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College Application Essay Format Rules

essay format example for college

The college application essay has become the most important part of applying to college. In this article, we will go over the  best college essay format for getting into top schools, including how to structure the elements of a college admissions essay: margins, font, paragraphs, spacing, headers, and organization. 

We will focus on commonly asked questions about the best college essay structure. Finally, we will go over essay formatting tips and examples.

Table of Contents

  • General college essay formatting rules
  • How to format a college admissions essay
  • Sections of a college admissions essay
  • College application essay format examples

General College Essay Format Rules

Before talking about how to format your college admission essays, we need to talk about general college essay formatting rules.

Pay attention to word count

It has been well-established that the most important rule of college application essays is to  not go over the specific Application Essay word limit .  The word limit for the Common Application essay is typically 500-650 words.

Not only may it be impossible to go over the word count (in the case of the  Common Application essay , which uses text fields), but admissions officers often use software that will throw out any essay that breaks this rule. Following directions is a key indicator of being a successful student. 

Refocusing on the essay prompt and eliminating unnecessary adverbs, filler words, and prepositional phrases will help improve your essay.

On the other hand, it is advisable to use almost every available word. The college essay application field is very competitive, so leaving extra words on the table puts you at a disadvantage. Include an example or anecdote near the end of your essay to meet the total word count.

Do not write a wall of text: use paragraphs

Here is a brutal truth:  College admissions counselors only read the application essays that help them make a decision .  Otherwise, they will not read the essay at all. The problem is that you do not know whether the rest of your application (transcripts, academic record, awards, etc.) will be competitive enough to get you accepted.

A very simple writing rule for your application essay (and for essay editing of any type) is to  make your writing readable by adding line breaks and separate paragraphs.

Line breaks do not count toward word count, so they are a very easy way to organize your essay structure, ideas, and topics. Remember, college counselors, if you’re lucky, will spend 30 sec to 1 minute reading your essay. Give them every opportunity to understand your writing.

Do not include an essay title 

Unless specifically required, do not use a title for your personal statement or essay. This is a waste of your word limit and is redundant since the essay prompt itself serves as the title.

Never use overly casual, colloquial, or text message-based formatting like this: 

THIS IS A REALLY IMPORTANT POINT!. #collegeapplication #collegeessay.

Under no circumstances should you use emojis, all caps, symbols, hashtags, or slang in a college essay. Although technology, texting, and social media are continuing to transform how we use modern language (what a great topic for a college application essay!), admissions officers will view the use of these casual formatting elements as immature and inappropriate for such an important document.

How To Format A College Application Essay

There are many  tips for writing college admissions essays . How you upload your college application essay depends on whether you will be cutting and pasting your essay into a text box in an online application form or attaching a formatted document.

Save and upload your college essay in the proper format

Check the application instructions if you’re not sure what you need to do. Currently, the Common Application requires you to copy and paste your essay into a text box.

There are three main formats when it comes to submitting your college essay or personal statement:

If submitting your application essay in a text box

For the Common Application, there is no need to attach a document since there is a dedicated input field. You still want to write your essay in a word processor or Google doc. Just make sure once you copy-paste your essay into the text box that your line breaks (paragraphs), indents, and formatting is retained. 

  • Formatting like  bold , underline, and  italics  are often lost when copy-pasting into a text box.
  • Double-check that you are under the word limit.  Word counts may be different within the text box .
  • Make sure that paragraphs and spacing are maintained;  text input fields often undo indents and double-spacing .
  • If possible, make sure the font is standardized.  Text input boxes usually allow just one font . 

If submitting your application essay as a document

When attaching a document, you must do more than just double-check the format of your admissions essay. You need to be proactive and make sure the structure is logical and will be attractive to readers.

Microsoft Word (.DOC) format

If you are submitting your application essay as a file upload, then you will likely submit a .doc or .docx file. The downside is that MS Word files are editable, and there are sometimes conflicts between different MS Word versions (2010 vs 2016 vs Office365). The upside is that Word can be opened by almost any text program.

This is a safe choice if maintaining the  visual  elements of your essay is important. Saving your essay as a PDF prevents any formatting issues that come with Microsoft Word, since older versions are sometimes incompatible with the newer formatting. 

Although PDF viewing programs are commonly available, many older readers and Internet users (who will be your admissions officers) may not be ready to view PDFs.

  • Use 1-inch margins . This is the default setting for Microsoft Word. However, students from Asia using programs like Hangul Word Processor will need to double-check.
  • Use a standard serif font.  These include Times New Roman, Courier, and Garamond. A serif font adds professionalism to your essay.
  • Use standard 12-font size. 
  • Use 1.5- or double-spacing.  Your application essay should be readable. Double spaces are not an issue as the essay should already fit on one page.
  • Add a Header  with your First Name, Last Name, university, and other required information.
  • Clearly   separate your paragraphs.  By default, just press ‘ENTER’ twice.

Sections Of A College Admissions Essay

University admissions protocols usually allow you to choose the format and style of your writing. Despite this, the general format of “Introduction-Body-Conclusion” is the most common structure. This is a common format you can use and adjust to your specific writing style.

College Application Essay Introduction

Typically, your first paragraph should introduce you or the topic that you will discuss. You must have a killer opener if you want the admissions committees to pay attention. 

Essays that use rhetorical tools, factual statements, dialog, etc. are encouraged. There is room to be creative since many application essays specifically focus on past learning experiences.

College Application Essay Body

Clearly answering the essay prompt is the most important part of the essay body. Keep reading over the prompt and making sure everything in the body supports it. 

Since personal statement essays are designed to show you are as a person and student, the essay body is also where you talk about your experiences and identity.

Make sure you include the following life experiences and how they relate to the essay prompt. Be sure to double-check that they relate back to the essay prompt. A college admissions essay is NOT an autobiography:

Personal challenges

  • How did you overcome them?
  • How or how much do past challenges define your current outlook or worldview? 
  • What did you learn about yourself when you failed?

Personal achievements and successes

  • What people helped you along the way?
  • What did you learn about the nature of success

Lessons learned

  • In general, did your experiences inform your choice of university or major?

Personal beliefs

  • Politics, philosophy, and religion may be included here, but be careful when discussing sensitive personal or political topics. 
  • Academic goals
  • Personal goals
  • Professional goals
  • How will attending the university help you achieve these goals?

College Application Essay Conclusion

The conclusion section is a call to action directly aimed at the admissions officers. You must demonstrate why you are a great fit for the university, which means you should refer to specific programs, majors, or professors that guided or inspired you. 

In this “why this school” part of the essay, you can also explain why the university is a great fit for  your  goals. Be straightforward and truthful, but express your interest in the school boldly.

common app essay format, essay sections 1

College Application Essay Format Examples

Here are several formatting examples of successful college admission essays, along with comments from the essay editor.

Note: Actual sample essays edited by  Wordvice professional editors .  Personal info has been redacted for privacy. This is not a college essay template.

College Admission Essay Example 1

This essay asks the student to write about how normal life experiences can have huge effects on personal growth:

Common App Essay Prompt: Thoughtful Rides

The Florida turnpike is a very redundant and plain expressway; we do not have the scenic luxury of mountains, forests, or even deserts stretching endlessly into the distance. Instead, we are blessed with repetitive fields of grazing cows and countless billboards advertising local businesses. I have been subjected to these monotonous views three times a week, driving two hours every other day to Sunrise and back to my house in Miami, Florida—all to practice for my competitive soccer team in hopes of receiving a scholarship to play soccer at the next level. 

The Introduction sets up a clear, visceral memory and communicates a key extracurricular activity. 

When I first began these mini road trips, I would jam out to my country playlist and sing along with my favorite artists, and the trek would seem relatively short. However, after listening to “Beautiful Crazy” by Luke Combs for the 48th time in a week, the song became as repetitive as the landscape I was driving through. Changing genres did not help much either; everything I played seemed to morph into the same brain-numbing sound.  Eventually, I decided to do what many peers in my generation fail to do: turn off the distractions, enjoy the silence, and immerse myself in my own thoughts. In the end, this seemingly simple decision led to a lot of personal growth and tranquility in my life. 

The first part of the Body connects the student’s past experience with the essay prompt: personal growth and challenging assumptions.

Although I did not fully realize it at the time, these rides were the perfect opportunity to reflect on myself and the people around me. I quickly began noticing the different personalities surrounding me in the flow of traffic, and this simple act of noticing reminded me that I was not the only human on this planet that mattered. I was just as unimportant as the woman sitting in the car next to mine. Conversely, I also came to appreciate how a gesture as simple as letting another driver merge into your lane can impact a stranger’s day. Maybe the other driver is late for a work interview or rushing to the hospital because their newborn is running a high fever and by allowing them to advance in the row of cars, you made their day just a little less stressful. I realized that if I could improve someone else’s day from my car,  I could definitely be a kinder person and take other people’s situations into consideration—because you never know if someone is having one of the worst days of their lives and their interaction with you could provide the motivation they need to keep going on . 

This part uses two examples to support the writer’s answer to the essay prompt. It ends the paragraph with a clear statement.

Realizing I was not the only being in the universe that mattered was not the only insight I attained during these drives. Over and over, I asked myself why I had chosen to change soccer clubs, leaving Pinecrest, the team I had played on for 8 years with my best friends and that was only a 10-minute drive from my house, to play for a completely unfamiliar team that required significantly more travel.  Eventually, I came to understand that I truly enjoy challenging myself and pushing past complacency . One of my main goals in life is to play and experience college soccer—that, and to eventually pursue a career as a doctor. Ultimately, leaving my comfort zone in Pinecrest, where mediocrity was celebrated, to join a team in Sunrise, where championships were expected and college offers were abundant, was a very positive decision in my life. 

This part clearly tells how the experience shaped the writer as a person. The student’s personality can be directly attributed to this memory. It also importantly states personal and academic goals.

Even if I do not end up playing college soccer, I know now that I will never back down from any challenge in my life; I am committed to pushing myself past my comfort zone. These car rides have given me insight into how strong I truly am and how much impact I can have on other people’s lives. 

The Conclusion restates the overall lesson learned.

College Admission Essay Example 2

The next essay asks the reader to use leadership roles or extracurricular activities and describe the experience, contribution, and what the student learned about themselves.

As I release the air from the blood-pressure monitor’s valve, I carefully track the gauge, listening for the faint “lub-dub” of  Winnie’s heart. Checking off the “hypertensive” box on his medical chart when reading 150/95, I then escort Winnie to the blood sugar station. This was the typical procedure of a volunteer at the UConn Migrant Farm Worker Clinic. Our traveling medical clinic operated at night, visiting various Connecticut farms to provide healthcare for migrant workers. Filling out charts, taking blood pressure, and recording BMI were all standard procedures, but the relationships I built with farmers such as Winnie impacted me the most.

This Introduction is very impactful. It highlights the student’s professional expertise as a healthcare worker and her impact on marginalized communities. It also is written in the present tense to add impact.

While the clinic was canceled this year due to COVID-19, I still wanted to do something for them. During a PPE-drive meeting this July, Winnie recounted his family history. I noticed his eyebrows furrow with anxiety as he spoke about his family’s safety in Tierra Blanca, Mexico. I realized that Winnie lacked substantial information about his hometown, and fear-mongering headlines did nothing to assuage his fears. After days of searching, I discovered that his hometown, Guanajuato, reported fewer cases of COVID-19 in comparison with surrounding towns. I then created a color-coded map of his town, showing rates across the different districts. Winnie’s eyes softened, marveling at the map I made for him this August. I didn’t need to explain what he saw: Guanajuato, his home state, was pale yellow, the color I chose to mark the lowest level of cases. By making this map, I didn’t intend to give him new hope; I wanted to show him where hope was.

The student continues to tell the powerful story of one of her patients. This humbles and empowers the student, motivating her in the next paragraph.

This interaction fueled my commitment to search for hope in my journey of becoming a public health official. Working in public health policy, I hope to tackle complex world problems, such as economic and social barriers to healthcare and find creative methods of improving outcomes in queer and Latinx communities. I want to study the present and potential future intervention strategies in minority communities for addressing language barriers to information including language on posters and gendered language, and for instituting social and support services for community youth. These stepping stones will hopefully prepare me for conducting professional research for the Medical Organization for Latino Advancement. I aspire to be an active proponent of healthcare access and equity for marginalized groups, including queer communities. I first learned about the importance of recognizing minority identities in healthcare through my bisexual sister, Sophie, and her nonbinary friend, Gilligan. During discussions with her friends, I realized the importance of validating diverse gender expressions in all facets of my life.

Here, the past experience is directly connected to future academic and professional goals, which themselves are motivated by a desire to increase access among communities as well as personal family experiences. This is a strong case for why personal identity is so important.

My experiences with Winnie and my sister have empowered me to be creative, thoughtful, and brave while challenging the assumptions currently embedded in the “visual vocabulary” of both the art and science fields. I envision myself deconstructing hegemonic ideas of masculinity and femininity and surmounting the limitations of traditional perceptions of male and female bodies as it relates to existing healthcare practices. Through these subtle changes, I aim to make a large impact.

The Conclusion positions the student as an impactful leader and visionary. This is a powerful case for the admissions board to consider.

If you want to read more college admissions essay examples, check out our articles about  successful college personal statements  and the  2021-2022 Common App prompts and example essays .

Wordvice offers a full suite of proofreading and editing services . If you are a student applying to college and are having trouble with the best college admissions essay format, check out our application essay editing services  (including personal statement editing ) and find out  how much online proofreading costs . 

Finally, don’t forget to receive common app essay editing and professional admissions editing for any other admissions documents for college, university, and post-doctoral programs.

Ultimate Guide to Writing Your College Essay

Tips for writing an effective college essay.

College admissions essays are an important part of your college application and gives you the chance to show colleges and universities your character and experiences. This guide will give you tips to write an effective college essay.

Want free help with your college essay?

UPchieve connects you with knowledgeable and friendly college advisors—online, 24/7, and completely free. Get 1:1 help brainstorming topics, outlining your essay, revising a draft, or editing grammar.

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Writing a strong college admissions essay

Learn about the elements of a solid admissions essay.

Avoiding common admissions essay mistakes

Learn some of the most common mistakes made on college essays

Brainstorming tips for your college essay

Stuck on what to write your college essay about? Here are some exercises to help you get started.

How formal should the tone of your college essay be?

Learn how formal your college essay should be and get tips on how to bring out your natural voice.

Taking your college essay to the next level

Hear an admissions expert discuss the appropriate level of depth necessary in your college essay.

Student Stories

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Student Story: Admissions essay about a formative experience

Get the perspective of a current college student on how he approached the admissions essay.

Student Story: Admissions essay about personal identity

Get the perspective of a current college student on how she approached the admissions essay.

Student Story: Admissions essay about community impact

Student story: admissions essay about a past mistake, how to write a college application essay, tips for writing an effective application essay, sample college essay 1 with feedback, sample college essay 2 with feedback.

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College Essays

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When you're applying to college, even small decisions can feel high-stakes. This is especially true for the college essay, which often feels like the most personal part of the application. You may agonize over your college application essay format: the font, the margins, even the file format. Or maybe you're agonizing over how to organize your thoughts overall. Should you use a narrative structure? Five paragraphs?

In this comprehensive guide, we'll go over the ins and outs of how to format a college essay on both the micro and macro levels. We'll discuss minor formatting issues like headings and fonts, then discuss broad formatting concerns like whether or not to use a five-paragraph essay, and if you should use a college essay template.

How to Format a College Essay: Font, Margins, Etc.

Some of your formatting concerns will depend on whether you will be cutting and pasting your essay into a text box on an online application form or attaching a formatted document. If you aren't sure which you'll need to do, check the application instructions. Note that the Common Application does currently require you to copy and paste your essay into a text box.

Most schools also allow you to send in a paper application, which theoretically gives you increased control over your essay formatting. However, I generally don't advise sending in a paper application (unless you have no other option) for a couple of reasons:

Most schools state that they prefer to receive online applications. While it typically won't affect your chances of admission, it is wise to comply with institutional preferences in the college application process where possible. It tends to make the whole process go much more smoothly.

Paper applications can get lost in the mail. Certainly there can also be problems with online applications, but you'll be aware of the problem much sooner than if your paper application gets diverted somehow and then mailed back to you. By contrast, online applications let you be confident that your materials were received.

Regardless of how you will end up submitting your essay, you should draft it in a word processor. This will help you keep track of word count, let you use spell check, and so on.

Next, I'll go over some of the concerns you might have about the correct college essay application format, whether you're copying and pasting into a text box or attaching a document, plus a few tips that apply either way.

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Formatting Guidelines That Apply No Matter How You End Up Submitting the Essay:

Unless it's specifically requested, you don't need a title. It will just eat into your word count.

Avoid cutesy, overly colloquial formatting choices like ALL CAPS or ~unnecessary symbols~ or, heaven forbid, emoji and #hashtags. Your college essay should be professional, and anything too cutesy or casual will come off as immature.

emoji-653309_640.jpg

Mmm, delicious essay...I mean sandwich.

Why College Essay Templates Are a Bad Idea

You might see college essay templates online that offer guidelines on how to structure your essay and what to say in each paragraph. I strongly advise against using a template. It will make your essay sound canned and bland—two of the worst things a college essay can be. It's much better to think about what you want to say, and then talk through how to best structure it with someone else and/or make your own practice outlines before you sit down to write.

You can also find tons of successful sample essays online. Looking at these to get an idea of different styles and topics is fine, but again, I don't advise closely patterning your essay after a sample essay. You will do the best if your essay really reflects your own original voice and the experiences that are most meaningful to you.

College Application Essay Format: Key Takeaways

There are two levels of formatting you might be worried about: the micro (fonts, headings, margins, etc) and the macro (the overall structure of your essay).

Tips for the micro level of your college application essay format:

  • Always draft your essay in a word processing software, even if you'll be copy-and-pasting it over into a text box.
  • If you are copy-and-pasting it into a text box, make sure your formatting transfers properly, your paragraphs are clearly delineated, and your essay isn't cut off.
  • If you are attaching a document, make sure your font is easily readable, your margins are standard 1-inch, your essay is 1.5 or double-spaced, and your file format is compatible with the application specs.
  • There's no need for a title unless otherwise specified—it will just eat into your word count.

Tips for the macro level of your college application essay format :

  • There is no super-secret college essay format that will guarantee success.
  • In terms of structure, it's most important that you have an introduction that makes it clear where you're going and a conclusion that wraps up with a main point. For the middle of your essay, you have lots of freedom, just so long as it flows logically!
  • I advise against using an essay template, as it will make your essay sound stilted and unoriginal.

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Plus, if you use a college essay template, how will you get rid of these medieval weirdos?

What's Next?

Still feeling lost? Check out our total guide to the personal statement , or see our step-by-step guide to writing the perfect essay .

If you're not sure where to start, consider these tips for attention-grabbing first sentences to college essays!

And be sure to avoid these 10 college essay mistakes .

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

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College admissions

Course: college admissions   >   unit 4.

  • Writing a strong college admissions essay
  • Avoiding common admissions essay mistakes
  • Brainstorming tips for your college essay
  • How formal should the tone of your college essay be?
  • Taking your college essay to the next level
  • Sample essay 1 with admissions feedback
  • Sample essay 2 with admissions feedback
  • Student story: Admissions essay about a formative experience
  • Student story: Admissions essay about personal identity
  • Student story: Admissions essay about community impact
  • Student story: Admissions essay about a past mistake
  • Student story: Admissions essay about a meaningful poem

Writing tips and techniques for your college essay

Pose a question the reader wants answered, don't focus exclusively on the past, experiment with the unexpected, don't summarize, want to join the conversation.

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How to Write a Personal Essay for Your College Application

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What does it take to land in the “accept” (instead of “reject”) pile?

How can you write an essay that helps advance you in the eyes of the admissions officers and makes a real impression? Here are some tips to get you started.

  • Start early.  Do not leave it until the last minute. Give yourself time when you don’t have other homework or extracurriculars hanging over your head to work on the essay.
  • Keep the focus narrow.  Your essay does not have to cover a massive, earth-shattering event. Some people in their teens haven’t experienced a major life event. Some people have. Either way, it’s okay.
  • Be yourself.  Whether writing about a painful experience or a more simple experience, use the narrative to be vulnerable and honest about who you are. Use words you would normally use. Trust your voice and the fact that your story is interesting enough in that no one else has lived it.
  • Be creative.  “Show, don’t tell,” and that applies here — to an extent. The best essays typically do both. You can help your reader see and feel what you are describing by using some figurative language throughout your piece.
  • Make a point. As you finish your final body paragraphs ask yourself “So what?” This will help you hone in on how to end your essay in a way that elevates it into a story about an insight or discovery you made about yourself, rather than just being about an experience you had.

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We’ve all heard about the dreaded “college essay,” the bane of every high school senior’s existence. This daunting element of the college application is something that can create angst for even the most accomplished students.

  • AA Amy Allen is a writer, educator, and lifelong learner. Her freelance writing business,  All of the Write Words , focuses on providing high school students with one-on-one feedback to guide them through the college application process and with crafting a thoughtful personal essay. A dedicated poet, Amy’s work has also been published in several journals including  Pine Row Press ,  Months to Years,  and  Atlanta Review .

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21 Stellar Common App Essay Examples to Inspire Your College Essay

What’s covered:, what makes a good common app essay, is your common app essay strong enough.

When you begin writing your Common App essay, having an example to look at can help you understand how to effectively write your college essay so that it stands apart from others. 

These Common App essay examples demonstrate a strong writing ability and answer the prompt in a way that shows admissions officers something unique about the student. Once you’ve read some examples and are ready to get started, read our step-by-step guide for how to write a strong Common App essay.  

Please note: Looking at examples of real essays students have submitted to colleges can be very beneficial to get inspiration for your essays. You should never copy or plagiarize from these examples when writing your own essays. Colleges can tell when an essay isn’t genuine and will not view students favorably if they plagiarized. 

Read our Common App essay breakdown to get a comprehensive overview of this year’s supplemental prompts.

It’s Personal

The point of the Common App essay is to humanize yourself to a college admissions committee. The ultimate goal is to get them to choose you over someone else! You will have a better chance of achieving this goal if the admissions committee feels personally connected to you or invested in your story. When writing your Common App essay, you should explore your feelings, worldview, values, desires, and anything else that makes you uniquely you.

It’s Not Cliché

It is pretty easy to resort to clichés in college essays. This should be actively avoided! CollegeVine has identified the immigrant’s journey, sports injuries, and overcoming a challenging course as cliché topics . If you write about one of these topics, you have to work harder to stand out, so working with a more nuanced topic is often safer and easier.

It’s Well-Done

Colleges want good writers. They want students who can articulate their thoughts clearly and concisely (and creatively!). You should be writing and rewriting your essays, perfecting them as you go. Of course, make sure that your grammar and spelling are impeccable, but also put in time crafting your tone and finding your voice. This will also make your essay more personal and will make your reader feel more connected to you!

It’s Cohesive

Compelling Common App essays tell a cohesive story. Cohesion is primarily achieved through effective introductions and conclusions , which often contribute to the establishment of a clear theme or topic. Make sure that it is clear what you are getting at, but also don’t explicitly state what you are getting at—a successful essay speaks for itself.

Common App Essay Examples

Here are the current Common App prompts. Click the links to jump to the examples for a specific prompt, or keep reading to review the examples for all the prompts.

Prompt #1 :  Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

Prompt #2 :  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?

Prompt #3 :  Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

Prompt #4 : Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you? (NOTE: We only have an example for the old prompt #4 about solving a problem, not this current one)

Prompt #5 :  Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Prompt #6 :  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?

Prompt #7 :  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.

Note: Names have been changed to protect the identity of the author and subjects.

Prompt #1: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

Prompt #1, example #1.

The room was silent except for the thoughts racing through my head. I led a spade from my hand and my opponent paused for a second, then played a heart. The numbers ran through my mind as I tried to consider every combination, calculating my next move. Finally, I played the ace of spades from the dummy and the rest of my clubs, securing the contract and 620 points when my partner ruffed at trick five. Next board.

It was the final of the 2015 United States Bridge Federation Under-26 Women’s Championship. The winning team would be selected to represent the United States in the world championship and my team was still in the running.

Contract bridge is a strategic and stochastic card game. Players from around the world gather at local clubs, regional events, and, in this case, national tournaments.

Going into the tournament, my team was excited; all the hours we had put into the game, from the lengthy midnight Skype sessions spent discussing boards to the coffee shop meetings spent memorizing conventions together, were about to pay off.

Halfway through, our spirits were still high, as we were only down by fourteen international match points which, out of the final total of about four hundred points, was virtually nothing and it was very feasible to catch up. Our excitement was short-lived, however, as sixty boards later, we found that we had lost the match and would not be chosen as the national team.

Initially, we were devastated. We had come so close and it seemed as if all the hours we had devoted to training had been utterly wasted. Yet as our team spent some time together reflecting upon the results, we gradually realized that the true value that we had gained wasn’t only the prospect of winning the national title, but also the time we had spent together exploring our shared passion. I chatted with the winning team and even befriended a few of them who offered us encouragement and advice.

Throughout my bridge career, although I’ve gained a respectable amount of masterpoints and awards, I’ve realized that the real reward comes from the extraordinary people I have met. I don’t need to travel cross-country to learn; every time I sit down at a table whether it be during a simple club game, a regional tournament or a national event, I find I’m always learning. 

I nod at the pair that’s always yelling at each other. They teach me the importance of sportsmanship and forgiveness.

I greet the legally blind man who can defeat most of the seeing players. He reminds me not to make excuses.

I chat with the friendly, elderly couple who, at ages ninety and ninety-two, have just gotten married two weeks ago. They teach me that it’s never too late to start anything.

I talk to the boy who’s attending Harvard and the girl who forewent college to start her own company. They show me that there is more than one path to success.

I congratulate the little kid running to his dad, excited to have won his very first masterpoints. He reminds me of the thrill of every first time and to never stop trying new things.

Just as much as I have benefitted from these life lessons, I aspire to give back to my bridge community as much as it has given me. I aspire to teach people how to play this complicated yet equally as exciting game. I aspire to never stop improving myself, both at and away from the bridge table.

Bridge has given me my roots and dared me to dream. What started as merely a hobby has become a community, a passion, a part of my identity. I aspire to live selflessly and help others reach their goals. I seek to take risks, embrace all results, even failure, and live unfettered from my own doubt.

This student draws readers in with a strong introduction. The essay starts ambiguous—“I led with a spade”—then intrigues readers by gradually revealing more information and details. This makes the reader want to keep reading (which is super important!) As the writer continues, there is a rather abrupt tone shift from suspenseful to explanatory with statements like “It was the final of the 2015 United States Bridge Federation Under-26 Women’s Championship” and “Contract bridge is a strategic and stochastic card game.” If you plan to start with an imagery-heavy, emotional, suspenseful, or dramatic introduction, you will need to transition to the content of your essay in a way that does not feel abrupt. 

You will often hear that essays need to “show, not tell.” This essay actually does both. First, the student tells readers the importance of bridge, saying “we gradually realized that the true value that we had gained wasn’t only the prospect of winning the national title, but also the time we had spent together exploring our shared passion” and “I’ve realized that the real reward comes from the extraordinary people I have met.” Then, the student shows the lessons they have learned from bridge through a series of parallel sentences: “I nod… sportsmanship and forgiveness” “I greet… not to make excuses” “I chat… it’s never too late to start anything” and so on. This latter strategy is much more effective than the former and is watered down because the student has already told us what we are supposed to get out of these sentences. Remember that your readers are intelligent and can draw their own conclusions. Avoid summarizing the moral of your story for them!

Overall, this essay is interesting and answers the prompt. We learn the importance of bridge to this student. The student has a solid grasp of language, a high-level vocabulary, and a valuable message, though they would be better off if they avoided summarizing their point and created more seamless transitions. 

Prompt #1, Example #2

Growing up, I always wanted to eat, play, visit, watch, and be it all: sloppy joes and spaetzle, Beanie Babies and Steiff, Cape Cod and the Baltic Sea, football and fussball, American and German.

My American parents relocated our young family to Berlin when I was three years old. My exposure to America was limited to holidays spent stateside and awfully dubbed Disney Channel broadcasts. As the few memories I had of living in the US faded, my affinity for Germany grew. I began to identify as “Germerican,” an ideal marriage of the two cultures. As a child, I viewed my biculturalism as a blessing. I possessed a native fluency in “Denglisch” and my family’s Halloween parties were legendary at a time when the holiday was just starting to gain popularity outside of the American Sector.

Insidiously, the magic I once felt in loving two homes was replaced by a deep-­rooted sense of rootlessness. I stopped feeling American when, while discussing World War II with my grandmother, I said “the US won.” She corrected me, insisting I use “we” when referring to the US’s actions. Before then, I hadn’t realized how directly people associated themselves with their countries. I stopped feeling German during the World Cup when my friends labeled me a “bandwagon fan” for rooting for Germany. Until that moment, my cheers had felt sincere. I wasn’t part of the “we” who won World Wars or World Cups. Caught in a twilight of foreign and familiar, I felt emotionally and psychologically disconnected from the two cultures most familiar to me.

After moving from Berlin to New York at age fifteen, my feelings of cultural homelessness thrived in my new environment. Looking and sounding American furthered my feelings of dislocation. Border patrol agents, teachers, classmates, neighbors, and relatives all “welcomed me home” to a land they could not understand was foreign to me. Americans confused me as I relied on Urban Dictionary to understand my peers, the Pledge of Allegiance seemed nationalistic, and the only thing familiar about Fahrenheit was the German after whom it was named. Too German for America and too American for Germany, I felt alienated from both. I wanted desperately to be a member of one, if not both, cultures.

During my first weeks in Scarsdale, I spent my free time googling “Berlin Family Seeks Teen” and “New Americans in Scarsdale.” The latter search proved most fruitful: I discovered Horizons, a nonprofit that empowers resettled refugees, or “New Americans,” to thrive. I started volunteering with Horizon’s children’s programs, playing with and tutoring young refugees.

It was there that I met Emily, a twelve­-year-­old Iraqi girl who lived next to Horizons. In between games and snacks, Emily would ask me questions about American life, touching on everything from Halloween to President Obama. Gradually, my confidence in my American identity grew as I recognized my ability to answer most of her questions. American culture was no longer completely foreign to me. I found myself especially qualified to work with young refugees; my experience growing up in a country other than that of my parents’ was similar enough to that of the refugee children Horizons served that I could empathize with them and offer advice. Together, we worked through conflicting allegiances, homesickness, and stretched belonging.

Forging a special, personal bond with young refugees proved a cathartic outlet for my insecurities as it taught me to value my past. My transculturalism allowed me to help young refugees integrate into American life, and, in doing so, I was able to adjust myself. Now, I have an appreciation of myself that I never felt before. “Home” isn’t the digits in a passport or ZIP code but a sense of contentedness. By helping a young refugee find comfort, happiness, and home in America, I was finally able to find those same things for myself.

Due to their endearing (and creative) use of language—with early phrases like “sloppy joes and spaetzle” as well as  “Germerican” and “Denglisch”—readers are inclined to like this writer from the get-go. Though the essay shifts from this lighthearted introduction to more serious subject matter around the third paragraph, the shift is not abrupt or jarring. This is because the student invites readers to feel the transition with them through their inclusion of various anecdotes that inspired their “feelings of cultural homelessness.” And our journey does not end there—we go back to America with the student and see how their former struggles become strengths.

Ultimately, this essay is successful due to its satisfying ending. Because readers experience the student’s struggles with them, we also feel the resolution. The conclusion of this essay is a prime example of the “Same, but Different” technique described in our article on How to End Your College Essay . As the student describes how, in the end, their complicated cultural identity still exists but transitions to a source of strength, readers are left feeling happy for the student. This means that they have formed a connection with the student, which is the ultimate goal!

Prompt #1, Example #3

“1…2…3…4 pirouettes ! New record!” My friends cheered as I landed my turns. Pleased with my progress, I gazed down at my worn-out pointe shoes. The sweltering blisters, numbing ice-baths, and draining late-night practices did not seem so bad after all. Next goal: five turns.

For as long as I can remember, ballet, in all its finesse and glamor, had kept me driven day to day. As a child, the lithe ballerinas, donning ethereal costumes as they floated across the stage, were my motivation. While others admired Messi and Adele, I idolized Carlos Acosta, principal dancer of the Royal Ballet. 

As I devoted more time and energy towards my craft, I became obsessed with improving my technique. I would stretch for hours after class, forcing my leg one inch higher in an effort to mirror the Dance Magazine cover girls . I injured my feet and ruined pair after pair of pointe shoes, turning on wood, cement, and even grass to improve my balance as I spun. At competitions, the dancers with the 180-degree leg extensions, endless turns, and soaring leaps—the ones who received “Bravos!” from the roaring audience—further pushed me to refine my skills and perfect my form. I believed that, with enough determination, I would one day attain their level of perfection. Reaching the quadruple- pirouette milestone only intensified my desire to accomplish even more. 

My efforts seemed to have come to fruition two summers ago when I was accepted to dance with Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet at their renowned New York City summer intensive. I walked into my first session eager to learn from distinguished ballet masters and worldly dancers, already anticipating my improvement. Yet, as I danced alongside the accomplished ballerinas, I felt out of place. Despite their clean technique and professional training, they did not aim for glorious leg extensions or prodigious leaps. When they performed their turn combinations, most of them only executed two turns as I attempted four. 

“Dancers, double- pirouettes only.” 

Taken aback and confused, I wondered why our teacher expected so little from us. The other ballerinas seemed content, gracing the studio with their simple movements. 

As I grew closer with my Moscow roommates, I gradually learned that their training emphasized the history of the art form instead of stylistic tricks. Rather than show off their physical ability, their performances aimed to convey a story, one that embodied the rich culture of ballet and captured both the legacy of the dancers before them and their own artistry. As I observed my friends more intently in repertoire class, I felt the pain of the grief-stricken white swan from Swan Lake , the sass of the flirtatious Kitri from Don Quijote, and I gradually saw what I had overlooked before. My definition of talent had been molded by crowd-pleasing elements—whirring pirouettes , gravity-defying leaps, and mind-blowing leg extensions. This mindset slowly stripped me from the roots of my passion and my personal connection with ballet. 

With the Bolshoi, I learned to step back and explore the meaning behind each step and the people behind the scenes. Ballet carries history in its movements, from the societal values of the era to each choreographer’s unique flair. As I uncovered the messages behind each pirouette, kick, and jump, my appreciation for ballet grew beyond my obsession with raw athleticism and developed into a love for the art form’s emotive abilities in bridging the dancers with the audience. My journey as an artist has allowed me to see how technical execution is only the means to a greater understanding between dancer and spectator, between storyteller and listener. The elegance and complexity of ballet does not revolve around astonishing stunts but rather the evocative strength and artistry manifested in the dancer, in me. It is the combination of sentiments, history, tradition, and passion that has allowed ballet and its lessons of human connection to become my lifestyle both on and off stage.

The primary strength of this essay is the honesty and authenticity of the student’s writing. It is purposefully reflective. Intentional language creates a clear character arc that begins with an eager young ballerina and ends with the student reflecting on their past. 

Readers are easily able to picture the passion and intensity of the young dancer through the writer’s engagement with words like “obsessed,” “forcing,” and “ruined” in the second paragraph. Then, we see how intensity becomes pride as they “wondered why our teacher expected so little from us.” And ultimately, we see the writer humbled as they are exposed to the deeper meaning behind what they have worked so hard for. This arc is outstanding, and the student’s musings about ballet in the concl usion position them as vulnerable and reflective (and thus, appealing to admissions officers!)

The main weakness of this essay (though this is a stellar essay) is its formulaic beginning. While dialogue can be an effective tool for starting your essay, this student’s introduction feels a bit stilted as the dialogue does not match the overall reflective tone of the essay. Perhaps, in place of “Next goal: five turns,” the student could have posed a question or foreshadowed the growth they ultimately describe.

Prompt #1, Example #4

My paintbrush dragged a flurry of acrylic, the rich colors attaching to each groove in my canvas’s texture. The feeling was euphoric.

From a young age, painting has been my solace. Between the stress of my packed high school days filled with classes and extracurriculars, the glide of my paintbrush was my emotional outlet.

I opened a fresh canvas and began. The amalgamation of assorted colors in my palette melded harmoniously: dark and light, cool and warm, brilliant and dull. They conjoined, forming shades and surfaces sharp, smooth, and ridged. The textures of my paint strokes — powdery, glossy, jagged — gave my painting a tone, as if it had a voice of its own, sometimes shrieking, sometimes whispering.

Rough indigo blue. The repetitive upward pulls of my brush formed layers on my canvas. Staring into the deep blue, I felt transported to the bottom of the pool I swim in daily. I looked upward to see a layer of dense water between myself and the person I aspire to be, an ideal blurred by filmy ripples. Rough blue encapsulates my amorphous, conflicting identity, catalyzed by words spewed by my peers about my “oily hair” and “smelly food”. They caused my ever present disdain toward cultural assemblies; the lehenga I wore felt burdensome. My identity quivers like the indigo storm I painted — a duel between my self-deprecating, validation-seeking self, and the proud self I desire to be. My haphazard paint strokes released my internal turbulence.

Smooth orange-hued green. I laid the color in melodious strokes, forming my figure. The warmer green transitions from the rough blue — while they share elements, they also diverge. My firm brushstrokes felt like the way I felt on my first day as a media intern at KBOO, my local volunteer-driven radio station, committed to the voices of the marginalized. As a naturally introverted speaker, I was forced out of my comfort zone when tasked with documenting a KBOO art exhibition for social media, speaking with hosts to share their diverse, underrepresented backgrounds and inspirations. A rhythmic green strength soon shoved me past internal blue turbulence. My communication skills which were built by two years of Speech and Debate unleashed — I recognized that making a social change through media required amplifying unique voices and perspectives, both my own and others. The powerful green strokes that fill my canvas entrench my growth.

Bright, voluminous coral, hinted with magenta and yellow. I dabbed the color over my figure, giving my painting dimension. The paint, speckled, added depth on every inch it coated. As I moved the color in random but purposeful movements, the vitality ushered into my painting brought a smile across my face. It reminded me of the encounters I had with my cubicle-mate in my sophomore year academic autism research internship, seemingly insignificant moments in my lifelong journey that, in retrospect, wove unique threads into my tapestry. The kindness she brought into work inspired my compassion, while her stories of struggling with ADHD in the workplace bolstered my empathy towards different experiences. Our conversations added blobs of a nonuniform bright color in my painting, binding a new perspective in me.

I added in my final strokes, each contributing an element to my piece. As I scanned my canvas, I observed these elements. Detail added nuance into smaller pictures; they embodied complexities within color, texture, and hue, each individually delivering a narrative. But together, they formed a piece of art— art that could be interpreted as a whole or broken apart but still delivering as a means of communication.

I find beauty in media because of this. I can adapt a complex narrative to be deliverable, each component telling a story. Appreciating these nuances — the light, dark, smooth, and rough — has cultivated my growth mindset. My life-long painting never finishes. It is ever-expanding, absorbing the novel textures and colors I encounter daily.

This essay is distinct from others due to its melodic, lyrical form. This is primarily achieved because the student’s form follows the movements of the paintbrush that they use to scaffold their essay. As readers, we simply flow through the essay, occasionally picking up bits of information about its creator. Without even realizing it, by the end of the essay, admissions officers will know that this student is a swimmer, was in Speech and Debate, is Indian, and has had multiple internships.

A major strength of this essay is the command of language that the student demonstrates. This essay was not simply written, it was crafted. Universities are, of course, interested in the talents, goals, and interests of applicants, but an essay being well-written can be equally important. Writing skills are important because your reader will not learn about your talents, goals, and interests if they aren’t engaged in your essay, but they are also important because admissions officers know that being able to articulate your thoughts is important for success in all future careers.

While this essay is well-written, there are a few moments where it falls out of the flow and feels more like a student advertising their successes. For example, the phrases “media intern at KBOO” and “autism research internship” work better on a resume than they do in this essay. Admissions officers have a copy of your resume and can check your internship experiences after reading your essay! If you are going to use a unique writing style or narrative form, lean into it; don’t try to hybridize it with the standard college essay form. Your boldness will be attractive to admissions officers.

essay format example for college

Readers are easily able to picture the passion and intensity of the young dancer through the writer’s engagement with words like “obsessed,” “forcing,” and “ruined” in the second paragraph. Then, we see how intensity becomes pride as they “wondered why our teacher expected so little from us.” And ultimately, we see the writer humbled as they are exposed to the deeper meaning behind what they have worked so hard for. This arc is outstanding, and the student’s musings about ballet in the conclusion position them as vulnerable and reflective (and thus, appealing to admissions officers!)

Prompt #2: 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?

Prompt #2, example #1.

“You ruined my life!” After months of quiet anger, my brother finally confronted me. To my shame, I had been appallingly ignorant of his pain.

Despite being twins, Max and I are profoundly different. Having intellectual interests from a young age that, well, interested very few of my peers, I often felt out of step in comparison with my highly-social brother. Everything appeared to come effortlessly for Max and, while we share an extremely tight bond, his frequent time away with friends left me feeling more and more alone as we grew older.

When my parents learned about The Green Academy, we hoped it would be an opportunity for me to find not only an academically challenging environment, but also – perhaps more importantly – a community. This meant transferring the family from Drumfield to Kingston. And while there was concern about Max, we all believed that given his sociable nature, moving would be far less impactful on him than staying put might be on me.

As it turned out, Green Academy was everything I’d hoped for. I was ecstatic to discover a group of students with whom I shared interests and could truly engage. Preoccupied with new friends and a rigorous course load, I failed to notice that the tables had turned. Max, lost in the fray and grappling with how to make connections in his enormous new high school, had become withdrawn and lonely. It took me until Christmas time – and a massive argument – to recognize how difficult the transition had been for my brother, let alone that he blamed me for it.

Through my own journey of searching for academic peers, in addition to coming out as gay when I was 12, I had developed deep empathy for those who had trouble fitting in. It was a pain I knew well and could easily relate to. Yet after Max’s outburst, my first response was to protest that our parents – not I – had chosen to move us here. In my heart, though, I knew that regardless of who had made the decision, we ended up in Kingston for my benefit. I was ashamed that, while I saw myself as genuinely compassionate, I had been oblivious to the heartache of the person closest to me. I could no longer ignore it – and I didn’t want to.

We stayed up half the night talking, and the conversation took an unexpected turn. Max opened up and shared that it wasn’t just about the move. He told me how challenging school had always been for him, due to his dyslexia, and that the ever-present comparison to me had only deepened his pain.

We had been in parallel battles the whole time and, yet, I only saw that Max was in distress once he experienced problems with which I directly identified. I’d long thought Max had it so easy – all because he had friends. The truth was, he didn’t need to experience my personal brand of sorrow in order for me to relate – he had felt plenty of his own.

My failure to recognize Max’s suffering brought home for me the profound universality and diversity of personal struggle; everyone has insecurities, everyone has woes, and everyone – most certainly – has pain. I am acutely grateful for the conversations he and I shared around all of this, because I believe our relationship has been fundamentally strengthened by a deeper understanding of one another. Further, this experience has reinforced the value of constantly striving for deeper sensitivity to the hidden struggles of those around me. I won’t make the mistake again of assuming that the surface of someone’s life reflects their underlying story.

Here is a prime example that you don’t have to have fabulous imagery or flowery prose to write a successful Common App essay. You just have to be clear and say something that matters. This essay is simple and beautiful. It almost feels like having a conversation with a friend and learning that they are an even better person than you already thought they were.

Through this narrative, readers learn a lot about the writer—where they’re from, what their family life is like, what their challenges were as a kid, and even their sexuality. We also learn a lot about their values—notably, the value they place on awareness, improvement, and consideration of others. Though they never explicitly state it (which is great because it is still crystal clear!), this student’s ending of “I won’t make the mistake again of assuming that the surface of someone’s life reflects their underlying story” shows that they are constantly striving for improvement and finding lessons anywhere they can get them in life.

The only part of this essay that could use a bit of work is the introduction. A short introduction can be effective, but this short first paragraph feels thrown in at the last minute and like it is missing its second half. If you are keeping your introduction short, make it matter.

Prompt #2, Example #2

Was I no longer the beloved daughter of nature, whisperer of trees? Knee-high rubber boots, camouflage, bug spray—I wore the garb and perfume of a proud wild woman, yet there I was, hunched over the pathetic pile of stubborn sticks, utterly stumped, on the verge of tears. As a child, I had considered myself a kind of rustic princess, a cradler of spiders and centipedes, who was serenaded by mourning doves and chickadees, who could glide through tick-infested meadows and emerge Lyme-free. I knew the cracks of the earth like the scars on my own rough palms. Yet here I was, ten years later, incapable of performing the most fundamental outdoor task: I could not, for the life of me, start a fire. 

Furiously I rubbed the twigs together—rubbed and rubbed until shreds of skin flaked from my fingers. No smoke. The twigs were too young, too sticky-green; I tossed them away with a shower of curses, and began tearing through the underbrush in search of a more flammable collection. My efforts were fruitless. Livid, I bit a rejected twig, determined to prove that the forest had spurned me, offering only young, wet bones that would never burn. But the wood cracked like carrots between my teeth—old, brittle, and bitter. Roaring and nursing my aching palms, I retreated to the tent, where I sulked and awaited the jeers of my family. 

Rattling their empty worm cans and reeking of fat fish, my brother and cousins swaggered into the campsite. Immediately, they noticed the minor stick massacre by the fire pit and called to me, their deep voices already sharp with contempt. 

“Where’s the fire, Princess Clara?” they taunted. “Having some trouble?” They prodded me with the ends of the chewed branches and, with a few effortless scrapes of wood on rock, sparked a red and roaring flame. My face burned long after I left the fire pit. The camp stank of salmon and shame. 

In the tent, I pondered my failure. Was I so dainty? Was I that incapable? I thought of my hands, how calloused and capable they had been, how tender and smooth they had become. It had been years since I’d kneaded mud between my fingers; instead of scaling a white pine, I’d practiced scales on my piano, my hands softening into those of a musician—fleshy and sensitive. And I’d gotten glasses, having grown horrifically nearsighted; long nights of dim lighting and thick books had done this. I couldn’t remember the last time I had lain down on a hill, barefaced, and seen the stars without having to squint. Crawling along the edge of the tent, a spider confirmed my transformation—he disgusted me, and I felt an overwhelming urge to squash him. 

Yet, I realized I hadn’t really changed—I had only shifted perspective. I still eagerly explored new worlds, but through poems and prose rather than pastures and puddles. I’d grown to prefer the boom of a bass over that of a bullfrog, learned to coax a different kind of fire from wood, having developed a burn for writing rhymes and scrawling hypotheses. 

That night, I stayed up late with my journal and wrote about the spider I had decided not to kill. I had tolerated him just barely, only shrieking when he jumped—it helped to watch him decorate the corners of the tent with his delicate webs, knowing that he couldn’t start fires, either. When the night grew cold and the embers died, my words still smoked—my hands burned from all that scrawling—and even when I fell asleep, the ideas kept sparking—I was on fire, always on fire.

This Common App essay is well-written. The student is showing the admissions officers their ability to articulate their points beautifully and creatively. It starts with vivid images like that of the “rustic princess, a cradler of spiders and centipedes, who was serenaded by mourning doves and chickadees, who could glide through tick-infested meadows and emerge Lyme-free.” And because the prose is flowery, the writer can get away with metaphors like “I knew the cracks of the earth like the scars on my own rough palms” that might sound cheesy without the clear command of the English language that the writer quickly establishes.

In addition to being well-written, this essay is thematically cohesive. It begins with the simple introduction “Fire!” and ends with the following image: “When the night grew cold and the embers died, my words still smoked—my hands burned from all that scrawling—and even when I fell asleep, the ideas kept sparking—I was on fire, always on fire.” This full-circle approach leaves readers satisfied and impressed.

While dialogue often comes off as cliche or trite, this student effectively incorporates their family members saying “Where’s the fire, Princess Clara?” This is achieved through the apt use of the verb “taunted” to characterize the questioning and through the question’s thematic connection to the earlier image of the student as a rustic princess. Similarly, rhetorical questions can feel randomly placed in essays, but this student’s inclusion of the questions “Was I so dainty?” and “Was I that incapable?” feels perfectly justified after they establish that they were pondering their failure.

Quite simply, this essay shows how quality writing can make a simple story outstandingly compelling.

Prompt #2, Example #3

The muffled voices behind thin walls heralded trouble.

They were fighting about money.

It wasn’t the first time this had happened and it wasn’t going to be the last. It was one of those countless nights I had to spend curled up under the blanket while pretending to be asleep. My father had been unemployed for five years now, and my mother, a local kindergarten teacher, was struggling to support the family alone. Our situation was bleak: Savings had run out and my parents could no longer hide our lack of money from me. To make matters worse, I was a few weeks away from starting high school, which would inevitably lead to college, yet another financial stressor for my family.

The argument didn’t sound like it would end soon.

“Why did you spend money on that?” my mother said, with an elongated sigh.

“I had to,” my father said, decidedly.

Every fight over the years had left me in despair and the idea of going through another fight daunted me. I had looked forward to my teen years all my life, an age that allows, for the first time, more responsibility. Indeed, after this fateful night, after my fourteenth birthday, I felt a mounting responsibility to help my family, and started brainstorming.

Always being fascinated by computers, I spent my childhood burying myself under computer cabinets, experimenting with computer parts. Naturally, I wondered if my skills in this area might be marketable.

The next morning, my friend, Naba, mentioned that her computer wasn’t working. A tuk-tuk ride later, and I was at her doorstep, and her mother was leading me to her room. I was off to work: I began examining her computer, like a surgeon carefully manages his scalpels and tools. A proper diagnosis was not far from reach, as I realized a broken pin in her computer’s SATA slot. After an hour of work, and a short trip to the hardware store, I successfully fixed the computer. To my pleasant surprise, Naba’s mother drew out two fresh 500 Rupee notes. One covered the cost of the parts I bought and the other was a token of appreciation. Bidding her goodbye, I went straight back home and put one of the 500 Rupee notes inside my family’s “savings-jar.”

Later that day, I devised a plan. I told my friends to spread the word that I was available to fix computers. At first, I got only one or two calls per week. I would pick up the computer from my client’s home, fix it quickly, and return it, thus earning myself a commission. While I couldn’t market my services at a competitive price, because I wasn’t able to buy the parts wholesale, I compensated by providing convenience. All my clients had to do was call me once and the rest was taken care of. Thus, my business had the best customer service in town.

At the beginning of my junior year, after two years of expanding my business through various avenues, I started buying computer parts from hardware suppliers in bulk at a cheaper rate. My business grew exponentially after that. 

Before long, I was my town’s go-to tech person. In this journey throughout high school, I started realizing that I had to create my own opportunities and not just curl up under a blanket, seeking only comfort, as I used to. Interacting with people from all walks of life became my forte and a sense of work ethic developed in me. My business required me to be an all-rounder– have the technical skills, be an easily approachable person, and manage cash flow. Slowly becoming better at this, I even managed to sway admins of a local institution to outsource their computer hardware purchases and repairs through me. As my business upsized throughout the years, I went from being helpless to autonomous – the teenager I always aspired to be.

This essay truly feels like a story—almost making you forget you are reading a college essay. The student’s voice is strong throughout the entire essay and they are able to give us insight into their thoughts, feelings, and motivations at every step of the story. Letting the reader into personal challenges like financial struggles can be daunting in a college essay, but the way this student used that setback to establish an emotional ethos to their narrative was well done.

Because the essay is essentially just telling a story, there’s a very natural flow that makes it enjoyable and easy to read. The student establishes the conflict at the beginning, then describes their solution and how they implemented it, and finally concludes with the lessons they took away from this experience. Transitions at the beginning of paragraphs effortlessly show the passage of time and how the student has progressed through the story.

Another reason this essay is so successful is because of the abundance of details. The reader truly feels like they are hiding in the room with the student as their parents yell because of the inclusion of quotes from the argument. We understand the precision and care they have for fixing computers because of the allusion to a surgeon with their scalpel. Not only does this imagery make the story more enticing, it also helps the reader gain a deeper appreciation for the type of person this student is and the adversity they have overcome.

If there were one thing this essay could do to improve, it would be to include a resolution to the conflict from the beginning. The student tells us how this business helped them grow as a person, but we don’t ever get to find out if they were able to lessen the financial burden on their parents or if they continued to struggle despite the student working hard. It doesn’t have to be a happy ending, but it would be nice to return to the conflict and acknowledge the effect they had on it, especially since this prompt is all about facing challenges.

Prompt #3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

Prompt #3, example #1.

When I was younger, I was adamant that no two foods on my plate touch. As a result, I often used a second plate to prevent such an atrocity. In many ways, I learned to separate different things this way from my older brothers, Nate and Rob. Growing up, I idolized both of them. Nate was a performer, and I insisted on arriving early to his shows to secure front row seats, refusing to budge during intermission for fear of missing anything. Rob was a three-sport athlete, and I attended his games religiously, waving worn-out foam cougar paws and cheering until my voice was hoarse. My brothers were my role models. However, while each was talented, neither was interested in the other’s passion. To me, they represented two contrasting ideals of what I could become: artist or athlete. I believed I had to choose.

And for a long time, I chose athlete. I played soccer, basketball, and lacrosse and viewed myself exclusively as an athlete, believing the arts were not for me. I conveniently overlooked that since the age of five, I had been composing stories for my family for Christmas, gifts that were as much for me as them, as I loved writing. So when in tenth grade, I had the option of taking a creative writing class, I was faced with a question: could I be an athlete and a writer? After much debate, I enrolled in the class, feeling both apprehensive and excited. When I arrived on the first day of school, my teacher, Ms. Jenkins, asked us to write down our expectations for the class. After a few minutes, eraser shavings stubbornly sunbathing on my now-smudged paper, I finally wrote, “I do not expect to become a published writer from this class. I just want this to be a place where I can write freely.”

Although the purpose of the class never changed for me, on the third “submission day,” – our time to submit writing to upcoming contests and literary magazines – I faced a predicament. For the first two submission days, I had passed the time editing earlier pieces, eventually (pretty quickly) resorting to screen snake when hopelessness made the words look like hieroglyphics. I must not have been as subtle as I thought, as on the third of these days, Ms. Jenkins approached me. After shifting from excuse to excuse as to why I did not submit my writing, I finally recognized the real reason I had withheld my work: I was scared. I did not want to be different, and I did not want to challenge not only others’ perceptions of me, but also my own. I yielded to Ms. Jenkin’s pleas and sent one of my pieces to an upcoming contest.

By the time the letter came, I had already forgotten about the contest. When the flimsy white envelope arrived in the mail, I was shocked and ecstatic to learn that I had received 2nd place in a nationwide writing competition. The next morning, however, I discovered Ms. Jenkins would make an announcement to the whole school exposing me as a poet. I decided to own this identity and embrace my friends’ jokes and playful digs, and over time, they have learned to accept and respect this part of me. I have since seen more boys at my school identifying themselves as writers or artists.

I no longer see myself as an athlete and a poet independently, but rather I see these two aspects forming a single inseparable identity – me. Despite their apparent differences, these two disciplines are quite similar, as each requires creativity and devotion. I am still a poet when I am lacing up my cleats for soccer practice and still an athlete when I am building metaphors in the back of my mind – and I have realized ice cream and gummy bears taste pretty good together.

This essay is cohesive as it centers around the theme of identity and the ability for two identities to coexist simultaneously (an interesting theme!). It uses the Full Circle ending strategy as it starts with a metaphor about food touching and ends with “I have realized ice cream and gummy bears taste pretty good together.”

The main issue with this essay is that it could come off as cliché, which could be irritating for admissions officers. The story described is notably similar to High School Musical (“I decided to own this identity and embrace my friends’ jokes and playful digs, and over time, they have learned to accept and respect this part of me”) and feels slightly overstated. 

At times, this essay is also confusing. In the first paragraph, it feels like the narrative is actually going to be about separating your food (and is somehow going to relate to the older brothers?). It is not entirely clear that this is a metaphor. Also, when the writer references the third submission day and then works backward to explain what a submission day is and that there are multiple throughout the semester, the timeline gets unnecessarily confusing. Reworking the way this paragraph unfolded would have been more compelling and less distracting.

Overall, this essay was interesting but could have been more polished to be more effective.

Prompt #3, Example #2

I walked into my middle school English class, and noticed a stranger behind my teacher’s desk. “Hello,” she said. “Today I will be your substitute teacher.” I groaned internally. “Let me start off by calling roll. Ally?” “Here!” exclaimed Ally. “Jack?” “Here.” “Rachel?” “Here.” “Freddie?” “Present.” And then– “…?” The awkward pause was my cue. “It’s Jasina,” I started. “You can just call me Jas. Here.” “Oh, Jasina. That’s unique.” The word “unique” made me cringe. I slumped back in my seat. The substitute continued calling roll, and class continued as if nothing had happened. Nothing had happened. Just a typical moment in a middle school, but I hated every second of it.

My name is not impossible to pronounce. It appears challenging initially, but once you hear it, “Jas-een-a”, then you can manage it. My nickname, Jas (pronounced “Jazz”), is what most people call me anyway, so I don’t have to deal with mispronunciation often. I am thankful that my parents named me Jasina (a Hebrew name), but whenever someone hears my name for the first time, they comment, and I assume they’re making assumptions about me. “Wow, Jas is a cool name.” She must be pretty cool.“I’ve never heard the name Jasina before.” She must be from somewhere exotic. “Jas, like Jazz?” She must be musical and artsy. None of these assumptions are bad, but they all add up to the same thing: She must be unique. 

When I was little, these sentiments felt more like commands than assumptions. I thought I had to be the most unique child of all time, which was a daunting task, but I tried. I was the only kid in the second grade to color the sun red. I knew it was really yellow, but you could always tell which drawings were mine. During snack time, we could choose between apple juice and grape juice. I liked apple juice more, but if everyone else was choosing apple, then I had to choose grape. This was how I lived my life, and it was exhausting. I tried to continue this habit into middle school, but it backfired. When everyone became obsessed with things like skinny jeans and Justin Bieber and blue mascara (that was a weird trend), my resistance of the norm made me socially awkward. I couldn’t talk to people about anything because we had nothing in common. I was too different. 

After 8th grade, I moved to Georgia, and I was dreading being the odd one out among kids who had grown up together. Then I discovered that my freshman year would be Cambridge High School’s inaugural year. Since there were students coming in from 5 different schools, there was no real sense of “normal”. I panicked. If there was no normal, then how could I be unique? That’s when I realized that I had spent so much energy going against the grain that I had no idea what my true interests were or what I really cared about. 

It was time to find out. I stopped concentrating on what everyone else was doing and started to focus on myself. I joined the basketball team, I performed in the school musical, and I enrolled in Chorus, all of which were firsts for me. I took art classes, joined clubs, and did whatever I thought would make me happy. And it paid off. I was no longer socially awkward. In fact, because I was involved in so many unrelated activities, I was socially flexible. My friends and I had things in common, but there was no one who could say that I was exactly like anyone else. I had finally become my own person.

My father named me Jasina because he wanted my nickname to be “Jazz.” According to Webster, “jazz” is “music characterized by syncopated rhythms, improvisation, and deliberate distortions of pitch.” Basically, jazz is music that is off-beat and unpredictable. It cannot be strictly defined. 

That sounds about right. 

Right off the bat, this essay starts extremely strong. The description of attendance in a class with ample quotes, awkward pauses, and the student’s internal dialogue immediately puts us in the middle of the action and establishes a lot of sympathy for this student before we’ve learned anything else. 

The strength of this essay continues into the second paragraph where the use of quotes, italics, and interjections from the student continues. All of these literary tools help the student express her voice and allow the reader to understand what this student goes through on a daily basis. Rather than just telling the reader people make assumptions about her name, she shows us what these assumptions look and sound like, and exactly how they make her feel.

The essay further shows us how the student approached her name by providing concrete examples of times she’s been intentionally unique throughout her life. Describing her drawing red suns and choosing grape juice bring her personality to life and allow her to express her deviance from the “norm” in a much more engaging and visual way than simply telling the reader she would go against the grain to be different on purpose.

One part of the essay that was a bit weaker than the others was the paragraph about her in high school. Although it was still well written and did a nice job of demonstrating how she got involved in multiple groups to find her new identity, it lacked the same level of showing employed in previous paragraphs. It would have been nice to see what “socially flexible” means either through a conversation she had with her friends or an example of a time she combined her interests from different groups in a way that was uniquely her.

The essay finishes off how it started: extremely strong. Taking a step back to fully explain the origin of her name neatly brings together everything mentioned in this essay. This ending is especially successful because she never explicitly states that her personality aligns with the definition of jazz. Instead, she relies on the points she has made throughout the essay to stick in the reader’s memory so they are able to draw the connection themselves, making for a much more satisfying ending for the reader.

Prompt #4 (OLD PROMPT; NOT THE CURRENT PROMPT): 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.

Prompt #4, example #1.

“Advanced females ages 13 to 14 please proceed to staging with your coaches at this time.” 

Skittering around the room, eyes wide and pleading, I frantically explained my situation to nearby coaches. The seconds ticked away in my head; every polite refusal increased my desperation. 

Despair weighed me down. I sank to my knees as a stream of competitors, coaches, and officials flowed around me. My dojang had no coach, and the tournament rules prohibited me from competing without one. 

Although I wanted to remain strong, doubts began to cloud my mind. I could not help wondering: what was the point of perfecting my skills if I would never even compete? The other members of my team, who had found coaches minutes earlier, attempted to comfort me, but I barely heard their words. They couldn’t understand my despair at being left on the outside, and I never wanted them to understand. 

Since my first lesson 12 years ago, the members of my dojang have become family. I have watched them grow up, finding my own happiness in theirs. Together, we have honed our kicks, blocks, and strikes. We have pushed one another to aim higher and become better martial artists. Although my dojang had searched for a reliable coach for years, we had not found one. When we attended competitions in the past, my teammates and I had always gotten lucky and found a sympathetic coach. Now, I knew this practice was unsustainable. It would devastate me to see the other members of my dojang in my situation, unable to compete and losing hope as a result. My dojang needed a coach, and I decided it was up to me to find one. 

I first approached the adults in the dojang – both instructors and members’ parents. However, these attempts only reacquainted me with polite refusals. Everyone I asked told me they couldn’t devote multiple weekends per year to competitions. I soon realized that I would have become the coach myself. 

At first, the inner workings of tournaments were a mystery to me. To prepare myself for success as a coach, I spent the next year as an official and took coaching classes on the side. I learned everything from motivational strategies to technical, behind-the-scenes components of Taekwondo competitions. Though I emerged with new knowledge and confidence in my capabilities, others did not share this faith. 

Parents threw me disbelieving looks when they learned that their children’s coach was only a child herself. My self-confidence was my armor, deflecting their surly glances. Every armor is penetrable, however, and as the relentless barrage of doubts pounded my resilience, it began to wear down. I grew unsure of my own abilities. 

Despite the attack, I refused to give up. When I saw the shining eyes of the youngest students preparing for their first competition, I knew I couldn’t let them down. To quit would be to set them up to be barred from competing like I was. The knowledge that I could solve my dojang’s longtime problem motivated me to overcome my apprehension. 

Now that my dojang flourishes at competitions, the attacks on me have weakened, but not ended. I may never win the approval of every parent; at times, I am still tormented by doubts, but I find solace in the fact that members of my dojang now only worry about competing to the best of their abilities. 

Now, as I arrive at a tournament with my students, I close my eyes and remember the past. I visualize the frantic search for a coach and the chaos amongst my teammates as we competed with one another to find coaches before the staging calls for our respective divisions. I open my eyes to the exact opposite scene. Lacking a coach hurt my ability to compete, but I am proud to know that no member of my dojang will have to face that problem again.

This essay is great because it has a strong introduction and a strong conclusion. The introduction is notably suspenseful and draws readers into the story. Because we know it is a college essay, we can assume that the student is one of the competitors, but at the same time, this introduction feels intentionally ambiguous as if the writer could be a competitor, a coach, a sibling of a competitor, or anyone else in the situation.

As we continue reading the essay, we learn that the writer is, in fact, the competitor. Readers also learn a lot about the student’s values as we hear their thoughts: “I knew I couldn’t let them down. To quit would be to set them up to be barred from competing like I was.” Ultimately, the conflict and inner and outer turmoil is resolved through the “Same, but Different” ending technique as the student places themself in the same environment that we saw in the intro, but experiencing it differently due to their actions throughout the narrative. This is a very compelling strategy!

The main weakness of this essay is that it is slightly confusing at times—how the other students found coaches feels unintentionally under-explained (a simple phrase like “through pleading and attracting sympathy” in the fourth paragraph could have served the writer well) and a dojang is never defined. Additionally, the turn of the essay or “volta” could’ve packed a bigger punch. It is put quite simply with “I soon realized that I would have become the coach myself.” A more suspenseful reveal could’ve served the author well because more drama did come later.

Prompt #5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Prompt #5, example #1.

Tears streamed down my face and my mind was paralyzed with fear. Sirens blared, but the silent panic in my own head was deafening. I was muted by shock. A few hours earlier, I had anticipated a vacation in Washington, D.C., but unexpectedly, I was rushing to the hospital behind an ambulance carrying my mother. As a fourteen-year-old from a single mother household, without a driver’s license, and seven hours from home, I was distraught over the prospect of losing the only parent I had. My fear turned into action as I made some of the bravest decisions of my life. 

Three blood transfusions later, my mother’s condition was stable, but we were still states away from home, so I coordinated with my mother’s doctors in North Carolina to schedule the emergency operation that would save her life. Throughout her surgery, I anxiously awaited any word from her surgeon, but each time I asked, I was told that there had been another complication or delay. Relying on my faith and positive attitude, I remained optimistic that my mother would survive and that I could embrace new responsibilities.

My mother had been a source of strength for me, and now I would be strong for her through her long recovery ahead. As I started high school, everyone thought the crisis was over, but it had really just started to impact my life. My mother was often fatigued, so I assumed more responsibility, juggling family duties, school, athletics, and work. I made countless trips to the neighborhood pharmacy, cooked dinner, biked to the grocery store, supported my concerned sister, and provided the loving care my mother needed to recover. I didn’t know I was capable of such maturity and resourcefulness until it was called upon. Each day was a stage in my gradual transformation from dependence to relative independence.

Throughout my mother’s health crisis, I matured by learning to put others’ needs before my own. As I worried about my mother’s health, I took nothing for granted, cherished what I had, and used my daily activities as motivation to move forward. I now take ownership over small decisions such as scheduling daily appointments and managing my time but also over major decisions involving my future, including the college admissions process. Although I have become more independent, my mother and I are inseparably close, and the realization that I almost lost her affects me daily. Each morning, I wake up ten minutes early simply to eat breakfast with my mother and spend time with her before our busy days begin. I am aware of how quickly life can change. My mother remains a guiding force in my life, but the feeling of empowerment I discovered within myself is the ultimate form of my independence. Though I thought the summer before my freshman year would be a transition from middle school to high school, it was a transformation from childhood to adulthood.

This essay feels real and tells readers a lot about the writer. To start at the beginning, the intro is 10/10. It has drama, it has emotions, and it has the reader wanting more.

And, when you keep going, you get to learn a lot about a very resilient and mature student. Through sentences like “I made countless trips to the neighborhood pharmacy, cooked dinner, biked to the grocery store, supported my concerned sister, and provided the loving care my mother needed to recover” and “Relying on my faith and positive attitude, I remained optimistic that my mother would survive and that I could embrace new responsibilities,” the reader shows us that they are aware of their resilience and maturity, but are not arrogant about it. It is simply a fact that they have proven!

Sometimes writing about adversity can feel exploitative or oddly braggy. This student backs up everything they say with anecdotes that prove and show their strength and resilience, rather than just claiming their strengths. When I read this essay, I want to cheer for its writer! And I want to be able to continue cheering for them (perhaps, if I were an admissions officer, that would make me want them at my school!).

Prompt #5, Example #2

Armed with a red pen, I slowly walked across the room to a small, isolated table with pink stools. Swinging her legs, my young student beamed and giggled at me, slamming her pencil bag on the table and bending over to pick up one of her toys. Natalie always brought some new toy with her to lessons—toys which I would sternly take away from her and place under the table until she finished her work. At the tutoring center where I work, a strict emphasis on discipline leaves no room for paper crowns or rubber chickens. 

Today, she had with her a large stuffed eagle from a museum. As she pulled out her papers, I slid the eagle to the other side of the table. She looked eagerly around, attempting to chat with other students as I impatiently called her attention to her papers. “I should name my eagle,” she chimed, waving her pencil in the air. I cringed—there was no wondering why Natalie always had to sit by herself. She was the antithesis of my academic values, and undoubtedly the greatest adversary of my teaching style.  

As the lesson progressed, Natalie became more fitful; she refused to release her feathered friend, and kept addressing the bird for help with difficult problems. We both grew increasingly more frustrated. Determined to tame this wryly, wiggling student, I stood my ground, set on converting this disobedient child to my calm, measured ways of study.  

As time slowly crept by, I noticed that despite Natalie’s cheerful tone and bright smile, the stuffed eagle was troublesomely quiet and stern-faced. Much like myself. Both the eagle and I were getting nowhere in this lesson—so we hatched a quick plan. Lifting the eagle up in the air, I started reading in my best impersonation of an eagle, squawking my way through a spelling packet. The result provided a sense of instant gratification I never knew I needed. She sang out every letter, clapped her hands at every page, and followed along with the eagle, stopping at every few letters to declare that “E is for eagle” and pet her teacher fondly on the beak.  

Despite my ostensibly dissatisfied attitude toward my students, I did not join the tutoring center simply to earn money. I had always aspired to help others achieve their fullest potential. As a young adult, I felt that it was time for me to step out of the role of a pupil and into the influential role of a teacher, naively believing that I had the maturity and skill to adapt to any situation and help these students reach their highest achievements academically. For the most part, the role of a stern-faced, strict instructor helped me get by in the workplace, and while my students never truly looked happy, I felt that it was part of the process of conditioning a child to learn. 

Ironically, my transition to adulthood was the result of a stuffed animal. It was indisputable that I always had the skill to instruct others; the only thing needed to instruct someone is knowledge of the subject. However, it was only upon being introduced to a stuffed bird in which I realized that students receive the most help not from instructors, but teachers. While almost anyone can learn material and spit it back out for someone, it takes the maturity and passion of a teacher not only to help students improve in their students, but also to motivate them and develop them into better citizens. From my young pupil and her little bird, I have undergone a change in attitude which reflects a growth in maturity and ability to improve the lives of others that I hope to implement in my future role as a student, activist, and physician. My newfound maturity taught me that the letter “e” stands for many things: empathy, experience, enthusiasm, and eagle.

In this essay, the student effectively explores their values (and how they learned them!) then identifies these values through a reflective conclusion. While the writer humbly recognizes the initial faults in their teaching style, they do not position their initial discipline or rigidity as mean or poorly intentioned—simply ineffective. This is important because, when you are discussing a transition like this, you don’t want admissions officers to think of you as having been a bad person. 

My favorite part about this essay is its subtlety. The major shift in the essay comes through the simple sentence “The result provided a sense of instant gratification I never knew I needed.” The facts of this narrative are not too complicated. Simply put, the writer was strict then learned that it’s sometimes more effective not to be strict. The complexity of this narrative comes through reflection. Notably, through the ending, the student identifies their values (which they hadn’t given a name to before): “it takes the maturity and passion of a teacher not only to help students improve in their students, but also to motivate them and develop them into better citizens.” 

The final sentence of this essay ties things up very nicely. Readers are left satisfied with the essay and convinced that its writer is a kind human with a large capacity for reflection and consideration. That is a great image to paint of yourself!

Prompt #5, Example #3

When it’s quiet, I can still hear the Friday night gossip and giggles of my friends. It’s a stark contrast from the environment I’ve known all my life, my home. My family has always been one to keep to themselves; introverts with a hard-working mentality—my father especially. He spent most of his time at work and growing up without him around, I came to be at peace with the fact that I’d probably never really get to know him. The thought didn’t bother me at the time because I felt that we were very different. He was stoic and traditional; I was trying to figure out who I was and explore my interests. His disapproval of the American music I listened to and my penchant for wearing hand-me-downs made me see him as someone who wanted to restrain my individuality. That explains why I relied heavily on my friends throughout middle and high school; they liked me for who I was. I figured I would get lonely without my friends during quarantine, but these last few months stuck at home gave me the time to make a new friend: my father. 

It was June. I had the habit of sleeping with my windows open so I wouldn’t need to set an alarm; the warmth of the sun and the sounds of the neighborhood children playing outside would wake me. One morning, however, it was not the chirping of birds or the laughter of children I awoke to, but the shrill of a saw. Through the window screen, on the grass below, my father stood cutting planks of wood. I was confused but didn’t question him—what he did with his time was none of my business. It was not until the next day, when I was attempting to work on a sculpture for an art class, that the sounds of hammering and drills became too much to ignore. Seeking answers, I trudged across my backyard towards the corner he was in. On that day, all there was to see was the foundation of what he was building; a shed. My intrigue was replaced with awe; I was impressed by the precision of his craft. Sharp corners, leveled and sturdy, I could imagine what it would look like when the walls were up and the inside filled with the tools he had spread around the yard. 

Throughout the week, when I was trying to finish my sculpture for art class—thinking about its shape and composition—I could not help but think of my father. Art has always been a creative outlet for me, an opportunity to express myself at home. For my dad, his craftsmanship was his art. I realized we were not as different as I had thought; he was an artist like me. My glue and paper were his wood and nails.

That summer, I tried to spend more time with my dad than I have in all my 18 years of life. Waking up earlier than usual so we could have our morning coffees together and pretending to like his favorite band so he’d talk to me about it, I took advantage of every opportunity I had to speak with him. In getting to know him, I’ve recognized that I get my artistry from him. 

Reflecting on past relationships, I feel I am now more open to reconnecting with people I’ve perhaps misjudged. In reconciling, I’ve realized I held some bitterness towards him all these years, and in letting that go, my heart is lighter. Our reunion has changed my perspective; instead of vilifying him for spending so much time at work, I can appreciate how hard he works to provide for our family. When I hear him tinkering away at another home project, I can smile and look forward to asking him about it later.

This is an outstanding example of the great things that can be articulated through a reflective essay. As we read the essay, we are simply thinking alongside its author—thinking about their past relationship with their father, about their time in quarantine, about aspects of themselves they think could use attention and growth. 

While we reflect, we are also centered by the student’s anecdote about the sculpture and the shed during quarantine. By centering us in real-time, the student keeps us engaged in the reflection.

The main strength here is the maturity we see on the part of its writer. The student doesn’t say “and I realized my father was the best dad in the world;” they say “and I realized my father didn’t have to be the best dad in the world for me to give him a chance.” Lots of students show themselves as motivated, curious, or compassionate in their college essays, but a reflective essay that ends with a discussion of resentment and forgiveness shows true maturity.

Prompt #5, Example #4

As a wide-eyed, naive seven-year-old, I watched my grandmother’s rough, wrinkled hands pull and knead mercilessly at white dough until the countertop was dusted in flour. She steamed small buns in bamboo baskets, and a light sweetness lingered in the air. Although the mantou looked delicious, their papery, flat taste was always an unpleasant surprise. My grandmother scolded me for failing to finish even one, and when I complained about the lack of flavor she would simply say that I would find it as I grew older. How did my adult relatives seem to enjoy this Taiwanese culinary delight while I found it so plain?

During my journey to discover the essence of mantou, I began to see myself the same way I saw the steamed bun. I believed that my writing would never evolve beyond a hobby and that my quiet nature crippled my ambitions. Ultimately, I thought I had little to offer the world. In middle school, it was easy for me to hide behind the large personalities of my friends, blending into the background and keeping my thoughts company. Although writing had become my emotional outlet, no matter how well I wrote essays, poetry, or fiction, I could not stand out in a sea of talented students. When I finally gained the confidence to submit my poetry to literary journals but was promptly rejected, I stepped back from my work to begin reading from Whitman to Dickinson, Li-Young Lee to Ocean Vuong. It was then that I realized I had been holding back a crucial ingredient–my distinct voice. 

Over time, my taste buds began to mature, as did I. Mantou can be flavored with pork and eggplant, sweetened in condensed milk, and moistened or dried by the steam’s temperature. After I ate the mantou with each of these factors in mind, I noticed its environment enhanced a delicately woven strand of sweetness beneath the taste of side dishes: the sugar I had often watched my grandmother sift into the flour. The taste was nearly untraceable, but once I grasped it I could truly begin to cherish mantou. In the same way the taste had been lost to me for years, my writer’s voice had struggled to shine through because of my self-doubt and fear of vulnerability.

As I acquired a taste for mantou, I also began to strengthen my voice through my surrounding environment. With the support of my parents, peer poets, and the guidance of Amy Tan and the Brontё sisters, I worked tirelessly to uncover my voice: a subtle strand of sweetness. Once I stopped trying to fit into a publishing material mold and infused my uninhibited passion for my Taiwanese heritage into my writing, my poem was published in a literary journal. I wrote about the blatant racism Asians endured during coronavirus, and the editor of Skipping Stones Magazine was touched by both my poem and my heartfelt letter. I opened up about being ridiculed for bringing Asian food to school at Youth Leadership Forum, providing support to younger Asian-American students who reached out with the relief of finding someone they could relate to. I embraced writing as a way to convey my struggle with cultural identity. I joined the school’s creative writing club and read my pieces in front of an audience, honing my voice into one that flourishes out loud as well.

Now, I write and speak unapologetically, falling in love with a voice that I never knew I had. It inspires passion within my communities and imparts tenacity to Asian-American youth, rooting itself deeply into everything I write. Today, my grandmother would say that I have finally unearthed the taste of mantou as I savor every bite with a newfound appreciation. I can imagine her hands shaping the dough that has become my voice, and I am eager to share it with the world.

This essay is structurally-sound, with the student’s journey learning to savor mantou and their journey trying to find their voice serving as outstanding parallels. Additionally, as they describe the journey to find a voice in their writing, they definitely show off their voice! The clear introduction provides a great image and draws us in with an intriguing question. Additionally, their little inserts like “a strand of sweetness” and “falling in love with a voice that I never knew I had” work very well.

When the student describes their first published poem, however, their writing gets a little more stilted. This is a common error students make when writing about their achievements. If this student is writing about the craft that goes into writing, we should hear the details of the craft that went into the poem, instead of simply learning that they “opened up about being ridiculed for bringing Asian food to school at Youth Leadership Forum.” This is interesting information but would be stronger if it were supplemented by descriptions of the voice they created, comparisons to the styles of other poets, and analysis of their stylistic choices. This would make the essay feel more cohesive, centering entirely around concepts of voice and style.

Prompt #6: 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?

Note: We don’t have a stellar example for this prompt, so instead, we’re sharing a couple examples that need improvement, and what can be done to make the essays more engaging. 

Prompt #6, Example #1

What factors shape the depth and allure of a literary character? This is the exact question I asked myself as my eyes riveted on the white pages covered with little black letters.

I was reading my old novels. I’ve written three novels and many short stories. Each of them repetitively portrayed the hero as intelligent and funny, and the antagonists as cold and manipulative. I came to the appalling realization that my characters were flat, neither exciting nor original. They just didn’t stand out! 

As Oscar Wilde said, ‘Vice and virtue are to the artist material to an art.’ Their mixing makes a novel addictive because its plot is rich with turnarounds and its characters more engaging. In his famous work The Picture of Dorian Gray , Wilde deconstructs the psyche of his characters. He brilliantly plays with the protagonist’s youthful appearance and the decaying portrait to build a truly unique idiosyncratic identity. The persona of Dorian Gray is so complicated a psychologist could analyze it for hours on end!

Inspired by this character, It was my turn to explore good and evil into characters to make my stories more enthralling. I skillfully played with vice and virtue, separating, merging them… My latest novel is the fruit of this exercise. I chose to set it in 20th century London. Its opium dens and exclusive salons; middle-class workers, peasants and politicians breathed the same newly industrialized air; modernity in Blackfriars bridge and tradition in St Paul’s Cathedral; all of these contrasts set the perfect environment for my characters to grow. Following Laclos’ Valmont, Maupassant’s Georges Duroy and Duffy’s Myra Hindley, I played with those contrasts to present an intricate character, truly creative – unlike my previous ones. Insanity, religion, depravity and love are merged into each character, reflecting Edwardian London. As I reflected on my work, I realized vice and virtue altogether made them more human and credible. These characters stood out, they were interesting, I even wanted to know more about them! 

After rewriting, erasing, typing, and thinking countless times, I realized writing is a unique exercise. Nothing is definite when you are holding a fountain pen, hearing its screeching sound on the white paper and watching the ebony ink forming letters. When I wasn’t too happy about a change I made in my story, I simply erased and rewrote it. Everything I imagined could happen: white pages are the only place the mouse eats the cat or the world is taken by a zombie attack! 

This exact exercise of diversifying my characters satisfied my relentless curiosity. Asking myself ‘how could this character be if she had lost her parents in a maritime tragedy?’ allowed me to view the world from different perspectives (some very dissimilar to my own) and considering how each character would react to different situations brought them to life. As I was writing, I was aiming to change the usual narratives I had previously traversed. I loved experimenting with countless personality traits in my characters – minutes flowing, my hand dancing on the paper as my mind was singing words coming alive….

There were times where my hand just stopped writing and my mind stopped raging. I tried thinking differently, changing a character’s background, the story, the setting. I was inspired by Zola, A.Carter, Fitzgerald, the Brontë sisters… I could observe the different reactions of their characters, and reflect on mine theoretically. But it was only part one of the work: I then had to write, sometimes aimlessly, sometimes frantically, always leading to fresh ideas – I was exploring the practical, trying, erasing and rewriting. Both theory and practice are required to gain intellectual independence and experience, in writing and more globally: before I can change a character, I have to understand it. Before we can change the world, we have to understand it.

The main strength of this essay is the authenticity of the topic the student chose. They aren’t making anything up or stretching the truth. Writing is something that captivates them, and that captivation shines through—particularly through their fourth paragraph (where they geek out over specific plots and characters) and their fifth paragraph (where they joyfully describe how writing has no limitations). Admissions officers want to see this passion and intensity in applicants! The fact that this student has already written three novels also shows dedication and is impressive.

The main weakness of this essay is its structure. Ironically, it is not super captivating. The essay would have been more compelling if the student utilized a “anecdote – answer – reflection” structure. This student’s current introduction involves a reflective question, citations about their past writing experience, then their thoughts on Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray. Instead, this student could’ve provided one cohesive (and powerful!) image of them being frustrated with their own writing then being inspired by Dorian Gray. This would look something like:

“I stayed up three nights in a row studying my own writing—bored by my own writing. The only thing more painful than seeing failure in the fruits of your labor is not seeing a path for improvement. I had written three novels and numerous short stories, and all I could come up with was funny and intelligent heroes going up against cold and manipulative villains. What kind of writer was so consistently cliche? On the third night, I wandered over to my bookshelf. Mrs. Dalloway caught my eye (it has such a beautiful cover). I flipped through. Then, I grabbed Giovanni’s Room . I was so obsessed with my shortcomings that I couldn’t even focus long enough to see what these authors were doing right. I picked up The Picture of Dorian Gray and decided to just start reading. By the end of the night, I was captivated.”

An introduction like this would flow nicely into the student describing their experience with Dorian Gray then, because of that experience, describing how they have altered their approach to writing. The conclusion of this essay would then be this student’s time for reflection. Instead of repeating content about their passion—“I then had to write, sometimes aimlessly, sometimes frantically” and “I was exploring the practical, trying, erasing and rewriting”—, the student could dedicate their conclusion to reflecting on the reasons that writing is so captivating or the ways that (until the day they die) writers will always be perfecting their craft.

This essay is a great example of how important it is to pick a topic that truly excites you. It also illustrates how important it is to effectively structure that excitement.

Prompt #6, Example #2

Astonished by the crashing sound of waves in my ear, I was convinced this magical shell actually held the sound of the big blue sea — my six-year-old self was heartbroken when I couldn’t take the thirty-dollar artificial shell from SeaWorld’s gift shop . It distinctly reminded me of the awestruck feeling I had when I witnessed the churning waves of a windy night by the ocean the previous weekend; I lost track of time gazing at the distant moonlit border dividing our world from the ever-growing black void. Turning to my mom, I inquired curiously, “Can we go to the place where the water ends one day?”

She explained to me I could never reach the end of the ocean because the harsh line I had seen was actually an illusion called the horizon —  there was no material end to the ocean. For a mind as young as mine was, the idea of infinity was incomprehensible. As my infatuation with the ocean continued to grow, I finally understood that regardless of how far I travel, the horizon is unattainable because it’s not a physical limit. This idea is why the ocean captivates me — no matter how much you discover, there is always more to explore. 

Learning about and exploring the ocean provided an escape from one reality into another; though we are on the same planet, it’s an entirely separate world. Through elementary and middle school, I devoted vast amounts of my free time to learning about simpler concepts like a dolphin’s ability to echolocate and coral reef ecosystems. I rented countless documentaries and constantly checked out books from my local library — my all-time favorite was an episode of the television series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey titled “The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth.” This episode remained memorable because it was centered around the impacts of fossil fuels on marine animals; it was the first time I’d learned about the impending crisis we are faced with due to the human mistreatment of our planet.

Prior to viewing that episode, I relied on the ocean as an outlet — I fueled all of my emotions into studying marine organisms. Once I learned of its grave future, I delved into the world of environmental activism. This path was much more disheartening than studying echolocation — inevitable death due to climate change took a toll on my mental health. I attended two climate strikes in November of my sophomore year. Following the strikes, I joined Sunrise Movement Sacramento, a youth-led climate justice organization advocating for the Green New Deal. While analyzing legislation and organizing protests were significant takeaways from my experience with climate activism, they were not the most important. I became an organizer because of my love for the ocean and I remain an organizer because of my passion for dissolving the disproportionalities marginalized groups face due to the sacrificing of people’s livelihood for the sake of profit. The more I learned about our modern society, the more hopeless I grew that I could see any significant change within my lifetime.

However, this hopelessness comes in waves; every day, I remind myself of the moment I discovered the horizon. Or the moment I first dove into the beautiful waters of the Hawaiian coast and immediately was surrounded by breathtaking seas of magnificent creatures and coral gardens — life felt ethereal and beautiful. I remind myself that like the ocean, the vast majority of the universe has yet to be discovered; that distant border holds infinite opportunity to learn. In a universe as vast as ours, and life as rare as ours, individuals still choose to prioritize avarice over our planet. Despite this grave individualism, the ocean reminds me every day there is hope in the fight for a better world. Though I will never discover every inch of the ocean’s floor, I will forever envision and reach for new horizons.

Sometimes the path to a great essay is taking something normal and using it to show admissions officers who you are and what you value—that is precisely this student’s approach! Finding the ocean fascinating is not unique to this student. Tons of kids (and adults, too!) are obsessed with the ocean. What this student does is take things a step further as they explain their curiosity about the ocean in relation to their pain about the destruction of the environment. This capacity for reflection is great!

This student shows a good control of language through their thematic centering on ocean and horizons that carries through their essay—with ”this hopelessness comes in waves” and “I will forever envision and reach for new horizons.” The details provided throughout are also effective at keeping readers engaged—things like “ my six-year-old self was heartbroken when I couldn’t take the thirty-dollar artificial shell from SeaWorld’s gift shop” and “ my all-time favorite was an episode of the television series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey titled “The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth.”

The main weakness of this essay is the lack of reflection when the student discusses environmental activism. There’s reflection on the student’s connection to the ocean and horizons at the beginning and at the end, but when the student discusses activism, the tone shifts from focusing on their internal thoughts to their external actions. Remember, a lot of students write about environmental activism, but not a lot of students write about an emotional connection to the ocean as an impetus for environmental activism. This student would stand out more to admissions officers if they had dug into questions of what the ocean means to them (and says about them) in the paragraphs beginning “Learning about and exploring the ocean…” and “Prior to viewing that episode.”

Prompt #7: 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.

Prompt #7, example #1.

Scalding hot water cascades over me, crashing to the ground in a familiar, soothing rhythm. Steam rises to the ceiling as dried sweat and soap suds swirl down the drain. The water hisses as it hits my skin, far above the safe temperature for a shower. The pressure is perfect on my tired muscles, easing the aches and bruises from a rough bout of sparring and the tension from a long, stressful day. The noise from my overactive mind dies away, fading into music, lyrics floating through my head. Black streaks stripe the inside of my left arm, remnants of the penned reminders of homework, money owed and forms due. 

It lacks the same dynamism and controlled intensity of sparring on the mat at taekwondo or the warm tenderness of a tight hug from my father, but it’s still a cocoon of safety as the water washes away the day’s burdens. As long as the hot water is running, the rest of the world ceases to exist, shrinking to me, myself and I. The shower curtain closes me off from the hectic world spinning around me. 

Much like the baths of Blanche DuBois, my hot showers are a means of cleansing and purifying (though I’m mostly just ridding myself of the germs from children at work sneezing on me). In the midst of a hot shower, there is no impending exam to study for, no newspaper deadline to meet, no paycheck to deposit. It is simply complete and utter peace, a safe haven. The steam clears my mind even as it clouds my mirror. 

Creativity thrives in the tub, breathing life into tales of dragons and warrior princesses that evolve only in my head, never making their way to paper but appeasing the childlike dreamer and wannabe author in me all the same. That one calculus problem that has seemed unsolvable since second period clicks into place as I realize the obvious solution. The perfect concluding sentence to my literary analysis essay writes itself (causing me to abruptly end my shower in a mad dash to the computer before I forget it entirely).  

Ever since I was old enough to start taking showers unaided, I began hogging all the hot water in the house, a source of great frustration to my parents. Many of my early showers were rudely cut short by an unholy banging on the bathroom door and an order to “stop wasting water and come eat dinner before it gets cold.” After a decade of trudging up the stairs every evening to put an end to my water-wasting, my parents finally gave in, leaving me to my (expensive) showers. I imagine someday, when paying the water bill is in my hands, my showers will be shorter, but today is not that day (nor, hopefully, will the next four years be that day). 

Showers are better than any ibuprofen, the perfect panacea for life’s daily ailments. Headaches magically disappear as long as the water runs, though they typically return in full force afterward. The runny nose and itchy eyes courtesy of summertime allergies recede. Showers alleviate even the stomachache from a guacamole-induced lack of self-control. 

Honestly though, the best part about a hot shower is neither its medicinal abilities nor its blissful temporary isolation or even the heavenly warmth seeped deep into my bones. The best part is that these little moments of pure, uninhibited contentedness are a daily occurrence. No matter how stressful the day, showers ensure I always have something to look forward to. They are small moments, true, but important nonetheless, because it is the little things in life that matter; the big moments are too rare, too fleeting to make anyone truly happy. Wherever I am in the world, whatever fate chooses to throw at me, I know I can always find my peace at the end of the day behind the shower curtain.

This essay is relatable yet personal! The writer makes themself supremely human through discussing the universal subject of showering. That being said, an essay about showering could easily turn boring while still being relatable. This writer keeps its relatable moments interesting and fun through vivid descriptions of common feelings including “causing me to abruptly end my shower in a mad dash to the computer before I forget it entirely” and “the stomachache from a guacamole-induced lack of self-control.”

While describing a universal feeling, this student also cleverly and intentionally mentions small facts about their life through simple phrases like “I’m mostly just ridding myself of the germs from children at work sneezing on me” and “the childlike dreamer and wannabe author in me.” To put it simply, though we are talking about a shower, we learn about so much more!

And, at the end, the student lets us know that that is exactly why they love showers. Showers are more than meets the eye! With this insightful and reflective ending (“the big moments are too rare, too fleeting to make anyone truly happy”), readers learn about this student’s capacity for reflection, which is an important capacity as you enter college.

The one major error that this writer commits is that of using a trite transition. The inclusion of “Honestly though” at the beginning of this student’s ending detracts from what they are trying to say and sticks out in their writing.

Prompt #7, Example #2

Steam whooshed from the pot as I unveiled my newest creation: duck-peppercorn-chestnut dumplings. The spicy, hearty aroma swirled into the kitchen, mingling with the smell of fresh dough. Grinning, I grabbed a plump dumpling with chopsticks, blew carefully, and fed it into the waiting mouth of my little sister. Her eyes widening, she vigorously nodded and held up five stubby fingers. I did a little happy dance in celebration and pulled my notebook out of my apron pocket. Duck-peppercorn-chestnut: five stars.

In my household, dumplings are a far cry from the classic pork and cabbage. Our menu boasts everything from the savory lamb-bamboo shoot-watercress to the sweet and crispy apple-cinnamon-date. A few years ago, my sister claimed she was sick of eating the same flavors over and over. Refusing to let her disavow our family staple, I took her complaint as a challenge to make the tastiest and most unconventional dumplings to satisfy her. With her as my taste tester and Mum in charge of dough, I spent months experimenting with dozens of odd ingredient combinations. 

During those days spent covered in flour, my dumplings often reminded me of myself—a hybrid of ingredients that don’t usually go together. I am the product of three distinct worlds: the suburbs of Boston, the rural Chinese village of [location removed], and the coastal city of [location removed]. At school, I am both the STEM nerd with lightning-fast mental math and the artistic plant mom obsessed with funky earrings. I love all that is elegant, from Chinese calligraphy to the rolling notes of the Gourd flute, yet I can be very not elegant, like when my sister and I make homemade slime. When I’m on the streets, marching for women’s rights and climate action, I’m loud, bellowing from the bottom of my gut. In the painting studio, though, I don’t speak unless spoken to, and hours can slip by like minutes. I’m loud and quiet. Elegant and messy. Nerdy and artistic. Suburban, rustic, and metropolitan.

While I’m full of odd combinations, they are only seemingly contradictory. Just as barbeque pork and pineapple can combine beautifully in a dumpling wrapper, different facets of my identity also converge. After my tenth-grade summer, when I spent six weeks studying design at art school and another three researching the brain at Harvard Med, I began asking myself: What if I mixed art and neuroscience together? That fall, I collaborated with my school’s art museum for an independent research project, exploring two questions: How are aesthetic experiences processed in the brain? And how can neuroscience help museums design exhibits that maximize visitor engagement? I combed through studies with results from tightly controlled experiments, and I spent days gathering my own qualitative data by observing museum visitors and asking them questions. With the help of my artistic skills, I could identify the visual and spatial elements of the exhibits that best held visitors’ attention. 

By synergizing two of the ingredients that make me who I am—art and neuroscience—I realized I shouldn’t see the different sides of myself as separate. I learned to instead seek the intersections between aspects of my identity. Since then, I have mixed art with activism to voice my opinions nonverbally, created Spotify playlists with both Chinese and western pop, and written flute compositions using music theory and math. In the future, by continuing to combine my interests, I want to find my niche in the world. I can make a positive impact on society without having to choose just one passion. As of now, my dream is to be a neuroscientist who designs art therapy treatments for mental health patients. Who knows though? Maybe my calling is to be a dim sum chef who teaches pottery on the side. I don’t know where I’ll go, but one thing’s for sure—being a standard pork and cabbage dumpling is definitely not my style.

This essay is outstanding because the student seems likable and authentic. With the first image of the student’s little sister vigorously nodding and holding up “five stubby fingers,” we find ourselves intrigued by the student’s daily life. They additionally show the importance of family, culture, and creativity in their life—these are great things to highlight in your essay!

After the introduction, the student uses their weird dumpling anecdote to transition to a discussion of their unique intersections. This is achieved smoothly because weirdness/uniqueness is the focus of both of these topics. Additionally, the comparison is not awkward because dumplings are used as more than just a transition, but rather are the through-line of the essay—the student weaves in little phrases like “Just as barbeque pork and pineapple can combine beautifully in a dumpling wrapper,” “By synergizing two of the ingredients that make me who I am,” and “being a standard pork and cabbage dumpling is definitely not my style.” This gives the essay its cohesive feel.

Authenticity comes through in this essay as the student recognizes that they don’t know what the future holds. They just know what kind of a person they are—a passionate one! 

One change that would improve this student’s essay would be focusing on fewer intersections in their third and last paragraph. The student mentions STEM, music, family activities, activism, and painting, which makes it feel like a distraction in middle of the essay. Focus on the most important things you want to show admissions officers—you can sit at intersections, but you can’t be interested in everything.

Prompt #7, Example #3

“Everyone follow me!” I smiled at five wide-eyed skaters before pushing off into a spiral. I glanced behind me hopefully, only to see my students standing frozen like statues, the fear in their eyes as clear as the ice they swayed on. “Come on!” I said encouragingly, but the only response I elicited was the slow shake of their heads. My first day as a Learn-to-Skate coach was not going as planned. 

But amid my frustration, I was struck by how much my students reminded me of myself as a young skater. At seven, I had been fascinated by Olympic performers who executed thrilling high jumps and dizzying spins with apparent ease, and I dreamed to one day do the same. My first few months on skates, however, sent these hopes crashing down: my attempts at slaloms and toe-loops were shadowed by a stubborn fear of falling, which even the helmet, elbow pads, and two pairs of mittens I had armed myself with couldn’t mitigate. Nonetheless, my coach remained unfailingly optimistic, motivating me through my worst spills and teaching me to find opportunities in failures. With his encouragement, I learned to push aside my fears and attack each jump with calm and confidence; it’s the hope that I can help others do the same that now inspires me to coach. 

I remember the day a frustrated staff member directed Oliver, a particularly hesitant young skater, toward me, hoping that my patience and steady encouragement might help him improve. Having stood in Oliver’s skates not much earlier myself, I completely empathized with his worries but also saw within him the potential to overcome his fears and succeed. 

To alleviate his anxiety, I held Oliver’s hand as we inched around the rink, cheering him on at every turn. I soon found though, that this only increased his fear of gliding on his own, so I changed my approach, making lessons as exciting as possible in hopes that he would catch the skating bug and take off. In the weeks that followed, we held relay races, played “freeze-skate” and “ice-potato”, and raced through obstacle courses; gradually, with each slip and subsequent success, his fear began to abate. I watched Oliver’s eyes widen in excitement with every skill he learned, and not long after, he earned his first skating badge. Together we celebrated this milestone, his ecstasy fueling my excitement and his pride mirroring my own. At that moment, I was both teacher and student, his progress instilling in me the importance of patience and a positive attitude. 

It’s been more than ten years since I bundled up and stepped onto the ice for the first time. Since then, my tolerance for the cold has remained stubbornly low, but the rest of me has certainly changed. In sharing my passion for skating, I have found a wonderful community of eager athletes, loving parents, and dedicated coaches from whom I have learned invaluable lessons and wisdom. My fellow staffers have been with me, both as friends and colleagues, and the relationships I’ve formed have given me far more poise, confidence, and appreciation for others. Likewise, my relationships with parents have given me an even greater gratitude for the role they play: no one goes to the rink without a parent behind the wheel! 

Since that first lesson, I have mentored dozens of children, and over the years, witnessed tentative steps transform into powerful glides and tears give way to delighted grins. What I have shared with my students has been among the greatest joys of my life, something I will cherish forever. It’s funny: when I began skating, what pushed me through the early morning practices was the prospect of winning an Olympic medal. Now, what excites me is the chance to work with my students, to help them grow, and to give back to the sport that has brought me so much happiness. 

A major strength of this essay comes in its narrative organization. When reading this first paragraph, we feel for the young skaters and understand their fear—skating sounds scary! Then, because the writer sets us up to feel this empathy, the transition to the second paragraph where the student describes their empathy for the young skaters is particularly powerful. It’s like we are all in it together! The student’s empathy for the young skaters also serves as an outstanding, seamless transition to the applicant discussing their personal journey with skating: “I was struck by how much my students reminded me of myself as a young skater.”

This essay positions the applicant as a grounded and caring individual. They are caring towards the young skaters—changing their teaching style to try to help the young skaters and feeling the young skaters’ emotions with them—but they are also appreciative to those who helped them as they reference their fellow staffers and parents. This shows great maturity—a favorable quality in the eyes of an admissions officer.

At the end of the essay, we know a lot about this student and are convinced that they would be a good addition to a college campus!

Prompt #7, Example #4

Flipping past dozens of colorful entries in my journal, I arrive at the final blank sheet. I press my pen lightly to the page, barely scratching its surface to create a series of loops stringing together into sentences. Emotions spill out, and with their release, I feel lightness in my chest. The stream of thoughts slows as I reach the bottom of the page, and I gently close the cover of the worn book: another journal finished.

I add the journal to the stack of eleven books on my nightstand. Struck by the bittersweet sensation of closing a chapter of my life, I grab the notebook at the bottom of the pile to reminisce.

“I want to make a flying mushen to fly in space and your in it” – October 2008

Pulling back the cover of my first Tinkerbell-themed diary, the prompt “My Hopes and Dreams” captures my attention. Though “machine” is misspelled in my scribbled response, I see the beginnings of my past obsession with outer space. At the age of five, I tore through novels about the solar system, experimented with rockets built from plastic straws, and rented Space Shuttle films from Blockbuster to satisfy my curiosities. While I chased down answers to questions as limitless as the universe, I fell in love with learning. Eight journals later, the same relentless curiosity brought me to an airplane descending on San Francisco Bay.

“I wish I had infinite sunsets” – July 2019

I reach for the charcoal notepad near the top of the pile and open to the first page: my flight to the Stanford Pre-Collegiate Summer Institutes. While I was excited to explore bioengineering, anxiety twisted in my stomach as I imagined my destination, unsure of whether I could overcome my shyness and connect with others.

With each new conversation, the sweat on my palms became less noticeable, and I met students from 23 different countries. Many of the moments where I challenged myself socially revolved around the third story deck of the Jerry house. A strange medley of English, Arabic, and Mandarin filled the summer air as my friends and I gathered there every evening, and dialogues at sunset soon became moments of bliss. In our conversations about cultural differences, the possibility of an afterlife, and the plausibility of far-fetched conspiracy theories, I learned to voice my opinion. As I was introduced to different viewpoints, these moments challenged my understanding of the world around me. In my final entries from California, I find excitement to learn from others and increased confidence, a tool that would later allow me to impact my community.

“The beauty in a tower of cans” – June 2020

Returning my gaze to the stack of journals, I stretch to take the floral-patterned book sitting on top. I flip through, eventually finding the beginnings of the organization I created during the outbreak of COVID-19. Since then, Door-to-Door Deliveries has woven its way through my entries and into reality, allowing me to aid high-risk populations through free grocery delivery.

With the confidence I gained the summer before, I took action when seeing others in need rather than letting my shyness hold me back. I reached out to local churches and senior centers to spread word of our services and interacted with customers through our website and social media pages. To further expand our impact, we held two food drives, and I mustered the courage to ask for donations door-to-door. In a tower of canned donations, I saw the value of reaching out to help others and realized my own potential to impact the world around me.

I delicately close the journal in my hands, smiling softly as the memories reappear, one after another. Reaching under my bed, I pull out a fresh notebook and open to its first sheet. I lightly press my pen to the page, “And so begins the next chapter…”

The structuring of this essay makes it easy and enjoyable to read. The student effectively organizes their various life experiences around their tower of journals, which centers the reader and makes the different stories easy to follow. Additionally, the student engages quotes from their journals—and unique formatting of the quotes—to signal that they are moving in time and show us which memory we should follow them to.

Thematically, the student uses the idea of shyness to connect the different memories they draw out of their journals. As the student describes their experiences overcoming shyness at the Stanford Pre-Collegiate Summer Institutes and Door-to-Door Deliveries, this essay can be read as an Overcoming Obstacles essay.

At the end of this essay, readers are fully convinced that this student is dedicated (they have committed to journaling every day), thoughtful (journaling is a thoughtful process and, in the essay, the student reflects thoughtfully on the past), and motivated (they flew across the country for a summer program and started a business). These are definitely qualities admissions officers are looking for in applicants!

Prompt #7, Example #5

“We’re ready for take-off!” 

The tires hit the tarmac and began to accelerate, and I just realized what I had signed up for. For 24 hours straight, I strapped myself into a broken-down SUV whereas others chose the luxury of soaring through the skies for a mere two hours. Especially with my motion sickness and driving anxiety, I would call myself crazy too.

To say I have always remained in my comfort zone is an understatement. Did I always order chicken fingers and fries at a restaurant? Yup! Sounds like me. Did I always create a color-coded itinerary just for a day trip? Guilty as charged. Did I always carry a first-aid kit at all times? Of course! I would make even an ambulance look unprepared. And yet here I was, choosing 1,000 miles of misery from Las Vegas to Seattle despite every bone in my body telling me not to.

The sunlight blinded my eyes and a wave of nausea swept over me. Was it too late to say I forgot my calculator? It was only ten minutes in, and I was certain that the trip was going to be a disaster. I simply hoped that our pre-drive prayer was not stuck in God’s voicemail box. 

All of a sudden, I noticed brightly colored rocks in the distance, ones I had been dying to see for years. Their fluorescence popped amongst the magnificent winding hills as the sunset became romantic in hue. The desert glistened with mirages of deep blue water unlike anything I had ever seen. Nevada was home, but home always seemed to be just desert and casinos. For once, I looked forward to endless desert outside my window rather than a sea of clouds.

I never realized how little I discovered of the world beyond home. For years I complained about how there was nothing to do or discover outside. Not once did I set out to prove myself wrong. Instead, I chose a daily routine of homework at the kitchen table and late-night TV. However, as summer vacation ended, I decided to set my stubbornness aside and finally give this drive back home a chance. Little did I know that it would turn out to be my favorite trip of all time. 

As we drove along, the world chose to prove me wrong when I discovered Heaven on Earth along Shasta Lake. I stood out of the sunroof, surrounded by lush green mountains and fog. I extended my arms out and felt a sense of flight that no plane could ever take me on. As the water vapor kissed my face, I floated into a dreamland I never wanted to leave. I didn’t have to go to great lengths to discover the beauty of the world; it was right in front of me.  From this moment on, comfort and convenience would no longer be my best friends. Rather than only looking for famous travel destinations or following carefully mapped-out routes, I would let curiosity lead the way. 

Since then, my daily life has been anything but routine. I’m proud to boast of my family’s homemade kombucha attempts, of flights purchased and taken in one day, and of a home flooded with knick-knacks from thrifting trips. Every day I set out to try something new, see a different perspective, and go beyond normal. Whether it is by trying a new recipe using taro, making a risky fashion choice with wide-legged pants, or listening to a new music genre in Spanish, I always act with curiosity first.

Over the years, I have devoted my time towards learning Swedish, building computers, and swimming. Although my accent is horrid, some computers almost broke, and even a starfish would outswim me, I continue to enjoy activities I once criticized. For me, there is no enjoyment without some risk. Nobody I know is a kazoo-playing, boogie-board loving, boba connoisseur like me.

This essay is an Overcoming Challenges story that centers around a single anecdote. The structure works nicely as the student describes what they were like before their road trip, what happened on the road trip, and what they were like after. 

The most major improvement that this essay needs is better-communicated authenticity. At the beginning, it feels a bit gimmicky. The student describes their preparedness, particularly the fact that they always carry a first aid kit, and it’s not super believable. Then, when they write “Was it too late to say I forgot my calculator?” it feels like we are in a sitcom and the student is that funny obsessive kid. Sitcom characters don’t feel real and you want to make yourself appear profoundly real.

On a similar note, the narrative arc of this essay isn’t entirely believable. The student describes a large personality and value shift but doesn’t describe any struggles that accompany the shift. A quick shift like that is far from easy. On the other hand, if the immediacy of the shift was easy, they could write about moments after their shift in mindset when they have felt troubled by residual desires to stay in their comfort zone, instead of writing “I always act with curiosity first.”

The greatest strength of this essay is the paragraphs beginning “I never realized how little…” and “As we drove along…” The fixation on comfort seems much more believable when it involves “homework at the kitchen table and late-night TV.” The descriptions of the drive provide beautiful, evocative imagery. And it’s topped off with some nice reflection! Digging into this great portion of the essay would make this an even stronger essay!

Want to see more examples? Check out this post with 16 strong essay examples from top schools , including common supplemental essay questions.

At selective schools, your essays account for around 25% of your admissions decision. That’s more than grades (20%) and test scores (15%), and almost as much as extracurriculars (30%). Why is this? Most students applying to top schools will have stellar academics and extracurriculars. Your essays are your chance to stand out and humanize your application.

That’s why it’s vital that your essays are engaging, and present you as someone who would enrich the campus community.

Before submitting your application, you should have someone else review your essays. It’s even better if that person doesn’t know you personally, as they can best tell whether your personality shines through your essay. 

That’s why we created our free Peer Essay Review tool , where you can get a free review of your essay from another student. You can also improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays. 

If you want a college admissions expert to review your essay, advisors on CollegeVine have helped students refine their writing and submit successful applications to top schools. Find the right advisor for you to improve your chances of getting into your dream school!

Related CollegeVine Blog Posts

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Sample Essays

The breadth of Georgetown’s core curriculum means that students are required to write for a wide variety of academic disciplines. Below, we provide some student samples that exhibit the key features the most popular genres. When reading through these essays, we recommend paying attention to their 

1. Structure (How many paragraphs are there? Does the author use headers?) 

2. Argument (Is the author pointing out a problem, and/or proposing a solution?) 

3. Content (Does the argument principally rely on facts, theory, or logic?) and 

4. Style (Does the writer use first person? What is the relationship with the audience?)

Philosophy Paper

  • Singer on the Moral Status of Animals

Theology Paper

  • Problem of God
  • Jewish Civilization
  • Sacred Space and Time
  • Phenolphthalein in Alkaline Solution

History Paper

  • World History

Literature Review

Comparative Analysis 

Policy Brief

  • Vaccine Manufacturing

White Paper

Critical Analysis

  • Ignatius Seminar

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HOW TO FORMAT ESSAYS

Once your revisions are complete, it’s time to format your essay — or arrange the way it is presented.

The first rule to writing in College Essay format is simple: ask your professor.  He or she may prefer a special format.

If they say “Use MLA” or “Use APA,” follow the instructions below.

MLA Format Essay

Title page:  Usually no — check with professor Margins:  1 inch all around Font:  Usually Times Roman, 11 to 12 point Heading:  Yes — follow illustration below Page number:  Yes — upper left hand, with last name.

Instructions on automatically setting up this information using Microsoft Word.

First, second and Works Cited page of MLA formatted essay.

MLA Format Page 1 See enlarged image (GIF)

MLA format essay example 2

MLA Format Page 2 See enlarged image (GIF)

College Essay Format MLA Works Cited

MLA Format Work Cited See enlarged image (GIF)

Title page:  Usually yes — check with professor Margins:  1 inch all around Font:  Usually Times Roman, 11 to 12 point Heading:  Yes — follow illustration below Page number:  Yes — upper left hand, with last name.

Instructions on automatically setting up this information using Microsoft Word .

First, second and Works Cited page of APA formatted essay.

APA Format Page 1 See enlarged image (GIF)

APA Format Page 2 See enlarged image (GIF)

APA Format Page 3 See enlarged image (GIF)

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Note:  This page reflects the latest version of the APA Publication Manual (i.e., APA 7), which released in October 2019. The equivalent resource for the older APA 6 style  can be found here .

Media Files: APA Sample Student Paper  ,  APA Sample Professional Paper

This resource is enhanced by Acrobat PDF files. Download the free Acrobat Reader

Note: The APA Publication Manual, 7 th Edition specifies different formatting conventions for student  and  professional  papers (i.e., papers written for credit in a course and papers intended for scholarly publication). These differences mostly extend to the title page and running head. Crucially, citation practices do not differ between the two styles of paper.

However, for your convenience, we have provided two versions of our APA 7 sample paper below: one in  student style and one in  professional  style.

Note: For accessibility purposes, we have used "Track Changes" to make comments along the margins of these samples. Those authored by [AF] denote explanations of formatting and [AWC] denote directions for writing and citing in APA 7. 

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  • How to write an essay outline | Guidelines & examples

How to Write an Essay Outline | Guidelines & Examples

Published on August 14, 2020 by Jack Caulfield . Revised on July 23, 2023.

An essay outline is a way of planning the structure of your essay before you start writing. It involves writing quick summary sentences or phrases for every point you will cover in each paragraph , giving you a picture of how your argument will unfold.

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Table of contents

Organizing your material, presentation of the outline, examples of essay outlines, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about essay outlines.

At the stage where you’re writing an essay outline, your ideas are probably still not fully formed. You should know your topic  and have already done some preliminary research to find relevant sources , but now you need to shape your ideas into a structured argument.

Creating categories

Look over any information, quotes and ideas you’ve noted down from your research and consider the central point you want to make in the essay—this will be the basis of your thesis statement . Once you have an idea of your overall argument, you can begin to organize your material in a way that serves that argument.

Try to arrange your material into categories related to different aspects of your argument. If you’re writing about a literary text, you might group your ideas into themes; in a history essay, it might be several key trends or turning points from the period you’re discussing.

Three main themes or subjects is a common structure for essays. Depending on the length of the essay, you could split the themes into three body paragraphs, or three longer sections with several paragraphs covering each theme.

As you create the outline, look critically at your categories and points: Are any of them irrelevant or redundant? Make sure every topic you cover is clearly related to your thesis statement.

Order of information

When you have your material organized into several categories, consider what order they should appear in.

Your essay will always begin and end with an introduction and conclusion , but the organization of the body is up to you.

Consider these questions to order your material:

  • Is there an obvious starting point for your argument?
  • Is there one subject that provides an easy transition into another?
  • Do some points need to be set up by discussing other points first?

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essay format example for college

Within each paragraph, you’ll discuss a single idea related to your overall topic or argument, using several points of evidence or analysis to do so.

In your outline, you present these points as a few short numbered sentences or phrases.They can be split into sub-points when more detail is needed.

The template below shows how you might structure an outline for a five-paragraph essay.

  • Thesis statement
  • First piece of evidence
  • Second piece of evidence
  • Summary/synthesis
  • Importance of topic
  • Strong closing statement

You can choose whether to write your outline in full sentences or short phrases. Be consistent in your choice; don’t randomly write some points as full sentences and others as short phrases.

Examples of outlines for different types of essays are presented below: an argumentative, expository, and literary analysis essay.

Argumentative essay outline

This outline is for a short argumentative essay evaluating the internet’s impact on education. It uses short phrases to summarize each point.

Its body is split into three paragraphs, each presenting arguments about a different aspect of the internet’s effects on education.

  • Importance of the internet
  • Concerns about internet use
  • Thesis statement: Internet use a net positive
  • Data exploring this effect
  • Analysis indicating it is overstated
  • Students’ reading levels over time
  • Why this data is questionable
  • Video media
  • Interactive media
  • Speed and simplicity of online research
  • Questions about reliability (transitioning into next topic)
  • Evidence indicating its ubiquity
  • Claims that it discourages engagement with academic writing
  • Evidence that Wikipedia warns students not to cite it
  • Argument that it introduces students to citation
  • Summary of key points
  • Value of digital education for students
  • Need for optimism to embrace advantages of the internet

Expository essay outline

This is the outline for an expository essay describing how the invention of the printing press affected life and politics in Europe.

The paragraphs are still summarized in short phrases here, but individual points are described with full sentences.

  • Claim that the printing press marks the end of the Middle Ages.
  • Provide background on the low levels of literacy before the printing press.
  • Present the thesis statement: The invention of the printing press increased circulation of information in Europe, paving the way for the Reformation.
  • Discuss the very high levels of illiteracy in medieval Europe.
  • Describe how literacy and thus knowledge and education were mainly the domain of religious and political elites.
  • Indicate how this discouraged political and religious change.
  • Describe the invention of the printing press in 1440 by Johannes Gutenberg.
  • Show the implications of the new technology for book production.
  • Describe the rapid spread of the technology and the printing of the Gutenberg Bible.
  • Link to the Reformation.
  • Discuss the trend for translating the Bible into vernacular languages during the years following the printing press’s invention.
  • Describe Luther’s own translation of the Bible during the Reformation.
  • Sketch out the large-scale effects the Reformation would have on religion and politics.
  • Summarize the history described.
  • Stress the significance of the printing press to the events of this period.

Literary analysis essay outline

The literary analysis essay outlined below discusses the role of theater in Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park .

The body of the essay is divided into three different themes, each of which is explored through examples from the book.

  • Describe the theatricality of Austen’s works
  • Outline the role theater plays in Mansfield Park
  • Introduce the research question : How does Austen use theater to express the characters’ morality in Mansfield Park ?
  • Discuss Austen’s depiction of the performance at the end of the first volume
  • Discuss how Sir Bertram reacts to the acting scheme
  • Introduce Austen’s use of stage direction–like details during dialogue
  • Explore how these are deployed to show the characters’ self-absorption
  • Discuss Austen’s description of Maria and Julia’s relationship as polite but affectionless
  • Compare Mrs. Norris’s self-conceit as charitable despite her idleness
  • Summarize the three themes: The acting scheme, stage directions, and the performance of morals
  • Answer the research question
  • Indicate areas for further study

If you want to know more about AI tools , college essays , or fallacies make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples or go directly to our tools!

  • Ad hominem fallacy
  • Post hoc fallacy
  • Appeal to authority fallacy
  • False cause fallacy
  • Sunk cost fallacy

College essays

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You will sometimes be asked to hand in an essay outline before you start writing your essay . Your supervisor wants to see that you have a clear idea of your structure so that writing will go smoothly.

Even when you do not have to hand it in, writing an essay outline is an important part of the writing process . It’s a good idea to write one (as informally as you like) to clarify your structure for yourself whenever you are working on an essay.

If you have to hand in your essay outline , you may be given specific guidelines stating whether you have to use full sentences. If you’re not sure, ask your supervisor.

When writing an essay outline for yourself, the choice is yours. Some students find it helpful to write out their ideas in full sentences, while others prefer to summarize them in short phrases.

You should try to follow your outline as you write your essay . However, if your ideas change or it becomes clear that your structure could be better, it’s okay to depart from your essay outline . Just make sure you know why you’re doing so.

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    Font: Usually Times Roman, 11 to 12 point. Heading: Yes — follow illustration below. Page number: Yes — upper left hand, with last name. Instructions on automatically setting up this information using Microsoft Word. First, second and Works Cited page of APA formatted essay. APA Format Page 1. See enlarged image (GIF)

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  24. How to Write an Essay Outline

    Revised on July 23, 2023. An essay outline is a way of planning the structure of your essay before you start writing. It involves writing quick summary sentences or phrases for every point you will cover in each paragraph, giving you a picture of how your argument will unfold. You'll sometimes be asked to submit an essay outline as a separate ...