Regional College Access Center

Awesome application essays: about application essays

Laura says: I'm scared to write my application essays. I have a long time before my applications are due, but I've been procrastinating for a while and it's time to get started.

I feel like so much rests on my essays. My mom told me to relax and try to think of the essays as a snapshot of who I am, instead of trying to guess what the colleges will be looking for.

The point of application essays

Application essays exist because colleges want to know about the students they are admitting. Think about the admissions process from the point of view of a college: what would you know about a student like yourself? You'd know his or her grades and test scores, and which classes he or she took. You'd know about family finances, thanks to the FAFSA and any other financial aid information that might have been submitted. But what about the person? Very little.

Essays are, in part, a chance for you to introduce yourself to the admissions staff at a school. The fundamentals of essay writing still apply—you have to use correct grammar, and follow a logical course in your arguments, and correct any spelling errors, just like you would in an important essay for a class—but that's not the main point. Whatever the specific question is in your essay prompt, there are other questions beneath the surface. "Who are you? What makes you interesting? Why should we expect you to succeed here at our school, and afterwards, when you go out into the world?"

These are not easy questions to answer. Lots of people have trouble explaining who they are in a direct way, especially to strangers, or to an invisible audience like a college admissions board. It's hard to see yourself clearly from the perspective of others, and so it can be hard to decide what is most interesting and worth explaining about yourself. Many people are also afraid of being judged, or seeming as though they are bragging, or striking the wrong tone in some other way.

Essay prompts: helpful guidance

That's why essay prompts exist. Sometimes it's easier to do something creative when you are given guidelines, as opposed to being told that anything is fair game. Believe it or not, essay writing is creative! If you're having trouble thinking of something to write about yourself for your college application essay, start with the guidelines that you have been given in the form of the essay prompt. Many essay prompts are fairly similar, which is great, since it means you can often use similar essays (or the same essay with minor changes) to apply to multiple schools. Here are the essay prompts offered on The Common Application, a free college admissions application accepted at more than 400 colleges and universities in the U.S.:

  1. Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.
  2. Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.
  3. Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.
  4. Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.
  5. A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.
  6. Topic of your choice.

All of these prompts ask you to describe some aspect of your own life experience or personality. Sometimes you're supposed to do that through the lens of describing another person who has influenced you (numbers 3 and 4). Other prompts want you to explain yourself by explaining something that happened to you (number 1), or something that you care about (number 2). Prompt number 5 asks you to talk about yourself directly: how are you different from others, and why do you think that is a good thing? These are all ways of letting you write an essay that gives the admissions staff some insight into you as a person without freaking you out by basically saying, "So, tell me about yourself."