Students prepare for applying to selective colleges by taking rigorous courses, participating in extracurricular activities, studying for standardized tests, and more. All of this preparation, however, can distract attention from one of the most notorious sections of the college application: the essays.
The essay is both the most and the least visible part of the competitive admissions process. Everyone knows that the essay is critical, but few actually get to see what “successful” essays look like. Some online resources, like The College Board, post examples of college application essays, but they often lack the necessary context for a reader to truly assess how accurately that essay conveys a student’s personality and interests.
When choosing a topic for an essay, students need to consider what the essay prompt is asking, the universities to which they’re applying, their goals, and, ultimately, what the essay says about them as a student and as a person.
Why the Essay Matters
Before you can choose a compelling essay topic, you first need to understand why there’s an essay in the first place. When evaluating college applications, most colleges use a “reading rubric” to evaluate the different components of each application. Aside from the “hard factors,” like grades, GPA, and test scores, colleges also look at the “soft factors,” such as extracurriculars, recommendation letters, demonstrated interests, and essays. The point of evaluating all these factors is to enable colleges to holistically build a well-rounded class of specialists. The essay (or essays) is a great way to learn more about an applicant, her motivations, life experiences, and how she can contribute to the campus community.
According to NACAC, 83 percent of colleges assign some level of importance to the application essay, and it’s usually the most important “soft factor” that colleges consider. The essay is important because it gives students the chance to showcase their writing and tell the college something new. It also allows admissions officers to learn more about students and gain insight into their experiences that other parts of the application do not provide. Just like any other admissions factor, a stellar essay isn’t going to guarantee admission, but students do need to craft compelling and thoughtful essays in order to avoid the “no” pile.
Related: How a Great College Essay Can Make You Stand Out
Types of Essays
Let’s talk about the different types of essays that a college may require applicants to submit. Over 500 colleges and universities use the Common Application, which has one required essay, called the personal statement. There are five new prompts to choose from, and this essay can be used for multiple colleges.
Related: Why I Love the New Common Application Essay Prompts
Beyond the Common Application essay, many colleges also have supplements that ask additional, university-specific questions which applicants must respond to with shorter-form essays. While topics vary from supplement to supplement, there are a few standard essay formats that many colleges use:
This is the most common essay and is used for the main Common Application essay. In this essay, the applicant talks about a meaningful life experience that helped shape who she is today. The book “Admission Matters: What Students and Parents Need to Know About Getting into College” has a great section on the personal statement and how students can craft effective essays.
“Why This College?” Essay
Many colleges, including Columbia University and Duke University, use the supplement to ask applicants to explain why they have chosen to apply to this particular college. In this essay, students need to be detailed and offer specific examples for wanting to attend this school. Not only does it help students reiterate their passions, it also serves as a gauge for demonstrated interest and a vehicle for students to better articulate how they will contribute to the campus environment.
In this essay, students write about an extracurricular activity or community service project that was especially meaningful to them. This essay was previously on the standard Common Application, but was removed starting in the 2014–15 application season. Instead, some colleges, like Georgetown University, choose to include a variation of this essay among their supplements by asking students to discuss an activity and its significance to their life or course of study. In this essay, students should choose an activity they’re most passionate about and include details about how they expect to continue this activity at the particular college.
Related: Using Your High School Internship as Inspiration for Your College Essay
In an effort to challenge students to think creatively, some colleges include short, “quick take” prompts that require only a few words or sentences for the response. Some examples include University of Southern California’s “What’s the greatest invention of all time?” and University of Maryland’s sentence completion prompts like “My favorite thing about last Wednesday…”
What NOT to Write About
In order to stand out, it’s important to realize that there are a number of essay topics that are cliché and overused. Avoid writing about things like scoring the winning goal, topics of public consciousness like natural disasters, or something that happened to you in middle school. Also, avoid gimmicks like writing in a different language, presenting your essay as a poem, or anything else that is stylistically “out of the box.” Your focus should be on the message rather than the presentation.
It’s also important to avoid inappropriate or uncomfortable topics. Some students choose to write about things like sex or romantic relationships in order to stand out; yet, these topics fail to add substance or depth to an application. There’s a fine line between interesting and trite — don’t stand out for the wrong reasons.
Successful Essay Topics
A successful essay will reveal something about you that the admissions reader may not have already known, and will show how you interact with family and friends and demonstrate your beliefs or explore your passions. This doesn’t mean you have to regurgitate your resume — in fact, you definitely shouldn’t.
For example, a student whose number one extracurricular activity is swimming should not write an essay about “the big meet.” Instead, she could explore a more personal topic, such as something she is learning in class that conflicts with her religious beliefs. She can discuss the intersection of religion and education in her life and how she reconciled the differences — or didn’t.
A great essay also provides readers with a vivid picture. When crafting an essay, think of it as offering admissions readers a window into a certain event or story. Focus on the most meaningful moments, not the irrelevant background details.
For example, a student once wrote an essay about feeling out of place culturally during an internship. Instead of giving a general description of the internship and his conflicts, he opened the essay with a vivid description of what he saw when he first arrived, and used this scene to frame the feelings of alienation he underwent — giving the reader a striking image of his experience in great detail.
Remember, your college application essay is about you. There’s a lot of pressure to be “unique” and “interesting,” but at the end of the day, the key to standing out is to just be yourself. Admissions officers can tell when students are embellishing or being insincere in their essays, so it’s best to keep it simple and tell a story about you and the person you are today. In the end, with careful planning, research, and a thoughtful essay, you’ll get into the best-fit college for you!
For further guidance and examples, check out Noodle's collection of expert advice about college essays.
Update: Read the latest tips for the 2017-18 Common App.
Your personal statement in your college application is complete and your activities page looks flawless. Now it’s time to turn your attention to the “My Colleges” tab and submit your Common Application!
My Colleges: Writing Supplements
So here’s my biggest pet peeve with the Common App this year. The school writing supplements can be anywhere! While some colleges don’t require any additional essays (such as Fordham, Ithaca, or Middlebury), many colleges do. To access those supplements, you’ll need to head over to the “My Colleges” tab. Click on the name of a school (see the Hampshire example below). In the left hand menu, if you see a “Writing Supplement” heading with “Questions” listed below it, some kind of additional writing is required.
But for some schools, the supplemental essay isn’t listed as a formal “Writing Supplement.” Boston University’s additional essays are hidden under “Essay Questions” on the “Application Questions” page, while Goucher’s essays are located on the “Academics” tab of “Application Questions.”
To make matters worse, some schools that do have writing supplements are showing up as not having writing supplements on the “Dashbard” tab of the Common App. Do you see the red dashes under the “Writing Supplement” column below? That’s meant to indicate which schools don’t include a writing supplement as part of their application. But because Caltech lists their extra essays on the “Required Short Answers & Essay Prompts” tab under “Application Questions” (and not as a “Writing Supplement”), students could easily assume that Caltech doesn’t require additional writing – when, in fact, they do!
To be fair, this really isn’t the Common App’s fault; it all comes down to how colleges are choosing to classify and organize their supplemental questions. Cornell University places their extra questions in the “Writing Supplement” section, while Lewis & Clark College does not. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. So, seniors, be extra cautious when filling out each school’s supplement. You never know where an extra writing assignment may be hidden.
Submitting the Common App
In order to print preview and submit your application, every section of your Common Application (as well as the school-specific questions on the “My Colleges” tab) need to be complete. If your Common App shows all green check marks, you’re in the clear. If the check mark is missing, you’ll need to go back into that particular section and look for a question marked with a red asterisk. Then, and only then, will you see the “Review and Submit” button on the “My Colleges” tab.
Don’t worry – nothing will be submitted until after you proof a PDF of your Common App, pay the application fee, and complete the signature page.
One final tip for completing the Common Application: occasionally, as I was playing around with my own application, I’d notice that essay text boxes would suddenly vanish. I could still see the essay prompt, but the space to type in a response had disappeared. After contacting the Common App Help Center at 9:30 on a Saturday morning, I received a helpful and courteous response. I closed my browser (I was using Google Chrome) and re-opened it. After logging into my Common App account again, the problem had corrected itself.
We hope this insider’s view into the Common Application has been helpful! Please feel free to post questions about your own Common App experiences below. One of our admissions experts will be sure to respond! (And for those of you who are looking for an alternate to the Common App, be sure to check out the Universal College Application – a very user-friendly application that’s accepted by dozens of top colleges across the country. Our UCA tips blog will tell you all about it!)
For all of our Common App 2014-15 tips, be sure to check out the rest of the posts in this series:
For updated tips for the 2015-16 Common Application, take a look at our latest posts: