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60+ College Essay Prompts From Actual 2023-2024 Applications
Ideas to inspire every college applicant.
Writing a college application essay can be a stressful task for a lot of students. The more practice they get in advance, the better! This roundup of college essay prompts gives applicants a chance to explore their thinking, polish their writing, and prepare to make the best possible impression on selection committees. Every one of these questions is taken from real college applications for the 2023-2024 season, so they’re meaningful and applicable to today’s high school seniors.
Common App 2023-2024 College Essay Prompts
2023-2024 coalition for college essay prompts, life experiences college essay prompts, personal college essay prompts, academics college essay prompts, creative college essay prompts.
Hundreds of colleges and universities use the Common App process . For many schools, this includes responding to one of several college essay topics, which can change each year. Here are the essay prompts for the current application cycle (check with your chosen school/s to see if an essay is required).
- 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.
More than 150 colleges and universities use the Coalition for College process . Here are their essay prompts for 2023-2024.
- Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
- What interests or excites you? How does it shape who you are now or who you might become in the future?
- Describe a time when you had a positive impact on others. What were the challenges? What were the rewards?
- Has there been a time when an idea or belief of yours was questioned? How did you respond? What did you learn?
- What success have you achieved or obstacle have you faced? What advice would you give a sibling or friend going through a similar experience?
- Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.
Answer these questions by sharing specific examples from your own experience.
- Who is your favorite conversation partner? What do you discuss with that person?
- Discuss a time when reflection or introspection led to clarity or understanding of an issue that is important to you.
- Share an example of how you have used your own critical-thinking skills on a specific subject, project, idea, or interest.
- Describe a time when you were challenged by a perspective that differed from your own. How did you respond?
- What are the best words of advice you have received? Who shared them, and how have you applied them in your own life?
- Elaborate on an activity or experience you have had that made an impact on a community that is important to you.
- Using your personal, academic, or volunteer/work experiences, describe the topics or issues that you care about and why they are important to you.
- Who do you agree with on the big, important things, or who do you have your most interesting disagreements with? What are you agreeing or disagreeing about?
- Reflect on a personal experience where you intentionally expanded your cultural awareness.
- When was the last time you questioned something you had thought to be true?
- Discuss the significance to you of the school or summer activity in which you have been most involved.
- Reflect on a time when you or someone you observed had to make a choice about whether to act with integrity and honesty.
- Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.
- Describe a time you did not meet expectations and what impact the experience had on you.
These essay topics give schools a better sense of who you are, what you value, and the kind of student citizen you might be.
- What drives you to create, and what do you hope to make or have you made?
- Which book, character, song, monologue, or piece of work (fiction or nonfiction) seems made for you? Why?
- What would you want your future college roommate to know about you?
- How has your own background influenced the types of problems you want to solve, the people you want to work with, and the impact you hope your work can have?
- Describe any meaningful travel experiences you’ve had.
- What would you want to be different in your own country or community to further principles of equality, equity, or social justice?
- What strength or quality do you have that most people might not see or recognize?
- If you could live your life fighting for one cause, what would it be and why?
- What gives meaning to your life?
- If you wrote a letter to yourself to be opened in 20 years, what would it say?
- If you had the power to change the course of history in your community or the world, what would you do and why?
- Choose one of the communities to which you belong, and describe that community and your place within it.
- What is the greatest compliment you have ever been given? Why was it meaningful to you?
- Explain how a text you’ve read—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or literature of any kind—has helped you to understand the world’s complexity.
Topics like these show your academic interests and demonstrate your commitment to learning and discovery.
- What does it mean to you to be educated?
- What is your motivation for pursuing higher education?
- Describe your reasons for wanting to attend the specific school you’re applying to. Who or what factored into your decision?
- Academic inquiry starts with bold questions. What are some of the bold questions you have pondered that get you excited, and why do they interest you?
- What has been your best academic experience in the last two years, and what made it so good?
- If you decide to take a “gap year” between high school and college, what would you do during that time?
- Many schools place a high value on diverse student populations. How can you contribute to and support a diverse and inclusive student population at your chosen school?
- Imagine you were just awarded a research grant for a project of your choice. What are you researching and why?
- What do you love about the subject(s) you selected as potential major(s)? If undecided, share more about one of your academic passions.
- Describe a time when you’ve felt empowered or represented by an educator.
- Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
Use these college essay topics to show off your creativity and innovative thinking.
- You are tasked with creating a new category for the Nobel Prize. Explain what it would be, why you chose your specific category, and the criteria necessary to achieve this accomplishment.
- Pick one person—a historical figure, fictitious character, or modern individual—to converse with for an hour, and explain your choice.
- If you could witness a historic event (past, present, or future) firsthand, what would it be and why?
- If you could have a theme song, what would it be and why?
- Discuss a book that you would call a “great book.” What makes the book great in your view?
- If you could give any historical figure any piece of technology, who and what would it be, and why do you think they’d work so well together?
- If I could travel anywhere, I would go to …
- My favorite thing about last Tuesday was …
- Write a short thank-you note to someone you have not yet thanked and would like to acknowledge.
- If you had 10 minutes and the attention of a million people, what would your TED Talk be about?
- What are your three favorite words in the English language? Explain what they mean to you.
- Imagine that you could have one superpower. What would it be and how would you use it? What would be your kryptonite?
- Which Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor (real or imagined) best describes you?
- If you could create a college course that all students would take, what would it be about and why?
- What website is the internet missing?
How do you help your students prepare their college application essays? Come share your ideas and ask for advice in the We Are Teachers HELPLINE group on Facebook .
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19 College Essay Topics and Prompts
Not sure what to write for your college essay? We've got you covered with a number of topics and prompts to help shape your unique story.
As part of your college application materials, you'll likely be asked to submit a college essay. These tend to be between 250 and 650 words , and are a unique opportunity to showcase your personality. Admissions panels are typically looking for students who will positively represent the school as a whole. In the end, your goal is to show them that you and the college are a good match.
When drafting your college essay, you may be expected to answer a prompt or come up with a topic on your own. In this article, we've rounded up several ideas to get you thinking—and writing.
19 college essay topics
Each school sets different requirements around the college essay, so it's important to review the expectations around every application you intend to submit. Some give you creative freedom, while others expect you to respond to a pre-developed prompt. Either way, a strong college essay conveys to the admissions team who you are, why you want to attend that particular school, and what matters to you. It's a way to personalize an application that often focuses on quantitative data, such as GPA and SAT scores.
If you're given the creative freedom to write about whatever you want, consider a college essay topic that allows you to be honest and original. We've compiled the following ideas to help you brainstorm:
What's an important issue you care about? How have you gotten involved?
Have you changed your mind about something in recent years? What was it and why?
What's a situation that caused you to grow?
Explain a time when you failed. What did you learn from that moment?
Share a surprising pastime or hobby and what interested you about it.
What extracurricular activity are you involved in that speaks to your personality?
Detail a meaningful volunteer experience.
Dive into a meaningful travel experience.
Who do you most admire and why?
If you have a unique background, share a bit about it. How did you get where you are?
What's the best advice you've ever received?
Was there ever a time when you had to stand up for something—or someone?
What's something you might change about the world to make it better?
What do you hope to accomplish by attending college?
Is there something you want to do after graduating college?
Have you ever made or created something? Talk about it.
Do you have a big idea that could potentially impact your community?
What is most valuable to you? Dive into your values and share an example.
What are you most passionate about? Why?
Pre-developed college essay prompts
Some colleges and universities will give you a series of prompts to choose from. These will vary from school to school, and can either be questions or statements. Here are a few examples of both.
Sample question prompts:
What excites your intellectual curiosity?
How has your upbringing shaped the person you are today?
Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
Sample statement prompts:
Talk about an unusual circumstance in your life
Share how you hope to use your college education
Discuss a list of books you have read in the last year
Common App essay prompts
Common App is an online platform designed to simplify the college application process. Over 900 colleges use Common App, making it possible for you to fill out one application that's then submitted to multiple schools.
If you choose to complete the Common App, you'll have a choice of several distinctive prompts that change every academic year. Here's a sample of the 2022-2023 essay prompts [ 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 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 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?
Stick to the prompt.
No matter what type of prompt you receive, it's your job to stick to it. The admissions team has a lot of essays to read, so you'll have a better chance of standing out if you develop a cohesive response that stays on topic.
Start by identifying the prompt's main topic, then spend some time brainstorming to find the idea that resonates most with you. For many people, it's the topic that makes them feel some sort of emotion or reminds them of an entertaining story. Understanding what you're being asked to write about should make staying on topic throughout the entire composition easier.
5 additional college essay tips
Once you decide what you'd like to write, follow the tips below to craft a standout essay. You can also find more advice about college essays in our article College Essay Format: Writing and Editing Tips .
1. Be considerate with humor.
Showing off your sense of humor lets your personality show through your words and can make reading the essay more entertaining. Try including a few sentences that you think will bring a smile to the reader's face, or use adjectives to insert some colorful comedy.
2. Offer insight.
Beyond recounting an event, experience, or memory, a great essay shows insight aka an ability to highlight meaningful takeaways. For example, if you choose to write about your unique hobby, try to discuss what you've learned from that pastime—or how you've grown as a result of it.
3. Add details
Great essays also invite the reader to connect with the story on an emotional level. With that in mind, it can help to recount a specific memory rather than answer a prompt without those colorful details. More than discussing something on a surface level—or vaguely—you want to provide enough particulars to keep your readers engaged. For example, if you choose to write about the best advice you ever received, set the scene and take the reader back to that moment.
4. Have an editor.
Your essay should ideally be error-free. Ask a trusted friend or family member to review your essay and suggest edits. An editor can help you catch grammatical errors or points out ways to better develop your response.
Avoid passing your paper along to too many people, though, so you don't lose your own voice amid all of the edits and suggestions. The admissions team wants to get to know you through your writing and not your sister or best friend who edited your paper.
5. Revise your essay.
Your first draft is just that: a draft. Give yourself plenty of time to read and revise your first pass and make sure you fully developed your response, stayed on topic, and shared your personality.
When revising your essay, you may find it helpful to read it aloud so you hear the words as you're saying them. Some people prefer to print a copy on paper and write notes by hand. Both options give your brain a new way to process the information to catch details you may miss if you keep everything in your head and on the computer.
Watch to find out why the essay many admission counselor's favorite part of the application:
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Common App. " First-year essay prompts , https://www.commonapp.org/apply/essay-prompts." Accessed February 8, 2023.
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Get help writing your college application essays. Find this year's Common App writing prompts and popular essay questions used by individual colleges.
The college essay is your opportunity to show admissions officers who you are apart from your grades and test scores (and to distinguish yourself from the rest of a very talented applicant pool).
2023–24 Common App Essays
Nearly 700 colleges accept the The Common Application , which makes it easy to apply to multiple schools with just one form. If you are using the Common App to apply for college admissions, you will have 250–650 words to respond to ONE of the following 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.
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Tackling the Common App Essay Prompts
Prompt #1: share your story..
Answer this prompt by reflecting on a hobby, facet of your personality, or experience that is genuinely meaningful and unique to you. Admissions officers want to feel connected to you and an honest, personal statement about who you are draws them in. Your love of superheroes, baking chops, or family history are all fair game if you can tie it back to who you are or what you believe in. Avoid a rehash of the accomplishments on your high school résumé and choose something that the admissions committee will not discover when reading the rest of your application.
Prompt #2: Learning from obstacles.
You're trying to show colleges your best self, so it might seem counterintuitive to willingly acknowledge a time you struggled. But overcoming challenges demonstrates courage, grit, and perseverance! That’s why the last piece of this prompt is essential. The obstacle you write about can be large or small, but you must show the admissions committee how your perspective changed as a result.
Prompt #3: Challenging a belief.
Your answer to this question could focus on a time you stood up to others or an experience when your own preconceived view was challenged. Choose this prompt if you have a relevant—and specific!—experience to recount (and reflect on). A vague essay about a hot button issue doesn’t tell the admissions committee anything useful about YOU.
Prompt #4: Reflecting on gratitude.
Colleges are looking for students with unique experiences that can enhance their future campus community, and this is your chance to share that by recognizing what someone else has done for you. Even though this prompt requires you to reflect on the action of another person, make sure that the focus remains on how the act of kindness impacted you and the way you live your life. This essay should make you and the reader smile.
Prompt #5: Personal growth.
Just like Prompt #2, the accomplishment or event you write about can be anything from a major milestone to a smaller "aha" moment. Describe the event or accomplishment that shaped you but take care to also show what you learned or how you changed. Colleges are looking for a sense of maturity and introspection—pinpoint the transformation and demonstrate your personal growth.
Prompt #6: What captivates you?
This prompt is an invitation to write about something you care about. (So avoid the pitfall of writing about what you think will impress the admission office versus what truly matters to you). Colleges are looking for curious students, who are thoughtful about the world around them. The "what or who do you turn to when you want to learn more” bit isn't an afterthought—it's a key piece of the prompt. Make sure you explain how you pursue your interest, as well.
Read More: QUIZ: Test Your College Knowledge!
Prompt #7: Topic of your choice.
This question might be for you if you have a dynamo personal essay from English class to share or were really inspired by a question from another college’s application. You can even write your own question! Whatever topic you land on, the essentials of a standout college essay still stand: 1.) Show the admissions committee who you are beyond grades and test scores and 2.) Dig into your topic by asking yourself how and why. There isn’t a prompt to guide you, so you must ask yourself the questions that will get at the heart of the story you want to tell.
More College Essay Topics
Individual schools sometimes require supplemental essays. Here are a few popular application essay topics and some tips for how to approach them:
Describe a person you admire.
Avoid the urge to pen an ode to a beloved figure like Gandhi or Abraham Lincoln. The admissions committee doesn't need to be convinced they are influential people. Focus on yourself: Choose someone who has actually caused you to change your behavior or your worldview, and write about how this person influenced you .
Why do you want to attend this school?
Be honest and specific when you respond to this question. Avoid generalities like "to get a good liberal arts education” or “to develop career skills," and use details that show your interests: "I'm an aspiring doctor and your science department has a terrific reputation." Colleges are more likely to admit students who can articulate specific reasons why the school is a good fit for them beyond its reputation or ranking on any list. Use the college's website and literature to do your research about programs, professors, and other opportunities that appeal to you.
Read More: 5 Ways College Application Essays and High School Essays Are Different
What is a book you love?
Your answer should not be a book report. Don't just summarize the plot; detail why you enjoyed this particular text and what it meant to you. What does your favorite book reveal about you? How do you identify with it, and how has it become personal to you?
Again, be honest in answering this question—don't choose a classic from your literature class or a piece of philosophy just because you think it will make you seem smarter. Writing fluently and passionately about a book close to you is always better than writing shakily or generally about a book that doesn't inspire you.
What is an extracurricular activity that has been meaningful to you?
Avoid slipping into clichés or generalities. Take this opportunity to really examine an experience that taught you something you didn't previously know about yourself, got you out of your comfort zone, or forced you to grow. Sometimes it's better to write about something that was hard for you because you learned something than it is to write about something that was easy for you because you think it sounds admirable. As with all essay questions, the most important thing is to tell a great story: how you discovered this activity, what drew you to it, and what it's shown you about yourself.
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The 2021-22 Common Application Essay Prompts
Tips and Guidance for the 7 Essay Options on the New Common Application
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For the 2021-22 application cycle, the Common Application essay prompts remain unchanged from the 2020-21 cycle with the exception of an all new option #4. As in the past, with the inclusion of the popular "Topic of Your Choice" option, you have the opportunity to write about anything you want to share with the folks in the admissions office.
The current prompts are the result of much discussion and debate from the member institutions who use the Common Application. The essay length limit stands at 650 words (the minimum is 250 words), and students will need to choose from the seven options below. The essay prompts are designed to encourage reflection and introspection. The best essays focus on self-analysis, rather than spending a disproportionate amount of time merely describing a place or event. Analysis, not description, will reveal the critical thinking skills that are the hallmark of a promising college student. If your essay doesn't include some self-analysis, you haven't fully succeeded in responding to the prompt.
According to the folks at the Common Application , in the 2018-19 admissions cycle, Option #7 (topic of your choice) was the most popular and was used by 24.1% of applicants. The second most popular was Option #5 (discuss an accomplishment) with 23.7% of applicants. In third place was Option #2 on a setback or failure. 21.1% of applicants chose that option.
From the Admissions Desk
"While the transcript and grades will always be the most important piece in the review of an application, essays can help a student stand out. The stories and information shared in an essay are what the Admissions Officer will use to advocate for the student in the admissions committee."
–Valerie Marchand Welsh Director of College Counseling, The Baldwin School Former Associate Dean of Admissions, University of Pennsylvania
Always keep in mind why colleges are asking for an essay: they want to get to know you better. Nearly all selective colleges and universities (as well as many that aren't overly selective) have holistic admissions, and they consider many factors in addition to numerical measures such as grades and standardized test scores. Your essay is an important tool for presenting something you find important that may not come across elsewhere in your application. Make sure your essay presents you as the type of person a college will want to invite to join their community.
Below are the seven options with some general tips for each:
"Identity" is at the heart of this prompt. What is it that makes you you? The prompt gives you a lot of latitude for answering the question since you can write a story about your "background, identity, interest, or talent." Your "background" can be a broad environmental factor that contributed to your development such as growing up in a military family, living in an interesting place, or dealing with an unusual family situation. You could write about an event or series of events that had a profound impact on your identity. Your "interest" or "talent" could be a passion that has driven you to become the person you are today. However you approach the prompt, make sure you are inward looking and explain how and why the story you tell is so meaningful.
- See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #1
- Sample essay for option #1: "Handiwork" by Vanessa
- Sample essay for option #1: "My Dads" by Charlie
- Sample essay for option #1: "Give Goth a Chance"
- Sample essay for option #1: "Wallflower"
This prompt may seem to go against everything that you've learned on your path to college. It's far more comfortable in an application to celebrate successes and accomplishments than it is to discuss setbacks and failure. At the same time, you'll impress the college admissions folks greatly if you can show your ability to learn from your failures and mistakes. Be sure to devote significant space to the second half of the question—how did you learn and grow from the experience? Introspection and honesty are key with this prompt.
- See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #2
- Sample essay for option #2: "Striking Out" by Richard
- Sample essay for option #2: "Student Teacher" by Max
Keep in mind how open-ended this prompt truly is. The "belief or idea" you explore could be your own, someone else's, or that of a group. The best essays will be honest as they explore the difficulty of working against the status quo or a firmly held belief. The answer to the final question about the "outcome" of your challenge need not be a success story. Sometimes in retrospection, we discover that the cost of an action was perhaps too great. However you approach this prompt, your essay needs to reveal one of your core personal values. If the belief you challenged doesn't give the admissions folks a window into your personality, then you haven't succeeded with this prompt.
- See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #3
- Sample essay for option #3: "Gym Class Hero" by Jennifer
Here, again, the Common Application gives you a lot of options for approaching the question since it is entirely up to you to decide what the "something" and "someone" will be. This prompt was added to the Common Application in the 2021-22 admissions cycle in part because it gives students the opportunity to write something heartfelt and uplifting after all the challenges of the previous year. The best essays for this prompt show that you are a generous person who recognizes the contributions others have made to your personal journey. Unlike many essays that are all about "me, me, me," this essay shows your ability to appreciate others. This type of generosity is an important character trait that schools look for when inviting people to join their campus communities.
- See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #4
Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
This question was reworded in 2017-18 admissions cycle, and the current language is a huge improvement. The prompt use to talk about transitioning from childhood to adulthood, but the new language about a "period of personal growth" is a much better articulation of how we actually learn and mature (no single event makes us adults). Maturity comes as the result of a long train of events and accomplishments (and failures). This prompt is an excellent choice if you want to explore a single event or achievement that marked a clear milestone in your personal development. Be careful to avoid the "hero" essay—admissions offices are often overrun with essays about the season-winning touchdown or brilliant performance in the school play (see the list of bad essay topics for more about this issue). These can certainly be fine topics for an essay, but make sure your essay is analyzing your personal growth process, not bragging about an accomplishment.
- See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #5
- Sample essay for option #5: "Buck Up" by Jill
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 option was entirely new in 2017, and it's a wonderfully broad prompt. In essence, it's asking you to identify and discuss something that enthralls you. The question gives you an opportunity to identify something that kicks your brain into high gear, reflect on why it is so stimulating, and reveal your process for digging deeper into something that you are passionate about. Note that the central words here—"topic, idea, or concept"—all have rather academic connotations. While you may lose track of time when running or playing football, sports are probably not the best choice for this particular question.
- See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #6
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.
The popular "topic of your choice" option had been removed from the Common Application between 2013 and 2016, but it returned again with the 2017-18 admissions cycle. Use this option if you have a story to share that doesn't quite fit into any of the options above. However, the first six topics are extremely broad with a lot of flexibility, so make sure your topic really can't be identified with one of them. Also, don't equate "topic of your choice" with a license to write a comedy routine or poem (you can submit such things via the "Additional Info" option). Essays written for this prompt still need to have substance and tell your reader something about you. Cleverness is fine, but don't be clever at the expense of meaningful content.
- See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #7
- Sample essay for option #7: "My Hero Harpo" by Alexis
- Sample essay for option #7: "Grandpa's Rubik's Cube"
Whichever prompt you chose, make sure you are looking inward. What do you value? What has made you grow as a person? What makes you the unique individual the admissions folks will want to invite to join their campus community? The best essays spend significant time with self-analysis rather than merely describing a place or event.
The folks at The Common Application have cast a wide net with these questions, and nearly anything you want to write about could fit under at least one of the options. If your essay could fit under more than one option, it really doesn't matter which one you choose. Many admissions officers, in fact, don't even look at which prompt you chose—they just want to see that you have written a good essay.
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- The Length Requirements for the Common Application Essay in 2020-21
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- Private School Application Essay Tips
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- Choosing Your College Essay Topic | Ideas & Examples
Choosing Your College Essay Topic | Ideas & Examples
Published on October 25, 2021 by Kirsten Courault . Revised on July 3, 2023.
A strong essay topic sets you up to write a unique, memorable college application essay . Your topic should be personal, original, and specific. Take time to brainstorm the right topic for you.
Table of contents
What makes a good topic, brainstorming questions to get started, discover the best topic for you, how to make a common topic compelling, frequently asked questions about college application essays, other interesting articles.
Here are some guidelines for a good essay topic:
- It’s focused on you and your experience
- It shares something different from the rest of your application
- It’s specific and original (not many students could write a similar essay)
- It affords the opportunity to share your positive stories and qualities
In most cases, avoid topics that
- Reflect poorly on your character and behavior
- Deal with a challenge or traumatic experience without a lesson learned or positive outlook
Prevent plagiarism. Run a free check.
Spend time reflecting on and writing out answers to the following questions. After doing this exercise, you should be able to identify a few strong topics for your college essay.
Writing about yourself can be difficult. If you’re struggling to identify your topic, try these two strategies.
Start with your qualities
After identifying your positive qualities or values, brainstorm stories that demonstrate these qualities.
Start with a story
If you already have some memorable stories in mind that you’d like to write about, think about which qualities and values you can demonstrate with those stories.
Talk it through
To make sure you choose the right topic, ask for advice from trusted friends or family members who know you well. They can help you brainstorm ideas and remember stories, and they can give you feedback on your potential essay topics.
You can also work with a guidance counselor, teacher, or other mentor to discuss which ideas are most promising. If you plan ahead , you can even workshop multiple draft essays to see which topic works best.
If you do choose a common topic, ensure you have the following to craft a unique essay:
- Surprising or unexpected story arcs
- Interesting insight or connections
- An advanced writing style
Here are a few examples of how to craft strong essays from cliché topics.
Here’s a checklist you can use to confirm that your college essay topic is right for you.
College essay topic checklist
My topic is focused on me, not on someone else.
My topic shares something different from the rest of my application.
My topic is specific and original (not many students could write a similar essay).
My topic reflects positively on my character and behavior.
If I chose to write about a traumatic or challenging experience, my essay will focus on how I overcame it or gained insight.
If I chose a common topic, my essay will have a surprising story arc, interesting insight, and/or an advanced writing style.
It looks like your topic is a good choice. It's specific, it avoids clichés, and it reflects positively on you.
There are no foolproof college essay topics —whatever your topic, the key is to write about it effectively. However, a good topic
- Is meaningful, specific, and personal to you
- Focuses on you and your experiences
- Reveals something beyond your test scores, grades, and extracurriculars
- Is creative and original
Yes—admissions officers don’t expect everyone to have a totally unique college essay topic . But you must differentiate your essay from others by having a surprising story arc, an interesting insight, and/or an advanced writing style .
To decide on a good college essay topic , spend time thoughtfully answering brainstorming questions. If you still have trouble identifying topics, try the following two strategies:
- Identify your qualities → Brainstorm stories that demonstrate these qualities
- Identify memorable stories → Connect your qualities to these stories
You can also ask family, friends, or mentors to help you brainstorm topics, give feedback on your potential essay topics, or recall key stories that showcase your qualities.
Most topics are acceptable for college essays if you can use them to demonstrate personal growth or a lesson learned. However, there are a few difficult topics for college essays that should be avoided. Avoid topics that are:
- Overly personal (e.g. graphic details of illness or injury, romantic or sexual relationships)
- Not personal enough (e.g. broad solutions to world problems, inspiring people or things)
- Too negative (e.g. an in-depth look at your flaws, put-downs of others, criticizing the need for a college essay)
- Too boring (e.g. a resume of your academic achievements and extracurriculars)
- Inappropriate for a college essay (e.g. illegal activities, offensive humor, false accounts of yourself, bragging about privilege)
Here’s a brief list of college essay topics that may be considered cliché:
- Extracurriculars, especially sports
- Role models
- Dealing with a personal tragedy or death in the family
- Struggling with new life situations (immigrant stories, moving homes, parents’ divorce)
- Becoming a better person after community service, traveling, or summer camp
- Overcoming a difficult class
- Using a common object as an extended metaphor
It’s easier to write a standout essay with a unique topic. However, it’s possible to make a common topic compelling with interesting story arcs, uncommon connections, and an advanced writing style.
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
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2021-2022 Common App Essay Prompts
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The Common App essay prompts will remain the same for 2021-2022 with one exception. We will retire the seldom used option about solving a problem and replace it with the following:
We will also retain the optional COVID-19 question within the Additional Information section.
The new prompt is inspired by scientific research on gratitude and kindness , specifically the benefits of writing about the positive influence of other people in our lives.
This mindset resonates with Common App President & CEO Jenny Rickard. “Particularly at this challenging time, we can help students think about something positive and heartfelt in their lives,” she explains. “And we can do it explicitly.”
“Particularly at this challenging time, we can help students think about something positive and heartfelt in their lives. And we can do it explicitly.” Jenny Rickard, President & CEO, Common App
In crafting the new option, we relied on the expertise of counselors and admission officers on our Outreach and Application Advisory Committees, along with input from psychology and gratitude researchers. Together, these educators understand the ingredients of a successful essay prompt. The final language they helped to shape balances flexibility with direction. They believe the new choice will generate stories that students are inspired to write and that colleges are excited to read.
An essay prompt can’t erase the loss and anxiety of the last 12 months, but it can validate the importance of gratitude and kindness. We hope students see the new prompt for what it is intended to be: an invitation to bring some joy into their application experience.
Below is the full set of essay prompts for 2021-2022.
- 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.
“As a member of the Common Application Advisory Committee, I appreciated learning about the careful and deliberative process, involving a variety of counseling and student stakeholders, to recommend these revisions to the essay prompts. During these difficult times, it will be encouraging for students and those reviewing these essay responses to be reminded of the joy and hope that generosity and gratitude can foster.” Sacha Thieme, Assistant Vice Provost & Executive Director of Admissions, Indiana University
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How Does The Common App Work? A Guide To The Common App
Published: Nov 8, 2023, 1:42pm
College application season can get stressful, especially when you’re applying to multiple schools and need to keep track of required materials and deadlines for each. The Common App can help relieve some of that stress by corralling multiple college applications onto one convenient platform.
The Common App simplifies the college application process by allowing you to use one application for several schools. More than 1 million students use the Common App to apply to over 1,000 member colleges annually.
Read on to learn more about how the Common App works and how you can get started applying to colleges today.
What is the common app.
The Common App simplifies the college application process for more than 1,000 schools . The platform allows you to apply to multiple schools at once without having to retype information like your name and address over and over again.
You can also use the Common App as an information hub as you continue through the application process. It’s a great place to track in-progress applications, letter of recommendation submissions and other elements.
How Does the Common App Work?
Sign up for the Common App as either a first-time college applicant or a transfer student. Once you fill out your demographic profile, you can use the platform to apply to any of its member schools.
The Common App provides its own college application essay questions. Applicants can typically choose from several prompts and have to write only one essay for some schools.
Outside of the application’s common questions, member colleges can set unique requirements for:
- Essay prompts
- Letters of recommendation
- Supplementary essays
When Does the Common App Open?
The Common App opens on Aug. 1 each year. If you used the Common App to apply to colleges in the past, expect to refresh your account every year. From year to year, you may notice the following changes:
- New questions to answer
- Irrelevant questions removed
- Old writing responses removed
- Recommendations removed
To ensure you don’t lose your application materials, keep copies of your written responses, and ask your references to keep copies of their recommendation letters.
When Is the Common App Due?
Due dates vary among schools, so you should pay attention to the different application due dates. These are common due dates for college applications:
- Early action and decision: These options tend to fall in November or December for most schools. The most common deadline is Nov. 1.
- Regular decision: Many schools opt for a Feb. 1 deadline, but this also varies.
While the Common App simplifies the admission process, you’ll still have to juggle a lot to get all of your applications submitted on time. You’ll need to budget time to gather documents, request recommendation letters and write your personal essays.
It’s a good idea to start on your application essays over the summer, so you’ll have time to refine them with a trusted guidance counselor or teacher when the school year begins.
To help you get organized, we’ve created this college application checklist .
What Are the Common App Essay Prompts?
These are the Common App’s essay prompts for the 2023-24 academic year:
- Some students have a background, identity, interest or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
- 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.
Students also have the option to describe how the Covid-19 pandemic affected their educational experience.
Length requirements for application essays vary among colleges, but most schools request between 250 and 650 words for the Common App essay.
How Much Does the Common App Cost?
The Common App is free to use, but colleges typically charge their own application fees. You can view information about your prospective schools’ application fees using the Common App database .
You can also filter the database to find schools without an application fee. More than 475 colleges allow students to apply for free.
Common App Fee Waiver
A fee waiver allows you to apply to college without paying an application fee. The Common App offers a fee waiver for students who qualify.
To request this fee waiver, you must indicate in your Common App profile whether certain qualifications apply to your financial situation. The Common App then forwards your answers to your counselor for confirmation before granting you a waiver. If you satisfy the requirements, the Common App will waive fees for all of your future applications through the platform.
How To Use the Common App To Apply to College
Step 1: collect your materials.
Though exact requirements vary among schools, these are some of the common materials needed for Common App applications:
- A list of extracurricular activities and work experience
- Test scores with dates
- Parent or guardian information
- Academic and extracurricular awards
Step 2: Create a Common App Account
You can create an account early in the college application process. Creating a Common App account gives you a chance to review prospective colleges and get a feel for their application requirements.
Step 3: Select Colleges
Start choosing colleges you’re interested in using the Common App. The platform will auto-populate a list of requirements for you to complete based on your selections.
Step 4: Ask Your References for Recommendation Letters
One of the perks of the Common App is that it allows you to easily manage recommendation requests. You can send forms through the Common App and track when they’re complete. Colleges set different requirements and deadlines for recommendation letters, so you should review those first. Be sure to give your teachers and counselors ample time to complete their recommendations.
Step 5: Understand Requirements and Stay Organized
The Common App simplifies the application process by keeping everything in one place, but each school sets its own requirements for application components and deadlines. Take the time to ensure you’re fulfilling all of the requirements by the appropriate due date.
Step 6: Write Essays
Once you’ve finalized your list of prospective colleges, you can view the specific essay requirements for each application. Many schools utilize the Common App’s official essay questions, but others use their own prompts.
Take the time to plan, write and edit each essay carefully. Schedule time with a trusted teacher or guidance counselor to get feedback on what you’ve written. Your personal essays help your prospective schools get to know you beyond your scores and stats, so take the opportunity to make them count.
Step 7: Submit Your Application
Once you complete your application, take time to review all of the materials and make sure everything is in order. When you’re ready, pay any applicable fees and submit your application.
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Using the Common App
What does the common app do.
The Common App allows students to apply to more than one college through a single application. The platform streamlines the process so you don’t have to complete redundant forms. It also helps you manage the forms and recommendation letters you’ve submitted.
Is the Common App easy?
The Common App simplifies the college application process by gathering participating schools’ applications in one place. However, each school sets its own application requirements, so some applications may be easier than others.
Do colleges care if you use Common App?
Use of the Common App does not factor into a college’s admission decision. If a college participates in the Common App, it’s an acceptable platform to use.
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Choose Your Test
Sat / act prep online guides and tips, 53 stellar college essay topics to inspire you.
Most colleges and universities in the United States require applicants to submit at least one essay as part of their application. But trying to figure out what college essay topics you should choose is a tricky process. There are so many potential things you could write about!
In this guide, we go over the essential qualities that make for a great college essay topic and give you 50+ college essay topics you can use for your own statement . In addition, we provide you with helpful tips for turning your college essay topic into a stellar college essay.
What Qualities Make for a Good College Essay Topic?
Regardless of what you write about in your personal statement for college , there are key features that will always make for a stand-out college essay topic.
#1: It’s Specific
First off, good college essay topics are extremely specific : you should know all the pertinent facts that have to do with the topic and be able to see how the entire essay comes together.
Specificity is essential because it’ll not only make your essay stand out from other statements, but it'll also recreate the experience for admissions officers through its realism, detail, and raw power. You want to tell a story after all, and specificity is the way to do so. Nobody wants to read a vague, bland, or boring story — not even admissions officers!
For example, an OK topic would be your experience volunteering at a cat shelter over the summer. But a better, more specific college essay topic would be how you deeply connected with an elderly cat there named Marty, and how your bond with him made you realize that you want to work with animals in the future.
Remember that specificity in your topic is what will make your essay unique and memorable . It truly is the key to making a strong statement (pun intended)!
#2: It Shows Who You Are
In addition to being specific, good college essay topics reveal to admissions officers who you are: your passions and interests, what is important to you, your best (or possibly even worst) qualities, what drives you, and so on.
The personal statement is critical because it gives schools more insight into who you are as a person and not just who you are as a student in terms of grades and classes.
By coming up with a real, honest topic, you’ll leave an unforgettable mark on admissions officers.
#3: It’s Meaningful to You
The very best college essay topics are those that hold deep meaning to their writers and have truly influenced them in some significant way.
For instance, maybe you plan to write about the first time you played Skyrim to explain how this video game revealed to you the potentially limitless worlds you could create, thereby furthering your interest in game design.
Even if the topic seems trivial, it’s OK to use it — just as long as you can effectively go into detail about why this experience or idea had such an impact on you .
Don’t give in to the temptation to choose a topic that sounds impressive but doesn’t actually hold any deep meaning for you. Admissions officers will see right through this!
Similarly, don’t try to exaggerate some event or experience from your life if it’s not all that important to you or didn’t have a substantial influence on your sense of self.
#4: It’s Unique
College essay topics that are unique are also typically the most memorable, and if there’s anything you want to be during the college application process, it’s that! Admissions officers have to sift through thousands of applications, and the essay is one of the only parts that allows them to really get a sense of who you are and what you value in life.
If your essay is trite or boring, it won’t leave much of an impression , and your application will likely get immediately tossed to the side with little chance of seeing admission.
But if your essay topic is very original and different, you’re more likely to earn that coveted second glance at your application.
What does being unique mean exactly, though? Many students assume that they must choose an extremely rare or crazy experience to talk about in their essays —but that's not necessarily what I mean by "unique." Good college essay topics can be unusual and different, yes, but they can also be unique takes on more mundane or common activities and experiences .
For instance, say you want to write an essay about the first time you went snowboarding. Instead of just describing the details of the experience and how you felt during it, you could juxtapose your emotions with a creative and humorous perspective from the snowboard itself. Or you could compare your first attempt at snowboarding with your most recent experience in a snowboarding competition. The possibilities are endless!
#5: It Clearly Answers the Question
Finally, good college essay topics will clearly and fully answer the question(s) in the prompt.
You might fail to directly answer a prompt by misinterpreting what it’s asking you to do, or by answering only part of it (e.g., answering just one out of three questions).
Therefore, make sure you take the time to come up with an essay topic that is in direct response to every question in the prompt .
Take this Coalition Application prompt as an example:
What is the hardest part of being a teenager now? What's the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?
For this prompt, you’d need to answer all three questions (though it’s totally fine to focus more on one or two of them) to write a compelling and appropriate essay.
This is why we recommend reading and rereading the essay prompt ; you should know exactly what it’s asking you to do, well before you start brainstorming possible college application essay topics.
53 College Essay Topics to Get Your Brain Moving
In this section, we give you a list of 53 examples of college essay topics. Use these as jumping-off points to help you get started on your college essay and to ensure that you’re on track to coming up with a relevant and effective topic.
All college application essay topics below are categorized by essay prompt type. We’ve identified six general types of college essay prompts:
Why This College?
Change and personal growth, passions, interests, and goals, overcoming a challenge, diversity and community, solving a problem.
Note that these prompt types could overlap with one another, so you’re not necessarily limited to just one college essay topic in a single personal statement.
- How a particular major or program will help you achieve your academic or professional goals
- A memorable and positive interaction you had with a professor or student at the school
- Something good that happened to you while visiting the campus or while on a campus tour
- A certain class you want to take or a certain professor you’re excited to work with
- Some piece of on-campus equipment or facility that you’re looking forward to using
- Your plans to start a club at the school, possibly to raise awareness of a major issue
- A study abroad or other unique program that you can’t wait to participate in
- How and where you plan to volunteer in the community around the school
- An incredible teacher you studied under and the positive impact they had on you
- How you went from really liking something, such as a particular movie star or TV show, to not liking it at all (or vice versa)
- How yours or someone else’s (change in) socioeconomic status made you more aware of poverty
- A time someone said something to you that made you realize you were wrong
- How your opinion on a controversial topic, such as gay marriage or DACA, has shifted over time
- A documentary that made you aware of a particular social, economic, or political issue going on in the country or world
- Advice you would give to your younger self about friendship, motivation, school, etc.
- The steps you took in order to kick a bad or self-sabotaging habit
- A juxtaposition of the first and most recent time you did something, such as dance onstage
- A book you read that you credit with sparking your love of literature and/or writing
- A school assignment or project that introduced you to your chosen major
- A glimpse of your everyday routine and how your biggest hobby or interest fits into it
- The career and (positive) impact you envision yourself having as a college graduate
- A teacher or mentor who encouraged you to pursue a specific interest you had
- How moving around a lot helped you develop a love of international exchange or learning languages
- A special skill or talent you’ve had since you were young and that relates to your chosen major in some way, such as designing buildings with LEGO bricks
- Where you see yourself in 10 or 20 years
- Your biggest accomplishment so far relating to your passion (e.g., winning a gold medal for your invention at a national science competition)
- A time you lost a game or competition that was really important to you
- How you dealt with the loss or death of someone close to you
- A time you did poorly in a class that you expected to do well in
- How moving to a new school impacted your self-esteem and social life
- A chronic illness you battled or are still battling
- Your healing process after having your heart broken for the first time
- A time you caved under peer pressure and the steps you took so that it won't happen again
- How you almost gave up on learning a foreign language but stuck with it
- Why you decided to become a vegetarian or vegan, and how you navigate living with a meat-eating family
- What you did to overcome a particular anxiety or phobia you had (e.g., stage fright)
- A history of a failed experiment you did over and over, and how you finally found a way to make it work successfully
- Someone within your community whom you aspire to emulate
- A family tradition you used to be embarrassed about but are now proud of
- Your experience with learning English upon moving to the United States
- A close friend in the LGBTQ+ community who supported you when you came out
- A time you were discriminated against, how you reacted, and what you would do differently if faced with the same situation again
- How you navigate your identity as a multiracial, multiethnic, and/or multilingual person
- A project or volunteer effort you led to help or improve your community
- A particular celebrity or role model who inspired you to come out as LGBTQ+
- Your biggest challenge (and how you plan to tackle it) as a female in a male-dominated field
- How you used to discriminate against your own community, and what made you change your mind and eventually take pride in who you are and/or where you come from
- A program you implemented at your school in response to a known problem, such as a lack of recycling cans in the cafeteria
- A time you stepped in to mediate an argument or fight between two people
- An app or other tool you developed to make people’s lives easier in some way
- A time you proposed a solution that worked to an ongoing problem at school, an internship, or a part-time job
- The steps you took to identify and fix an error in coding for a website or program
- An important social or political issue that you would fix if you had the means
How to Build a College Essay in 6 Easy Steps
Once you’ve decided on a college essay topic you want to use, it’s time to buckle down and start fleshing out your essay. These six steps will help you transform a simple college essay topic into a full-fledged personal statement.
Step 1: Write Down All the Details
Once you’ve chosen a general topic to write about, get out a piece of paper and get to work on creating a list of all the key details you could include in your essay . These could be things such as the following:
- Emotions you felt at the time
- Names, places, and/or numbers
- Dialogue, or what you or someone else said
- A specific anecdote, example, or experience
- Descriptions of how things looked, felt, or seemed
If you can only come up with a few details, then it’s probably best to revisit the list of college essay topics above and choose a different one that you can write more extensively on.
Good college essay topics are typically those that:
- You remember well (so nothing that happened when you were really young)
- You're excited to write about
- You're not embarrassed or uncomfortable to share with others
- You believe will make you positively stand out from other applicants
Step 2: Figure Out Your Focus and Approach
Once you have all your major details laid out, start to figure out how you could arrange them in a way that makes sense and will be most effective.
It’s important here to really narrow your focus: you don’t need to (and shouldn’t!) discuss every single aspect of your trip to visit family in Indonesia when you were 16. Rather, zero in on a particular anecdote or experience and explain why and how it impacted you.
Alternatively, you could write about multiple experiences while weaving them together with a clear, meaningful theme or concept , such as how your math teacher helped you overcome your struggle with geometry over the course of an entire school year. In this case, you could mention a few specific times she tutored you and most strongly supported you in your studies.
There’s no one right way to approach your college essay, so play around to see what approaches might work well for the topic you’ve chosen.
If you’re really unsure about how to approach your essay, think about what part of your topic was or is most meaningful and memorable to you, and go from there.
Step 3: Structure Your Narrative
- Beginning: Don’t just spout off a ton of background information here—you want to hook your reader, so try to start in the middle of the action , such as with a meaningful conversation you had or a strong emotion you felt. It could also be a single anecdote if you plan to center your essay around a specific theme or idea.
- Middle: Here’s where you start to flesh out what you’ve established in the opening. Provide more details about the experience (if a single anecdote) or delve into the various times your theme or idea became most important to you. Use imagery and sensory details to put the reader in your shoes.
- End: It’s time to bring it all together. Finish describing the anecdote or theme your essay centers around and explain how it relates to you now , what you’ve learned or gained from it, and how it has influenced your goals.
Step 4: Write a Rough Draft
By now you should have all your major details and an outline for your essay written down; these two things will make it easy for you to convert your notes into a rough draft.
At this stage of the writing process, don’t worry too much about vocabulary or grammar and just focus on getting out all your ideas so that they form the general shape of an essay . It’s OK if you’re a little over the essay's word limit — as you edit, you’ll most likely make some cuts to irrelevant and ineffective parts anyway.
If at any point you get stuck and have no idea what to write, revisit steps 1-3 to see whether there are any important details or ideas you might be omitting or not elaborating on enough to get your overall point across to admissions officers.
Step 5: Edit, Revise, and Proofread
- Sections that are too wordy and don’t say anything important
- Irrelevant details that don’t enhance your essay or the point you're trying to make
- Parts that seem to drag or that feel incredibly boring or redundant
- Areas that are vague and unclear and would benefit from more detail
- Phrases or sections that are awkwardly placed and should be moved around
- Areas that feel unconvincing, inauthentic, or exaggerated
Start paying closer attention to your word choice/vocabulary and grammar at this time, too. It’s perfectly normal to edit and revise your college essay several times before asking for feedback, so keep working with it until you feel it’s pretty close to its final iteration.
This step will likely take the longest amount of time — at least several weeks, if not months — so really put effort into fixing up your essay. Once you’re satisfied, do a final proofread to ensure that it’s technically correct.
Step 6: Get Feedback and Tweak as Needed
After you’ve overhauled your rough draft and made it into a near-final draft, give your essay to somebody you trust , such as a teacher or parent, and have them look it over for technical errors and offer you feedback on its content and overall structure.
Use this feedback to make any last-minute changes or edits. If necessary, repeat steps 5 and 6. You want to be extra sure that your essay is perfect before you submit it to colleges!
Recap: From College Essay Topics to Great College Essays
Many different kinds of college application essay topics can get you into a great college. But this doesn’t make it any easier to choose the best topic for you .
In general, the best college essay topics have the following qualities :
- They’re specific
- They show who you are
- They’re meaningful to you
- They’re unique
- They clearly answer the question
If you ever need help coming up with an idea of what to write for your essay, just refer to the list of 53 examples of college essay topics above to get your brain juices flowing.
Once you’ve got an essay topic picked out, follow these six steps for turning your topic into an unforgettable personal statement :
- Write down all the details
- Figure out your focus and approach
- Structure your narrative
- Write a rough draft
- Edit, revise, and proofread
- Get feedback and tweak as needed
And with that, I wish you the best of luck on your college essays!
Writing a college essay is no simple task. Get expert college essay tips with our guides on how to come up with great college essay ideas and how to write a college essay, step by step .
You can also check out this huge list of college essay prompts to get a feel for what types of questions you'll be expected to answer on your applications.
Want to see examples of college essays that absolutely rocked? You're in luck because we've got a collection of 100+ real college essay examples right here on our blog!
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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Hannah received her MA in Japanese Studies from the University of Michigan and holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern California. From 2013 to 2015, she taught English in Japan via the JET Program. She is passionate about education, writing, and travel.
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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!
Related CollegeVine Blog Posts
8 College Essay Topics
Exploring College Essay Topics
Good college essay topics are as varied and widespread as the universities that require them. So, students will encounter many college application essay formats throughout the admissions process. These include the standard college admission essay, supplemental essay, personal statement, and personal challenge essay, to name a few.
Whether it’s the “why Northwestern” essay or the Columbia essay prompts, good college essay topics help schools learn more about you and your life experiences. So, you should work to find compelling college essay ideas that reflect your identity. This will help you craft strong responses to any college essay topics you encounter.
Generating college essay ideas
Many students want to know how to write better essays. Students also might wonder how to start a college essay—after all, finding the right “hook” for your college essays can make a major difference. In this guide, we’ll walk you through every aspect of the essay process.
Different college essay topics require different types of responses. For instance, a “why major” essay should not read the same way as an extracurricular activities essay. Reading college essay examples can also help when considering how to approach different college essay topics.
This article will look at some of the common categories for college essay topics. We’ll also provide some college essay tips and discuss what makes a great college essay stand out from the rest. Most importantly, we’ll discuss how to write better essays so you feel prepared to start the process.
College Admission Essays
Before we discuss different college essay topics, let’s delve into a bit more context. Specifically, let’s discuss what a college admission essay is and why most top schools require them.
A college admission essay is a written response, usually between 150 and 650 words, to a specific question or prompt on a college application. Some essays, like the Common Application essay, are standardized. Students have up to 650 words to respond to one of seven college essay topics that every Common Application school receives.
Other college application essays are considered supplemental essays. These supplemental essays are unique to each individual college or university, though these college essay topics do tend to fall into some common categories. Some school essay requirements, like the NYU supplemental essays, also vary based on the program you apply to.
Understanding the college essay format
Whether it’s a personal statement or supplemental essay, the college application essay format is meant to help admissions officers get to know students better. The college essay format also allows applicants to share information about themselves that may not be clear from the rest of their application. In addition, these college essay examples allow admissions officers to evaluate each student’s character, writing ability, and overall fit for their school.
Good college essay topics help admissions officers to get to know students. So, the best college admission essays provide personal details not found elsewhere in a student’s application. What makes a great college essay is that it could only have been written by the person who submits it. That means you should highlight specific details about your life and experiences. Remember that your college essays are your only chance to provide admissions officers with some insight as to who you are, so don’t hold back!
What are the most common college essay topics?
Most college essay examples fall into one of the following general categories. Although language in individual prompts may vary, the college application essay format will often look like one of the following:
8 Most Common College Essay Topics
1. personal statement.
The personal statement category includes college essay topics about your life and experiences. A personal statement will often pertain to a challenging moment in your life or a time in which you grew or learned a lesson. For most students, the personal statement is akin to the Common App essay.
2. “Why School” Essay
The why school essay is one of the most common examples of supplemental essays. These college essay topics ask students to describe why they believe a particular college is a good fit for them.
3. “Why Major” Essay
The why major essay asks students to describe why they are interested in the major that they listed on their application. This college application essay format is more common at large universities, where students may be applying to a specific school or program within the school.
4. Personal Challenge Essay
These college essay topics ask students to reflect on a specific obstacle they have overcome in their lives. The requirements are similar to those of the personal statement, where the subject is the writer’s personal life.
5. Cultural Diversity Essay
The cultural diversity essay asks students to reflect on their heritage and how their unique background has influenced their life. Colleges often seek to recruit a diverse student body, and these college essays allow students to share how they would fit into that environment.
6. Extracurricular Activities Essay
These essays ask students to describe an activity they have done during their high school years and how it has prepared them to succeed in college. These are often short essays, meaning that their word counts tend to be 150 or fewer.
7. Unique College Essay
Some good college essay topics do not fit into one of the categories above. Instead, these essays ask students to think outside the box by responding to an unorthodox prompt. These college essay ideas are often some of the most difficult to write about.
Our first category within our college essay topics is the personal statement. You’ll likely submit a personal statement to every school where you apply.
As the name suggests, you should be the subject of your personal statement. Likewise, the essay should showcase the parts of yourself that you want to feature. The prompts for essays in this category vary widely. However, the most common example of a personal statement that you will encounter is the Common Application essay.
Although the Common Application essay prompts do change from year to year, they all pertain to your life and experiences. Plus, nearly all of the top schools in the country that use the Common Application require you to answer one of its essay prompts. Listed below are the essay prompts for the 2023-2024 Common Application :
Common App Essay Prompts
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., how to write a college essay about yourself.
The most important step in how to write better essays is to focus on yourself. At times, it can feel uncomfortable to focus the entire essay on your accomplishments. However, remember that this essay should help your reader get to know you better. So, before you start writing, think about what aspects of your character you want to showcase. In fact, when generating college essay ideas, it can help to write down a short list of qualities that you want to highlight.
The next step in how to start a college essay about yourself is to select the right prompt. Your prompt should connect to you and your experiences. If you don’t resonate with any of the Common App’s good college essay topics, remember that you can create your own. Just make sure that the topic relates to you personally.
When you actually start writing, think about using the prompt to tell a story . Try to share parts of yourself that have not been featured in other areas of your application. So, your essay should focus on a narrative rather than a list of facts or examples. For example, if you choose prompt #4, you should not simply write several paragraphs about what gratitude means to you. Instead, focus on a compelling story about a time when you learned about the importance of gratitude. Finally, make sure that you are the central figure in whatever story you tell.
The Why School Essay
Next on our list of good college essay topics is the why school essay. Each of these prompts is specific to a particular school. So, a “why Yale essay” will look very different from a “why Duke essay” even though the prompt is structured similarly for both schools.
Simply put, a why school essay asks you to explain the reasons why you want to attend that particular school and what you hope to achieve there.
Many schools feature a why school essay. So, let’s highlight two examples of what these college essay topics look like.
Why school essay examples
The “why Yale essay” prompt allows students a maximum word count of 125. It asks, “What is it about Yale that has led you to apply?”. In a similar college application essay format, the “why Duke Essay” prompt asks, “What is your sense of Duke as a university and a community, and why do you consider it a good match for you? If there’s something in particular about our offerings that attracts you, feel free to share that as well.” This essay has a 250-word count limit.
Using a why school essay prompt serves a few purposes for an admissions office. It allows your application readers to see how much research you have done about their campus and facilities. Additionally, it helps them understand what you might bring to their campus as a prospective student. In the end, it’s all about seeing whether you would be a good fit for the school and whether the school would be a good fit for you.
Structuring a Why School Essay
When writing a why school essay, it is still important to keep yourself as the central focus. Using specific examples, write about what makes the school a good fit for you. So, don’t just start with the most well-known or popular features of a school. A school may have just built a brand new science building, but it is likely not worth writing about unless you plan to major in a scientific discipline. So, before writing, think about the criteria on your personal college list. Then, identify two or three areas in which the school you’re writing about meets them. Remember that these are often short essays, so don’t try to fit in too many college essay ideas at once.
Then, get specific and do some research! If you have visited the school, consider identifying some of the features you enjoyed seeing on your visit. Additionally, if there is a specific professor, lab, program, club, team, or opportunity that interests you, mention those details here. The more specific research you show, the better your case for attending a school will be. However, it is not enough to simply list names and facts in your essay. Instead, describe how these opportunities will help you achieve your goals. Then, highlight why you want to be a part of this particular school’s community.
Nearly every top school in the country, including the Columbia supplemental essays and the why Northwestern essay, uses these college essay topics. Because each prompt is specific to each school, you should avoid using the same generic college essay ideas in each response. Good college essay topics show individuality as well as evidence of reflection and research.
For more information about how to write a good why school essay, check out our CollegeAdvisor.com resources here .
The Why Major Essay
The why major essay relates to the why school essay because they both ask about your reasons for being interested in a college. The difference is that a why school essay focuses on the school as a whole, whereas a why major essay asks specifically about your field of study within the school. Many universities include these supplemental essay prompts if students are applying to a particularly popular program at the school. Other schools use these short essay topics to learn more about students’ academic interests and goals.
The UPenn supplemental essay, the Rice supplemental essay, and the Cornell supplemental essays all feature questions that ask about students’ majors. The UPenn supplemental essay prompt has a 150-200 word limit. Here is UPenn’s why major prompt: “Considering the specific undergraduate school you have selected, describe how you intend to explore your academic and intellectual interests at the University of Pennsylvania.”
The Rice supplemental essay prompt is similar. It gives students a maximum of 150 words to respond to the following statement: “Please explain why you wish to study in the academic areas you selected.”
The Cornell supplemental essays across their eight undergraduate colleges ask similar questions. This prompt comes from Arts and Sciences, their most popular program: “Students in Arts and Sciences embrace the opportunity to delve into multifaceted academic interests, embodying in 21st century terms Ezra Cornell’s ‘any person…any study’ founding vision. Tell us about the areas of study you are excited to explore, and specifically why you wish to pursue them in our College.”
Choosing a major for your college essay
You might have many college essay ideas when it comes to writing a why major essay. Still, the best college admission essays in this category are focused and detailed. Therefore, before you start writing, it is important to reflect on your academic interests. Think about how you first became interested in your intended major. What past experiences have you had in this field? What do you hope to accomplish with the degree you wish to pursue? These guiding questions will help give your essay direction and clarity, even before a single word hits the page.
Your interest in your chosen major should stem from a passion for the subject. Some students make the mistake of focusing on their future earnings or talking about how parents or relatives expect them to pick a certain major. Remember that you are the one who will be attending the school and taking hundreds of hours of coursework in this subject. So, make sure you have a good reason for choosing it.
If you are not sure what major you want to pursue, that’s okay. You can still give a thoughtful answer to this prompt. This is a great time to describe your intellectual curiosity or your passion for multiple disparate subjects. You can also discuss your favorite school subjects or the aspects of learning that you most enjoy, such as a particular science experiment or a time period in history that fascinates you. There are many different college essay ideas that you can pursue even with an undecided major.
Remember that with the exception of a few specialized programs, you will not be forced to stay with the major that you list on your college application. Many schools do not even require students to officially declare their major until their sophomore year. For guidance on selecting a major that is right for you, check out this link . And for more general college essay tips and college essay ideas, see this guide from Harvard University .
Personal Challenge Essay
Our next subject in this series of college essay topics is the personal challenge essay. The personal challenge essay asks students to recount a story in which they overcame some hardship or obstacle and learned a lesson about themselves in the process. These good college essay topics are excellent times to display character traits such as perseverance, dedication, grit, and leadership.
Fordham University’s supplemental essay prompt states: “At Fordham, we expect students to care for and engage with their communities. Please share a specific instance in which you challenged yourself or stepped out of your comfort zone in order to be an advocate for your community.”
In a slightly different approach, the Emory University supplemental essays provide several options for students to discuss their personal growth. They include prompts like, “Reflect on a personal experience where you intentionally expanded your cultural awareness.” and, “When was the last time you questioned something you had thought to be true?”
Crafting a memorable college essay
A good personal challenge essay can take a variety of forms. Overall, there are many good college essay ideas students can draw from within this theme. This article from U.S. News illustrates some of the more common themes that students employ when approaching these college essay topics. The most important part of any personal challenge essay is authenticity. Nobody’s story is inherently better or worse than anyone else’s. You do not need to write about heavy tragedy in order to develop a good personal challenge essay.
Start by coming up with a list of college essay ideas. These should be stories from your life that present you in a different light, one not seen in other areas of your application. Then, pick a specific story from your list of college essay ideas that presents you in a positive manner and shows off the traits you want your readers to see. The best college admission essays tell one specific and compelling story rather than list several college essay ideas in one response.
Another important facet of these college essay topics is the demonstration of growth. The important part of your essay is not the severity of the challenge itself, but how you reacted to it and grew from the experience. Make sure you avoid vague sentiments or platitudes like, “I became a better person,” or “This experience caused me to see the world in a new way.” Instead, focus on what you specifically gained from going through this challenging time. In addition, think about what skills or characteristics you showed in overcoming the challenge. Then, use the essay to highlight them.
Cultural Diversity Essay
The cultural diversity essay is a popular topic for a college admission essay. So, understanding how to write college essays of this type is vital. But, before we dive into just how to respond, let’s learn just what a cultural diversity essay is.
Simply put, these types of college essay topics ask students to elaborate on their relationship with cultural diversity. Namely, they look for how it has shaped the student’s own identity. Like all good college essay topics, the cultural diversity essay invites students to share an important part of themselves with admissions.
What makes a great college essay on cultural diversity? Well, essays will vary greatly depending on each individual. Students could talk about their background, culture, beliefs, skills, experience, or perspectives. Culture can mean many things, meaning that college essay ideas for this prompt are nearly endless.
Exact college essay topics aren’t as important as showing how the matter at hand has shaped you. Additionally, tactfully executed college essay ideas will show how your unique story and experiences will improve that school’s college campus. Specifically, touching on how you’ll bring your perspective, experiences, and culture to campus is always a good strategy.
To better understand this topic, let’s look at some examples of cultural diversity essay prompts.
Cultural Diversity Essay Prompts
Like many other schools, Amherst College requires applicants to respond to additional Amherst supplemental essays. The Amherst supplemental essays are certainly looking for a cultural diversity essay:
Amherst Cultural Diversity Essay Prompts
Respond to one of the following quotations in an essay of not more than 300 words. it is not necessary to research, read, or refer to the texts from which these quotations are taken; we are looking for original, personal responses to these short excerpts. remember that your essay should be personal in nature and not simply an argumentative essay., “rigorous reasoning is crucial in mathematics, and insight plays an important secondary role these days. in the natural sciences, i would say that the order of these two virtues is reversed. rigor is, of course, very important. but the most important value is insight—insight into the workings of the world. it may be because there is another guarantor of correctness in the sciences, namely, the empirical evidence from observation and experiments.” kannan jagannathan, professor of physics, amherst college, “translation is the art of bridging cultures. it’s about interpreting the essence of a text, transporting its rhythms and becoming intimate with its meaning… translation, however, doesn’t only occur across languages: mentally putting any idea into words is an act of translation; so is composing a symphony, doing business in the global market, understanding the roots of terrorism. no citizen, especially today, can exist in isolation—that is, untranslated.” ilán stavans, professor of latin american and latino culture, amherst college, robert croll ’16 and cedric duquene ’15, adapted from the print version of “interpreting terras irradient,” amherst magazine, spring 2015. , “creating an environment that allows students to build lasting friendships, including those that cut across seemingly entrenched societal and political boundaries…requires candor about the inevitable tensions, as well as about the wonderful opportunities, that diversity and inclusiveness create.” carolyn “biddy” martin, 19th president of amherst college, from letter to amherst college alumni and families, december 28, 2015. , “difficulty need not foreshadow despair or defeat. rather, achievement can be all the more satisfying because of obstacles surmounted.” attributed to william hastie, amherst college class of 1925, the first african-american to serve as a judge for the united states court of appeals, understanding the amherst essay prompts.
Amherst’s option doesn’t explicitly ask for your experiences. Rather, they want to see how you respond and relate to different perspectives.
Let’s look at another example. In addition to the Common App personal statement, students applying to Harvard are allowed to submit an additional “optional” essay. When responding to any school’s essays, especially an Ivy League , do some digging to see if admissions offers any tips. Check out Harvard’s blog on how to write a great essay. Here is Harvard’s prompt that is very obviously a cultural diversity essay topic:
Harvard Cultural Diversity Essay Prompt
Harvard has long recognized the importance of student body diversity of all kinds. we welcome you to write about distinctive aspects of your background, personal development or the intellectual interests you might bring to your harvard classmates..
Finally, let’s look at the University of Michigan’s prompt:
University of Michigan Cultural Diversity Essay Prompt
Everyone belongs to many different communities and/or groups defined by (among other things) shared geography, religion, ethnicity, income, cuisine, interest, race, ideology, or intellectual heritage. choose one of the communities to which you belong, and describe that community and your place within it. (required for all applicants; minimum 100 words/maximum 300 words).
Specifically, this UMich essay prompt talks about community, which makes up a part of your background and culture. Since “community” encompasses many different aspects, students have lots of room to play with their responses.
How do you write a college essay on diversity?
Before understanding how to write the college diversity essay, students should consider why they’re popular college essay topics for admissions . Simply put, universities want to have a diverse student body. This enhances campus life by creating constant cross-cultural understanding. Additionally, each student’s unique background, experiences, and perspective shape the school’s community greatly. That’s why these prompts are found everywhere, from Amherst to NYU supplemental essays.
So, how to tackle the cultural diversity essay? First, students need to speak from their own experiences. You should be at the forefront of your essay—not someone else. This essay is all about showing what diversity means to you and how it impacts your own identity. What background or experience do you have that is unique and meaningful to you?
College essay ideas will vary greatly among students. And that’s the point! There’s no cookie-cutter college application essay format to follow. What you talk about within your background and experiences can be any number of things. Ultimately, writing passionately and cohesively, clearly conveying how diversity has shaped you, and how you’ll bring that perspective to campus are key. You should authentically and comprehensively answer the prompt in order to write an essay that stands out .
Check out our cultural diversity essay guide for more in-depth college essay tips!
Extracurricular Activities Essay
Another favorite among college essay topics is the extracurricular activities essay. Needless to say, this supplemental essay allows students to expand on one of their extracurricular activities . Since the Common App activities section is limited, this is a great chance to provide more context for your experiences.
In general, when writing an extracurricular activities essay, you shouldn’t simply list achievements from your college resume . Feel free to get creative by sharing an anecdote or expanding on what the activity means to you. Has it shaped your identity or your future goals? How have you grown from partaking in this activity? Expand on the deeper meaning to you in order to write the best extracurricular activities essay.
Now, let’s check out some extracurricular activities essay prompts.
Sample Extracurricular Activities Essay Prompts
Interestingly, Vanderbilt offers students two college essay topics for students to choose to respond to in 250 words. The first is a diversity essay. The following is their extracurricular activities prompt:
Vanderbilt Extracurricular Activities Essay Prompt
Vanderbilt offers a community where students find balance between their academic and social experiences. please briefly elaborate on how one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences has influenced you..
Check out our guide with ample Vanderbilt essay examples before writing this school’s essays.
The Princeton supplemental essays also include a similar extracurricular activity prompt. However, for these types of Princeton supplemental essays, students only have 150 words with which to respond:
Princeton Extracurricular Activity Prompt
Briefly elaborate on an activity, organization work experience, or hobby that has been particularly meaningful to you. .
Finally, let’s see the Stanford extracurricular activities essay prompt. You’ll notice it follows the same general trend as the others.
Stanford Extracurricular Activity Essay Prompt
The stanford community is deeply curious and driven to learn in and out of the classroom. reflect on an idea or experience that makes you genuinely excited about learning..
Before working on your own college essay ideas, check out some Stanford essay examples to see what’s worked in the past.
Unique College Essay Topics
During the college application process, you’re likely to come across many similar college essay topics and prompts. However, some universities keep things interesting with good college essay topics that are sure to keep applicants on their toes. These college essay topics ask students unexpected questions and even err on the side of quirky. They’re quite different from the personal statement .
Basically, these non-traditional college essay topics are a wonderful opportunity to let your creative side shine with one-of-a-kind responses. But, keep in mind that although these aren’t traditional college essay topics, every college admission essay has the same goal. You should share more about yourself with admissions, and show them just why you’d be a great addition to their university.
Let’s read some prompts that fall into this category.
Unique College Essay Prompts
UChicago is one school known for their unique college essay topics. Certainly, they have one supplemental essay prompt that’s required and similar to more traditional college essay topics. At the same time, their options for the second of the short essays don’t disappoint.
Here are the UChicago prompts for the second of their college essay topics:
UChicago Unique College Essay Prompts
Essay option 1, exponents and square roots, pencils and erasers, beta decay and electron capture. name two things that undo each other and explain why both are necessary. – inspired by emmett cho, class of 2027, essay option 2, “where have all the flowers gone” – pete seeger. pick a question from a song title or lyric and give it your best answer. – inspired by ryan murphy, ab’21, essay option 3, “vlog,” “labradoodle,” and “fauxmage.” language is filled with portmanteaus. create a new portmanteau and explain why those two things are a “patch” (perfect match). – inspired by garrett chalfin, class of 2027, essay option 4, a jellyfish is not a fish. cat burglars don’t burgle cats. rhode island is not an island. write an essay about some other misnomer, and either come up with and defend a new name for it or explain why its inaccurate name should be kept. – inspired by sonia chang, class of 2025, and mirabella blair, class of 2027, essay option 5, despite their origins in the gupta empire of india or ancient egypt, games like chess or bowling remain widely enjoyed today. what modern game do you believe will withstand the test of time, and why – inspired by adam heiba, class of 2027, essay option 6, there are unwritten rules that everyone follows or has heard at least once in their life. but of course, some rules should be broken or updated. what is an unwritten rule that you wish didn’t exist (our custom is to have five new prompts each year, but this year we decided to break with tradition. enjoy) – inspired by maryam abdella, class of 2026, essay option 7, and, as always… the classic choose your own adventure option in the spirit of adventurous inquiry, choose one of our past prompts (or create a question of your own). be original, creative, thought provoking. draw on your best qualities as a writer, thinker, visionary, social critic, sage, citizen of the world, or future citizen of the university of chicago; take a little risk, and have fun, dartmouth college essay prompts.
Another elite university with some good college essay topics is Dartmouth . While the two required essays are standard college essay topics, the third essay has a variety of unique prompts to choose from. Let’s take a look at their prompts, which have a 200-250 word limit.
Dartmouth Unique College Essay Prompts
A. labor leader and civil rights activist dolores huerta recommended a life of purpose. “we must use our lives to make the world a better place to live, not just to acquire things,” she said. “that is what we are put on the earth for.” in what ways do you hope to make—or are you making—an impact, b. what excites you, c. in the boy who harnessed the wind, william kamkwamba ’14 reflects on constructing a windmill from recycled materials to power electrical appliances in his family’s malawian house: “if you want to make it, all you have to do is try.” what drives you to create and what do you hope to make or have you made, d. dr. seuss, aka theodor geisel of dartmouth’s class of 1925, wrote, “think and wonder. wonder and think.” what do you wonder and think about, e. “not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced,” wrote james baldwin. how does this quote apply to your life experiences, how do you write a unique college essay.
At this point, you may have many college essay ideas for these topics. However, keep in mind that these types of supplemental essays should still be answered personally and authentically—just like your personal statement. Especially with creative and unique prompts, it may be tempting to go in a totally different direction when writing. Nevertheless, don’t forget that good college essay topics aim to learn more about the applicant, even if they are unconventional.
Additionally, the goal of these unique college essay topics is to see that you don’t back down from a challenge. Universities want curious learners who are willing to step out of their comfort zone. So, even if these aren’t your favorite types of college essay topics, persevere in writing something new. They’re an opportunity to indirectly show admissions how you think. Ideally, you’ll want to show your intellectual curiosity and values. However, this can be done indirectly.
More tips on unique college essay topics
Check out these UChicago essay examples in order to see how students successfully responded to these unique college essay topics. If you’re wondering how to start a college essay, reading successful college essay ideas is a good way to begin. Use them as inspiration to spur your own college essay ideas.
From NYU supplemental essays to personal challenge essays or even a “why major” essay, remember the goal. Tell admissions more about you and what you’ll bring to campus. Additionally, your successful essays will make it clear that you’re a good fit for the school—even if not explicitly stated.
Short Essay Topics
While supplemental essays usually don’t have high word counts, there are certain college essay topics that are considered short essays. Short essays, when it comes to college essay topics, are those that are less than 100 words. They are much shorter than personal statement examples . Those of you who aren’t fans of writing might rejoice at the news. However, it can often be more difficult to write a meaningful short essay.
Let’s take a look at some short essay topics from different universities. To start, here are the Columbia supplemental essays. These Columbia supplemental essays are considered short essay prompts.
Columbia Short Essay Prompts
1. list the titles of the books, essays, poetry, short stories or plays you read outside of academic courses that you enjoyed most during secondary/high school. (75 words or fewer), 2. in columbia’s admissions process, we value who you are as a unique individual, distinct from your goals and achievements. in the last words of this writing supplement, we would like you to reflect on a source of happiness. help us get to know you further by describing the first thing that comes to mind when you consider what simply brings you joy. (35 words or fewer).
The sheer number (10!) of short essays that USC requires may intimidate many. However, these USC supplemental essays are super short with a 25–100 word limit. Check out our guide with examples of USC supplemental essays. Here are the USC short answer essay prompts:
USC Short Essay Topics
Describe yourself in three words., what is your favorite snack, best movie of all time: , if your life had a theme song, what would it be, dream trip: , what tv show will you binge watch next, which well-known person or fictional character would be your ideal roommate, favorite book:, if you could teach a class on any topic, what would it be.
Stanford has a 100–250 word limit on their short essays. Let’s take a look at the prompts:
Stanford Short Essay Topics
Virtually all of stanford’s undergraduates live on campus. write a note to your future roommate that reveals something about you or that will help your roommate—and us—get to know you better., tell us about something that is meaningful to you and why..
You may have noticed that many of these short college essay topics were “lists” while others were simply short essays. Now, let’s think about how to respond to them.
Approaching short essays
While it may seem like these college essay topics are very different from others, the approach is the same. Your responses should highlight what makes you the person you are. The only trick is to do it in a much shorter word count than other college essay topics.
So, make the most of every word! This part may seem tedious, but you must choose your words carefully to craft the most impactful short essay response. With lots of polish, these types of short essay topics can add dimension to the rest of your application. What you decide to write about should tell the admissions team more about you, your interests, and your values.
Choosing the best college essay topics
Of course, each college will have different essay prompts. For example, the NYU supplemental essays are very different from the UChicago essays or the Columbia supplemental essays. Even so, good college essay topics are the ones that you can write the most passionately about. However, your college essay ideas must ultimately share more about you and why you belong on that university’s campus.
When it comes to choosing good college essay topics, carefully read all the prompts. Is there one that jumps out to you? If so, that’s the best choice for you! If you’re considering various prompts, do a short brainstorming exercise for each prompt. Whichever prompt evokes the most meaningful experience that is an authentic representation of you should be your topic.
Here is more advice from a student at Harvard on writing your best college essays as well:
What makes a great college essay? Most importantly, across college essay topics, your essays need to be personal, specific, and honest. Excepting short essay topics that ask for a list, normally your essays shouldn’t simply list accomplishments or experiences. Follow the classic writing adage when planning and writing out your best college essay ideas: show don’t tell. Consider anecdotes that highlight who you are. Use those stories as a foundation to craft your essays.
What should you not write in a college essay?
When it comes to good college essay topics, the sky is certainly the limit. And, since essays are so personal, good college essay topics will usually be quite varied. However, there are certain college essay ideas that you should stay away from.
Here are 5 college essay topics to stay away from:
1. generic topics.
For example, admissions experts note that writing about sports injuries usually doesn’t go over well. Additionally, some sort of “big game” essay usually doesn’t land in quite the way students might imagine either. There is usually too much time spent on the game rather than on a student’s personal growth. But most often, sports-related obstacles tend to center around clichés (never giving up, the happiness of winning, the sadness of losing, team camaraderie, etc.). Predictable essays won’t make the biggest impact on admissions.
2. Dramatic life events
For some students, this will work. However, don’t try to create some grandiose event in order to write a jaw-dropping essay. In fact, some of the best college essay ideas come from everyday experiences that shape the writer. That is to say, essays should highlight not simply what happened to you, but your responses to those experiences. With that said, if you can convey personal growth and positive change through a difficult life event, go for it.
3. Highly personal topics
This relates to the previous point. Indeed, most good college essay topics are pretty personal. However, there’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed. For example, overly personal stories about mental health should generally be avoided, especially unprocessed trauma. While admissions can’t discriminate against you based on these topics, it’s usually a hard topic from which to craft a successful essay. Of course, we’re sure it’s been done. But, your best bet is to choose one of the many other good college essay topics that you’re sure to have.
4. Anything related to alcohol, drugs, or illegal behavior
This may seem blatantly obvious but certainly don’t talk about wild parties with illegal activities (and certainly don’t partake!). You should refrain from talking about your personal experiences with these themes in your college essays. However, if you are close with someone affected by these, that could be a plausible essay topic—but write carefully. Again, it’s probably safest just to take these topics out of the running.
5. High school gossip
This topic is going to make it hard for you to shine. Avoid any type of topics that relate to high school gossip. College admissions officers won’t be impressed, and it will be hard to come off as anything other than immature and superficial. Remember that your college essay will show what you are going to bring to campus. Certainly, admissions officers don’t want to bring this type of culture to their campuses.
How to write your best college admission essays
Writing college essays is a huge part of the college application process. Of course, most admissions teams use a holistic review process, considering everything from GPA to extracurriculars to essays. Even so, essays are truly of utmost importance, as they are your personal account of your personality and life story. However, rather than stress about college essay ideas, look at it as an opportunity to share more about yourself.
Here are 5 college essay tips for writing your best college admission essays:
1. carefully choose your prompt.
You’ll be hard-pressed to write passionately about a topic that doesn’t genuinely excite you. So, carefully consider the prompts you’re given before drafting your essay. Choose the one that most calls to you.
2. Tell your story
Good college essay topics will tell a story that would tell a total stranger more about you, your values, passions, and experiences. Get creative when it comes to telling a story in your essays. Hook the reader from the start and impress with your writing abilities.
3. Answer the prompt
Anecdotes are great for writing personal, unique, and meaningful college essays. However, they absolutely need to be pertinent to the prompt at hand. Make sure that you comprehensively respond to the prompt.
4. Start early
A lot of the stress that comes with college essays has to do with rapidly approaching deadlines. Be sure to give yourself ample time to complete your essays. You’ll need time to brainstorm, draft, revise, and edit. That’s in addition to completing the rest of the application! Ideally, start the summer before your senior year.
5. Pay attention to grammar and mechanics
Being creative and telling a meaningful story is important when it comes to college essays. However, don’t forget that your grammar should be impeccable. Be sure to thoroughly revise and edit your essays. And, have someone else take a look at them too! An extra pair of eyes can help greatly when it comes to fine-tuning and perfecting your essay in its last stages.
College Essay Topics Takeaways
In this guide, we’ve looked at many different college essay topics such as the personal statement, unique essays, short essays, and more. We also discussed how to structure the best college application essay format for different prompts.
In order to craft the best college essay ideas and the best college admission essays, you should read many college essay examples. Studying college essay examples can help you when considering how to start a college essay. Remember you shouldn’t try to copy the stories from these college essay examples. Rather, use them as inspiration to tell your own story.
Are you sharing the impact of your gap year , explaining how you chose your major , or writing a why this college essay ? Whatever you’re talking about, reading successful essays will help you learn how to write better essays. And if you can write better than other applicants, then you’re sure to impress admissions.
At the end of the day, remember that there is no definitive college application essay format. Of course, there are certain things that most successful essays do. However, don’t get stuck on nailing one specific college application essay format. Rather, focus on self-reflection and personal growth when choosing your topics and which anecdotes to include. And, if you need some help along the way, CollegeAdvisor Admissions Experts are here to guide you in writing your best college essays!
This article was written by Sarah Kaminski and advisor, Alex Baggott-Rowe . 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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Search the site, search suggestions, commonly asked questions: college essays.
A blank computer screen. That was what the summer before my senior year looked like.
A pretty familiar sight my senior summer...
The Common Application opened August 1, and in my summer schedule I’d left myself a whole four weeks to sit down and figure out what I was going to send to colleges.
Or so I thought. The reality of that August--beach trips, field hockey pre-season, and just generally anything I could do to avoid sitting in front of a blank computer screen with a document titled “Common Application Essay”--was a little different from the four weeks of writing, revising, and finishing my college essays that I’d planned out in May.
The college essay (officially your “personal statement,” at least at Harvard) was the most intimidating part of my application process--because, by the beginning of my senior year, it was the only thing I had any real control over. Think about it this way: by the time you hit the summer before you apply to college, most of your application is already complete. You probably have a pretty good idea of what your scores are going to look like, the majority of you high school grades have already been entered into your transcript, your recommending teachers already know you (I hope…), and you’ve already gotten involved in whatever school activities you’ve filled your last three years in high school with.
I thought of the Common App essay as my chance to have a voice in the committee room when [fill in college-of-choice here]’s admissions officers sat down to decide my fate--and that made a blank Word document utterly terrifying. I mean, what do you say to convince someone to let you into Harvard?
This week, I’ve been asked 14 (I counted…) questions about the essay component of the Harvard application, and most of them have started with the unassuming, “What did you write your application essay on?”
If you really want to know, after hours of debate over whether or not writing about my failures was really a good way to attempt to get into college, I picked the Common App essay prompt, “Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure,” and wrote about the two years in high school I spent generally making a mess of my time in a Navy JROTC program--complete with exactly five terrible nautical puns.
But, if you ask me, I think you’re asking the wrong question.
The whole point of your application essay--and the reason Harvard calls it your “personal statement” instead--is that it’s personal. I wouldn’t recommend including my nautical puns in your writing to Harvard for a lot of reasons, but the most important is that they’re a part of my story, not yours.
I’m sitting in an office with four other students right now, and (after a brief poll) it turns out we wrote about everything from writer’s block to being a pastor’s kid to the U.S. Navy. So the answer to the all-important question, “What do you say to convince someone to let you into Harvard?” is that you talk about you .
You spend all day with yourself, but your admissions officers meet you for the first time the day they pick up your application. They meet you through your transcript and teacher recommendations and extracurricular resume, but mostly they meet you--the parts of you that don’t revolve around a list of leadership positions or your stellar (or not-so-stellar, in my case) math grades or how helpful you were in English class that one time--in what you write to them.
So write about you: what matters to you, how you spend your time, what makes you tick and keeps you up at night. Don’t try to write what you think Harvard wants to hear, whether that’s an essay about a love of mathematical theorems you don’t really have or your “life-changing” experience helping poor orphans in Indonesia that wasn’t really that life-changing at all. If you’re reading (or writing) your essay and it feels like you’re describing someone else, there’s a big problem.
So write about your grandmother. Or your gym teacher. Or your after-school job bagging groceries. Or math theorems, if they really are your favorite. Write in your voice, whatever that sounds like--whether you love dialogue or description or have a soft spot for terrible Navy puns. Come up with something that’s uniquely you--no matter how long it takes. I spent the first 27 days of those four August weeks trying to wrap my head around how I was even going to put an essay on that blank page at which I was staring. And on the 28th day, in a corner on the floor of my high school’s senior homeroom right before my last first day of school, something clicked, I grabbed my laptop, and I went from lamenting having nothing to say in my college essay to having 2,500 words of stuff to say that I spent the next eight weeks cutting down to 650.
My preferred essay-writing spot.
Colleges aren’t asking for your whole life story (please…) or a piece of art in which you expound upon your love of all things Harvard; they’re asking for a little more information about you, and you’re the one who gets to decide what you tell them. It’s a daunting task, but no one is better prepared to write about your life than you are.
No one’s college process is all smooth sailing, and that’s because figuring out what you’re all about and then trying to tell someone else about it is hard. As stupid as it can feel sometimes to write answers to canned prompts like, “Write about a person who has had an impact on you” and “Tell your story,” eventually you just have to conquer the blank page, test the waters, and come up with something--even if you end up throwing 2,499 of your initial 2,500 words overboard.
After all, I used nautical puns in my college essay (and in this blog post...) and got in. How much crazier could a Harvard application essay get?!
Reflections as a senior: my favorite moments.
Finding my "Third Place"
Five Things I Learned as President of a Harvard Cultural Organization
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Discover Personalized Topics for Your US College Admissions Essay ⚡
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Whether it inspires, challenges, or resonates, a quality topic should stir emotions or provoke thoughts in the reader.
Unique Angle or Perspective
Even if the core idea is common, a fresh perspective and the unique lens through which you present your topic can set your essay apart.
A high-quality topic is specific and doesn’t try to cover everything. It has a clear narrative direction, ensuring the reader remains engaged from start to finish.
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The Best College Essay Topics: Choose The Best One For Your Essay
EssayEdge > Blog > The Best College Essay Topics: Choose The Best One For Your Essay
Choosing the best college essay topic can become a real challenge. Most of the applicants are confused with a variety of ideas that come to their minds. But how to understand that the topic will work?
College writing essay topics are the key to success during the application process, being a tool to distinguish you from the other applicants. Thus, you will have a huge benefit if your topic is memorable and catches the committee’s attention right from the first moment.
In order to know how to choose the topic that sticks in the memory, read our review and find the best working strategy for you.
Table of Contents:
A Good Essay College Topic: Main Characteristics
There are five main characteristics of good college essay topics.
- Specific. The topic should be clear and extremely specific. It should show the overall value of the essay and make a strong statement. Remember that specific college application essay topics are the tool to stand out from the rest of the candidates. If it is vague, the admission committee may have a negative impression right from the first moment.
- Personal. The best topic is the one that defines who you are, your interest, passion, or your main drives. Thus, the main goal of the statement is to show that you are a student that has a unique personality.
- Meaningful. You need to show that the chosen topic has influenced you significantly. Even if it sounds trivial, your aim is to show its importance for personal growth. But do not try to overstate some experience or events if you cannot explain why it is so important.
- Unique. Your essay topic should catch the attention of the committee and be memorable. So, try to make the ordinary topic interesting and different from the others.
- It should answer the question. Ensure that your topic has a clear answer to the essay prompt.
Compare some qualities of the essay topics to feel the difference between effective and not-working variants.
Tips for Choosing the College Essay Topics
After defining the main qualities of college topics essay ideas that work, it is the right time to make a statement. We prepared a list of the working tips that can help choose a topic for college essay.
Tip 1. Focus on Something Special
If you lack ideas, try an essay topic college brainstorming. Thus, you need to recall a special moment in your life that changes everything. For example, think about the day when you realized what your passion is. Also, it can be a specific event that influenced you a lot and became a huge drive for self-development.
The best essay topics college choice should not be too sophisticated. On the contrary, it is simple and clear for everyone but, at the same time, related to your personal background.
Tip 2. Think About Features That Make Your Stand Out
The next step is to highlight the experience, skills, or qualities that make you stand out from the rest of the applicants. And these will become a nice choice to topic a college essay.
Find something extraordinary about yourself that can impress the admission committee. Remember that they come across hundreds of college essay topics each year. So, if you write something trivial, the admission officers will probably just skip your essay.
Tip 3. Mention Both Positive and Negative Experience
Many students believe that mentioning only accomplishments is the main secret of success. Still, the college topics essay choice should be based on both positive and negative experiences.
While writing about challenges, make sure that you show them in terms of their influence on your personality. Of course, nobody is a perfect candidate, and everyone makes mistakes. So, highlight that you can draw conclusions and make the negative experience your strong side.
Tip 4. Be sincere
Before making a final essay topic college choice, ensure that you are genuine with the admission committee. Firstly, be true to yourself, and it will be transmitted in your writing. Do not pretend to be someone you are not.
Even if you exaggerate your skills and accomplishments, you will not provide clear arguments. Also, it will be hard to show how this experience is related to your personality.
Top 4 Questions to Ask Before Choosing a Topic
One more working tool to define college applications essay topics is answering several questions. To get more ideas for your essay topic, use this list of questions to formulate an effective statement.
Some Prompts for Essay Topic College Brainstorming
Here you can find three main prompts that are useful for brainstorming the topics for college essay. Look through them to find out your strong point to underline in the title.
Thus, you can focus on one of these strengths to tell how your background was valuable for developing some skills and underline your best qualities. Based on the story, you will also topic a college essay depending on the personal statement.
Essay Topics for College Suggestions
There are several essay topics for college that will work for your application. It is possible to divide them into several categories, including:
- Why have you decided to choose this college?
- Topics related to your personal growth;
- Describe your interests, hobbies, or passion;
- Personal stories about how you overcame the challenges;
- Suggestions to solve severe problems.
Here, you will find some prompts of what to put in the college essay topic:
In case you still lack ideas, use this essay topic college list that will always work. Still, remember that you need to discuss a chosen topic in terms of the linkage between your background and the college you’re going to apply for.
Do not forget that a college essay topic, a primary thing that catches a committee’s attention, is a working tool to make your application writing memorable. So, choose wisely.
What Topics You Need To Avoid
The applicants should also know the topics, which are better to avoid. Some students believe that they can become an effective strategy to stick in the memory of the committee. Still, choosing a college essay topic like the following ones can be the main reason for failure. Look through them to know how not to lose a chance for admission.
Too Personal Stories
It is better to avoid topics that contain too personal details about an illness, disability, etc. Even if you decide to tell about this experience, remember that your story should be in the context of how you overcame this issue and what skills you’ve gained.
When you choose such an essay topic for college, remember that you will never know how the admission officer will react to your opinion. Of course, the committee tries to be objective. But if you write about something too sensitive, your strong opposition to some social or political issues can leave a negative impression.
In some cases, it will work. But everything depends on the college and a chosen program. For instance, if you are going to apply for a business college, an application essay in the form of a poem or stream of consciousness will rather confuse than impress the admission committee.
Need help? Check out EssayEdge editing services:
Common College Topics Essay Analysis (2021-2022)
This year, students preferred the college topics essay prompts referring to personal growth, overcoming obstacles, and solving global challenges. In addition, many of the applicants decided to share their hobbies and interests that became their main passion.
Typical Essay Topics College Prompts
The most common college topics essay questions of 2021-2022 included the following ones:
- Some applicants have interests and hobbies related to the college program so strongly that their application will be incomplete without them. Is it related to you or not? If yes, tell us why.
- Have you ever experienced a situation that challenged your strong belief in something or someone? Describe the situation and its outcomes.
- Discuss an event that boosted your personal growth and changed your perception of yourself.
- Reflect on someone who made you happy or grateful. Tell us how this feeling influenced or even motivated you.
- Based on the chosen topics, write college essay responding to one of these prompts.
To sum up, when choosing the best topic, you need to rely on your personality and background. If you have some doubts, you can always get back to our review and try several strategies to improve your topic. We hope that choosing a college essay topic won’t be a problem for you anymore.
Choosing the proper topic for your essay defines the success of your writing. Remember the golden rule: be aware of the topic you’re writing about and ensure it’s up-to-date. Here at EssayEdge, we regularly edit college essays and know the most widespread mistakes our clients make. Send your paper to us if you want to test our skills.
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How to Make Your Admission Essay Memorable
- Post author By Ahmed Mohamed
- Post date November 2, 2023
Most learning institutions analyze high school grades, ACT and SAT scores, and extracurricular activities when assessing student’s admission credentials. However, recent admission committees are adopting the ‘test-blind’ to add more weight to the application process.
What does this mean for applicants? It means you must dig deeper into your writing skills to bring out an authentic and well-thought-out essay.
The admission committee sorts through thousands of applications. Hence, standing out from the rest and leaving an impression takes effort. There’s much more to reveal to the admission committee than your test scores.
This post underlines the importance of crafting a stellar admission essay that evokes emotions for your audience.
What Is Important?
Part of your college application process involves delivering an essay that describes your persona. It is an opportunity for any applicant to showcase a different side to themselves far from their GPAs and test scores.
It gives the admission committee a glimpse into the applicant’s aspirations, objectives, and goals. An applicant must showcase their fortitude towards undertaking the applied course for study.
The content depends on the question posed by the admission committee. Most prompts involve divulging information about one’s past experiences. What drives you? What do you hope to achieve? Why choose this specific school?
These are some important questions an applicant must answer to the admission committee. Also, the admission committee likes it when applicants actively participate in the community. Remember to mention your work at the children’s home or community shelter for bonus points.
Professional Strategies to Employ
The high level of competition for application spots at the institution makes the writing process nervy. Here are professional tips from experts to carve a name for yourself with the admission committee:
Generic responses often bore the admission committee. They need something new and exciting that reflects their true self. Inauthenticity could be using overly flowery language with fluff that irritates your audience.
Choose an interesting subject about your life and naturally bring out experiences and how they shaped your current self. Ensure to highlight pan points that showcase your strengths and be vulnerable to note your weaknesses.
2. Attention-Grabbing Statements
The admission committee is probably accustomed to reading similar essays from other applicants. Take time to grab their attention within the first few sentences. Start with a bold statement or a quote that invokes curiosity.
Start with a clear and precise thesis statement that guides the rest of the essay. For storytelling purposes, start with an intro that naturally flows with the main agenda behind the writing.
Stay calm while trying to grab the attention. Could you keep it simple but unique? A good and solid introductory part will entice the reader to finish the rest of the document.
3. Be Unique
Imagine a thousand applicants thinking similarly about how to approach this essay. It means a thousand applications with similarities. It means your chances of acceptance get lower than expected.
Rather, try a unique approach to answering prompts. Adopt a new perspective on how to view the assignment on hand. Most applicants will choose to glorify their past life experiences and how they molded them. What about speaking about your losses and how they changed you?
The element of surprise is a rare talent most writers don’t possess. You can buy research papers online to find unique ways top writers like J.K Rowling, Leo Tolstoy, and Neil Gaiman brought out the element of surprise when reading a piece.
4. Avoid Common Themes and Topics
Over the years, most applicants have eaten into similar topics to get into the good books of the admission committee. Some exhausted topics and themes overly used include sports, immigration, obstacles/success, and volunteer stories.
It’s about more than avoiding these themes while writing completely. Moreover, it’s about avoiding the same trajectory used in these themes to drive home the message.
For example, facing life challenges such as poverty at a young age and growing up intending to change the scenario seems a sad topic. However, it’s a rerun strategy most applicants employ many times.
5. Keep the Reader in Mind
Often, we get so engrossed with our writing that we need to remember our intended audience. Picture an admission board seated on a panel sorting through thousands of applications with tight deadlines. Picture the pressure they face turning down prospective applicants based on their writing.
It gives you an in-depth look at the intense vetting process the board goes through. Hence, make it easy for the board by ticking all the expected boxes within the application. Answer the prompt correctly, and edit for any grammatical or spelling errors.
Literary Devices to Add to Your Document
One new technique to freshen up your document is the addition of literary devices. Literary devices attract your readers and catch their attention. Here are some popular literary devices to include in your essay:
Symbolism is the usage of abstract concepts or objects to represent ideas. Adopt symbolism in your essay to represent the essay’s main theme. These symbols help in conveying your main message to your readers.
Flashbacks are essential in transporting your reader from the present mode to past events. It helps the admission committee better understand yourself and your current personality. It helps them gauge your personal goals, motives, and objectives.
Incorporating dialogue into your essay creates a sense of suspense while transporting your main message within the essay. Adopt the technique strategically and avoid coming off redundant. Make it precise and ensure it fits the context within the application process.
Quotes are essential to catch your readers’ attention, especially during the introductory sentences. Use famous quotes from important people in your life. It can be idols, family, or friends. Make it powerful, original, and blend with the context of the document. However, avoid going overboard with overquoting.
The fear of failure often limits our creativity. Therefore, don’t think about the possible outcomes after sending your application. Countercheck each parameter and ensure you put your best foot forward. Other opportunities are available, which should encourage you to try again.
November 8, 2023
This article has been reviewed according to Science X's editorial process and policies . Editors have highlighted the following attributes while ensuring the content's credibility:
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College of Law
Advancing Environmental Law in Iowa
As Josh Mandelbaum (09JD) likes to say, “Iowa could be the state that gets to 100% clean energy around the clock.”
Mandelbaum, a Des Moines-based senior attorney with the Environmental Law and Policy Center, is referring to the potential of the state’s substantial, and complementary, wind and solar resources to provide 24/7 green electrical power generation. And as a longtime practitioner of environmental law, he knows that the accomplishment of such a goal and other environmental solutions require the collaboration of people from different disciplines, organizations, and viewpoints.
In part, that realization has led Mandelbaum to actively participate in the collaboration-building events organized as part of Iowa Law’s Hubbell Environmental Law Initiative (HELI).
“The Hubbell Initiative has been an important opportunity for stakeholders to exchange information, talk about solutions, and explore how folks can better collaborate to work toward common goals,” Mandelbaum said, explaining that he has engaged in multiple conversations about how HELI can help advance the field of environmental law. He has also attended a number of related events and was an expert panelist at the Solar Energy in Iowa event.
“I’ve used my participation as both a learning opportunity and a networking opportunity,” he said.
The Hubbell Initiative was established in early 2022 to expand opportunities for Iowa Law to intensify multidisciplinary engagement on environmental issues. The initiative was created with a $5 million gift from Charlotte Beyer Hubbell (76JD) and Fred Hubbell (76JD) with an explicit focus on helping their home state of Iowa by addressing the state’s main environmental problems. Water quality is a major problem in the state, mostly related to agricultural runoff, and despite the state’s embrace of wind energy, much electricity generation is still provided by inefficient, polluting coal-burning power plants.
“We face a water-quality crisis; we face a climate crisis. The climate crisis is obviously bigger than the state of Iowa, but the solutions can absolutely be found in Iowa, and the local impacts are found here, too,” said Mandelbaum.
Promoting Increased Engagement
In HELI’s first year, Shannon Roesler, faculty director of the initiative, said it sponsored events focused on such topics as solar energy, carbon pipelines, climate change, and biodiversity. Those events invited wide-ranging perspectives on the issues, such as those coming from policy experts, academics, industry representatives, landowners, and environmentalists.
“In addition to enriching our students’ academic experiences, these discussions engaged people from across campus and the wider community,” Roesler said.
Roesler said that HELI has also expanded connections between students and alumni who practice environmental law, established more externship and internship opportunities, and awarded funding to students in unpaid environmental law internships at governmental agencies or nonprofits.
“There is a growing demand in the area of environmental law at the College of Law, and HELI is helping us meet that demand,” Roesler said.
This fall, HELI program director Blake Rupe said HELI and the Iowa State Bar Association will host an environmental law seminar in Des Moines and Iowa City.
“This will serve to unite the environmental bar, as well as offer Iowa Law students a chance to network and connect with practitioners and thought leaders.”
For Amanda De Jong (05JD), farmer and head of government affairs and policy engagement at Pivot Bio, a microbial nitrogen fertilizer company, HELI’s facilitation of collaborative efforts on environmental issues is crucial.
“This is one, if not the most, important thing that HELI can contribute. In the hyper-politicized and almost angry societal environment we find ourselves in, creating a space where different viewpoints can be heard on really tough issues is critical,” De Jong said. “Building a fair and open-minded group can alleviate some of these challenges.
“HELI can be a great conveyor and the right neutral party to be a facilitator,” said De Jong, who served as the state executive director of the Iowa Farm Service Agency from 2017 to 2020. “If we can learn anything from the implementation of the Clean Water Act or the Endangered Species Act, it’s that building consensus early and finding a way for the parties to work together can result in solutions being implemented earlier.”
Engaging and Encouraging Diverse Perspectives
Leo Tyree (05JD), associate regional counsel at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, has worked with Iowa Law, and more recently with the Hubbell Initiative, since 2020. Through that interaction, Tyree focused on developing programming, providing mentorship opportunities, and preparing and recruiting Iowa Law students for federal internships, clerkships, fellowships, and other legal positions.
“The goal is to increase community engagement on these issues by introducing the growing field of environmental law to students, providing real-world learning opportunities to students who have a demonstrated interest, and connecting students with some of the foremost legal experts in the field,” Tyree said.
Tyree also sees the collaboration with HELI as a way to make sure that members of underserved and traditionally marginalized communities participate in conversations about the environment, particularly as those communities are often hardest hit by environmental problems.
“In order to make the best decisions,” Tyree said, “everyone has to have equal opportunity to be heard, including individuals from impacted rural and urban communities.”
Of course, one way to diversify participation in discussions about environmental issues is to make sure that future lawyers and policymakers represent a diverse population themselves.
“In my work with Iowa Law and HELI, we’re trying to make sure that law students understand emerging legal issues and are prepared to engage with them in practice. Iowa Law has been very supportive in developing and expanding career pathways for first-generation and diverse students,” Tyree said.
The most urgent environmental problems and their solutions must bring together representatives of the public, industry, activists, government, and the law. Iowa Law, through HELI, is orchestrating some of that confluence to ensure environmental initiatives get the broadest input possible and create an efficient space to smooth out difficult conflicts.
As Mandelbaum pointed out, “It’s always helpful for folks to sit down together.”
Solar Policy Panel Series
The Hubbell Environmental Law Initiative publicly launched with a solar energy event, convening policy experts, researchers, industry members, public employees, and nonprofit organization representatives.
The series of panels, which was hosted at the Boyd Law Building, featured 17 speakers from seven different counties across two states. More than 300 attendees (195 in person and 129 virtually) heard about specific challenges to implementing solar energy.
Event recordings are available at law.uiowa.edu/hubbellsolar .
Support for Tomorrow’s Environmental Lawyers
Hubbell Scholarships enable students to gain invaluable experience
Two recipients of Hubbell Scholarships, Alec Goos and Jonathan Humston, now second-year students at Iowa Law, worked as law clerks at the Iowa Environmental Council (IEC) in Des Moines this past summer. The Hubbell Initiative provides stipends of $5,000 to students interested in environmental law to support them in unpaid positions at government agencies or nonprofits. The funding is part of their admission package and is intended to be used the summer after their first year of law school.
Goos says he was able to work on substantive matters right away at IEC and received extensive support.
“This guidance has allowed me to explore my interests and understand my goals,” Goos said. “I am grateful to work with such a dedicated team that is committed to protecting Iowa’s environment because this advocacy will influence me for the rest of my career.”
Humston says he plans to practice in Iowa because he is committed to helping the people and communities of the state.
“Receiving a Hubbell Scholarship has allowed me to start that work,” Humston said. “I’ve learned about many environmental issues we face and met many of the people and organizations making an impact in this space. The Hubbell Scholarship helped show me the many ways a lawyer can make a difference in the environmental future of Iowa.”