The Perfect College Application Essay: Topics, Prompts, and Tips
At Their Most Basic, College Admissions Essays Are Personal Statements That Students Write In Order To Complete Their Application And Apply To College.
Of course, that makes college essays seem easy. In reality, writing a college application essay is a complex process that every college-hopeful will have to go through. It involves personal reflection, patience, practice, and lots of outside help.
Fortunately, we’ve got everything you’ll need to prepare for writing an essay of your own.!
This article will cover how to write a college application essay, including common mistakes made on college essays, personal statement topics, tips for writing a successful admissions essay, and what the best admissions essays include. If you’re ready to take your college essays to the next level, then read on!
What You’ll Find In This Article:
- What You Need to Know About College Admissions Essays
- 6 Mistakes Students Make on College Application Essays
- Common Requirements for College Essays
- What Colleges Look for in an Admissions Essay
- 5 College Application Essay Topics and Prompts
- How to Write the Perfect College Application Essay
- Preparing for the Road Ahead
What You Need To Know About College Admissions Essays
When discussing college applications, one of the most crucial parts to understand is the essay, or personal statement.
You see, the college admissions process is not totally determined by numbers. This makes the admissions essay one of the most critical part of the application for students, because it allows them to show admissions officers who they really are.
While GPA, extracurricular activities, and academic achievements are important, the undergraduate experience is more focused on individuality and community. College admissions officers want to know how students will fit into their school culture, and the essay is typically how they judge that. Your GPA, SAT and ACT scores simply don’t paint the full picture of what you might bring to a college’s campus.
However, this is actually a huge benefit for you!
Even if your GPA or SAT scores aren’t perfect, you still have the opportunity to write an amazing college admissions essay—and often, this is the deciding factor between an average versus an outstanding college application!
6 Mistakes Students Make On College Application Essays
Some of the biggest downfalls for students writing college admissions essays are actually common mistakes that are easy to avoid—so long as you know what to look for.
Often times students fall into the trap of writing about their accomplishments and not themselves, miss the point of the prompt, or simply don’t edit what they wrote. Knowing these common mistakes can help guide you on what to do and what not to do when writing your essay.
#1: YOUR ESSAY READS LIKE A RESUME...
The point of a college application essay is to be personal, hence college essays often being called “personal statements.”
Most college essay prompts ask you not for a list of accomplishments or credentials, but for a personal essay that gives insight into who you are and what you could offer a college community.
You’ve already sent colleges your transcript, test scores, AP or IB classes, and lists of your activities. That portion of the application acted like a resume, meaning the essay is where you can focus on a unique experience or event that shaped who you are. If you miss this opportunity to talk about yourself, you’re also missing out on your best chance to stand apart from other applicants.
Which leads to another big mistake…
#2: YOU FOCUS ON OTHERS RATHER THAN YOURSELF...
Another major pitfall students face is focusing on others rather than themselves. Many students write their entire essay about an idol or family member, completely neglecting who they are.
Yes, it can feel strange or even difficult to talk about yourself in the first person, especially since you’re often taught to avoid “I” statements in school essays. However, this is a very different type of essay—the whole point is to give admissions officers insight into who you are!
Because of this, don’t be afraid to talk about yourself, your actions, and your thoughts.
The reason colleges give you the opportunity to write a personal essay is in the hope that you’ll reveal more about yourself. Make it crystal clear to the admissions officer what type of person you are so they can picture you, a unique individual, on their college campus.
#3: YOU RELY ON GIMMICKS...
Although you should be personable and relaxed in your essay, some people go too far and end up writing an ultra-casual biography.
This is another major mistake students make, often because they’re told by well-meaning teachers or mentors to imagine their essay as if they were talking to a friend or making a speech. This leads to poorly written essays that rarely even stay true to the prompt.
While your essay needs to be personal, it’s still being sent to a prestigious institution. You’re seeking higher education, not catching up with an old friend, so remain professional.
Fortunately, “professional” is exactly what it sounds like—intelligent, thoughtful, introspective, and respectful. There is no need to rely on jargon or even break out the thesaurus, but remember who will ultimately read your essay: a representative for the college you so badly want to attend.
#4: YOU NEVER EDITED YOUR ESSAY...
Unfortunately, this mistake is extremely common and extremely detrimental.
You spend so much time picking a college essay topic, writing the best admissions essay you can, and submitting your essay—but never stop to reread it.
It’s crucial that you edit your essay and search for any errors that might reflect poorly on your writing: grammatical or spelling mistakes, unclear sentences, slang, and poor formatting. Better yet, if you have the resources, enlist a parent, peer, teacher, or counselor to help edit your essay alongside you. Often you won’t catch your own mistakes, so having a second set of eyes can save your college application.
While this is one of the easiest mistakes to make, it’s also the easiest to fix. Simply take the extra time to ensure your essay is polished—don’t let a misplaced comma or a run on sentence be the reason you don’t get into your dream school!
#5: YOU IGNORED THE PROMPT...
Another dangerous mistake is not following the guidelines of your college essay prompt.
Oftentimes, students become so wrapped up in making their essay sound good that they forget to answer the questions colleges are asking. While this can be difficult, it’s critical that you pinpoint exactly what colleges are looking for in their prompts and then focus on that above all else.
For example, perhaps the prompt asked you what you learned from your biggest hardship, but you decide to talk about how being captain of the soccer team taught you leadership—this isn’t what the prompt is looking for and, unfortunately, this mistake can ruin your college application.
This is where getting the help of a college counselor, someone who has experience reading and interpreting college essay topics, can be a life-saver. A college counselor can help you identify exactly what your college essay prompts are asking for, how that relates to the topics you already want to write about, and how you can combine the two throughout your whole essay.
#6: YOUR ESSAY IS GENERIC...
The purpose of a personal statement is to show off who you are, so it’s crucial that you differentiate yourself in a meaningful way. You don’t want to end up writing about the same topic as everyone else, because that means admissions officers won’t remember you or your essay.
Here are some things to avoid:
- Don’t write about broad public issues that haven’t had a genuine impact on you. These will come across as generic and likely won’t say anything unique about who you are as a person.
- Avoid cliches whenever possible—they’re cheesy and ineffective. If you want to write about scoring the winning goal for your football team, make sure you have a unique spin that will stand out to admissions officers.
The key to making your essay memorable is to make it individual and to incorporate your identity. By showing college admissions officers a well-rounded picture of who you are, they’ll be far more likely to remember you and, best of all, want you at their school!
Common Requirements For College Essays
Whether you’re a student beginning the process of applying to college or a parent that wants to know more, some of the requirements for college essays don’t become available until the Common and UC Applications go live.
Fortunately, here are some requirements you can expect based on previous years:
- The Common Application’s personal statement, which goes to every college, is 650 words.
- The UC Application often includes two personal statements, 500 words each, or about two pages double spaced.
- Individual colleges will ask for supplemental essays in addition to the Common and UC Applications. These essays may range from several short answer essays, about 250-300 words, to an additional personal statement tailored to the particular college, about 650 words.
- There are often secondary essays required, depending on where you’re applying to college.
Although the specific topic requirements of college admissions essays change every year, there are a few topics that are recurring on the Common and UC Applications.
Prompts often focus on:
- Your background
- Your personal identity and how you developed it
- Major life lessons you’ve learned
- And any life-changing experiences you’ve had.
(You can find sample prompts for these topics later in the article!)
The prompts given by colleges for supplementary essays can vary drastically.
However, it’s common for schools to ask:
- Why you want to attend their college
- What kind of clubs you would join
- What you would contribute to their campus
- What your favorite book, movie, or hashtag is (the University of Southern California is known for these questions)
What Colleges Look For In An Admissions Essay
The key to writing a perfect college essay lies in capturing the reader’s attention.
Admission officers read dozens of college admissions essays daily, so yours needs to stand out. You should try to immediately hook the reader and explain why you’re the right fit for their college. Be specific about your own experience and write about what matters to you the most.
While there’s no one correct college essay format, there are characteristics of outstanding college essays. The best college essays show who you are as an individual, often recounting an experience that has deeply impacted you. These essays are thoughtful, developed, insightful, and introspective. Above all, the best college essays don’t have errors that distract from your main point.
A POWERFUL HOOK:
You should have a strong hook in the first few sentences of your college essay.
Your reader should be intrigued and want to know more, because you only have a limited amount of time to get their attention. However, many students find it easier to write their hook after they’ve already finished the essay and know their main point. Regardless of when you write your hook, double check that it’s impactful and strong before submitting your college essay.
Some effective ways of hooking a reader include:
- Setting the scene. Go into detail about what was happening in that moment. Make it vivid. If you’re a strong creative writer this can be especially effective.
- Opening with an anecdote. Nothing is more individual than your own experience. Personal anecdotes can help you capture the tone of your essay.
- Reveal a common misconception. You can give great insights into who you are by calling out a misconception that relates to part of your identity. It shows how you’re different from the very beginning of your essay.
A STRONG TOPIC:
To complement a strong hook, you need an equally strong topic.
This is your chance to appeal directly to an admissions officer, so the best topics should be closely related to your individual story. Choose something unique to your situation or life.
While you can certainly talk about more common experiences, they should always connect back to an insight into your own personality. For instance, there could be thousands of soccer players applying to the same college as you, but by showing how your experiences playing soccer shaped other aspects of your life, you can quickly differentiate yourself.
Above all, give your essay impact by highlighting your unique self.
VIVID (AND VISUAL) DETAILS:
Including in-depth descriptions and visual details not only helps show your story to your reader, but it’s also much more interesting and attention-grabbing.
Compare these two statements:
- I was a dancer in high school, but due to an injury I had to quit.
- Every day at 3:15 I would frantically put my hair into a bun on the car ride to ballet class. I was always fidgeting with excitement—ballet could never come soon enough. So when I was told my hips were giving out, my world changed. There were no more messy buns in the car, no more tired TV binges after I got home from practice, and no more fidgeting with excitement. I was told I would never dance again.
Which of these examples is more compelling?
If you’re being honest with yourself, the second one is. It tells a story using strong details that allow you to see the change this injury caused. While it’s harder to write, it’s far more effective, and can make or break your college essay’s success.
A PROFESSIONAL TONE:
Don’t use overly academic or technical language just to impress your college admissions officer, but make sure your writing is professional. You should write your essay the same way you would speak to a boss or teacher—it’ll be obvious if your essay is flooded with complicated words just for the sake of showing off, and it will ultimately detract from your main point.
While it’s important to write in a way that shows off your intelligence, don’t try to sound unnaturally academic. College admissions essays require you to strike a balance between casual and formal, with the goal being to show off your unique personality in a respectful, professional way. Your essay acts as an interview, so you want your reader to feel like they are talking to you and getting to know you through your essay.
College application essays typically have a maximum word count of about 500-650 words and, once you start writing, this word count can quickly creep up on you. This means that your essay should be concise, yet detailed. As hard as that may sound, simply get to the point of your essay and you should find you have plenty of words to spare. Many students ramble on because they’re unsure what to say, and quickly run out of words as a result—while also boring their admissions officer.
Decide what you want to write about before you start writing, so you don’t fall into this trap. A clear, concise, and interesting essay will grab the admission officer’s attention, keep their attention, and show them your individual identity.
5 College Application Topics And Prompts
A crucial aspect of college essay writing is knowing what exactly you are going to write about.
While the specific prompts for each application don’t come out until early August, there are many recurring prompts that you can expect to see. Knowing what these college essay prompts will be about beforehand can help you get a head start for when topics finally release.
ESSAYS ABOUT IDENTITY:
Identity focused essay prompts will ask you specific questions about your interests and community, but will fundamentally be focused on what makes you who you are. These prompts are great if your identity is a big aspect of your life.
Here are some examples from the Common and UC Applications:
- 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 — Common Application, 2018.
- Describe the world you come from (for example, your family, community or school) and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations — UC Application, 2018.
- Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution or experience that is important to you. What about this quality or accomplishment makes you proud and how does it relate to the person you are? — UC Application, 2018.
ESSAYS ABOUT CHALLENGING THE STATUS QUO:
Another common essay prompt asks about individual experiences where you felt compelled to go against the norm. Usually the purpose of prompts like these are to show the reader that you’re independent, a leader, or have a strong set of individual values.
Here’s an example prompt:
- Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What pushed you to act? Would you make the same decision again? — Common App, 2018.
These prompts call for you to discuss an experience that required some sort of strong action on your part. This would be particularly great is you’ve participated in a social cause or challenged a school policy.
ESSAYS ABOUT A MAJOR EXPERIENCE:
Prompts about formative experiences ask you to recount particularly life-changing events that defined who you grew into.
- Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family — Common App, 2018.
An essay based on this prompt would discuss a personal situation that had a major impact on your beliefs, identity, life-path, or actions.
ESSAYS ABOUT VOLUNTEER WORK:
Essays about volunteer work or community outreach don’t tend to use that specific wording, but rather use other language that relates to helping others or solving problems.
Here’s an example prompt that fits well with volunteer work:
- 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 — Common App, 2018.
This is a great way to not only highlight your values, but show how you’re already begun putting those values into practice. Of course, make sure your essay still relates back to you as a person. Whether it resonates with you because of a personal experience or connects to what you plan to study in college, volunteer work can be a great topic to focus on for your college essay.
ESSAYS ABOUT PAST MISTAKES:
Probably the hardest to write (and write well), essays about personal mistakes can also be a great chance to show humility and an aptitude for growth—both traits college admissions officers want to see.
Here’s an example prompt:
- The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? — Common App, 2018.
Use these prompts as a chance to show off your maturity. While it may seem counter-intuitive to talk about a failure when trying to show off how qualified you are, remember that we all make mistakes. It’s how we handle those mistakes with grace and kindness that set us apart from others.
How To Write The Perfect College Application Essay
Now that you know what mistakes to avoid when writing your college essay and are equipped with some topics and prompts, you can begin writing your college application essay. Here’s how to write the perfect college admissions essay!
One of the best things you can do for your college essay is to get a head start. If you know what prompts to expect (like the ones we discussed above) then you can work on practice essays long before the final topics are released and can begin developing ideas.
Even if you don’t have the time or energy to go that far, you should make sure to start your essay as soon as topics are officially available. You need plenty of time to think about the topics you’ll be writing about, as well as time to write multiple drafts and edit them thoroughly. This is the most important part of your college application, so give yourself as much time as possible to make sure you get into the college you want.
WRITE MULTIPLE DRAFTS:
Something as important as a college admissions essay should not be done in one shot—this essay should be something that you put a lot of time, effort, and consideration into.
This is why writing multiple drafts of your college essay is extremely important. It gives you a chance to quickly get your thoughts down, without worrying about quality, and then refine your essay from there. If you only write one draft you risk leaving out important information and failing to develop your ideas. Writing multiple drafts also gives you a chance to catch any errors that could reflect poorly on your essay.
THINK ABOUT THE QUESTION:
You need to be thoughtful in your essay.
Think carefully about the question being asked, both to ensure you answer the prompt and to show off your personality. You also want to be insightful. Your reader is trying to picture you attending their particular college, so showing your intelligent, thoughtful nature helps them see you as a thriving student in their school.
EDIT YOUR WRITING:
If you only take one thing from this article: proofread and edit!
No one writes their best work on their first try. If you leave time to reread and edit your essay you’ll think about your topic and gain new insights in the process. Most importantly, editing can transform your essay from something average to something impressive and memorable.
Of course, many students aren’t equipped to edit their own writing—especially alongside all of the other important tasks that go into submitting a college essay. It’s hard to be objective about your own work, especially if you’re feeling rushed, so make sure to seek outside help if you feel you need it.
No matter how good your essay may be, it can’t truly shine unless your writing is polished as well.
Just like we said above, you really need a second set of eyes on your essay.
When you read your own work, you often skip over mistakes because you know what you intended to write—even if that’s not what ended up on the page. You’ll miss major grammatical errors and will leave behind sentences or even whole paragraphs that simply don’t make sense to anyone but yourself. In an essay that’s only 600 words, that’s a huge amount of lost real estate.
Fortunately, there are many people out there who want to help you write the best possible college admissions essay possible:
- College-aged Siblings
- College Counselors
Of everyone on this list, college counselors are by far the best resource out there. However, keep in mind that counselors are usually swamped with requests for help come application time.
In these instances, bringing in an outside counselor can often be your best bet.
These professionals can go in-depth with you on a one-on-one basis, helping you not only polish your essay, but refine your entire application strategy. In fact, many students prefer to seek outside counselors for this very reason—a school counselor rarely has the time to work on both your application and essay together.
If you’re hoping to get into any of the top colleges in the US, you’ll want to strongly consider hiring a professional counselor to help.
Preparing For The Road Ahead
Applying to colleges is an intimidating process, but we hope these tips have helped you feel that much more prepared for the journey ahead.
Of course, this article isn’t all we have to offer.
Whether you’re a student dreaming of Yale, Standford, or Harvard, or a parent looking to support your kid however you can, we’re here to help. WeAdmit is a team of college counseling professionals who intimately understand the admissions process. Whether you’re struggling to write the perfect essay or aren’t even sure where to apply yet, we can work with you one-on-one to refine your application strategy and support you through the many twists and turns of applying to college.
Are You Ready? Let’s Get Into College!
Common App 101: Tips for Applying to College with the Common App
Breaking The Common App Into To-Do List Sized Chunks...
Reach vs. Target vs. Safety Schools: Applying to the Right Colleges
You’ve Made It.