“The Essay” – without reading any further, you know exactly which “essay” I am writing about – the essay you will write for your college application. Writing this essay can easily be one of the most enjoyable or the most daunting experience of the entire college application process. My goal is to provide you with tips and helpful suggestions to make your essay personally satisfying to write and insightful for the Admission Committee to read.
The first question that students typically ask is whether or not the essay really makes any difference in the admission process. As for the Admission and Scholarship process at probably all of the most and other highly selective schools, the answer is an undeniable – YES! Now, a great essay won’t automatically result in an Admit decision nor will an unfocused, trite, or error-filled essay mean that you are going to be denied. But “good” and “bad” essays definitely are a part of the entire evaluation process and just might be the factor that tips your admission decision one way or another. Also, the “good” or “bad” essay will often be reviewed by a Scholarship or Honors Program selection committee. So while you may be admitted, your essay may be the factor which keeps you in the “not selected for the honors program” or “not awarded a merit (or bigger merit) scholarship” pile. So why take a chance when you have the opportunity to craft an essay which you will long remember writing and could make a huge positive difference in your overall college application process?
Nearly all students who apply to selective schools use the Common Application which has one required essay. The essay length is capped at 650 words. The essay prompts are listed below along with tips and insights.
Option #1: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
Over half of the students from southern California who applied to private schools last year responded to this prompt. This popular option appeals to a broad range of applicants. After all, everyone has a “story” to tell. If you choose this option, spend some time thinking about what the prompt is really asking. On a certain level, the prompt is giving you permission to write about anything. The words “background” and “story” are vague, so you have a lot of freedom to approach this question however you want. However, don’t make the mistake of thinking that you can just write anything. The story you tell needs to be “central to [your] identity,” and it needs to make your application more complete (the application “would be incomplete without it”).
Think hard about what it is that makes you, you. If you end up telling a story that hundreds of other applicants could also tell, then you haven’t fully succeeded in tackling the question of identity that stands at the heart of this prompt. Your “story” or “background” isn’t a single event. Being voted Prom King or scoring that winning goal in last year’s Field Hockey game may be impressive accomplishments, but by themselves they are not stories about the formation of your identity. Make sure your essay is adding a rich dimension to your application. If your essay is repeating information that can be found elsewhere in your application, then you’re wasting this opportunity.
A final thought: Make sure your essay captures YOU. When the reader finishes reading your essay, they should have a much clearer sense of who you are and what it is that interests and motivates you. After all, you are more than just a set of ACT/SAT scores and grades.
Option #2: 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?
Many applicants will be uncomfortable with this question. Seriously, shouldn’t your college application highlight your strengths and accomplishments and certainly not draw attention to your failures? But before you shy away from this essay option, consider that thousands of applicants will highlight their successes, awards, accomplishments, and honors. Very few will show the type of confidence and introspection required to explore failures. This prompt is one of the more challenging options. If you are not good at self-analysis or if you aren’t comfortable with exposing a flaw or two about yourself then this may not be the best option for you. However, if you do choose this prompt, read the question carefully. Essentially, there are three parts to the prompt.
- Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. This is the easy part of your essay – the description of the failure. Recounting doesn’t require a lot of high-level thinking. Use clear language but be sure to “recount” as efficiently as possible. The heart of your essay that is going to impress the Admission Committee comes in the next two sections.
- How did it affect you? This is the second most important part. You failed, so how did you respond? Be honest as you assess your reaction to failure. Even if you were affected in a way that now seems inappropriate or an over-reaction, don’t hold back as you explore how failure affected you.
- What did you learn from the experience? This is the heart of your essay, so make sure you give this part of the question significant emphasis. Understanding what you learned requires self-awareness and strong critical thinking skills.
What counts as a “Failure”? Another challenge with this prompt is deciding on your focus. What type of “failure” will lead to the best essay? Keep in mind that your failure does not need to be newsworthy or catastrophic. The list of failures can be very long – there’s no shortage of ways to fail. However, whatever failure you write about, make sure your exploration of the failure reveals personal growth. If your essay doesn’t show that you are a better person because of your failure, then you haven’t succeeded in responding to this essay prompt.
A final thought: On a certain level, your essay isn’t really about your failure. Rather, it is about your personality and character. Were you able to handle your failure in a positive way? If you blame your failure on others, or if you seem to have learned nothing from your failure you will have failed again – this time to successfully answer the prompt.
Option #3: Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
The focus on a “belief or idea” makes this question deceptively broad. Indeed, you could write about almost anything that you’ve ever openly questioned. However, choosing an “idea or belief” you have challenged might possibly be the hardest part of answering this prompt.
Therefore, the idea or belief that you reflect upon should not be something superficial; it should focus on an issue that is central to your identity. The belief can take many forms (political, ethical, scientific, and so on). However, be aware that some beliefs can send your essay into controversial and potentially risky territory so choose carefully.
By the end of the essay, the Admission Committee should feel that it has a much better grasp on what it is that motivates you. Be sure to explore an idea or belief that will allow you to present some of your interests and passions. Remember, if you chose this prompt, read the question carefully. The question has three distinct parts – reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea, what prompted you to act, and would you make the same decision again. Be sure to answer each part.
A final thought: A good college education is not about being spoon-fed information that you will regurgitate in papers and exams. Rather, it is about asking questions, probing assumptions, testing ideas, and engaging in thoughtful debate. If you choose this essay prompt, make sure you demonstrate that you have these skills.
Option #4: Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, or 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.
The first step in tackling this prompt is obviously coming up with “a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve.” You have lots of latitude here. However, as you brainstorm this essay prompt, think broadly – it can be an “intellectual challenge,” a “research query,” oran “ethical dilemma.” It can be a huge problem or a small one. Keep in mind that the “why” at the end of the prompt is essential. This essay prompt is asking you to be introspective.
The first part of the prompt – “Describe” – is the least challenging part. It requires no introspection. Because of this, don’t use too many of your 650 words describing it. Be clear, concise, and engaging as you describe your “problem” and then move on. The description should not be the bulk of your essay.
The two phrases “personal importance” and “significance to you” should be the heart of your essay. Why do you care about this problem? What does the problem mean to you? After reading this essay, the Admission Committee should have learned something about you:
What do you care about? What motivates you?
A final thought: If you thoroughly explore the “why” of this question and only briefly cover the description, your essay will provide the reader with important insight. Bottom line, it is about you and is not a research paper. It might help to rethink this prompt in the following way – “Explain how you approached a meaningful problem so that we can get to know you better.”
Option #5: Discuss an accomplishment or event – formal or informal – that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
Most students have some problems with the wording of this essay prompt because it suggests that a single event or accomplishment can transform them into an adult overnight. What defines a “transition from childhood to adulthood”? Most would argue that a 17- or 18-year-old applying to college is not yet an adult. Fair enough – however, you can see that the label “adult” is an important one. Are you done growing and maturing? Of course not. Try thinking about the question with slightly different language. The question becomes more realistic if it is re-worded as “Discuss an accomplishment or event – formal or informal – that marks a moment of significant personal growth within your culture, community, or family.” You’re not done growing but you certainly have had moments of significant growth.
This prompt is an excellent choice if you want to explore a single event or achievement that marked a clear milestone in your personal development. Be careful to avoid the “hero” essay– Admission Committees receive thousands of essays about the season-winning touchdown or the brilliant performance in the school play. These can certainly be fine topics for an essay. But make sure your essay analyzes your personal growth process and does not merely brag about an accomplishment. The big challenge with this essay prompt will be identifying the correct “accomplishment or event” and then making sure the discussion of your growth has depth and self-analysis. Don’t spend too much time merely describing and summarizing the event or accomplishment. A strong essay needs to show your ability to explore the significance of the event you have chosen and its importance to your personal development. If the essay doesn’t reveal solid self-analysis, then you haven’t fully succeeded in responding to the prompt.
A final thought: The intent of this essay prompt is not to provide you with an opportunity to brag about an accomplishment. Rather, it is designed to for you to analyze cause and effect – focusing more on the effect and how you are different as a result.
One truly final thought, pay attention to style, tone, and mechanics. The essay is largely about you, but it is also about your writing ability. Do not just spellcheck – check for grammar and content. And in the end, make sure your essay paints a positive portrait. Whichever prompt you choose, make sure you are looking inward. What do you value? What has made you grow as a person? What makes you the unique individual the Admission Committee will want to invite to join the their campus community? The best essays spend significant time with self-analysis, and they don’t spend a disproportionate amount of time merely describing. Finally to test the effectiveness of your essay, give it to an acquaintance or teacher who doesn’t know you particularly well. Ask what that person learned about you from reading your essay. Ideally, the response will be exactly what you want the Admission Committee to learn about you.