Students prepare for applying to selective colleges by taking rigorous courses, participating in extracurricular activities, studying for standardized tests, and more. All of this preparation, however, can distract attention from one of the most notorious sections of the college application: the essays.
The essay is both the most and the least visible part of the competitive admissions process. Everyone knows that the essay is critical, but few actually get to see what “successful” essays look like. Some online resources, like The College Board, post examples of college application essays, but they often lack the necessary context for a reader to truly assess how accurately that essay conveys a student’s personality and interests.
When choosing a topic for an essay, students need to consider what the essay prompt is asking, the universities to which they’re applying, their goals, and, ultimately, what the essay says about them as a student and as a person.
Why the Essay Matters
Before you can choose a compelling essay topic, you first need to understand why there’s an essay in the first place. When evaluating college applications, most colleges use a “reading rubric” to evaluate the different components of each application. Aside from the “hard factors,” like grades, GPA, and test scores, colleges also look at the “soft factors,” such as extracurriculars, recommendation letters, demonstrated interests, and essays. The point of evaluating all these factors is to enable colleges to holistically build a well-rounded class of specialists. The essay (or essays) is a great way to learn more about an applicant, her motivations, life experiences, and how she can contribute to the campus community.
According to NACAC, 83 percent of colleges assign some level of importance to the application essay, and it’s usually the most important “soft factor” that colleges consider. The essay is important because it gives students the chance to showcase their writing and tell the college something new. It also allows admissions officers to learn more about students and gain insight into their experiences that other parts of the application do not provide. Just like any other admissions factor, a stellar essay isn’t going to guarantee admission, but students do need to craft compelling and thoughtful essays in order to avoid the “no” pile.
Related: How a Great College Essay Can Make You Stand Out
Types of Essays
Let’s talk about the different types of essays that a college may require applicants to submit. Over 500 colleges and universities use the Common Application, which has one required essay, called the personal statement. There are five new prompts to choose from, and this essay can be used for multiple colleges.
Related: Why I Love the New Common Application Essay Prompts
Beyond the Common Application essay, many colleges also have supplements that ask additional, university-specific questions which applicants must respond to with shorter-form essays. While topics vary from supplement to supplement, there are a few standard essay formats that many colleges use:
This is the most common essay and is used for the main Common Application essay. In this essay, the applicant talks about a meaningful life experience that helped shape who she is today. The book “Admission Matters: What Students and Parents Need to Know About Getting into College” has a great section on the personal statement and how students can craft effective essays.
“Why This College?” Essay
Many colleges, including Columbia University and Duke University, use the supplement to ask applicants to explain why they have chosen to apply to this particular college. In this essay, students need to be detailed and offer specific examples for wanting to attend this school. Not only does it help students reiterate their passions, it also serves as a gauge for demonstrated interest and a vehicle for students to better articulate how they will contribute to the campus environment.
In this essay, students write about an extracurricular activity or community service project that was especially meaningful to them. This essay was previously on the standard Common Application, but was removed starting in the 2014–15 application season. Instead, some colleges, like Georgetown University, choose to include a variation of this essay among their supplements by asking students to discuss an activity and its significance to their life or course of study. In this essay, students should choose an activity they’re most passionate about and include details about how they expect to continue this activity at the particular college.
Related: Using Your High School Internship as Inspiration for Your College Essay
In an effort to challenge students to think creatively, some colleges include short, “quick take” prompts that require only a few words or sentences for the response. Some examples include University of Southern California’s “What’s the greatest invention of all time?” and University of Maryland’s sentence completion prompts like “My favorite thing about last Wednesday…”
What NOT to Write About
In order to stand out, it’s important to realize that there are a number of essay topics that are cliché and overused. Avoid writing about things like scoring the winning goal, topics of public consciousness like natural disasters, or something that happened to you in middle school. Also, avoid gimmicks like writing in a different language, presenting your essay as a poem, or anything else that is stylistically “out of the box.” Your focus should be on the message rather than the presentation.
It’s also important to avoid inappropriate or uncomfortable topics. Some students choose to write about things like sex or romantic relationships in order to stand out; yet, these topics fail to add substance or depth to an application. There’s a fine line between interesting and trite — don’t stand out for the wrong reasons.
Successful Essay Topics
A successful essay will reveal something about you that the admissions reader may not have already known, and will show how you interact with family and friends and demonstrate your beliefs or explore your passions. This doesn’t mean you have to regurgitate your resume — in fact, you definitely shouldn’t.
For example, a student whose number one extracurricular activity is swimming should not write an essay about “the big meet.” Instead, she could explore a more personal topic, such as something she is learning in class that conflicts with her religious beliefs. She can discuss the intersection of religion and education in her life and how she reconciled the differences — or didn’t.
A great essay also provides readers with a vivid picture. When crafting an essay, think of it as offering admissions readers a window into a certain event or story. Focus on the most meaningful moments, not the irrelevant background details.
For example, a student once wrote an essay about feeling out of place culturally during an internship. Instead of giving a general description of the internship and his conflicts, he opened the essay with a vivid description of what he saw when he first arrived, and used this scene to frame the feelings of alienation he underwent — giving the reader a striking image of his experience in great detail.
Remember, your college application essay is about you. There’s a lot of pressure to be “unique” and “interesting,” but at the end of the day, the key to standing out is to just be yourself. Admissions officers can tell when students are embellishing or being insincere in their essays, so it’s best to keep it simple and tell a story about you and the person you are today. In the end, with careful planning, research, and a thoughtful essay, you’ll get into the best-fit college for you!
For further guidance and examples, check out Noodle's collection of expert advice about college essays.
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.