Regional College Access Center

Awesome application essays: what to write about

Shawn says: Most of the schools I applied to accepted the Common Application, so I only had to write one essay and tweak it. Don't forget to correct the name of the school each time you prepare the essay for a new application, by the way, I almost made that mistake.

I wrote about my grandfather and why he's important to me. I explained why he's my role model.

What are they asking?

First things first: Read the essay prompt(s) from each school carefully. If nothing jumps out at you as the perfect story to tell for that essay prompt, don't worry. It might take some thought and some soul-searching, but there is probably something important to you that you can tie in to almost any college essay topic. Let's take a few of the prompts from the Common Application as examples.

Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

This essay would be about something that happened to you, or something that you did. It could be something big or something seemingly minor, as long as you can describe what it meant to you, and why you think it was important. Some possible topics:

Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.

If you're interested in politics or activism at any level, this essay could be a great fit for you. You don't have to write about international finance, global relations or a hot-button issue here, although you certainly can if you've got something to say about those topics. This is really a question about two things: First, what do you care about? Second, what have you done about it? The thing that is important to you could be civil rights, or recycling, or building a skate park in your town. If you can show that you're a passionate, active member of your community—whether that means your town, your school, your age group or something else—colleges will be eager to have you join their communities.

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.

When you look at this question, your mind might gravitate to racial diversity. That's OK, and it can be a great subject for an essay. However, don't ignore this kind of question just because you don't fall into a traditional racial minority category!

Diversity is a concept that applies to all kinds of characteristics, and colleges view almost all kinds of diversity as being valuable. Consider what you know about the school you are applying to. Presumably, you expect to fit in there, but there are likely to be some ways that you don't represent their "typical student." Are you from a lower-income or middle-class family, applying to a prestigious (and expensive) private school? Will you represent an uncommon political viewpoint on campus? Maybe you play an unusual instrument, or founded a company, or are fascinated by astronomy! Anything that's unusual, interesting or colorful about you could diversify your future campus.

Don't forget about the other aspect of this essay prompt, however. You'll also need to recount an experience that makes it clear what about you is different, and talk about why you think that would be a positive thing for the community you'll be joining on campus. Alternately, you can talk about what diversity means to you, and how you realized that it was important.

Know what you are arguing

Most essay topics require you make an argument. An essay for an environmental science class might have you trying to convince readers that global warming is real; an essay for a scholarship from a professional organization might have you trying to convince the selection committee that you are passionate about a future career in their field. Whatever your argument is, make sure that you understand it clearly, and that your essay is designed to support it!

The more specific an argument is, the easier it is to stay on track as you write. If you have a general idea of what you want to write about, you can use that to come up with specific arguments. Try writing down a list of points you can make about your topic. For example, if you were writing about your interest in studying the law, you might make a list like this:

Each idea on this list can be the theme of a paragraph on your essay. You may also decide to focus completely on what started out as a sub-topic. As you write, you may come up with better ideas or shift your focus again. That's fine—you're getting closer to your argument!

Telling a story

Because writing your college admissions essay is stressful and intimidating, you might be tempted to write a very formal essay, so that you come across as smart and professional. There's some wisdom in this approach. You do want to make sure that you submit something well-written, and you'll probably want to avoid a very casual or chatty tone. However, remember that what you're doing is ultimately telling a story that reveals something about yourself. Think about your favorite stories and storytellers—authors, TV shows, movies, family members—whatever comes to mind. Are they dry, remote and professional, or is there some kind of personality that comes through? Remember that you are acting as a storyteller. Don't be afraid to let your voice come through.