Writing Successful College Application Essays
Andrea Schiralli , Jun 09, 2021
If you’re even considering applying to an American college, by now you are well aware that the process is quite laborious. From researching schools, to test prep, to test taking, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Writing college admissions essays is perhaps the most daunting part of the entire college application process. Your test scores may be perfect, your transcript spotless, your activity sheet full of awards and accomplishments, and your recommendation letters extolling your intelligence as well as your virtues, but without impressive essays, all the aforementioned is rendered null.
Fear not! This booklet will serve as your guide throughout the application process and will soon become your best friend. As experienced education consultants, we will provide insider tips on how to craft the perfect admissions essays targeted toward your specific school as well as your academic interests. Through a thorough examination of recent Common App and supplemental essay prompts, you will learn how to present yourself as the type of student admissions officers are seeking. You will learn what is expected from your essays and how you can play upon both your strengths and weaknesses to shape yourself into an ideal candidate for admissions: an introspective, self-aware young man or woman with the ability to grow from the vicissitudes of life.
General Do’s and Don’ts
- Start as early in the process as possible. The more time you have to write, the more revising you can do and thus, the better your essay will be. Also, procrastination leads to unnecessary stress.
- Brainstorm and outline before you begin. It’s amazing how many ideas you can come up with through effective brainstorming. Jot down strengths, interests, talents, or aspects of your personality that you really want the admissions officers to know about. Creating an outline will allow you to view the entire skeleton of your essay, making flaws in flow and organization of ideas visible.
- Make your essay your own. Think about what you care about, what sparks your interest, or what motivates you, and then write about it. Don’t write about what you think admissions officers want to hear.
- Don’t be common. Take a risk! Don’t write what everyone else is writing about. Read essays online, ask your friends what they are writing about, and then choose something completely different.
- Allow your personality to shine. This is the only part of the application that allows admissions officers to see you from your own perspective. If you are generally a funny person, feel free to sprinkle a few witticisms or silly metaphors in your essay, but don’t attempt to write an entire satire or comical piece. Remember: the essay’s purpose is to convey your intelligence, passions, and strengths—not your sense of humor.
- Stay focused. This is your chance to tell the admissions officers why they should accept you. They already have your activity sheet, so avoid making your essay read like a stale grocery list of awards and accomplishments. Rather, choose one topic that really interests you and write about it. Stick to one main theme throughout the entire essay. Even if the essay prompt is rather broad, your answer should be narrow. Through specific details and real examples, your writing will reveal your passions and personality.
- Have fun! College admissions essays tend to lean more toward personal narrative and free-form writing and are therefore more loosely structured than academic essays. It is still important to have your ideas flow logically within and between paragraphs, but this essay is not a test in creative writing. Content trumps form—once you figure out what to write about (arguably the most difficult part), just let the words flow with sincerity during your first draft.
- Be specific, clear, and to-the-point.
- Do not exceed the word limit.
- Don’t plagiarize. This should go without saying, but don’t ever copy or tweak someone else’s essay. Even if you found it buried hundreds of clicks away from an initial Google search, admissions officers have literally read thousands (if not tens of thousands) of college application essays in their lives and more than likely will be able to spot plagiarism. Plagiarizing is simply unacceptable in America, and a plagiarized essay will be tossed in the trash.
- Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite! Don’t expect a flawless (or even good) essay on your first try. The pressure will stress you out and probably contribute to a frustrating case of writer’s block. Don’t worry about trivial things you can clean up later, such as grammar or spelling. First, simply get your ideas off your head and onto paper. Then, a few hours or even a few days later, look at your work with fresh eyes.
- Edit. Go through your entire essay a few times and Spell Check (once on the computer, and once or twice manually for homonymic mistakes that a word processor may not catch such as “they’re” vs. “their”). Remove frivolous or nondescript words such as “very,” “many,” and “interesting,” which weaken your writing. Check for grammatical and punctuation errors. You may want to ask someone who hasn’t yet read your essay to proofread it for you, as they are more likely to catch mistakes. Even minor mistakes show a lack of care for quality in your work.
- Ask a friend or teacher for an opinion. When you think you’re finally done with this grueling process, find someone whose opinion you trust (e.g., a scholarly friend, an English teacher, a parent). Ask them what you can do to improve your writing, and accept their feedback gracefully. Listen carefully and consider their suggestions. In the end, it is your essay, so do not implement any changes you disagree with and ensure that your narrative remains in your writing voice.
- Read your essay aloud. Yes, aloud. Not in your head. By reading an essay aloud, you will be able to pick up any phrases that sound awkward or wordy while noticing which areas don’t flow smoothly.
Don’ts: Essay Topics to Avoid
- Your heroism. If you saved someone in a swimming pool and that experience really changed you, okay, write about it. Just make sure the essay does not come off as arrogant. Be humble when describing your heroic (a word to avoid in the essay, by the way) efforts.
- Pity me! Topics such as sexual assault, death, rape, depression, and suicide attempts are far too heavy—yet unfortunately, all too common—for a college admissions essay. No one wants to read an account of a horrific event, even if it concludes with your impressive self-analysis and personal growth. Such topics may even raise a red-flag as to how ready you are to handle college at this point. Save these topics for a psychology class or your diary.
- Excuses. Related to “Pity me!” excuses for bad grades (e.g., divorce or death in the family, moving to a new school) should be explained in a supplemental attachment. Most applications provide an area where you can explain extenuating circumstances that may have affected your academic record. Keep these short and sweet, and most importantly, far away from your main essays.
- The travel itinerary. So many students write about traveling that it is no longer a unique topic. If one excursion changed you for the better or opened your eyes in some way, focus on it. Just make sure to explore the important aspects of the journey in-depth and introspectively rather than providing an itinerary of places you’ve been to.
- Touchy religious or political issues. Major issues such as abortion, the legalization of marijuana, and overseas wars are extremely divisive. Though you may be convinced your arguments are solid and that your point of view is right, no one likes being lectured to. The risks of offending the admissions officers are too high, so save these types of essays for history, political science, or sociology courses once/if you’re accepted.
- Dating/sex life. Writing about a steamy or controversial topic may be an easy way to grab the reader’s attention, but it will likely just embarrass your reader. Avoid topics you would not feel comfortable discussing with a stranger. Some aspects of life are best kept private.
- Dodgy behavior. Don’t ever write about anything remotely illegal, such as gambling, drag racing, or substance (ab)use, no matter how cool or fascinating you may find the topic or how seamlessly you can weave it into a narrative. Again, colleges are business organizations who seek to mitigate their risk, so avoid coming off as even 1% of a liability.
Part I: The Common App Personal Statement Prompts
Most schools that you’ll be applying to accept the Common App, for which you will have to write a Personal Statement essay that is 650 words or less. This essay is your chance to show admissions officers your personality, which is hard to convey in mere numbers (transcripts, test scores) and lists (activity sheet). The American college admissions process considers each student holistically—taking into account their unique personality and extracurricular activities such as volunteer work and athletics. Admissions officers genuinely want to know who you are. They want to see that you’re a multifaceted human being, with a robust personality, and who is capable of giving a glimpse into their identity through a story, or narrative.
Rather than fearing the essay-writing process, as most students do, you should be grateful that schools care to know who you are—beyond test scores and utilitarian lists of activities. Naturally, the first step to writing thoughtfully crafted essays is knowing who are you are and which aspects of your personality you want to reveal to admissions officers. You will convey these points through the content of your essays, as well as through your writing voice. To start, let’s go over the Common App essay prompts for the 2018-2019 application season (*all prompts besides #4 have remained the same for the 2021-2022 application season).
Tips for the Common Apps 2018-2019 Essay Prompts
Option 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.
This is a perfect example of an essay that asks students to write about themselves. First, let’s break down the question.
When most people hear the word “background” they immediately think of ethnic or racial background. However, the word background can refer to so much more—cultural, religious, social, or economic—though we do not recommend writing about the latter.
Is there a unique aspect of your cultural background that plays a large role in your life? Are you very tied to your religion, in that you would even say that your faith defines you? Is your ethnicity a large part of your identity? Think about how you would describe yourself to someone you just met. Would you say, “I’m a Zen Buddhist” or would you say, “I’m half-Filipino and half-Malaysian”? Or perhaps you would say, “I’m Shanghainese.” How do you define yourself?
“Identity” is much broader than background. Common topics for identity-focused essays are one’s identity in a certain group or community (such as in one’s religious or cultural community as in the above paragraph) or in an extracurricular activity, such as “my identity as a swimmer,” “my identity as a student journalist,” or “my identity as student body president.” What are some words that come to mind when you’re asked to describe yourself? Do you identify as a New Yorker, as an athlete, or as something more abstract such as an undying pursuer of truth and knowledge? Students also oftentimes choose to write about their identities as vegetarians/vegans. Many students write essays about growing up/realizing that they are LBGTQ or hardcore feminists; however, we only recommend writing about LBGTQ or feminism if you have taken action to work toward whatever type of equality you strive to achieve.
If you define yourself primarily by your interest or talent, by all means feel free to write about that. However, be sure that you connect the essay to you. The Personal Statement includes the word “personal” for a reason. Admissions officers don’t want to read about your interest or talent unless you connect it to yourself. For example, maybe your main interest is history, as you believe that without a thorough understanding of the subject, one is doomed to repeat the mistakes of our predecessors. How has this belief impacted your own life? Have you taken the advice and actions of others into account when making your own life decisions? If so, has this served you for the better? Maybe your main interest is literature, as you’re addicted to classic novels. Don’t spend too many words describing the merits of Charles Dickens or F. Scott Fitzgerald. You could briefly mention why you love the classics, but then spend the majority of the essay focusing on its application to you. For example, maybe literature has honed your ability to empathize, as you have metaphorically lived many lives in one through reading the experiences of others. Maybe literature has inspired you to write your own short stories, which in turn helped you find your own voice as a writer. Maybe literature has simply provided a sweet escape from the pressures that come with being a modern-day teenager. Whatever you choose to write about, make sure that your essay focuses on one thing: you.
As for talents, they can lie in any arena—academics, sports, the arts—so just choose whichever is most meaningful to you. For example, if you define yourself first and foremost as a musician, go ahead and write an essay about the piano or whatever instrument you play. There are endless possibilities with such essays. For example, you could write about how playing an instrument contributed to your personal growth (choosing a specific reason, such as how daily practice made you more disciplined or how overcoming plateaus in progress taught you the value of consistency) or how it developed your artistic faculties.
Maybe you define yourself as an athlete. You could write about how playing soccer changed you from more of a loner into someone who truly recognizes the values of teamwork and camaraderie. You could write about how strengthening your body during intense workouts on the field and in the gym unexpectedly also strengthened your willpower by teaching you the veracity of “mind over matter.” No matter what talent you choose, there are a plethora of ways you can write about it; there is no cookie-cutter mold for the content of these essays. Just take a minute to reflect on how the talent has actually impacted or changed you.
Option 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?
Before 2013, one of the Common App essay prompts asked students to write about an accomplishment or achievement they were proud of, indulging most applicants’ inclinations to brag. However, since then, Common App Option 2 has asked students to write about a…deep breath… failure!
Why would the Common App even pose such a question? Would anyone really have the guts to answer it? Actually, this question can inspire some of the strongest responses, so don’t immediately discard it for fear of exposing the part of you that you’ve tried best to hide all along: imperfection. Admissions officers know that all humans are flawed despite how perfect you may try to come off in the rest of your application package.
Anyway, it is far easier to bask in success than to tell strangers about a failure. It takes confidence to acknowledge and examine your shortcomings. Throughout your life, it is unavoidable that you will experience challenges, setbacks, and failures. As the educator Dewey used to say, “failure is just a learning opportunity.” Admissions officers want to see that while you do occasionally mess up, you are able to assess and grow from your mistakes. The ability to objectively consider the consequences of one’s actions and in turn learn from them is a sign of a mature individual: the type of student any college would desire in its student body.
When responding to this essay prompt, the description of the (challenge/setback/) failure should be clear and concise. Spend the majority of the essay discussing how you responded to the failure and what you learned from that experience. Be honest in describing your reaction to the failure. Were you angry at yourself? Surprised? Did the failure motivate you to act? The lessons learned from the failure are the most important part of this essay. Include a thorough self-analysis and introspection that demonstrate your self-awareness.
Keep in mind that the point of this essay is to show that you can evaluate, learn from, and move on from your failures. Focus the essay on how you responded to the failure, and include a decently-sized reflection paragraph in the conclusion.
Option 3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
This prompt is very broad, as there are a plethora beliefs or ideas to be questioned. Was the idea you questioned your own, your family’s, or your school’s? Or was it even broader than that, such as a socially accepted or cultural norm? Was this idea something new to you, that you took the initiative to better understand? Whatever belief or idea you choose to discuss, make sure it was significant to you.
Examples of beliefs or ideas that could be questioned include: challenging your school administration over a policy you don’t agree with such as mandatory “volunteer work” for National Honor Society students or even something as seemingly trivial as a dress code; challenging the faith you grew up indoctrinated with; challenging the status quo regarding racism, women’s rights, and societal gender roles/expectations (these are popular ones).
The first two parts of the prompt ask you to address why you challenged the belief in the first place. What motivated you to act? You’re being asked to show a facet of yourself that is highly personal, as it takes courage to stand up for something you believe in, especially when doing so means defying the majority. When describing your circumstance, it is your job to explain why you have taken this position or developed this point of view.
The last question asks about the outcome of your decision. Here is your chance to be not only honest with the admissions officer, but also with yourself. Think of this last question as a way that either lets you free your conscience or that serves as a wonderful learning moment that you’ve experienced in your life. Was your decision or action worth the consequences? Is it something you still stand by? If not, that’s okay—college is all about questioning beliefs and testing out ideas. The bottom line is that you’re being open, sincere, and staying true to who you are as a person, in good times and in bad.
Option 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.
In short, this prompt is about “what makes you tick.” Another way to think about this question is, what do you do and why do you do it? How does it reflect your personal values and principles? If you’re a zealous scientist, go ahead and recount your most challenging experiment in the lab. If you’re a political activist, describe the campaigns you undertook for your cause. If you started a petition to stop the school board from cutting costs on your school’s arts and music program, write about that. The key to success in addressing this prompt is staying focused on what the problem you faced was (“cause”) and how you resolved it or how you would like to resolve it (“effect”). Don’t get too caught up in the details of every step you took during your problem-solving process; concentrate on how this experience has changed you, hopefully for the better. If applicable, mention how others benefited from your efforts.
However, there’s more to this prompt than meets the eye. Not only does it actually have three parts, but also each part is weighed differently. Notice the prompt asks you to:
- describe the problem
- offer your solution
- explain its significance to you
The admissions officers won’t necessarily judge you for the problem you chose to write about (unless it’s something like “world peace” or “eradicating poverty,” which are simply too clichéd; however, if you can be more specific, such as discussing implementing microloans in a poor African economy, you’re good to go); after all, it’s not up to them to decide whether bio-chemistry should take priority over piano classes. What they really care about is why you consider that particular issue to be a problem and why you decided to make it your mission to solve it.
One former student wrote about her frustration with how the label of “feminists” carries a social stigma (the problem) and her resolution to dedicate her life to fighting for gender equality. At school, she organized a women’s leadership conference, coaching young women who are interested in social entrepreneurship (her solution). Her essay focused on tracing the “roots” of her feminism to the four generations of women in her family who have fought for women’s rights (which explained its significance to her).
Option 5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
It is rare that one accomplishment, event, or realization will instantaneously transform you, so take some time to reflect on your past experiences and think of a moment that could be seen as a turning point in your life. If this is tricky to do, try backtracking: find a personality-trait or skill that you’re proud of, and then try to identify its origins.
If you’re writing about an accomplishment, be sure not to come off as a braggart—rather than boast about the accomplishment, mention it humbly while focusing more on an analysis of your personal growth. There are so many types of accomplishments you can write about here. Did you reach a personal goal, whether academic, musical, or sports-related? To achieve this goal, did you step out of your comfort zone? Did you do something alone for the first time, such as travel to a new country or take care of your baby sister for a whole day? Did you start your own organization or charity? Did you grow from a moment of failure (see Option 2) and then finally achieve success? Maybe you’re very proud of your ability to remain laser-like focused on the tasks you’re completing and your ability to give everything you do 100% of your efforts. What was the root of this behavior? Were you always like this, or did practicing every day for a competition provide you with this self-discipline?
If you’re writing about an event, be sure to describe the background and setting of the event, as well as your role in it. Maybe you’re very proud of an event that you organized or attended, the preparation for or content of which transformed you. Did organizing junior prom enlighten you as to your administrative and organizational capabilities? Did leading the lacrosse team to victory against your archrivals in the championships instill in you a desire to continue inspiring and guiding others?
If you’re writing about a realization, think about something you’re glad you know (about yourself, about others, or about the world) and what sparked such a realization. Did you have an epiphany, or sudden realization, that led to a change in your behavior or thoughts? What led to this realization? Did this realization change your perspective on an important issue or clarify an element of how the world works? Did it teach you a truth about yourself or others? Not all realizations happen in a moment, like Newton’s fallen apple leading to the theory of gravity. More often than not, realizations happen gradually, as one lives and learns. Maybe studying for the SATs led you to realize that short-term pain can lead to long-term pleasure, or maybe you learned that the Sunk Cost theory of economics can apply to any area of your life, even your love life! No matter what you choose to write about, make sure that the realization has significantly changed you for the better and/or taught you something meaningful.
Option 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?
Do you ever find yourself so engrossed reading or learning about something that you look up at the clock and wonder where the time has gone? A “topic, idea, or concept” could be pertain to any field and be as specific or broad as you choose. Maybe you are fascinated by biogenetics, and when you’re watching TED talks on the subject or conducting experiments in your school lab, time simply slips away. Maybe you’re intrigued by 20th Century French Literature, and when you’re devouring novels or literary analyses, time ceases to exist. Maybe you’re just daydreaming about metaphysics in class and before you know it, that final bell rings.
The possibilities for this essay prompt are endless, and I highly recommend choosing this question if there is a topic you’re totally obsessed with. Universities love seeing students who are passionate, either academically, hobby-wise, or intellectually. If there’s an intellectual arena that particularly appeals to you, here is the place to let the admissions officers know about it. As the essay prompt states, make sure you give a description of the field you love. Keep this brief, as you want to spend most of your words explaining why this fascinates you and how you learn more about the topic (e.g., online videos, online articles, the Encyclopedia, consulting a teacher or a professional in the field, taking online courses, completing an internship or getting a part-time job in the field, conducting lab work).
This is one of the easier essay prompts to address. For example, one student wrote an essay on her fascination with the Lost Generation, aka the writers from the Jazz Age/1920’s. She focused specifically on her obsession with the works of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, who were basically frenemies with opposite writing styles (concise language focusing on “the theory of omission” versus florid, poetic prose, respectively). The majority of her essay focused on why she admired these writers’ styles and preeminent texts, and in her conclusion, she addressed how she learns more about the topic: watching YouTube videos, chatting with her English teacher during office hours, and devouring Wikipedia and JSTOR articles on the books she reads.
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.
This is possibly the easiest essay prompt to address. Only address this prompt if you really can’t think of anything to write for the above prompts, or if there is something about yourself that you really want to share with admissions officers yet which doesn’t fit into any of the other prompts. Addressing this prompt is a bit of a Catch-22. Yes, you have the freedom to write about anything you like, but then again it also makes it seem like you don’t have the ability to address one of the given prompts.
Part II: Developing a Personal Narrative Essay
Once you decide which Common App prompt you wish to address, you can start working on your essay.
While writing a personal narrative essay, there are several ways to create vivid imagery, or to paint a picture with your words.
- Showing versus telling
- When discussing emotions, you should generally “show, not tell.” Telling emotions usually comes across as forced and unreal. For example, rather than saying “I was so nervous for my math exam” show us your anxiety such as “My hands shook as I picked up the pencil.” Rather than saying “I was shy around the handsome boy” show us your face “turning beet-red as he looked my way” or your “heart skipping a beat or three.”
- Most of the time, you also want to show actions and personality traits. For example, rather than saying someone is a horrible driver, show them “weaving between lanes and nearly getting into a head-on collision.” Rather than saying someone is kindhearted, show them performing a generous deed. This especially applies when you’re talking about yourself. Never toot your own horn (e.g., “I’m proud of my resilience.”), but rather, let your actions speak for themselves and reflect whichever virtue or trait you wish to convey.
- Sometimes, telling is actually favorable to showing, especially if you wish to skip whole scenes. For example, rather than describing your bus ride home from school, you can simply skip from school to home with a transition such as “later that day….” For more examples of when you should tell and not show, check out this great, brief article.
- Use sensory descriptions to pull the reader into the story. What did you see, hear, taste, feel, or smell? You can infuse sensory descriptions wherever applicable, but particularly so during description of setting. For example, if you’re describing a day at the beach, you could mention the taste of the saltwater, the smell of sunblock violating your nostrils, the feeling of sand gritting against your legs, the blue of the ocean melting into the sky, and the cawing of the seagulls overhead. Be sure not to overdo it—two to four sensory descriptions per essay are more than enough!
- Using a word typically associated with one sense to describe another is called synesthesia. This causes the reader to do a double-take, hence emphasizing the description. Examples of synesthesia are:
- Her voice dripped with honey.
- The cookies smelled like Christmas morning.
- The velvet sky was thick with stars.
- Adjectives and nouns
- A wise writer once said, “Pick adjectives the way you would pick diamonds or mistresses.” In other words, choose carefully and opt for quality over quantity. For example, note the difference between “green eyes” and “emerald eyes.” Green is green, vague as can be. “Emerald” not only describes a specific shade of green, but also makes the reader imagine that sparkly, jewel-like quality characteristic of bright eyes. See how just one specific adjective can provide layers of description? Another example is “red lips” versus “cherry lips.” Red consists of countless hues, from blood-red to Old Hollywood-lipstick glam. However, “cherry lips” not only brings to mind the darker hue of cherries, but also evokes images of summer or a sweet taste.
- When writing, you want a delicate balance with your adjectives. Too many adjectives, and your reader will get bogged down with description and side-tracked from the story itself. Too little description, and the reader will not be able to imagine what is happening.
- The same as for adjectives applies to nouns. Sometimes you want to use a more specific noun, such as “mint chocolate chip ice cream” instead of the all-encompassing term “dessert.” Even a one-word tweak can allow the reader to better visualize what you intend to depict. For example, saying that the woman was walking a “dog” creates a hazy image of Dog in the readers mind, yet saying that she was walking a “Yorkie” really allows the reader to form a concrete image of a small terrier, hence making your story realer. Choosing what you want to emphasize really depends on the content of your story. It is perfectly fine to use vague nouns, such as “the tall man” rather than “the 6’3 man.” Think about what you want to emphasize—which would deserve more of a description—and use your best judgement.
- One thing that most writers agree with is that adverbs are deadweight in your prose. 99% of the time, a verb + adverb combination can be replaced by a strong verb. For example, saying “She ran quickly” can be transformed into “She sprinted.” Whenever you edit your essay and spot an adverb, ask yourself: Can I replace this with a strong verb?
- Another option to eliminating adverbs is to use figurative language. For example, “She ran quickly” can also be described using a simile such as “She ran like a hyper-caffeinated bunny.”
- Figurative language
- Figurative language awakens the reader’s imagination, makes your writing more memorable, allows you to express ideas in a more creative way, and adds to the “magic of literature.” Be sure to sprinkle your essay with devices such as simile, metaphor, hyperbole, and personification.
- Be sure to include dialogue if applicable. Dialogue provides the reader with a momentary respite from dense prose and helps bring your story to life.
- Play with sentence structure for pacing. Use shorter sentences, fewer descriptions, and more action scenes to speed up the pacing of your story. Use more adjectives, complex sentences, and internal monologue (aka inner thoughts) to slow down your story.
Other Possible Structures for the Personal Statement
Some students like to be more creative with their essay structures. Examples of Personal Statement structures include but are not limited to: diary format (this could work well if your story takes place over several days, such as a transformative vacation); manifestos (e.g., a student wrote a manifesto explaining the origins and reasons behind her veganism; another wrote a manifesto on his metaphysical beliefs); or pivotal essays, in which you start with the conflict as your hook.
Also, it is increasingly common that students leave out the reflection paragraph and simply conclude with the ending of their story. If choosing this method, make sure that whatever realizations you would have written in your conclusion are evident through the actions in your story. We prefer this method, as most famous short stories (perhaps with the exception of O’Henry’s Gift of the Magi) simply end with the conclusion of the story; there is no explanation of the significance of preceding events. Some readers may find it insulting to their intelligence if the reflection replaces a conclusion—if your story is written well enough, it should speak for itself—yet it is acceptable for a college application essay.
Stylistic Tips: What to Avoid
Wordiness and repetition. More often than not, students can cut at least a quarter of their essays and lose no meaningful content. Avoid repetition, fluff, and verbal fillers—there is no place for excess in a piece which is meant to be as engaging and effective as possible.
Making your essays dramatic, boring, or impenetrable.
Vague language. Never use words like “stuff” or “things;” they are far too imprecise. Even writing “this aspect of society bothers me…” is too unclear. What “aspect” are you specifically talking about? Do you really mean society as a whole, or just one specific group? Be clear and remember that admissions officers are not mind readers.
Clichéd metaphors, similes, phrases, or expressions. For example, avoid: “He is one in a million,” and hackneyed terms such as “my global perspective” or “my potential as a future leader.” Clichés make essays sound uninspired and unoriginal—could you really not come up with a way to say something that hasn’t already been overused to the point of exhaustion? Clichés only show a writer’s lack of creativity. However, you can indeed put a spin on a cliché, making it your own. For example, instead of saying “When I looked at my crush, my heart skipped a beat,” you could write “When I looked at my heart, my heart skipped a beat or three.”
Overusing the first-person. Most college admissions essays ask you to write about yourself anyway, so they are obviously going to be written as first-person narrative. Overusing “I” is an easy mistake to make. More than once per sentence is generally too much. Instead of using “I” all the time, use different pronouns or simply omit them.
Example: I love eating desserts so I started baking classes on the weekends. In particular, I focused on chocolates, cupcakes, and tortes. I really enjoyed these courses, and they’ve added a lot to my life. 🡪 An obsession with desserts drove me to attend weekend baking classes, focusing on chocolates, cupcakes, and tortes. These courses were very enjoyable and added a lot to my life.
Going off on tangents. Not all information about a certain experience, event, etc. needs to be mentioned. If content is not related to your main point or serves a purpose, exclude it.
Excess expletive constructions. Expletive constructions usually begin with “there” or “it.” “There is/there are,” “it is,” “it seems,” and the like are usually unnecessary. In an expletive construction, the “there,” or “it” do not serve as pronouns (aka they have no antecedents, meaning that they do not refer to anything); rather, they are merely empty subjects followed by a conjugation of the trite verb “to be.” To keep sentences engaging, use meaningful subjects and verbs.
Example: There were two girls in class who had problems with math. 🡪 Two girls in class had problems with math.
Example: It is Monday that I get to see my teacher again. 🡪 On Monday, I get to see my teacher again.
Don’t overuse flowery language. Too many adjectives, adverbs, and pompous words can ruin the reading experience by creating a suffocating feeling. Rather, use strong verbs to breathe some life into your essay.
Example: He lovingly gazed into her eyes and paused for a brief moment. Then, he took her soft, delicate hand in his, and whispered, “Will you marry me?” 🡪 He gazed into her eyes and paused for a moment. Then, he took her hand in his and whispered, “Will you marry me?”
Weak verbs. Just as strong verbs can make an essay, weak ones will ruin them. It’s inevitable that you will often use the verb “to be,” but do not overuse it. When another verb is possible or preferable, opt for it. The example below, though grammatically correct, is stylistically lacking. Notice how the bland verb “is” is replaced by “deserves” and “trace.”
Example: My mother is responsible for shaping me into the person I am today. She is not aware of her influence on me, however. 🡪 My mother deserves credit for shaping me into the person I am today. Though unaware of her influence on me, I can trace my success back to her.
Unnecessary use of the passive voice. Using the passive voice—in other words, creating a sentence in which the object takes the position of the subject—is not grammatically incorrect, but over or unnecessary use makes essays wordy and confusing.
Example: The window was left open by Joe. (passive) 🡪 Joe left the window open. (active)
Example: The ball was thrown into the goal by Sally. (passive) 🡪 Sally threw the ball into the goal as hard as she could. (active)
Note that the aforementioned passive examples are awkward. While reading the sentence, the reader wonders who is performing the action and is left guessing until the sentence’s end. To avoid confusion, place the subject in the typical subject position, at the front.
However, sometimes you would actually prefer to use the passive voice. If the focus of the sentence is the object, rather than the action, you should use the passive voice.
Example: As it was hit by a baseball bat, the precious Fabergе́ egg shattered. (active) 🡪 The precious Fabergе́ egg shattered as it was hit by a baseball bat. (passive)
Part III: UC Essays
If you’re applying for a UC school, you will need to address four out of eight essay prompts, capping at 350 words each. As these essays are much shorter than the Personal Statement essay, you must be Hemingyway-esque in your writing—concise and to the point!
As for choosing the prompt, there’s no standardized formula. Read over all of the prompts and see if you can address any more fully than others. Would addressing a certain prompt help the admissions officer understand you as an overall person, or bring to light a personality trait that may not be noticeable in the rest of your application package?
Do any particular prompts highlight your strengths, interests, or talents? Also, if you are not too strong in the area of your intended major, feel free to write about that subject to show that you do indeed have a more thorough comprehension of it than your transcript may suggest. For example, maybe you aren’t at the top of your science classes and still intend to major in Chemistry. You could choose to write an essay focused on the appeal of Chemistry to you (e.g., your fascination with theories, your escapism into the school’s Chem lab to conduct hands-on experiments, or the real-world applications of the subject that inspire you to pursue a career in the field), or perhaps about your own science research or related internships. This will show admissions officers that although you have a lot to learn, you are serious about your passion and taking steps to be as knowledgeable as possible in its field.
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.
A leadership role can mean anything—being the captain of a sport, leading a group of students for a class presentation, holding an administrative position in Student Government or a club, or helping organize an event or activity, either in or out of the school community. Leadership roles outside of school could pertain, but are not limited to, your family life, religious affiliations (e.g., church, mosque, synagogue), or volunteer work.
When addressing this prompt, be sure to mention what grade were you in or how old were you when you took on this leadership role. Also mention the contextual backstory. If you’re talking about your time as student body president, when did you join the Student Government? When and why were you promoted to president? Keep this brief, as you want to focus your essay on the actual leadership experience. If you’re writing your essay in the traditional, chronological format, all of this information would fit into a solid introduction.
In your body paragraphs, be sure to mention what you specifically did during your leadership role; chronologically-ordered body paragraphs would ensure a neater essay structure and one in which your ideas flow logically. A common mistake for this essay is that students focus too much on the objective: facts, tasks that they completed, and the results of their decisions or actions. You want to have a balance between objective and subjective in your essays; instead of only mentioning what you did, also mention how you felt about it to add a human element to your story.
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.
Everybody possesses varying degrees of creativity, but some people are more attune to how they can put their creativity to use. For example, maybe you design your own clothes, or maybe you’re a fabulous makeup artist who has your friends begging you for makeovers. Or maybe you’re the go-to person in the science lab when an experiment is about to fail, the one who comes up with a quick and creative solution to salvage the results.
When tackling this prompt, be sure that you clearly define what your creative talent is and how you go about using it. You can discuss when or how you first discovered that you possessed a creative gift and how you have also sought to strengthen it. Perhaps you love to draw, yet in order to improve your skills you’ve been making still life sketches that play with light and shadow. Whatever creative facet of your being you choose to discuss, make sure that you go beyond the surface and try to reveal the deeper meaning of why you recognize this ability and how you put it to good use. When crafting your introduction, “paint a picture” with words that clearly describes the extent of your creativity through dynamic language and sequencing of your story’s events.
When developing your body paragraphs, devote at least one paragraph to each section: how you discovered your ability, what made you want to explore it further, how you explored it further and how you use it in everyday life situations. If you’re discussing your strong ability to listen to a song on a radio and then replay it on your guitar by ear, describe how you are able to do this, as if you are “teaching” the admissions officer the tricks of the trade. Most importantly, discuss how your creative ability or talent has rendered you to be a more self-aware, sensitive person that allows you to view the world from a new perspective.
While addressing this prompt, some questions you can ask yourself are:
- How would you define creativity?
- What special talent do you possess showcases your creative side? Have you tried to deepen that skill? If so, how?
- If you are a creative problem solver, how do you usually arrive at your solution?
- What steps did you take in order to resolve the problem?
- In what ways does your creativity inform your decisions both during class and outside the classroom?
- How do you think your creative abilities may relate to your major or future career plans?
3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
See Option 1 of the Common App.
4. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
When addressing this prompt, keep in mind that learning experiences and educational opportunities present themselves daily and play an important role in shaping your ways of thinking and seeing. Furthermore, they are the primary contributors that can better prepare you for your time at university and to affront the world at large. For instance, reflect upon your enrollment in an honors or academic enrichment program or your attendance in an academy, institute, or boarding school that places a great deal of focus upon your desired occupation or a major, or taking Advanced Placement courses that challenge you.
If you choose to write about adversity in your educational experience that has created barriers for you to overcome, how did you succeed or attempt to succeed in surpassing them? What personal characteristics or skills did you have to use to meet this obstacle head on? How did “jumping this hurdle” help mold you into the person you are today?
For example, one student wrote about her experience moving from China to Japan, and her struggles with promptly being placed into an all-Japanese learning environment. Although she was initially overwhelmed with this major life shift, she knew that whether she excelled in school or even adapted to her new life was completely up to her. She spent all of her free time watching Japanese anime with Chinese subtitles, listening to J-Pop, taking intensive language courses after school, and refusing to speak a word of Chinese outside of her home. The process was a laborious one with many ups and downs, yet in the end, the student’s efforts were not in vain, and she finally adapted to her new environment both linguistically and culturally.
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?
See Option 2 of the Common App, only adding in how the challenge impacted your academics and what type of results you were able to obtain. Maybe working through a challenge has made you more persistent, more determined to excel, more logical, or more analytical. Maybe it even helped you discover a side of yourself you never knew existed!
6. Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.
See Option 5 of the Common App.
7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
When you think of community, what comes to mind? Does community as a term make you think of a team, an extracurricular group, or a place such as your school, your church, your neighborhood, or even your own home? We all belong to multiple communities, so choose one that is meaningful to you and be sure to discuss your unique role within that community setting.
Have you ever wanted to make a difference in said community? What propelled you to take action? What did you learn from that experience? Were you able to improve the lives of others either on a large or small scale? Were you part of a community team or did you work by yourself in bringing about change? Examples of how you could improve your community include: leading your sports team to victories; establishing a sense of camaraderie in a formerly divided student body; sorting through the recycling in your residential area or even simply raising environmental awareness in your neighborhood; playing a more active role in your family, perhaps in contributing to the household via cooking, cleaning, or babysitting your siblings; volunteering to help less-privileged or elderly community members; and organizing volunteer activities for your schoolmates.
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?
Just like the last prompt for the Common App, only respond to this if there’s something you really want to share about yourself yet were unable to do through addressing the other prompts. Take a few moments to reflect on the part of you that you’re most proud of, something that makes you stand out from the crowd. Are you mature beyond your years, perhaps due to having to take care of your younger siblings? Are you a physical beast ready to dominate the school’s sports team, as showcased through your experiences playing football? Are you the modern-day Renaissance man, excelling in various fields and hence rendering you a potentially active member in various student clubs and organizations? Are you a gifted writer, eager to contribute your talents to the school’s newspaper and literary magazine? Are you a talented musician, eager to join the school’s music ensembles?
If you have a hard time thinking of what makes you stand out, ask a family, friend, teacher, or acquaintance! It can be quite surprising and insightful to learn how others perceive you.
Part IV: Common Types of Supplemental Essays
Though some schools (e.g., Wake Forest, UChicago, Brown) will have their own bizarre essay prompts, most college essays can be grouped into a type. Below are the most common types of supplemental essays, though the wording and specificities of the prompts will vary from school to school.
- A Favorite or Important Activity
- Why School
- Intellectual Curiosity
- An Important Experience
- An Important Issue
- An Important Person
- Something who has Influenced You
A Favorite or important activity: Please briefly describe which single activity listed in the Activity section of your application you are most proud of and why.
Choose an activity you are passionate about—be it a sport, random hobby (e.g. stamp collecting), or extracurricular activity (e.g. volunteering, hiking on weekends).
When responding to this prompt, think about what you do in your free time. Why is whatever you choose to write about your favorite activity? How do you feel when you are engaged in it? Show that you have a deep passion for something and that you have an intellectual understanding of it.
Example: Ever since I was a child, I would spend my lazy days of summer on my grandfather’s fishing boat. To an external eye, one may think that fishing is indeed intended for the lethargic, but much thought goes into planning a fishing trip before even stepping onto the boat at sunrise. And if it’s a good day at sea, filling the cooler with that evening’s dinner is even more rewarding yet demanding when it comes to cleaning and cooking the fish late into the evening. Although fishing as a sport requires great patience and determination, what matters most to me is the company of one’s fishing partner.
My grandfather, Joey, always said that a bad day at sea is better than a good day at work. At the age of 10, although I didn’t understand the sentiment of what a bad day at work would signify, Joey explained that fishing enabled him to appreciate being out on the open sea as well as the relaxation and ability to be in the present moment that came along with it. He would also parallel fishing as a metaphor for life, in that whenever one has a goal in mind, it may or may not come to pass. Regardless, one must always show up and be prepared for anything. Although whatever is to transpire is beyond our control (i.e., catching fish), we must always put our best effort forth and try our best (i.e., preparing our lines, bait, and always having the net ready for action).
Quick analysis: The concept of this essay is highly personal to the writer, as it demonstrates his deep love and respect for his grandfather through how his favorite activity has been shaped. Fishing goes beyond a mere means of passing one’s time and also comes to signify a means of absorbing life lessons.
Why School: Describe why you want to attend a certain university.
This essay prompt specifically asks you why you want to spend your prime youth years at the college in mind. The prompt may ask: Why is this college a good fit for you? or Tell us about your career goals and plans you may have for your studies. This essay allows you to show your interest in the school and why you’re a good fit.
When responding to this prompt, it is crucial to do a lot of research into the school and into the specific program to which you are applying. Is the major or academic program unique from how it is typically offered at other colleges? Is there a specific course or curricula requirement you’re itching to take? Does the department boast prominent researchers, some of whose work interests you enough to consider joining their team? Check out the website for your major’s department to get clues. Browse the college’s clubs listing and see if anything interests you. Is there an intramural sport you would like to join? Or an international club? By mentioning specific aspects of the university that appeal to you, you show that you put a good amount of thought into your application decision.
Here, you also want to show that if admitted, you would make positive contributions to the school community. Play upon your strengths. Are you a talented pianist who wants to join the school orchestra? Do you want to serve as a peer tutor in any subject(s)? Do you bring a fresh cultural perspective to the table? What would the school gain in accepting you?
Example: Fashion Avenue is a place where fashion trends are not only created in design studios contained in the surrounding skyscrapers but where the sidewalk becomes the runaway. Fast-paced New Yorkers, tourists, and fashion design students show off their personal styles ranging from street-wear to impeccably tailored office attire within a radius of a mile. I believe that one’s personal aesthetic can only truly be reflected in the clothes they wear because first impressions are everything. If given the opportunity to study Textile Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), I would take full advantage of the state-of-the-art studios in the C Building while utilizing New York City as my blank canvas that would be filled up with museum visits to the Chelsea Contemporary art district just a fifteen minutes’ walk from campus along with exploring the various trends on the street and within iconic institutions and museums.
What inspires me most about FIT is that professors are known for their world-renowned careers and talent outside of the classroom, yet they strive to also teach their specialized trades to future designers, artists, and innovators. FIT’s international student body would afford me the opportunity to compare and contrast cultural trends in fashion and prints upon a variety of fabric when discussing our ethnic backgrounds together, especially when it comes to traditional garments. There is nowhere else in the world that brings multiculturalism at the forefront when preparing young and driven students to meet the needs of today’s demands of individualism as reflected through fashion. For this reason, I am certain that FIT will leave an indelible mark upon me, guiding me to leave my indelible mark upon fabrics and textiles that people choose to wear on Fashion Avenue and beyond.
Quick analysis: The content of this essay shows that the writer has not only researched her choice of university, quality of professors, and major, but also how the school’s surrounding area would further enrich her experience both on- and off-campus by giving specific examples.
Intellectual Curiosity: Tell us about the subjects or ideas that excite your intellectual curiosity.
You may be asked to describe an idea, experience, or work of art that has been important to your intellectual development. When responding to this prompt, think about what some of your favorite subjects are. What do you enjoy reading up on in your free time? Is there a particular novel or academic text that has inspired you to think differently? If so, how has it affected the way you see the world?
Example: Physically embodied as a dandy yet internally propelled to live as a free spirit with a profound passion for personally adhering to and teaching the doctrine of “Art for Art’s Sake” to devout followers, Oscar Wilde changed the way literature, visual arts, and aesthetics should be appreciated within both high and low society through his impassioned writings, speeches, and interviews during the Victorian Era. As a self-proclaimed free spirit with a thirst for seeking beauty in all forms of everyday life, I couldn’t help but read Wilde’s Portrait of Dorian Gray at least five times since I first discovered this classic work of literature two years ago in English class.
Although Wilde speaks to how passion, beauty, and pleasure better one’s life, he demonstrates that Dorian’s narcissistic ways push him to live a life of pure excess which in turn backfires as seen through the transformation of his portrait from being exceptionally handsome to withered and old, a reflection of his depraved mind and actions. This overarching theme in Wilde’s masterpiece has helped me realize that one’s interior world is reflected through one’s actions and how they physically appear, whether they are aware of it or not. It has also made me question how in today’s world, many people try to present themselves in the best possible light through social media selfies and the sharing of pleasurable experiences at the beach, in restaurants, and on vacation in order to outwardly show others how great they are and how grand their life is; yet this is a mere façade that reflects an altered truth just as Dorian’s portrait does.
Quick analysis: When drawing upon intellectual curiosity, the writer discusses how in this case, Oscar Wilde’s lifestyle and writing has impacted him, from when he first came across the novel in school to how he then to took the initiative to go deeper in understanding Wilde’s message, which he parallels with modern society’s use of appearances in social media.
An Important Experience: Evaluate an important experience and its impact on you.
If you are ever asked to “evaluate” anything, your response must involve critical thinking and analysis. Summarization of the experience is necessary to provide context, but the meat of your essay should be your discussion on how the experience affected you for the better. Keep in mind that college essays should always be focused on positive change and self-growth, so if an experience made you cynical or pessimistic, choose another one.
Many students have difficulty coming up with a “significant” experience as they deem their high school lives too trivial. Even if you haven’t yet stepped into the “real world,” you’ve definitely had important moments. What about the first time you pushed yourself out of your comfort zone? Or an epiphany you had—perhaps realizing you need to make your own decisions, no matter how much they may defy your parents’ wishes? Even choosing an uncommon major can be an exciting risk to write about. Don’t worry if you haven’t rescued anyone or changed the world yet—you are still a teenager.
Be sure not to brag in your essay! It is glaringly obvious when students use their essays to show off about a success—be it scoring the winning goal in the soccer championships or being voted class president amongst fierce competition. These topics are fine if and only if you are very wary of your tone. In order not to come off as a self-consumed egotist, make sure to convey appreciation for the involved community, be it teammates or voters. Colleges want applicants who will play an active role in the student body, so be sure to include those who accompanied you toward success.
Lastly, show your character. This is your chance to reveal your personality, values, and possibly sense of camaraderie. While exploring an experience’s impact on you, be sure to convey a sense of self-awareness, community, and humility.
Example: Although I had never been to a soup kitchen before, I decided that I wanted to join members of my church in helping feed the community on Christmas Eve before celebrating with my family. I was the youngest volunteer to sign up, and I feared being out of my element—I cannot fathom what it must be like to go hungry and not even know when the next meal eaten would even be. My mom suggested that we prepare a big tray of baked pasta that could serve at least 20 people, and she followed my lead and also signed up to volunteer. We met other members of our congregation at 5:45 p.m. at the community outreach center, all prepared with large trays and containers covered in tin foil and ready to be served.
Upon entering, I noticed that there were long tables set up with Christmas-themed tablecloths and decorations hanging from the ceiling and on the windows along with a large Christmas tree with packages of gifts for impoverished children. I felt a lump in my throat thinking that without the good hearts and service of my fellow church members, others would have missed out on celebrating one of the most sacred holidays of the year. We quickly laid out the food and took our places.
By 6:00 p.m. the doors opened. Men, women, and children of all ages started pouring in. I didn’t know if it was appropriate to talk to them or to just serve them in silence, but nevertheless, I hoped that I could at least make a small difference in providing nourishment. After serving the first handful of people that came to me, I had a serious “a-ha” moment. What if the roles were reserved? What if my family and I were less fortunate and had to rely on others to help us merely survive? Instead of barely making eye contact and gently nodding my head when the homeless thanked me for the food I placed upon their plates, I started to look up and greet each person with a smile and ask how they were doing.
To my surprise, a simple exchange of conversation seemed to fill their spirits more than the physical food they were able to eat. By the end of the Christmas Eve dinner, we were all thanked with handshakes and hugs. Yet in that moment, I realized that I left with a spirit that was further enriched and nourished after learning that material needs pale in comparison to genuine human affection.
Quick analysis: Instead of speaking about a school activity that may be quite common for the admissions officer to read, the writer described a time he served their community through participating in a church event, which is explained to give context to the reader but more so the focus is upon the lesson learned from the experience.
An Important Issue: Discuss an important local, national, or international issue and its importance to you.
Again, this is not the place to superficially summarize. To discuss means to think critically about a topic and to analyze it in depth.
When faced with this question, most students write about major, complex, and global issues such as the detrimental effects of global warming on the environment. Such broad topics are unoriginal and impersonal. Choose a smaller issue or one that you can actually affect with your “one person” actions. The point of this, as with any essay, is to reveal something about yourself. Maybe there were too many homeless people in your local community so you started organizing students to volunteer at the soup kitchen after school. Maybe religious intolerance bothers you, so you started reading various religions’ core texts in order to have a more unbiased point of view on such an important aspect of people’s lives. Whatever you choose to write about, be sure to make it as much about you as possible.
Example: From childhood, my parents have always encouraged me to express my emotions through free, open communication. Although one may take this for granted, I realize that my parents have given me life tools that prevent me from having to face communication barriers when it comes to interacting with others on a personal or scholastic level.
One day while I was checking out books at the local library, I noticed that there was sign posted for “Homework Helpers” asking for high school or college-level students in the community to volunteer their time in tutoring elementary school children who were non-native English speakers. I decided that one afternoon a week was possible for me to help out when balancing the rigors of my schoolwork and extracurricular activities. During my first meeting with a group of five fourth grade children who originally came from India, Peru, and Japan, each of them were quiet and appeared very timid before our lesson started. In front of them was a small text assigned for reading and then responding to three questions. I too felt nervous because I had never taught anyone anything before, let alone knowing that language issues may arise.
When I called on the first child to start reading, she nervously put her head down and was barely audible. I noticed the same pattern happen with all of the other boys and girls. Yet by our fourth meeting together, I noticed that they started to read a little bit more loudly and that they also were eager to raise their hands for me to call on. By our eighth and final lesson, the children were filled with smiles and projected their voices without fear. I felt that my parents’ teachings somehow came through during my presentation of encouragement and support when interacting with the children and I had never felt so grateful yet proud at the same time knowing that I was able to guide them in finding their voice…in English.
Quick analysis: On a local level, the writer explains how he made a difference by working with community children in the most unexpected yet rewarding way. Through kindness, patience, and encouragement that the writer as a child received from his parents, he was able to transmit these qualities to other children and to help them find their own voice when having to communicate in English, their second language.
An Important Person: Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.
Whoever you choose to write about, be sure to examine how and why they influenced you and to analyze the ways you have changed as a result. Writing about one of your parents is okay, but make sure it stands out from the other thousands of essays about Mom or Dad. Was your parent exceptionally good at parenting in an uncommon way? Writing about a pop or movie star is also okay, if crafted well. Be sure to provide original, specific, and justified reasons for looking up to them, lest you come off as a superficial, crazed groupie!
Perhaps you had a special teacher, counselor, or coach whose advice you actually took and as a result, a huge chunk of your life changed for the better. Perhaps you are so inspired by a prominent social or political activist that their fights for justice in turn inspire you to act. Perhaps there is an artist, scientist, researcher, or other expert in his field who you greatly admire for their sense of creativity, originality, or ingenuity. Just try to choose someone a bit less predictable than Steve Jobs or Martin Luther King Jr.
Example: You never know the impact someone has your life until they are no longer. This was the case the day that I lost my grandmother after her battle with cancer two years ago. Although my grandmother was the typical image of what a “nanny” would be with short curly hair, chunky costume jewelry necklaces and bracelets, strong perfume, and her favorite apron always tied around her waist when making my favorite dishes and cookies in the kitchen, it was her atypical way of thinking that made her very modern for her time. She emigrated from Europe on a steam liner as a child and had to start life anew with her family when coming to New York. Not speaking a word of English, she had to learn it quickly in grade school or run the risk of being made fun and punished by her teacher.
After finding a job as a shop clerk and then meeting my grandfather (her future husband), she left the big city and started a life in the suburbs, raising my mom and my uncle. She always found a way to make her family happy—through their hearts and stomachs. Not knowing one recipe by the time she was married, she devoted the following 55 years to whipping up meals to order. Now, whenever I visit my grandpa and enter that kitchen, I can imagine my grandmother leaning over the stovetop stirring sauce or frying up chicken. I can imagine the aroma of fresh-baked chocolate chips wafting through the air when coming for a Saturday visit. But most importantly, I can hear her voice recounting stories of her life as a young girl and her transformations in becoming an adult. It’s my grandmother’s wisdom that nourishes me now that she is no longer here to feed me in more ways than one. She was a true champion for being a strong yet feminine woman who demonstrated to me that it’s a woman’s kind heart yet fierce will that renders her beautiful both inside and out.
Quick analysis: Although the student chose to write about her deceased grandmother, she did not focus on the death itself but rather, on her grandmother’s positive personality traits such as ability to overcome adversity and her incessant desire to nourish her loved ones. Through personal anecdotes and examples, the student relays why her grandmother is her role model.
Something that has Influenced You: Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.
For this essay, don’t spend too much time describing. Rather, focus on analyzing a character, person, or work and its influence on you. When did you come across the essay’s subject? What attracted you to it? How and why has it influenced you? The explanation is the core of this type of essay, as it will reveal your personality and passions.
Remember that a “creative work” doesn’t necessarily have to apply to the studio arts or literature. Every field, from engineering and math to psychology and medicine, requires creative thinking for progress. Focus a bit more on the subject’s “influence on you.” After all, admissions officers are reading your essay to learn about you and no one else.
Example: Degas’ ballerinas appear as if they are delicately dancing off the canvas or they are mid-twirl captured through his bronze sculptures. Their ease and grace are interpreted through the artist’s touch and eyes as he shows them in the dance studio practicing tirelessly. Since the age of three, I too have been studying ballet and although I initially hated wearing a leotard and tutu because I found it to be constricting and itchy, by the age of 12 it had become my favorite attire, especially before taking the stage at my dance recitals. Every time that I see one of Degas’ works depicting his lovely ballerinas I can’t help but place myself inside of his canvas as well, knowing that those girls who more or less are my age also put their heart and soul into each practice and performance through one of the most classical yet expressive dance forms. I can feel the excitement of his ballerinas as they are mid movement and are in first or second position anticipating their next step or twirl.
Quick analysis: The writer chooses to discuss their personal experience as a ballerina and parallels her passion for dance with that of artist, Degas’ paintings and sculptures of ballerinas as they too enter into the dance studio that he created over a century ago.
Diversity: Given your personal background, 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.
Most colleges hold the belief that the best learning environment includes students from diverse backgrounds—students who bring new ideas and perspectives to the table. How can you add to the diversity of the campus community? What character or personality traits can you reveal via your essay?
First, remember that diversity isn’t only about race. Colleges want students who hold different beliefs, interests, and experiences so that they can learn from each other. Everyone has a little something that he can add to a new group!
Second, don’t write a generic essay on a third-world country service trip. Too many students write about a trip to Africa or Haiti which opened their sheltered eyes to all the poverty in the world. Such clichéd essays tend to sound naïve. Rather, if writing about an experience that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you, focus on something closer to your own community—maybe volunteering in the mountainsides of your own country instead of a continent away—or on something that reveals a non-superficial revelation you had (e.g., nothing about opening your eyes to the world’s poverty or learning to empathize).
Example: Diversity is a broad way of saying that each and every one of us has a special quality, talent, or gift to offer that is unique to its beholder. Of course, some people may have richer or more lived life experiences than others, but this doesn’t mean that one’s life path is less worthy or interesting than another’s. I believe that I will bring a diverse sense of fashion onto the college campus since I take pride in making my own clothes by using an old Singer sewing machine that my grandmother gave to me and taught me how to sew on from when I was 11 years old. Although one may think that my clothes look old and dated, it’s because I love the 1950s aesthetic of femininity yet ironically, I am a self-proclaimed feminist, championing for young girls’ and women’s rights. Based upon first impressions, I may be viewed as someone who is setting women back generations based upon my hem lines and the way I wear my make up and do my hair in a traditional way that seems much older for a seventeen-year-old girl to wear. But this is exactly the point. It is my choice to dress the way I feel suits both my personality and how I would like to present my image to others, even though it goes against mainstream culture. I believe that both men and women should equally have the option of wearing what feels fitting to them both outwardly and inwardly because our bodies serve as our canvas and clothes serve as our creative medium for physically demonstrating who we are and how we hope to present ourselves.
Quick analysis: In this essay, the writer sets up the admissions officer to understand his personal view and interpretation of what diversity means through a general lens and then gets more specific as to how the writer believes he will stand apart from other students on campus while inspiring them—in this case, through their diverse sense of style and principles.