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