With college admissions as competitive as it is today, the application essay can mean the difference between an acceptance or rejection letter.
Admissions officers are increasingly turning to the essay as a means of evaluating students. Many applicants fail to take advantage of the essay—they choose the wrong question, write about an inappropriate topic, or just fail to put together a compelling essay.
So, what should applicants write about? Here, we breakdown the six questions from this year’s Common Application, an online application accepted by more than 450 colleges and universities. (Even colleges that don’t accept the Common App tend to have essay prompts that are the same or similar.)
[Get the ebook on how to make your college essay stand out here!]
1. Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk, or ethical dilemma and its impact on you.
Consider any experience or achievement that is significant to you—it can be big or small. Perhaps you found working with children rewarding because you want to be a teacher someday, or perhaps you created your own workout regimen to get fit. Make sure not to dwell on the experience—instead, talk about how you or your outlook changed because of it. Fewer students will talk about a risk they’ve taken, but remember: It doesn’t have to be bungee jumping! It can be saying no to peer pressure and risking your friendships. If you choose to write about an ethical dilemma, use caution—you don’t want admissions officers questioning your moral integrity.
2. Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.
Here’s a chance to give more context about you. If the matter is personal, that’s easy to do. But if it’s a national or international issue, then it’s tempting to talk about the environment or the war-torn Middle East, for example. But do we learn about you? Make sure the issue ties into your personal experiences and interests.
3. Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.
Don’t tell admissions officers too much about your “influential person.” Instead, talk a little bit about the person, but mostly about how you have changed or reacted because of that person. Maybe you found an academic passion or hobby because of favorite teacher or coach; maybe you changed how you treat others because of the character of a family member or close friend.
4. Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work that has had an influence on you, and explain why.
This is a hard question for most students to answer—again, you don’t want to talk too much about that character, historical figure, or creative work, but instead, describe their influence on you. Perhaps a building’s unique design influenced your desire to study architecture. Maybe a lead character’s actions in a movie or novel oddly paralleled your own actions. Note: If you’re going to write about a fictional character, avoid very common novels that most students read in high school, and instead use a novel that you read independently—it’ll help you stand out.
5. Describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.
Consider diversity in many ways—your geography, academic interests, family background, religion, race, and ethnicity. How would you contribute to a college? Or what do you hope to learn from others who are different from you at that school?
6. The topic of your choice.
If you’re applying to a college that does not accept the Common App, you’ll have to answer their specific essay questions. However, keep in mind that you can simply use that essay for your other applications as well. If it is an open-ended prompt, ask and then answer your own question—it’ll show off your creative side.
Colleges want to get to know more about you. Write clearly and show colleges how you think and what you will contribute to the campus. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter which question you choose—it’s what you do with the answer that matters most.
The college essay is tough. It’s not writing it that’s the hard part – it’s deciding what to write about that can be difficult. What’s most curious about the college essay is that many of the topics on this list (those that should be avoided) also happen to be some of the most commonly used topics out there.
But, why? Why are students writing about boring, tired out subjects?
A lack of creativity? Certainly not! Students know how to be creative.
A lack of gumption? Doubtful – many students even take it upon themselves to create their own version of an anti-essay (see number seven on the list).
For many students, the issue is the narrative, which begins at the essay’s focus: the topic.
A boring essay details a summary of Joe’s mission trip to Guatemala, where he volunteered at a local school with his family.
A great essay details Joe’s experience during his mission trip to Guatemala, where he volunteered at a local school with his family. It was there he met Anita, a local elderly woman who wanted to learn how to read but came from a poor family so she never had the opportunity. Joe and Anita developed a friendship…
See, you want to read more of the story, right? But, the first essay example didn’t make you want to continue reading on to learn any more details. That’s the difference.
You may think you know what you’re going to write your college admissions essay about but, before you do, read this list to learn what topics you should avoid and why.
1. A Summary of Your Accomplishments College essays are similar to life and, in life, nobody likes a braggart. These topics are broad, unfocused and make a boring read.
You may have accomplished a lot, but let your essay speak by allowing the reader to get to know you as a person through your experiences – not through you telling them how accomplished you are.
After reading your essay, a person should be able to come up with their own assessment of you – people don’t like to be told how to think.
2. Highly Polarized or Sensitive Topics The key topics to avoid here are the same as those at the Thanksgiving table: politics and religion.
Avoid preaching about sensitive topics, no matter how passionate you are about a particular one. You never know who is going to be reading your admissions essay and the goal at hand is to gain admission into college.
3. Sports The sports essay is predictable and should be avoided, if possible. Everyone knows how an athletic story will play out, regardless of the story or the sport. Find another topic that is unique and hasn’t been covered a million times over.
Admissions officers have heard enough about “the thrill of victory” and “the agony of defeat” in relation to high school athletics and they are sick and tired of pretending to care.
4. Humor Stop trying to be so funny. You may have a story in your essay that’s funny and that’s okay – but that’s different. Make sure you’re funny for a reason and not just funny because you’re attempting to be. If it comes out naturally in your essay, great. If it doesn’t, then don’t force it. Admissions officers will see the futile attempt – and likely not find it amusing.
5. Why You’re SO Lucky We get it. You’re privileged and you appreciate it, which is great. However, discussing it doesn’t make for a great essay. It’s actually super boring and, perhaps, may cause some eyes to roll.
Avoid this topic at all costs unless you’re starting with that followed up with some along the lines of, “…so I decided to leave my cushy private school to switch places at a public high school in Detroit with an inner-city teen and this is what happened.” Now THAT would make for an interesting essay.
6. Volunteer Experiences & Trips This may be one of the most popular essay topics out there…and it’s also one of the most boring clichés around. Nobody needs a summary of your vacation – people know what happens on mission trips and during volunteer hours.
While you should feel free to mention a great experience or trip, but your entire essay should not talk about your one experience volunteering during a mission trip in Costa Rica.
If you do want to bring up these topics, try to think of something interesting or unexpected that happened during your trip.
Did a particular person or experience have an impact on you? Specific happenings can make great topics – try to think of something unusual and craft your essay around that experience, instead. (See example within the opening of this article.)
So, you’re creative, smart and so over this whole essay thing. You’re not going to be put inside a box with a regular essay; you’re going to do your own thing. You’re going to whatever you feel like writing. Some of the best and brightest students do this: basically, they create the anti-essay.
Fine, but be prepared to write whatever you feel like writing from a college that may not be your first choice.
Whether it’s a poem, a random stream of thoughts, sarcasm, or some other form of writing in order to feel more creative, it’s not always the best idea. Before you do this, remember one thing: the sole purpose of your college essay is to get into college. You can show off later.
8. Illegal or Illicit Behavior Drug and alcohol use, sex, arrests and/or jail time are topics that you should steer clear of, even if they are life issues you’ve worked through.
You would not want your judgment to be called into question for the decisions you’ve made (even if they are in the past) or for making the decision to write about the decisions you’ve made. Either way, it’s risky business to go this route and is not recommended.
9. The Most Important [Person, Place, Thing] in My Life Read this aloud. Doesn’t this topic sound like an assignment that a second or third grader would write about? It really does and, if a child can handle it, it probably won’t gain you a lot of points with college admissions officers.
10. Tragedies Topics like death and divorce are cautionary because they can be extremely difficult to write about.
While these topics are tough, if you feel passionately that a particular tragedy impacted your life significantly and you do want to write about it, try to keep the essay’s focus on you.
Think about your feelings regarding the situation, how it affected you and what you learned from the experience rather than just simply recalling the situation or the person you lost.
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