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College Admissions , College Essays

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The personal statement might just be the hardest part of your college application. Mostly this is because it has the least guidance and is the most open-ended. One way to understand what colleges are looking for when they ask you to write an essay is to check out the essays of students who already got in—college essays that actually worked. After all, they must be among the most successful of this weird literary genre.

In this article, I'll go through general guidelines for what makes great college essays great. I've also compiled an enormous list of 100+ actual sample college essays from 11 different schools. Finally, I'll break down two of these published college essay examples and explain why and how they work. With links to 177 full essays and essay excerpts , this article is a great resource for learning how to craft your own personal college admissions essay!

What Excellent College Essays Have in Common

Even though in many ways these sample college essays are very different from one other, they do share some traits you should try to emulate as you write your own essay.

Visible Signs of Planning

Building out from a narrow, concrete focus. You'll see a similar structure in many of the essays. The author starts with a very detailed story of an event or description of a person or place. After this sense-heavy imagery, the essay expands out to make a broader point about the author, and connects this very memorable experience to the author's present situation, state of mind, newfound understanding, or maturity level.

Knowing how to tell a story. Some of the experiences in these essays are one-of-a-kind. But most deal with the stuff of everyday life. What sets them apart is the way the author approaches the topic: analyzing it for drama and humor, for its moving qualities, for what it says about the author's world, and for how it connects to the author's emotional life.

Stellar Execution

A killer first sentence. You've heard it before, and you'll hear it again: you have to suck the reader in, and the best place to do that is the first sentence. Great first sentences are punchy. They are like cliffhangers, setting up an exciting scene or an unusual situation with an unclear conclusion, in order to make the reader want to know more. Don't take my word for it—check out these 22 first sentences from Stanford applicants and tell me you don't want to read the rest of those essays to find out what happens!

A lively, individual voice. Writing is for readers. In this case, your reader is an admissions officer who has read thousands of essays before yours and will read thousands after. Your goal? Don't bore your reader. Use interesting descriptions, stay away from clichés, include your own offbeat observations—anything that makes this essay sounds like you and not like anyone else.

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Technical correctness. No spelling mistakes, no grammar weirdness, no syntax issues, no punctuation snafus—each of these sample college essays has been formatted and proofread perfectly. If this kind of exactness is not your strong suit, you're in luck! All colleges advise applicants to have their essays looked over several times by parents, teachers, mentors, and anyone else who can spot a comma splice. Your essay must be your own work, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with getting help polishing it.

And if you need more guidance, connect with PrepScholar's expert admissions consultants . These expert writers know exactly what college admissions committees look for in an admissions essay and chan help you craft an essay that boosts your chances of getting into your dream school.

Check out PrepScholar's Essay Editing and Coaching progra m for more details!

Want to write the perfect college application essay?   We can help.   Your dedicated PrepScholar Admissions counselor will help you craft your perfect college essay, from the ground up. We learn your background and interests, brainstorm essay topics, and walk you through the essay drafting process, step-by-step. At the end, you'll have a unique essay to proudly submit to colleges.   Don't leave your college application to chance. Find out more about PrepScholar Admissions now:

Links to Full College Essay Examples

Some colleges publish a selection of their favorite accepted college essays that worked, and I've put together a selection of over 100 of these.

Common App Essay Samples

Please note that some of these college essay examples may be responding to prompts that are no longer in use. The current Common App prompts are as follows:

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. 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? 3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? 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? 5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. 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?

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.

Now, let's get to the good stuff: the list of 177 college essay examples responding to current and past Common App essay prompts. 

Connecticut college.

  • 12 Common Application essays from the classes of 2022-2025

Hamilton College

  • 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2026
  • 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2022
  • 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2018
  • 8 Common Application essays from the class of 2012
  • 8 Common Application essays from the class of 2007

Johns Hopkins

These essays are answers to past prompts from either the Common Application or the Coalition Application (which Johns Hopkins used to accept).

  • 1 Common Application or Coalition Application essay from the class of 2026
  • 6 Common Application or Coalition Application essays from the class of 2025
  • 6 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2024
  • 6 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2023
  • 7 Common Application of Universal Application essays from the class of 2022
  • 5 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2021
  • 7 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2020

Essay Examples Published by Other Websites

  • 2 Common Application essays ( 1st essay , 2nd essay ) from applicants admitted to Columbia

Other Sample College Essays

Here is a collection of essays that are college-specific.

Babson College

  • 4 essays (and 1 video response) on "Why Babson" from the class of 2020

Emory University

  • 5 essay examples ( 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 ) from the class of 2020 along with analysis from Emory admissions staff on why the essays were exceptional
  • 5 more recent essay examples ( 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 ) along with analysis from Emory admissions staff on what made these essays stand out

University of Georgia

  • 1 “strong essay” sample from 2019
  • 1 “strong essay” sample from 2018
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2023
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2022
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2021
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2020
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2019
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2018
  • 6 essays from admitted MIT students

Smith College

  • 6 "best gift" essays from the class of 2018

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Books of College Essays

If you're looking for even more sample college essays, consider purchasing a college essay book. The best of these include dozens of essays that worked and feedback from real admissions officers.

College Essays That Made a Difference —This detailed guide from Princeton Review includes not only successful essays, but also interviews with admissions officers and full student profiles.

50 Successful Harvard Application Essays by the Staff of the Harvard Crimson—A must for anyone aspiring to Harvard .

50 Successful Ivy League Application Essays and 50 Successful Stanford Application Essays by Gen and Kelly Tanabe—For essays from other top schools, check out this venerated series, which is regularly updated with new essays.

Heavenly Essays by Janine W. Robinson—This collection from the popular blogger behind Essay Hell includes a wider range of schools, as well as helpful tips on honing your own essay.

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Analyzing Great Common App Essays That Worked

I've picked two essays from the examples collected above to examine in more depth so that you can see exactly what makes a successful college essay work. Full credit for these essays goes to the original authors and the schools that published them.

Example 1: "Breaking Into Cars," by Stephen, Johns Hopkins Class of '19 (Common App Essay, 636 words long)

I had never broken into a car before.

We were in Laredo, having just finished our first day at a Habitat for Humanity work site. The Hotchkiss volunteers had already left, off to enjoy some Texas BBQ, leaving me behind with the college kids to clean up. Not until we were stranded did we realize we were locked out of the van.

Someone picked a coat hanger out of the dumpster, handed it to me, and took a few steps back.

"Can you do that thing with a coat hanger to unlock it?"

"Why me?" I thought.

More out of amusement than optimism, I gave it a try. I slid the hanger into the window's seal like I'd seen on crime shows, and spent a few minutes jiggling the apparatus around the inside of the frame. Suddenly, two things simultaneously clicked. One was the lock on the door. (I actually succeeded in springing it.) The other was the realization that I'd been in this type of situation before. In fact, I'd been born into this type of situation.

My upbringing has numbed me to unpredictability and chaos. With a family of seven, my home was loud, messy, and spottily supervised. My siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing—all meant my house was functioning normally. My Dad, a retired Navy pilot, was away half the time. When he was home, he had a parenting style something like a drill sergeant. At the age of nine, I learned how to clear burning oil from the surface of water. My Dad considered this a critical life skill—you know, in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed. "The water's on fire! Clear a hole!" he shouted, tossing me in the lake without warning. While I'm still unconvinced about that particular lesson's practicality, my Dad's overarching message is unequivocally true: much of life is unexpected, and you have to deal with the twists and turns.

Living in my family, days rarely unfolded as planned. A bit overlooked, a little pushed around, I learned to roll with reality, negotiate a quick deal, and give the improbable a try. I don't sweat the small stuff, and I definitely don't expect perfect fairness. So what if our dining room table only has six chairs for seven people? Someone learns the importance of punctuality every night.

But more than punctuality and a special affinity for musical chairs, my family life has taught me to thrive in situations over which I have no power. Growing up, I never controlled my older siblings, but I learned how to thwart their attempts to control me. I forged alliances, and realigned them as necessary. Sometimes, I was the poor, defenseless little brother; sometimes I was the omniscient elder. Different things to different people, as the situation demanded. I learned to adapt.

Back then, these techniques were merely reactions undertaken to ensure my survival. But one day this fall, Dr. Hicks, our Head of School, asked me a question that he hoped all seniors would reflect on throughout the year: "How can I participate in a thing I do not govern, in the company of people I did not choose?"

The question caught me off guard, much like the question posed to me in Laredo. Then, I realized I knew the answer. I knew why the coat hanger had been handed to me.

Growing up as the middle child in my family, I was a vital participant in a thing I did not govern, in the company of people I did not choose. It's family. It's society. And often, it's chaos. You participate by letting go of the small stuff, not expecting order and perfection, and facing the unexpected with confidence, optimism, and preparedness. My family experience taught me to face a serendipitous world with confidence.

What Makes This Essay Tick?

It's very helpful to take writing apart in order to see just how it accomplishes its objectives. Stephen's essay is very effective. Let's find out why!

An Opening Line That Draws You In

In just eight words, we get: scene-setting (he is standing next to a car about to break in), the idea of crossing a boundary (he is maybe about to do an illegal thing for the first time), and a cliffhanger (we are thinking: is he going to get caught? Is he headed for a life of crime? Is he about to be scared straight?).

Great, Detailed Opening Story

More out of amusement than optimism, I gave it a try. I slid the hanger into the window's seal like I'd seen on crime shows, and spent a few minutes jiggling the apparatus around the inside of the frame.

It's the details that really make this small experience come alive. Notice how whenever he can, Stephen uses a more specific, descriptive word in place of a more generic one. The volunteers aren't going to get food or dinner; they're going for "Texas BBQ." The coat hanger comes from "a dumpster." Stephen doesn't just move the coat hanger—he "jiggles" it.

Details also help us visualize the emotions of the people in the scene. The person who hands Stephen the coat hanger isn't just uncomfortable or nervous; he "takes a few steps back"—a description of movement that conveys feelings. Finally, the detail of actual speech makes the scene pop. Instead of writing that the other guy asked him to unlock the van, Stephen has the guy actually say his own words in a way that sounds like a teenager talking.

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Turning a Specific Incident Into a Deeper Insight

Suddenly, two things simultaneously clicked. One was the lock on the door. (I actually succeeded in springing it.) The other was the realization that I'd been in this type of situation before. In fact, I'd been born into this type of situation.

Stephen makes the locked car experience a meaningful illustration of how he has learned to be resourceful and ready for anything, and he also makes this turn from the specific to the broad through an elegant play on the two meanings of the word "click."

Using Concrete Examples When Making Abstract Claims

My upbringing has numbed me to unpredictability and chaos. With a family of seven, my home was loud, messy, and spottily supervised. My siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing—all meant my house was functioning normally.

"Unpredictability and chaos" are very abstract, not easily visualized concepts. They could also mean any number of things—violence, abandonment, poverty, mental instability. By instantly following up with highly finite and unambiguous illustrations like "family of seven" and "siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing," Stephen grounds the abstraction in something that is easy to picture: a large, noisy family.

Using Small Bits of Humor and Casual Word Choice

My Dad, a retired Navy pilot, was away half the time. When he was home, he had a parenting style something like a drill sergeant. At the age of nine, I learned how to clear burning oil from the surface of water. My Dad considered this a critical life skill—you know, in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed.

Obviously, knowing how to clean burning oil is not high on the list of things every 9-year-old needs to know. To emphasize this, Stephen uses sarcasm by bringing up a situation that is clearly over-the-top: "in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed."

The humor also feels relaxed. Part of this is because he introduces it with the colloquial phrase "you know," so it sounds like he is talking to us in person. This approach also diffuses the potential discomfort of the reader with his father's strictness—since he is making jokes about it, clearly he is OK. Notice, though, that this doesn't occur very much in the essay. This helps keep the tone meaningful and serious rather than flippant.

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An Ending That Stretches the Insight Into the Future

But one day this fall, Dr. Hicks, our Head of School, asked me a question that he hoped all seniors would reflect on throughout the year: "How can I participate in a thing I do not govern, in the company of people I did not choose?"

The ending of the essay reveals that Stephen's life has been one long preparation for the future. He has emerged from chaos and his dad's approach to parenting as a person who can thrive in a world that he can't control.

This connection of past experience to current maturity and self-knowledge is a key element in all successful personal essays. Colleges are very much looking for mature, self-aware applicants. These are the qualities of successful college students, who will be able to navigate the independence college classes require and the responsibility and quasi-adulthood of college life.

What Could This Essay Do Even Better?

Even the best essays aren't perfect, and even the world's greatest writers will tell you that writing is never "finished"—just "due." So what would we tweak in this essay if we could?

Replace some of the clichéd language. Stephen uses handy phrases like "twists and turns" and "don't sweat the small stuff" as a kind of shorthand for explaining his relationship to chaos and unpredictability. But using too many of these ready-made expressions runs the risk of clouding out your own voice and replacing it with something expected and boring.

Use another example from recent life. Stephen's first example (breaking into the van in Laredo) is a great illustration of being resourceful in an unexpected situation. But his essay also emphasizes that he "learned to adapt" by being "different things to different people." It would be great to see how this plays out outside his family, either in the situation in Laredo or another context.

Want to build the best possible college application?   We can help.   PrepScholar Admissions combines world-class admissions counselors with our data-driven, proprietary admissions strategies. We've guided thousands of students to get into their top choice schools, from state colleges to the Ivy League. We know what kinds of students colleges want to admit and are driven to get you admitted to your dream schools. Learn more about PrepScholar Admissions to maximize your chance of getting in:

Example 2: By Renner Kwittken, Tufts Class of '23 (Common App Essay, 645 words long)

My first dream job was to be a pickle truck driver. I saw it in my favorite book, Richard Scarry's "Cars and Trucks and Things That Go," and for some reason, I was absolutely obsessed with the idea of driving a giant pickle. Much to the discontent of my younger sister, I insisted that my parents read us that book as many nights as possible so we could find goldbug, a small little golden bug, on every page. I would imagine the wonderful life I would have: being a pig driving a giant pickle truck across the country, chasing and finding goldbug. I then moved on to wanting to be a Lego Master. Then an architect. Then a surgeon.

Then I discovered a real goldbug: gold nanoparticles that can reprogram macrophages to assist in killing tumors, produce clear images of them without sacrificing the subject, and heat them to obliteration.

Suddenly the destination of my pickle was clear.

I quickly became enveloped by the world of nanomedicine; I scoured articles about liposomes, polymeric micelles, dendrimers, targeting ligands, and self-assembling nanoparticles, all conquering cancer in some exotic way. Completely absorbed, I set out to find a mentor to dive even deeper into these topics. After several rejections, I was immensely grateful to receive an invitation to work alongside Dr. Sangeeta Ray at Johns Hopkins.

In the lab, Dr. Ray encouraged a great amount of autonomy to design and implement my own procedures. I chose to attack a problem that affects the entire field of nanomedicine: nanoparticles consistently fail to translate from animal studies into clinical trials. Jumping off recent literature, I set out to see if a pre-dose of a common chemotherapeutic could enhance nanoparticle delivery in aggressive prostate cancer, creating three novel constructs based on three different linear polymers, each using fluorescent dye (although no gold, sorry goldbug!). Though using radioactive isotopes like Gallium and Yttrium would have been incredible, as a 17-year-old, I unfortunately wasn't allowed in the same room as these radioactive materials (even though I took a Geiger counter to a pair of shoes and found them to be slightly dangerous).

I hadn't expected my hypothesis to work, as the research project would have ideally been led across two full years. Yet while there are still many optimizations and revisions to be done, I was thrilled to find -- with completely new nanoparticles that may one day mean future trials will use particles with the initials "RK-1" -- thatcyclophosphamide did indeed increase nanoparticle delivery to the tumor in a statistically significant way.

A secondary, unexpected research project was living alone in Baltimore, a new city to me, surrounded by people much older than I. Even with moving frequently between hotels, AirBnB's, and students' apartments, I strangely reveled in the freedom I had to enjoy my surroundings and form new friendships with graduate school students from the lab. We explored The Inner Harbor at night, attended a concert together one weekend, and even got to watch the Orioles lose (to nobody's surprise). Ironically, it's through these new friendships I discovered something unexpected: what I truly love is sharing research. Whether in a presentation or in a casual conversation, making others interested in science is perhaps more exciting to me than the research itself. This solidified a new pursuit to angle my love for writing towards illuminating science in ways people can understand, adding value to a society that can certainly benefit from more scientific literacy.

It seems fitting that my goals are still transforming: in Scarry's book, there is not just one goldbug, there is one on every page. With each new experience, I'm learning that it isn't the goldbug itself, but rather the act of searching for the goldbugs that will encourage, shape, and refine my ever-evolving passions. Regardless of the goldbug I seek -- I know my pickle truck has just begun its journey.

Renner takes a somewhat different approach than Stephen, but their essay is just as detailed and engaging. Let's go through some of the strengths of this essay.

One Clear Governing Metaphor

This essay is ultimately about two things: Renner’s dreams and future career goals, and Renner’s philosophy on goal-setting and achieving one’s dreams.

But instead of listing off all the amazing things they’ve done to pursue their dream of working in nanomedicine, Renner tells a powerful, unique story instead. To set up the narrative, Renner opens the essay by connecting their experiences with goal-setting and dream-chasing all the way back to a memorable childhood experience:

This lighthearted–but relevant!--story about the moment when Renner first developed a passion for a specific career (“finding the goldbug”) provides an anchor point for the rest of the essay. As Renner pivots to describing their current dreams and goals–working in nanomedicine–the metaphor of “finding the goldbug” is reflected in Renner’s experiments, rejections, and new discoveries.

Though Renner tells multiple stories about their quest to “find the goldbug,” or, in other words, pursue their passion, each story is connected by a unifying theme; namely, that as we search and grow over time, our goals will transform…and that’s okay! By the end of the essay, Renner uses the metaphor of “finding the goldbug” to reiterate the relevance of the opening story:

While the earlier parts of the essay convey Renner’s core message by showing, the final, concluding paragraph sums up Renner’s insights by telling. By briefly and clearly stating the relevance of the goldbug metaphor to their own philosophy on goals and dreams, Renner demonstrates their creativity, insight, and eagerness to grow and evolve as the journey continues into college.

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An Engaging, Individual Voice

This essay uses many techniques that make Renner sound genuine and make the reader feel like we already know them.

Technique #1: humor. Notice Renner's gentle and relaxed humor that lightly mocks their younger self's grand ambitions (this is different from the more sarcastic kind of humor used by Stephen in the first essay—you could never mistake one writer for the other).

My first dream job was to be a pickle truck driver.

I would imagine the wonderful life I would have: being a pig driving a giant pickle truck across the country, chasing and finding goldbug. I then moved on to wanting to be a Lego Master. Then an architect. Then a surgeon.

Renner gives a great example of how to use humor to your advantage in college essays. You don’t want to come off as too self-deprecating or sarcastic, but telling a lightheartedly humorous story about your younger self that also showcases how you’ve grown and changed over time can set the right tone for your entire essay.

Technique #2: intentional, eye-catching structure. The second technique is the way Renner uses a unique structure to bolster the tone and themes of their essay . The structure of your essay can have a major impact on how your ideas come across…so it’s important to give it just as much thought as the content of your essay!

For instance, Renner does a great job of using one-line paragraphs to create dramatic emphasis and to make clear transitions from one phase of the story to the next:

Suddenly the destination of my pickle car was clear.

Not only does the one-liner above signal that Renner is moving into a new phase of the narrative (their nanoparticle research experiences), it also tells the reader that this is a big moment in Renner’s story. It’s clear that Renner made a major discovery that changed the course of their goal pursuit and dream-chasing. Through structure, Renner conveys excitement and entices the reader to keep pushing forward to the next part of the story.

Technique #3: playing with syntax. The third technique is to use sentences of varying length, syntax, and structure. Most of the essay's written in standard English and uses grammatically correct sentences. However, at key moments, Renner emphasizes that the reader needs to sit up and pay attention by switching to short, colloquial, differently punctuated, and sometimes fragmented sentences.

Even with moving frequently between hotels, AirBnB's, and students' apartments, I strangely reveled in the freedom I had to enjoy my surroundings and form new friendships with graduate school students from the lab. We explored The Inner Harbor at night, attended a concert together one weekend, and even got to watch the Orioles lose (to nobody's surprise). Ironically, it's through these new friendships I discovered something unexpected: what I truly love is sharing research.

In the examples above, Renner switches adeptly between long, flowing sentences and quippy, telegraphic ones. At the same time, Renner uses these different sentence lengths intentionally. As they describe their experiences in new places, they use longer sentences to immerse the reader in the sights, smells, and sounds of those experiences. And when it’s time to get a big, key idea across, Renner switches to a short, punchy sentence to stop the reader in their tracks.

The varying syntax and sentence lengths pull the reader into the narrative and set up crucial “aha” moments when it’s most important…which is a surefire way to make any college essay stand out.

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Renner's essay is very strong, but there are still a few little things that could be improved.

Connecting the research experiences to the theme of “finding the goldbug.”  The essay begins and ends with Renner’s connection to the idea of “finding the goldbug.” And while this metaphor is deftly tied into the essay’s intro and conclusion, it isn’t entirely clear what Renner’s big findings were during the research experiences that are described in the middle of the essay. It would be great to add a sentence or two stating what Renner’s big takeaways (or “goldbugs”) were from these experiences, which add more cohesion to the essay as a whole.

Give more details about discovering the world of nanomedicine. It makes sense that Renner wants to get into the details of their big research experiences as quickly as possible. After all, these are the details that show Renner’s dedication to nanomedicine! But a smoother transition from the opening pickle car/goldbug story to Renner’s “real goldbug” of nanoparticles would help the reader understand why nanoparticles became Renner’s goldbug. Finding out why Renner is so motivated to study nanomedicine–and perhaps what put them on to this field of study–would help readers fully understand why Renner chose this path in the first place.

4 Essential Tips for Writing Your Own Essay

How can you use this discussion to better your own college essay? Here are some suggestions for ways to use this resource effectively.

#1: Get Help From the Experts

Getting your college applications together takes a lot of work and can be pretty intimidatin g. Essays are even more important than ever now that admissions processes are changing and schools are going test-optional and removing diversity standards thanks to new Supreme Court rulings .  If you want certified expert help that really makes a difference, get started with  PrepScholar’s Essay Editing and Coaching program. Our program can help you put together an incredible essay from idea to completion so that your application stands out from the crowd. We've helped students get into the best colleges in the United States, including Harvard, Stanford, and Yale.  If you're ready to take the next step and boost your odds of getting into your dream school, connect with our experts today .

#2: Read Other Essays to Get Ideas for Your Own

As you go through the essays we've compiled for you above, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Can you explain to yourself (or someone else!) why the opening sentence works well?
  • Look for the essay's detailed personal anecdote. What senses is the author describing? Can you easily picture the scene in your mind's eye?
  • Find the place where this anecdote bridges into a larger insight about the author. How does the essay connect the two? How does the anecdote work as an example of the author's characteristic, trait, or skill?
  • Check out the essay's tone. If it's funny, can you find the places where the humor comes from? If it's sad and moving, can you find the imagery and description of feelings that make you moved? If it's serious, can you see how word choice adds to this tone?

Make a note whenever you find an essay or part of an essay that you think was particularly well-written, and think about what you like about it . Is it funny? Does it help you really get to know the writer? Does it show what makes the writer unique? Once you have your list, keep it next to you while writing your essay to remind yourself to try and use those same techniques in your own essay.

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#3: Find Your "A-Ha!" Moment

All of these essays rely on connecting with the reader through a heartfelt, highly descriptive scene from the author's life. It can either be very dramatic (did you survive a plane crash?) or it can be completely mundane (did you finally beat your dad at Scrabble?). Either way, it should be personal and revealing about you, your personality, and the way you are now that you are entering the adult world.

Check out essays by authors like John Jeremiah Sullivan , Leslie Jamison , Hanif Abdurraqib , and Esmé Weijun Wang to get more examples of how to craft a compelling personal narrative.

#4: Start Early, Revise Often

Let me level with you: the best writing isn't writing at all. It's rewriting. And in order to have time to rewrite, you have to start way before the application deadline. My advice is to write your first draft at least two months before your applications are due.

Let it sit for a few days untouched. Then come back to it with fresh eyes and think critically about what you've written. What's extra? What's missing? What is in the wrong place? What doesn't make sense? Don't be afraid to take it apart and rearrange sections. Do this several times over, and your essay will be much better for it!

For more editing tips, check out a style guide like Dreyer's English or Eats, Shoots & Leaves .

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What's Next?

Still not sure which colleges you want to apply to? Our experts will show you how to make a college list that will help you choose a college that's right for you.

Interested in learning more about college essays? Check out our detailed breakdown of exactly how personal statements work in an application , some suggestions on what to avoid when writing your essay , and our guide to writing about your extracurricular activities .

Working on the rest of your application? Read what admissions officers wish applicants knew before applying .

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 them for free now:

The recommendations in this post are based solely on our knowledge and experience. If you purchase an item through one of our links PrepScholar may receive a commission.

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Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.

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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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Tips for Writing an Effective Application Essay

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How to Write an Effective Essay

Writing an essay for college admission gives you a chance to use your authentic voice and show your personality. It's an excellent opportunity to personalize your application beyond your academic credentials, and a well-written essay can have a positive influence come decision time.

Want to know how to draft an essay for your college application ? Here are some tips to keep in mind when writing.

Tips for Essay Writing

A typical college application essay, also known as a personal statement, is 400-600 words. Although that may seem short, writing about yourself can be challenging. It's not something you want to rush or put off at the last moment. Think of it as a critical piece of the application process. Follow these tips to write an impactful essay that can work in your favor.

1. Start Early.

Few people write well under pressure. Try to complete your first draft a few weeks before you have to turn it in. Many advisers recommend starting as early as the summer before your senior year in high school. That way, you have ample time to think about the prompt and craft the best personal statement possible.

You don't have to work on your essay every day, but you'll want to give yourself time to revise and edit. You may discover that you want to change your topic or think of a better way to frame it. Either way, the sooner you start, the better.

2. Understand the Prompt and Instructions.

Before you begin the writing process, take time to understand what the college wants from you. The worst thing you can do is skim through the instructions and submit a piece that doesn't even fit the bare minimum requirements or address the essay topic. Look at the prompt, consider the required word count, and note any unique details each school wants.

3. Create a Strong Opener.

Students seeking help for their application essays often have trouble getting things started. It's a challenging writing process. Finding the right words to start can be the hardest part.

Spending more time working on your opener is always a good idea. The opening sentence sets the stage for the rest of your piece. The introductory paragraph is what piques the interest of the reader, and it can immediately set your essay apart from the others.

4. Stay on Topic.

One of the most important things to remember is to keep to the essay topic. If you're applying to 10 or more colleges, it's easy to veer off course with so many application essays.

A common mistake many students make is trying to fit previously written essays into the mold of another college's requirements. This seems like a time-saving way to avoid writing new pieces entirely, but it often backfires. The result is usually a final piece that's generic, unfocused, or confusing. Always write a new essay for every application, no matter how long it takes.

5. Think About Your Response.

Don't try to guess what the admissions officials want to read. Your essay will be easier to write─and more exciting to read─if you’re genuinely enthusiastic about your subject. Here’s an example: If all your friends are writing application essays about covid-19, it may be a good idea to avoid that topic, unless during the pandemic you had a vivid, life-changing experience you're burning to share. Whatever topic you choose, avoid canned responses. Be creative.

6. Focus on You.

Essay prompts typically give you plenty of latitude, but panel members expect you to focus on a subject that is personal (although not overly intimate) and particular to you. Admissions counselors say the best essays help them learn something about the candidate that they would never know from reading the rest of the application.

7. Stay True to Your Voice.

Use your usual vocabulary. Avoid fancy language you wouldn't use in real life. Imagine yourself reading this essay aloud to a classroom full of people who have never met you. Keep a confident tone. Be wary of words and phrases that undercut that tone.

8. Be Specific and Factual.

Capitalize on real-life experiences. Your essay may give you the time and space to explain why a particular achievement meant so much to you. But resist the urge to exaggerate and embellish. Admissions counselors read thousands of essays each year. They can easily spot a fake.

9. Edit and Proofread.

When you finish the final draft, run it through the spell checker on your computer. Then don’t read your essay for a few days. You'll be more apt to spot typos and awkward grammar when you reread it. After that, ask a teacher, parent, or college student (preferably an English or communications major) to give it a quick read. While you're at it, double-check your word count.

Writing essays for college admission can be daunting, but it doesn't have to be. A well-crafted essay could be the deciding factor─in your favor. Keep these tips in mind, and you'll have no problem creating memorable pieces for every application.

What is the format of a college application essay?

Generally, essays for college admission follow a simple format that includes an opening paragraph, a lengthier body section, and a closing paragraph. You don't need to include a title, which will only take up extra space. Keep in mind that the exact format can vary from one college application to the next. Read the instructions and prompt for more guidance.

Most online applications will include a text box for your essay. If you're attaching it as a document, however, be sure to use a standard, 12-point font and use 1.5-spaced or double-spaced lines, unless the application specifies different font and spacing.

How do you start an essay?

The goal here is to use an attention grabber. Think of it as a way to reel the reader in and interest an admissions officer in what you have to say. There's no trick on how to start a college application essay. The best way you can approach this task is to flex your creative muscles and think outside the box.

You can start with openers such as relevant quotes, exciting anecdotes, or questions. Either way, the first sentence should be unique and intrigue the reader.

What should an essay include?

Every application essay you write should include details about yourself and past experiences. It's another opportunity to make yourself look like a fantastic applicant. Leverage your experiences. Tell a riveting story that fulfills the prompt.

What shouldn’t be included in an essay?

When writing a college application essay, it's usually best to avoid overly personal details and controversial topics. Although these topics might make for an intriguing essay, they can be tricky to express well. If you’re unsure if a topic is appropriate for your essay, check with your school counselor. An essay for college admission shouldn't include a list of achievements or academic accolades either. Your essay isn’t meant to be a rehashing of information the admissions panel can find elsewhere in your application.

How can you make your essay personal and interesting?

The best way to make your essay interesting is to write about something genuinely important to you. That could be an experience that changed your life or a valuable lesson that had an enormous impact on you. Whatever the case, speak from the heart, and be honest.

Is it OK to discuss mental health in an essay?

Mental health struggles can create challenges you must overcome during your education and could be an opportunity for you to show how you’ve handled challenges and overcome obstacles. If you’re considering writing your essay for college admission on this topic, consider talking to your school counselor or with an English teacher on how to frame the essay.

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  • How to Write a College Essay

College admissions experts offer tips on selecting a topic as well as writing and editing the essay.

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Students can go online to review essay requirements for the colleges they want to apply to, such as word limits and essay topics. Many students may start with the Common App, an application platform accepted by more than 1,000 schools.

For college applicants, the essay is the place to showcase their writing skills and let their unique voice shine through.

"The essays are important in part because this is a student's chance to really speak directly to the admissions office," says Adam Sapp, assistant vice president and director of admissions at Pomona College in California.

Prospective college students want their essay, sometimes called a personal statement, to make a good impression and boost their chances of being accepted, but they have only several hundred words to make that happen.

This can feel like a lot of pressure.

"I think this is the part of the application process that students are sometimes most challenged by," says Niki Barron, associate dean of admission at Hamilton College in New York, "because they're looking at a blank piece of paper and they don't know where to get started."

That pressure may be amplified as many colleges have gone test optional in recent years, meaning that ACT and SAT scores will be considered if submitted but are not required. Other schools have gone test-blind and don't consider such scores at all. In the absence of test scores, some admissions experts have suggested that more attention will be paid to other parts of an application, such as the essay.

But just as each applicant is unique, so are college admissions policies and priorities.

"Being test optional hasn't changed how we use essays in our selection process, and I wouldn't say that the essay serves as a substitute for standardized test scores," Barron wrote in an email. "A student's academic preparation for our classroom experience is always front and center in our application review process."

On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court ruled against college admissions policies that consider an applicant's race. The ruling, though, does not prohibit students from writing essays on how their race has affected them, which experts say could significantly affect how students approach this portion of their applications.

Essay-writing tips offered by experts emphasize the importance of being concise, coherent, congenial, unique, honest and accurate. An applicant should also flex some intellectual muscle and include vivid details or anecdotes.

From brainstorming essay topics to editing the final draft, here's what students need to know about crafting a strong college application essay.

Getting Started on the College Essay

How long should a college essay be, how to pick a college essay topic, writing the college essay, how the affirmative action ruling could change college essays, editing and submitting the college essay.

A good time for students to begin working on their essays is the summer before senior year, experts say, when homework and extracurricular activities aren't taking up time and mental energy.

Starting early will also give students plenty of time to work through multiple drafts of an essay before college application deadlines, which can be as early as November for students applying for early decision or early action .

Students can go online to review essay requirements for the colleges they want to apply to, such as word limits and essay topics. Many students may start with the Common App , an application platform accepted by more than 1,000 schools. Students can submit that application to multiple schools.

Another option is the Coalition Application, an application platform accepted by more than 130 schools. Students applying through this application choose from one of six essay prompts to complete and include with their application.

In addition to the main essay, some colleges ask applicants to submit one or more additional writing samples. Students are often asked to explain why they are interested in a particular school or academic field in these supplemental essays , which tend to be shorter than the main essay.

Students should budget more time for the writing process if the schools they're applying to ask for supplemental essays.

"Most selective colleges will ask for more than one piece of writing. Don't spend all your time working on one long essay and then forget to devote energy to other parts of the application," Sapp says.

Though the Common App notes that "there are no strict word limits" for its main essay, it suggests a cap of about 650 words. The Coalition Application website says its essays should be between 500 and 650 words.

"While we won't, as a rule, stop reading after 650 words, we cannot promise that an overly wordy essay will hold our attention for as long as you'd hoped it would," the Common App website states.

The word count is much shorter for institution-specific supplemental essays, which are typically around 250 words.

The first and sometimes most daunting step in the essay writing process is figuring out what to write about.

There are usually several essay prompts to choose from on a college application. They tend to be broad, open-ended questions, giving students the freedom to write about a wide array of topics, Barron says.

The essay isn't a complete autobiography, notes Mimi Doe, co-founder of Top Tier Admissions, a Massachusetts-based advising company. "It's overwhelming to think of putting your whole life in one essay," she says.

Rather, experts say students should narrow their focus and write about a specific experience, hobby or quirk that reveals something personal, like how they think, what they value or what their strengths are. Students can also write about something that illustrates an aspect of their background. These are the types of essays that typically stand out to admissions officers, experts say. Even an essay on a common topic can be compelling if done right.

Students don't have to discuss a major achievement in their essay – a common misconception. Admissions officers who spoke with U.S. News cited memorable essays that focused on more ordinary topics, including fly-fishing, a student's commute to and from school and a family's dining room table.

What's most important, experts say, is that a college essay is thoughtful and tells a story that offers insight into who a student is as a person.

"Think of the college essay as a meaningful glimpse of who you are beyond your other application materials," Pierre Huguet, CEO and founder of admissions consulting firm H&C Education, wrote in an email. "After reading your essay, the reader won't fully know you – at least not entirely. Your objective is to evoke the reader's curiosity and make them eager to get to know you."

If students are having trouble brainstorming potential topics, they can ask friends or family members for help, says Stephanie Klein Wassink, founder of Winning Applications and AdmissionsCheckup, Connecticut-based college admissions advising companies. Klein Wassink says students can ask peers or family members questions such as, "What are the things you think I do well?" Or, "What are my quirks?"

The essay should tell college admissions officers something they don't already know, experts say.

Some experts encourage students to outline their essay before jumping into the actual writing, though of course everyone's writing process differs.

The first draft of an essay doesn't need to be perfect. "Just do a brain dump," Doe says. "Don't edit yourself, just lay it all out on the page."

If students are having a hard time getting started, they should focus on their opening sentence, Doe suggests. She says an essay's opening sentence, or hook, should grab the reader's attention.

Doe offered an example of a strong hook from the essay of a student she worked with:

"I first got into politics the day the cafeteria outlawed creamed corn."

"I want to know about this kid," she says. "I’m interested."

The key to a good college essay is striking a balance between being creative and not overdoing it, Huguet says. He advises students to keep it simple.

"The college essay is not a fiction writing contest," Huguet says. "Admissions committees are not evaluating you on your potential as the next writer of the Great American Novel."

He adds that students should write in the voice they use to discuss meaningful topics with someone they trust. It's also wise to avoid hyperbole, as that can lose the readers' trust, as well as extraneous adverbs and adjectives, Huguet says.

"Thinking small, when done right, means paying close attention to the little things in your life that give it meaning in unique ways," he says. "It means, on the one hand, that you don’t have to come up with a plan for world peace, but it also means thinking small enough to identify details in your life that belong only to you."

The Supreme Court's ruling on affirmative action has left some students feeling in limbo with how to approach their essays. Some are unsure whether to include racial identifiers while others feel pressure to exclude it, says Christopher Rim, CEO and founder of Command Education, an admissions consulting company.

"For instance, some of our Asian students have been concerned that referencing their culture or race in their essay could negatively impact them (even moreso than before)," Rim wrote in an email. He noted that many students he works with had already begun crafting their essays before the ruling came. "Some of our other students have felt pressure to disclose their race or share a story of discrimination or struggle because they expect those stories to be received better by admissions officers."

Some of the uneasiness stems from what feels like a contradictory message from the court, Rim says. In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., said the ruling shouldn't be construed "as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise." But he added that colleges may consider race only if it's tied to an applicant’s individual experiences or qualities, such as demonstrating courage against discrimination.

Personal essays shouldn't serve as a way for universities to ask students about their race as a means to admit them on such basis, Roberts added.

Rim says he expects there to be a lot of confusion from parents and students as they navigate that line when writing their essay. He says his guidance will vary with each student depending on their specific situation.

"For a student from an immigrant family, sharing their racial and cultural background may be integral to understanding their identity and values and therefore should be included in the essay," he says. "On the other hand, a student who has never meaningfully considered ways in which their race has shaped their life experience and worldview should not push themselves to do so in their essay simply because they believe it will better their chances."

While admissions officers try to learn about students via the essay, they are also gauging writing skills, so students want to make sure they submit top-notch work.

"The best writing is rewriting," Sapp says. "You should never be giving me your first draft."

When reviewing a first essay draft, students should make sure their writing is showing, not telling, Huguet says. This means students should show their readers examples that prove they embody certain traits or beliefs, as opposed to just stating that they do. Doing so is like explaining a joke to someone who's already laughed at it, he says.

"Let’s say, for example, that the whole point of a certain applicant’s essay is to let admissions officers know that she thinks outside the box. If she feels the need to end her essay with a sentence like, 'And so, this anecdote shows that I think outside the box,' she’s either underestimating the power of her story (or the ability of her reader to understand it), or she hasn’t done a good enough job in telling it yet," Huguet says. "Let your readers come to their own conclusions. If your story is effective, they’ll come to the conclusions you want them to."

After editing their essay, students should seek outside editing help, experts recommend. While there are individuals and companies that offer paid essay help – from editing services to essay-writing boot camps – students and families may not be able to afford the associated fees. Some providers may offer scholarships or other financial aid for their services.

The availability and level of feedback from free essay advising services vary. Some college prep companies offer brief consultations at no charge. Free essay workshops may also be available through local high schools, public libraries or community organizations. Khan Academy, a free online education platform, also offers a series of videos and other content to guide students through the essay writing process.

Colleges themselves may also have resources, Barron notes, pointing to pages on Hamilton's website that offer writing tips as well as examples of successful admissions essays. Likewise, Hamilton also holds virtual panel discussions on writing admissions essays.

Students have other options when it comes to essay help. They can ask peers, teachers, school counselors and family members for help polishing an essay. Huguet says it's typically wise to prioritize quality over quantity when it comes to seeking feedback on essays. Too many perspectives can become counterproductive, he says.

"While it can be valuable to have different perspectives, it's best to seek out individuals who are experts in the writing process," he says. "Instructors or professors can be helpful, particularly if they possess subject expertise and can provide guidance on refining arguments, structure and overall coherence."

Proofreaders should not change the tone of the essay. "Don't let anyone edit out your voice," Doe cautions.

And while proofreading is fair game, having someone else write your essay is not.

When an essay is ready to go, students will generally submit it online along with the rest of their application. On the Common App, for example, students copy and paste their essay into a text box.

Sapp says even though students often stress about the essay in particular, it's not the only thing college admissions officers look at. "The essay is the window, but the application is the house," he says. "So let's not forget that an application is built of many pieces."

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Most high school students don’t get a lot of experience with creative writing, so the college essay can be especially daunting. Reading examples of successful essays, however, can help you understand what admissions officers are looking for.

In this post, we’ll share 16 college essay examples of many different topics. Most of the essay prompts fall into 8 different archetypes, and you can approach each prompt under that archetype in a similar way. We’ve grouped these examples by archetype so you can better structure your approach to college essays.

If you’re looking for school-specific guides, check out our 2022-2023 essay breakdowns .

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. 

Note: the essays are titled in this post for navigation purposes, but they were not originally titled. We also include the original prompt where possible.

The Common App essay goes to all of the schools on your list, unless those schools use a separate application platform. Because of this, it’s the most important essay in your portfolio, and likely the longest essay you’ll need to write (you get up to 650 words). 

The goal of this essay is to share a glimpse into who you are, what matters to you, and what you hope to achieve. It’s a chance to share your story. 

Learn more about how to write the Common App essay in our complete guide.

The Multiple Meanings of Point

Prompt: 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. (250-650 words)

Night had robbed the academy of its daytime colors, yet there was comfort in the dim lights that cast shadows of our advances against the bare studio walls. Silhouettes of roundhouse kicks, spin crescent kicks, uppercuts and the occasional butterfly kick danced while we sparred. She approached me, eyes narrowed with the trace of a smirk challenging me. “Ready spar!” Her arm began an upward trajectory targeting my shoulder, a common first move. I sidestepped — only to almost collide with another flying fist. Pivoting my right foot, I snapped my left leg, aiming my heel at her midsection. The center judge raised one finger. 

There was no time to celebrate, not in the traditional sense at least. Master Pollard gave a brief command greeted with a unanimous “Yes, sir” and the thud of 20 hands dropping-down-and-giving-him-30, while the “winners” celebrated their victory with laps as usual. 

Three years ago, seven-thirty in the evening meant I was a warrior. It meant standing up straighter, pushing a little harder, “Yes, sir” and “Yes, ma’am”, celebrating birthdays by breaking boards, never pointing your toes, and familiarity. Three years later, seven-thirty in the morning meant I was nervous. 

The room is uncomfortably large. The sprung floor soaks up the checkerboard of sunlight piercing through the colonial windows. The mirrored walls further illuminate the studio and I feel the light scrutinizing my sorry attempts at a pas de bourrée, while capturing the organic fluidity of the dancers around me. “Chassé en croix, grand battement, pique, pirouette.” I follow the graceful limbs of the woman in front of me, her legs floating ribbons, as she executes what seems to be a perfect ronds de jambes. Each movement remains a negotiation. With admirable patience, Ms. Tan casts me a sympathetic glance.   

There is no time to wallow in the misery that is my right foot. Taekwondo calls for dorsiflexion; pointed toes are synonymous with broken toes. My thoughts drag me into a flashback of the usual response to this painful mistake: “You might as well grab a tutu and head to the ballet studio next door.” Well, here I am Master Pollard, unfortunately still following your orders to never point my toes, but no longer feeling the satisfaction that comes with being a third degree black belt with 5 years of experience quite literally under her belt. It’s like being a white belt again — just in a leotard and ballet slippers. 

But the appetite for new beginnings that brought me here doesn’t falter. It is only reinforced by the classical rendition of “Dancing Queen” that floods the room and the ghost of familiarity that reassures me that this new beginning does not and will not erase the past. After years spent at the top, it’s hard to start over. But surrendering what you are only leads you to what you may become. In Taekwondo, we started each class reciting the tenets: honor, courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, courage, humility, and knowledge, and I have never felt that I embodied those traits more so than when I started ballet. 

The thing about change is that it eventually stops making things so different. After nine different schools, four different countries, three different continents, fluency in Tamil, Norwegian, and English, there are more blurred lines than there are clear fragments. My life has not been a tactfully executed, gold medal-worthy Taekwondo form with each movement defined, nor has it been a series of frappés performed by a prima ballerina with each extension identical and precise, but thankfully it has been like the dynamics of a spinning back kick, fluid, and like my chances of landing a pirouette, unpredictable. 

The first obvious strength of this essay is the introduction—it is interesting and snappy and uses enough technical language that we want to figure out what the student is discussing. When writing introductions, students tend to walk the line between intriguing and confusing. It is important that your essay ends up on the intentionally intriguing side of that line—like this student does! We are a little confused at first, but by then introducing the idea of “sparring,” the student grounds their essay.

People often advise young writers to “show, not tell.” This student takes that advice a step further and makes the reader do a bit of work to figure out what they are telling us. Nowhere in this essay does it say “After years of Taekwondo, I made the difficult decision to switch over to ballet.” Rather, the student says “It’s like being a white belt again — just in a leotard and ballet slippers.” How powerful! 

After a lot of emotional language and imagery, this student finishes off their essay with very valuable (and necessary!) reflection. They show admissions officers that they are more than just a good writer—they are a mature and self-aware individual who would be beneficial to a college campus. Self-awareness comes through with statements like “surrendering what you are only leads you to what you may become” and maturity can be seen through the student’s discussion of values: “honor, courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, courage, humility, and knowledge, and I have never felt that I embodied those traits more so than when I started ballet.”

Sparking Self-Awareness

Prompt: 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? (250-650 words)

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.

First things first, this Common App essay is well-written. This student is definitely showing the admissions officers her ability to articulate her 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 (and beautiful!), 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 her 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?” feel perfectly justified after she establishes that she was pondering her failure.

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

Why This College?

“Why This College?” is one of the most common essay prompts, likely because schools want to understand whether you’d be a good fit and how you’d use their resources.

This essay is one of the more straightforward ones you’ll write for college applications, but you still can and should allow your voice to shine through.

Learn more about how to write the “Why This College?” essay in our guide.

Prompt: How will you explore your intellectual and academic interests at the University of Pennsylvania? Please answer this question given the specific undergraduate school to which you are applying (650 words).

Sister Simone Roach, a theorist of nursing ethics, said, “caring is the human mode of being.” I have long been inspired by Sister Roach’s Five C’s of Caring: commitment, conscience, competence, compassion, and confidence. Penn both embraces and fosters these values through a rigorous, interdisciplinary curriculum and unmatched access to service and volunteer opportunities.

COMMITMENT. Reading through the activities that Penn Quakers devote their time to (in addition to academics!) felt like drinking from a firehose in the best possible way. As a prospective nursing student with interests outside of my major, I value this level of flexibility. I plan to leverage Penn’s liberal arts curriculum to gain an in-depth understanding of the challenges LGBT people face, especially regarding healthcare access. Through courses like “Interactional Processes with LGBT Individuals” and volunteering at the Mazzoni Center for outreach, I hope to learn how to better support the Penn LGBT community as well as my family and friends, including my cousin, who came out as trans last year.

CONSCIENCE. As one of the first people in my family to attend a four-year university, I wanted a school that promoted a sense of moral responsibility among its students. At Penn, professors challenge their students to question and recreate their own set of morals by sparking thought- provoking, open-minded discussions. I can imagine myself advocating for universal healthcare in courses such as “Health Care Reform & Future of American Health System” and debating its merits with my peers. Studying in an environment where students confidently voice their opinions – conservative or liberal – will push me to question and strengthen my value system.

COMPETENCE. Two aspects that drew my attention to Penn’s BSN program were its high-quality research opportunities and hands-on nursing projects. Through its Office of Nursing Research, Penn connects students to faculty members who share similar research interests. As I volunteered at a nursing home in high school, I hope to work with Dr. Carthon to improve the quality of care for senior citizens. Seniors, especially minorities, face serious barriers to healthcare that I want to resolve. Additionally, Penn’s unique use of simulations to bridge the gap between classroom learning and real-world application impressed me. Using computerized manikins that mimic human responses, classes in Penn’s nursing program allow students to apply their emergency medical skills in a mass casualty simulation and monitor their actions afterward through a video system. Participating in this activity will help me identify my strengths and areas for improvement regarding crisis management and medical care in a controlled yet realistic setting. Research opportunities and simulations will develop my skills even before I interact with patients.

COMPASSION. I value giving back through community service, and I have a particular interest in Penn’s Community Champions and Nursing Students For Sexual & Reproductive Health (NSRH). As a four-year volunteer health educator, I hope to continue this work as a Community Champions member. I am excited to collaborate with medical students to teach fourth and fifth graders in the city about cardiology or lead a chair dance class for the elders at the LIFE Center. Furthermore, as a feminist who firmly believes in women’s abortion rights, I’d like to join NSRH in order to advocate for women’s health on campus. At Penn, I can work with like-minded people to make a meaningful difference.

CONFIDENCE. All of the Quakers that I have met possess one defining trait: confidence. Each student summarized their experiences at Penn as challenging but fulfilling. Although I expect my coursework to push me, from my conversations with current Quakers I know it will help me to be far more effective in my career.

The Five C’s of Caring are important heuristics for nursing, but they also provide insight into how I want to approach my time in college. I am eager to engage with these principles both as a nurse and as a Penn Quaker, and I can’t wait to start.

This prompt from Penn asks students to tailor their answer to their specific field of study. One great thing that this student does is identify their undergraduate school early, by mentioning “Sister Simone Roach, a theorist of nursing ethics.” You don’t want readers confused or searching through other parts of your application to figure out your major.

With a longer essay like this, it is important to establish structure. Some students organize their essay in a narrative form, using an anecdote from their past or predicting their future at a school. This student uses Roach’s 5 C’s of Caring as a framing device that organizes their essay around values. This works well!

While this essay occasionally loses voice, there are distinct moments where the student’s personality shines through. We see this with phrases like “felt like drinking from a fire hose in the best possible way” and “All of the Quakers that I have met possess one defining trait: confidence.” It is important to show off your personality to make your essay stand out. 

Finally, this student does a great job of referencing specific resources about Penn. It’s clear that they have done their research (they’ve even talked to current Quakers). They have dreams and ambitions that can only exist at Penn.

Prompt: What is it about Yale that has led you to apply? (125 words or fewer)

Coin collector and swimmer. Hungarian and Romanian. Critical and creative thinker. I was drawn to Yale because they don’t limit one’s mind with “or” but rather embrace unison with “and.” 

Wandering through the Beinecke Library, I prepare for my multidisciplinary Energy Studies capstone about the correlation between hedonism and climate change, making it my goal to find implications in environmental sociology. Under the tutelage of Assistant Professor Arielle Baskin-Sommers, I explore the emotional deficits of depression, utilizing neuroimaging to scrutinize my favorite branch of psychology: human perception. At Walden Peer Counseling, I integrate my peer support and active listening skills to foster an empathetic environment for the Yale community. Combining my interests in psychological and environmental studies is why I’m proud to be a Bulldog. 

This answer to the “Why This College” question is great because 1) the student shows their excitement about attending Yale 2) we learn the ways in which attending Yale will help them achieve their goals and 3) we learn their interests and identities.

In this response, you can find a prime example of the “Image of the Future” approach, as the student flashes forward and envisions their life at Yale, using present tense (“I explore,” “I integrate,” “I’m proud”). This approach is valuable if you are trying to emphasize your dedication to a specific school. Readers get the feeling that this student is constantly imagining themselves on campus—it feels like Yale really matters to them.

Starting this image with the Beinecke Library is great because the Beinecke Library only exists at Yale. It is important to tailor “Why This College” responses to each specific school. This student references a program of study, a professor, and an extracurricular that only exist at Yale. Additionally, they connect these unique resources to their interests—psychological and environmental studies.

Finally, we learn about the student (independent of academics) through this response. By the end of their 125 words, we know their hobbies, ethnicities, and social desires, in addition to their academic interests. It can be hard to tackle a 125-word response, but this student shows that it’s possible.

Why This Major?

The goal of this prompt is to understand how you came to be interested in your major and what you plan to do with it. For competitive programs like engineering, this essay helps admissions officers distinguish students who have a genuine passion and are most likely to succeed in the program. This is another more straightforward essay, but you do have a bit more freedom to include relevant anecdotes.

Learn more about how to write the “Why This Major?” essay in our guide.

Why Duke Engineering

Prompt: If you are applying to the Pratt School of Engineering as a first year applicant, please discuss why you want to study engineering and why you would like to study at Duke (250 words).

One Christmas morning, when I was nine, I opened a snap circuit set from my grandmother. Although I had always loved math and science, I didn’t realize my passion for engineering until I spent the rest of winter break creating different circuits to power various lights, alarms, and sensors. Even after I outgrew the toy, I kept the set in my bedroom at home and knew I wanted to study engineering. Later, in a high school biology class, I learned that engineering didn’t only apply to circuits, but also to medical devices that could improve people’s quality of life. Biomedical engineering allows me to pursue my academic passions and help people at the same time.

Just as biology and engineering interact in biomedical engineering, I am fascinated by interdisciplinary research in my chosen career path. Duke offers unmatched resources, such as DUhatch and The Foundry, that will enrich my engineering education and help me practice creative problem-solving skills. The emphasis on entrepreneurship within these resources will also help me to make a helpful product. Duke’s Bass Connections program also interests me; I firmly believe that the most creative and necessary problem-solving comes by bringing people together from different backgrounds. Through this program, I can use my engineering education to solve complicated societal problems such as creating sustainable surgical tools for low-income countries. Along the way, I can learn alongside experts in the field. Duke’s openness and collaborative culture span across its academic disciplines, making Duke the best place for me to grow both as an engineer and as a social advocate.

This prompt calls for a complex answer. Students must explain both why they want to study engineering and why Duke is the best place for them to study engineering.

This student begins with a nice hook—a simple anecdote about a simple present with profound consequences. They do not fluff up their anecdote with flowery images or emotionally-loaded language; it is what it is, and it is compelling and sweet. As their response continues, they express a particular interest in problem-solving. They position problem-solving as a fundamental part of their interest in engineering (and a fundamental part of their fascination with their childhood toy). This helps readers to learn about the student!

Problem-solving is also the avenue by which they introduce Duke’s resources—DUhatch, The Foundry, and Duke’s Bass Connections program. It is important to notice that the student explains how these resources can help them achieve their future goals—it is not enough to simply identify the resources!

This response is interesting and focused. It clearly answers the prompt, and it feels honest and authentic.

Why Georgia Tech CompSci

Prompt: Why do you want to study your chosen major specifically at Georgia Tech? (300 words max)

I held my breath and hit RUN. Yes! A plump white cat jumped out and began to catch the falling pizzas. Although my Fat Cat project seems simple now, it was the beginning of an enthusiastic passion for computer science. Four years and thousands of hours of programming later, that passion has grown into an intense desire to explore how computer science can serve society. Every day, surrounded by technology that can recognize my face and recommend scarily-specific ads, I’m reminded of Uncle Ben’s advice to a young Spiderman: “with great power comes great responsibility”. Likewise, the need to ensure digital equality has skyrocketed with AI’s far-reaching presence in society; and I believe that digital fairness starts with equality in education.

The unique use of threads at the College of Computing perfectly matches my interests in AI and its potential use in education; the path of combined threads on Intelligence and People gives me the rare opportunity to delve deep into both areas. I’m particularly intrigued by the rich sets of both knowledge-based and data-driven intelligence courses, as I believe AI should not only show correlation of events, but also provide insight for why they occur.

In my four years as an enthusiastic online English tutor, I’ve worked hard to help students overcome both financial and technological obstacles in hopes of bringing quality education to people from diverse backgrounds. For this reason, I’m extremely excited by the many courses in the People thread that focus on education and human-centered technology. I’d love to explore how to integrate AI technology into the teaching process to make education more available, affordable, and effective for people everywhere. And with the innumerable opportunities that Georgia Tech has to offer, I know that I will be able to go further here than anywhere else.

With a “Why This Major” essay, you want to avoid using all of your words to tell a story. That being said, stories are a great way to show your personality and make your essay stand out. This student’s story takes up only their first 21 words, but it positions the student as fun and funny and provides an endearing image of cats and pizzas—who doesn’t love cats and pizzas? There are other moments when the student’s personality shines through also, like the Spiderman reference.

While this pop culture reference adds color, it also is important for what the student is getting at: their passion. They want to go into computer science to address the issues of security and equity that are on the industry’s mind, and they acknowledge these concerns with their comments about “scarily-specific ads” and their statement that “the need to ensure digital equality has skyrocketed.” This student is self-aware and aware of the state of the industry. This aptitude will be appealing for admissions officers.

The conversation around “threads” is essential for this student’s response because the prompt asks specifically about the major at Georgia Tech and it is the only thing they reference that is specific to Georgia Tech. Threads are great, but this student would have benefitted from expanding on other opportunities specific to Georgia Tech later in the essay, instead of simply inserting “innumerable opportunities.”

Overall, this student shows personality, passion, and aptitude—precisely what admissions officers want to see!

Extracurricular Essay

You’re asked to describe your activities on the Common App, but chances are, you have at least one extracurricular that’s impacted you in a way you can’t explain in 150 characters.

This essay archetype allows you to share how your most important activity shaped you and how you might use those lessons learned in the future. You are definitely welcome to share anecdotes and use a narrative approach, but remember to include some reflection. A common mistake students make is to only describe the activity without sharing how it impacted them.

Learn more about how to write the Extracurricular Essay in our guide.

A Dedicated Musician

My fingers raced across the keys, rapidly striking one after another. My body swayed with the music as my hands raced across the piano. Crashing onto the final chord, it was over as quickly as it had begun. My shoulders relaxed and I couldn’t help but break into a satisfied grin. I had just played the Moonlight Sonata’s third movement, a longtime dream of mine. 

Four short months ago, though, I had considered it impossible. The piece’s tempo was impossibly fast, its notes stretching between each end of the piano, forcing me to reach farther than I had ever dared. It was 17 pages of the most fragile and intricate melodies I had ever encountered. 

But that summer, I found myself ready to take on the challenge. With the end of the school year, I was released from my commitment to practicing for band and solo performances. I was now free to determine my own musical path: either succeed in learning the piece, or let it defeat me for the third summer in a row. 

Over those few months, I spent countless hours practicing the same notes until they burned a permanent place in my memory, creating a soundtrack for even my dreams. Some would say I’ve mastered the piece, but as a musician I know better. Now that I can play it, I am eager to take the next step and add in layers of musicality and expression to make the once-impossible piece even more beautiful.

In this response, the student uses their extracurricular, piano, as a way to emphasize their positive qualities. At the beginning, readers are invited on a journey with the student where we feel their struggle, their intensity, and ultimately their satisfaction. With this descriptive image, we form a valuable connection with the student.

Then, we get to learn about what makes this student special: their dedication and work ethic. The fact that this student describes their desire to be productive during the summer shows an intensity that is appealing to admissions officers. Additionally, the growth mindset that this student emphasizes in their conclusion is appealing to admissions officers.

The Extracurricular Essay can be seen as an opportunity to characterize yourself. This student clearly identified their positive qualities, then used the Extracurricular Essay as a way to articulate them.

A Complicated Relationship with the School Newspaper

My school’s newspaper and I have a typical love-hate relationship; some days I want nothing more than to pass two hours writing and formatting articles, while on others the mere thought of student journalism makes me shiver. Still, as we’re entering our fourth year together, you could consider us relatively stable. We’ve learned to accept each other’s differences; at this point I’ve become comfortable spending an entire Friday night preparing for an upcoming issue, and I hardly even notice the snail-like speed of our computers. I’ve even benefitted from the polygamous nature of our relationship—with twelve other editors, there’s a lot of cooperation involved. Perverse as it may be, from that teamwork I’ve both gained some of my closest friends and improved my organizational and time-management skills. And though leaving it in the hands of new editors next year will be difficult, I know our time together has only better prepared me for future relationships.

This response is great. It’s cute and endearing and, importantly, tells readers a lot about the student who wrote it. Framing this essay in the context of a “love-hate relationship,” then supplementing with comments like “We’ve learned to accept each other’s differences” allows this student to advertise their maturity in a unique and engaging way. 

While Extracurricular Essays can be a place to show how you’ve grown within an activity, they can also be a place to show how you’ve grown through an activity. At the end of this essay, readers think that this student is mature and enjoyable, and we think that their experience with the school newspaper helped make them that way.

Participating in Democracy

Prompt: Research shows that an ability to learn from experiences outside the classroom correlates with success in college. What was your greatest learning experience over the past 4 years that took place outside of the traditional classroom? (250 words) 

The cool, white halls of the Rayburn House office building contrasted with the bustling energy of interns entertaining tourists, staffers rushing to cover committee meetings, and my fellow conference attendees separating to meet with our respective congresspeople. Through civics and US history classes, I had learned about our government, but simply hearing the legislative process outlined didn’t prepare me to navigate it. It was my first political conference, and, after learning about congressional mechanics during breakout sessions, I was lobbying my representative about an upcoming vote crucial to the US-Middle East relationship. As the daughter of Iranian immigrants, my whole life had led me to the moment when I could speak on behalf of the family members who had not emigrated with my parents.

As I sat down with my congresswoman’s chief of staff, I truly felt like a participant in democracy; I was exercising my right to be heard as a young American. Through this educational conference, I developed a plan of action to raise my voice. When I returned home, I signed up to volunteer with the state chapter of the Democratic Party. I sponsored letter-writing campaigns, canvassed for local elections, and even pursued an internship with a state senate campaign. I know that I don’t need to be old enough to vote to effect change. Most importantly, I also know that I want to study government—I want to make a difference for my communities in the United States and the Middle East throughout my career. 

While this prompt is about extracurricular activities, it specifically references the idea that the extracurricular should support the curricular. It is focused on experiential learning for future career success. This student wants to study government, so they chose to describe an experience of hands-on learning within their field—an apt choice!

As this student discusses their extracurricular experience, they also clue readers into their future goals—they want to help Middle Eastern communities. Admissions officers love when students mention concrete plans with a solid foundation. Here, the foundation comes from this student’s ethnicity. With lines like “my whole life had led me to the moment when I could speak on behalf of the family members who had not emigrated with my parents,” the student assures admissions officers of their emotional connection to their future field.

The strength of this essay comes from its connections. It connects the student’s extracurricular activity to their studies and connects theirs studies to their personal history.

Overcoming Challenges

You’re going to face a lot of setbacks in college, so admissions officers want to make you’re you have the resilience and resolve to overcome them. This essay is your chance to be vulnerable and connect to admissions officers on an emotional level.

Learn more about how to write the Overcoming Challenges Essay in our guide.

The Student Becomes the Master

”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 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!

Growing Sensitivity to Struggles

Prompt: The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? (650 words)

“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 you can find a prime example that you don’t have to have fabulous imagery or flowery prose to write a successful 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.

Community Service/Impact on the Community

Colleges want students who will positively impact the campus community and go on to make change in the world after they graduate. This essay is similar to the Extracurricular Essay, but you need to focus on a situation where you impacted others. 

Learn more about how to write the Community Service Essay in our guide.

Academic Signing Day

Prompt: What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?

The scent of eucalyptus caressed my nose in a gentle breeze. Spring had arrived. Senior class activities were here. As a sophomore, I noticed a difference between athletic and academic seniors at my high school; one received recognition while the other received silence. I wanted to create an event celebrating students academically-committed to four-years, community colleges, trades schools, and military programs. This event was Academic Signing Day.

The leadership label, “Events Coordinator,” felt heavy on my introverted mind. I usually was setting up for rallies and spirit weeks, being overlooked around the exuberant nature of my peers. 

I knew a change of mind was needed; I designed flyers, painted posters, presented powerpoints, created student-led committees, and practiced countless hours for my introductory speech. Each committee would play a vital role on event day: one dedicated to refreshments, another to technology, and one for decorations. The fourth-month planning was a laborious joy, but I was still fearful of being in the spotlight. Being acknowledged by hundreds of people was new to me.     

The day was here. Parents filled the stands of the multi-purpose room. The atmosphere was tense; I could feel the angst building in my throat, worried about the impression I would leave. Applause followed each of the 400 students as they walked to their college table, indicating my time to speak. 

I walked up to the stand, hands clammy, expression tranquil, my words echoing to the audience. I thought my speech would be met by the sounds of crickets; instead, smiles lit up the stands, realizing my voice shone through my actions. I was finally coming out of my shell. The floor was met by confetti as I was met by the sincerity of staff, students, and parents, solidifying the event for years to come. 

Academic students were no longer overshadowed. Their accomplishments were equally recognized to their athletic counterparts. The school culture of athletics over academics was no longer imbalanced. Now, every time I smell eucalyptus, it is a friendly reminder that on Academic Signing Day, not only were academic students in the spotlight but so was my voice.

This essay answers the prompt nicely because the student describes a contribution with a lasting legacy. Academic Signing Day will affect this high school in the future and it affected this student’s self-development—an idea summed up nicely with their last phrase “not only were academic students in the spotlight but so was my voice.”

With Community Service essays, students sometimes take small contributions and stretch them. And, oftentimes, the stretch is very obvious. Here, the student shows us that Academic Signing Day actually mattered by mentioning four months of planning and hundreds of students and parents. They also make their involvement in Academic Signing Day clear—it was their idea and they were in charge, and that’s why they gave the introductory speech.

Use this response as an example of the type of focused contribution that makes for a convincing Community Service Essay.

Climate Change Rally

Prompt: What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time? (technically not community service, but the response works)

Let’s fast-forward time. Strides were made toward racial equality. Healthcare is accessible to all; however, one issue remains. Our aquatic ecosystems are parched with dead coral from ocean acidification. Climate change has prevailed.

Rewind to the present day.

My activism skills are how I express my concerns for the environment. Whether I play on sandy beaches or rest under forest treetops, nature offers me an escape from the haste of the world. When my body is met by trash in the ocean or my nose is met by harmful pollutants, Earth’s pain becomes my own. 

Substituting coffee grinds as fertilizer, using bamboo straws, starting my sustainable garden, my individual actions needed to reach a larger scale. I often found performative activism to be ineffective when communicating climate concerns. My days of reposting awareness graphics on social media never filled the ambition I had left to put my activism skills to greater use. I decided to share my ecocentric worldview with a coalition of environmentalists and host a climate change rally outside my high school.

Meetings were scheduled where I informed students about the unseen impact they have on the oceans and local habitual communities. My fingers were cramped from all the constant typing and investigating of micro causes of the Pacific Waste Patch, creating reusable flyers, displaying steps people could take from home in reducing their carbon footprint. I aided my fellow environmentalists in translating these flyers into other languages, repeating this process hourly, for five days, up until rally day.  

It was 7:00 AM. The faces of 100 students were shouting, “The climate is changing, why can’t we?” I proudly walked on the dewy grass, grabbing the microphone, repeating those same words. The rally not only taught me efficient methods of communication but it echoed my environmental activism to the masses. The City of Corona would be the first of many cities to see my activism, as more rallies were planned for various parts of SoCal. My once unfulfilled ambition was fueled by my tangible activism, understanding that it takes more than one person to make an environmental impact.

Like with the last example, this student describes a focused event with a lasting legacy. That’s a perfect place to start! By the end of this essay, we have an image of the cause of this student’s passion and the effect of this student’s passion. There are no unanswered questions.

This student supplements their focused topic with engaging and exciting writing to make for an easy-to-read and enjoyable essay. One of the largest strengths of this response is its pace. From the very beginning, we are invited to “fast-forward” and “rewind” with the writer. Then, after we center ourselves in real-time, this writer keeps their quick pace with sentences like “Substituting coffee grounds as fertilizer, using bamboo straws, starting my sustainable garden, my individual actions needed to reach a larger scale.” Community Service essays run the risk of turning boring, but this unique pacing keeps things interesting.

Having a diverse class provides a richness of different perspectives and encourages open-mindedness among the student body. The Diversity Essay is also somewhat similar to the Extracurricular and Community Service Essays, but it focuses more on what you might bring to the campus community because of your unique experiences or identities.

Learn more about how to write the Diversity Essay in our guide.

A Story of a Young Skater

​​“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. 

This response is a great example of how Diversity doesn’t have to mean race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, age, or ability. Diversity can mean whatever you want it to mean—whatever unique experience(s) you have to bring to the table!

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!

Finding Community in the Rainforest

Prompt: Duke University seeks a talented, engaged student body that embodies the wide range of human experience; we believe that the diversity of our students makes our community stronger. If you’d like to share a perspective you bring or experiences you’ve had to help us understand you better—perhaps related to a community you belong to, your sexual orientation or gender identity, or your family or cultural background—we encourage you to do so. Real people are reading your application, and we want to do our best to understand and appreciate the real people applying to Duke (250 words).

I never understood the power of community until I left home to join seven strangers in the Ecuadorian rainforest. Although we flew in from distant corners of the U.S., we shared a common purpose: immersing ourselves in our passion for protecting the natural world.

Back home in my predominantly conservative suburb, my neighbors had brushed off environmental concerns. My classmates debated the feasibility of Trump’s wall, not the deteriorating state of our planet. Contrastingly, these seven strangers delighted in bird-watching, brightened at the mention of medicinal tree sap, and understood why I once ran across a four-lane highway to retrieve discarded beer cans. Their histories barely resembled mine, yet our values aligned intimately. We did not hesitate to joke about bullet ants, gush about the versatility of tree bark, or discuss the destructive consequences of materialism. Together, we let our inner tree huggers run free.

In the short life of our little community, we did what we thought was impossible. By feeding on each other’s infectious tenacity, we cultivated an atmosphere that deepened our commitment to our values and empowered us to speak out on behalf of the environment. After a week of stimulating conversations and introspective revelations about engaging people from our hometowns in environmental advocacy, we developed a shared determination to devote our lives to this cause.

As we shared a goodbye hug, my new friend whispered, “The world needs saving. Someone’s gotta do it.” For the first time, I believed that someone could be me.

This response is so wholesome and relatable. We all have things that we just need to geek out over and this student expresses the joy that came when they found a community where they could geek out about the environment. Passion is fundamental to university life and should find its way into successful applications.

Like the last response, this essay finds strength in the fact that readers feel for the student. We get a little bit of backstory about where they come from and how they felt silenced—“Back home in my predominantly conservative suburb, my neighbors had brushed off environmental concerns”—, so it’s easy to feel joy for them when they get set free.

This student displays clear values: community, ecoconsciousness, dedication, and compassion. An admissions officer who reads Diversity essays is looking for students with strong values and a desire to contribute to a university community—sounds like this student!  

Political/Global Issues

Colleges want to build engaged citizens, and the Political/Global Issues Essay allows them to better understand what you care about and whether your values align with theirs. In this essay, you’re most commonly asked to describe an issue, why you care about it, and what you’ve done or hope to do to address it. 

Learn more about how to write the Political/Global Issues Essay in our guide.

Note: this prompt is not a typical political/global issues essay, but the essay itself would be a strong response to a political/global issues prompt.

Fighting Violence Against Women

Prompt: Using a favorite quotation from an essay or book you have read in the last three years as a starting point, tell us about an event or experience that helped you define one of your values or changed how you approach the world. Please write the quotation, title and author at the beginning of your essay. (250-650 words)

“One of the great challenges of our time is that the disparities we face today have more complex causes and point less straightforwardly to solutions.” 

– Omar Wasow, assistant professor of politics, Princeton University. This quote is taken from Professor Wasow’s January 2014 speech at the Martin Luther King Day celebration at Princeton University. 

The air is crisp and cool, nipping at my ears as I walk under a curtain of darkness that drapes over the sky, starless. It is a Friday night in downtown Corpus Christi, a rare moment of peace in my home city filled with the laughter of strangers and colorful lights of street vendors. But I cannot focus. 

My feet stride quickly down the sidewalk, my hand grasps on to the pepper spray my parents gifted me for my sixteenth birthday. My eyes ignore the surrounding city life, focusing instead on a pair of tall figures walking in my direction. I mentally ask myself if they turned with me on the last street corner. I do not remember, so I pick up the pace again. All the while, my mind runs over stories of young women being assaulted, kidnapped, and raped on the street. I remember my mother’s voice reminding me to keep my chin up, back straight, eyes and ears alert. 

At a young age, I learned that harassment is a part of daily life for women. I fell victim to period-shaming when I was thirteen, received my first catcall when I was fourteen, and was nonconsensually grabbed by a man soliciting on the street when I was fifteen. For women, assault does not just happen to us— its gory details leave an imprint in our lives, infecting the way we perceive the world. And while movements such as the Women’s March and #MeToo have given victims of sexual violence a voice, harassment still manifests itself in the lives of millions of women across the nation. Symbolic gestures are important in spreading awareness but, upon learning that a surprising number of men are oblivious to the frequent harassment that women experience, I now realize that addressing this complex issue requires a deeper level of activism within our local communities. 

Frustrated with incessant cases of harassment against women, I understood at sixteen years old that change necessitates action. During my junior year, I became an intern with a judge whose campaign for office focused on a need for domestic violence reform. This experience enabled me to engage in constructive dialogue with middle and high school students on how to prevent domestic violence. As I listened to young men uneasily admit their ignorance and young women bravely share their experiences in an effort to spread awareness, I learned that breaking down systems of inequity requires changing an entire culture. I once believed that the problem of harassment would dissipate after politicians and celebrities denounce inappropriate behavior to their global audience. But today, I see that effecting large-scale change comes from the “small” lessons we teach at home and in schools. Concerning women’s empowerment, the effects of Hollywood activism do not trickle down enough. Activism must also trickle up and it depends on our willingness to fight complacency. 

Finding the solution to the long-lasting problem of violence against women is a work-in-progress, but it is a process that is persistently moving. In my life, for every uncomfortable conversation that I bridge, I make the world a bit more sensitive to the unspoken struggle that it is to be a woman. I am no longer passively waiting for others to let me live in a world where I can stand alone under the expanse of darkness on a city street, utterly alone and at peace. I, too, deserve the night sky.

As this student addresses an important social issue, she makes the reasons for her passion clear—personal experiences. Because she begins with an extended anecdote, readers are able to feel connected to the student and become invested in what she has to say.

Additionally, through her powerful ending—“I, too, deserve the night sky”—which connects back to her beginning— “as I walk under a curtain of darkness that drapes over the sky”—this student illustrates a mastery of language. Her engagement with other writing techniques that further her argument, like the emphasis on time—“gifted to me for my sixteenth birthday,” “when I was thirteen,” “when I was fourteen,” etc.—also illustrates her mastery of language.

While this student proves herself a good writer, she also positions herself as motivated and ambitious. She turns her passions into action and fights for them. That is just what admissions officers want to see in a Political/Global issues essay!

Where to Get Feedback on Your College Essays

Once you’ve written your college essays, you’ll want to get feedback on them. Since these essays are important to your chances of acceptance, you should prepare to go through several rounds of edits. 

Not sure who to ask for feedback? That’s why we created our free Peer Essay Review resource. You can get comments from another student going through the process and also edit other students’ essays to improve your own writing. 

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!

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How to Start Your College Admissions Essay

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Varonika Ware is a content writer at Scholarships360. Varonika earned her undergraduate degree in Mass Communications at Louisiana State University. During her time at LSU, she worked with the Center of Academic Success to create the weekly Success Sunday newsletter. Varonika also interned at the Louisiana Department of Insurance in the Public Affairs office with some of her graphics appearing in local news articles.

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Bill Jack has over a decade of experience in college admissions and financial aid. Since 2008, he has worked at Colby College, Wesleyan University, University of Maine at Farmington, and Bates College.

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Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

How to Start Your College Admissions Essay

Now that you are in high school, it’s time to start thinking about what’s next! If you are thinking about going to college, getting your application together should be a top priority once you enter your senior year. While it might be easy to upload your high school records , you might be wondering how to start a college admissions essay. Keep reading to find out tips to start your college admissions essay!

Steps to starting your college application essay

1. read the essay requirements, required or optional essay.

First things first–look at the requirements of the college you’re thinking about applying to. Some colleges require an essay, while others make it optional. Either way, an essay can have a major impact on your application, so if you have a choice to send in an optional essay to a school high on your list, always do so. 

Carefully read all requirements

Make sure you carefully read all the requirements. There will be different prompts, qualifications, and word count limits depending on each school. Also, make sure to take note of other formatting requirements, such as sentence spacing and fonts.

Also see:  Can you use the same essay for multiple colleges?  

2. Choose your topic (if offered)

Once you’ve read and understand the essay prompt(s), it’s time to choose your topic. Students usually choose a topic through the Common App , Coalition App , or directly from their college of interest. This is the part where you decide what story you’d like the reader to take away from your application. Some prompts are more focused on an aspect of your life while others question “why” you choose that particular institution.

Also see: College supplemental essay guide database

3. Outline your essay

Outlining a road map of your essay.

Outlining your essay is the key to organizing your thoughts in a thorough and intriguing way. An outline can be utilized as a guide to make sure your essay has a clear beginning, middle, and end. 

It’s ok to stray off the path a bit…

Don’t worry about sticking strictly to your outline, rather, use it as a guide for main points you want to convey. New thoughts might come to you as you write, but an outline can help maintain the flow of your essay. An outline is key to prioritizing your major ideas, especially with limited word counts. 

4. Start writing your essay!

After you’ve gotten your topic and outline down, it’s time to put pen to paper! For some students, it is challenging to “dig in” and start writing. Don’t let word counts intimidate you–in fact, for the first draft, ignore the word count. When writing, especially the first draft, just let your writing flow naturally. There will be plenty of time to go back and revise, so don’t get hung up on any one part. 

Related: How to start a scholarship essay

5. Open up in grand style

There are multiple ways for you to open up your essay. For example, you could start off with a compelling anecdote or an interesting hook. Sometimes, starting in medias res (Latin for “in the middle of things”) make the perfect opening for “your story.” You can always go back and perfect your opening after the essay is written, so don’t revise the opening too much until the first draft of your essay is written. 

6. Write as your authentic self

By being open and honest, the reader will  be motivated to read your essay to the end. After all, the ultimate goal is to have the admission’s reader get to know you and offer you a spot at their school. This is your chance to come to life via your very own crafted words, give your essay the time it deserves! While we are focusing on starting your essay, this same advice applies to your entire essay, from the first word to the very last.

Related: How to write about yourself

Tip from a former writing instructor

Maria geiger.

Scholarships360 Director of Content

Former English professor at Monmouth University, Georgian Court University, and University of the Arts

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Additional resources

You probably have additional questions about writing for the college admissions process, and Scholarships360 has answers! Read our informative resources on how long your college essays should be and how to end an admissions essay. Learn how to best respond to the “why this college” prompt (example essay included!) as well. Before you start writing  supplemental essays, check out our guide for some tips. Happy writing, and best of luck on your college journey!  Make sure that you apply for all the scholarships you qualify for while you are eligible! 

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How to Write a College Admissions Essay

Whether you are a student applying to college or a parent seeking to help their child , the college admissions process is filled with challenges and excitement as students and parents prepare for the next two to four years.

Colleges and universities look at various factors when admitting students, such as high school grade point averages (GPA), extracurricular activities, test scores, and college essays, which can be the tipping point in favor of a student’s admission.

These college essays, along with letters of recommendation, allow students to distinguish themselves from other students and show admissions teams why they should be accepted into their chosen school and program.

Let’s discuss what an admissions essay is, as well as six tips on how to write an admissions essay.

What is an Admissions Essay?

College admissions essays are essays or personal statements that students must write as part of their college application.

Students can showcase and share their personality, goals, and why they are an excellent fit for the school or program they are applying to. This essay is the perfect opportunity for students to introduce themselves to the admission committee by sharing who they are and what they believe. Students can also highlight their academic achievements, strengths, and other personal aspects about themselves and their lives.

In turn, admissions committees reading college essays can distinguish and remember qualified and memorable candidates over potentially forgettable ones. While each college or university will differ in whether they require an essay or personal statement, students are strongly encouraged to submit one to help strengthen their application overall.

Six Tips for Writing a College Essay

College essays are the perfect opportunity to speak about yourself as a person and more than a student, as they go beyond what grades and transcripts can show.

While thinking of what will “wow” the reader can be challenging, students can write a compelling college admissions essay with preparation, support, and the following tips.

Tip #1: Start Early

Students will need first to research when their college applications and admissions essays are due, whether on a specific due date or on a rolling basis. Keep in mind that the earlier students submit, the better likelihood they will be considered for grants and scholarships.

Now that they know the deadline, students can start planning by creating a timeline of when they will need to write an outline, write the college essay, edit, have others proofread, and re-write to implement any changes or suggestions.

Starting early and planning for each stage of the writing process will ensure you have enough time to write your essay without rush or extra stress. Generally speaking, a month is a great goal, but applicants should be honest with themselves and their writing ability so that they can give themselves as much time as possible to do their best work.

Tip #2: Understand the Prompt

Before writing one word, students should make sure they have read the instructions, prompt, and formatting requirements multiple times and understand what the college wants from them.

Not only is the college essay the perfect time to highlight you as a person and student, but following the instructions can show admissions professionals your attention to detail and ability to follow directions.

In addition to the prompt itself, pay attention to the following instructions and requirements:

  • Word count minimums and maximums
  • Questions or themes the essay wants applicants to address
  • Font choice
  • Margin size

Tip #3: Develop a Strong Opener

The opener is one of the trickiest and most essential parts of the college admissions essay. A strong opener will encourage and excite the reader to keep reading, whereas a weak opener will discourage them from reading further or feel like the essay is uninteresting, weakening a student’s chances of being accepted.

Thus, students must choose a topic they are passionate about and dedicate more time to the opening paragraph of their essay, as it sets the tone for the rest of the essay. Writing an essay about a subject or topic that means something will also generate more authenticity and enthusiasm, making it enjoyable for the student and reader.

Start your essay with a bold statement, descriptive scene, thoughtful quote, or question that will pique the reader’s interest and present them with a strong thesis statement as to the purpose of your essay.

Tip #4: Stay on Topic

Similarly, students should be cautious of filling their essay with their entire life story or talking in circles, especially when writing many college applications and college admissions essays.

Make sure you fully understand each essay prompt. Because while it is tempting to repurpose one college admissions essay to fit another topic, it often makes essays feel generic or confusing.

Instead, give yourself enough time to write distinct, unique, and compelling essays for each application with specific details and examples pertaining to that topic or subject.

Tip #5: Show, Don’t Tell

One of the biggest mistakes students make when deciding what and how to write an admissions essay is telling the reader what happened rather than showing them.

What we mean by this is instead of telling what happened or sharing a list of accomplishments or activities, set the scene with an opening hook or bold beginning and provide personal anecdotes of how you felt as the events in your story played out. Common themes and story ideas may involve:

  • Awkward situations
  • Difficult decisions
  • Overcoming challenges or situations
  • Moments of bravery and inspiration

Tip #6: Be Unique

College admissions essays are not the time to pick a generic topic or subject. Instead, use them to share your specific, unique, and one-of-a-kind experience and point of view. Write the subject from an entirely new perspective that inspires you, not what you think the admissions team wants to hear.

Don’t be afraid to share a time where you lost and how that impacted you, or share a moment where you had to make a tough decision or answer a challenging question. While it’s common to write about sports or volunteer-related obstacles or success, implement a fresh approach and perspective.

Students should share what matters to them and maximize who they are rather than minimize their experiences and accomplishments. Declare yourself in a vibrant, compelling, and unique way that will convince the college you are applying to that you are who they want in a student.

While college admissions essays are merely one piece of the college application process puzzle, they are often understood as the most essential element. Since admission essays allow students to showcase who they are beyond numbers and data.

Visit University of Bridgeport’s site to learn which programs encourage students to write an essay as part of their application .

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Elite College Admissions Have Turned Students Into Brands

An illustration of a doll in a box attired in a country-western outfit and surrounded by musical accessories and a laptop. The doll wears a distressed expression and is pushing against the front of the box, which is emblazoned with the words “Environmentally Conscious Musician” and “Awesome Applicant.” The backdrop is a range of pink with three twinkling lights surrounding the box.

By Sarah Bernstein

Ms. Bernstein is a playwright, a writing coach and an essayist in Brooklyn.

“I just can’t think of anything,” my student said.

After 10 years of teaching college essay writing, I was familiar with this reply. For some reason, when you’re asked to recount an important experience from your life, it is common to forget everything that has ever happened to you. It’s a long-form version of the anxiety that takes hold at a corporate retreat when you’re invited to say “one interesting thing about yourself,” and you suddenly believe that you are the most boring person in the entire world. Once during a version of this icebreaker, a man volunteered that he had only one kidney, and I remember feeling incredibly jealous of him.

I tried to jog this student’s memory. What about his love of music? Or his experience learning English? Or that time on a summer camping trip when he and his friends had nearly drowned? “I don’t know,” he said with a sigh. “That all seems kind of cliché.”

Applying to college has always been about standing out. When I teach college essay workshops and coach applicants one on one, I see my role as helping students to capture their voice and their way of processing the world, things that are, by definition, unique to each individual. Still, many of my students (and their parents) worry that as getting into college becomes increasingly competitive, this won’t be enough to set them apart.

Their anxiety is understandable. On Thursday, in a tradition known as “Ivy Day,” all eight Ivy League schools released their regular admission decisions. Top colleges often issue statements about how impressive (and competitive) their applicant pools were this cycle. The intention is to flatter accepted students and assuage rejected ones, but for those who have not yet applied to college, these statements reinforce the fear that there is an ever-expanding cohort of applicants with straight A’s and perfect SATs and harrowing camping trip stories all competing with one another for a vanishingly small number of spots.

This scarcity has led to a boom in the college consulting industry, now estimated to be a $2.9 billion business. In recent years, many of these advisers and companies have begun to promote the idea of personal branding — a way for teenagers to distinguish themselves by becoming as clear and memorable as a good tagline.

While this approach often leads to a strong application, students who brand themselves too early or too definitively risk missing out on the kind of exploration that will prepare them for adult life.

Like a corporate brand, the personal brand is meant to distill everything you stand for (honesty, integrity, high quality, low prices) into a cohesive identity that can be grasped at a glance. On its website, a college prep and advising company called Dallas Admissions explains the benefits of branding this way: “Each person is complex, yet admissions officers only have a small amount of time to spend learning about each prospective student. The smart student boils down key aspects of himself or herself into their personal ‘brand’ and sells that to the college admissions officer.”

Identifying the key aspects of yourself may seem like a lifelong project, but unfortunately, college applicants don’t have that kind of time. Online, there are dozens of lesson plans and seminars promising to walk students through the process of branding themselves in five to 10 easy steps. The majority begin with questions I would have found panic-inducing as a teenager, such as, “What is the story you want people to tell about you when you’re not in the room?”

Where I hoped others would describe me as “normal” or, in my wildest dreams, “cool,” today’s teenagers are expected to leave this exercise with labels like, Committed Athlete and Compassionate Leader or Environmentally Conscious Musician. Once students have a draft of their ideal self, they’re offered instructions for manifesting it (or at least, the appearance of it) in person and online. These range from common-sense tips (not posting illegal activity on social media) to more drastic recommendations (getting different friends).

It’s not just that these courses cut corners on self-discovery; it’s that they get the process backward. A personal brand is effective only if you can support it with action, so instead of finding their passion and values through experience, students are encouraged to select a passion as early as possible and then rack up the experience to substantiate it. Many college consultants suggest beginning to align your activities with your college ambitions by ninth grade, while the National Institute of Certified College Planners recommends students “talk with parents, guardians, and/or an academic adviser to create a clear plan for your education and career-related goals” in junior high.

The idea of a group of middle schoolers soberly mapping out their careers is both comical and depressing, but when I read student essays today, I can see that this advice is getting through. Over the past few years, I have been struck by how many high school seniors already have defined career goals as well as a C.V. of relevant extracurriculars to go with them. This widens the gap between wealthy students and those who lack the resources to secure a fancy research gig or start their own small business. (A shocking number of college applicants claim to have started a small business.) It also puts pressure on all students to define themselves at a moment when they are anxious to fit in and yet changing all the time.

In the world of branding, a word that appears again and again is “consistency.” If you are Charmin, that makes sense. People opening a roll of toilet paper do not want to be surprised. If you are a teenage human being, however, that is an unreasonable expectation. Changing one’s interests, opinions and presentation is a natural part of adolescence and an instructive one. I find that my students with scattershot résumés are often the most confident. They’re not afraid to push back against suggestions that ring false and will insist on revising their essay until it actually “feels like me.” On the other hand, many of my most accomplished students are so quick to accept feedback that I am wary of offering it, lest I become one more adult trying to shape them into an admission-worthy ideal.

I understand that for parents, prioritizing exploration can feel like a risky bet. Self-insight is hard to quantify and to communicate in a college application. When it comes to building a life, however, this kind of knowledge has more value than any accolade, and it cannot be generated through a brainstorming exercise in a six-step personal branding course online. To equip kids for the world, we need to provide them not just with opportunities for achievement, but with opportunities to fail, to learn, to wander and to change their minds.

In some ways, the college essay is a microcosm of modern adolescence. Depending on how you look at it, it’s either a forum for self-discovery or a high-stakes test you need to ace. I try to assure my students that it is the former. I tell them that it’s a chance to take stock of everything you’ve experienced and learned over the past 18 years and everything you have to offer as a result.

That can be a profound process. But to embark on it, students have to believe that colleges really want to see the person behind the brand. And they have to have the chance to know who that person is.

Sarah Bernstein is a playwright, a writing coach and an essayist.

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  • How to Make Your College Essay Stand Out | Tips & Examples

How to Make Your College Essay Stand Out | Tips & Examples

Published on October 25, 2021 by Kirsten Courault . Revised on August 14, 2023.

While admissions officers are interested in hearing about your experiences , they’re also interested in how you present them. An exceptionally written essay will stand out from the crowd, meaning that admissions officers will spend more time reading it.

To write a standout essay, you can use literary devices to pull the reader in and catch their attention. Literary devices often complement each other and can be woven together to craft an original, vivid, and creative personal essay. However, don’t overdo it; focus on using just a few devices well, rather than trying to use as many as possible.

Table of contents

Essay structure devices, storytelling devices, imagery devices, tone devices, sentence-level devices, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about college application essays.

You can frame your essay with symbolism or extended metaphors, which both work well in a montage or narrative essay structure .

Symbolism is the use of tangible objects to represent ideas. In your college essay, you can use one major symbol that represents your essay’s theme. Throughout your essay, you can also intentionally place related minor symbols to communicate ideas without explicitly stating them. The key is to use original, meaningful symbols that are not cliché.

For example, if your essay’s theme is “family,” your symbol could be a well-worn beloved Lord of the Rings Monopoly game set. Rather than directly saying, “The Lord of the Rings Monopoly game has brought my family happiness,” share stories with this game to demonstrate your family’s closeness, joy, and loyalty.

Supporting symbols:

  • Story 1: Chipped and mismatching collectible Gandalf the Grey coffee mugs surround the Monopoly board during a lazy weekend
  • Story 2: A folding card table supports our family’s mobile Monopoly game while the family plays at a campsite
  • Story 3: An extended edition LOTR box set plays in the background during Thanksgiving feasts with extended family. We have a Monopoly competition after dinner.
  • Story 4: Matching Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry Halloween outfits are proudly worn by me and my family members. We always play a game of Monopoly the afternoon before going out together to our town’s annual Halloween carnival.

In the example below, a student depicts “The Monster,” an imaginary symbolic figure that represents the student’s jealousy.

Main idea: I have been on a quest to slay the Monster, the toxic envy that overtakes me when I compare myself to one of my friends.

Narrative: I remember first encountering the Monster in second grade when Laurel bobbed her hair. Everybody raved about how cute she looked. The Monster had plenty to say about how ugly, unpopular, and undesirable I was compared to Laurel. After that day, the Monster never seemed to leave my side.

Extended metaphor

A metaphor directly compares two unrelated objects, giving deeper meaning and multi-dimensional imagery. Since metaphors create a new reality between two objects, use them sparingly throughout your essay to avoid overwhelming the reader with too many comparisons.

You can also use an extended metaphor, which builds upon a simple metaphor throughout the essay with other literary devices and more in-depth descriptions.

To brainstorm your extended metaphor, you should first identify feelings or values associated with your story and then brainstorm images associated with these feelings.

Keep the following in mind when crafting your extended metaphor:

  • Keep the comparison simple.
  • Use a few other literary devices such as imagery or anecdotes to enrich your extended metaphor.
  • Avoid making cliché comparisons.
  • Don’t exaggerate or make an unrealistic comparison.

In the example below, a student uses the extended metaphor of a museum to explore the theme of identity. Each anecdote is framed as an “exhibit” that tells us something about her life.

  • The Sight Exhibit: Flashback illustrating how racial discrimination led to my identity as a writer
  • The Sound Exhibit: Snapshots of musical memories, identity as a musical theater lover
  • The Smell Exhibit: Scents of my family’s Thanksgiving meal, identity as a daughter, granddaughter, and member of the Arimoto family
  • The Touch Exhibit: Feel of warm water washing away academic and extracurricular worries while washing dishes, identity as a level-headed honors student
  • The Taste Exhibit: Taste of salty sweat while bike training with a friend, identity as an athlete

In the next example, a student uses the river as an extended metaphor for his educational journey. The different parts of the river’s course represent different challenges he has overcome.

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Here are the most effective literary devices to enrich your storytelling in college essays.

Into the midst of things, in medias res

In medias res , Latin for “into the midst of things,” is a device that involves starting in the middle of the action. Then, important details are added to fill in the story. Similar to the beginning of an action or thriller movie, in medias res immediately drops the reader into a scene, allowing them to discern the story through sensory imagery.

Unlike a linear chronological narrative, flashbacks can be used to transport your reader from the present moment to a key past event to give a clearer understanding of your current personality, values, and goals.

Dialogue is a conversation between two or more people. Using dialogue in your essay can sometimes create suspense, transport readers into a scene, or highlight an important message. However, it should be used sparingly and strategically to avoid an anti-climatic or redundant moment.

Famous quotes should be avoided since they are overused, but using quotes from important people in your life can be original, personal, and powerful. But make sure the quote adds value to your essay.

You can use both figurative and literal imagery throughout your essay to paint a clearer, richer image in your reader’s mind.

Similes , like metaphors, compare two unrelated objects but use the words “as” or “like.”

In a metaphor, the two objects are considered the same, but in a simile, the word “like” or “as” creates some distance between the objects.

Five senses

Illustrate your five senses with descriptive language to help your readers quickly imagine your story in a vivid, visceral way. Sensory language also helps to convey your interest and knowledge of a topic.

Personification

Personification uses human characteristics and behaviors to describe inanimate objects, animals, or ideas. This can help show your emotional connection to something in an original and poetic way.

Here are a few tone devices to help improve your essay’s authenticity and voice .

Colloquialisms

While most slang is too informal for college essays, regional colloquialisms can sometimes improve your essay’s authenticity when used strategically, enhancing your ability to connect with admissions officers and adding a memorable element.

However, you should ensure that they don’t seem shoehorned in or otherwise affect the flow, clarity, or professionalism of your essay. If applying to schools outside your region of origin (or if you’re applying as an international student ), be sure the colloquialism is one that will be widely understood.

Hyperbole is dramatic exaggeration to express the intensity of your feelings about something. Use hyperbole sparingly to ensure the greatest impact and avoid sounding overly dramatic. Make sure to be original, avoiding overused comparisons.

Sentence-level devices are useful for dramatic effect or to highlight a point. But use them sparingly to avoid sounding robotic, redundant, or awkward.

To have the greatest impact, use these devices against the backdrop of varying sentence structures and at a critical or vulnerable moment in your essay, especially during reflection.

If you want to know more about academic writing , effective communication , or parts of speech , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

Academic writing

  • Writing process
  • Transition words
  • Passive voice
  • Paraphrasing

 Communication

  • How to end an email
  • Ms, mrs, miss
  • How to start an email
  • I hope this email finds you well
  • Hope you are doing well

 Parts of speech

  • Personal pronouns
  • Conjunctions

A standout college essay has several key ingredients:

  • A unique, personally meaningful topic
  • A memorable introduction with vivid imagery or an intriguing hook
  • Specific stories and language that show instead of telling
  • Vulnerability that’s authentic but not aimed at soliciting sympathy
  • Clear writing in an appropriate style and tone
  • A conclusion that offers deep insight or a creative ending

Your college essay accounts for about 25% of your application’s weight. It may be the deciding factor in whether you’re accepted, especially for competitive schools where most applicants have exceptional grades, test scores, and extracurricular track records.

Though admissions officers are interested in hearing your story, they’re also interested in how you tell it. An exceptionally written essay will differentiate you from other applicants, meaning that admissions officers will spend more time reading it.

You can use literary devices to catch your reader’s attention and enrich your storytelling; however, focus on using just a few devices well, rather than trying to use as many as possible.

You can use humor in a college essay , but carefully consider its purpose and use it wisely. An effective use of humor involves unexpected, keen observations of the everyday, or speaks to a deeper theme. Humor shouldn’t be the main focus of the essay, but rather a tool to improve your storytelling.

Get a second opinion from a teacher, counselor, or essay coach on whether your essay’s humor is appropriate.

Avoid swearing in a college essay , since admissions officers’ opinions of profanity will vary. In some cases, it might be okay to use a vulgar word, such as in dialogue or quotes that make an important point in your essay. However, it’s safest to try to make the same point without swearing.

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Should college essays touch on race? Some feel the affirmative action ruling leaves them no choice

Hillary Amofa listens to others member of the Lincoln Park High School step team after school Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. She described hardship and struggle. Then she deleted it all. "I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping," said the 18 year-old senior, "And I'm just like, this doesn't really say anything about me as a person." (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Hillary Amofa listens to others member of the Lincoln Park High School step team after school Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

college admissions essays

When the Supreme Court ended affirmative action, it left the college essay as one of few places where race can play a role in admissions decisions. (AP Video: Noreen Nasir)

Hillary Amofa listens to others member of the Lincoln Park High School step team after school Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. She described hardship and struggle. Then she deleted it all. "I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping," said the 18 year-old senior, "And I'm just like, this doesn't really say anything about me as a person." (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Hillary Amofa listens to others member of the Lincoln Park High School step team after school Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. She described hardship and struggle. Then she deleted it all. “I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping,” said the 18 year-old senior, “And I’m just like, this doesn’t really say anything about me as a person.” (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

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Hillary Amofa, laughs as she participates in a team building game with members of the Lincoln Park High School step team after school Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. She described hardship and struggle. Then she deleted it all. “I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping,” said the 18 year-old senior, “And I’m just like, this doesn’t really say anything about me as a person.” (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Hillary Amofa stands for a portrait after practice with members of the Lincoln Park High School step team Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. She described hardship and struggle. Then she deleted it all. “I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping,” said the 18 year-old senior, “And I’m just like, this doesn’t really say anything about me as a person.” (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Max Decker, a senior at Lincoln High School, sits for a portrait in the school library where he often worked on writing his college essays, in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, March 20, 2024. (AP Photo/Amanda Loman)

Hillary Amofa stands for a portrait after practice with members of the Lincoln Park High School step team Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Hillary Amofa, second from left, practices with members of the Lincoln Park High School step team after school Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. She described hardship and struggle. Then she deleted it all. “I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping,” said the 18 year-old senior, “And I’m just like, this doesn’t really say anything about me as a person.” (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Max Decker, a senior at Lincoln High School, stands for a portrait outside of the school in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, March 20, 2024. (AP Photo/Amanda Loman)

*Hillary Amofa, reflected right, practices in a mirror with members of the Lincoln Park High School step team after school Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. She described hardship and struggle. Then she deleted it all. “I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping,” said the 18 year-old senior, “And I’m just like, this doesn’t really say anything about me as a person.” (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Max Decker, a senior at Lincoln High School, sits for a portrait outside of the school in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, March 20, 2024. (AP Photo/Amanda Loman)

Hillary Amofa, left, practices with members of the Lincoln Park High School step team after school Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. She described hardship and struggle. Then she deleted it all. “I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping,” said the 18 year-old senior, “And I’m just like, this doesn’t really say anything about me as a person.” (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Hillary Amofa sits for a portrait after her step team practice at Lincoln Park High School Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. She described hardship and struggle. Then she deleted it all. “I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping,” said the 18 year-old senior, “And I’m just like, this doesn’t really say anything about me as a person.” (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

FILE - Demonstrators protest outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, in this June 29, 2023 file photo, after the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions, saying race cannot be a factor. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

CHICAGO (AP) — When she started writing her college essay, Hillary Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. About being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana and growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. About hardship and struggle.

Then she deleted it all.

“I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping,” said the 18-year-old senior at Lincoln Park High School in Chicago. “And I’m just like, this doesn’t really say anything about me as a person.”

When the Supreme Court ended affirmative action in higher education, it left the college essay as one of few places where race can play a role in admissions decisions. For many students of color, instantly more was riding on the already high-stakes writing assignment. Some say they felt pressure to exploit their hardships as they competed for a spot on campus.

Amofa was just starting to think about her essay when the court issued its decision, and it left her with a wave of questions. Could she still write about her race? Could she be penalized for it? She wanted to tell colleges about her heritage but she didn’t want to be defined by it.

In English class, Amofa and her classmates read sample essays that all seemed to focus on some trauma or hardship. It left her with the impression she had to write about her life’s hardest moments to show how far she’d come. But she and some of her classmates wondered if their lives had been hard enough to catch the attention of admissions offices.

“For a lot of students, there’s a feeling of, like, having to go through something so horrible to feel worthy of going to school, which is kind of sad,” said Amofa, the daughter of a hospital technician and an Uber driver.

This year’s senior class is the first in decades to navigate college admissions without affirmative action . The Supreme Court upheld the practice in decisions going back to the 1970s, but this court’s conservative supermajority found it is unconstitutional for colleges to give students extra weight because of their race alone.

Still, the decision left room for race to play an indirect role: Chief Justice John Roberts wrote universities can still consider how an applicant’s life was shaped by their race, “so long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability.”

“A benefit to a student who overcame racial discrimination, for example, must be tied to that student’s courage and determination,” he wrote.

Scores of colleges responded with new essay prompts asking about students’ backgrounds. Brown University asked applicants how “an aspect of your growing up has inspired or challenged you.” Rice University asked students how their perspectives were shaped by their “background, experiences, upbringing, and/or racial identity.”

*Hillary Amofa, reflected right, practices in a mirror with members of the Lincoln Park High School step team after school Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. She described hardship and struggle. Then she deleted it all. "I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping," said the 18 year-old senior, "And I'm just like, this doesn't really say anything about me as a person." (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Hillary Amofa, reflected right, practices in a mirror with members of the Lincoln Park High School step team after school, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

WONDERING IF SCHOOLS ‘EXPECT A SOB STORY’

When Darrian Merritt started writing his essay, he knew the stakes were higher than ever because of the court’s decision. His first instinct was to write about events that led to him going to live with his grandmother as a child.

Those were painful memories, but he thought they might play well at schools like Yale, Stanford and Vanderbilt.

“I feel like the admissions committee might expect a sob story or a tragic story,” said Merritt, a senior in Cleveland. “And if you don’t provide that, then maybe they’re not going to feel like you went through enough to deserve having a spot at the university. I wrestled with that a lot.”

He wrote drafts focusing on his childhood, but it never amounted to more than a collection of memories. Eventually he abandoned the idea and aimed for an essay that would stand out for its positivity.

Merritt wrote about a summer camp where he started to feel more comfortable in his own skin. He described embracing his personality and defying his tendency to please others. The essay had humor — it centered on a water gun fight where he had victory in sight but, in a comedic twist, slipped and fell. But the essay also reflects on his feelings of not being “Black enough” and getting made fun of for listening to “white people music.”

“I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to write this for me, and we’re just going to see how it goes,’” he said. “It just felt real, and it felt like an honest story.”

The essay describes a breakthrough as he learned “to take ownership of myself and my future by sharing my true personality with the people I encounter. ... I realized that the first chapter of my own story had just been written.”

Max Decker, a senior at Lincoln High School, sits for a portrait in the school library where he often worked on writing his college essays, in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, March 20, 2024. (AP Photo/Amanda Loman)

Max Decker, a senior at Lincoln High School, sits for a portrait in the school library where he often worked on writing his college essays, in Portland, Ore., March 20, 2024. (AP Photo/Amanda Loman)

A RULING PROMPTS PIVOTS ON ESSAY TOPICS

Like many students, Max Decker of Portland, Oregon, had drafted a college essay on one topic, only to change direction after the Supreme Court ruling in June.

Decker initially wrote about his love for video games. In a childhood surrounded by constant change, navigating his parents’ divorce, the games he took from place to place on his Nintendo DS were a source of comfort.

But the essay he submitted to colleges focused on the community he found through Word is Bond, a leadership group for young Black men in Portland.

As the only biracial, Jewish kid with divorced parents in a predominantly white, Christian community, Decker wrote he constantly felt like the odd one out. On a trip with Word is Bond to Capitol Hill, he and friends who looked just like him shook hands with lawmakers. The experience, he wrote, changed how he saw himself.

“It’s because I’m different that I provide something precious to the world, not the other way around,” he wrote.

As a first-generation college student, Decker thought about the subtle ways his peers seemed to know more about navigating the admissions process . They made sure to get into advanced classes at the start of high school, and they knew how to secure glowing letters of recommendation.

Max Decker reads his college essay on his experience with a leadership group for young Black men. (AP Video/Noreen Nasir)

If writing about race would give him a slight edge and show admissions officers a fuller picture of his achievements, he wanted to take that small advantage.

His first memory about race, Decker said, was when he went to get a haircut in elementary school and the barber made rude comments about his curly hair. Until recently, the insecurity that moment created led him to keep his hair buzzed short.

Through Word is Bond, Decker said he found a space to explore his identity as a Black man. It was one of the first times he was surrounded by Black peers and saw Black role models. It filled him with a sense of pride in his identity. No more buzzcut.

The pressure to write about race involved a tradeoff with other important things in his life, Decker said. That included his passion for journalism, like the piece he wrote on efforts to revive a once-thriving Black neighborhood in Portland. In the end, he squeezed in 100 characters about his journalism under the application’s activities section.

“My final essay, it felt true to myself. But the difference between that and my other essay was the fact that it wasn’t the truth that I necessarily wanted to share,” said Decker, whose top college choice is Tulane, in New Orleans, because of the region’s diversity. “It felt like I just had to limit the truth I was sharing to what I feel like the world is expecting of me.”

FILE - Demonstrators protest outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, in this June 29, 2023 file photo, after the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions, saying race cannot be a factor. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Demonstrators protest outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, in this June 29, 2023 file photo, after the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions, saying race cannot be a factor. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

SPELLING OUT THE IMPACT OF RACE

Before the Supreme Court ruling, it seemed a given to Imani Laird that colleges would consider the ways that race had touched her life. But now, she felt like she had to spell it out.

As she started her essay, she reflected on how she had faced bias or felt overlooked as a Black student in predominantly white spaces.

There was the year in math class when the teacher kept calling her by the name of another Black student. There were the comments that she’d have an easier time getting into college because she was Black .

“I didn’t have it easier because of my race,” said Laird, a senior at Newton South High School in the Boston suburbs who was accepted at Wellesley and Howard University, and is waiting to hear from several Ivy League colleges. “I had stuff I had to overcome.”

In her final essays, she wrote about her grandfather, who served in the military but was denied access to GI Bill benefits because of his race.

She described how discrimination fueled her ambition to excel and pursue a career in public policy.

“So, I never settled for mediocrity,” she wrote. “Regardless of the subject, my goal in class was not just to participate but to excel. Beyond academics, I wanted to excel while remembering what started this motivation in the first place.”

Hillary Amofa stands for a portrait after practice with members of the Lincoln Park High School step team Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. She described hardship and struggle. Then she deleted it all. "I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping," said the 18 year-old senior, "And I'm just like, this doesn't really say anything about me as a person." (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Hillary Amofa stands for a portrait after practice with members of the Lincoln Park High School step team, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

WILL SCHOOLS LOSE RACIAL DIVERSITY?

Amofa used to think affirmative action was only a factor at schools like Harvard and Yale. After the court’s ruling, she was surprised to find that race was taken into account even at some public universities she was applying to.

Now, without affirmative action, she wondered if mostly white schools will become even whiter.

It’s been on her mind as she chooses between Indiana University and the University of Dayton, both of which have relatively few Black students. When she was one of the only Black students in her grade school, she could fall back on her family and Ghanaian friends at church. At college, she worries about loneliness.

“That’s what I’m nervous about,” she said. “Going and just feeling so isolated, even though I’m constantly around people.”

Hillary Amofa reads her college essay on embracing her natural hair. (AP Video/Noreen Nasir)

The first drafts of her essay focused on growing up in a low-income family, sharing a bedroom with her brother and grandmother. But it didn’t tell colleges about who she is now, she said.

Her final essay tells how she came to embrace her natural hair . She wrote about going to a mostly white grade school where classmates made jokes about her afro. When her grandmother sent her back with braids or cornrows, they made fun of those too.

Over time, she ignored their insults and found beauty in the styles worn by women in her life. She now runs a business doing braids and other hairstyles in her neighborhood.

“I stopped seeing myself through the lens of the European traditional beauty standards and started seeing myself through the lens that I created,” Amofa wrote.

“Criticism will persist, but it loses its power when you know there’s a crown on your head!”

Ma reported from Portland, Oregon.

The Associated Press’ education coverage receives financial support from multiple private foundations. AP is solely responsible for all content. Find AP’s standards for working with philanthropies, a list of supporters and funded coverage areas at AP.org .

COLLIN BINKLEY

Should college essays touch on race? Some feel the affirmative action ruling leaves them no choice

When the supreme court ended affirmative action, it left the college essay as one of few places where race can play a role in admissions decisions.

Max Decker, a senior at Lincoln High School, sits for a portrait in the school library where he often worked on writing his college essays, in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, March 20, 2024.

Max Decker, a senior at Lincoln High School, sits for a portrait in the school library where he often worked on writing his college essays, in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, March 20, 2024.

Amanda Loman / AP

Like many students, Max Decker of Portland, Oregon, had drafted a college essay on one topic, only to change direction after the Supreme Court ruling in June.

Decker initially wrote about his love for video games. In a childhood surrounded by constant change, navigating his parents’ divorce, the games he took from place to place on his Nintendo DS were a source of comfort.

But the essay he submitted to colleges focused on the community he found through Word is Bond, a leadership group for young Black men in Portland.

As the only biracial, Jewish kid with divorced parents in a predominantly white, Christian community, Decker wrote he felt like the odd one out. On a trip with Word is Bond to Capitol Hill, he and friends who looked just like him shook hands with lawmakers. The experience, he wrote, changed how he saw himself.

“It’s because I’m different that I provide something precious to the world, not the other way around,” wrote Decker, whose top college choice is Tulane, in New Orleans, because of the region’s diversity.

This year’s senior class is the first in decades to navigate college admissions without affirmative action . The Supreme Court upheld the practice in decisions going back to the 1970s, but this court’s conservative supermajority found it is unconstitutional for colleges to give students extra weight because of their race alone.

Still, the decision left room for race to play an indirect role: Chief Justice John Roberts wrote universities can still consider how an applicant’s life was shaped by their race, “so long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability.”

Scores of colleges responded with new essay prompts asking about students’ backgrounds.

FILE - Demonstrators protest outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, in this June 29, 2023 file photo, after the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions, saying race cannot be a factor.

FILE - Demonstrators protest outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, in this June 29, 2023 file photo, after the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions, saying race cannot be a factor.

Jose Luis Magana / AP

Writing about feeling more comfortable with being Black

When Darrian Merritt started writing his essay, his first instinct was to write about events that led to him going to live with his grandmother as a child. Those were painful memories, but he thought they might play well at schools like Yale, Stanford and Vanderbilt.

“I feel like the admissions committee might expect a sob story or a tragic story,” said Merritt, a senior in Cleveland. “I wrestled with that a lot.”

Eventually he abandoned the idea and aimed for an essay that would stand out for its positivity.

Merritt wrote about a summer camp where he started to feel more comfortable in his own skin. He described embracing his personality and defying his tendency to please others. But the essay also reflects on his feelings of not being “Black enough” and getting made fun of for listening to “white people music.”

Related: Oregon colleges, universities weigh potential outcomes of US Supreme Court decision on affirmative action

Essay about how to embrace natural hair

When Hillary Amofa started writing her college essay, she told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. About being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana and growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. About hardship and struggle.

Then she deleted it all.

“I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping,” said the 18-year-old senior at Lincoln Park High School in Chicago. “And I’m just like, this doesn’t really say anything about me as a person.”

Amofa was just starting to think about her essay when the court issued its decision, and it left her with a wave of questions. Could she still write about her race? Could she be penalized for it? She wanted to tell colleges about her heritage but she didn’t want to be defined by it.

In English class, Amofa and her classmates read sample essays that all seemed to focus on some trauma or hardship. It left her with the impression she had to write about her life’s hardest moments to show how far she’d come. But she and some classmates wondered if their lives had been hard enough to catch the attention of admissions offices.

Hillary Amofa, laughs as she participates in a team building game with members of the Lincoln Park High School step team after school Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. She described hardship and struggle. Then she deleted it all. "I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping," said the 18 year-old senior, "And I'm just like, this doesn't really say anything about me as a person."

Hillary Amofa, laughs as she participates in a team building game with members of the Lincoln Park High School step team after school Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. She described hardship and struggle. Then she deleted it all. "I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping," said the 18 year-old senior, "And I'm just like, this doesn't really say anything about me as a person."

Charles Rex Arbogast / AP

Amofa used to think affirmative action was only a factor at schools like Harvard and Yale. After the court’s ruling, she was surprised to find that race was taken into account even at public universities she was applying to.

Now, without affirmative action, she wondered if mostly white schools will become even whiter.

It’s been on her mind as she chooses between Indiana University and the University of Dayton, both of which have relatively few Black students. When she was one of the only Black students in her grade school, she could fall back on her family and Ghanaian friends at church. At college, she worries about loneliness.

“That’s what I’m nervous about,” she said. “Going and just feeling so isolated, even though I’m constantly around people.”

Related: Some Oregon universities, politicians disappointed in Supreme Court decision on affirmative action

The first drafts of her essay didn’t tell colleges about who she is now, she said.

Her final essay describes how she came to embrace her natural hair. She wrote about going to a mostly white grade school where classmates made jokes about her afro.

Over time, she ignored their insults and found beauty in the styles worn by women in her life. She now runs a business doing braids and other hairstyles in her neighborhood.

“Criticism will persist,” she wrote “but it loses its power when you know there’s a crown on your head!”

Ma reported from Portland, Oregon.

The Associated Press’ education coverage receives financial support from multiple private foundations. AP is solely responsible for all content. Find AP’s standards for working with philanthropies, a list of supporters and funded coverage areas at AP.org .

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IMAGES

  1. FREE 11+ College Essay Samples in MS Word

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  4. Sample College Admission Essays

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  5. Tips for writing your college admission essay!!!!

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  6. FREE 11+ College Essay Samples in MS Word

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COMMENTS

  1. 177 College Essay Examples for 11 Schools + Expert Analysis

    Now, let's get to the good stuff: the list of 177 college essay examples responding to current and past Common App essay prompts. Connecticut College. 12 Common Application essays from the classes of 2022-2025 . Hamilton College. 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2026; 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2022

  2. 27 Outstanding College Essay Examples From Top Universities 2024

    This college essay tip is by Abigail McFee, Admissions Counselor for Tufts University and Tufts '17 graduate. 2. Write like a journalist. "Don't bury the lede!" The first few sentences must capture the reader's attention, provide a gist of the story, and give a sense of where the essay is heading.

  3. How to Write a Personal Essay for Your College Application

    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 ...

  4. Ultimate Guide to Writing Your College Essay

    Sample College Essay 2 with Feedback. This content is licensed by Khan Academy and is available for free at www.khanacademy.org. College essays are an important part of your college application and give you the chance to show colleges and universities your personality. This guide will give you tips on how to write an effective college essay.

  5. How to Write a College Essay Step-by-Step

    Step 2: Pick one of the things you wrote down, flip your paper over, and write it at the top of your paper, like this: This is your thread, or a potential thread. Step 3: Underneath what you wrote down, name 5-6 values you could connect to this. These will serve as the beads of your essay.

  6. Tips for Writing an Effective Application Essay

    A typical college application essay, also known as a personal statement, is 400-600 words. Although that may seem short, writing about yourself can be challenging. It's not something you want to rush or put off at the last moment. Think of it as a critical piece of the application process. Follow these tips to write an impactful essay that can ...

  7. How to Write a College Essay

    Your college admissions essay accounts for about 25% of your application's total weight一and may account for even more with some colleges making the SAT and ACT tests optional. The college admissions essay may be the deciding factor in your application, especially for competitive schools where most applicants have exceptional grades, test ...

  8. College Essay Examples

    Essay 1: Sharing an identity or background through a montage. Essay 2: Overcoming a challenge, a sports injury narrative. Essay 3: Showing the influence of an important person or thing. Other interesting articles. Frequently asked questions about college application essays.

  9. How to Write a College Application Essay

    A student should write a college application essay that distinguishes them from other applicants. For example, writing about playing a niche instrument or winning an Olympic medal can help students stand out from other applicants. Doing so also demonstrates how your distinctive qualities will add to campus life. 5.

  10. Writing tips and techniques for your college essay

    Don't summarize. Avoid explicitly stating the point of your essay. It's far less effective when you spell it out for someone. Delete every single "That's when I realized," "I learned," and "The most important lesson was...". It's unnecessary, unconvincing, and takes the reader out of the moment.

  11. Writing a strong college admissions essay (video)

    Transcript. College admissions essays should showcase a student's unique voice, intellectual curiosity, and resilience. Simple, everyday topics can make powerful essays. It's important to have someone read the essay and share their impressions, ensuring it reflects the student's personality and experiences. Questions.

  12. How to Write a College Essay

    A strong application essay can boost a student's chances of being admitted to a college. In this guide, admissions experts offer advice on picking a college essay topic as well as navigating the ...

  13. How to Write Your College Essay: The Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide

    Your essay is very important to your application — especially if you're applying to selective colleges. You should also take advantage of the following free resources: Peer Essay Review. Become a stronger writer by reviewing your peers' essays and get your essay reviewed as well for free. Essay Livestreams.

  14. 14 College Essay Examples From Top-25 Universities (2023-2024)

    College admissions officers read hundreds of essays from hopeful applicants with each one thinking their personal experiences and reasons for applying to a particular school are unique. This contributes to the difficulty in standing out in your essays since almost anything you write about will likely have been encountered by your reader before.

  15. 35+ Best College Essay Tips from College Application Experts

    Use your essays to empower your chances of acceptance, merit money, and scholarships.". This college essay tip is by Dr. Rebecca Joseph, professor at California State University and founder of All College Application Essays, develops tools for making the college essay process faster and easier. 15. Get personal.

  16. How to Write a Great College Essay Introduction

    A college essay is intended to give insight into the personality and background of an applicant, so a standard, one-size-fits-all introduction may lead admissions officers to think they are dealing with a standard, unremarkable applicant.

  17. How to write a great college application essay

    A college application essay is usually around 500 words, and those words can mean the difference between acceptance and rejection. You will spend many days researching and crafting your essay, but admissions officers will only have a few minutes to actually read it, so you need to get their attention. However, if you are the type of person who ...

  18. 16 Strong College Essay Examples from Top Schools

    First things first, this Common App essay is well-written. This student is definitely showing the admissions officers her ability to articulate her 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 ...

  19. Taking your college essay to the next level

    Video transcript. - [Interviewer] Hey guys, we're here with Maura Allen, author of Write Now: Essential Tips for Standout College Essays, and she's gonna talk to us all about how to take our essays to the next level and make sure that we're providing enough depth and substance to our essays. - [Maura] So the admissions officer needs to see or ...

  20. How to Start Your College Admissions Essay

    2. Choose your topic (if offered) Once you've read and understand the essay prompt (s), it's time to choose your topic. Students usually choose a topic through the Common App, Coalition App, or directly from their college of interest. This is the part where you decide what story you'd like the reader to take away from your application.

  21. How to Write a College Admissions Essay| University of Bridgeport

    College admissions essays are essays or personal statements that students must write as part of their college application. Students can showcase and share their personality, goals, and why they are an excellent fit for the school or program they are applying to. This essay is the perfect opportunity for students to introduce themselves to the ...

  22. Elite College Admissions Have Turned Students Into Brands

    Elite College Admissions Have Turned Students Into Brands. Ms. Bernstein is a playwright, a writing coach and an essayist in Brooklyn. "I just can't think of anything," my student said ...

  23. How to Make Your College Essay Stand Out

    Keep the comparison simple. Use a few other literary devices such as imagery or anecdotes to enrich your extended metaphor. Avoid making cliché comparisons. Don't exaggerate or make an unrealistic comparison. In the example below, a student uses the extended metaphor of a museum to explore the theme of identity.

  24. College application: Should race be in essay after affirmative action

    Hillary Amofa listens to others member of the Lincoln Park High School step team after school Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in ...

  25. Should college essays touch on race? Some feel the affirmative action

    When the Supreme Court ended affirmative action, it left the college essay as one of few places where race can play a role in admissions decisions Max Decker, a senior at Lincoln High School, sits ...

  26. College Essay Guy

    College Essay Guy believes that every student should have access to the tools and guidance necessary to create the best application possible. That's why we're a one-for-one company, which means that for every student who pays for support, we provide free support to a low-income student. Learn more.

  27. Should college essays touch on race? Some feel the affirmative action

    CHICAGO (AP) -- When she started writing her college essay, Hillary Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. About being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana and ...

  28. It's a chaotic year for college admissions

    Colleges have changed their software to hide applicants' race from admissions officers, and have held new trainings on what information to ignore in personal essays, the WSJ reports. And students are unsure if they should be mentioning race at all in those essays. Zoom out: Colleges and universities are dealing with a larger reckoning.

  29. $2,000 No Essay Scholarship

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