was particularly well-written, and think about what you like about it . Is it funny? Does it help you really get to know the writer? Does it show what makes the writer unique? Once you have your list, keep it next to you while writing your essay to remind yourself to try and use those same techniques in your own essay.
#3: Find Your "A-Ha!" Moment
All of these essays rely on connecting with the reader through a heartfelt, highly descriptive scene from the author's life. It can either be very dramatic (did you survive a plane crash?) or it can be completely mundane (did you finally beat your dad at Scrabble?). Either way, it should be personal and revealing about you, your personality, and the way you are now that you are entering the adult world.
Check out essays by authors like John Jeremiah Sullivan , Leslie Jamison , Hanif Abdurraqib , and Esmé Weijun Wang to get more examples of how to craft a compelling personal narrative.
#4: Start Early, Revise Often
Let me level with you: the best writing isn't writing at all. It's rewriting. And in order to have time to rewrite, you have to start way before the application deadline. My advice is to write your first draft at least two months before your applications are due.
Let it sit for a few days untouched. Then come back to it with fresh eyes and think critically about what you've written. What's extra? What's missing? What is in the wrong place? What doesn't make sense? Don't be afraid to take it apart and rearrange sections. Do this several times over, and your essay will be much better for it!
For more editing tips, check out a style guide like Dreyer's English or Eats, Shoots & Leaves .
Still not sure which colleges you want to apply to? Our experts will show you how to make a college list that will help you choose a college that's right for you.
Interested in learning more about college essays? Check out our detailed breakdown of exactly how personal statements work in an application , some suggestions on what to avoid when writing your essay , and our guide to writing about your extracurricular activities .
Working on the rest of your application? Read what admissions officers wish applicants knew before applying .
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The Common Application includes essay prompts for your personal essay. In addition to the personal essay, we also require the Stanford Questions, which you can access and submit through the Common Application once you add Stanford University to your list of colleges.
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How to Write About Yourself in a College Essay | Examples
Published on September 21, 2021 by Kirsten Courault . Revised on May 31, 2023.
An insightful college admissions essay requires deep self-reflection, authenticity, and a balance between confidence and vulnerability. Your essay shouldn’t just be a resume of your experiences; colleges are looking for a story that demonstrates your most important values and qualities.
To write about your achievements and qualities without sounding arrogant, use specific stories to illustrate them. You can also write about challenges you’ve faced or mistakes you’ve made to show vulnerability and personal growth.
Table of contents
Start with self-reflection, how to write about challenges and mistakes, how to write about your achievements and qualities, how to write about a cliché experience, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about college application essays.
Before you start writing, spend some time reflecting to identify your values and qualities. You should do a comprehensive brainstorming session, but here are a few questions to get you started:
- What are three words your friends or family would use to describe you, and why would they choose them?
- Whom do you admire most and why?
- What are the top five things you are thankful for?
- What has inspired your hobbies or future goals?
- What are you most proud of? Ashamed of?
As you self-reflect, consider how your values and goals reflect your prospective university’s program and culture, and brainstorm stories that demonstrate the fit between the two.
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Writing about difficult experiences can be an effective way to show authenticity and create an emotional connection to the reader, but choose carefully which details to share, and aim to demonstrate how the experience helped you learn and grow.
It’s not necessary to have a tragic story or a huge confession. But you should openly share your thoughts, feelings, and experiences to evoke an emotional response from the reader. Even a cliché or mundane topic can be made interesting with honest reflection. This honesty is a preface to self-reflection and insight in the essay’s conclusion.
With difficult topics, you shouldn’t focus too much on negative aspects. Instead, use your challenging circumstances as a brief introduction to how you responded positively.
Share what you have learned
It’s okay to include your failure or mistakes in your essay if you include a lesson learned. After telling a descriptive, honest story, you should explain what you learned and how you applied it to your life.
While it’s good to sell your strengths, you also don’t want to come across as arrogant. Instead of just stating your extracurricular activities, achievements, or personal qualities, aim to discreetly incorporate them into your story.
Mention your extracurricular activities or awards in passing, not outright, to avoid sounding like you’re bragging from a resume.
Use stories to prove your qualities
Even if you don’t have any impressive academic achievements or extracurriculars, you can still demonstrate your academic or personal character. But you should use personal examples to provide proof. In other words, show evidence of your character instead of just telling.
Many high school students write about common topics such as sports, volunteer work, or their family. Your essay topic doesn’t have to be groundbreaking, but do try to include unexpected personal details and your authentic voice to make your essay stand out .
To find an original angle, try these techniques:
- Focus on a specific moment, and describe the scene using your five senses.
- Mention objects that have special significance to you.
- Instead of following a common story arc, include a surprising twist or insight.
Your unique voice can shed new perspective on a common human experience while also revealing your personality. When read out loud, the essay should sound like you are talking.
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.
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First, spend time reflecting on your core values and character . You can start with these questions:
However, you should do a comprehensive brainstorming session to fully understand your values. Also consider how your values and goals match your prospective university’s program and culture. Then, brainstorm stories that illustrate the fit between the two.
When writing about yourself , including difficult experiences or failures can be a great way to show vulnerability and authenticity, but be careful not to overshare, and focus on showing how you matured from the experience.
Through specific stories, you can weave your achievements and qualities into your essay so that it doesn’t seem like you’re bragging from a resume.
Include specific, personal details and use your authentic voice to shed a new perspective on a common human experience.
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What this handout is about.
This handout will help you write and revise the personal statement required by many graduate programs, internships, and special academic programs.
Before you start writing
Because the application essay can have a critical effect upon your progress toward a career, you should spend significantly more time, thought, and effort on it than its typically brief length would suggest. It should reflect how you arrived at your professional goals, why the program is ideal for you, and what you bring to the program. Don’t make this a deadline task—now’s the time to write, read, rewrite, give to a reader, revise again, and on until the essay is clear, concise, and compelling. At the same time, don’t be afraid. You know most of the things you need to say already.
Read the instructions carefully. One of the basic tasks of the application essay is to follow the directions. If you don’t do what they ask, the reader may wonder if you will be able to follow directions in their program. Make sure you follow page and word limits exactly—err on the side of shortness, not length. The essay may take two forms:
- A one-page essay answering a general question
- Several short answers to more specific questions
Do some research before you start writing. Think about…
- The field. Why do you want to be a _____? No, really. Think about why you and you particularly want to enter that field. What are the benefits and what are the shortcomings? When did you become interested in the field and why? What path in that career interests you right now? Brainstorm and write these ideas out.
- The program. Why is this the program you want to be admitted to? What is special about the faculty, the courses offered, the placement record, the facilities you might be using? If you can’t think of anything particular, read the brochures they offer, go to events, or meet with a faculty member or student in the program. A word about honesty here—you may have a reason for choosing a program that wouldn’t necessarily sway your reader; for example, you want to live near the beach, or the program is the most prestigious and would look better on your resume. You don’t want to be completely straightforward in these cases and appear superficial, but skirting around them or lying can look even worse. Turn these aspects into positives. For example, you may want to go to a program in a particular location because it is a place that you know very well and have ties to, or because there is a need in your field there. Again, doing research on the program may reveal ways to legitimate even your most superficial and selfish reasons for applying.
- Yourself. What details or anecdotes would help your reader understand you? What makes you special? Is there something about your family, your education, your work/life experience, or your values that has shaped you and brought you to this career field? What motivates or interests you? Do you have special skills, like leadership, management, research, or communication? Why would the members of the program want to choose you over other applicants? Be honest with yourself and write down your ideas. If you are having trouble, ask a friend or relative to make a list of your strengths or unique qualities that you plan to read on your own (and not argue about immediately). Ask them to give you examples to back up their impressions (For example, if they say you are “caring,” ask them to describe an incident they remember in which they perceived you as caring).
Now, write a draft
This is a hard essay to write. It’s probably much more personal than any of the papers you have written for class because it’s about you, not World War II or planaria. You may want to start by just getting something—anything—on paper. Try freewriting. Think about the questions we asked above and the prompt for the essay, and then write for 15 or 30 minutes without stopping. What do you want your audience to know after reading your essay? What do you want them to feel? Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation, organization, or anything else. Just get out the ideas you have. For help getting started, see our handout on brainstorming .
Now, look at what you’ve written. Find the most relevant, memorable, concrete statements and focus in on them. Eliminate any generalizations or platitudes (“I’m a people person”, “Doctors save lives”, or “Mr. Calleson’s classes changed my life”), or anything that could be cut and pasted into anyone else’s application. Find what is specific to you about the ideas that generated those platitudes and express them more directly. Eliminate irrelevant issues (“I was a track star in high school, so I think I’ll make a good veterinarian.”) or issues that might be controversial for your reader (“My faith is the one true faith, and only nurses with that faith are worthwhile,” or “Lawyers who only care about money are evil.”).
Often, writers start out with generalizations as a way to get to the really meaningful statements, and that’s OK. Just make sure that you replace the generalizations with examples as you revise. A hint: you may find yourself writing a good, specific sentence right after a general, meaningless one. If you spot that, try to use the second sentence and delete the first.
Applications that have several short-answer essays require even more detail. Get straight to the point in every case, and address what they’ve asked you to address.
Now that you’ve generated some ideas, get a little bit pickier. It’s time to remember one of the most significant aspects of the application essay: your audience. Your readers may have thousands of essays to read, many or most of which will come from qualified applicants. This essay may be your best opportunity to communicate with the decision makers in the application process, and you don’t want to bore them, offend them, or make them feel you are wasting their time.
With this in mind:
- Do assure your audience that you understand and look forward to the challenges of the program and the field, not just the benefits.
- Do assure your audience that you understand exactly the nature of the work in the field and that you are prepared for it, psychologically and morally as well as educationally.
- Do assure your audience that you care about them and their time by writing a clear, organized, and concise essay.
- Do address any information about yourself and your application that needs to be explained (for example, weak grades or unusual coursework for your program). Include that information in your essay, and be straightforward about it. Your audience will be more impressed with your having learned from setbacks or having a unique approach than your failure to address those issues.
- Don’t waste space with information you have provided in the rest of the application. Every sentence should be effective and directly related to the rest of the essay. Don’t ramble or use fifteen words to express something you could say in eight.
- Don’t overstate your case for what you want to do, being so specific about your future goals that you come off as presumptuous or naïve (“I want to become a dentist so that I can train in wisdom tooth extraction, because I intend to focus my life’s work on taking 13 rather than 15 minutes per tooth.”). Your goals may change–show that such a change won’t devastate you.
- And, one more time, don’t write in cliches and platitudes. Every doctor wants to help save lives, every lawyer wants to work for justice—your reader has read these general cliches a million times.
Imagine the worst-case scenario (which may never come true—we’re talking hypothetically): the person who reads your essay has been in the field for decades. She is on the application committee because she has to be, and she’s read 48 essays so far that morning. You are number 49, and your reader is tired, bored, and thinking about lunch. How are you going to catch and keep her attention?
Assure your audience that you are capable academically, willing to stick to the program’s demands, and interesting to have around. For more tips, see our handout on audience .
Voice and style
The voice you use and the style in which you write can intrigue your audience. The voice you use in your essay should be yours. Remember when your high school English teacher said “never say ‘I’”? Here’s your chance to use all those “I”s you’ve been saving up. The narrative should reflect your perspective, experiences, thoughts, and emotions. Focusing on events or ideas may give your audience an indirect idea of how these things became important in forming your outlook, but many others have had equally compelling experiences. By simply talking about those events in your own voice, you put the emphasis on you rather than the event or idea. Look at this anecdote:
During the night shift at Wirth Memorial Hospital, a man walked into the Emergency Room wearing a monkey costume and holding his head. He seemed confused and was moaning in pain. One of the nurses ascertained that he had been swinging from tree branches in a local park and had hit his head when he fell out of a tree. This tragic tale signified the moment at which I realized psychiatry was the only career path I could take.
An interesting tale, yes, but what does it tell you about the narrator? The following example takes the same anecdote and recasts it to make the narrator more of a presence in the story:
I was working in the Emergency Room at Wirth Memorial Hospital one night when a man walked in wearing a monkey costume and holding his head. I could tell he was confused and in pain. After a nurse asked him a few questions, I listened in surprise as he explained that he had been a monkey all of his life and knew that it was time to live with his brothers in the trees. Like many other patients I would see that year, this man suffered from an illness that only a combination of psychological and medical care would effectively treat. I realized then that I wanted to be able to help people by using that particular combination of skills only a psychiatrist develops.
The voice you use should be approachable as well as intelligent. This essay is not the place to stun your reader with ten prepositional phrases (“the goal of my study of the field of law in the winter of my discontent can best be understood by the gathering of more information about my youth”) and thirty nouns (“the research and study of the motivation behind my insights into the field of dentistry contains many pitfalls and disappointments but even more joy and enlightenment”) per sentence. (Note: If you are having trouble forming clear sentences without all the prepositions and nouns, take a look at our handout on style .)
You may want to create an impression of expertise in the field by using specialized or technical language. But beware of this unless you really know what you are doing—a mistake will look twice as ignorant as not knowing the terms in the first place. Your audience may be smart, but you don’t want to make them turn to a dictionary or fall asleep between the first word and the period of your first sentence. Keep in mind that this is a personal statement. Would you think you were learning a lot about a person whose personal statement sounded like a journal article? Would you want to spend hours in a lab or on a committee with someone who shuns plain language?
Of course, you don’t want to be chatty to the point of making them think you only speak slang, either. Your audience may not know what “I kicked that lame-o to the curb for dissing my research project” means. Keep it casual enough to be easy to follow, but formal enough to be respectful of the audience’s intelligence.
Just use an honest voice and represent yourself as naturally as possible. It may help to think of the essay as a sort of face-to-face interview, only the interviewer isn’t actually present.
Too much style
A well-written, dramatic essay is much more memorable than one that fails to make an emotional impact on the reader. Good anecdotes and personal insights can really attract an audience’s attention. BUT be careful not to let your drama turn into melodrama. You want your reader to see your choices motivated by passion and drive, not hyperbole and a lack of reality. Don’t invent drama where there isn’t any, and don’t let the drama take over. Getting someone else to read your drafts can help you figure out when you’ve gone too far.
Many guides to writing application essays encourage you to take a risk, either by saying something off-beat or daring or by using a unique writing style. When done well, this strategy can work—your goal is to stand out from the rest of the applicants and taking a risk with your essay will help you do that. An essay that impresses your reader with your ability to think and express yourself in original ways and shows you really care about what you are saying is better than one that shows hesitancy, lack of imagination, or lack of interest.
But be warned: this strategy is a risk. If you don’t carefully consider what you are saying and how you are saying it, you may offend your readers or leave them with a bad impression of you as flaky, immature, or careless. Do not alienate your readers.
Some writers take risks by using irony (your suffering at the hands of a barbaric dentist led you to want to become a gentle one), beginning with a personal failure (that eventually leads to the writer’s overcoming it), or showing great imagination (one famous successful example involved a student who answered a prompt about past formative experiences by beginning with a basic answer—”I have volunteered at homeless shelters”—that evolved into a ridiculous one—”I have sealed the hole in the ozone layer with plastic wrap”). One student applying to an art program described the person he did not want to be, contrasting it with the person he thought he was and would develop into if accepted. Another person wrote an essay about her grandmother without directly linking her narrative to the fact that she was applying for medical school. Her essay was risky because it called on the reader to infer things about the student’s character and abilities from the story.
Assess your credentials and your likelihood of getting into the program before you choose to take a risk. If you have little chance of getting in, try something daring. If you are almost certainly guaranteed a spot, you have more flexibility. In any case, make sure that you answer the essay question in some identifiable way.
After you’ve written a draft
Get several people to read it and write their comments down. It is worthwhile to seek out someone in the field, perhaps a professor who has read such essays before. Give it to a friend, your mom, or a neighbor. The key is to get more than one point of view, and then compare these with your own. Remember, you are the one best equipped to judge how accurately you are representing yourself. For tips on putting this advice to good use, see our handout on getting feedback .
After you’ve received feedback, revise the essay. Put it away. Get it out and revise it again (you can see why we said to start right away—this process may take time). Get someone to read it again. Revise it again.
When you think it is totally finished, you are ready to proofread and format the essay. Check every sentence and punctuation mark. You cannot afford a careless error in this essay. (If you are not comfortable with your proofreading skills, check out our handout on editing and proofreading ).
If you find that your essay is too long, do not reformat it extensively to make it fit. Making readers deal with a nine-point font and quarter-inch margins will only irritate them. Figure out what material you can cut and cut it. For strategies for meeting word limits, see our handout on writing concisely .
Finally, proofread it again. We’re not kidding.
Don’t be afraid to talk to professors or professionals in the field. Many of them would be flattered that you asked their advice, and they will have useful suggestions that others might not have. Also keep in mind that many colleges and professional programs offer websites addressing the personal statement. You can find them either through the website of the school to which you are applying or by searching under “personal statement” or “application essays” using a search engine.
If your schedule and ours permit, we invite you to come to the Writing Center. Be aware that during busy times in the semester, we limit students to a total of two visits to discuss application essays and personal statements (two visits per student, not per essay); we do this so that students working on papers for courses will have a better chance of being seen. Make an appointment or submit your essay to our online writing center (note that we cannot guarantee that an online tutor will help you in time).
For information on other aspects of the application process, you can consult the resources at University Career Services .
We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial . We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.
Asher, Donald. 2012. Graduate Admissions Essays: Write Your Way Into the Graduate School of Your Choice , 4th ed. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.
Curry, Boykin, Emily Angel Baer, and Brian Kasbar. 2003. Essays That Worked for College Applications: 50 Essays That Helped Students Get Into the Nation’s Top Colleges . New York: Ballantine Books.
Stelzer, Richard. 2002. How to Write a Winning Personal Statement for Graduate and Professional School , 3rd ed. Lawrenceville, NJ: Thomson Peterson.
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