The college admissions essay is perhaps the most dreaded part of the college application process.
The essay creates frustration for students, stress for parents, and an overall feeling of dread as the deadline for submission approaches. The essay, however, doesn’t have to be an insurmountable project. With the right information, realistic time management and good proofing and editing, it should be easy to write the best college essay you can.
These FAQs about the college application essay should help you tell your story with an end goal of making a good impression on a college admissions officer.
What do admissions officers look for in the best college application essays?
Quite simply, the best college essays make a personal statement and give admissions officers a window into your soul. Many students write essays that are too clichéd or shallow, or too impersonal and uninformative. For some students, the essay itself will be cause for rejection.
So how do you make your college essay stand out?
Admissions officers look for these five things:
Can the applicant write?
What does the essay say about the applicant?
Are there authentic personal reflections?
What will the applicant bring to the college community?
Do the qualities represented in the essay resonate with the rest of the application?
What are the best essay topics?
Most students apply using the Common Application, which provides specific essay prompts. It’s up to the student to personalize the essay topics and make them unique and memorable. The 2016-2017 essay prompts are as follows:
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 failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
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 or event, formal or informal that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community or family.
What Common App prompt should you choose?
Ethan Sawyer, a college essay advisor, says the first prompt is the best because it’s the basic “tell us your story.” He recommends this prompt because it’s the most open-ended and is easy to personalize. His second favorite is the fourth prompt: Describe a problem that must be solved. He gives an example of this type of essay on his website, “I Shot My Brother.”
But the best way to choose a topic is to brainstorm with a parent, teacher, advisor or friend what would make the most interesting story for you to tell and give an admissions officer the most insight. Brainstorming should be imaginative and free-wheeling. You don’t have to commit to anything yet; you can always rein it in later. Think about the moments in your life that had the most drama, conflict or humor. What moment would tell an admissions officer the most about how you would contribute to the college community?
You could “draw” your essay as an infographic or word map or even as a graphic novel. Do what you need to do to imagine the story in your own head. Then, you can start translating it into a more polished form.
Writer Anne Lamott refers to the (expletive) first draft, or the “child’s draft,” where “you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.” So play with your first few drafts. Not even famous writers get it right the first time.
What is the best way to start a college essay?
You want to grab readers from the first paragraph. You can do this by using some classic writing techniques:
Story hook. Jump into the story immediately. Use what might be a second paragraph as in introductory paragraph. Instead of starting with, “I want to study history because …,” use an imaginative hook ... “If I could have dinner with Napoleon….”
Originality. Start with an unconventional statement or event. “That day at the airport, I decided I never wanted to be a superhero.”
Visual description. Start with a vivid description of an image or event that pulls the reader in a scene. Don’t “tell” readers your room is plastered with posters of violinists. Show them. “In my room, Mark O’Connor hangs next to Itzhak Perlman…..
Solve a problem. Show how you used creativity and resolve to find a solution for yourself or someone else. “Serving dinner at the dorm, I realized how much food was going to waste. So I contacted the shelter.…”
Create mystery. Make your essay start with a puzzle and keep readers engaged to find out more. “Who had my father been in China? It was only standing in a small village I understood how his struggle had made me who I am.”
Whichever introduction you use, stay away from the conventional statement: “I want to go to this college because....” Any admissions officer will disregard what comes next and place your college application at the bottom of the pile.
What is the best format or structure for a college essay?
There all kinds of ways to write a college essay and there is no perfect form as long as your piece is engaging, logical, revealing … and answers the prompt.
The classic essay starts with an introductory statement that hooks the reader and continues with a strong topic sentence. It ends with a strong closing paragraph or summation. The body of the essay is where you make the sale that your thesis is true.
That might be a good form for you if, for example, you were trying to convince a school that your summer job working on a landscaping team taught you a lot about chemistry, your chosen major.
But you can also write about yourself in a short story style, with a beginning, end and dramatic arc. If you aren’t a natural story teller, imagine how you might film your story or draw it. What specific scenes would be needed to describe, for example, how you saved a friend from making a bad mistake?
If you’re having trouble organizing your piece, try talking it out with someone, writing it a few sentences, creating it as an infographic or even a graphic novel - whatever helps you see it. Then, try writing it in a more traditional format.
No matter the style, in the body of your piece you need to answer some important questions, such as, so what? Why should the reader care? What is the impact on you or on the greater good?
And pay close attention to your transitions from one section to the next. You don’t want your essay to read like a list. Transitions should give information, not just be links. Beware of words like “but” or “meanwhile” as transitions.
Ask someone to help you proofread for spelling and grammar. Don’t rely on spellcheck! And be you follow the essay guidelines as far as word count and topic are concerned. This is a test. The college wants to know if you can follow directions and how creative you can be within set limitations.
How do you make a college essay creative?
The best way to make your essay creative is to brainstorm with a friend, teacher or parents. You can also use this technique if you encounter writer’s block. Don’t just write down essay ideas, but make a list of everything about yourself. Think outside the box. Make a list of your likes, dislikes and/or achievements. You are searching for a unique topic that will catch your reader’s attention. Start with easy prompts, and see where they lead. Such as:
What is your favorite movie and why?
If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
What class in school inspires you and why?
Where would you never go again and why?
How did you and your best friend meet?
What object/person is important to you and why?
What is your favorite/least favorite food and why?
You get the picture. You are creating a guideline of ideas and topics to choose from that are uniquely tied to your life.
It is important to think deeply about the meaning of things in your life. Determine what about your experience is unique to you. That’s what will make your story different from the next essay in the pile.
Where do I find examples of colleges essays that worked?
Some schools and some college advisors post good essays on the web.
Many colleges, including Johns Hopkins University and the University of Connecticut post “essays that worked” going back several years.
Big Future, run by the College Board, has sample essays and tips.
The New York Times college blog, The Choice, has essays that worked and some that didn’t. (this blog is old. Are you sure you want to use it as a resource?)
Some college advisors, such as The College Essay Guy and Essay Hell post winners.
Your college advisor or English teacher should have examples.
How do I avoid college essay plagiarism?
It’s acceptable to look at someone else’s essay as a sample and a creative tool. It is not OK to copy it or to excerpt anything without proper credit. That’s plagiarism. And don’t even think about having someone else - parent, friend, tutor or writing service – create your essay for you. This is your story, your statement. Admissions officers have seen it all. They will know.
The best way to avoid plagiarism is to make the essay personal. If it’s your story, your ideas, your thoughts and actions, you won’t be at risk of plagiarizing. Once your essay is complete, a plagiarism checker like this one from Grammarly just to make sure you were paying attention.
Are there tools that will help with college essay checking or editing?
There are numerous tools available to help with spelling and grammar along with editing. Of course, you can use a word processing program with spell check and grammar check. Also, find a proofreader: parent, teacher or mentor.
If you are looking for other online tools to help turn your rough draft into a polished essay free from spelling or grammar errors, here are a few:
How do I find a college essay writing workshop, college essay tutor or get help with a college essay?
Many high schools and libraries offer writing workshops for college applicants. Your counselor should be a good resource for these. Use social media when searching as well: type in #collegeessays on Twitter and search the results for coaches and workshops. You can find college advisors and tutors on the TeenLife website as well.
Are there good books/websites on college essays?
There are also books (both paperback and ebooks) that can guide you through the essay process. Here are my top picks:
College Essay Essentials by Ethan Sawyer
On Writing the College Application Essay by Harry Bauld
Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps by Alan Gelb
The best advice I can give when writing the successful college essay is: Be yourself.
Give the admissions officer a picture of who you are and the type of college student you would be if they offer admission. The essay should be more than words on paper or a glowing example of writing skills; it should be your story.
Sample College Admission Essays
This section contains two examples of good college essays.
- College Essay One
- College Essay Two
- College Essay Three
College Essay One
Prompt: Please submit a one-page, single-spaced essay that explains why you have chosen State University and your particular major(s), department(s) or program(s).
State University and I possess a common vision. I, like State University, constantly work to explore the limits of nature by exceeding expectations. Long an amateur scientist, it was this drive that brought me to the University of Texas for its Student Science Training Program in 2013. Up to that point science had been my private past time, one I had yet to explore on anyone else’s terms. My time at UT, however, changed that. Participating for the first time in a full-length research experiment at that level, I felt more alive, more engaged, than I ever had before. Learning the complex dynamics between electromagnetic induction and optics in an attempt to solve one of the holy grails of physics, gravitational-waves, I could not have been more pleased. Thus vindicated, my desire to further formalize my love of science brings me to State University. Thanks to this experience, I know now better than ever that State University is my future, because through it I seek another, permanent, opportunity to follow my passion for science and engineering.
In addition to just science, I am drawn to State University for other reasons. I strive to work with the diverse group of people that State University wholeheartedly accommodates – and who also share my mindset. They, like me, are there because State University respects the value of diversity. I know from personal experience that in order to achieve the trust, honesty, and success that State University values, new people are needed to create a respectful environment for these values. I feel that my background as an American Sikh will provide an innovative perspective in the university’s search for knowledge while helping it to develop a basis for future success. And that, truly, is the greatest success I can imagine.
This emphasis on diversity can also be found in the variety of specialized departments found at State University. On top of its growing cultural and ethnic diversity, State University is becoming a master at creating a niche for every student. However, this does not isolate students by forcing them to work with only those individuals who follow their specific discipline. Instead, it is the seamless interaction between facilities that allows each department, from engineering to programming, to create a real learning environment that profoundly mimics the real world. Thus, State University is not just the perfect place for me, it is the only place for me. Indeed, having the intellectual keenness to absorb every ounce of knowledge presented through my time in the IB program, I know that I can contribute to State University as it continues to cultivate a scholarly climate that encourages intellectual curiosity.
At the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at State University, I will be able to do just that. In a department where education and research are intermixed, I can continue to follow the path that towards scientific excellence. Long-mesmerized by hobbies like my work with the FIRST Robotics team, I believe State University would be the best choice to continue to nurture my love for electrical and computer engineering. I have only scratched the surface in this ever evolving field but know that the technological potential is limitless. Likewise, I feel that my time at State University would make my potential similarly limitless.
This is a picture-perfect response to a university-specific essay prompt. What makes it particularly effective is not just its cohesive structure and elegant style but also the level of details the author uses in the response. By directly identifying the specific aspects of the university that are attractive to the writer, the writer is able to clearly and effectively show not only his commitment to his studies but – perhaps more importantly – the level of thought he put into his decision to apply. Review committees know what generic responses look like so specificity sells.
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College Essay Two
Prompt: What motivates you?
For as long as I can remember, I have dreamed of science. Where others see the engineering, experimentation, and presentation of science as a chore, I only see excitement. Even as a child I constantly sought it out, first on television with Bill Nye and The Mythbusters, then later in person in every museum exhibit I could find. Science in all its forms fascinated me, but science projects in particular were a category all to themselves. To me, science projects were a special joy that only grew with time. In fact, it was this continued fascination for hands-on science that brought me years later to the sauna that is the University of Alabama in mid-June. Participating in the Student Science Training Program and working in their lab made me feel like a kid in a candy store. Just the thought of participating in a project at this level of scientific rigor made me forget that this was supposed to be my summer break and I spent the first day eagerly examining every piece of equipment.
Even at first, when the whole research group sat there doing rote calculations and others felt like they were staring down the barrel of defeated purpose, I remained enthusiastic. Time and time again I reminded myself of that famous phrase "great effort leads to great rewards," and sure enough, soon my aspirations began to be met. This shift in attitude also coincided with a shift in location: from the computer desk to the laser lab. It was finally time to get my hands dirty.
Now things began to get really interesting. During the experimentation phase of the project, I spent the majority of my waking hours in the lab – and I enjoyed every minute of it. From debriefing with my coordinator in the morning to checking and rechecking results well into the afternoon, I was on cloud nine all day, every day. I even loved the electric feeling of anxiety as I waited for the results. Most of all, though, I loved the pursuit of science itself. Before I knew it, I was well into the seventh week and had completed my first long-term research experiment.
In the end, although the days were long and hard, my work that summer filled me with pride. That pride has confirmed and reinvigorated my love for science. I felt more alive, more engaged, in that lab than I have anywhere else, and I am committed to returning. I have always dreamed of science but since that summer, since my experiment, I have dreamed only of the future. To me, medical science is the future and through it I seek another, permanent, opportunity to follow my passion. After all, to follow your passion is, literally, a dream come true.
In addition to its use of clear, demonstrative language, there is one thing that makes this an effective essay: focus. Indeed, notice that, although the question is broad, the answer is narrow. This is crucial. It can be easy to wax poetic on a topic and, in the process, take on too much. Instead, by highlighting one specific aspect of his personality, the author is able to give the reader a taste of his who he is without overwhelming him or simply reproducing his résumé. This emphasis gives the reader the opportunity to learn who the writer is on his terms and makes it a truly compelling application essay.
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College Essay Three
The winter of my seventh grade year, my alcoholic mother entered a psychiatric unit for an attempted suicide. Mom survived, but I would never forget visiting her at the ward or the complete confusion I felt about her attempt to end her life. Today I realize that this experience greatly influenced my professional ambition as well as my personal identity. While early on my professional ambitions were aimed towards the mental health field, later experiences have redirected me towards a career in academia.
I come from a small, economically depressed town in Northern Wisconson. Many people in this former mining town do not graduate high school and for them college is an idealistic concept, not a reality. Neither of my parents attended college. Feelings of being trapped in a stagnant environment permeated my mind, and yet I knew I had to graduate high school; I had to get out. Although most of my friends and family did not understand my ambitions, I knew I wanted to make a difference and used their doubt as motivation to press through. Four days after I graduated high school, I joined the U.S. Army.
The 4 years I spent in the Army cultivated a deep-seated passion for serving society. While in the Army, I had the great honor to serve with several men and women who, like me, fought to make a difference in the world. During my tour of duty, I witnessed several shipmates suffer from various mental aliments. Driven by a commitment to serve and a desire to understand the foundations of psychological illness, I decided to return to school to study psychology.
In order to pay for school and continue being active in the community, I enlisted in the Texas Army National Guard as a Medic. Due to the increased deployment schedule and demands placed on all branches of the military after September 11, my attendance in school has necessarily come second to my commitment to the military. There are various semesters where, due to this demand, I attended school less than full time. Despite taking a long time and the difficulty in carving separate time for school with such occupational requirements, I remained persistent aiming towards attending school as my schedule would allow. My military commitment ends this July and will no longer complicate my academic pursuits.
In college, as I became more politically engaged, my interest began to gravitate more towards political science. The interest in serving and understanding people has never changed, yet I realized I could make a greater difference doing something for which I have a deeper passion, political science. Pursuing dual degrees in both Psychology and Political Science, I was provided an opportunity to complete a thesis in Psychology with Dr. Sheryl Carol a Professor in Social Psychology at the University of Texas (UT) This fall I will complete an additional thesis as a McNair Scholar with Dr. Ken Chambers, Associate Professor in Latin American studies in the UT Political Science Department.
As an undergraduate, I was privileged to gain extensive research experience working in a research lab with Dr. Carol. During the three years I worked in her lab, I aided in designing a study, writing an Institutional Review Board (IRB) application, running participants through both pilot and regular studies, coding data, and analyzing said data, with these experiences culminating in my honors thesis. This thesis, entitled Self-Esteem and Need-to-Belong as predictors of implicit stereotypic explanatory bias, focuses on the relationship between levels (high and low) of self-esteem and an individual’s need to belong in a group, and how they predict whether an individual will tend to explain stereotype-inconsistent behavior. Participating in such a large study from start to finish has validated my interest in academic research as a profession.
This fall I will embark on writing an additional honors thesis in political science. While the precise topic of my thesis is undecided, I am particularly interested in Mexico and its development towards a more democratic government. Minoring in Spanish, I have read various pieces of literature from Mexico and have come to respect Mexico and Latin American culture and society. I look forward to conducting this research as it will have a more qualitative tilt than my thesis in psychology, therefore granting an additional understanding of research methodology.
My present decision to switch from social psychology to political science is further related to a study abroad course sponsored by the European Union with Dr. Samuel Mitchell, an Associate Professor in the Political Science Department at UT. Professor Mitchell obtained a grant to take a class of students to Belgium in order to study the EU. This course revealed a direct correlation between what I had studied in the classroom with the real world. After spending several weeks studying the EU, its history and present movement towards integration, the class flew to Brussels where we met with officials and proceeded to learn firsthand how the EU functioned.
My interest in attending the University of Rochester in particular, relates to my first semester at OU and the opportunity to take an introductory course in statistics with the now retired Dr. Larry Miller. Through the combination of a genuine appreciation and knack for statistics and with his encouragement, I proceeded to take his advanced statistics class as well as the first graduate level statistics course at OU. I continued my statistical training by completing the second graduate statistics course on model comparisons with Dr. Roger Johnson, a Professor in the Psychology Department. The model comparison course was not only the most challenging course I have taken as an undergraduate, but the most important. As the sole undergraduate in the course and only college algebra under my belt, I felt quite intimidated. Yet, the rigors of the class compelled me to expand my thinking and learn to overcome any insecurities and deficits in my education. The effort paid off as I earned not only an ‘A’ in the course, but also won the T.O.P.S. (Top Outstanding Psychology Student) award in statistics. This award is given to the top undergraduate student with a demonstrated history of success in statistics.
My statistical training in psychology orientates me toward a more quantitative graduate experience. Due to the University of Rochester’s reputation for an extensive use of statistics in political science research, I would make a good addition to your fall class. While attending the University of Rochester, I would like to study international relations or comparative politics while in graduate school. I find the research of Dr.’s Hein Goemans and Gretchen Helmke intriguing and would like the opportunity to learn more about it through the Graduate Visitation program.
Participation in the University of Rochester’s Graduate School Visitation Program would allow me to learn more about the Department of Political Science to further see if my interests align with those in the department. Additionally, my attendance would allow the Political Science department to make a more accurate determination on how well I would fit in to the program than from solely my graduate school application. Attending the University of Rochester with its focus on quantitative training, would not only allow me to utilize the skills and knowledge I gained as an undergraduate, but also would expand this foundation to better prepare me to conduct research in a manner I find fascinating.
From attending S.E.R.E. (Survival/POW training) in the military and making it through a model comparisons course as an undergraduate, I have rarely shied away from a challenge. I thrive on difficult tasks as I enjoy systematically developing solutions to problems. Attending the University of Rochester would more than likely prove a challenge, but there is no doubt in my mind that I would not only succeed but enable me to offer a unique set of experiences to fellow members of the incoming graduate class.
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