Welcome to Essay Hell’s
College Application Essay Guide

When you apply to a college or university, you first need to figure out what application system they use. The fastest way to figure this out is to visit their web site and search their admissions page. Or you can check out the different application systems’ web sites and see what colleges use them (find links to main college application systems on right.)

The good news is that there are several application systems now that consolidate the process. So instead of having to write long essays for each college your apply to, you typically only write one core essay (personal statement), which goes out to your target schools.

The main system is call The Common Application. There are a handful of others, including the Universal, Coalition and Cappex applications. Also, the University of California, and state Texas universities and colleges use their own application systems to consolidate the process for their schools.

Here Are The Main Application Systems
Used by Colleges and Universities

The Common Application (use this one if possible)

The Coalition for Access (skip if possible; must use if applying to U. of Washington, U. of Florida and U. of Maryland)

Cappex Application (starting September 2017)

The Universal College Application (not many schools use this one)

The University of California (for all UCs, such as Berkeley, UCLA, Santa Cruz, David, etc.)

ApplyTexas (all public universities and some colleges in Texas; including U. of Texas at Austin)

Once you figure out what application(s) you need to use, find the required essays and prompts—as well as specific writing strategies, tips and ideas on how to answer them—below. Or RETURN to Home page.

Everything You Need to Know About the Four Most Common Applications (Click Icons for Essay Prompts and Writing Strategies!)

Common Application Essays

Find help on choosing from the five prompts for The Common Application, and crafting a “slice-of-life” essay that helps you stand out.

University of California Essays

University of California Essays

Brainstorm ideas and craft short essays for the eight new essay prompts for the University of California application.

Coalition for Access...Essays

This is a brand new application system: Find strategies for all five of the prompts to write the required personal statement essay.

ApplyTexas Essays (Most Texas Schools!)

Learn about the all-new prompts for the ApplyTexas application, and tips and advice on writing essays for Topic A, B and C.

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Start Your College Application Essay: Brainstorm Guide

start your college application essay

Find Your Problems
and You Will Find
Your Best Stories

 

Every year, I write a post for all you students who are ready to start your college application essay.

All you need is to find that one magic topic idea.

There are many ways to brainstorm ideas for college application essay topics.

This time, I’m going for the essay jugular and offering a brainstorm guide to start your college application essay by honing in on your best problems.

If you are new to this process of writing a narrative-style college application essay, let me clue you in to why problems are your golden ticket. read more…

Essay Lessons From a College Applicant Superstar

michael brown essay

Photo Via Johnathan Kimble/Courtesy Berthinia Rutledge-Brown

What You Can Learn From

Michael Brown’s College Application Essay

 

I must have watched the viral video of Michael Brown learning he got into Stanford at least three times in a row.

Such a feat and well-deserved accomplishment for what seems like an all-around great kid!

Not only was Michael accepted to 20 of our top learning institutions—including Harvard, Stanford and Yale—but he got a full ride to each of them. As well as more than a quarter million dollars in scholarships. read more…

New Trick for Finding Killer College Application Essay Topics

Let Lynda Barry Help You Find and Tell Your Best Stories!

Try One of Her Awesome Brainstorming Exercises

If you’re starting to brainstorm that perfect topic to craft your dreaded college application essay, I have a new writing technique you might find helpful.

I’m big on tapping mundane topics to inspire essays.

That means writing about everyday or ordinary experiences as opposed to those that try to impress or wow readers (aka college admissions folks).

Mundane topic example: My obsession with karaoke.

Trying-to-impress topic example: The time I played the star role in the school musical.

See the difference?

Which would you rather read about?

So when I discovered the brilliant writer and cartoonist Lynda Barry recently, and saw she also taps the mundane in life to help her students discover their personal stories, I couldn’t wait to share her ideas with those of you on the prowl for college application essay topics. read more…

Support High School Students Who Call BS on Guns

Learn How You Can Stand Up for Your Rights

Join the Parkland Students and Rally Your Own High School!

For the last decade, I’ve worked with hundreds of high school students every year on the notorious college application essay.

Once these teenagers start thinking and talking about who they are and what they care about, almost all of them reveal themselves as highly moral kids with idealistic goals and passions.

Above all, they know what’s right.

So it didn’t surprise me that the friends and classmates of the 14 high school students and three teachers slaughtered in Parkland, Florida last week have jumped into action.

Their simple and urgent message: Do something! read more…

College Rejection: 3 Lessons

college rejection

Don’t Despair over College Rejection

Sometimes You Discover a Better Path

 

It’s the time of year when high school seniors are learning where they got accepted to colleges or universities.

Yay! Good for you! Time to celebrate!

Many are also opening those dejecting rejection letters.

If they didn’t get into their dream school, that can be a bummer.

If they didn’t get into any of their schools, it can be a time of utter panic.

So I wanted to share a timely story about a young woman who recently sought my help after experiencing the wildly unpredictable and emotionally charged quest for the right school–and brutal college rejection. read more…

10 Quickie Tips to Nail Your UC Essays

uc essays

If you are just starting to write your four short UC essays (called Personal Insight Questions), here are ten simple tips that can help you crank them out.

I’ve written longer posts on how to brainstorm and map out answers for each of these questions for the University of California application, if you have the time and inclination. Find them here.

Too busy to read all those posts? No worries. read more…

The Big Eclipse: A Lesson in College Application Topic Ideas

 

Don’t Even Think About Writing About the Eclipse

And What to Write About Instead

 

When I was invited to give one of my college application essay writing workshops to students at Colorado Academy in Denver, Colorado, I had no idea it would be on the day of the big eclipse.

As Monday, August 21, neared, we all realized the sky would darken just about lunchtime during my daylong workshop.

Even though I knew it would be hard to compete with a full-on solar eclipse, I was excited because Denver was more in line with the action than my home in Southern California. read more…

How to Format Your Common Application Essay

format your common application essay

Confused on How to Format Your
Common Application Essay?

Here are 9 Hot Tips

The 2017-18 Common Application opened for business earlier this week (August. 1). Chances are you will soon need to know how to format your common application essay.

If you are on the ball, you might be ready to apply to specific colleges and universities and need to submit your core Common Application essay, as well as other shorter essays required by certain schools (often called Supplemental Essays).

Or you are still getting ready or working on writing them, but will need to know how to format your common application essay(s) in upcoming weeks or months.

The first step is to get an account with The Common Application. read more…

Why Kids CAN Write–If You Teach Them How

kids can write

Students Stress Over College App Essays

Because for the First Time They Want to Write

But Realize They Don’t Know How

The New York Times ran an article yesterday called “Why Kids Can’t Write.”

Great piece, but I didn’t agree with the title.

They can write. (Click bait.)

However, as the article chronicled at length, most students have not been taught how to write. The writing experts debated if the problem was at the mechanics end (lack of instruction on writing rules) or the other end with creative writing (lack of opportunity for personal expression through writing.)

I don’t think it’s an either-or issue. read more…

The Trouble with Boys and College Application Essays

college application essay

Who Writes Better College Application Essays:
Boys or Girls?

When I gave one of my summer college application essay writing boot camps this last weekend in my hometown of Laguna Beach, I had 11 boys and one girl.

As the students showed up, I casually mentioned this gender imbalance to the group and one of the boys quipped: “Because boys can’t write.”

I like to think of myself as someone who is gender neutral, and this comment caught me off guard.

My first thought was: That’s hogwash. read more…

Do Parents Help or Hurt College Application Essays?

college essay

Helicopter Parents Aren’t All Bad

(They Just Need to Know When to Drop In)

I received an email from a mom recently inquiring about my tutoring services for her college-bound daughter.

In her email, she included a story about their family history that she thought might make a good topic for an essay. It was mainly about the grandfather’s immigration “coming to America” experiences and the Holocaust.

While it sounded interesting, it didn’t seem that relevant or exciting to me–at least for the purposes of an essay that’s supposed to focus mainly on the student.

At the end of her story, the mom ended with this line: “My daughter’s response: ‘I read that if your parents think it is a good idea…it probably isn’t!’ LOL!” read more…

New Essay Requirements for ApplyTexas and University of Texas for Fall 2018

applytexas prompts

UT Austin Essays Just Got Easier!

If you are applying to be an incoming freshmen to the University of Texas at Austin for Fall 2018, I believe this is a piece of good news for you.

The application essays you need to write have changed from writing three longer essays (Topics A, B, and C) to one long essay (Topic A) and three supplements, which they call “short answers.”

To address Topic A, you need to write one personal statement type of essay about your background for the prompt they call Topic A. There is no stated word length, but a good range is around 500 words. read more…

Want to Go To University of Texas? Get This Book!

ticket to forty acres

The Ultimate Insider’s Guide

to UT Admissions

Get it FREE Now on Amazon!

My friend, Kevin Martin, just published this guide, Your Ticket to the Forty Acres: The Unofficial Guide for UT Undergraduate Admissions, on Amazon (Kindle) to help students quickly figure out what they need to do to game the admissions scene at the University of Texas, especially its Austin campus.

What I love about this book is that Kevin was a first-gen student who graduated top of his class, and then went on to to work for their admissions department as a counselor.

So he has experienced both sides of the process. read more…

Cultural Backgrounds Fuel Standout College App Essays

international students

 

Everyone Has a Cultural Background

Yours Could Make an Awesome
College App Essay Topic!

I love working with students from all over the world.

I’m always surprised, however, how many of these students overlook their rich backgrounds when brainstorming topics for their college application essays.

There have been several reasons for this.

Many international students seem to believe that colleges wouldn’t be interested in their country of birth, and the related customs, food, traditions, etc.

These same students also believe they need to appear “Americanized” in order to be attractive to their target schools in the U.S.

They are wrong and wrong. read more…

How To Give College Admissions Officials Essays They Want

Colleges Love Your Stories
Especially Those That Seem Almost Ordinary!

 

I’ve read several news articles in recent weeks featuring college admissions officials sharing what they liked about college application essays they read over the last year.

This feedback can be invaluable for students just starting to think about their essays and brainstorming topic ideas.

The admissions staffers at some of the best schools in the nation talked about the types of topics they enjoyed, and why they found them effective in learning more about the student applicants, and connecting with them (and admitting them!).

What the articles didn’t include, however, were ideas on exactly how you can find your own unique topics, and craft them into engaging and meaningful essays.

But don’t despair! read more…

3 Fixes for Cliche College Application Essay Topics

Should You Write About a Cliche Topic
for Your College Application Essay?

If you are just starting brainstorming ideas for your college application essays, one of the first pieces of advice you might stumble upon is to avoid “cliche” topics.

I always warn my students about these often over-used topics, which can include:

Death of loved ones

Sports (especially injuries and victories/losses)

Band

Mission trips (volunteering)

Tutoring (especially special needs kids)

Travel (family trips)

RELATED: College Application Essay Topics to Avoid

The main reason to avoid them is that droves of other students have already written about these topics, so they aren’t as effective at helping you differentiate yourself from other applicants.

HOWEVER… read more…

Should You Gamble on Your College Application Essay?

college application essay

Can a Risky College Application Essay
Get You Into the Ivies?

Maybe…

 

This time of year, a flurry of stories hit the national media about students who get into all the Ivy League schools (plus Stanford).

The stories always include scrutiny and speculation about their college application essays.

I have to admit that I’m kind of a sucker for these articles.

There’s such unpredictability with who gets into what schools.

Everyone is looking for clues as to what works and what doesn’t–especially with the essays. read more…

College Application Essay Workshops in Laguna Beach this Summer!

Weekend Essay Writing Boot Camps
in Laguna Beach

I will be offering three, two-part essay workshops this summer in my hometown of Laguna Beach on how to write awesome college application essays.

The workshops, which will be 90 minutes each on Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon, will be held at our coastal town’s wonderful community center, on Third Street, called the Suzi Q, located in the heart of our downtown.

The boot camps will include everything from understanding what makes an effective essay to how to brainstorm unique topics to editing and polishing drafts.

The essay workshops will teach students how to craft personal statement essays that will be perfect for the Common Application and other core essays, as well as writing admissions essays for the University of California and other colleges and universities. read more…

Start Your Personal Statement the Right Way

personal statement

 

Ready to write your personal statement essay?

It can be for your Common Application essay, or other university or college prompts, or transfers, or medical or law school, or even scholarship applications.

To start, always read the prompt.

If it asks you to write something fundamental about yourself (such as all seven of the Common App prompts), then they want a personal statement essay from you.

The next step is to start brainstorming. read more…

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