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12 Strategies to Writing the Perfect College Essay
College admission committees sift through thousands of college essays each year. Here’s how to make yours stand out.
When it comes to deciding who they will admit into their programs, colleges consider many criteria, including high school grades, extracurricular activities, and ACT and SAT scores. But in recent years, more colleges are no longer considering test scores.
Instead, many (including Harvard through 2026) are opting for “test-blind” admission policies that give more weight to other elements in a college application. This policy change is seen as fairer to students who don’t have the means or access to testing, or who suffer from test anxiety.
So, what does this mean for you?
Simply that your college essay, traditionally a requirement of any college application, is more important than ever.
A college essay is your unique opportunity to introduce yourself to admissions committees who must comb through thousands of applications each year. It is your chance to stand out as someone worthy of a seat in that classroom.
A well-written and thoughtful essay—reflecting who you are and what you believe—can go a long way to separating your application from the slew of forgettable ones that admissions officers read. Indeed, officers may rely on them even more now that many colleges are not considering test scores.
Below we’ll discuss a few strategies you can use to help your essay stand out from the pack. We’ll touch on how to start your essay, what you should write for your college essay, and elements that make for a great college essay.
More than any other consideration, you should choose a topic or point of view that is consistent with who you truly are.
Readers can sense when writers are inauthentic.
Inauthenticity could mean the use of overly flowery language that no one would ever use in conversation, or it could mean choosing an inconsequential topic that reveals very little about who you are.
Use your own voice, sense of humor, and a natural way of speaking.
Whatever subject you choose, make sure it’s something that’s genuinely important to you and not a subject you’ve chosen just to impress. You can write about a specific experience, hobby, or personality quirk that illustrates your strengths, but also feel free to write about your weaknesses.
Honesty about traits, situations, or a childhood background that you are working to improve may resonate with the reader more strongly than a glib victory speech.
Grab the Reader From the Start
You’ll be competing with so many other applicants for an admission officer’s attention.
Therefore, start your essay with an opening sentence or paragraph that immediately seizes the imagination. This might be a bold statement, a thoughtful quote, a question you pose, or a descriptive scene.
Starting your essay in a powerful way with a clear thesis statement can often help you along in the writing process. If your task is to tell a good story, a bold beginning can be a natural prelude to getting there, serving as a roadmap, engaging the reader from the start, and presenting the purpose of your writing.
Focus on Deeper Themes
Some essay writers think they will impress committees by loading an essay with facts, figures, and descriptions of activities, like wins in sports or descriptions of volunteer work. But that’s not the point.
College admissions officers are interested in learning more about who you are as a person and what makes you tick.
They want to know what has brought you to this stage in life. They want to read about realizations you may have come to through adversity as well as your successes, not just about how many games you won while on the soccer team or how many people you served at a soup kitchen.
Let the reader know how winning the soccer game helped you develop as a person, friend, family member, or leader. Make a connection with your soup kitchen volunteerism and how it may have inspired your educational journey and future aspirations. What did you discover about yourself?
Show Don’t Tell
As you expand on whatever theme you’ve decided to explore in your essay, remember to show, don’t tell.
The most engaging writing “shows” by setting scenes and providing anecdotes, rather than just providing a list of accomplishments and activities.
Reciting a list of activities is also boring. An admissions officer will want to know about the arc of your emotional journey too.
Try Doing Something Different
If you want your essay to stand out, think about approaching your subject from an entirely new perspective. While many students might choose to write about their wins, for instance, what if you wrote an essay about what you learned from all your losses?
If you are an especially talented writer, you might play with the element of surprise by crafting an essay that leaves the response to a question to the very last sentence.
You may want to stay away from well-worn themes entirely, like a sports-related obstacle or success, volunteer stories, immigration stories, moving, a summary of personal achievements or overcoming obstacles.
However, such themes are popular for a reason. They represent the totality of most people’s lives coming out of high school. Therefore, it may be less important to stay away from these topics than to take a fresh approach.
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Write With the Reader in Mind
Writing for the reader means building a clear and logical argument in which one thought flows naturally from another.
Use transitions between paragraphs.
Think about any information you may have left out that the reader may need to know. Are there ideas you have included that do not help illustrate your theme?
Be sure you can answer questions such as: Does what you have written make sense? Is the essay organized? Does the opening grab the reader? Is there a strong ending? Have you given enough background information? Is it wordy?
Write Several Drafts
Set your essay aside for a few days and come back to it after you’ve had some time to forget what you’ve written. Often, you’ll discover you have a whole new perspective that enhances your ability to make revisions.
Start writing months before your essay is due to give yourself enough time to write multiple drafts. A good time to start could be as early as the summer before your senior year when homework and extracurricular activities take up less time.
Read It Aloud
Writer’s tip : Reading your essay aloud can instantly uncover passages that sound clumsy, long-winded, or false.
If you’ve mentioned an activity, story, or anecdote in some other part of your application, don’t repeat it again in your essay.
Your essay should tell college admissions officers something new. Whatever you write in your essay should be in philosophical alignment with the rest of your application.
Also, be sure you’ve answered whatever question or prompt may have been posed to you at the outset.
Ask Others to Read Your Essay
Be sure the people you ask to read your essay represent different demographic groups—a teacher, a parent, even a younger sister or brother.
Ask each reader what they took from the essay and listen closely to what they have to say. If anyone expresses confusion, revise until the confusion is cleared up.
Pay Attention to Form
Although there are often no strict word limits for college essays, most essays are shorter rather than longer. Common App, which students can use to submit to multiple colleges, suggests that essays stay at about 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.
In reviewing other technical aspects of your essay, be sure that the font is readable, that the margins are properly spaced, that any dialogue is set off properly, and that there is enough spacing at the top. Your essay should look clean and inviting to readers.
End Your Essay With a “Kicker”
In journalism, a kicker is the last punchy line, paragraph, or section that brings everything together.
It provides a lasting impression that leaves the reader satisfied and impressed by the points you have artfully woven throughout your piece.
So, here’s our kicker: Be concise and coherent, engage in honest self-reflection, and include vivid details and anecdotes that deftly illustrate your point.
While writing a fantastic essay may not guarantee you get selected, it can tip the balance in your favor if admissions officers are considering a candidate with a similar GPA and background.
Write, revise, revise again, and good luck!
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Most selective colleges require you to submit an essay or personal statement as part of your application.
It may sound like a chore, and it will certainly take a substantial amount of work. But it's also a unique opportunity that can make a difference at decision time. Admissions committees put the most weight on your high school grades and your test scores . However, selective colleges receive applications from many worthy students with similar scores and grades—too many to admit. So they use your essay, along with your letters of recommendation and extracurricular activities , to find out what sets you apart from the other talented candidates.
Telling Your Story to Colleges
So what does set you apart?
You have a unique background, interests and personality. This is your chance to tell your story (or at least part of it). The best way to tell your story is to write a personal, thoughtful essay about something that has meaning for you. Be honest and genuine, and your unique qualities will shine through.
Admissions officers have to read an unbelievable number of college essays, most of which are forgettable. Many students try to sound smart rather than sounding like themselves. Others write about a subject that they don't care about, but that they think will impress admissions officers.
You don't need to have started your own business or have spent the summer hiking the Appalachian Trail. Colleges are simply looking for thoughtful, motivated students who will add something to the first-year class.
Tips for a Stellar College Application Essay
1. write about something that's important to you..
It could be an experience, a person, a book—anything that has had an impact on your life.
2. Don't just recount—reflect!
Anyone can write about how they won the big game or the summer they spent in Rome. When recalling these events, you need to give more than the play-by-play or itinerary. Describe what you learned from the experience and how it changed you.
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3. Being funny is tough.
A student who can make an admissions officer laugh never gets lost in the shuffle. But beware. What you think is funny and what an adult working in a college thinks is funny are probably different. We caution against one-liners, limericks and anything off–color.
4. Start early and write several drafts.
Set it aside for a few days and read it again. Put yourself in the shoes of an admissions officer: Is the essay interesting? Do the ideas flow logically? Does it reveal something about the applicant? Is it written in the applicant’s own voice?
5. No repeats.
What you write in your application essay or personal statement should not contradict any other part of your application–nor should it repeat it. This isn't the place to list your awards or discuss your grades or test scores.
6. Answer the question being asked.
Don't reuse an answer to a similar question from another application.
7. Have at least one other person edit your essay.
A teacher or college counselor is your best resource. And before you send it off, check, check again, and then triple check to make sure your essay is free of spelling or grammar errors.
Read More: 2018-2019 Common Application Essay Prompts (and How to Answer Them)
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Tips for Writing an Effective Application Essay
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.
How to Write a College Application Essay: A Complete Guide
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- College application essays allow students to showcase their strengths and uniqueness.
- A well-written college essay could tip an admission decision in your favor.
- Students should spend time editing and proofreading their application essays.
- Your college application essay should focus on you and a meaningful topic.
Many colleges and universities require a college admissions essay as part of the application process. These personal statements allow students to describe their academic achievements, their strengths, and other personal aspects that can help admissions officers see them as unique individuals.
The essay also demonstrates a student's readiness for college and likelihood of success. While an applicant's GPA, SAT or ACT scores, and transcripts are important, a college application essay can offer an admissions department insights that these metrics don't reveal.
How Important Is the College Application Essay?
Many schools strongly emphasize the college application essay during admissions.
Although universities consider other elements such as GPA and recommendation letters , an outstanding personal essay for college can help you stand out from other applicants. If you have a similar GPA and test scores to those of other applicants, an essay can allow you to differentiate yourself.
According to a 2018-19 study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling , 56.4% of admissions counselors reported that their institutions placed "considerable" or "moderate" importance on the college application essay when making admission decisions.
The report also found that private schools and more selective colleges tended to put the most weight on admissions essays.
How Long Should a College Essay Be?
Most effective college essay topics tend to reflect conciseness. Students who don't know how to write a personal statement for college might lose their readers' attention if they take too long to make their point. Applicants should remember that they get only a few hundred words to leave a favorable impression.
The Common App essay , for example, allows applicants to write a maximum of 650 words and a minimum of 250 words. Most supplemental essays submitted through this application system should be around 250 words or less.
With the Coalition Application, essays should be 500-650 words long .
What Kinds of College Essay Prompts Are There?
College essay prompts typically consist of broad, open-ended questions. They intend to focus students' writing while allowing for some freedom when addressing a topic. Depending on the school, students might respond to one prompt or pick from several.
Students should pay attention to what a prompt asks and stay on topic. Failing to answer the prompt directly is a common mistake when writing a personal statement for college.
Both the Common App and Coalition for College provide several prompts. Students should read their chosen question carefully as they develop their response. Creating outlines can help applicants stay on topic.
Common App Essay Prompts, 2021-22
- 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.
- 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?
Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- 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?
- Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- 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?
- 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.
Coalition App Essay Prompts, 2021-22
- Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
- Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.
- Has there been a time when you've had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?
- What is the hardest part of being a student now? What's the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?
- Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.
What Are Some Examples of Good College Essay Topics?
Good college essay topics enable concise, transparent, honest, and meaningful writing. Because personal statements should differentiate applicants from their peers, topics should include compelling details and anecdotes.
Students should think carefully before writing about a negative experience or personal weakness. A college essay should portray the applicant positively, and dwelling on difficult or taboo topics could detract from your strengths.
You might look for college application essay examples to help you brainstorm topics. Students can also consider asking family members and peers to comment on their strengths and unique qualities. They may have insight to offer about what makes an applicant a good fit for a particular major or area of study.
Below are some examples of good college essay topics:
- A Defining Moment, Experience, or Realization: An experience that changed your perspective; a strong belief you no longer hold
- Someone Who Has Greatly Influenced You: Your most important mentor; a person who changed your life for the better
- A Key Part of Your Identity: An important aspect about you that you wish more people knew; your best characteristic
- Your Biggest Passion: A cause for which you have sacrificed; how your passion helped shape your identity
- A Problem You Solved: A significant obstacle you overcame; a solution you developed that achieved results
- A Unique Hobby: Your most enjoyable pastime; a time when your hobby taught you a valuable lesson
How to Write a Personal Statement for College: 6 Tips
A key characteristic of an excellent college application essay is writing quality. The personal statement can weigh heavily on some admission decisions. With this in mind, students can employ several strategies to make their essays stand out.
1. Pick a Meaningful Topic
Compelling college essay topics enable applicants to tell memorable and relatable stories. Students choosing subjects that hold personal meaning for them will likely write with more authenticity and enthusiasm, maintaining readers' interest.
Applicants should focus more on writing something they care about rather than what they think will impress admissions officers.
2. Keep the Focus on You
Unlike test scores or letters of recommendation, good college essay topics give students considerable control over how they express their best selves. Therefore, the essay should focus on them and not on other people.
Even personal statements that discuss an influential teacher or mentor should keep the story's focus on the applicant, such as how that person drove you to change or take action.
3. Use Specific Details and Examples
College essays ideally illustrate students' potential by outlining their achievements. These statements should include detailed descriptions and examples that portray experiences rather than future goals.
For instance, students who want to convey their leadership skills might describe specific incidents when they inspired others or helped a group achieve a tangible output.
4. Reveal Something Unique About Yourself
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. Tell a Story
Students should use their college admissions essays to tell stories, striving for quality instead of quantity. In other words, you should avoid discussing your entire life and instead focus on one or two strong anecdotes that reveal your true self.
Applicants may write about specific hobbies or work experiences that highlight their values, skills, or proficiencies.
6. Edit and Proofread
Editing involves fine-tuning a draft to improve its organization and clarity. Proofreading typically follows editing and entails checking for errors. Once applicants have edited and proofread their essays, they'll benefit from at least one more read-through.
You should also strongly consider asking someone else to review your draft to catch additional errors and provide constructive feedback.
What Should You Avoid in Your Personal Essay for College?
Although a personal essay for college can demonstrate excellent writing and topic choice, it can still leave an unfavorable impression if it contains inappropriate or repetitive information. Here are some examples of topics to leave out of your statement.
Your Grades, Test Scores, and Academic Achievements
Successful college essays typically include information that does not appear anywhere else in the application. When reviewing other submission documents, admissions officers can learn about students' grades, previous courses, and scholarly achievements. As such, the essay should not focus on these kinds of details.
Your Life of Privilege
Steer clear of topics that highlight a privileged lifestyle. For example, framing a relatively common athletic injury as the hardest challenge you've faced may not demonstrate resilience as effectively as you'd like it to. It also suggests a lack of awareness of more serious obstacles others your age have faced.
In your eyes, Fido and Fluffy may be the most amazing creatures on the planet. But we all love our pets. You want your college essay to stand out by focusing on a topic or experience that's unique to you rather than something universal.
Cliches and Trite Quotations
A college admissions essay presents an opportunity for students to express their creativity and originality of thought. Using cliches and trite expressions makes writers appear lazy or unimaginative. Also, some sayings may be relevant to specific cultures, alienating or confusing some readers.
Your Criminal Record
Everybody admires an underdog who overcomes adversity, but illuminating past missteps with the law isn't exactly the best way to make a good first impression on college admissions officers. While you shouldn't sanitize reality for the benefit of your readers, choose a college essay topic that at the very least presents you in a positive light.
Grammar and Spelling Mistakes
Knowing how to write a college application essay includes detecting spelling, punctuation, and grammar mistakes. Error-free personal statements go far to illustrate applicants' excellent writing skills. Students might ask teachers, mentors, or others they trust to read their essays to catch any mistakes before submitting them.
College Application Essay Example
I planned my high school career carefully: marching band, honors courses, and three dual-credit college classes. My senior year should have been a smooth glide to graduation, with multiple electives to fill out the seven-hour day.
As a member of the Class of 2011, however, I became part of the first group of students to fall under the Texas Education Agency's new "4x4 plan." High school graduation requirements for Texas students expanded to include four years of four core subjects: mathematics, social studies, English, and science.
Under the new plan, despite careful planning, I was one year short on science. Due to the limited curriculum options of my small school, the only course on my prescribed registration list was Biology II. Enrolling in Biology II meant participating in the final project: dissecting cats.
I had avoided the course in the past for this exact reason. Being a longtime animal lover and advocate, there was simply no way I would — or could — take a scalpel to the body of a nameless shelter cat — killed in a gas chamber, its limbs stiff, fur matted with embalming fluid.
If all else failed, I was ready to sacrifice my 4.0 GPA. I was prepared to sit out for the project and take a dozen failing grades.
But first, I decided to put up a fight.
I drafted a formal letter to the principal and the biology teacher, discussing my reservations. I sent a second letter to the school's anatomy teacher. Her courses were over capacity, strictly limited to students interested in pursuing a health major in college, and the only other science option available at my grade level.
I let them know how the sudden introduction of the 4x4 plan felt like a punishment to students like me who had painstakingly planned their high school years from the start. I told them of my compassion for all living creatures, my concern with the use of cruel carbon monoxide euthanasia in Texas shelters, and the availability of modern computer programs that required no desecration of beloved companion animals.
When my senior year arrived, I had a seat in the crowded anatomy classroom — a future music major, alongside two dozen students with their eyes set on nursing, physical therapy, and medical school.
Presenting my views in a clear, respectful way prompted three adults in authority to make a positive change on my behalf. I was further informed that, in the years to follow, shelter cats would be phased out of Biology II and replaced with virtual dissection labs.
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How to Write a Personal Essay for Your College Application
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.
Where your work meets your life. See more from Ascend here .
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 .
- How to Write a College Essay
College admissions experts offer tips on selecting a topic as well as writing and editing the essay.
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. Getty Images
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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How to Write a College Essay: The Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Brainstorming your college essay topic, how to structure & outline a college essay, the difference between a boring and a stand-out personal statement, a quick word on “common” or “cliché” topics.
- The “home” essay: a quick case study
Five (more) ways to find a thematic thread for your personal statement
- Montage structure FAQ’s
- Narrative structure FAQ’s
First, what is the college essay (i.e., the personal statement)?
This is your main essay. Your application centerpiece. The part of your application you’re likely to spend the most time on. But, of course, I’d say that—I’m the College Essay Guy.
The personal statement is likely to be 500-650 words long (so about a page) and many of the colleges you’re applying to will require it.
What’s its purpose? Jennifer Blask, Executive Director for International Admissions at the University of Rochester, puts it beautifully: “So much of the college application is a recounting of things past—past grades, old classes, activities the student has participated in over several years. The essay is a chance for the student to share who they are now and what they will bring to our campus communities.”
Basically, college admission officers are looking for three takeaways in your college essay:
Who is this person?
Will this person contribute something of value to our campus?
Can this person write?
Let’s do this.
Below are the five exercises I have every student complete before I meet with them:
Essence Objects Exercise : 12 min.
Values Exercise : 4 min.
21 Details Exercise : 20 min.
Everything I Want Colleges to Know About Me Exercise : 20 min.
The Feelings and Needs Exercise : 15-20 min.
I recommend recording all the content from your exercises in one document to keep things neat. If you’ve been working as you go, you’ve already completed these, so make sure to do this step now. You can use our downloadable Google doc with these exercises if you’d like.
At the start of the essay process, I ask students two questions:
Have you faced significant challenges in your life?
Do you want to write about them?
Because here’s an important qualifier:
Even if you’ve faced challenges, you do not have to write about them in your personal statement.
I mention this now because, in my experience, many students are under the impression that they have to write about challenges—that it’s either expected, or that it’s somehow better to do so.
Neither is true.
I’ve seen many, many incredible essays—ones that got students into every school you’re hoping to get into—that had no central challenge.
If your answer is “Maybe … ?” because you’re not sure what qualifies as a challenge, it’s useful to think of challenges as being on a spectrum. On the weak end of the spectrum would be things like getting a bad grade or not making X sports team. On the strong end of the spectrum would be things like escaping war. Being extremely shy but being responsible for translating for your family might be around a 3 or 4 out of 10.
It’s possible to use Narrative Structure to write about a challenge anywhere on the spectrum, but it’s much, much harder to write an outstanding essay about a weaker challenge.
Sometimes students pick the hardest challenge they’ve been through and try to make it sound worse than it actually was. Beware of pushing yourself to write about a challenge merely because you think these types of essays are inherently “better.” Focusing myopically on one experience can sideline other brilliant and beautiful elements of your character.
If you’re still uncertain, don’t worry. I’ll help you decide what to focus on. But, for the sake of this blog post, answer those first two questions with a gut-level response.
In the sections that follow, I’ll introduce you to two structures: Narrative Structure, which works well for describing challenges, and Montage Structure, which works well for essays that aren’t about challenges.
Heads-up: Some students who have faced challenges find after reading that they prefer Montage Structure to Narrative Structure. Or vice versa. If you’re uncertain which approach is best for you, I generally recommend experimenting with montage first; you can always go back and play with narrative.
A montage is, simply put, a series of moments or story events connected by a common thematic thread.
Well-known examples from movies include “training” montages, like those from Mulan , Rocky , or Footloose , or the “falling in love” montage from most romantic comedies. Or remember the opening to the Pixar movie Up ? In just a few minutes, we learn the entire history of Carl and Ellie’s relationship. One purpose is to communicate a lot of information fast. Another is to allow you to share a lot of different kinds of information, as the example essay below shows.
Narrative Structure vs. Montage Structure explained in two sentences:
In Narrative Structure, story events connect chronologically.
In Montage Structure, story events connect thematically.
Here’s a metaphor:
Imagine that each different part of you is a bead and that a select few will show up in your essay. They’re not the kind of beads you’d find on a store-bought bracelet; they’re more like the hand-painted beads on a bracelet your little brother made for you.
The theme of your essay is the thread that connects your beads.
You can find a thread in many, many different ways. One way we’ve seen students find great montage threads is by using the 5 Things Exercise . I’ll get detailed on this a little bit later, but essentially, are there 5 thematically connected things that thread together different experiences/moments/events in your life? For example, are there 5 T-shirts you collected, or 5 homes or identities, or 5 entries in your Happiness Spreadsheet .
And to clarify, your essay may end up using only 4 of the 5 things. Or maybe 8. But 5 is a nice number to aim for initially.
Note the huge range of possible essay threads. To illustrate, here are some different “thread” examples that have worked well:
Sports have had a powerful influence on me, from my understanding of history, to numbers, to my relationships, extracurricular activities, and even my career choice.
I lived with 5 different families as an exchange student, and each one taught me something valuable that I’ll carry with me to college.
Crassulaceae plants, which can reproduce via stem or leaf fragments, are a great analogy for not only how I make art, but how I choose to live each day.
Binary star systems are a metaphor for my relationship with my parents.
I am “trans” in so many ways … let me describe a few.
To understand who I am, you must understand how I cook.
Pranks have shaped my life in a variety of ways.
The number 12 has influenced so much in my life, from my relationship to sports, to how I write, to my self-esteem.
All of these threads stemmed from the brainstorming exercises in this post.
We’ll look at an example essay in a minute, but before we do, a word (well, a bunch of words) on how to build a stronger montage (and the basic concept here also applies to building stronger narratives).
Would you Rather watch instead?
To frame how to think about possible topics ...
Imagine you’re interviewing for a position as a fashion designer, and your interviewer asks you what qualities make you right for this position. Oh, and heads-up: That imaginary interviewer has already interviewed a hundred people today, so you’d best not roll up with, “because I’ve always loved clothes” or “because fashion helps me express my creativity.” Why shouldn’t you say those things? Because that’s what everyone says.
Many students are the same in their personal statements—they name cliché qualities/skills/values and don’t push their reflections much further.
Why is this a bad idea?
Let me frame it this way:
A boring personal statement chooses a common topic, makes common connections, and uses common language.
A stand-out personal statement chooses an un common topic, makes un common connections, and uses un common language.
Boring personal statement: I want to be a doctor (common topic) because I’m empathetic and I love helping people (common connections) and I really want to make the world a better place (common language).
Better personal statement: I want to run a tech-startup (more uncommon topic) because I value humor, “leading from the battlefield,” and stuff that makes me cry (uncommon connections for an essay on this topic), and because my journey to this place took me from being a scrawny 12-year-old kid to a scrawny 12-year-old man (uncommon language).
Important: I’m not saying you should pick a weird topic/thread just so it’ll help you stand out more on your essay. Be honest. But consider this: The more common your topic is ... the more un common your connections need to be if you want to stand out.
What do I mean?
For example, tons of students write doctor/lawyer/engineer essays; if you want to stand out, you need to say a few things that others don’t tend to say.
How do you figure out what to say? By making uncommon connections.
They’re the key to a stand-out essay.
The following two-part exercise will help you do this.
2-minute exercise: Start with the cliché version of your essay.
What would the cliché version of your essay focus on?
If you’re writing a “Why I want to be an engineer” essay, for example, what 3-5 common “engineering” values might other students have mentioned in connection with engineering? Use the Values Exercise for ideas.
Collaboration? Efficiency? Hands-on work? Probably yes to all three.
Once you’ve spent 2 minutes thinking up some common/cliché values, move onto the next step.
8-Minute Exercise: Brainstorm uncommon connections.
For example, if your thread is “food” (which can lead to great essays, but is also a really common topic), push yourself beyond the common value of “health” and strive for unexpected values. How has cooking taught you about “accountability,” for example, or “social change”? Why do this? We’ve already read the essay on how cooking helped the author become more aware of their health. An essay on how cooking allowed the author to become more accountable or socially aware would be less common.
In a minute, we’ll look at the “Laptop Stickers” essay. One thing that author discusses is activism. A typical “activist” essay might discuss public speaking or how the author learned to find their voice. A stand-out essay would go further, demonstrating, say, how a sense of humor supports activism. Perhaps it would describe a childhood community that prioritized culture-creation over culture-consumption, reflecting on how these experiences shaped the author’s political views.
And before you beg me for an “uncommon values” resource, I implore you to use your brilliant brain to dream up these connections. Plus, you aren’t looking for uncommon values in general ; you’re looking for values uncommonly associated with your topic/thread .
Don’t get me wrong ... I’m not saying you shouldn’t list any common values, since some common values may be an important part of your story! In fact, the great essay examples throughout this book sometimes make use of common connections. I’m simply encouraging you to go beyond the obvious.
Also note that a somewhat-common lesson (e.g., “I found my voice”) can still appear in a stand-out essay. But if you choose this path, you’ll likely need to use either an uncommon structure or next-level craft to create a stand-out essay.
Where can you find ideas for uncommon qualities/skills/values?
Here are four places:
1. The Values Exercise
This is basically a huge list of qualities/skills/values that could serve you in a future career.
2. O*Net Online
Go to www.onetonline.org and use the “occupation quick search” feature to search for your career. Once you do, a huge list will appear containing knowledge, skills, and abilities needed for your career. This is one of my favorite resources for this exercise.
3. School websites
Go to a college's website and click on a major or group of majors that interest you. Sometimes they’ll briefly summarize a major in terms of what skills it’ll impart or what jobs it might lead to. Students are often surprised to discover how broadly major-related skills can apply.
4. Real humans
Ask 3 people in this profession what unexpected qualities, values, or skills prepared them for their careers. Please don’t simply use their answers as your own; allow their replies to inspire your brainstorming process.
Once you’ve got a list of, say, 7-10 qualities, move on to the next step.
Common personal statement topics include extracurricular activities (sports or musical instruments), service trips to foreign countries (aka the “mission trip” essay where the author realizes their privilege), sports injuries, family illnesses, deaths, divorce, the “meta” essay (e.g., “As I sit down to write my college essays, I think about...”), or someone who inspired you (common mistake: This usually ends up being more about them than you).
While I won’t say you should never write about these topics, if you do decide to write about one of these topics, the degree of difficulty goes way up. What do I mean? Essentially, you have to be one of the best “soccer” essays or “mission trip” essays among the hundreds the admission officer has likely read (and depending on the school, maybe the hundreds they’ve read this year ). So it makes it much more difficult to stand out.
How do you stand out? A cliché is all in how you tell the story. So, if you do choose a common topic, work to make uncommon connections (i.e., offer unexpected narrative turns or connections to values), provide uncommon insights (i.e., say stuff we don’t expect you to say) or uncommon language (i.e., phrase things in a way we haven’t heard before).
Or explore a different topic. You are infinitely complex and imaginative.
Sample montage essay:
MY LAPTOP STICKERS
My laptop is like a passport. It is plastered with stickers all over the outside, inside, and bottom. Each sticker is a stamp, representing a place I’ve been, a passion I’ve pursued, or community I’ve belonged to. These stickers make for an untraditional first impression at a meeting or presentation, but it’s one I’m proud of. Let me take you on a quick tour: “ We <3 Design ,” bottom left corner. Art has been a constant for me for as long as I can remember. Today my primary engagement with art is through design. I’ve spent entire weekends designing websites and social media graphics for my companies. Design means more to me than just branding and marketing; it gives me the opportunity to experiment with texture, perspective, and contrast, helping me refine my professional style. “ Common Threads ,” bottom right corner. A rectangular black and red sticker displaying the theme of the 2017 TEDxYouth@Austin event. For years I’ve been interested in the street artists and musicians in downtown Austin who are so unapologetically themselves. As a result, I’ve become more open-minded and appreciative of unconventional lifestyles. TED gives me the opportunity to help other youth understand new perspectives, by exposing them to the diversity of Austin where culture is created, not just consumed. Poop emoji , middle right. My 13-year-old brother often sends his messages with the poop emoji ‘echo effect,’ so whenever I open a new message from him, hundreds of poops elegantly cascade across my screen. He brings out my goofy side, but also helps me think rationally when I am overwhelmed. We don’t have the typical “I hate you, don’t talk to me” siblinghood (although occasionally it would be nice to get away from him); we’re each other’s best friends. Or at least he’s mine. “ Lol ur not Harry Styles ,” upper left corner. Bought in seventh grade and transferred from my old laptop, this sticker is torn but persevering with layers of tape. Despite conveying my fangirl-y infatuation with Harry Styles’ boyband, One Direction, for me Styles embodies an artist-activist who uses his privilege for the betterment of society. As a $42K donor to the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, a hair donor to the Little Princess Trust, and promoter of LGBTQ+ equality, he has motivated me to be a more public activist instead of internalizing my beliefs. “ Catapult ,” middle right. This is the logo of a startup incubator where I launched my first company, Threading Twine. I learned that business can provide others access to fundamental human needs, such as economic empowerment of minorities and education. In my career, I hope to be a corporate advocate for the empowerment of women, creating large-scale impact and deconstructing institutional boundaries that obstruct women from working in high-level positions. Working as a women’s rights activist will allow me to engage in creating lasting movements for equality, rather than contributing to a cycle that elevates the stances of wealthy individuals. “ Thank God it’s Monday ,” sneakily nestled in the upper right corner. Although I attempt to love all my stickers equally (haha), this is one of my favorites. I always want my association with work to be positive. And there are many others, including the horizontal, yellow stripes of the Human Rights Campaign ; “ The Team ,” a sticker from the Model G20 Economics Summit where I collaborated with youth from around the globe; and stickers from “ Kode with Klossy ,” a community of girls working to promote women’s involvement in underrepresented fields. When my computer dies (hopefully not for another few years), it will be like my passport expiring. It’ll be difficult leaving these moments and memories behind, but I probably won’t want these stickers in my 20s anyways (except Harry Styles, that’s never leaving). My next set of stickers will reveal my next set of aspirations. They hold the key to future paths I will navigate, knowledge I will gain, and connections I will make.
Cool, huh? And see what I mean about how you can write a strong personal statement without focusing on challenges you’ve faced?
Going back to that “thread and beads” metaphor with the “My Laptop Sticker” essay:
The “beads” are the different experiences that link to the values of creativity, open-mindedness, humor, courage, and entrepreneurialism.
The “thread” (i.e., the theme that ties everything together) is her laptop stickers. Each one represents a quality of the author’s personality. Actually, there’s a second thematic thread: Those qualities will also serve her in her women’s rights activism. Bonus!
The outline that got her there
Here’s the outline for the “My Laptop Stickers” essay. Notice how each bullet point discusses a value or values, connected to different experiences via her thread, and sets up the insights she could explore. (Insight, though, is the toughest part of the writing process, and will probably take the most revision, so it’s fine if you don’t have great insights in an outline or first draft. But you’ll want to get to them by your final draft.)
She found this thread essentially by using The Five Things Exercise in conjunction with the other brainstorming exercises.
Thread = Laptop Stickers
We <3 Design → art, design, experimentation
Details: spent weekend designing websites, graphics for my companies
Possible insight: Developed my own style
Common Threads → authenticity, open-mindedness
Details: Street artists, musicians in Austin
Possible insight: Creating not just consuming culture
Poop emoji → family, goofy side
Details: Brother, interactions, thinking rationally
Possible insight: Connection/vulnerability
Lol ur not Harry Styles → equality, activism, confidence
Details: Various activism as motivation/reminder to act vs just internalize
Possible insight: My growth with acting/speaking up
Catapult → entrepreneurship, social justice, awareness, meaningful work
Details: Threaded Twine, women’s rights, breaking cycles
Possible insight: Discovered my career
Thank God it's Monday → enjoyable work
Possible insight: Importance of experience/framing
Possible insight: Want work to always be this way
The Team → collaboration
Details: Model G20 Econ Summit, group collaboration
Kode with Klossy → community, social justice
Details: Promoting women in underrepresented fields
Okay, so if you’re on board so far, here’s what you need:
Some stuff to write about (ideally 4-10 things) that will make up the “beads” of your essay, and
Something to connect all the different “beads” (like a connective theme or thread)
First, let’s talk about ...
How to generate lots of ‘stuff’ to write about (aka the beads for your bracelet)
Complete all the brainstorming exercises.
Already did that? Great! Move on!
Didn’t do that? Go back , complete the exercises, and then ...
Case study: How to find a theme for your personal statement (aka the thread that connects the beads of your bracelet)
Let’s look at an example of how I helped one student find her essay thread, then I’ll offer you some exercises to help you find your own.
The “Home” essay: A quick case study
First, take a look at this student’s Essence Objects and 21 Details:
My Essence Objects
Bojangle’s Tailgate Special/Iced Tea
Light blue fuzzy blanket
A box containing my baby tooth
Gold bracelet from my grandfather
Orange, worn Nike Free Run Sneakers
Duke basketball game ticket
Palestine flag rubber wristband/ISEF Lanyard
A pair of headphones
Worn, green Governor’s School East lanyard
My 21 Details
I’ve been known to have terrible spatial awareness despite being a dancer. Just last week, my shoelace got caught in an escalator and I tripped about 20 people.
Zumba and kickboxing are my favorite forms of exercise and I’m hopefully going to become certified to teach Zumba soon.
I have misophonia--sometimes I even have to eat dinner in a different room from my family.
My go-to drinks are Hi-C and Sweet Tea.
I became a pescatarian this year to avoid fried chicken, and I can honestly get a life’s worth of meat out of cod, salmon, tilapia, shrimp, you name it.
I collect funky socks--at this point, I have socks with tacos, snowmen, Santa, and even animals wearing glasses.
I’ve gotten different Myers-Briggs personality types every time I took the test. The most recent ones are ENFJ and ENFP.
I have no immediate relatives in America besides my mom, dad, and sister.
I am a diehard Duke basketball fan, and I can identify all of the Duke basketball fans at my high school on one hand.
I love discussing psychology, but sometimes I psychoanalyze.
Singing while driving is honestly one of my favorite pastimes.
My alarm for school every morning is at 5:42 am.
I hope to complete a half and full marathon within the next four years, despite not having run a 5k yet.
I realized the tooth fairy wasn’t real after I lost my second tooth, but I pretended that I still believed in it until I was in 5th grade for the tooth fairy’s “gifts”.
I could eat fruits for every single meal.
I don’t do well with confrontation.
Airports are hands-down my favorite place to be, but I hate airplanes.
If I’m not busy or working, you can usually find me in my hammock in the backyard.
I find that I form the deepest connections with people after 12am.
Sometimes, I like TV spoilers.
How this author found her thematic thread
When I met with this student for the first time, I began asking questions about her objects and details: “What’s up with the Bojangle’s Iced Tea? What’s meaningful to you about the Governor’s School East lanyard? Tell me about your relationship to dance ...”
We were thread-finding ... searching for an invisible connective [something] that would allow her to talk about different parts of her life.
Heads-up: Some people are really good at this—counselors are often great at this—while some folks have a more difficult time. Good news: When you practice the skill of thread-finding, you can become better at it rather quickly.
You should also know that sometimes it takes minutes to find a thread and sometimes it can take weeks. With this student, it took less than an hour.
I noticed in our conversation that she kept coming back to things that made her feel comfortable. She also repeated the word “home” several times. When I pointed this out, she asked me, “Do you think I could use ‘home’ as a thread for my essay?”
“I think you could,” I said.
Read her essay below, then I’ll share more about how you can find your own thematic thread.
As I enter the double doors, the smell of freshly rolled biscuits hits me almost instantly. I trace the fan blades as they swing above me, emitting a low, repetitive hum resembling a faint melody. After bringing our usual order, the “Tailgate Special,” to the table, my father begins discussing the recent performance of Apple stock with my mother, myself, and my older eleven year old sister. Bojangle’s, a Southern establishment well known for its fried chicken and reliable fast food, is my family’s Friday night restaurant, often accompanied by trips to Eva Perry, the nearby library. With one hand on my breaded chicken and the other on Nancy Drew: Mystery of Crocodile Island, I can barely sit still as the thriller unfolds. They’re imprisoned! Reptiles! Not the enemy’s boat! As I delve into the narrative with a sip of sweet tea, I feel at home. “Five, six, seven, eight!” As I shout the counts, nineteen dancers grab and begin to spin the tassels attached to their swords while walking heel-to-toe to the next formation of the classical Chinese sword dance. A glance at my notebook reveals a collection of worn pages covered with meticulously planned formations, counts, and movements. Through sharing videos of my performances with my relatives or discovering and choreographing the nuances of certain regional dances and their reflection on the region’s distinct culture, I deepen my relationship with my parents, heritage, and community. When I step on stage, the hours I’ve spent choreographing, creating poses, teaching, and polishing are all worthwhile, and the stage becomes my home. Set temperature. Calibrate. Integrate. Analyze. Set temperature. Calibrate. Integrate. Analyze. This pulse mimics the beating of my heart, a subtle rhythm that persists each day I come into the lab. Whether I am working under the fume hood with platinum nanoparticles, manipulating raw integration data, or spraying a thin platinum film over pieces of copper, it is in Lab 304 in Hudson Hall that I first feel the distinct sensation, and I’m home. After spending several weeks attempting to synthesize platinum nanoparticles with a diameter between 10 and 16 nm, I finally achieve nanoparticles with a diameter of 14.6 nm after carefully monitoring the sulfuric acid bath. That unmistakable tingling sensation dances up my arm as I scribble into my notebook: I am overcome with a feeling of unbridled joy. Styled in a t-shirt, shorts, and a worn, dark green lanyard, I sprint across the quad from the elective ‘Speaking Arabic through the Rassias Method’ to ‘Knitting Nirvana’. This afternoon is just one of many at Governor’s School East, where I have been transformed from a high school student into a philosopher, a thinker, and an avid learner. While I attend GS at Meredith College for Natural Science, the lessons learned and experiences gained extend far beyond physics concepts, serial dilutions, and toxicity. I learn to trust myself to have difficult yet necessary conversations about the political and economic climate. Governor’s School breeds a culture of inclusivity and multidimensionality, and I am transformed from “girl who is hardworking” or “science girl” to someone who indulges in the sciences, debates about psychology and the economy, and loves to swing and salsa dance. As I form a slip knot and cast on, I’m at home. My home is a dynamic and eclectic entity. Although I’ve lived in the same house in Cary, North Carolina for 10 years, I have found and carved homes and communities that are filled with and enriched by tradition, artists, researchers, and intellectuals. While I may not always live within a 5 mile radius of a Bojangle’s or in close proximity to Lab 304, learning to become a more perceptive daughter and sister, to share the beauty of my heritage, and to take risks and redefine scientific and personal expectations will continue to impact my sense of home.
Rad essay, huh?
But here’s the question I get most often about this technique: How do I find my thematic thread?
1. The “Bead-Making” Exercise (5-8 min.)
In the example above, we started with the beads, and then we searched for a thread. This exercise asks you to start with the thread of something you know well and then create the beads. Here’s how it works:
Step 1: On a blank sheet of paper, make a list of five or six things you know a lot about.
For example, I know a lot about …
If you can only think of 3 or 4, that’s okay.
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. You can even draw a thread connecting your beads, if you want, like this:
Step 4: For each value, write down a specific example, memory, image, or essence object that connects to that value. Example:
My thread: Games
My beads: Connection, creativity, fun/laughter, family, competition, knowledge
Here are my examples/memories/images/essence objects:
Connection: One memory I have is playing “I love” in a circle at camp with 20 friends and strangers. I still marvel at how quickly it helped us bond.
Creativity: After I understand how a game works, I like to try to improve it by tweaking the rules. Two examples: 1) I remember when I was young trying to find the right amount of money for the Free Parking space in Monopoly, and 2) recently, I learned the game Guesstimation is so much better if you add wagers. I see my 4-year-old daughter tweaks games too, which drives my wife crazy, as she likes to play by the rules of the game.
Fun/laughter: As I’ve aged, so much of my life has become planned/programmed, but I can still enjoy losing track of time with board games. Two weeks ago, for example, I laughed so hard I cried while playing Drawful with Lisa, Andy, and Sage.
Family: We played games like Charades and Jeopardy when I was young. (My dad was the Game Master who would come up with the categories. As I grew older, I took over the role of Game Master.)
Competition: People don’t know this about me because I seem so chill, but I am incredibly competitive. Things I rarely lose at: ping pong, Tetris, foosball, and corn hole. I’ve gotten much better over the years at hiding my competitive side, but it’s still there.
Knowledge: Can’t really think of much on this one—maybe something related to Jeopardy?
This is an actual brainstorm I did using this exercise.
And, as I write these things down, I notice a theme of youth/old age emerging. Games have changed for me as I’ve gotten older. Note that I couldn’t come up with something for the last one, “knowledge,” which is fine.
The point is this: If you know a thing well, odds are good you’ll be able to make a lot of connections to your values. And if you can find specific examples for each value, that can make for interesting paragraphs in your personal statement.
If you’re willing to spend a few more minutes, ask “so what?” of each example to see if a specific insight emerges.
And, in case you want a formula for what I’m describing, here you go:
Once you’ve written down the values and at least one example (e.g., a memory, image, essence object) for each bead, see if you have enough content for an essay.
Still haven’t found your theme? Here are ...
More ways to find a thematic thread for your personal statement
2. The “Five Things” Exercise
(Special thanks to my colleague, Dori Middlebrook, for this one.)
I mentioned this when we first started talking about Montage Structure. Similar to the “bead-making” exercise above, you identify the thread first and then develop the beads.
Step 1: Write down 5 similar things that are meaningful to you in different ways.
Examples: Five Pairs of Shoes I’ve Worn, Five Houses I’ve Lived In, Five Photographs in My Room, Five Ways Cooking Has Influenced Me, etc.
Step 2: Begin by simply naming the 5 different items.
Example: High-top tennis shoes, flip-flops, heels, cleats, bunny slippers
Step 3: Add physical details so we can visualize each one.
Step 4: Add more details. Maybe tell a story for each.
Pro tip: Try connecting each of the 5 to a different value.
Step 5: Expand on each description further and start to connect the ideas to develop them into an essay draft.
3. Thread-finding with a partner
Grab someone who knows you well (e.g., a counselor, friend, family member). Share all your brainstorming content with them and ask them to mirror back to you what they’re seeing. It can be helpful if they use reflective language and ask lots of questions. An example of a reflective observation is: “I’m hearing that ‘building’ has been pretty important in your life … is that right?” You’re hunting together for a thematic thread—something that might connect different parts of your life and self.
4. Thread-finding with photographs
Pick 10 of your favorite photos or social media posts and write a short paragraph on each one. Why’d you pick these photos? What do they say about you? Then ask yourself, “What are some things these photos have in common?” Bonus points: Can you find one thing that connects all of them?
5. Reading lots of montage example essays that work
You’ll find some here , here , and here . While you may be tempted to steal those thematic threads, don’t. Try finding your own. Have the courage to be original. You can do it.
Montage Structure FAQs
Q: How do I work in extracurricular activities in a tasteful way (so it doesn’t seem like I’m bragging)?
A: Some counselors caution, with good reason, against naming extracurricular activities/experiences in your personal statement. (It can feel redundant with your Activities List.) You actually can mention them , just make sure you do so in context of your essay’s theme. Take another look at the eighth paragraph of the “My Laptop Stickers” essay above, for example:
And there are many [other stickers], including the horizontal, yellow stripes of the Human Rights Campaign; “The Team,” a sticker from the Model G20 Economics Summit where I collaborated with youth from around the globe; and stickers from “Kode with Klossy,” a community of girls working to promote women’s involvement in underrepresented fields.
A description of these extracurricular activities may have sounded like a laundry list of the author’s accomplishments. But because she’s naming other stickers (which connects them to the essay’s thematic thread), she basically gets to name-drop those activities while showing other parts of her life. Nice.
One more way to emphasize a value is to combine or disguise it with humor. Example: “Nothing teaches patience (and how to tie shoes really fast) like trying to wrangle 30 first-graders by yourself for 10 hours per week,” or “I’ve worked three jobs, but I’ve never had to take more crap from my bosses than I did this past summer while working at my local veterinarian’s office.”
In each of these examples, the little bit of humor covers the brag. Each is basically pointing out that the author had to work a lot and it wasn’t always fun. No need to push this humor thing, though. Essays don’t need to be funny to be relatable, and if the joke doesn’t come naturally, it might come across as trying too hard.
Q: How do I transition between examples so my essay “flows” well?
A: The transitions are the toughest part of this essay type. Fine-tuning them will take some time, so be patient. One exercise I love is called Revising Your Essay in 5 Steps , and it basically works like this:
Highlight the first sentence of each of your paragraphs in bold, then read each one aloud in order. Do they connect, creating a short version of your essay? If not:
Rewrite the bold sentences so that they do connect (i.e., flow) together. Once you’ve done that …
Rewrite each paragraph so it flows from those bolded sentences.
Read them aloud again. Wash, rinse, repeat until the ideas flow together.
This is a great way to figure out the “bones” (i.e., structure) of your essay.
Q: What am I looking for again?
A: You’re looking for two things:
Parts of yourself that are essential to who you are (e.g., values or “islands of your personality”), and
A theme that connects them all.
Your theme could be something mundane (like your desk) or something everyone can relate to ( like the concept of home ), but make sure that it is elastic (i.e. can connect to many different parts of you) and visual, as storytelling made richer with images.
Each of the values creates an island of your personality and a paragraph for your essay.
Montage step-by-step recap:
Review your brainstorming exercises and look for threads that connect 4-7 different values through 4-7 different experiences.
Choose an order for your examples. Consider describing one example per paragraph.
Create an outline.
Write a first draft. Once you do ...
Consider using the Revising Your Essay in 5 Steps Exercise to clarify your transitions.
Q: This is hard! I’m not finding it yet and I want to give up. What should I do?
A: Don’t give up! Remember: be patient. This takes time. If you need inspiration, or assurance that you’re on the right track, check out Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk , “Your Elusive Creative Genius.”
All right, moving on.
If you answered “yes” to both questions at the beginning of this guide, I recommend exploring Narrative Structure. I’ll explain this in more detail below.
My favorite content-generating exercise for Narrative Structure is the Feelings and Needs Exercise. It takes about 20 minutes (but do feel free to take longer—more time brainstorming and outlining leads to better, faster writing). Here’s how it works:
The Feelings and Needs Exercise
Time : 15-20 minutes
Instructions : You’ll find them here.
If you haven’t completed the exercise, please do it now.
(And this is a dramatic pause before I tell you the coolest thing about what you just did.)
You may notice that your completed Feelings and Needs chart maps out a potential structure for your personal statement. If you’re not seeing it, try turning your paper so that the challenges are at the top of your page and the effects are below them.
Voila. A rough outline for a narrative essay.
To clarify, this isn’t a perfect way to outline an essay. You may not want to spend an entire paragraph describing your feelings, for example, or you may choose to describe your needs in just one sentence. And now that you see how it frames the story, you may want to expand on certain columns. However, the sideways Feelings and Needs chart can help you think about how the chronology of your experiences might translate into a personal statement.
Here’s an essay that one student wrote after completing this exercise:
The Birth of Sher Khan The narrow alleys of Mardan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan where I spent the first 7 years of my life were infiltrated with the stench of blood and helplessness. I grew up with Geo news channel, with graphic images of amputated limbs and the lifeless corpses of uncles, neighbors, and friends. I grew up with hurried visits to the bazaar, my grandmother in her veil and five-year-old me, outrunning spontaneous bomb blasts. On the open rooftop of our home, where the hustle and bustle of the city were loudest, I grew up listening to calls to prayer, funeral announcements, gunshots. I grew up in the aftermath of 9/11, confused. Like the faint scent of mustard oil in my hair, the war followed me to the United States. Here, I was the villain, responsible for causing pain. In the streets, in school, and in Baba’s taxi cab, my family and I were equated with the same Taliban who had pillaged our neighborhood and preyed on our loved ones. War followed me to freshman year of high school when I wanted more than anything to start new and check off to-dos in my bullet journal. Every time news of a terror attack spread, I could hear the whispers, visualize the stares. Instead of mourning victims of horrible crimes, I felt personally responsible, only capable of focusing on my guilt. The war had manifested itself in my racing thoughts and bitten nails when I decided that I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, let it win. A mission to uncover parts of me that I’d buried in the war gave birth to a persona: Sher Khan, the tiger king, my radio name. As media head at my high school, I spend most mornings mastering the art of speaking and writing lighthearted puns into serious announcements. Laughter, I’ve learned, is one of the oldest forms of healing, a survival tactic necessary in war, and peace too. During sophomore year, I found myself in International Human Rights, a summer course at Cornell University that I attended through a local scholarship. I went into class eager to learn about laws that protect freedom and came out knowledgeable about ratified conventions, The International Court of Justice, and the repercussions of the Srebrenica massacre. To apply our newfound insight, three of my classmates and I founded our own organization dedicated to youth activism and spreading awareness about human rights violations: Fight for Human Rights. Today, we have seven state chapters led by students across the U.S and a chapter in Turkey too. Although I take pride in being Editor of the Golden State’s chapter, I enjoy having written articles about topics that aren’t limited to violations within California. Addressing and acknowledging social issues everywhere is the first step to preventing war. Earlier this year, through KQED, a Bay Area broadcasting network, I was involved in a youth takeover program, and I co-hosted a Friday news segment about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, the travel ban, and the vaping epidemic. Within a few weeks, my panel and interview were accessible worldwide, watched by my peers in school, and family thousands of miles away in Pakistan. Although the idea of being so vulnerable initially made me nervous, I soon realized that this vulnerability was essential to my growth. I never fully escaped war; it’s evident in the chills that run down my spine whenever an untimely call reaches us from family members in Pakistan and in the funerals still playing on Geo News. But I’m working towards a war-free life, internally and externally, for me and the individuals who can share in my experiences, for my family, and for the forgotten Pashtun tribes from which I hail. For now, I have everything to be grateful for. War has taught me to recognize the power of representation, to find courage in vulnerability, and best of all, to celebrate humor.
Fun fact: This essay was written by a student in one of my online courses who, as she shared this version with me, called it a “super rough draft.”
I wish my super rough drafts were this good.
I share this essay with you not only because it’s a super awesome essay that was inspired by the Feelings and Needs Exercise, but also because it offers a beautiful example of what I call the ...
You can think of a narrative essay as having three basic sections: Challenges + Effects ; What I Did About It ; What I Learned . Your word count will be pretty evenly split between the three, so for a 650-word personal statement, 200ish each.
To get a little more nuanced, within those three basic sections, a narrative often has a few specific story beats. There are plenty of narratives that employ different elements (for example, collectivist societies often tell stories in which there isn’t one central main character/hero, but it seems hard to write a college personal statement that way, since you’re the focus here). You’ve seen these beats before—most Hollywood films use elements of this structure, for example.
Status Quo : The starting point of the story. This briefly describes the life or world of the main character (in your essay, that’s you).
The Inciting Incident : The event that disrupts the Status Quo. Often it’s the worst thing that could happen to the main character. It gets us to wonder: Uh-oh … what will they do next? or How will they solve this problem?
Raising the Stakes/Rising Action : Builds suspense. The situation becomes more and more tense, decisions become more important, and our main character has more and more to lose.
Moment of Truth : The climax. Often this is when our main character must make a choice.
New Status Quo : The denouement or falling action. This often tells us why the story matters or what our main character has learned. Think of these insights or lessons as the answer to the big “so what?” question.
For example, take a look at “The Birth of Sher Khan” essay above.
Notice that roughly the first third focuses on the challenges she faced and the effects of those challenges.
Roughly the next third focuses on actions she took regarding those challenges. (Though she also sprinkles in lessons and insight here.)
The final third contains lessons and insights she learned through those actions, reflecting on how her experiences have shaped her. (Again, with the caveat that What She Did and What She Learned are somewhat interwoven, and yours likely will be as well. But the middle third is more heavily focused on actions, and the final third more heavily focused on insight.)
And within those three sections, notice the beats of her story: Status Quo, The Inciting Incident, Raising the Stakes/Rising Action, Moment of Truth, New Status Quo.
How does the Feelings and Needs Exercise map onto those sections?
At the risk of stating the blatantly obvious, The Challenges and Effects columns of the Feelings and Needs Exercise … are the Challenges + Effects portion of your essay. Same with What I Did and What I Learned.
The details in your Feelings and Needs columns can be spread throughout the essay. And it’s important to note that it’s useful to discuss some of your feelings and needs directly, but some will be implied.
For example, here’s the Feelings and Needs Exercise map of the “Sher Khan” essay. And I know I just mentioned this, but I want you to notice something that’s so important, I’m writing it in bold: The author doesn’t explicitly name every single effect, feeling, or need in her essay . Why not? First, she’s working within a 650-word limit. Second, she makes room for her reader’s inferences, which can often make a story more powerful. Take a look:
Challenge 1 : She grows up surrounded by war, which is explicitly stated.
Challenge 2 : She comes to the U.S. to find safety (a need), which is implied, but instead, she is villainized, which is explicitly stated.
Effects : She is ostracized after arriving in the U.S. “Every time news of a terror attack spread,” she writes, “I could hear the whispers, visualize the stares.” Other effects are implied, and we are left to imagine—and feel for ourselves—the kind of impact this might have had on her, and on us. Vulnerability creates connection.
Feelings : Growing up in the aftermath of 9/11 leaves her feeling confused, and after she is shunned, she describes being unable to mourn the victims of horrible crimes, instead feeling “personally responsible, only capable of focusing on [her] own guilt.” She explicitly names confusion and guilt, but she doesn’t name all the things she felt, of course, as there’s no need. Here, naming 1-2 key emotions helps us understand her inner world. If you choose to do the same in your essay, it’ll help readers understand yours.
Needs : As I read this essay, I can imagine the author needed safety, order, love, respect, reassurance, connection, and many more. But these are implied by the story events and need not be explicitly stated. In fact, spelling these things out might have made the essay sound weird. Imagine if she’d said, “I needed safety and order” at the end of the first paragraph and “I needed respect, reassurance, and connection” at the end of the second paragraph. That might sound awkward or too obvious, right? While identifying your needs is a great tool for understanding your story (and self) on a deeper level, there’s no need to explicitly state them at each juncture.
What She Did About It : The author developed a radio persona called Sher Khan , attended a summer course on human rights, founded an organization dedicated to youth activism, wrote articles on restrictive blasphemy laws and the forced repatriation of refugees, and probably other things that weren’t even mentioned.
What She’s Learned/Gained : She found a sense of purpose and discovered “everything [she has] to be grateful for.” She writes: “War has taught me to never take an education or a story for granted, to find beauty in vulnerability, to remain critical of authority figures, to question what’s socially accepted, and best of all, to celebrate humor.”
Cool. Here’s another narrative example:
What Had to Be Done At six years old, I stood locked away in the restroom. I held tightly to a tube of toothpaste because I’d been sent to brush my teeth to distract me from the commotion. Regardless, I knew what was happening: my dad was being put under arrest for domestic abuse. He’d hurt my mom physically and mentally, and my brother Jose and I had shared the mental strain. It’s what had to be done. Living without a father meant money was tight, mom worked two jobs, and my brother and I took care of each other when she worked. For a brief period of time the quality of our lives slowly started to improve as our soon-to-be step-dad became an integral part of our family. He paid attention to the needs of my mom, my brother, and me. But our prosperity was short-lived as my step dad’s chronic alcoholism became more and more recurrent. When I was eight, my younger brother Fernando’s birth complicated things even further. As my step-dad slipped away, my mom continued working, and Fernando’s care was left to Jose and me. I cooked, Jose cleaned, I dressed Fernando, Jose put him to bed. We did what we had to do. As undocumented immigrants and with little to no family around us, we had to rely on each other. Fearing that any disclosure of our status would risk deportation, we kept to ourselves when dealing with any financial and medical issues. I avoided going on certain school trips, and at times I was discouraged to even meet new people. I felt isolated and at times disillusioned; my grades started to slip. Over time, however, I grew determined to improve the quality of life for my family and myself. Without a father figure to teach me the things a father could, I became my own teacher. I learned how to fix a bike, how to swim, and even how to talk to girls. I became resourceful, fixing shoes with strips of duct tape, and I even found a job to help pay bills. I became as independent as I could to lessen the time and money mom had to spend raising me. I also worked to apply myself constructively in other ways. I worked hard and took my grades from Bs and Cs to consecutive straight A’s. I shattered my school’s 1ooM breaststroke record, and learned how to play the clarinet, saxophone, and the oboe. Plus, I not only became the first student in my school to pass the AP Physics 1 exam, I’m currently pioneering my school’s first AP Physics 2 course ever. These changes inspired me to help others. I became president of the California Scholarship Federation, providing students with information to prepare them for college, while creating opportunities for my peers to play a bigger part in our community. I began tutoring kids, teens, and adults on a variety of subjects ranging from basic English to home improvement and even Calculus. As the captain of the water polo and swim team I’ve led practices crafted to individually push my comrades to their limits, and I’ve counseled friends through circumstances similar to mine. I’ve done tons, and I can finally say I’m proud of that. But I’m excited to say that there’s so much I have yet to do. I haven’t danced the tango, solved a Rubix Cube, explored how perpetual motion might fuel space exploration, or seen the World Trade Center. And I have yet to see the person that Fernando will become. I’ll do as much as I can from now on. Not because I have to. Because I choose to.
There’s so much to love about this essay.
Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at how the author wrote this essay so you can figure out how to write yours:
First, the author brainstormed the content of his essay using the Feelings and Needs Exercise.
Did you spot the elements of that exercise? If not, here they are:
Challenges: Domestic abuse, alcoholic step-dad, little brother Fernando’s birth, family’s undocumented status
Effects: Author and his brother shared the mental strain, father was arrested, funds were tight, mom worked two jobs, brothers took care of one another, they kept to themselves when dealing with financial and medical issues, avoided going on certain school trips, at times author was discouraged from meeting new people, grades started to slip
Feelings: Confused yet understanding, anxious, worried, relieved, alone, lost, vulnerable, lonely, disconnected, alone, heartbroken, ashamed, disillusioned
Needs: Order, autonomy, reassurance, growth, safety, understanding, empathy, hope, support, self-acceptance
What He Did About It: Took care of his youngest brother; became his own teacher; learned how to fix a bike, swim, socialize; found a job to help pay bills; improved his grades; broke a school swimming record; learned to play instruments; became the first student in his school to pass the AP Physics 1 exam; took a leadership role in clubs; and tutored and counseled friends and peers
What He Learned: He’s proud of what he’s done, but wants to do more: dance the tango, solve a Rubix Cube, explore perpetual motion, see the World Trade Center, see his little brother grow up … and do you notice the value here? Hunger . That was his number one value, by the way. And he ends by saying he’ll do these things not because he has to, but because he chooses to. This sounds like autonomy . Another one of his top values.
That’s why I love beginning with this exercise. With just 15-20 minutes of focused work, you can map out your whole story.
Next, the author used Narrative Structure to give shape to his essay.
Did you spot the Narrative Structure elements? If not, here they are:
Inciting Incident: While the author is brushing his teeth, his father is arrested for domestic abuse.
Status Quo: His father had hurt his mom physically and mentally, and the author and his brother had shared the mental strain. “It’s what had to be done,” he writes.
Raising the Stakes: The entire second and third paragraphs, which describe how living without a father meant money was tight. Things improved for a while after his mother remarried, but his stepdad’s chronic alcoholism (raise the stakes) plus a new little brother (raise the stakes again) made things even tougher. As if that weren’t enough, the author raises the stakes even further by revealing that his family was undocumented at the time.
Moment of Truth: At his lowest point, he decides to do something about it. “I grew determined to improve the quality of life for my family and myself,” he writes, then goes on to tell us all the amazing things he taught himself, the skills he learned, and interests he pursued. It’s inspiring.
New Status Quo: Remember that the initial Status Quo was the author doing “what had to be done.” Not so, by the end of the essay. In the final lines, he writes, “I’ll do as much as I can from now on. Not because I have to. Because I choose to.”
And again, notice that those fit within the framework of:
⅓: Challenges he faced and their impacts on him
⅓: What he did to work through them
⅓: What he learned through the process
Narrative structure FAQs
Q: Are there any situations where I may not want to write about my life struggles?
A: Yes. Sometimes it can be too difficult to discuss them. Or you may be actively dealing with a challenge. If this is the case, reach out to your counselor, a trusted mentor, or, if possible, a therapist.
If money is an issue (i.e., you feel you can’t afford a therapist) and you don’t feel comfortable sharing your struggles with your counselor, ask them if they can refer you to a therapist or counselor who works on a sliding scale. Many mental health professionals work with clients at low rates or for free.
You may also choose to write about the struggles you’ve faced without getting into all the details. Saying, for example, that you experienced verbal abuse from your father, for example, may be enough; you don’t necessarily need to share the specifics.
Q: Should I write about mental health challenges?
A: Mental health can be very difficult to write about for a few reasons:
If a student is still very much struggling through the challenges they describe, the admission reader may wonder if the student is ready for college.
In some cases, the admission officer may feel that a student is ready for college, but their institution may not be adequately equipped to help them thrive (not all colleges have the same kinds of resources, unfortunately).
Unfortunately, mental health challenges have become so common these days that many students write personal statements about them, and so it can be difficult to stand out. If you’re feeling compelled to write about a mental health challenge, consider brainstorming some uncommon connections .
Questions to ask yourself if you’re considering writing about mental health challenges:
Do I have any other topics I could write on? Are there other interesting parts of myself I’d like to share that could reveal important skills, qualities, and values? Or must I write about this? (Beware the trap discussed earlier of feeling like you must write about a challenge to write a great personal statement—it’s not true! The authors of the “ My Laptop Stickers” essay the "Home” essay were students who faced challenges but chose not to write about them.)
Have I truly worked through this? Am I able to devote the middle third of my essay to actions I’ve taken to work through the challenge and the final third to what I’ve learned? (You may not know the answers to these questions until you’ve done some writing. Maybe run your challenge through the Feelings and Needs Exercise to see what surfaces. Even if this doesn’t end up being your personal statement topic, you might learn something important about yourself.)
If I were an admission officer reading this essay, would I feel like this student has their situation handled and they are truly ready for college? (If you’re unsure, it’s a great idea to have 2-3 folks read it who have a good understanding of what colleges are looking for.)
Could the mental health challenge be a brief explanation in the Additional Info section? To see if this might work for you, see how briefly you can describe your mental health challenge using factual bullet points. Devote one bullet point to the challenge, another bullet point to what you’ve done about it, and a final bullet point describing briefly what you’ve learned.
Important: If you have a counselor, I strongly recommend consulting with them as you decide whether to discuss a mental health challenge in your personal statement. If your counselor is writing a letter on your behalf, some of the information you’d like to share may already be accounted for. Talk to them and find out.
Q: Are there any situations where I may not want to write about my career in my personal statement … even if I know what it is?
A: For sure. Say you’re interested in becoming a doctor, but you’re applying to a medical program with a supplemental prompt asking why you want to become a doctor. If you want to avoid repetition, you might not explicitly mention becoming a doctor at the end of your personal statement (you don’t have to discuss your career at all in a personal statement; many students are unsure.). Instead, you might describe how you’ve developed qualities that will equip you for a career as a doctor (e.g., creativity, for example, or the ability to lead a team).
Narrative Structure step-by-step recap :
Complete the brainstorming exercises, as these will help no matter which structure you choose. Take special care to complete the Feelings and Needs Exercise, as it will help you outline your essay.
Create an outline using the Narrative Structure described above.
Write a first draft.
Check out my blog for more Narrative Structure examples.
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How to write your best college application essay
University of Rochester dean of undergraduate admissions offers college applicants some dos and don’ts in writing the personal statement.
By robert alexander, the dean of undergraduate admissions, financial aid, and enrollment management for arts, sciences & engineering, university of rochester..
Many universities ask applicants to include a college application essay—usually a personal statement or similar essay—along with their application materials. With more students applying to selective colleges than ever, and with many of those colleges placing less emphasis on standardized test scores, the admissions essay can be a crucial component of the applicant’s file.
We’ve made that shift in emphasis away from testing at the University of Rochester . As a selective private research university with programs in the liberal arts, sciences, and engineering, the undergraduate college draws from a global pool of high-achieving students. Since nearly all of those candidates are at or near the top of their class, we use a holistic approach to select those with strong ethical character who align with our institutional values. So, as an applicant, how can you distinguish yourself?
One of the most important ways is through your college application essay.
Many students may dread this part of the process. Yet with the right attitude and strategy, you can write an essay that will improve your candidacy for admission. A good college application essay will not overcome poor grades for a student at the lowest end of a school’s applicant pool, but it can help a qualified candidate stand out from the crowd.
Tackle the college essay topic
The traditional college application essay usually requires an open-ended personal statement in response to broad or general prompts that might have you share a story, reflect on an event, or discuss a topic. The Common Application, Coalition for College Application, and other online college application forms typically provide a set of options from which you can choose.
Of course, some college and universities require you to respond to a specific prompt or question. In that case, you want to make sure to answer that prompt or question clearly and directly.
Whether the guidelines are open-ended or specific, the topic itself is less important than how you express yourself.
And above all: Don’t write an admissions essay about something you think sounds impressive or that you think the admissions officer wants to read. While it’s fine to look at college application essay examples, don’t simply mimic one. Write about something truly important to you.
Breadth versus depth?
- Dig deep into one aspect of your topic instead of trying to cover many aspects superficially in your college essay. Be brief in explaining who, what, and where; leave plenty of room for why and how .
→ For example : If you’re writing about a life-changing trip, don’t spend six paragraphs on where you traveled, how long it took to get there, and the weather. We want to know why you went and why the experience was meaningful. How are you different now because of it?
Details bring your application essay to life
- Be specific. It’s the details, rather than any general statements, that bring your essay—and hence, you—to life for an admissions officer who is reading hundreds of personal statements.
→ For example : If you’re writing about how much you loved playing your high school sport, tell a story about a specific game-winning play (or a devastating loss), how you felt, and what you learned.
Writing a college application essay: dos and don’ts
Here are a few guidelines for crafting a college application essay that effectively conveys who you are while also helping you stand out from the thousands of other applicants.
- Present yourself in a dimension that reaches beyond grades, recommendations, and test scores. Think of the things that built your character—maybe a special relationship in your life, your most meaningful extracurricular activity, or a class or idea that changed the way you think. We want to know what makes you tick, how you might fit into our community, and how your distinctive qualities and experiences would contribute to our interesting and dynamic campus.
- Be sure your essay reflects you. Ask yourself: Am I the only person who could have written this essay? Or could everyone else in my senior class have written it?
- Tell a story about yourself with a beginning, middle, and end. Hook the reader with a compelling opening paragraph—surprise us, teach us something we didn’t know, or share something vulnerable and make us curious to read more. Close with a clear ending that ties back to your opening or provides a captivating conclusion to your story.
- Ask someone to proofread your essay or to offer feedback—but be sure your essay is written in your own voice and style. It won’t serve you well for someone else to write your essay for you!
- Stay within the required—or suggested—length. Usually it is about 650 words. This shows that you can follow directions. Plus, good writers can adhere to a word limit and still get their point across.
- Pay attention to formatting. If you compose your essay in a word processing software program (like Microsoft Word or Google Docs) in order to use spellcheck or other features, be sure to review it again after copy-and-pasting into the application itself. Some of the original formatting might be lost because different combinations of word processing and web browsers can cause errors. Double-check before clicking “submit”!
And a few don’ts:
- Humor and creativity can work, provided they are not taken to an extreme. Remember: You don’t know your reader’s sense of humor—and it might not be the same as yours.
- Don’t be controversial or sensational for its own sake; but it’s OK to take a risk if you’re sharing a unique viewpoint or a particularly strong conviction that you hold dear.
- You’re not writing a legal brief for the Supreme Court or trying to sway the audience to your side of an argument. Instead, you’re attempting to share something of yourself with the admissions committee.
- Avoid using words that are not in your regular vocabulary. Again, be yourself.
- Don’t repeat information available in other parts of your application, unless you’re using your college admissions essay to expand upon an activity or academic opportunity that was particularly meaningful to you.
- Avoid regurgitating your resume or writing about your entire life’s history. Listing every award and semester you made honor roll is unnecessary, but sharing how you felt when a beloved yet demanding English teacher said you were his best student has more potential.
Ultimately, your college application essay is a chance to tell the admissions committee who you are and what is important to you. We want to know: What are your values?
At the University of Rochester, for example, we have a motto: Meliora, meaning “ever better.” So, it stands to reason that when we read an application essay, we want to know: How will you make yourself, your community, or the world better?
Tell us your story. This may be your best chance to come through as an individual, so make the most of this opportunity!
About Robert Alexander
Robert Alexander, the dean of undergraduate admissions, financial aid, and enrollment management for Arts, Sciences & Engineering at the University of Rochester, has more than 22 years of enrollment management experience in higher education. He joined Rochester in June 2020 and previously served in senior admissions, enrollment, and communications roles at Millsaps College, University of the Pacific, and Tulane University.
Rochester’s dean of undergraduate admissions offers advice on which courses to take, and why.
Grades. Clubs. Scores. Essays. Interviews. We’ve culled the advice of seasoned admissions professionals from the University of Rochester for a roadmap of what to do—and what to avoid.
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How to Write an Amazing Common App Essay (2023–2024) — Examples Included
Learn how to come up with a unique topic and choose the right common app essay prompt to write a strong personal statement and get into your dream college. plus, a full-length common app essay example.
Writing a strong common app essay will help you stand out to colleges, beyond your GPA and TEst scores
(Note: This guide can also be found in our free, 110-page comprehensive guide to top college admissions, How to Get Into America’s Elite Colleges: The Ultimate Guide . )
Part 1: Introduction
What is the common application.
Why does the Common App Essay—and other college essays—matter?
What are these mystical college essays, anyway?
Common App Essay Prompts 2023–2024
Part 2: Pre-writing your Common App Essay
Brainstorming Common App Essay topics
Essay writing timelines: how to write your Common App personal statement if you have six months, three months, one month, or even less
Part 3: Choosing your Common App Essay topic
Part 4: writing your common app essay.
What 'type' of essay do you have to write?
Writing and revising: common errors
Part 5: Common App Essay example
Part 6: frequently asked questions.
Applying to college: the phrase alone can instill terror in the hearts of high school seniors, and even in those of us who have lived through the experience.
Every year, the college application process seems to get more complex, and more intense. If you’re a student, you might be reviewing rumors and horror stories about that classmate of yours with perfect grades and a 1500 SAT score who somehow got rejected from every Ivy League school . If you’re a parent, you might be afraid of how much the college admissions system has changed and grown more competitive since you were your kids’ age, or perhaps you never had to navigate this system at all.
One of the biggest fears of many students and parents is the sheer anonymity of the process. You, the college applicant, have worked hard through high school, earning great grades, expanding your worldview through extracurricular activities , and contributing to your community… and now, it can seem pretty unjust to throw yourself at the mercy of an application system that seems arbitrary, blind to your personality, or even uncaring.
There’s good news, though.
The college application process has a logic to it—and it’s one that you, the applicant, can both navigate and trust. All those essays, all those forms, all those questions? They’re about getting you in touch with the most authentic and vibrant version of yourself. In fact, if tackled with intelligence, reflection, and organization, the college process can actually offer you a chance to make the admissions process about you as a person, rather than about a distant name on a screen.
You might be familiar with the Common Application , Common App for short, which serves as a single application shared by over 900 colleges, including every Ivy League school and similarly elite universities like Stanford, Caltech, and the University of Chicago. The Common App allows you to enter information like your name, demographics, extracurricular activities, and more just once for every school that uses it. It’s also where you’ll encounter “The Common App Essay,” otherwise known as your personal statement (PS), which is what this guide will focus on.
Though not every school uses the Common App—many state or public schools often have their own systems—the work you do in writing your Common App Essay will serve you in every other component of the process, including applying to non-Common App schools and writing the secondary and supplemental essays that often accompany both types of applications.
(Suggested reading: Which Schools Use the Common App? The Rank-Ordered List )
Why does the Common App Essay—and any other college essay—matter?
You may have heard the phrase “holistic admissions” thrown around—many universities follow this model, which means they don’t necessarily have an ACT or SAT cutoff score, nor do they require a certain number of AP/IB/Honors courses. Instead, they’re trying to get to know candidates as humans. Admissions officers are people—people who would be horribly bored if their job came down to just numbers, statistics, cutoffs, and counting up your AP, SAT, and ACT scores.
In order to get into your dream school, you’ll need not only great grades and test scores, but also a strong personal statement.
Why? Your personal statement is the single loudest ‘qualitative’ element of your application. It brings to life the student—you!—behind your statistics and demographics. It’s the way you communicate with the admissions committee as a person and potential member of the campus community. With more people applying to colleges every year, admissions officers know they can have their pick of bright and motivated students. In addition to seeing your talents and achievements on paper, they need a chance to imagine what you might be like as a walking, talking human being.
Many students and parents wonder how big of a role essays play when it comes to college admissions decisions. While the importance of college essays—which are written over a period of a few weeks or, ideally, a few months—varies from school to school, most experts estimate that they make up for anywhere from 10 to 30 percent of admissions decisions!
In other words, your four years of schoolwork, AP, IB, ACT, and SAT exams, community service, volunteering, and so on account for only 70 to 90 percent. These estimates are provided not to scare you, but rather to emphasize how critical it is for you to spend at least as much time on your college essays as would on any other high school pursuit.
Fortunately, we’re going to talk about every aspect of your personal statement in this guide and reflect on some of the lessons we’ve taken from nearly 20 years of coaching students through the college application process and getting into their dream schools.
Gain instant access to essay examples for every supplemental essay prompt from the top universities and BS/MD programs in the United States.
Let’s define our terms:
Personal statement (PS): When people refer to the personal statement, they’re talking about the 650-word Common Application Essay, which all schools using the Common App will see. Your personal statement is your major chance to articulate the qualitative aspects of yourself to the admissions committee and the admissions committee’s major chance to get to know you as a person. Throughout this guide, "Common App Essay," "Common App personal statement," and "personal statement" are used interchangeably.
Secondary or supplemental essays: These are the essays that schools can choose to have you write on top of the core Common App Essay. They might invite you to talk more about an extracurricular activity on your resumé, to reflect on a quote from a famous alumna/alumnus of the college, or to share your thoughts on any number of wide-ranging topics.
Common App Essay prompts 2023–2024
Here are the 2023–2024 Common App Essay prompts —all seven prompts are exactly the same as last year. We’ll address how to think about them shortly, so just lodge them in your brain for now.
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.
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?
Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
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?
Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
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?
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.
Broad, right? You’ve got 650 free words to articulate what moves you, what excites you, what animates or explains you.
This means your essays are not a place to restate what can already be found on your resumé, CV, or Common App Activities section . They’re also not a place to prove that you’ve had some major epiphany, changed the world, or seen the truth of reality at age eighteen. They can be but do not have to be—by any means—about a major traumatic experience. They can but need not discuss family, identity, race, gender, or class.
Instead, they are a place to give the admissions committee a chance to see the you that your friends, classmates, teachers, teammates, and family know. We’ve seen students write about the New England Patriots, the poetry of John Keats, their grandparents’ village, their obsession with keeping too many Google Chrome tabs open, how grilling meats represented a rite of passage, and many more topics that range from the super-serious to the lighthearted but still meaningful.
The Common App Essay prompts are diverse enough that they allow you to write about pretty much anything. Therefore, we encourage you to brainstorm your best stories first and then think about which question to answer. Admissions committees have no preference for which prompt you choose. Additionally, we encourage you to review additional successful college essay examples .
Furthermore, keep in mind that the Common App Additional Information Section contains an optional, 250-word space to describe how COVID-19 has impacted you . Therefore, you do not need to use your Common App Essay to provide this context. That said, it’s also perfectly fine to write about or touch on COVID-19— if the pandemic is a backdrop that allows you to shine a light on what’s unique and interesting about you in the manner we described above.
Let’s meet our students
Throughout this guide, we’re going to refer to a few Common App Essay examples. These examples are closely based on essays we have worked on with students over the past two decades—students who successfully met their admissions goals, including getting into multiple Ivy League and other top-tier schools.
Let’s meet our students now.
Student #1: Ramya: Ramya intends to be premed in college, but isn’t sure if she wants to major in biology or something else entirely. She’s spent her high school years participating in a variety of activities. She played soccer, but wasn’t the star player. She was involved in student government, performed in cultural shows as a dancer, and did speech events.
What’s not on Ramya's resumé? She is a rabid fan of the New England Patriots, despite living in California for most of her life. And, she’s very close to her father and has a tight-knit group of friends.
Student #2: Anita: Anita has an aptitude for English and history. She likes writing, but she’s not on the school newspaper, nor has she ever published a piece of fiction or poetry, which makes her nervous about calling herself a writer. She spends much of her time on mock trial—in fact she’s nationally competitive at it—and lots of people tell her she’d make a great lawyer. But she doesn’t think she wants to major in political science or philosophy; she may not even want to do anything associated with mock trial in college.
What’s not on her resumé? She loves the outdoors, though she has nothing concretely extracurricular to prove it—she’s never been a camp counselor or a Girl Scout.
Student #3: Josh: Josh isn’t sure what he wants to study. He’s a solid student, though no particular subject gets his pulse racing. In his free time he draws comic strips, and he’s had a few on display at various community events in his town. He plays basketball and piano.
What’s not on his resumé? Josh has a complicated relationship with piano—his parents pushed him into it, and he’d like to quit as soon as possible. And, he’s very close to his big brother, who recently left for college. He also has a little sister, who he’s never been tight with.
Student #4: Michael: Michael lives in a small coastal town and attends a big public high school. After school he has a job scooping ice cream, and though he’s not expected to contribute to his family’s income, he doesn’t have much time for clubs or sports, which aren’t very important at his school. He generally likes chemistry, but he isn’t sure what he wants to do with that. He doesn’t want to be premed, and he can’t imagine being a chemist, so he’s undecided about what to major in.
What’s not on his resumé? Michael is no great surfer by competitive standards, but he learned how to stand up on a board at a young age because his grandfather, who’s from Hawaii, taught him. His grandfather recently passed away.
Of course, the terrifying part of starting any new piece of writing—whether you’re a professional, seasoned author, or a high schooler planning for college—is the spooky glare of the blank page, that blinking cursor that doesn’t quite seem to yield to you.
One of the major challenges many students face when applying to college is knowing that they are full of passion and potential energy which hasn’t yet been converted into kinetic energy. That can make trying to communicate who you are, as well as who you hope to become, a daunting task. You might worry about sounding generic or not sounding like yourself or not sounding “smart” or “wise” enough.
The best antidote to all of these concerns, from writer’s block to finding your voice, is to prepare yourself emotionally and creatively well before you sit down to type out your personal statement.
Here’s how you can attack your Common App personal statement and secondary essays if you have a few months before they’re due. We are big proponents of starting early—ideally in June.
Why so early? You may not be thrilled at the prospect of spending the summer before your senior year on college applications. But getting going in June after your junior year and committing to a few exercises over the summer will be like spring training for summer athletes. By the time you get to August, when you’re drafting your Common App Essay and your secondary essays in full, you will be warmed up, and much of the hardest work—that is, the reflection and figuring out what you want to say—will be done for you.
Starting early will also give you time to hand a strong draft of your essay to the teachers from whom you plan to request letters of recommendation for college . If your recommenders know what you’re saying about yourself, they can help tell the same story about you but from a different perspective. This is crucial because your application is a chance to offer not only the facts about you but also a narrative of you—a sense of who you are, how you move through the world, and what you hope to become. That means that each component of your application—your Common App personal statement, your supplemental college essays , your teacher recommendations, and the classes you’ve taken—is like an episode in your story.
Nevertheless, we’ve also offered some adjusted timelines lower down in case you don’t have the whole summer to work with.
Brainstorming Common App Essay topics and working with prompts (2–3 weeks)
Review the Common App prompts and identify which ones get your juices flowing. You can also use our expanded prompts, given in the bulletpoints below, to help you brainstorm and freewrite over the summer. We’re starting with Common App Essay Prompt 7, since it is the broad, general question. Then we’ll circle back and go through Prompts 1–6.
Prompt 7: Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
Make a list of themes and broad topics that matter to you. What do you, your friends, and family spend a lot of time thinking about or talking about? (Note: This is not the same as asking for your list of extracurricular activities.) Tell the story of an important day or event in relation to one of these topics.
Who’s a family member who lives with you and is important to you? Think of a specific time they helped you with something. Tell the story. What’s an important conversation you had with them? Tell the story.
Think of any person—family, friend, teacher, etc.—who has been important to you. When did you first meet them? Tell the story. When did you have a crucial, meaningful, or important conversation with them? Tell the story.
Make a list of experiences that have been important to you. These do not have to be dramatic, tragic, traumatic, or prove that you changed the world, though they can be any of those. Perhaps a particular summer that mattered a lot? Or an experience with a friend or family member who shaped you—it could be a specific day spent with them, or a weekend, summer, or year.
Remember: Specific anecdotes are your friend when drafting your Common App personal statement. Try to think of a story you often tell people that shows something about you. One of the best pieces of advice we can give you—and something you’ll see reflected in all of the following prompts—is to anchor things in anecdote or story as much as possible.
Prompt 1: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
Where did you grow up? Describe your neighborhood, town, or community. Big or small? What makes it unlike other parts of the world? How has it affected you? What images are important for someone who has never been to your hometown/neighborhood/community to see? For instance, is there farmland all around you, grain silos, cows? A Chick-Fil-A on every block?
Where is home for your parents? Does their home impact your day-to-day life? Describe the first time you saw their home, in story form.
Did you grow up considering another place that is not where you currently live home? Tell the story of the first time you went there or the first time you remember going there. Was there a particular time—a summer, or a year—when that place became important? Tell that story.
What’s the most memorable thing about you? What do people in your community or school know you for? Tell the story of the first time you did this thing. Tell the story of the most meaningful time you did this thing—it might be, say, when you won a game, but it also might be when you lost a game, or when you quit the team.
How have you spent your summers in high school? In childhood? Tell a story of a memorable day during a memorable summer. Where were you? Why did it matter? Does what happened that day influence you today? How?
Prompt 2: The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
What major changes have you been through? A move? Changing schools? Losing a loved one or a friend? (Avoid writing about romantic relationships and breakups in your essays, but feel free to mine them in your freewriting.) Tell the story of the day that change occurred—the day you moved, the first day at the new school or the last day at the old school, the day you got bad news about a family member or a friend, etc.
Did you ever quit an extracurricular activity or a job? Why? Tell the story of the day that happened, and of the day you decided to quit.
What class was hardest for you in high school? Why? Tell the story of a specific class assignment that was difficult. Now tell the story of a specific class assignment that caused you to have a breakthrough, or changed your mind about something.
Have you ever been forced to try something you weren’t good at? How’d it go? Tell the story of the day you tried it. Who encouraged you to? Where were you?
Have you faced a disability, a mental or physical health issue, or other significant challenge while in high school? Think of a day when you are proud of how you handled or carried yourself in the face of this challenge. (Recommended reading: How to Effectively Write About a Disability in a College Essay )
Prompt 3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
What values did you grow up holding dear? Are they the same ones today? Tell the story of the first time you learned about these values—say, a morning at Sunday School or a conversation with a grandparent. If they’ve changed, tell the story of the moment (as best you can place it) when they changed—say, in a classroom, in a conversation with a friend, etc.
Is there a prevalent belief in your family or community with which you disagree? How did you come to disagree? Tell the story of an argument—cordial or not—that you’ve had with someone about this issue. Tell the story of a time you are proud of how you handled conflict in relation to this disagreement.
When were you wrong about something? Tell the story of how you figured out you were wrong. Who helped you get there?
Prompt 4: Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
Have you ever had an interaction with a stranger or someone whom you didn’t know well that left a profound impact on you?
How has your relationship to gratitude changed over time, either recently or in an earlier period of your life? What events spurred this change?
Have you ever been the recipient of an unexpected gift or favor that inspired you to “pay it forward” and help someone else who wasn’t anticipating it?
What are you thankful for in your life right now? Make a list of things, people, or circumstances for which you are grateful, no matter how big or small. You might even complete this exercise daily over a period of several days or weeks, similar to a gratitude journal.
Prompt 5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
They say a piece of short fiction is about a moment after which nothing will be the same again. Have you lived through one of those moments? What was it? Tell it the way you’d write a short story.
Eureka! Have you ever had a moment when everything just *clicked*? Tell the story of that realization—set the scene, down to every image, who was or wasn’t in the room.
Forget medals, victories, grades—what intangible, off-your-resumé quality or moment of your life are you proudest of? Tell the story of the day that happened.
Prompt 6: Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
Let’s say you’re left alone an entire weekend in your house. What do you get up to? Tell the story of a time that’s happened—or imagine, on the page, what that would be like. Set the scene: what rooms are you in in your house, or are you in your house at all? Where do you go? What do you bring with you?
What activities have you self-started—that is, what have you done without ever being told to? Tell the story of the first day you started doing that thing.
What do your friends come to you seeking help with? Tell the story of a time when you think you did a great job of helping another person. Now, to make sure you stay humble, tell the story of when that person helped you.
At the end of this brainstorming exercise, our students, Ramya, Anita, Josh, and Michael, will have discovered even more things not on their resumé that can expand what all they might write about.
Freewriting (3–4 weeks)
Your job, if you’ve started this early, is not to start writing your draft immediately, or even to choose which Common App prompt you plan to select. First, you’re going to freewrite using the above prompts as a guide—choose the ones you like, or print them out, cut them up, and put them in a hat; each day, shake up the hat and grab one at random!
Freewriting is one of the fun parts, so the more you can do it, the better. There are a number of ways to approach freewriting, and all of them are meant to keep you limber, loose, and free. You want to sound authentic in your essay—which means not stiffening up under pressure, trying to sound formal, or more stereotypically “adult” or “learned,” as many students do. The more you can sound like you while freewriting, the stronger position you’ll be in when it comes to drafting the personal statement.
Buy a few composition notebooks: Those $1 things, available at Walmart or the like. Work in these for the summer. No need to get precious—no fancy Moleskines here, and no laptops or tablets unless you are physically unable to write by hand.
Why? Take the cartoonist Lynda Barry’s wise words here: “There is a kind of story that comes from hand. Writing which is different from a tapping-on-a-keyboard-kind-of-story. For one thing, there is no delete button, making the experience more lifelike right away. You can’t delete the things you feel unsure about and because of this, the things you feel unsure about have a much better chance of being able to exist long enough to reveal themselves.”
Set aside six minutes each morning, or a few times a week, for the period of time you’re freewriting. Six minutes, that’s it! Put your timer on, put your pen to paper, and don’t stop writing until the timer goes off. If you run out of things to write, write, “I don’t know I’m bored I don’t know help help I hate writing!” until new words come. What are you going to write about during those six minutes? You can try thinking about those Common App essay prompts—they’re so broad that they should let you in in some way. Think: what’s my obstacle, my identity, the thing I love?
Note that Anita isn’t sitting down to write her disquisition on “how my life as a mock trial champion makes me prepared to go to law school.” Instead, what might come out as she writes by hand is, “I remember the rush the first time I stood up at a mock trial tournament. I was wearing a blazer and my mom’s heels and they were so uncomfortable. It was so overheated in the room and I’d drunk way too much Mountain Dew. But why did I love playing this role of attorney? Was it the theater? The chance to finally argue without getting in trouble at the dinner table?”
If six minutes doesn’t work for you, or if you think you’re not getting in the zone in that amount of time, try doing three pages in your composition notebook instead. Write in big letters and double-space. Let your hand roam free.
Don’t show anyone anything you have written yet. And don’t reread it immediately. Let all that you’ve written sit, latent, so you’re not tempted to edit it right off the bat. Why? Allowing your writing to breathe away from you can prevent you from committing one of the cardinal sins of personal statement-writing—but also all writing!—trying to force the story into what you think it should be instead of what it is.
To get more concrete: let’s say Michael wrote about his grandfather teaching him to surf in answer to several of those prompts (about a crucial summer and a person important to him). But now he’s so excited about that that he immediately wants to turn it into his draft. As he’s writing, he gets self-conscious, thinking, Why am I writing about surfing when I’m not a competitive surfer, and when it’s only something I do occasionally? Or say Michael shows it to an English teacher, who gets distracted by the quality of Michaels prose—which was meant to be free and unedited—and tells him to choose another topic, since this one isn’t “singing” yet. Respect your process and let these things sit.
In order to have this kind of time freedom, you’ll have to start early. And if you spend your summer warming up and training for the main event, you can start rereading your body of freewriting by the end of July.
Essay writing timelines: How to write your Common App Essay if you have six months, three months, one month, or even less
(Recommended reading: The Ideal College Application Timeline )
In an ideal world, you can start writing and planning for your college essays the summer before your senior year. But many students have prior commitments that make following a six-month (June–December) timeline difficult. So here are a few adjusted timelines that can allow you to take advantage of the brainstorming and freewriting process even if you don’t have the full six-month window.
Six months—June to December (ideal if you are applying early action or early decision anywhere):
June: Brainstorm and work with prompts, 2–3 weeks
July: Freewrite, 3–4 weeks
End of July/beginning of August: Complete first draft of Common App personal statement
Week two of August: Complete second draft (here is where the major revision work comes in)
Weeks 3–4 of August: Complete third and fourth drafts
Beginning of September: Seek feedback, if you have not already, from a trusted admissions counselor, English teacher, or other advisor
End of September: Complete final draft
Now you have October to complete your secondary essays. November is usually when early action/early decision deadlines hit. So by the end of October, you will have completed your application for anywhere you’re applying early; now you can use the last few weeks of November to complete any remaining secondary essays for schools with December or January due dates (most regular decision deadlines).
Three months—August to October (barely making the early application/early decision deadline):
First two weeks of August: Brainstorm and work with prompts
Second two weeks of August: Freewrite
First week of September: Complete first draft of Common App personal statement
Week two of September: Complete second draft (here is where the major revision work comes in)
Weeks 3–4 of September: Complete third and fourth drafts
Beginning of October: Seek feedback, if you have not already, from a trusted admissions counselor, English teacher, or other advisor
Week two of October: Complete final draft
Now you have the second two weeks of October to complete your secondary essays for anywhere you are applying early with a November due date, and the rest of November to complete any remaining secondary essays for schools with December and January due dates (most regular decision deadlines).
One month—October to November (for regular decision schools):
First week of October: Brainstorm and work with prompts
Second week of October: Freewrite
Third week of October: Complete first draft of Common App personal statement
Last week of October: Complete second draft (here is where the major revision work comes in)
First two weeks of November: Complete third and fourth drafts
Mid-November, before Thanksgiving break: Seek feedback, if you have not already, from a trusted admissions counselor, English teacher, or other advisor
Last week of November: Complete final draft
Now you have December to complete any remaining secondary essays for schools with December and January due dates (most regular decision deadlines).
Mega crunch time—starting in November (in case you get started on your application really late and are down to less than one month, use the following timeline):
2–4 days: Brainstorm and work with prompts
2–3 days: Freewrite
48 hours after freewriting ends: Complete first draft of Common App personal statement
72 hours after first draft: Complete second draft (here is where the major revision work comes in). In addition, seek feedback between your second and third drafts, if you have not already done so, from a trusted admissions counselor, English teacher, or other advisor
48 hours after receiving feedback: Complete third draft
48 hours after third draft, if time permits: Complete fourth and final draft
Note: Some elite public universities, such as UC Berkeley and UCLA, have November application deadlines, so make sure that you write down your college list , with deadlines and requirements, by the end of September to ensure that you don’t miss anything.
(Related reading: How to Write Great UC Essays )
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With all this free-written raw material in hand, it’s time to choose the right topic. What notes should your essay hit? Here are some characteristics that a good Common App Essay topic contains:
1. Anecdote and specificity.
As you saw in the prompts above, we’re big advocates of beginning with a particular story or anecdote. This is not the only way to start an essay, but it’s a classic one. Journalists call this a “lede”—it’s a hook that brings the reader into a wider topic. Your essay will always go beyond the anecdote, but an anecdote offers a reader an easy, smooth way into your personal statement.
A good Common App Essay topic can relate, as much as possible, to a particular anecdote, story, or even scene. Let’s say Josh found himself writing about his siblings—his older brother who just left for college, and his little sister who he’s spent more time with since his brother left. His essay shouldn’t start, “I love my little sister,” but instead, “I remember the first time my younger sister and I connected. It was July, and our older brother had just gone to college, leaving the two of us alone at home together for the first time.”
A good essay begins at a specific point in time and revolves around a specific event. An essay without an anecdote or specific story is an essay topic , not an essay. So, pull from your freewriting: where did you find yourself writing about a particular event, story, anecdote, or point in time?
Another way of thinking about this is: does your potential topic contain a person (other than you), a setting, and a beginning/middle/end? That gives you a character, a place, and a plot—all crucial elements of an essay.
One important note is that you don’t have to start with the anecdote—it doesn’t have to be your “lede.” That might make you formulaic. But you’ll want one to work with, to anchor the piece at some point.
2. Tension, conflict, and opportunity to show growth.
Josh might write a lovely reflection on how close he and his brother were, or how much he likes his little sister—but that doesn’t give the admissions committee much to work with. Why? Because your topic needs to display your ability to grow and show change over a period of time. If Josh has always had a perfect relationship with his sister, well—first, no one will believe that, and second, Josh is not really telling a story.
So as you’re identifying the right anecdote for your essay, make sure you have a point of tension—a point where we, the reader, wonder if everything will turn out okay. For Josh, this might mean beginning with a time before he and his sister were close—say, when all the siblings were in the house and there wasn’t much time for the two to connect. Then Josh would tell us about what changed as soon as the brother left, and in there he might find an opening anecdote.
3. A wider relevance or a ‘lesson.’
Your essay doesn’t have to demonstrate that you underwent some great metamorphosis or epiphany as a child or teenager, but does your possible topic have a takeaway to work with? You’re looking for something that you can put in your pocket and carry into the future, and in an impressive and ideal world, something that makes the reader of the essay say, “Wow, I like that way of thinking, and I might even return to that one day.”
Another way of thinking about this is: your essay is about how your past influences your future, or the way you think now. Michael has settled on his grandfather teaching him to surf. That’s a fruitful topic, not just because it contains two characters (Michael and his grandfather), but also because it contains a place (the ocean, or, say, a surf shop), a plot (Michael couldn’t surf in the beginning, then learned in the middle, now at the end Michael can surf and tell us about it), but also because the end includes a lesson and a chance to spin that forward, perhaps by talking about how the sport has taught Michael how to be calm and collected under pressure.
4. Some connection between your past, your present, and your future.
It’s common to see a student choose an important experience in their past, narrate the whole thing beautifully, but then forget to tie it to the present. Before you even start writing, think about whether your potential topic is influencing the way you think about the present, and, crucially, the future. Take Michael, again. He writes beautifully about his grandfather teaching him about the waves, but he’s not a pro surfer, and might even be going to college in the middle of the country. Does that matter? Not as long as he tells us how surfing influences him—as he did in extracting a wider lesson.
You might be afraid of picking that mythical ‘wrong topic,’ say, the one thing every admissions officer is secretly sick of reading about but which no one will tell you. Students often ask us: Should I not write about a dying grandparent? About coming out? About the meaning of my name? About politics?
Here’s a secret: the success of your topic almost always lies in the delivery—so absent writing about something flagrantly offensive, violent, or irresponsible, you’re unlikely to hit on that rumored thing the admissions officers can’t stand.
It is good to be afraid of cliché—but one of the truisms about clichés is that they become trite because they reiterate feelings we’ve all had. That also means that buried beneath many clichés is some authentic, particular, and personal relationship you have to your topic. If you’re working with a teacher, counselor, or advisor on your statement, they can help you discern whether you’re in cliché territory or whether you’ve bypassed it to a more fruitful realm.
But wait. There is one big rule. Be humble. Don’t try so hard to sound adult or beyond your years, that you end up coming across as a know-it-all. It’s better to show the admissions committee that you are capable of finding and making meaning through the experiences you’ve had as a young person, no matter how small or limited they may seem to you. If you’ll let us wax philosophical for a moment: that ability to make meaning from something that isn’t pompous or dramatic—and to do so without being aggrandizing—is the stuff of great art. So, you’re in a good tradition if you stick to humility and take a deliberate and honest approach to your essays.
5. Make a list of everything that seems like a fruitful topic.
From the questions and prompts, you should find that you have 3–5 strong topic areas and stories—stuff that got you thinking and feeling, and which produced what Hemingway called the “honest sentences” that comprise good writing. Start with the one that moves you most—that’s your personal statement—but save all the others as fodder for your secondaries, or as backup material in case someone you trust tells you to consider switching topics for some reason.
(Tip: the stuff that isn’t always linked to an anecdote or story but is important to you can often be useful for those secondaries.)
Let’s find out what our sample students chose to write about.
Essay #1: Ramya on the Patriots
Ramya could try to write something about medicine. Or she could write about soccer, dance, or speech. But none of those things seem to tell the admissions committee what they wouldn’t already know from simply reading her list of extracurriculars.
So we decide that Ramya is going to write about the Patriots. The question is how she’s going to demonstrate—through her football fandom—that she is a mature and thoughtful person who will be a good member of any college’s community. An ode to Brady won’t do the trick here—but what will is Ramya’s thoughtful reflection on how spending time watching the Patriots at a sports bar every Sunday with her dad has given her a relationship with her father that most of her friends have never enjoyed with their families.
Essay #2: Anita on the outdoors and poetry
The obvious thing—and the thing most teachers and advisors told Anita to do—is write about mock trial. It would be a good opportunity to give the admissions committee some insight into her psychology behind the success. She took a couple of stabs at it during free-writing, though, and it didn’t flow.
So instead Anita decides to write about a wilderness solo she took in North Carolina on a school trip, and about how it influenced her relationship with poetry.
Essay #3: Josh on piano and mistakes
We talked a lot about whether Josh would do best avoiding writing about piano—it’s the main thing on his resumé and sometimes it can be good to show things off-resumé, as Ramya and Anita plan to. Josh did some writing about his relationship with his sister and his brother, and that might find a home in the secondary essays. But it became clear that Josh has an obsessive, if not always positive, relationship with piano, and so there’s something there.
But how to write “about piano?”
We look at the themes that came up during Josh’s reflection. He found himself writing a lot about mistakes, public performance anxiety, and the pressure to get a piece just right. Focusing in, Josh thought about a specific piece which helped him get over some performance anxiety, so he’ll write about learning that piece and facing the fear.
Essay #4: Michael on surfing
We’ve already referenced Michael’s essay a few times, but he’ll be writing about his grandfather teaching him to surf and the lessons surfing has given him off the board and out of the waves.
You’ll see us return to these students’ ideas as we work through outlines.
If you’ve spent your summer freewriting and then carefully selecting the right essay topic, you’re now in a strong place to start writing—ideally at the end of July or early August. (Remember that if you are applying early action or early decision to schools, your deadline will come at the start of November, whereas regular decision applications will generally have December and January deadlines.)
We can’t emphasize enough the importance of this organized pre-work—it’s incredibly frustrating for a student to write an entire draft and then find that it’s just “falling flat” or “doesn’t sound like them” or “is clichéd.” Using the criteria we’ve already set out, though, you can avoid that scary feeling of having done a lot of work that you’ve got to shelve.
What ‘type’ of essay do you have to write? (a list of narrative strategies)
It’s important to remember that there are as many narrative strategies as there are television shows, books, movies, plays, and poems. We can’t exhaustively discuss all of them, or even most, but we can give you a few “modules” to play with.
At 650 words, each of these will be best understood as a five-paragraph essay, so a basic structure stays the same, but the way things begin and end will not.
1. The Specific Experience Essay: This module is one of the most flexible and powerful types of essays. It begins with a scene, memory, or anecdote, and then tells us what that scene, memory, or anecdote continues to mean to the writer. It’s a classic, and should not be underestimated. Michael’s essay about learning to surf with his grandfather will use this structure, but so too will Anita’s about taking a wilderness solo. Anita will use a slightly more subtle version of this, but both essays begin with a scene: “I was eight when my grandfather first took me to the water,” “The happiest two hours I have spent were on a boulder jutting into a stream in North Carolina.”
Resolving the Specific Experience Essay requires a student to point to some kind of realization garnered as a result of the experience. It doesn’t have to be an enormous Eureka! or epiphany, and in fact, it can come later. Michael’s reflection on the experience of learning to surf with his grandfather occurs over a decade after he first hit the waves. Anita’s comes during an English class two years later when she first reads the poetry of John Keats and William Wordsworth and realizes these writers were engaging with exactly what she experienced during her solo in the wilderness.
The trick Michael and Anita each pull off is spinning the experience forward so that it means something for the rest of their lives. Michael writes about how he understands meditative headspace as a result of standing on the board all those hours with his grandfather, and how his grandfather’s legacy will always be with him. Anita goes small with her reflection: she talks about how she learned to see art, and artful experiences, in her everyday life, and in small, quiet moments (this is especially good for Anita because it expands her away from just the hyper-intense mock trial competitor she might come across as).
2. The Patterned/Iterative Essay: This module is a little more advanced. Let’s take Josh's essay about piano playing. He might want to open with a scene of him playing piano on stage, but that’s a little obvious. The essay he’s going to write is actually about practice, and learning to stop making mistakes. So, what if he started each paragraph with a different mini-moment of him playing piano and making a mistake?
Paragraph 1: My first time erring on stage—I am six, and I’m playing Chopsticks. Then he’ll introduce the theme of the essay.
Paragraph 2: My second time messing up—I am thirteen, and… etc.
Then, the natural place for Josh to end it is the time he almost messes up but doesn’t, which shows us how he’s grown overtime.
3. The Circular Essay: In this essay, the writer begins with a scene or image or concept and then will circle back to that scene or image or concept before the end of the essay in order to make sense of the initial opening. This essay deploys suspense. Take Anita’s essay, which might open, “I spent my happiest moments lost and alone in the wilderness. How did I get here? To understand that, you’ll have to understand X, Y, Z about me…” and which might close: “...that’s how I found myself, at sixteen, lost—but entirely at home in the wild.”
4. The Mini-Odyssey Essay: The last classic and powerful module is the good old problem-driven essay. In this type of essay, our hero (you, the writer) meets a challenge in the first paragraph, and then the essay is devoted to showing us how it is solved. Let’s say Michael wanted to write not about learning to surf from his grandfather, but about learning that his grandfather was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
There’s a lot of narration that will be required for Michael to tell us about losing his grandfather—it’s too much to cram into the first paragraph. So Michael might distribute the narration chronologically, showing us first the bad news (the problem), then zooming out to reflect, then showing us how he faced it (addressing the challenge), probably failing to adequately face it perfectly the first time, and then eventually facing it successfully (the solution).
Those are just a few more narrative possibilities for structuring your essay. Right now, we’ll focus on Ramya’s.
Now, taking your chosen topic, it’s time to outline it. Outlining works great for some people as a pre-writing tactic, and we always recommend it. For others, it can be harder than simply getting down to writing. If you’re really struggling to outline and would rather just follow the pen to a first draft, that’s fine, but do yourself a favor and make outlining your second draft step. At some point, everyone needs an outline, but it’s your call when to do it. Let’s follow this through with Ramya’s essay on the Patriots. The model we’ll use for this essay is a five-paragraph, anecdote-driven essay.
By the way, here’s the prompt that helped Ramya settle on the Patriots: Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you? While this one isn’t among the current Common App essay prompts, it—or any other prompt—can be used to generate an essay that fits under the umbrella of the open prompt, Prompt 7.
So, with that in mind, Ramya’s going to write about the sports bar where she watches her team play every Sunday during football season.
1. Introduction: Ramya has a fun advantage to her essay: it’s unexpected. The heart of it takes place in a sports bar, and she may seem, on paper, to the admissions committee, to be an unlikely diehard football fan. So we begin at the bar and Ramya sets the scene with an anecdote:
It had been a rough week at school—drama with my friend group, hard tests, orchestra practice, exhausting soccer drills—but I knew where I belonged on a Sunday. At Dee's Sports Bar in San Jose, with my dad, watching our team…
She also tells us about Dee's itself, taking the chance to show the admissions committee that she has narrative skills in just noticing things:
By the end of the football season, the staff knew where we wanted to sit… we were loyal to Dee's, just as we had to be loyal to the Patriots, even when they seemed to be letting us down.
In telling this as a story, Ramya has given the admissions committee a human being to relate to from the jump.
2. Billboard/nutgraph/thesis paragraph: In the magazine world, they call the second paragraph in a piece the “billboard paragraph” because it broadcasts—as loud as a billboard—what the piece is about. Newspapers call the same thing a nutgraph, and academic papers might refer to it as your thesis statement. All these terms point to one thing: this is where you shout, HEY! THIS IS WHAT MY ESSAY IS ABOUT! This is where you meld the scene and characters of paragraph 1 with the thematic concerns you’ll address for the rest of the essay.
For Ramya, it goes something like this:
Dee's is where I learned to be loyal—to my team, the Patriots, from across the country—but also to my father, to my friends, and to myself.
Ramya’s essay is going to focus on loyalty: a big theme, one that would sound terribly weak if she introduced it in the first line or even paragraph, but one that is surprising and interesting here because she’s juxtaposed it against a unique setting and seemingly light fare—sports at a bar. (Ramya has, at some point, assured the admissions committee that she’s not drinking in this bar!)
3. Body paragraph #1: In this paragraph, Ramya will tell us something more about loyalty, and why it matters. She’ll add context. So she will zoom away from Dee's and tell us that, throughout high school, she started noticing a lot of her friends getting caught up in social drama, becoming competitive with one another, fighting about romantic situations; set against all this, as well as bullying, depression, and other difficult parts of high school, Ramya’s loyalty to the Patriots and Dee's served as a sanctuary—one of the things that kept her sane.
Now, it’s crucial to note that this isn’t enough for Ramya to write an essay about. “Here’s something that is important/valuable/meaningful to me” is sometimes where students stop. Ramya needs to advance that—to tell us something that shows maturity, shows an ability to reflect and introspect that will come in handy in college and adulthood…
4. Body paragraph #2: ...so she uses her next paragraph to make a bigger point: what other types of loyalty being at Dee's on a Sunday causes her to reflect on.
5. Conclusion: Now, Ramya will spin the whole thing forward and point our eyes toward that ‘lesson’—the thing that she can put in her pocket, which will serve as a kind of talisman throughout life.
Writing and revising: Common errors
Most people don’t outline. And even after outlining, many people fail to follow their outline. It’s natural that you’ll want to stray here or there, towards or away from the initial plan, but below are a few common errors that people make when they either don’t outline or ditch the guiding hand of their outline. As we go through some of these errors, we’ll also make a list of a few general tips and tricks for managing some of the toughest parts of your essay, including time, scene, epiphany, change, character, and more.
Here’s an excerpted version of how Ramya’s essay began at first:
As a 5’1.75” Asian girl, not many people would expect me to spend every Sunday in a bar watching football.... I was tired of streaming the games on my computer, and having it lag before every major play.
I want to thank Dee's Sports Bar for teaching me life lessons that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Thank you for showing me the importance of loyalty, relationships, and laughter.
I have always been loyal to the Patriots….
It’s not a bad start, but it brings us to Common Error #1: beginning the essay by introducing oneself, instead of introducing the story, AKA, starting too broad. Ramya begins by trying to tell us who she is in a big, introductory, throat-clearing way, instead of choosing a specific route into who she is. It’s sweet that she’s small, but there’s a lot in here that we don’t need: we don’t need her height, nor do we need to know that she used to get the games in one particular way or another. We just need to know that she’s at the bar.
She’s only got 650 words. Which leads us to Tip #1: Take refuge in the anecdote, in the specific, in the particular. Everything gets easier if you choose something specific. Many writers—of college essays and other media—get stressed out, believing that they must convey their entire selves in an essay. This just isn’t possible to do in the capsule of space that is your Common App personal statement. And, it will ironically accomplish the opposite, causing your essay to look shapeless and meandering, therefore communicating very little about you.
If you instead use an individual story as a stand-in for something larger, or for something else, your essay becomes a kind of parable or lesson that educates your reader both about you and, hopefully, about a part of the world they’ve never previously considered.
Now, think about the first declarative sentence Ramya makes in that initial draft: “I have always been loyal to the Patriots.” Tip #2: Struggling to define your thesis statement? Look for your first declarative statement! Ramya’s essay can’t be about her perpetual loyalty to the Patriots—that won’t be enough. But the fact that her prose naturally settled on that as its first short, sharp sentence tells us that she’s making a statement she probably believes in. Loyalty now becomes really important as a theme.
Common Error #2: Hiding your thesis statement or burying it too low. Since we know that loyalty will have something to do with Ramya’s thesis statement, we now know we want it to arrive at the end of the first paragraph or at the start of the first.
Here’s how Ramya’s essay began at the end of 3-4 rounds of edits and revisions:
Just before 5 pm on Sunday, October 13, 2013, I was sitting in a bar, holding on to a feeling of optimism that was fading fast. But wait: it’s not what you think. I didn’t turn to drink; I turned to the TV screen. The score was 27-23, and the Patriots had missed too many opportunities. With just over a minute left to play, my dad—the man responsible for bringing me, a 15-year-old, to a bar—dejectedly asked me if we should leave. I reminded him a true sports fan never gives up on her team, no matter the situation. And after a miracle of a drive finished with an unforgettable pass into the corner of the endzone by my idol, Tom Brady, a swell of elated cheering and high-fiving from the fans in the bar ensued regardless of whether we had previously known one another. Loyalty brought us all together.
Another Common Error (#3!) that Ramya made was: Mixing up the conclusion’s sentiment with the billboard paragraph. Her second paragraph, in the original essay, read: “I want to thank Dee's Sports Bar for teaching me life lessons that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Thank you for showing me the importance of loyalty, relationships, and laughter.” That’s a sentiment, but it’s not a thesis. And that sentiment is fine—it may have a place at the end of the essay—but it doesn’t belong in the second paragraph, because it doesn’t guide our reading of the rest of the essay. It isn’t strong and declarative yet.
This was the billboard paragraph Ramya reached after a few rounds of edits:
There are a few different kinds of loyalty. Loyalty to a team, to an establishment, to other people—even to oneself. Sitting in that bar over the last year, I feel like I’ve glimpsed them all.
A lot is working here! It’s short, clear, and leads us to Tip #3: define your terms. Ramya wants to talk about an abstract concept—loyalty. Many young writers wish to reflect on things like charity, service, leadership, loyalty, friendship, kindness, morality, etc—these are big topics. But Ramya isn’t just talking about loyalty, a word which could mean many different things to many different people. She’s defined loyalty for the purposes of this essay, which means now we are playing in her house.
As Ramya’s original first draft moved on, it stumbled into a very Common Error #4: the curious case of the missing lesson. Initially, Ramya’s penultimate paragraph offered a kind of ode to Dee's instead of showing the admissions committee that she has a bigger life takeaway from her time spent supporting her team—a problem we could see would happen as soon as we noticed the sentiment of “Thanks Dee's’” occupying the place that should have been reserved for a billboard paragraph. Returning to the outline, or making the outline partway through, would remedy that.
But don’t get stressed if your first outline feels like it’s getting away from you. Tip #4: Try a reverse outline. Once you’ve written one draft of your essay, print it out. (By the way: Tip #5: print stuff out! Don’t get stuck in an endless spiral of copy-and-paste—by printing out your draft, you can keep a draft next to you and then open a new document so that you feel free to rewrite entire paragraphs, or delete sections entirely.)
Then take your printout and write out what the function of each paragraph is in the margin. Might get a little tough, right? If you can’t answer the question, “What is the goal of this paragraph?” or, “What do I want the readers to garner from this paragraph?” then you’re probably missing a topic sentence.
Everything we’re talking about here—writing, noticing mistakes, correcting them—will take you at least three and as many as five or six drafts to get right. So, Tip #6: Don’t treat your early drafts like anything close to final. That means you’re going to have to get comfortable with simply putting idea to paper, and with cutting entire paragraphs or “points” within the essay. You’ve probably never written anything like the personal statement before, and you have to promise yourself to be iterative. Otherwise, you’ll lock yourself into a weaker version of the essay.
As you’re iterating, try Tip #7: Read your drafts aloud so that you can tell when things feel stiff or weak; this should sound like you. Reading aloud can help you catch things like Common Error #5: tonal errors—sounding too formal or too glib/casual. Ramya never suffered from either of these problems; she sounded like herself even in early drafts.
But many students feel that they either have to sound either formal to the point of stuffiness (“On a Sunday afternoon, my father would pick me up from my room and take me down to the kitchen, whereupon we would adjourn to Dee’s Sports bar…”) or “authentically young” to the point of disrespecting the reader (“On Sundays my dad’s like, let’s go to Dee’s Sports Bar, and I go okay so I come on down and we get going...”). When you’re staring at the blinking cursor until your eyes cross, it can be easy to fall into one of these traps, and to write in a voice that isn’t yours. When you read aloud, you can catch it.
Tip #8: The right essay-voice is the most polished version of your speaking-voice. You shouldn’t sound like you swallowed a thesaurus, but you should sound a little more formal than your text messages to your friends would.
Here’s what Ramya’s essay looked like, in the end:
Just before 5 pm on Sunday, October 13, 2013, I was sitting in a bar, holding on to a feeling of optimism that was fading fast. But wait—it’s not what you think. I didn’t turn to drink—I turned to the TV screen. The score was 27-23, and the Patriots had missed too many opportunities. With just over a minute left to play, my dad—the man responsible for bringing me, a 15-year-old, to a bar—dejectedly asked me if we should leave. I reminded him a true sports fan never gives up on her team, no matter the situation. And after a miracle of a drive finished with an unforgettable pass into the corner of the endzone by my idol, Tom Brady, a swell of elated cheering and high-fiving from the fans in the bar ensued regardless of whether we had previously known one another. Loyalty brought us all together.
There are a few different kinds of loyalty. Loyalty to a team, to an establishment, to other people—even to oneself. Sitting in that bar over the last year, I feel like I’ve glimpsed them all. As a Boston-born girl, my loyalty to the Patriots seems natural—even if it’s not so common for a teenage Indian-American-Californian girl to be as much of a sports junkie as I am. But I’ve seen that loyalty tested plenty of times. I’m completely invested in the Pats; I’ve been known to be giddy when they win, and tearful when they lose. However, finding a true home to watch Patriots games in California isn’t easy. So I owe Dee's Sports Bar a surprising amount. By the end of the season, the staff knew what we wanted to eat, and where we wanted to sit, so the sports bar felt like a second home.
My dad and I have a typical father-daughter relationship; I get mad when he doesn’t let me go out, he gets mad when I neglect responsibility. But in the year since we began staking out the bar, we’ve gotten so much closer. On the rides to and from, we talked about everything from school to politics to pop culture. And we talk about sports as equals. My best friend once told me that neither she nor her dad were willing to make the extra effort to find common ground. And I realized how lucky I was: sports offers my dad and me an inexhaustible topic that we can always turn to.
The bar also helped me figure out still another kind of loyalty—to myself. Junior year was an emotional year, full of difficult academics and the inevitable social drama that comes with high school. The bar showed me that I needed to look forward to something comfortable—a place with no drama, no obligations, and a common goal... or at least, a common desperate desire for victory. At the bar, nobody cared what I got on my last math test or which boy was asking my friend to prom. All that matters is the game. This realization isn’t limited to just sports; I figured out that I need a place to be completely myself—with my team and my dad. This included deciding that I only wanted to stay friends with people who make a positive impact on my life. These were such simple revelations, yet they made all the difference.
I have always been loyal to the New England Patriots. From my toddler days, as I sat mesmerized in front of the screen to today, as I analyze every statistic that I can get my hands on, I love every aspect of the team. But all of those trips to the sports bar taught me important lessons that apply beyond football. And for that, I am grateful.
Common App Essay analysis
In the end, what lessons can we take away from Ramya’s essay? Here are a few aspects of the essay that are most successful:
Ramya applies Tip #1 from earlier—taking refuge in anecdotes and specifics—to great effect. We can practically feel the tension of the game, not to mention Ramya and her dad’s investment in it. The result is a memorable, unique opening that compels us to continue reading.
Ramya’s thesis statement (“Loyalty brought us all together”) both telegraphs what the essay will be about and allows her to pivot naturally from sports fandom to the types of loyalty that she actually wants to show admissions committees: her relationships with her dad and with herself.
In discussing loyalty to herself, Ramya demonstrates maturity, independence, and the abilities to grow and absorb lessons. Reflections like “This included deciding that I only wanted to stay friends with people who make a positive impact on my life” help us see her as a person of integrity who can think for herself. As such, it’s easy to imagine her as a student who will make valuable contributions to a college campus.
While we noted earlier that Ramya never struggled with striking the right tone in this essay, it’s worth noticing the balance of polish and casualness that she achieves. The result is an essay that is effortlessly readable yet mature and, most importantly, authentic to her own voice.
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Part 6: Frequently asked questions
There’s more that goes into applying to college than what we’ve been able to cover here, including your grades, standardized test scores, and recommendation letters, but your essays are some of the most important materials. They form the cornerstone of the qualitative side of your application. Get these right and your entire application starts from strength. Good luck!
What books can you recommend for writing essays like this and others?
William Zinsser’s On Writing Well is the primer for nonfiction writing basics. Strunk & White’s Elements of Style is a very slim volume that will help you ensure you’ve dotted all your i’s and crossed all your t’s when it comes to grammar and syntax rules.
Who should read my essays? Is there such a thing as too many readers? Too few? The wrong readers?
Think quality, not quantity. It’s best not to hand your essay to every person who comes your way, no matter how many smart teachers, friends, and peers you have at your disposal. Too much feedback can confuse your sense of mission.
So how do you know who to give your essay to? The right essay editor or guide is someone who knows something about you but isn’t your best friend or parent, and someone who you know can push you on storytelling and language.
There is such thing as having too many readers, so we recommend asking no more than one to three people to weigh in: an editor, counselor, teacher, or consultant should help you with the bulk of your essay; a friend or parent can listen to you read it aloud at some point or can read it without the ren pen lifted (meaning, they’re there to make sure you sound like you, rather than intervening and writing it for you). Parents who get too handsy with their kids’ essays can do their children a real disservice; it’s clear when someone who isn’t 18 was serving as the guiding force in the essay-writing process.
Often students want to know how to handle feedback they may disagree with. If it comes from someone you respect, think it over seriously, but remember that this is your voice. It’s okay to write the person or tell them that you value their input but you think the essay sounds more like you if you keep it as it was.
Does my essay have to be about something that happened in high school? How far back can I go?
Your essay can draw on whatever moves you, regardless of when the anecdote, event, or inciting incident you’re writing about occurred. However, what matters most, in terms of timeline, is that you show your readers how the event not only influences you now but will continue to inflect your thinking about yourself and the world as the years roll on.
I feel like I don't have enough space to write everything I want. What should I do?
This is totally normal! But feeling that you have more to say than you can fit is often a result of insufficient paring-down—that is, you probably haven’t chosen the right specific prompt to get your personal statement into particular, small territory.
That’s the key: finding the right question to answer, using all the prewriting tips and tricks and exercises we’ve outlined here. With the right question, you can use your Common App Essay as a window into who you are, rather than feeling burdened by the belief that you must communicate your ‘whole self’ in your application. You can’t box yourself up and hand your soul to the admission committee—but you can use those 650 words to give them some insight into some of the most important parts of you.
What is the Common App Essay word limit?
The Common App Essay word limit is 650 words. We strongly recommend using all 650 words, though you are not required to do so. If you’re well below that limit, it’s worth asking yourself why your personal statement is so short. Check it against the outlines we’ve worked through in this post. Have you used your five-paragraph essay fully? Has your essay demonstrated change over time, or personal growth? Perhaps you’ve told a story but forgotten to reflect on it.
The important thing is to ensure that you’ve fully inhabited each ‘element’ of the successful Common App Essay, as noted in this guide. Doing so will bring you close to the sensible word limit.
Should I explain bad grades in my essays?
Many students have the instinct to explain themselves, including any failings or perceived failings, while writing their applications. There are a number of ways you can offer the admissions committee context for something you think went ‘wrong’ in high school, whether that’s low grades, imperfect attendance, or something else.
Your recommenders might have a chance to write something about it in their letters, if they were in a position to see you during or after the rough period. You can also write about something going wrong in your personal statement if it has narrative energy; that is to say, if it would make a good essay regardless of whether or not it explained away a failing, go ahead and write about it.
An example might be an essay that discussed a student’s home life, say their parents’ difficult divorce during their freshman year. If the student had something introspective to say about the divorce, she might add a line or two that explains that her grades suffered during the incident, but she’d want to conclude the essay by not only showing how she righted things in the years after, but also how what she learned from the difficult period will influence her in the future.
It’s crucial to avoid sounding defensive about your weak spots in your application. If you have something that you think makes you seem a less-than-ideal applicant, turn it into your strength by explaining what you learned from it.
The Common App Additional Information section offers the opportunity to provide context about hardships you might have faced during high school. This is another place you could consider explaining bad grades or the like. Even here, it’s important to not simply state, “I had bad grades but improved them.” A better explanation provides context and explains what specifically helped you turn things around. For example:
During my freshman year, as my parents went through a difficult divorce, I became distracted and stressed, and my grades suffered as a result. I was able to work with my teachers over the summer after my freshman year, however, and attended summer school to make up for weak performance. My family also repaired itself after a few years and time in family therapy. Though I regret my poor grades from ninth grade, I am proud that I was able to improve quickly as a sophomore, and that I developed both stronger study habits and tactics for dealing with emotional stress as a result.
The second answer is specific and also demonstrates maturity gained thanks to a difficult period.
I feel like everyone has more interesting experiences than me. Is there a benefit to using a personal moment as my topic?
There are many students that choose to write about highly personal topics such as experiences involving family issues, and issues around class or identity.
However, it’s important to remember that even if you haven’t had these experiences that doesn’t mean your essay will be banal or boring. It’s all about how you approach the telling of your own unique story. Adcoms understand that not everyone has overcome incredible adversity or a severe physical handicap.
Think of it this way: creative expression is enhanced by limitations. What you are capable of writing given your circumstances and experiences is a chance to showcase your cleverness with language. Adcoms are more interested in how you tell your story than the fact of the story itself.
If you do choose to use a more personal moment to write about, be careful that you don’t choose something too personal. Keep in mind that the person reading your essay is a stranger and that there is such a thing as too much information, even if you think it will enhance your admissions odds.
I know adcoms read tons of essays so they couldn’t possibly pay close attention to each one. Isn’t there something in particular they’re looking for in an essay that signals to them that this is a quality applicant?
This is an incredibly common thought amongst our students. Essentially, the idea is that there’s just one small thing they’re missing in their essay that, if included, would make them stand out and practically guarantee them entry.
There are two major problems with this line of thinking. For one, while reducing your application to a numbers game or just a few points to hit makes the whole process more comprehensible, it doesn’t help to express the real you–and doesn’t increase your chances with adcoms.
The other problem is writing your essay while attempting to guess what adcoms want to hear. Many students fall into this trap by second-guessing their experiences and worrying their chosen topic is just not “good enough.” Most of the time, there’s nothing wrong with your topic, and trying to change course by selecting one you think will enhance your standing with adcoms will only make your job as a writer more difficult.
About the Author
Dr. Shirag Shemmassian is the Founder of Shemmassian Academic Consulting and one of the world's foremost experts on college admissions. Over the past 15 years, he and his team have helped thousands of students get into top programs like Harvard, Stanford, and MIT using his exclusive approach.