How to Find Your Required Essays
The first step to writing your college application essay is to figure out what applications you will use. Then you learn what essays they require and the prompts (essay questions) you need to write about.
To start, check out Essay Hell’s College Application Essay Guide that explains the main application systems (including The Common Application, University of California application, ApplyTexas application (all Texas universities and many colleges), the Coalition App, etc.
The College Application Essay Guide also has super helpful links to each application’s required essay prompts, as well as awesome writing tips, strategies and techniques on how to craft killer essays for them.
Click HERE if you are looking for my essay help (private tutoring or editing services).
Read this short-and-sweet guide to learn how to craft a narrative-style personal statement essay. Quickly find a topic, learn to tell your real-life stories, discover the power of anecdotes, map out your essay, pound out rough draft, and polish it to perfection!
Learn how to write a killer college app essay in less than an hour! In this on-demand course, How to Write a College Application Essay, watch short instructional videos on your own timeframe, use related handouts and digital copies of my writing guides, to learn how to write your essays.
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ON HOW TO GET MORE HELP!
As the founder of Essay Hell, I offer private hourlong Jumpstart sessions to help you brainstorm unique topics and map out a writing plan to launch your narrative-style essays. We work either in person or online.
Find a Hot Topic
Ready to find that unique topic that will set your essay apart from the pack?
Scroll through the blog posts below or start with some of the most popular posts
to the right. Once you land on a hot topic, you are off to an awesome start!
Need more help? Check out my tutoring services.
Feeling Pressure to Write
Don’t Do It!
Colleges and universities can no longer use your race as a factor in determining whether to accept you to their schools, since the landmark Supreme Court ruling on June 29th abolished most of Affirmative Action in our country.
Although schools are supposed to be colorblind now, many admissions officers are still on the prowl for minority students who can maintain the diversity on their campuses.
Being Black, Hispanic or Native Indian can still be a huge advantage in getting admitted to your dream school, especially the most competitive ones.
Since you no longer will be asked to check a box about your race, you may want to find other ways to let them know your heritage if you are a minority.
The most obvious place is in your college application essays.
Revealing your Race and Writing about Race are Very Different
That said, I would think twice before writing about the topic of race in general.
There’s a big difference between revealing your individual race in the context of what you have to say in your college app essay and writing about the nature of race or race-related issues as the central topic in your essay.
If you want to let your schools know your race, you can weave in details that will tip them off.
Mention that you were the first Black to join your local birdwatching club.
Or that you often cross the Mexican border in Texas on weekends to visit your grandmother.
Another example would be to talk about how you trained to dance in your first Powwow.
My main message here is that you can allude to your heritage in your essay–if you believe that will give you an advantage–but I don’t think tackling the larger subject of race will help you.
In fact, I think it could hurt.
As I say all over this blog, the main goal of your college application essay to find personal stories to share that will help you stand out from the competition.
The last thing you want is to write about topic that everyone else is using.
And this year, that could very well be the topic of race.
When the Supreme Court ruled to ban schools from using race as an admissions factor, the main Supreme Court Justice who pushed for this had a lot to say about the admissions process and specifically what students could write about in their essays.
And most of what he said was very confusing. (Not to mention, why does he have the authority to tell students what to write about, in these applications or anywhere? The ruling that effectively banned affirmative action is targeting those at colleges and universities who make the acceptance decisions, not the students who are applying.)
Bad Advice from the Top
In a nutshell, Chief Justice John G. Roberts told the court that it would be okay for schools to ask student applicants to discuss how race (ie discrimination) has affected them in their essays. At the same time, he warned schools not to use the essays to glean students’ individual race to use as a factor in their acceptance.
Yes, a very mixed message.
And one that was blasted out all over the national media.
But just because Roberts had a lot to say about race in college essays–saying that you can write about it in a very specific way–doesn’t mean you should write about it.
He was mainly defending his decision; not worrying about your chances of getting into your dream school.
Here’s one of his quotes on this subject: Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion [eg via their college app essay] of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise. … A benefit to a student who overcame racial discrimination, for example, must be tied to that student’s courage and determination. Or a benefit to a student whose heritage or culture motivated him or her to assume a leadership role or attain a particular goal must be tied to that student’s unique ability to contribute to the university. In other words, the student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual — not on the basis of race.
I believe what Roberts didn’t understand is how admissions officers use these essays.
Or the fundamental fact that schools can only control what they ask students to write about (via essay prompts); they have no control over what students actually write.
At a time when many schools have dropped using standardized tests in the admissions process, the college application essay has become one of the last remaining tools admissions officers can use to select one student over the other.
At the most competitive schools, it’s even more important since so many students share almost identical applications filled with stellar grades, extracurricular activities and impressive accomplishments.
An effective college application essay (personal statement for The Common Application and other applications) must help a student stand out from the competition.
If an essay uses an overdone topic or theme (such as race), the college admissions officers can have a hard time using it to differentiate the writer from other students.
There are many topics that have traditionally been over-used, everything from writing about a torn ACL to a dying beloved grandfather.
Savvy college admissions consultants steer students away from these hackneyed topics for good reason.
Now we have the top judicial leader in the land telling students to write about race.
Pick a Topic that Works Best for You!
Chances are there will be multitudinous college application essays on this topic.
For that reason alone, these essays will not do their job for their authors–no matter how brilliantly they share their personal stories of discrimination or insights on the history of race in our country.
Of course, there could be a few that have an original twist or a personal story that jumps out at the reader.
I feel bad for college admissions officers who could be bombarded with essays on race this year, and lose that critical tool in understanding the unique personalities and character of their applicants–so they can pick the ones they feel will be the best pick at their school.
There are a million other topics out there that will help you showcase your individuality and greatness.
Keep your goal in mind while applying for schools at the top of your mind: you want to get accepted.
So unless the way race has impacted you in your life has been your most life-defining issue and you can find a compelling story to share to illuminate it, pick something else!
If you believe your admission chances could be boosted if a target school learns your race, feel free to weave in information about yourself that will clue them in. If you think it could hurt your chances, leave it out.
I assume colleges and universities are scrambling to adjust their applications and even essay prompts. So keep an eye out for any advice they are sending out in upcoming weeks and months, and hopefully you will get more clarification on this issue. (It’s possible schools will now include a new prompt asking students to write about how race affected them–but I doubt those essays will help admissions officers make their admittance decisions.)
In the meantime, don’t panic and keep your eye on the ball, and start brainstorming the perfect topic for YOU!
A Great Essay Topic? Anything But the Coronavirus!
When counseling students on finding great topics for their college application essays, I often direct them to explore problems they have faced in their lives.
Problems provide the perfect springboard for writing a compelling personal statement. (Problems = challenge, obstacle, mistake, flaw, phobia, conflict, change, etc.) If you faced a problem, big or small, it means that:
1. Something interesting and personal happened
2. You had to deal with it
3. You learned something
This simple framework can help you share your personal stories in your essay, and then also examine, explore and share how they shaped you and what you care about (your values).
And voila! A college application essay that is engaging, meaningful and memorable.
So if this simple approach works, and all you need is a juicy problem to spin into an effective essay, wouldn’t you want to write about the biggest problem the world is facing right now?
A global pandemic that has literally shut down life as we know it, killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people, snuffed out jobs, forced families to hide in their homes and has no clear end in sight?
Isn’t that the perfect topic?
Well, no. read more…
***Need in-person help getting starting? Check out my Jumpstart Webinars. Only $30! FREE if you can’t afford them. Two left this month!
Tips on Turning Problems into Hot Topics
So you have thought of a topic you want to write about in your college application essay.
I’m guessing it will fall into one of these three categories: the Good, the Bad or the Ugly.
If so, here’s tips on how to approach them so they make effective essays.
#1: How to Write About the GOOD in Your College Application Essay
Of course colleges want to hear about all the GOOD stuff you have done in your life so far, especially during your high school years. And it’s natural to want to stuff your college application essays with all those glowing details–about your achievements, your accomplishments, your shining personality and your stellar character.
Stop right there! The last thing you want to do with your essay is cram it full of lists of every good or impressive thing you have done. Not only would your essay be dull as dirt, but your application will already be loaded with details about your impressive grades, extra-curricular activities, awards, internships, etc.
Also, an essay that only talks about your good side can easily tip into a tone that comes across as boastful or arrogant, which is off-putting to readers (aka admissions officers).
Then how do you write about something good about yourself in your essay?
Easy! Start with something not so good about yourself.
If you are showcasing an accomplishment, start with a time when you were just starting to work towards it. Look for obstacles or challenges that were in your way. Share your frustrations, defeats, mistakes, conflicts, missteps, etc. After that, you can shift into how you overcame them and ultimately conquered your goal.
The point of sharing an accomplishment, achievement or something good about yourself in a personal statement essay is not only to let schools know what you did or how wonderful you are–but how you did it or got that way, why you did it, and what you learned in the process. That is what should make up the bulk of your essay if you want to write about the Good in your essay.
You will strike the right tone if you were first humbled by the challenge or obstacle. When you share how you worked toward your achievement, accomplishment or personal growth goal, you will indirectly reveal your impressive qualities.
Best of all, your college application essay will be interesting to read! What good is an essay if no one wants to read past the first sentence or two?
Start with the Bad–and then move into the Good! Works every time!
#2: How to Write About the BAD in your College Application Essay
I think topics about your Bad stuff usually make the strongest essays. They are the most interesting, and also give you the best platform to shift into all your Good stuff.
RELATED: Find Your Problems
I write a lot about how problems make awesome topics. If you think about problems you have faced in your past–especially the everyday, mundane ones–you will discover your little mini-stories, incidents, moments and experiences to power your essays. When you face a problem (challenge, obstacle, change, mistake, phobia, flaw, conflict…), it means that something happened. If something happened, then it’s interest to read about. You can also show how you turned that problem into a Good thing–because you dealt with it and learned something in the process.
When brainstorming topics for your essay, trust the times you had to handle problems. Almost any kind can work. You are terrified of the dark. You spent too much money at Target. You got caught gossiping about your best friend. You spilled coffee on a customer during your Starbucks job. You forgot your mom’s birthday. You got off the bus in the wrong neighborhood. You broke your dad’s favorite power tool. You dyed your hair orange by accident. You couldn’t afford the cost of your school trip to France.
Maybe you can’t believe you could spin an effective essay from a bad thing that happened to you. Won’t it be a giant downer and turn off your target schools?
Don’t believe me? Try reading some sample essays and see if you can spot some Bad stuff–and see how the writer turned it into an interesting and meaningful essay that ended up showcasing a lot of Good stuff. (Just put Sample Essay into the search box on this blog to find some. I also have a collection of sample essays available on Amazon, called Heavenly Essays.)
#3. How to Write about the UGLY in Your College Application Essay
When I say Ugly, I’m talking about the extreme Bad stuff. If you are lucky, you don’t have any Ugly in your life. That’s great!
However, many students have faced some really challenging realities and experiences. These can range from financial hardships to prejudices to illness, injury, death and other personal tragedies.
Should they write about these if they were so horrific?
I say YES. How could these circumstances or experiences not have shaped who they are, most likely in really Good ways?
That said, these highly dramatic or sensational topics can be tricky to write about.
What you want to avoid is an essay that describes all the Ugly stuff and only the Ugly stuff. Even though these details can be very moving and interesting, the essays need to be mainly about how the students handled these issues, and turned them into something positive as best as possible.
In fact, the most intense, tragic or Ugly the experience or situation, the less the student needs to write about it. Typically, a paragraph or two will convey enough for the reader to understand how hard it was. After that, time to shift into how the student dealt with the Ugly or handled it, and then what they learned from that process.
Another trick to handling a highly sensitive, emotional or tragic topic in a personal essay is to look for a smaller piece of that topic. Look for an example of the larger issue to share at the start of the essay, and then describe later the larger challenge. For instance, if a student writes about losing a parent, look for a moment, incident or experience that shows a related problem due to that loss. Maybe the student needs to find a resourceful way to get to school because no one is there to drive them. Or the student has learned how to buy groceries to feed the family now that mom is gone. (Notice that these are smaller “problems” that relate to the larger Ugly “problem.”)
Writing about these types of highly personal and often deeply painful topics can be extremely challenging. I think they can make powerful topics for college application essays if the student feels ready to explore and share them. Give it a try. If it’s too hard, bag it. There are many other topics out there!
Again, read sample essays to see how other students handled all these types of topics–the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Here’s a link to a few essays from Heavenly Essays to get you started (the second one, by Alex Segall is an excellent example of how to write about the Ugly): Sample Essays
Good luck! Remember, it’s not what you write about, but what you have to say about it that matters the most in these essays!
Okay, so this is a bit of hyperbole on my part.
All students have plenty to write about for their college application essays.
However, from what I’ve seen working with college-bound students for the last decade, many of our most talented, driven and intelligent teenagers are living such parallel, over-achieving lives that they struggle to find an effective essay topic.
These are the same kids, many targeting Ivy League educations, who will need bull’s-eye essays to have even a shot of getting in.
It’s sad, unfair and ironic: The hardest working students have no time for a life. read more…
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…
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…
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…
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…
Some of my tutoring students skim through a college application essay prompt (such as the five options for The Common Application essay requirement), and in a flash, find one that speaks to them.
Others come armed with a long list of topic ideas they have been toying with for weeks.
But most, I would say more than 80 percent, have no clue where to start.
And it’s a terrible feeling. read more…
The first step to writing a winning college application essay is to find that perfect topic.
This is the most important step, and often the hardest.
Once you land on one, you are ready to roll.
Things fall in place. read more…
After working with thousands of students from all over the world on writing the dreaded college application essay for the last eight years, I’ve finally been able to boil down the process to three simple steps.
Yes, just three steps.
If you follow these steps, I believe you will be able to craft a college application essay that will give you an edge in the admissions game.
Each step makes sure that you share information about yourself that will make your essay effective and help you stand out from the competition. read more…
Last week, a new student came to my home for help on his college application essays.
I asked this eager senior about his target schools. He told me Stanford was his top pick, but he was applying to most of the ivies, along with a couple UCs (Cal and UCLA).
Then he handed me a printout of his essay. It was one he had written for his English teacher at our local high school.
It was about a mission trip. To a South American country. And he wrote how he loved working with the kids, and how he realized how privileged he was, and how he hoped to make a difference in the world.
I tried not to let my reaction show. read more…
The 2015-16 Common Application is officially out. If you’re applying to college, you will be making a lot of decisions in upcoming months. Important ones.
What schools should you apply to?
What should you write your college application essay about so you get accepted?
Once you get in, what do you think you will want to study or do in college?
Even though I mainly try to help students figure out great topics for their essays, I think all these big decisions have one thing in common: You can help yourself immensely if you take a little time to identify what matters most to you in your life. read more…
Colleges Encourage Students to Write About $ and Work
in College Application Essays
The New York Times today published the seven college application essays it liked the best for its contest about writing on the topic of money.
Most of the winners wrote about their experiences facing various types of financial hardship and challenges.
Not many images are more daunting than a blank page. The horror! But starting next month (March), I’m launching a weekly Webinar series to assist more students and families with starting their college application essays.
I write this blog, peddle my three guide books and tutor privately to get out my advice, tips and inspiration to make this process less miserable. I actually believe writing these essays can be an enlightening and productive experience, and dare I say, fun, if you have some direction and support. It can also be a total drag.
But I think you have a choice on how it goes. A lot of the stress of the college admissions process is caused by the unknown. Once you know what to do, you will see that it’s not that impossible.
I’m hoping that my Webinars can help students, and parents and others who work with students, get a jump on what they need to do. read more…
How to Focus Your
College Application Essay!
I love all the comments students make about my posts. The most common ones ask about topics for the Common App or other core college application essays, including the University of California prompts. Students want to know what I think of their topic ideas.
I noticed the main problem with many of their ideas is that their topics are way to broad. WAY TOO BROAD! I think many ask my opinion because they suspect their topics are too general, but they don’t know how to focus them. And they are absolutely correct to worry about this. Essays about general topics are almost always dull and ineffective. (What good is an essay if no one wants to read it?)
I have written a lot about how to find topics that are not broad, and instead are engaging, meaningful and memorable. My best advice for students who worry that their topic is too broad would be to keep reading my blog posts! They all carry the same message—find a topic that is specific, zero in on real-life moments (anecdotes), brainstorm topics that are mundane (everyday) as opposed to impressive, pick one quality or characteristic to write about (as opposed to trying to cram in all the great things about yourself.) These are all ways to focus—or narrow down—your topics. read more…
If you’ve been looking for help with your college application essay, I assume you have discovered the mountains of information (some helpful; a lot no so much) out there on the Web. One of my favorite resources for students is The Prospect, which is an organization centered on college admissions and high school/college life.
The main reason I love The Prospect so much is that it is all about helping students survive high school and get into the college of their dreams–but it’s also run by students like you! Their talented staff offered to share some of their best essay-writing tips here on Essay Hell. I think you will find their foodie-approach fun, inspiring and useful! read more…