List Of Common College Essay Questions

The personal statement might just be the hardest part of your college application. Mostly this is because it has the least guidance and is the most open-ended. One way to understand what colleges are looking for when they ask you to write an essay is to check out the essays of students who already got in—college essays that actually worked. After all, they must be among the most successful of this weird literary genre.

In this article, I’ll go through general guidelines for what makes great college essays great. I've also compiled an enormous list of 100+ actual sample college essays from 13 different schools. Finally, I’ll break down two of these published college essay examples and explain why and how they work. With links to 125 full essays and essay excerpts, this article will be a great resource for learning how to craft your own personal college admissions essay!

 

What Excellent College Essays Have in Common

Even though in many ways these sample college essays are very different from one other, they do share some traits you should try to emulate as you write your own essay.

 

Visible Signs of Planning

Building out from a narrow, concrete focus. You’ll see a similar structure in many of the essays. The author starts with a very detailed story of an event or description of a person or place. After this sense-heavy imagery, the essay expands out to make a broader point about the author, and connects this very memorable experience to the author’s present situation, state of mind, newfound understanding, or maturity level.

Knowing how to tell a story. Some of the experiences in these essays are one-of-a-kind. But most deal with the stuff of everyday life. What sets them apart is the way the author approaches the topic: analyzing it for drama and humor, for its moving qualities, for what it says about the author’s world, and for how it connects to the author’s emotional life.

 

Stellar Execution

A killer first sentence. You’ve heard it before, and you’ll hear it again: you have to suck the reader in, and the best place to do that is the first sentence. Great first sentences are punchy. They are like cliffhangers, setting up an exciting scene or an unusual situation with an unclear conclusion, in order to make the reader want to know more. Don’t take my word for it—check out these 22 first sentences from Stanford applicants and tell me you don’t want to read the rest of those essays to find out what happens!

A lively, individual voice. Writing is for readers. In this case, your reader is an admissions officer who has read thousands of essays before yours and will read thousands after. Your goal? Don’t bore your reader. Use interesting descriptions, stay away from clichés, include your own offbeat observations—anything that makes this essay sounds like you and not like anyone else.

 

Enchanted Prince Stan decided to stay away from any frog-kissing princesses to retain his unique perspective on ruling as an amphibian.

 

Technical correctness. No spelling mistakes, no grammar weirdness, no syntax issues, no punctuation snafus—each of these sample college essays has been formatted and proofread perfectly. If this kind of exactness is not your strong suit, you’re in luck! All colleges advise applicants to have their essays looked over several times by parents, teachers, mentors, and anyone else who can spot a comma splice. Your essay must be your own work, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with getting help polishing it.

 

Links to Full College Essay Examples

Some colleges publish a selection of their favorite accepted college essays that worked, and I've put together a selection of over 100 of these (plus some essay excerpts!).

 

Common App Essay Samples

Please note that some of these college essay examples may be responding to prompts that are no longer in use. The current Common App prompts are as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Carleton College

 

Connecticut College

 

Hamilton College

 

Johns Hopkins

These essays are answers to past prompts from either the Common Application or the Universal Application, both of which Johns Hopkins accepts.

 

Tufts University

 

Essay Examples Published by Other Websites

  • 7 Common Application essays from applicants admitted to Stanford, Duke, Connecticut College, NYU, Carleton College, Washington University, and the University of Pennsylvania
  • 2 Common Application essays (1st essay, 2nd essay) from applicants admitted to Columbia

 

Other Sample College Essays

Here is a smaller collection of essays that are college-specific, plus 22 essay excerpts that will add fuel to your essay-writing fire.

 

Smith College

Each year, Smith asks its applicants to answer a different prompt with a 200-word essay. Here are six of these short essays answering the 2014 prompt: "Tell us about the best gift you’ve ever given or received."

 

Tufts University

On top of the Common Application essays students submit, Tufts asks applicants to answer three short essay questions: two mandatory, and one chosen from six prompts.

 

University of Chicago

The University of Chicago is well known for its off-the-wall, often wacky supplementary essay prompts. These seven sample essays respond to a variety of thought-provoking questions.


 

Analyzing Great Common App Essays That Worked

I've picked two essays from the examples collected above to examine in more depth so that you can see exactly what makes a successful college essay work. Full credit for these essays goes to the original authors and the schools that published them.

 

Example #1: "Breaking Into Cars," by Stephen, Johns Hopkins Class of '19  (Common App Essay, 636 words long)

I had never broken into a car before.

We were in Laredo, having just finished our first day at a Habitat for Humanity work site. The Hotchkiss volunteers had already left, off to enjoy some Texas BBQ, leaving me behind with the college kids to clean up. Not until we were stranded did we realize we were locked out of the van.

Someone picked a coat hanger out of the dumpster, handed it to me, and took a few steps back.

“Can you do that thing with a coat hanger to unlock it?”

“Why me?” I thought.

More out of amusement than optimism, I gave it a try. I slid the hanger into the window’s seal like I’d seen on crime shows, and spent a few minutes jiggling the apparatus around the inside of the frame. Suddenly, two things simultaneously clicked. One was the lock on the door. (I actually succeeded in springing it.) The other was the realization that I’d been in this type of situation before. In fact, I’d been born into this type of situation.

My upbringing has numbed me to unpredictability and chaos. With a family of seven, my home was loud, messy, and spottily supervised. My siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing—all meant my house was functioning normally. My Dad, a retired Navy pilot, was away half the time. When he was home, he had a parenting style something like a drill sergeant. At the age of nine, I learned how to clear burning oil from the surface of water. My Dad considered this a critical life skill—you know, in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed. “The water’s on fire! Clear a hole!” he shouted, tossing me in the lake without warning. While I’m still unconvinced about that particular lesson’s practicality, my Dad’s overarching message is unequivocally true: much of life is unexpected, and you have to deal with the twists and turns.

Living in my family, days rarely unfolded as planned. A bit overlooked, a little pushed around, I learned to roll with reality, negotiate a quick deal, and give the improbable a try. I don’t sweat the small stuff, and I definitely don’t expect perfect fairness. So what if our dining room table only has six chairs for seven people? Someone learns the importance of punctuality every night.

But more than punctuality and a special affinity for musical chairs, my family life has taught me to thrive in situations over which I have no power. Growing up, I never controlled my older siblings, but I learned how to thwart their attempts to control me. I forged alliances, and realigned them as necessary. Sometimes, I was the poor, defenseless little brother; sometimes I was the omniscient elder. Different things to different people, as the situation demanded. I learned to adapt.

Back then, these techniques were merely reactions undertaken to ensure my survival. But one day this fall, Dr. Hicks, our Head of School, asked me a question that he hoped all seniors would reflect on throughout the year: “How can I participate in a thing I do not govern, in the company of people I did not choose?”

The question caught me off guard, much like the question posed to me in Laredo. Then, I realized I knew the answer. I knew why the coat hanger had been handed to me.

Growing up as the middle child in my family, I was a vital participant in a thing I did not govern, in the company of people I did not choose. It’s family. It’s society. And often, it’s chaos. You participate by letting go of the small stuff, not expecting order and perfection, and facing the unexpected with confidence, optimism, and preparedness. My family experience taught me to face a serendipitous world with confidence.

 

What Makes This Essay Tick?

It's very helpful to take writing apart in order to see just how it accomplishes its objectives. Stephen's essay is very effective. Let's find out why!

 

An Opening Line That Draws You In

I had never broken into a car before.

In just eight words, we get: scene-setting (he is standing next to a car about to break in), the idea of crossing a boundary (he is maybe about to do an illegal thing for the first time), and a cliffhanger (we are thinking: is he going to get caught? Is he headed for a life of crime? Is he about to be scared straight?).

 

Great, Detailed Opening Story

We were in Laredo, having just finished our first day at a Habitat for Humanity work site. The Hotchkiss volunteers had already left, off to enjoy some Texas BBQ, leaving me behind with the college kids to clean up. Not until we were stranded did we realize we were locked out of the van.

Someone picked a coat hanger out of the dumpster, handed it to me, and took a few steps back.

“Can you do that thing with a coat hanger to unlock it?”

“Why me?” I thought.

More out of amusement than optimism, I gave it a try. I slid the hanger into the window’s seal like I’d seen on crime shows, and spent a few minutes jiggling the apparatus around the inside of the frame.

It’s the details that really make this small experience come alive. Notice how whenever he can, Stephen uses a more specific, descriptive word in place of a more generic one. The volunteers aren’t going to get food or dinner; they’re going for “Texas BBQ.” The coat hanger comes from “a dumpster.” Stephen doesn’t just move the coat hanger—he “jiggles” it.

Details also help us visualize the emotions of the people in the scene. The person who hands Stephen the coat hanger isn’t just uncomfortable or nervous; he “takes a few steps back”—a description of movement that conveys feelings. Finally, the detail of actual speech makes the scene pop. Instead of writing that the other guy asked him to unlock the van, Stephen has the guy actually say his own words in a way that sounds like a teenager talking.

 

Coat hangers: not just for crows' nests anymore! (Götz/Wikimedia)

 

Turning a Specific Incident Into a Deeper Insight

Suddenly, two things simultaneously clicked. One was the lock on the door. (I actually succeeded in springing it.) The other was the realization that I’d been in this type of situation before. In fact, I’d been born into this type of situation.

Stephen makes the locked car experience a meaningful illustration of how he has learned to be resourceful and ready for anything, and he also makes this turn from the specific to the broad through an elegant play on the two meanings of the word “click.”

 

Using Concrete Examples When Making Abstract Claims

My upbringing has numbed me to unpredictability and chaos. With a family of seven, my home was loud, messy, and spottily supervised. My siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing—all meant my house was functioning normally.

“Unpredictability and chaos” are very abstract, not easily visualized concepts. They could also mean any number of things—violence, abandonment, poverty, mental instability. By instantly following up with highly finite and unambiguous illustrations like “family of seven” and “siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing,” Stephen grounds the abstraction in something that is easy to picture: a large, noisy family.

 

Using Small Bits of Humor and Casual Word Choice

My Dad, a retired Navy pilot, was away half the time. When he was home, he had a parenting style something like a drill sergeant. At the age of nine, I learned how to clear burning oil from the surface of water. My Dad considered this a critical life skill—you know, in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed.

Obviously, knowing how to clean burning oil is not high on the list of things every 9-year-old needs to know. To emphasize this, Stephen uses sarcasm by bringing up a situation that is clearly over-the-top: “in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed.”

The humor also feels relaxed. Part of this is because he introduces it with the colloquial phrase “you know,” so it sounds like he is talking to us in person. This approach also diffuses the potential discomfort of the reader with his father’s strictness—since he is making jokes about it, clearly he is OK. Notice, though, that this doesn’t occur very much in the essay. This helps keep the tone meaningful and serious rather than flippant.

 

"Mr. President? There's been an oil spill!" "Then I want our best elementary school students on it, STAT."

 

An Ending That Stretches the Insight Into the Future

But one day this fall, Dr. Hicks, our Head of School, asked me a question that he hoped all seniors would reflect on throughout the year: “How can I participate in a thing I do not govern, in the company of people I did not choose?”

The question caught me off guard, much like the question posed to me in Laredo. Then, I realized I knew the answer. I knew why the coat hanger had been handed to me.

Growing up as the middle child in my family, I was a vital participant in a thing I did not govern, in the company of people I did not choose. It’s family. It’s society. And often, it’s chaos. You participate by letting go of the small stuff, not expecting order and perfection, and facing the unexpected with confidence, optimism, and preparedness. My family experience taught me to face a serendipitous world with confidence.

The ending of the essay reveals that Stephen’s life has been one long preparation for the future. He has emerged from chaos and his dad’s approach to parenting as a person who can thrive in a world that he can’t control.

This connection of past experience to current maturity and self-knowledge is a key element in all successful personal essays. Colleges are very much looking for mature, self-aware applicants. These are the qualities of successful college students, who will be able to navigate the independence college classes require and the responsibility and quasi-adulthood of college life.

 

What Could This Essay Do Even Better?

Even the best essays aren't perfect, and even the world's greatest writers will tell you that writing is never "finished"—just "due." So what would we tweak in this essay if we could? 

Replace some of the clichéd language. Stephen uses handy phrases like "twists and turns" and "don’t sweat the small stuff" as a kind of shorthand for explaining his relationship to chaos and unpredictability. But using too many of these ready-made expressions runs the risk of clouding out your own voice and replacing it with something expected and boring. 

Use another example from recent life. Stephen's first example (breaking into the van in Laredo) is a great illustration of being resourceful in an unexpected situation. But his essay also emphasizes that he "learned to adapt" by being "different things to different people." It would be great to see how this plays out outside his family, either in the situation in Laredo or another context.

 

Example #2: By Bridget Collins, Tufts Class of '19 (Common App Essay, 608 words long)

I have always loved riding in cars. After a long day in first grade, I used to fall asleep to the engine purring in my mother's Honda Odyssey, even though it was only a 5-minute drive home. As I grew, and graduated into the shotgun seat, it became natural and enjoyable to look out the window. Seeing my world passing by through that smudged glass, I would daydream what I could do with it.

In elementary school, I already knew my career path: I was going to be Emperor of the World. While I sat in the car and watched the miles pass by, I developed the plan for my empire. I reasoned that, for the world to run smoothly, it would have to look presentable. I would assign people, aptly named Fixer-Uppers, to fix everything that needed fixing. That old man down the street with chipping paint on his house would have a fresh coat in no time. The boy who accidentally tossed his Frisbee onto the roof of the school would get it back. The big pothole on Elm Street that my mother managed to hit every single day on the way to school would be filled-in. It made perfect sense! All the people that didn't have a job could be Fixer-Uppers. I was like a ten-year-old FDR.

Seven years down the road, I still take a second glance at the sidewalk cracks and think of my Fixer-Uppers, but now I'm doing so from the driver's seat. As much as I would enjoy it, I now accept that I won't become Emperor of the World, and that the Fixer-Uppers will have to remain in my car ride imaginings. Or do they? I always pictured a Fixer-Upper as a smiling man in an orange T-Shirt. Maybe instead, a Fixer-Upper could be a tall girl with a deep love for Yankee Candles. Maybe it could be me.

Bridget the Fixer-Upper will be slightly different than the imaginary one who paints houses and fetches Frisbees. I was lucky enough to discover what I am passionate about when I was a freshman in high school. A self-admitted Phys. Ed. addict, I volunteered to help out with the Adapted PE class. On my first day, I learned that it was for developmentally-disabled students. To be honest, I was really nervous. I hadn't had too much interaction with special needs students before, and wasn't sure how to handle myself around them. Long story short, I got hooked. Three years have passed helping out in APE and eventually becoming a teacher in the Applied Behavior Analysis summer program. I love working with the students and watching them progress.

When senior year arrived, college meetings began, and my counselor asked me what I wanted to do for a career, I didn't say Emperor of the World. Instead, I told him I wanted to become a board-certified behavior analyst. A BCBA helps develop learning plans for students with autism and other disabilities. Basically, I would get to do what I love for the rest of my life. He laughed and told me that it was a nice change that a seventeen-year-old knew so specifically what she wanted to do. I smiled, thanked him, and left. But it occurred to me that, while my desired occupation was decided, my true goal in life was still to become a Fixer-Upper. So, maybe I'll be like Sue Storm and her alter-ego, the Invisible Woman. I'll do one thing during the day, then spend my off-hours helping people where I can. Instead of flying like Sue, though, I'll opt for a nice performance automobile. My childhood self would appreciate that.

 

What Makes This Essay Tick?

Bridget takes a somewhat different approach than Stephen, but her essay is just as detailed and engaging. Let's go through some of the strengths of her essay.

 

A Structure That’s Easy to Follow and Understand

The essay is arranged chronologically. Bridget starts each paragraph with a clear signpost of where we are in time:

  • Paragraph 1: “after a long day in first grade”
  • Paragraph 2: “in elementary school”
  • Paragraph 3: “seven years down the road”
  • Paragraph 4: “when I was a freshman in high school”
  • Paragraph 5: “when senior year arrived”

This keeps the reader oriented without being distracting or gimmicky.

 

One Clear Governing Metaphor

I would assign people, aptly named Fixer-Uppers, to fix everything that needed fixing. That old man down the street with chipping paint on his house would have a fresh coat in no time. The boy who accidentally tossed his Frisbee onto the roof of the school would get it back.

Seven years down the road, I still take a second glance at the sidewalk cracks and think of my Fixer-Uppers, but now I'm doing so from the driver's seat. As much as I would enjoy it, I now accept that I won't become Emperor of the World, and that the Fixer-Uppers will have to remain in my car ride imaginings. Or do they? I always pictured a Fixer-Upper as a smiling man in an orange T-Shirt. Maybe instead, a Fixer-Upper could be a tall girl with a deep love for Yankee Candles. Maybe it could be me.

I wanted to become a board-certified behavior analyst. A BCBA helps develop learning plans for students with autism and other disabilities. Basically, I would get to do what I love for the rest of my life. …But it occurred to me that, while my desired occupation was decided, my true goal in life was still to become a Fixer-Upper.

What makes this essay fun to read is that Bridget takes a child’s idea of a world made better through quasi-magical helpers and turns it into a metaphor for the author’s future aspirations. It helps that the metaphor is a very clear one: people who work with students with disabilities are making the world better one abstract fix at a time, just like imaginary Fixer-Uppers would make the world better one concrete physical fix at a time.

 

Every childhood Fixer-Upper ever. Ask your parents to explain the back row to you. (JD Hancock/Flickr)

 

An Engaging, Individual Voice

This essay uses many techniques that make Bridget sound genuine and make the reader feel like we already know her. 

Technique #1: humor. Notice Bridget's gentle and relaxed humor that lightly mocks her younger self’s grand ambitions (this is different from the more sarcastic kind of humor used by Stephen in the first essay—you could never mistake one writer for the other).

In elementary school, I already knew my career path: I was going to be Emperor of the World.

I was like a ten-year-old FDR.

Technique #2: invented terminology. The second technique is the way Bridget coins her own terms, carrying them through the whole essay. It would be easy enough to simply describe the people she imagined in childhood as helpers or assistants, and to simply say that as a child she wanted to rule the world. Instead, she invents the capitalized (and thus official-sounding) titles “Fixer-Upper” and “Emperor of the World,” making these childish conceits at once charming and iconic. What's also key is that the titles feed into the central metaphor of the essay, which keeps them from sounding like strange quirks that don’t go anywhere.

Technique #3: playing with syntax. The third technique is to use sentences of varying length, syntax, and structure. Most of the essay's written in standard English and uses grammatically correct sentences. However, at key moments, Bridget emphasizes that the reader needs to sit up and pay attention by switching to short, colloquial, differently punctuated, and sometimes fragmented sentences.

The big pothole on Elm Street that my mother managed to hit every single day on the way to school would be filled-in. It made perfect sense! All the people that didn't have a job could be Fixer-Uppers.

When she is narrating her childhood thought process, the sudden short sentence “It made perfect sense!” (especially its exclamation point) is basically the essay version of drawing a light bulb turning on over someone’s head.

As much as I would enjoy it, I now accept that I won't become Emperor of the World, and that the Fixer-Uppers will have to remain in my car ride imaginings. Or do they?

Similarly, when the essay turns from her childhood imagination to her present-day aspirations, the turn is marked with “Or do they?”—a tiny and arresting half-sentence question.

Maybe instead, a Fixer-Upper could be a tall girl with a deep love for Yankee Candles. Maybe it could be me.

The first time when the comparison between magical fixer-upper’s and the future disability specialist is made is when Bridget turns her metaphor onto herself. The essay emphasizes the importance of the moment through repetition (two sentences structured similarly, both starting with the word “maybe”) and the use of a very short sentence: “Maybe it could be me.”

To be honest, I was really nervous. I hadn't had too much interaction with special needs students before, and wasn't sure how to handle myself around them. Long story short, I got hooked.

The last key moment that gets the small-sentence treatment is the emotional crux of the essay. As we watch Bridget go from nervously trying to help disabled students to falling in love with this specialty field, she undercuts the potential sappiness of the moment by relying on changed-up sentence length and slang: “Long story short, I got hooked.”

 


The best essays convey emotions just as clearly as this image.

 

What Could This Essay Do Even Better?

Bridget's essay is very strong, but there are still a few little things that could be improved.

Explain the car connection better. The essay begins and ends with Bridget's enjoying a car ride, but this doesn't seem to be related either to the Fixer-Upper idea or to her passion for working with special-needs students. It would be great to either connect this into the essay more, or to take it out altogether and create more space for something else.

Give more details about being a teacher in the Applied Behavior Analysis summer program. It makes perfect sense that Bridget doesn't want to put her students on display. It would take the focus off of her and possibly read as offensive or condescending. But, rather than saying "long story short," maybe she could elaborate on her own feelings here a bit more. What is it about this kind of teaching that she loves? What is she hoping to bring to the lives of her future clients?

 

3 Essential Tips for Writing Your Own Essay

How can you use this discussion to better your own college essay? Here are some suggestions for ways to use this resource effectively.

 

#1: Read Other Essays to Get Ideas for Your Own

As you go through the essays we've compiled for you above, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Can you explain to yourself (or someone else!) why the opening sentence works well?
  • Look for the essay's detailed personal anecdote. What senses is the author describing? Can you easily picture the scene in your mind's eye?
  • Find the place where this anecdote bridges into a larger insight about the author. How does the essay connect the two? How does the anecdote work as an example of the author's characteristic, trait, or skill?
  • Check out the essay's tone. If it's funny, can you find the places where the humor comes from? If it's sad and moving, can you find the imagery and description of feelings that make you moved? If it's serious, can you see how word choice adds to this tone?

Make a note whenever you find an essay or part of an essay that you think was particularly well-written, and think about what you like about it. Is it funny? Does it help you really get to know the writer? Does it show what makes the writer unique? Once you have your list, keep it next to you while writing your essay to remind yourself to try and use those same techniques in your own essay.

 

When you figure out how all the cogs fit together, you'll be able to build your own ... um ... whatever this is.

 

#2: Find Your "A-Ha!" Moment

All of these essays rely on connecting with the reader through a heartfelt, highly descriptive scene from the author's life. It can either be very dramatic (did you survive a plane crash?) or it can be completely mundane (did you finally beat your dad at Scrabble?). Either way, it should be personal and revealing about you, your personality, and the way you are now that you are entering the adult world.

 

#3: Start Early, Revise Often

Let me level with you: the best writing isn't writing at all. It's rewriting. And in order to have time to rewrite, you have to start way before the application deadline. My advice is to write your first draft at least two months before your applications are due.

Let it sit for a few days untouched. Then come back to it with fresh eyes and think critically about what you've written. What's extra? What's missing? What is in the wrong place? What doesn't make sense? Don't be afraid to take it apart and rearrange sections. Do this several times over, and your essay will be much better for it!

 

What’s Next?

Interested in learning more about college essays? Check out our detailed breakdown of exactly how personal statements work in an application, some suggestions on what to avoid when writing your essay, and our guide to writing about your extracurricular activities.

Working on the rest of your application? Read what admissions officers wish applicants knew before applying.

 

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

 

When talking about college essays, we tend to focus on the Common Application prompts, and it's true that many students will need to write a Common App essay. However, there are actually quite a few schools, including both public and private universities, that don't use the Common App and instead ask applicants to respond to their own college essay prompts.

Luckily, college essay prompts tend to be pretty similar to each other. In this guide, I'll list all of the college essay questions for popular schools in the US (and a few abroad) and then break down the patterns to help you brainstorm topics and plan how to approach multiple essays efficiently. After reading this guide, you'll be able to strategize which essays you'll write for which colleges.

Feature image: Mary/Flickr 

 

Why Do Colleges Ask For an Essay?

The short answer: the essay gives admissions committees a sense of your personality beyond the statistics on the rest of your application. The essay is your chance to show the committee your unique perspective and impress them with your maturity and insight.

College application essay prompts are written with this goal in mind. Admissions officers want to give you the chance to share your interests, aspirations, and views on the world, so most prompts ask about how your experiences have shaped you or what you're excited about studying or doing in college. I've collected a ton of examples below and provided some analysis to help you begin planning and crafting your own essays.

Keep in mind that the personal statement alone won’t be enough to get you in—your grades and test scores are still the most important factors in your application. However, a stellar essay can help a borderline applicant over the top or give an excellent but not extraordinary student the opportunity to stand out in a competitive applicant pool.

As such, the essay tends to matter most for very competitive schools. Non-competitive schools generally don’t ask you to submit an essay.

 

Complete List of College Essay Prompts

This list collects the 2017 college essay prompts for major state universities and all top-fifty private school, plus those for other popular schools. They are divided by region, with all optional essays listed at the end.

I left off the Common App supplements, since those often require a substantially different approach. I also stuck to four-year schools, meaning that I didn't include special two year programs like Deep Springs College and Miami Dade College’s Honors Program that require essays.

Finally, note that these prompts are for freshman applicants. The requirements may be different for transfer students.

 

General Applications

There are three general applications that you can use to apply to many different schools at once: the Common Application, the Universal College Application, and Coalition Application. Each has their own personal statement requirement. Some schools will ask for additional supplemental essays.

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

 

Common Application

For the Common App essay, you pick one of the prompts and write 250 - 650 words about it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Universal College Application

The UCA essay prompt is completely open-ended and has a 650 word limit.

Please write an essay that demonstrates your ability to develop and communicate your thoughts. Some ideas include: a person you admire; a life-changing experience; or your viewpoint on a particular current event.

 

The Coalition Application

For the Coalition Application, you'll pick one of five prompts listed below. While there is no hard word limit, the range guidelines are 300-550 words. 

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

Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.

Has there been a time when you’ve had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?

What is the hardest part of being a teenager now? What’s the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?

Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.

 

Northeast/Mid-Atlantic

The Great Dome at MIT

 

Georgetown University

Georgetown asks applicants to write two essays of roughly one page each. Each applicant must respond to the first prompt but will choose between the other two based on the specific program she's interested in.

All applicants: As Georgetown is a diverse community, the Admissions Committee would like to know more about you in your own words. Please submit a brief essay, either personal or creative, which you feel best describes you.

Applicants to Georgetown College: Please relate your interest in studying at Georgetown University to your goals. How do these thoughts relate to your chosen course of study? (If you are applying to major in the FLL or in a Science, please specifically address those interests.)

Applicants to the School of Nursing & Health Studies: Describe the factors that have influenced your interest in studying health care. Please specifically address your intended major (Health Care Management & Policy, Human Science, International Health, or Nursing).

Applicants to the Walsh School of Foreign Service: Briefly discuss a current global issue, indicating why you consider it important and what you suggest should be done to deal with it.

Applicants to the McDonough School of Business: The McDonough School of Business is a national and global leader in providing graduates with essential ethical, analytical, financial and global perspectives.  Please discuss your motivations for studying business at Georgetown.

 

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

MIT doesn't ask for a single personal statement — instead they ask applicants to respond to a series of questions with just a paragraph or two.

We know you lead a busy life, full of activities, many of which are required of you. Tell us about something you do simply for the pleasure of it. (100 words or fewer)

Although you may not yet know what you want to major in, which department or program at MIT appeals to you and why? (100 words or fewer)

At MIT, we bring people together to better the lives of others. MIT students work to improve their communities in different ways, from tackling the world’s biggest challenges to being a good friend. Describe one way in which you have contributed to your community, whether in your family, the classroom, your neighborhood, etc. (200-250 words)

Describe the world you come from; for example, your family, clubs, school, community, city, or town. How has that world shaped your dreams and aspirations? (200-250 words)

Tell us about the most significant challenge you've faced or something important that didn't go according to plan. How did you manage the situation? (200-250 words)

 

 

Midwest

University of Wisconsin, Madison

 

Indiana University

IU asks for 200 - 400 words on your plans and interests.

Describe your academic and career plans and any special interest (for example, undergraduate research, academic interests, leadership opportunities, etc.) that you are eager to pursue as an undergraduate at Indiana University. Also, if you encountered any unusual circumstances, challenges, or obstacles in pursuit of your education, you may share those experiences and how you overcame them. Please note that this essay may be used for scholarship consideration.

 

Michigan State University

MSU asks applicants to write 400 words on one of two topics. According to their website, "This statement may be considered as a positive factor to enhance admissibility, as well as for scholarship consideration."

Describe a difficult or challenging situation you have faced. Briefly state the situation, how you responded and why, would you have done anything differently, did you turn to anyone for help, and if so for advice, consultation, assistance, and/or encouragement?

Briefly describe a situation where you or someone close to you was not treated fairly. What did you do at the time and why, would you do anything differently, has it impacted or changed who you are today?

 

University of Illinois

Explain your interest in the major you selected and describe how you have recently explored or developed this interest inside and/or outside the classroom. You may also explain how this major relates to your future career goals. If you're applying to the Division of General Studies, explain your academic interests and strengths or your future career goals. You may include any majors or areas of study you're currently considering. Limit your response to 300 to 400 words.

 

University of Wisconsin, Madison

All applicants need to complete two essays for UW Madison. The essays should be 300-500 words each (with a hard limit of 650 words) and may be used for scholarship and campus program review as well. 

For the first essay, you can also use any of the Common Application prompts if you apply through the Common Application.

Consider something in your life you think goes unnoticed and write about why it's important to you.

Tell us why you decided to apply to the University of Wisconsin–Madison. In addition, share with us the academic, extracurricular, or research opportunities you would take advantage of as a student. If applicable, provide details of any circumstance that could have had an impact on your academic performance and/or extracurricular involvement.

  

South

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

 

Apply Texas

The ApplyTexas application is used by all of Texas' public universities and some private colleges. There are four ApplyTexas essay prompts — which you need to respond to will depend on where you're applying. UT Austin, for example, requires applicants to submit one essay responding to Topic A and another on the topic of their choice. There is no set word limit, though the online application will cut off each essay at 120 lines (~1000 words). 

Topic A: What was the environment in which you were raised? Describe your family, home, neighborhood, or community, and explain how it has shaped you as a person.

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

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

Topic D:  (Please Note: The essay in this section is specific to certain college majors and is not required by all colleges/universities that accept ApplyTexas applications. If you are not applying for a major in Architecture/Interior Design, Art, Art History, Design, Studio Art, Visual Art Studies/Art Education you are not required to write this essay.) 

Personal interaction with objects, images and spaces can be so powerful as to change the way one thinks about particular issues or topics. For your intended area of study (architecture, art history, design, studio art, visual art studies/art education), describe an experience where instruction in that area or your personal interaction with an object, image or space effected this type of change in your thinking. What did you do to act upon your new thinking and what have you done to prepare yourself for further study in this area?

 

University of Georgia

For UGA, applicants must write two essays of 200-300 words each. One prompt is required. You may choose your other essay from among four options.

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

Choose One: 

  • UGA’s 2017 Commencement speaker Ernie Johnson (Class of ’79) told a story from his youth about what he refers to as blackberry moments. He has described these as “the sweet moments that are right there to be had but we’re just too focused on what we’re doing …, and we see things that are right there within our reach and we neglect them. Blackberry moments can be anything that makes somebody else’s day, that makes your day, that are just sweet moments that you always remember.” Tell us about one of your “blackberry moments” from the past five years.
  • Creativity is found in many forms including artistic avenues, intellectual pursuits, social interactions, innovative solutions, et cetera. Tell us how you express your creativity.
  • Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
  • Describe a problem, possibly related to your area of study, which you would like to solve. Explain its importance to you and what actions you would take to solve this issue.

 

 

West

The Campanile at UC Berkeley

 

University of California

Students applying to the UC system must respond to four out of eight short personal insight questions. The maximum word count for each response is 350 words. 

  1. Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes or contributed to group efforts over time.
  2. Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side. 
  3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
  4. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
  5. Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?
  6. Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom. 
  7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
  8. Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you stand out as a strong candidate for admissions to the University of California?

 

University of Oregon

The UO is interested in learning more about you. Write an essay of 650 words or less that shares information that we cannot find elsewhere on your application. Any topic you choose is welcome. Some ideas you might consider include your future ambitions and goals, a special talent, extracurricular activity, or unusual interest that sets you apart from your peers, or a significant experience that influenced your life. If you are applying to the UO's Robert D. Clark Honors College, feel free to resubmit your honors college application essay.

  

University of Washington

University of Washington has also joined the Coalition for Access and Affordibility. They will accept any of the five Coalition prompts, with a max of 600 words.

They also require a short response question with a maximum of 300 words:

Our families and communities often define us and our individual worlds. Community might refer to your cultural group, extended family, religious group, neighborhood or school, sports team or club, co-workers, etc. Describe the world you come from and how you, as a product of it, might add to the diversity of the University of Washington. 

 

International

Generally speaking, international schools are less likely to ask for an essay, since admission tends to be heavily focused on grades and test results. However, a few popular international schools do ask for a personal statement as part of their application.

 

Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UK Schools)

UCAS is a general application for UK schools (similar to the Common App). There's no specific prompt for the personal statement — instead applicants are asked to write an essay describing what they want to study, why they want to study it, and what they bring to the table. There is a 4,000 character limit.

 

University of British Columbia

UBC asks applicants to fill out a personal profile consisting of a 5-7 short answer questions that vary depending on the program you are applying to. Answers should be 50-200 words. 

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

  • What are the qualities you think make for a successful university student? How have you demonstrated such qualities in the past?
  • Think about your first-choice UBC degree. What kinds of activities, accomplishments, and insights – learned in or outside of the classroom – do you think would be relevant to this degree?
  • Think about your accomplishments and activities. What have you learned from these experiences? When have you taken on a leadership role? What do you excel in at school or outside of school? What do you enjoy learning in school? Or what do you enjoy doing outside of school that has influenced what you want to learn?
  • Think about the role others have played in your accomplishments and experiences.
  • Think about how your favourite teacher would describe you. Why would your teacher describe you this way? Be specific. Try to incorporate this information into your responses.
  • Think about two or three adjectives that best describe you. For each, provide some evidence of why they describe. Be specific. Try to incorporate this information into your responses.

 

University of Cambridge

 

Optional Essays

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

 

Arizona State University

Students applying to the Barrett Honors College must submit an essay of about 500 words on the following topic.

What does it mean to you to be or to become a global citizen, and how do you see the education and opportunities at Barrett advancing your understanding of this concept?

 

City University of New York

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

Personal Reflection: 

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

  2. Discuss a memory about writing or reading that you recall vividly and reflect on its significance.

Social Issues:

  1. Pick a story of local, national, or international importance from the front page of any newspaper. Identify your source and give the date the article appeared. Then use your sense of humor, sense of outrage, sense of justice—or just plain good sense—to explain why the story engages your attention.

  2. Pick something about New York City that intrigues or excites you and describe why.

 

Florida International University

Only applicants who don't meet the criteria for automatic admissions and whose applications undergo holistic review will need to submit a 500-word essay:

With a freshman class profile of a 3.92 HS GPA and 1670 SAT/ 25 ACT, FIU is considered a selective university where those objective measures have been proven to play a role in student success. However, we know that other, more subjective measures such as motivation, drive, courage, perseverance, resolve and strength of character play an important role in students’ ability to succeed at FIU and in life. Please provide us with a 500 word (one page, single spaced) personal statement explaining which of these measures makes you a good candidate for admission to FIU and what strategies you will use to ensure your success in and out of the classroom. 

 

The Ohio State University

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

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

 

Ohio University

For the Ohio University application, students who've been out of a school for more than a year must submit an essay explaining what they've done in their time off from school. Applicants to the journalism school are encouraged to write an essay "detailing how they want to help shape the future of journalism." Applicants to the Honors Tutorial College will submit three essay questions on the HTC supplement. 

For all other applicants, submitting an essay of 250 - 500 words is optional. 

Potential topics could include describing any academic challenges the applicant has faced, the applicant’s academic and career objectives, or the applicant’s involvement in community affairs.

 

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

 

Pennsylvania State University

Penn State requires you to complete the following section about your activities and interests, with a word limit of 500 words:

Please use this space to discuss your activities (other than academic work) during the last several years (for example: school organizations, jobs, athletics, the arts, community service, religious groups, or other individual interests). We suggest a limit of 500 words or fewer. 

 

However, the following personal statement prompt is optional. The word limit is 500 words.

Please tell us something about yourself, your experiences, or activities that you believe would reflect positively on your ability to succeed at Penn State. This is your opportunity to tell us something about yourself that is not already reflected in your application or academic records.

 

Additionally, applicants to the Schreyer Honors College must complete all of the following essay prompts. 

It has been said that art imitates life, which implies that what we see depicted in entertainment is merely a reflection of what is happening in real life. Review this video clip and tell us if you believe it reflects experiences of teenagers in the world today. In your response, address the ethical issues presented in this clip and how you would address them.

Following the terrorist attack at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England in May of 2017, the artist and her management team decided to hold a benefit concert to raise money for those injured and killed during the bombing and to spread a message of love and unity after the attack. Do you think the arts can play a role in solving international conflicts? Please cite examples to support your perspective.

In the last few years, youth around the world have gravitated toward podcasts, YouTube, blogs and social media for educational and entertainment purposes. Please list one or two of these different types of media that you follow or subscribe to and explain why you identify with and consume their content. Note: please be mindful that some application readers may not be familiar with media platforms you mention in your response.


 

University of Arizona

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

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

 

University of Central Florida

The essays for UCF are optional but recommended. Applicants are asked to pick two of the prompts and compose responses of no more than 500 words (or 7,000 characters) each.

If there has been some obstacle or bump in the road in your academic or personal life, please explain the circumstances.

How has your family history, culture, or environment influenced who you are?

Why did you choose to apply to UCF?

What qualities or unique characteristics do you possess that will allow you to contribute to the UCF community?

 

University of Kansas

Applicants to the University of Kansas' honors program must answer one of the following three essay prompts:

American Indian write Sherman Alexie wrote, "Life is a constant struggle between being an individual and being a member of the community." How do you understand this struggle in your own life?

Is learning for learning's sake valuable? If so, why? If not, what is more valuable?

Tell us about your biggest failure and what you learned from it.

 

University of Nebraska, Lincoln

UNL doesn't require applicants to submit an essay, but you will need to write one to be considered for scholarships. There is a 350-word limit.

Tell us about community circumstances you've overcome, your leadership experiences, your career goals, examples of your commitment to help under-served communities, experiences you've had with the global community and any desire to study abroad—basically, the experiences that have helped shape you as a person.

 

University of Utah

Applicants to the Honors College must complete the following 500-word essay:

Tell us about an issue or subject that fascinates you and why. What resources do you rely on when you want to learn more?

 

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

 

The 3 Main Types of College Essay Questions

As you can see above, a few schools ask simply “Tell us something about yourself,” but most have a more specific prompt. Most questions are still pretty similar to each other, and they fall into three general types. Let's break down each type to see why colleges ask about it and how you can respond effectively.

 

Type 1: Questions About a Meaningful Experience

This type of college essay question is the most common. The exact focus of these prompts can vary quite a bit, but they all ask you to reflect on an important experience. Some questions specify a type of experience while others don't, simply opting to have applicants write about whatever matters to them.

There are three basic sub-types that you'll see when dealing with these prompts. Let's look at an example of each one.

 

Overcoming a Challenge

These prompts ask about how you dealt with a challenge or solved a problem.  Below is a typical example from the MIT application.

Tell us about the most significant challenge you've faced or something important that didn't go according to plan. How did you manage the situation?

To address a question like this, you need a topic that has real stakes — something that you genuinely struggled with. Even though it can seem like you should only discuss positive experiences and feelings in your college essay (you want to impress your readers with how awesome you are!), unwavering positivity actually hurts your essay, because it makes you seem fake.

Instead, be honest: if you're writing about a negative experience, acknowledge that it was unpleasant or hard and explain why. Doing so will just make your overcoming it that much more impressive.

 

Engaging With Diversity

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

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

When approaching this type of question, you need to show that you're thoughtful about new ideas and perspectives. Colleges are full of students from all kinds of backgrounds and admissions officers want to know that you'll be accepting of the diversity of other students even if you don't necessarily agree with them.

Also make sure to pick a specific instance to focus on. Writing a general essay about how you accept others won't impress admissions officers; you need to show them an example of a time that you did so.

 

Growing Up

Finally, this type of prompt asks about a transitional experience or rite of passage that made you feel like an adult. I've reprinted another example from the Common App.

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

For these types of prompts, you want to show personal growth: explain to the reader not just who you are but how you've changed. (Really, this is a good idea no matter which prompt you're addressing.)

College can be challenging, so admissions officers want to know that you have the maturity to deal with (likely) living on your own, managing your own life, and planning for your future.

 

Regardless of the exact prompt, the key to this type of college essay is to show what you’ve learned from the experience. Admissions officers don't care that much about what happened to you — they care about what you think and feel about that event. That's what will give them a sense of who you are and what kind of college student you will make.

 

How have you changed between graduating from kindergarten and graduating from high school?

 

Type 2: Questions About How You Would Fit Into the Community

Examples: UW-Madison, FIU, UCF

When admissions committees evaluate applicants, they consider how a student would contribute to the college as a whole. These questions ask you to explain what you would bring to the college’s community and how you would fit in with its values. Below is an example from UW-Madison. 

Tell us why you decided to apply to the University of Wisconsin–Madison. In addition, share with us the academic, extracurricular, or research opportunities you would take advantage of as a student. If applicable, provide details of any circumstance that could have had an impact on your academic performance and/or extracurricular involvement.

To address this type of prompt, you’ll want to give specific examples of how you embody the traits they’re looking for or what benefits you’d provide to the school’s community. Some prompts will ask you to address more specific ideas about the school than others, but it's always a good idea to touch on the individual school's values or philosophy.

Balancing talking about your experiences and traits with describing what excites you about the school can be tricky, but it's vital that you touch on both. If you don't talk about yourself, you're missing your chance to give the admissions committee a sense of who you are and how you would fit in to their community. And if you don't discuss the school itself, you risk coming off as uninterested. Make sure to do both.

 

Type 3: Questions About Your Goals

Examples: Georgetown 2, MIT 2, Indiana University, Apply Texas C

These questions ask about your professional, personal, or academic goals and how you’ll pursue them. They also often ask you to outline how you’ve worked towards these goals so far. Take a look at an example from the University of Illinois application:

Explain your interest in the major you selected and describe how you have recently explored or developed this interest inside and/or outside the classroom. You may also explain how this major relates to your future career goals. If you're applying to the Division of General Studies, explain your academic interests and strengths or your future career goals. You may include any majors or areas of study you're currently considering. Limit your response to 300 to 400 words.

When addressing this type of question, you’ll want to show admissions officers that you’re thoughtful about your future and excited about the opportunities college provides. Colleges want to admit students who will be successful, and a big part of finding success is having the drive to work towards it.

Also, remember to use specific examples to illustrate your point. What relevant experiences have you had or interests have you pursued? What made you think this subject or career would be a good fit for you? Are there related classes or activities you're excited to participate in at the school? The more specific you can be in addressing these questions, the stronger your essay will be.

 

Of course, these three types don't cover every essay prompt, and some questions will be more unusual (especially those for supplemental essays). Nonetheless, you should analyze any prompts you encounter in the same way. Ask yourself why the college is asking that question and what admissions officers are hoping to see — not in terms of specific topics, but in terms of general trends and traits. Understanding what admissions officers are hoping to get out of your essay will help you pick a great topic that will help you exhibit your unique personality and perspective in the most effective way.

 

 

How to Plan Your College Essay Writing

Now that you’ve seen the range of questions you may be asked, let’s discuss how you can plan your college essay writing process most efficiently.

 

Make a Chart of All the Essays You Need to Write

Depending on how many schools you're applying to and what their requirements are, you may have to respond to 10 or more college essay prompts, so you want to make sure that you're organized about what needs to get done. 

I recommend creating a chart with the the school, deadline, and word count in one column and the prompt or prompts in the other. Then, prioritize your essays by deadline and preference (i.e. focus first on essays for the schools with the earliest deadlines and the ones you’re most excited about).

You’ll also want to consider whether you truly need to write a different essay for each school. If the prompts are similar enough, you may be able to reuse essays for more than one school. I'll go over how to make these calls in more depth below.

 

When Writing Multiple Essays for One School, Use Different Topics 

You probably noticed that many of the schools ask for more than one essay. When completing one of these applications, you should make sure your essays aren’t repetitive. You want to take the opportunity to give admissions officers as fleshed out a sense of who you are as you can, so pick topics that show off different sides of your personality. 

For example, let’s consider a student who’s hoping to become an engineer. If she writes her first essay about competing in a science fair, she’ll want to focus on something slightly different for her second essay—perhaps an unexpected interest, like figure skating, or a time that she used her scientific skills to solve an unscientific problem.

 

Be Careful About Reusing Essays

A common question students have is whether you can just write one essay and submit it to every school. The answer is, unfortunately, no. As you can see, college essay questions differ enough that there's no way you could use the same essay for every single one (not to mention the fact that many schools require two or more essays anyways). 

However, it does sometimes work to reuse an essay for more than one school. The key is that the prompts have to be asking about basically the same type of thing. So, for example, you could use the same essay for two prompts that both ask about a time you solved a problem, but you probably wouldn't want to use the same essay for one prompt that asks about a problem you solved and one that asks about a time you interacted with someone different than yourself.

Another case in which you can use reuse an essay is to submit an essay originally written for a specific prompt for a more general one as well. For example, you could submit your ApplyTexas topic B application (about overcoming a specific obstacle) for the Coalition essay prompt 1 (about a meaningful story from your life and what you learned). In that case, you might want to tweak the essay slightly to address the question of what you learned more explicitly, but you could likely use the same personal statement with minimal changes.

The other reason this instance of essay recycling works is because the ApplyTexas and the Coalition application have compatible word limits. You generally can't reuse a 600-word essay for a prompt with a 250-word limit because by the time you've cut out that many words you'll usually be left with something that either doesn't make much sense or doesn't show much about you (because you've only left enough of the story to explain what happened).

Although technically you could use a short essay (200-300 words) for an application with a higher word limit (500-650 words), I would strongly advise against it. If you have the space to tell a more in depth story and explain your own perspective and feelings in more detail, you should take it. Reusing a much shorter essay out of laziness is a waste of an important opportunity to impress the admissions committee. (You can, however, write a longer essay on the same topic.)

Whether you can use a recycled essay for a given prompt will ultimately depend on the specific prompts involved and your chosen topic. However, I've outlined some general guidelines below.

 

 

Essays About Experiences Are the Most Easily Transferred Between Schools

There’s a reason the Common App prompts are all type 1: Because they ask about important experiences, these prompts are much more about you than about the school. As such, it’s much easier to use them for more than one school.

However, as I described above, if the prompts are different sub-types, or otherwise clearly distinct from each other, you’ll still need to write unique essays. 

 

Essays About a Specific School Generally Can’t Be Recycled

If a prompt asks about why you’re interested in a specific school or how you would fit in, you shouldn’t try to use it for more than one school. Admissions officers want to see that you're excited about their school and would bring something interesting or special to their community. It's impossible to show them that if you can't be bothered to write a unique essay for their application.

Take the time to think about what appeals to you about the specific school or how you relate to its specific values. 

 

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

For questions that ask about the future, you may be able to keep the same basic structure—assuming you’re interested in studying the same subject—and simply tweak the section about your plans for the future to reflect each school's specific programs or activities.

However, don’t lie to avoid having to write a new essay. If one school’s music program interests you while another school’s architecture program does, write a unique essay for each.

 

How to Write a College Essay That Works

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

I've summarized some key college essay writing tips below, but for a more in depth take on the writing process, check out our step-by-step guide to writing a great college essay.

 

Pick A Topic You're Excited About

A great essay requires a great topic, and a great topic is one that you really want to write about. Remember that admissions officers want to get to know you: you'll have to be honest about your interests and perspectives if you want to impress them. 

For more guidance on picking a great topic, check out our guides to brainstorming college essay ideas and finding the best topic for you.

 

Focus on Specific Details

No matter how great your topic, your essay won't be compelling without detailed descriptions that put the reader in your shoes and let them see the world from your perspective. Details are what make an essay stand out because they're unique to you—a lot of people may have volunteered with Habitat for Humanity, but only one could have stood outside in a pink hat listening to her high school history teacher drone on about the different types of screws for 25 minutes. Don't settle for telling readers what you did; show them with specific details.

You also need to explain how the experience affected you and/or why your topic is so important to you. Students often get so wrapped up in telling a story that they forget to show why it matters, but your feelings are the most important part of your essay. This aspect of the essay should also include plenty of details. Otherwise it's easy to fall into clichés that bog down your essay.

 

Edit Carefully

As you embark upon the college essay writing process, keep in mind the famous Ernest Hemingway quote: "The only kind of writing is rewriting." It may be extremely tempting to just write a draft and call it a day, but revising is a vital step in crafting an engaging essay.

Once you write a first draft, put in a drawer for a week. Taking some time away from it will allow you to come back to it with fresh eyes. Then, try to read your essay from the perspective of someone who knows nothing about you. Would they understand the story? Do you explain clearly what you learned? Does your intro grab the reader's attention?

It can also be helpful to ask someone you trust (could be a parent, a teacher, or a peer) to read your essay and give you feedback. Really listen to what they say and think about how you can improve your essay.

Finally, try reading your essay aloud. This will help you catch any weird or awkward phrasings.

 

What's Next?

If you're struggling with how to approach your personal statement, consider looking at some college essay examples.

The essay is just one part of the college application process. Check out our complete guide to applying to college for a step-by-step breakdown of what you'll need to do.

Finally, if you're planning to take the SAT or ACT one last time, consider taking a look at our famous test prep guides for some helpful advice on whatever you might be struggling with.

 

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

 

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