College admission is competitive, even for online students. While it’s not always the case, some schools require online and distance education applicants to write a college application (sometimes called a personal) essay, and other schools give you the option to write one or not.
Most colleges and universities will use one of the centralized applications, Common App, Coalition App, Universal App, and University Systems. These applications may take different approaches to essay prompts.
So, let’s say your application requires an essay. What are admission counselors looking for in that essay? How do you stand out? What do you write about? How do you pick a topic? How long should it be? How critical is the essay in the admission decision?
Relax. College Consensus has gathered some information that may help you as you consider your essay. We’ve looked at recommendations from organizations like The College Board, The National Association for College Admission Counseling, The Princeton Review, and more to give you some clues on writing a college essay that will help you stand out.
What Exactly Is An Application Essay?
As schools move to SAT/ACT test-optional admission requirements, test scores are declining in importance and other areas of the application increase in importance. It’s been estimated that schools can rate college essays as 25% of the college application.
Essays are a way for the college admission office to get to know you in what can be an impersonal process of forms, test scores, transcripts, and such. Here’s your chance to show who you are by responding to suggested prompts.
Application essays can range from a minimum of 250-650 words, depending on your application. The Common App, for example, has a maximum 650-word piece. The Coalition Application essay should be 500-650 words. Some states use specific applications, such as ApplyTexas, which has 500-1,500 words depending on your chosen prompt. The College Board recommends that if there’s no word limit mentioned, stay with the CommonApp 650 words.
How to Write a College Application Essay
Experts recommend that you begin writing your essay during the summer before your senior year or, if you’re going back to school to complete a degree, transfer, etc., as soon as you decide which school you want to attend.
For many, the dreaded personal essay is one of the most intimidating parts of completing a college application, but one that lets admissions officers get a sense of your personality, who you are, and what you want from your college education. Whether you apply directly through a college or university admission application, or one of the universal applications (i.e., CommonApp, Coalition App, etc.), it can be challenging to talk about yourself, let alone write about yourself. Yet, your college admission statement is given considerable weight by college admission offices and can help sway an admission decision. But, look at the essay as a way to highlight your strengths, interests, talents, and commitment to your future.
Begin Early and Be Yourself
You’ll want to sound like you, and you want to start out strong. Your first paragraph sets the tone for the rest of the essay, and you want to draw the reader into your story. Writing a stilted essay is a bore to write and an even bigger bore for admission officers to read. The essay is your chance to put your personality on paper and have an admission officer learn about you. What are your passions? What interests you the most? What do you enjoy discussing more than anything? This is your opportunity to infuse your personality into your application and be more than test scores and grades.
Starting your essay early will take some of the pressure off you instead of waiting until the last minute to begin writing. Beginning early gives you time to write, consider what you’ve written, and make changes.
Be Truthful and Be Direct
Admission counselors read thousands of essays, and you want to be genuine with your essay. Don’t try to second guess what the admissions office is looking for in your essay. There’s no particular formula, plot, or storyline they want to read. They want to know you understand the assignment and are able to address the topic clearly and directly.
Admission counselors and advisors know what they’re looking for in an essay (originality, a genuine “voice,” grammar and spelling, etc.). They can also spot plagiarized pieces a mile away, or stories ripped off the internet. You don’t want to torpedo your application by trying to slide someone else’s experience or descriptions.
Remember when some California parents went to jail for trying to game the admission system for their children? Don’t be that person.
You don’t want to jeopardize your school admission by buying an impersonal essay from the Internet. Avoid asking a friend or paying someone to write your essay. You want to be genuine in what your essay says about you, your goals, and your ambitions. This will give the admissions officer a clearer picture of who you are.
What Are Prompts?
Universal and school applications help you out by suggesting topics or prompts for your essay. Prompts are usually short sentences introducing an idea or statement you use to write your essay. These prompts may make a statement, followed by questions, to help you think about and frame what you’re going to write.
For instance, here’s a representation of CommonApp prompts:
- Share your story. Solving a problem.
- What captivates you? Describe someone you admire.
- Challenging a belief. Choose a topic of your choice.
Common App publishes its prompts each year in January. Below is the complete set of essay prompts for 2022-2023 as presented by Common App.
- 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 lar 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?
- Reflect on something someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
- 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. (CommonApp, 2022)
Of course, there are others, depending on the application. ApplyTexas, for instance, offers you three essay prompts that are more detailed and may be asked by Texas schools. In brief, those prompts are:
- Essay A: What is your story?
- Essay B: Describing a talent, identity, or interest that makes you unique
- Essay C: Tapping into your imagination, ApplyTexas for 2023 includes the prompt: “You’ve got a ticket in your hand – Where will you go? What will you do? What will happen when you get there?”
As You Consider the Prompt and Begin Writing Your Essay
- Read through all the prompts presented. Make notes about the questions and statements as you go, read the prompts thoroughly, and keep the theme of the prompt in mind when you make your choice and begin to write.
- Be sure you understand what the prompt is asking by looking for keywords. This will help you frame your statement, and outlining will be a great tool.
- With your first draft, write whatever comes to mind on the topic, and because you began early, you’ll have time to rewrite, add and delete, and polish your statement.
- Give it a rest. You’ll want to step away from your essay for a bit. Take a few hours or even days, and then return to it. This approach will let you see your essay with fresh eyes and help you make edits.
- Be honest with your edits. Not every word you wrote is critical. As you re-read the essay, if you find extraneous thoughts or you see that the essay is drifting away from the original prompt, cut out what muddles the point you’re trying to make
- Get another opinion. Ask someone you trust to read your essay and give you honest feedback.
- Don’t take criticism personally. Remember you asked someone to be honest with you. You don’t have to use their suggestions, but you should consider them.
- One last recommendation: proofread. Proofread and then proofread again. You don’t want your ideas and creativity to be ruined by misspellings and typos.
The National Association for College Admission Counseling advises that you “put your best foot forward” with your essay. Be sure it’s a positive representation of who you are, what you believe, and what your goals may be.
Keep in mind that while the essay is an important part of the application process, it’s just that, a part. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to write the “Great American Essay.” Remember, your overall application will look at grades, extracurricular activities, test scores, and more.
- Discussing information the school’s admissions office already has, such as your academic achievements, grades, SAT/ACT scores, etc. You want to give them a different perspective of who you are.
- Remember, this is an essay. Making lists of your activities and achievements do not an essay make.
- Contentious topics are better left out of your essay. While you may be passionate about politics, religion, activism, etc., you don’t want to explore that in your college essay. These topics can alienate the reader and make you stand out, not in a good way.
- We love our pets, but they don’t make good topics for college application essays. Try to zero in on an issue unique to you.
- Don’t be dramatic. You are attempting to present a minor situation (think minor sports injury, car accident, lousy vacation experience, etc.) into a significant life-altering experience. Likewise, describing tragic events or overly personal stories shouldn’t be part of your essay.
- Avoid glamorizing a criminal past or arrest. While overcoming adversity is a compelling topic, remember you’re trying to make a good impression on the admissions officer. Show yourself in a positive light.
- Be original and steer clear of overly used words and descriptions. You want to demonstrate that you can be authentic and imaginative. Phrases such as “think outside the box,” “what goes around comes around,” “all’s well that ends well,” etc.
- Remember, you want to demonstrate why you should be admitted to a college or university. Stay away from everyday slang. While you may commonly use abbreviations (TBH, YOLO, IYKYK, etc.) and words/phrases such as dope, thirsty, tea, BFF, etc.), don’t do it with your admission essay.
Another Essay? What Exactly is a Supplemental Essay?
Some select schools will request supplemental essay(s). Depending on the school, you could be asked to submit one or more additional essays in addition to the main application essay. As with your initial application, you’ll be provided prompts for this portion.
Common supplemental prompts could be along the lines of:
- What is the major you’re planning on?
- Have you experienced uncomfortable diversity situations? Describe the experience and how you handled it.
- Have you ever had a long-held belief challenged? How did you handle it?
Supplemental essays are shorter than the primary essay but are considered important by admission officers. The typical supplemental essay length is 150-300 words or 5-6 sentences. These shorter writing samples are typically more relaxed and are intended to give you an additional opportunity to get your personality and college goals across.
You should keep some things in mind if you’re writing a supplemental essay:
- Make sure you understand the question and create an outline of points you want to make
- Develop a focused answer that you can effectively communicate in a concise, but informal, way
- Be yourself and write your response in your own voice. This is a chance for the admissions officers to learn about you less formally.