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!)
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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…
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…
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…
In One Word: Focus!
I’ve been reading college application essays for the last decade.
I’m probably into the thousands by now.
Looking back, I have identified the most common flaw in many of them.
They are too general.
Which make them borrrrrrringggggg.
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)
Mission trips (volunteering)
Tutoring (especially special needs kids)
Travel (family trips)
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…
Can a Risky College Application Essay
Get You Into the Ivies?
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…
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…
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…
3 HOT TIPS
Common App Prompt 6
In a previous post, I warned about the possible pitfalls of writing about the new Common Application prompt 6.
My main concern was that in writing about one of your passions — a “topic, idea or concept — you will need to make sure to craft a personal essay that is mainly about YOU!
As opposed to one that is only about the “topic, idea or concept” that you pick to write about.
Read about how to write an essay about the new Common Application prompt 6 that is engaging and personal, instead of academic and dull, in this post: Common Application Prompt 6: Be Warned.
Then come back to learn three other hot tips on how to write about this tricky prompt. read more…
Big Red Flag on this New
Common Application Prompt 6!
The Common Application added two new prompts for 2017-18.
Now students can choose from seven prompts (instead of five) to inspire their personal statement “Common App” essay.
The seventh new Common Application prompt basically allows you to write about anything you want, and you can learn more about it and the new prompts in New Common Application Prompts for 2017-18.
The other prompt, the new Common Application Prompt 6, essentially asks you to write about one of your intellectual passions. read more…
GET IT FOR FREE FOR LIMITED TIME!
I’m introducing my hot-off-the-press writing guide, “Essay Hell’s 50 Most Commonly Asked Questions about College Application Essays” by giving it away for the next 5 days on Amazon.
I designed this guide for students, parents, teachers and counselors who want quick and easy answers to the questions I have fielded the most during my decade working with these dreaded college application essays.
Not only do I include simple answers for each of the 50 questions, I also include clickable links to related posts from this blog to provide even more in depth explanations, advice and tips. read more…
New Common Application Prompts for 2017-18:
TOPIC OF CHOICE IS BACK!!
Great news for you college-bound juniors who are just starting to think about your college application essays.
If you need to write your personal statement essay for The Common Application, they just made it a lot easier.
Instead of having to pick one topic from their list of suggested 5 prompts, you can now write about ANYTHING YOU WANT.
24 More Commonly Asked Questions
about College Admissions Essays
- How far back should I go in tracing my background?
When writing about experiences from your past, it’s best to stick to your high school years in general (for Common Application and incoming freshmen). That way, you make sure that any moments, incidents, activities or “times” that you include are relevant and timely. It’s okay to mention details from earlier days to support points you want to make, but use those sparingly because that was a long time ago and not as powerful as more recent examples.
Learn more: How to Answer Prompt 1 for Common Application
- How much of the information already in my application should I repeat?
Ideally, try to include information and topics in your essay that college admissions officers would not have already learned about you in other parts of your application. This is your best opportunity to showcase something additional and meaningful that goes beyond your test scores, grades and lists of extracurricular activities. Why tell them something they already know?
However, you might need to mention specifics from your application if you are going to write your essay about a topic related to your extracurricular activities or academics, and that’s fine—just make sure your essay tells the reader a lot more than simply what you did.
Learn more: Write Your Essay in Three Easy Steps
- Should I include or explain negative experiences?
You should definitely consider writing about negative experiences from your past, because chances are these involved problems. Problems are essay gold because you can share something that happened to you that is interesting and engaging (bad stuff simply is more interesting to read about), and then explain what you learned from handling it.
If you do share a negative experience—and these often make the best essays—you must quickly include how you found something positive from handling or solving it. If you don’t include the upside, your essay will be downer, which you don’t want.
You must share the negative experience, however, so we know how far you came and what you learned by working through it.
Learn more: Tips on Topics to Avoid
- Should I call attention to a low (or high) G.P.A.?
Essays are often an excellent opportunity for students to explain blips in their academic record. In general, let high G.P.A.s stand for themselves—if you call attention to them you can slip into sounding full of yourself. It’s crucial to maintain a humble tone in your essay, no matter how brilliant you are.
If you had a dip in your grades, you could write your essay to explain what obstacles got in your way, but make sure to include how you handled or managed those and either recovered or are on your way.
Don’t waste your essay explaining average grades. Instead, focus on writing an essay that showcases your individuality and character, and leave your grades out of it. Only consider writing your essay about grades if they crashed at some point. You are not writing an excuse for your poor performance; just giving an explanation. Also, share your plan to keep them upward bound.
Learn more: 5 Tips for “Do This; Not That” in Topics
- How “personal” should I be?
The best college application essays are highly personal. Students who share their struggles, low-points and feelings connect with their readers, and are memorable.
However, there is a line. The best rule is: When in doubt, leave it out. The last thing you want to do in your essay is to offend your reader.
There’s no need to include things that are gross or offensive. Often it’s all about how you say it. The more sensational something is, the fewer details you need to get across your point. Red flag topics to handle with care are religion, politics, sex, illness and death.
Instead of saying, “The kid barfed green puke all over me.” Say something like, “The kid couldn’t keep down his dinner.”
If you can’t tell the difference, ask advice from someone you trust.
Learn more: TMI in College Application Essays
- How do you fit everything important in 650 words?
The reason essays have a word count is to help students focus their essay on making one central point about themselves. If you write your draft, and you exceed the count, go back and edit it down. Never go over!
Cut out the big chunks you don’t need to support your point first, then sentences and finally individual words. Look for parts that don’t support your larger point, or sentences you already said and don’t need. Shorter is almost always better.
Instead of aiming to include everything about yourself in the essay, pick one main point to showcase, such as one of your core defining qualities, characteristics or a core value.
Learn more: The Ultimate Editing Checklist
- What do college admissions officers say I should write about?
College admissions officers first want you to respond their prompts. After that, they are looking for essays that tell them something about your that they wouldn’t learn from other parts of your application.
They also are looking to put a face on your application. The essay is the only part of the application where you can share your personality (your individuality) and character (what you care about).
They are looking for essays that help them differentiate you from other applicants. So look for ways to show how you are different from other students, and why that matters.
Learn more: College Admissions Officers Want Stories
- How personal should the personal essay be?
The best essays are always highly personal. The best way to get personal is to share some type of problem you faced (mistake, challenge, obstacle, flaw, phobia, setback, life change, failure, etc.) and include how it affected you and made you feel.
When you are open and vulnerable in your essay, you will connect with your reader. They will feel your pain and be on your side. This does not mean you complain or whine. Instead, share some of your feelings when you wrestled or handled a problem. Include a sentence on what went through your head, or what inspired you to address a problem. Be honest and direct. We are all more likable when we share our low points rather than our high points.
Learn more: How to Get Personal in Your Essay
- Do college application essays need MIA format?
There is no set format for these essays, since most require students to copy and paste them into web site applications, which can often lose any special formatting.
In general, write them in the first-person and stick with the past tense. Indent paragraphs and use standard punctuation, grammar and other rules of the English language.
The style is less formal, however, so you can relax some of the rules if it helps you set a more familiar, conversational tone, such as using contractions or phrases. Write more like you talk, but don’t get sloppy.
More FAQS about College Application Essays
Learn more: Forget the 5-Paragraph Essay
30. Does a college application essay need a title?
You can include a title with your essay, but it’s not required. Only use one if it adds something to the piece. A snappy title can help an essay be more memorable or stand out. But if you can’t think of one, leave it out.
Learn more: Should You Title Your Essay?
- How to conclude college application essay?
These essays are more casual than academic essays that you wrote in English class. You do not need a formal conclusion that restates your main point, or to wrap it up in a neat bow at the end.
However, there are ways to give your essay a satisfying and memorable conclusion.
One of the best ways to give a narrative, slice-of-life essay a sense of continuity is to find a way to link back to what you started with in your introduction. If you started by sharing something that happened to you, touch back to that incident and bring the reader up to date.
Also, try to share how you intend to apply whatever you say you learned in your essay toward your future college and career goals. It never hurts to end with a broad, upbeat statement.
Learn more: How to End Your Essay
- How to organize college application essay?
These essays have a looser format than typical academic essays your wrote for English class. Do not use the old five-paragraph style if possible. Even though these personal essays are less structured, it still helps to have a simple outline to organize how you want to present your ideas.
One way to structure a personal essay is to decide what quality, characteristic about yourself you want to showcase. Then find examples from your life that illustrate it. Start by sharing a moment or experience that is an example of your quality, characteristic or value, and then spend the rest of the essay explaining what it meant to you—what you learned and how you changed in any way.
Learn more: How to Structure a College Application Essay
- How to make college application essay stand out?
The best way to stand out with your essay is to try to find a topic that is unusual or unexpected. Writing about things you have done to impress colleges does not work, and in fact backfires, since those essays are usually very boring and a turn-off.
Instead, look for topics that are everyday or “mundane,” and find real-life stories where something happened to you to engage your reader. Brainstorm moments or “times” related to your hobbies, passions, jobs, family, background and interests for topics.
It’s often not what you write about, but what you have to say about it that makes the most difference in these essays. Try to find a way to tell target schools something they wouldn’t learn about you in other parts of your application.
The best trick to finding a topic that is interesting and sets you apart is to share times you faced some type of problem, especially one that was highly personal or challenging or unusual.
Learn more: Podcast on How to Stand Out with Your Essay
- What should college application essay be about?
The essays needs to be about you. Period. You can include other people in your essay if they had an impact on your topic, but you must make sure that most of what you say and share is about you.
The best way to make sure your essay is about you is to choose a defining quality or characteristic about yourself to showcase in your essay.
Then share real-life moments or experiences that illustrate why you are that way, and what you learned about yourself and why it matters. If you stick to writing about one quality or characteristic, your topic can’t wander too far away from being all about you.
- Who reads college application essays?
Usually, a small group of adults who are part of a school’s admissions committee read college application essays. The committee is comprised of admissions officers, who are staff (usually from the admissions department), professors or current or former students.
They can come from all types of ages and background. It’s best to think of them as basic people who are tasked with finding students they believe will contribute to the college or university.
Most will tell you they are looking for the “right fit,” so it’s in your best interest to help them by writing an essay that helps them understand your personality and character.
Learn more: Watch an Admissions Committee in Action
- Which common app essay to write?
You can pick from five prompts (essay questions) to write about you’re the Common Application core essay for incoming freshmen. Read through all five and see if one grabs your interest or if you feel you have something to say about it.
Generally, the first prompt is considered the most open-ended and most personal essays that include anything about a student’s background, identity, interest or talent would work. Notice they are also asking for a story, which always make these essays more interesting and meaningful.
Prompts 2 and 4 both ask students to write about problems (a failure in Prompt 2 or any imaginable type of problem in Prompt 4), which are the easiest to craft into a personal essay. Share the problem, and then go onto how you handled it and what you learned and you will have a solid essay.
Remember, these are just prompts and intended to “prompt” ideas and you are not expected to directly answer them, but write an essay that responds to it.
Learn more: Strategies for All 5 Common App Prompts
- Which common app essay topic is best?
The best essay topic is the one that allows you to share something interesting and meaningful about yourself. There is no one topic that works for all students.
If you can find a topic that is unusual or unexpected, that could help make your essay more interesting and memorable. But the most important part of writing about any topic is what you have to say about it—what you learned, how you felt, what you thought and how you changed.
Learn more: Strategies for All 5 Common App Prompts
- Should I be specific in my essay?
Yes, you should be specific in key parts of your essay to give it both a strong focus and interest.
When deciding what to write about yourself in your essay, it helps to be specific about what part of yourself you want to showcase (as opposed to trying to cram in everything about yourself.) Instead of writing about all your accomplishment or talents, try to think of one of your defining qualities or characteristics and write your essay about that.
Also, when you make general points in your essay, back them up with specific examples to add interest and clarity.
Learn more: Defining Qualities Bring Focus to Essays
- College Applications: How do universities ensure that the essays they receive don’t have any kind of plagiarism?
College admissions officers have keen radar on essays that were not written by students. They have read hundreds and even thousands of essays, and can usually detect when someone else has written an essay for a student. Never buy essays since these are usually poorly written and colleges can tell they were not original.
When admissions officer suspect plagiarism, it’s not hard to use to Google to check the source.
If you don’t write your own essay or copy what others have written, you will only hurt yourself in the long run, since colleges use these essays to make sure they are the right place for you.
40. Serious or Funny Essay?
Both serious and funny essay can be effective. It depends on your topic and what you want to say about yourself.
You can even be both serious and funny in the same essay. For instance, you can start your essay with an entertaining story about something that happened to you, but then explain what it meant and share serious insight, opinions and lessons learned.
What you don’t want is to try to write a funny essay, like a comedy sketch. Instead, share the funny thing that happened in a direct way and let the humor stand on its own.
In general, the subject of what you are talking about will determine whether your essay is serious or funny, or a little of both.
Learn more: 5 Ways to Blow Your Essay
41. What is most important part of an essay?
This is a hard question because an effective college application essays needs to accomplish several goals, and different parts have separate roles. First, the essay must engage the reader at the start, so it’s imperative that the introduction is compelling. Second, the essay must reveal something unique about the writer, so it must have a sharp focus and share something about the writer’s personality. Third, the essay needs to show the writer’s character, so it needs to express their values, how they learn and what they care about. The best way to do all three is to share a personal experience and then explain what it meant to you.
42. Should I write an analytical essay?
Your essay should be a personal essay, which typically also includes some type of analysis or examination of how you feel, think and learn. A stricly analytical essay has a more formal style and structure and would be too academic to work as an effective college application essay. The best personal essays are narrative (storytelling) in style, and start with students sharing a real-life experience and then explaining what it meant—through analysis of the event, what they learned, how they thought about it, what they valued and why it all mattered in the larger sense. The best college application essays also include personal reflection (sharing ideas, insights, realizations, questions, etc.).
43. Should my essay be narrative?
The best style and format for an effective college application essay is narrative. This means the writer shares a personal experience and uses that to reveal something unique about themselves (their personality), as well as how they learn, what they care about and what the life lesson mattered (their character.) Narrative essays are not one, long story; rather, they take one moment or incident and use that to illustrate something about themselves that will help colleges differentiate them among other applicants. The single moment or incident is often used at the start (an “anecdote”) as the introduction and is only a paragraph or two long. The rest of the essay is used to explain what it meant to the writer.
44. How do I end my essay on a positive note?
It’s always best to leave the reader on an upbeat note, no matter how intense or negative other parts of the essay were up to that point. Many essays share experiences that were challenging or problematic, but it’s imperative that the student also quickly show how they handled those issues and turned them into learning experiences. The best way to leave on a positive note is to share how you intend to apply what you learned from an experience in your future goals. Use your last sentence or two to shift into the future and share how you intend to use your newfound knowledge toward your dreams.
Hope you found these FAQs about College Application Essays helpful. Read the first 20 Most Commonly Asked Questions about College Applications if you want to learn more.
If you have a burning question I haven’t answered here, please ask away in the comments section below and I will do my best to answer it.
FAQ | College Application Essays
I’m sharing below 20 of the most common questions about college application essays that I have been asked over the years, along with links to longer explanations and related helpful information.
This spring I published a book with these and 30 other questions and answers, called Essay Hell’s 50 Most Commonly Asked Questions about College Application Essays.
As you probably know, the University of California changed its required essay prompts for 2016-17.
Instead of writing two longer personal statement essays, you now chose from eight prompts (which they call Personal Insight Questions) and write four short essays, each under 350 words. (For incoming freshmen; transfer students have similar, yet slightly different requirement.)
The University of California recently shared several videos intended to help students understand what is expected from these new Personal Insight Questions prompts. read more…
I’m always trying to find ways to help students quickly come up with topic ideas and a path to cranking out their college application essays.
Typically, I advise them to start with their defining qualities or characteristics, and then find real-life stories or moments to illustrate one of these, and go from there.
(Use How to Write Your Common Application Essay in 3 Steps for that approach. It’s also spelled out in greater detail in my popular writing guide, Escape Essay Hell!, available on Amazon.) read more…
Most of you landed here in Essay Hell looking for advice on how to write your college application essays.
And you are definitely at the right place!
This post, however, I’m skipping the essay talk and offering something equally valuable:
As I’ve been watching the Democratic national convention this past week, I realized how much election speeches are like college application essays.
Both are sales pitches. Both candidates and college applicants want something—badly!
Candidates want votes. You want to get admitted. read more…
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