How to Write a College Essay

UCPG 52017-08-03T02:36:32+00:00

In the previous chapter of the Ultimate College Prep Guide, we discussed the importance of recommendation letters and how they provide a unique perspective on your student. Choosing the right teachers and helping them to write a strong recommendation can really give your student’s application the leg up it needs to stand out.

In this chapter, we’ll take a closer look at another part of the application — the college essay. All college admissions require at least one essay as part of the application, whether or not they accept the common app. The essay is the best place for admissions officers to get a sense of your student’s personality, in their own words, and should be taken very seriously.

We’ll focus first on the Common Application Personal Statement and discuss how it needs to present the most unique part of your student’s application—because it may be the only essay some schools see. Then we’ll discuss how secondary/supplemental essays should be very school-specific.

Here’s what you’ll learn in this chapter:

The Common App Personal Statement

The Common App Personal Statement is the one essay that gets sent to every school your student is applying to through the Common Application. That means your student should not make this essay school-specific. They wouldn’t want an admissions officer at Williams College reading about their love for Boston University’s dining halls — can’t imagine that going over well.

The essay itself has a word limit of 650 words and your student is given seven different prompts to choose from.

Picking a Question for Your College Essay

Deciding what to write about can be the most challenging aspect of the essay. Because it is the only essay that colleges without a secondary application will see, it needs to stand on its own. We suggest starting by first taking a look over all of the questions. We’ve copied them below:

  • Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  • The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  • Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  • 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.
  • Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  • Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  • Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

The questions are all fairly broad, meaning your student could write about almost anything. Your student should jot down a couple ideas of things they think they could write a compelling essay about. Next they should narrow down those topics based on how well they fit the question and which topics interest them the most. Then just start writing.

Writing the Actual Essay

Different colleges will give advice on how to write the personal statement. While it’s helpful to browse these for ideas, remember that there is no one right way to write the essay. Here are a few examples:

  • UChicago: “Keep in mind that whatever you write about should cause you to say ‘yes’ to the question ‘Is this something, and perhaps the only thing, I think a perfect stranger should know about me?’”
  • Columbia: “Use the statement to highlight positive aspects about yourself that are not apparent elsewhere in the application. Conversely, do not repeat things that are found in other parts of the application.”
  • Cornell: “Most personal statements contain four components, which answer the following questions:
    • 1. Who are you now?
    • 2. What experiences have been important in your development?
    • 3. What are your future goals, and what is your larger mission or purpose in pursuing these goals?
    • 4. Why do you want this particular fellowship opportunity?”
  • City College of New York: “Engage readers and clearly demonstrate what makes you an unique candidate. Be clear and concise. Express a vibrant and confident tone. Provide a balanced discussion of your past experience with an explanation of your goals, plans, and aspirations.”

We suggest following a few steps throughout your student’s writing process to make sure their finished product is an essay they’re proud of:

  • Brainstorm and Outline your essay. When coming up with a topic, it’s really easy to want to write a salesy piece that emphasizes their best attributes. But this ends up coming across as forced and too self-promotional. It’s okay to say what they can offer, of course, but stay grounded. Have your student write about themselves in relation to a larger community—after all, they’re applying to take part in a community for four years.
  • Get personal. Admissions officers are more interested in sincere, self-reflective, “slice of life” pieces. Demonstrating that your student knows their strengths and weaknesses, and how these have made them who they are shows readers they have the self-knowledge and discipline to write about these things.
  • Get feedback and edit. Get an outside opinion from people who know your student well — they can help make sure they’re showing a genuine side of themselves. When writing, avoid demonstrating an obnoxious vocabulary range. Admissions officers can tell when a student’s language doesn’t sound genuine.

The best way for your student to stand out is by being personal and talking about their own unique experiences, rather than trying to be gimicky.

Supplement / Secondary Application Essays

In addition to the main Common App Personal Statement, many colleges will also ask students to write one or more college-specific supplemental essays. These vary by college in terms of style and word limit. Make sure to check the website of the school your student is interested in attending to find their requirements.

The “Why Us?” Essay

The most common supplemental essay question is some variation of: “Why do you want to go to our college?”. Other variations may include: “What do you like best about our college?” or “Why are you a good fit for our college?”. In general each of these questions is asking about three things:

  • Why should we accept YOU?
  • Why do you want to attend THIS COLLEGE?
  • Why do you think you’re a GOOD FIT?

Unlike the common app essay, these essays should be school-specific. Your student should spend some time doing research on each school they are applying to and identify unique features that appeal to them. Make sure they highlight these specifics in their essay — show off that they’ve done their homework!

It may be tempting to copy-paste sections from other supplemental essays, especially when the question is so similar. But don’t. Advise your student to start every supplemental essay from scratch. This will force them to really think through what they’re writing and not just regurgitate the same story. This will also prevent mentioning the wrong college name in the essay (cringe!).

Tackling “Uncommon” Essay Prompts

Sometimes, the supplemental essay questions will go beyond the standard. These may come in the form of a few short questions that give you a chance to show off your creativity. Here’s an example on Yale’s supplement:

  • Who or what is a source of inspiration for you? (35 words or fewer)
  • If you could live for a day as another person, past or present, who would it be? Why? (35 words or fewer)
  • You are teaching a Yale course. What is it called? (35 words or fewer)
  • Most Yale freshmen live in suites of four to six students. What would you contribute to the dynamic of your suite? (35 words or fewer)

Supplemental essay questions may also come in the form of an extended essay (650 words) that gives admissions officers a deeper look into how you think. UChicago is most notoriously known for asking very thought-provoking supplemental essay questions. This year’s essay questions from UChicago are listed below:

  • What is square one, and can you actually go back to it?
    —Inspired by Maya Shaked, Class of 2018
  • Once, renowned physicist Werner Heisenberg said: “There is a fundamental error in separating the parts from the whole, the mistake of atomizing what should not be atomized. Unity and complementarity constitute reality.” Whether it’s Georges Seurat’s pointillism in “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, quantum physics, or any other field of your choosing, when can the parts be separated from the whole and when can they not?
    —Inspired by Ender Sahin, Class of 2020
  • The ball is in your court—a penny for your thoughts, but say it, don’t spray it. So long as you don’t bite off more than you can chew, beat around the bush, or cut corners, writing this essay should be a piece of cake. Create your own idiom, and tell us its origin—you know, the whole nine yards. PS: A picture is worth a thousand words.
    —Inspired by April Bell, Class of 2017, and Maya Shaked, Class of 2018 (It takes two to tango.)
  • Alice falls down the rabbit hole. Milo drives through the tollbooth. Dorothy is swept up in the tornado. Neo takes the red pill. Don’t tell us about another world you’ve imagined, heard about, or created. Rather, tell us about its portal. Sure, some people think of the University of Chicago as a portal to their future, but please choose another portal to write about.
    —Inspired by Raphael Hallerman, Class of 2020
  • Vestigiality refers to genetically determined structures or attributes that have apparently lost most or all of their ancestral function, but have been retained during the process of evolution. In humans, for instance, the appendix is thought to be a vestigial structure. Describe something vestigial (real or imagined) and provide an explanation for its existence.
    —Inspired by Tiffany Kim, Class of 2020
  • In the spirit of adventurous inquiry, pose your own question or choose one of our past prompts. Be original, creative, thought provoking. Draw on your best qualities as a writer, thinker, visionary, social critic, sage, citizen of the world, or future citizen of the University of Chicago; take a little risk, and have fun.

A few important pieces of advice in tackling these types of questions:

  • Don’t try to tie your response back to your life in an unnatural way. One of UChicago’s most popular essay prompts was “Find X”. Some students approached this question by writing something about “How I found X, this unknown part of myself, at summer camp.” This ended up just sounding contrived and insincere.
  • Show how you think. Admissions officers aren’t asking “What can you do with a giant jar of mustard” because they’re really looking for uses for the giant jar of mustard they have sitting around. They’re interested in seeing how you think. Answer honestly and specifically so readers can really get a sense of who you are.
  • Don’t write what you think admissions officers want to read. Everyone is going to be writing what they think will make admissions officers happy. Instead let your personality shine through and use your interests and passions to inspire your answer.

Start Your College Essays Early!

As you can probably tell by now, the best essays require a lot of time and thought. Make sure your student gets an early start on the essay so they don’t feel rushed or pressured for time. This way they’ll have the time to draft and edit their essays to make sure it shows the best side of themselves.

In the next chapter, we’ll talk about the many different components that go into building your application and how you can use them to strengthen your application. This will include things like extracurriculars, community service, interviews, the mid-year update and the SAT IIs.