A student’s college essays are an important way of showcasing who they are as an individual and what they can bring to an institution. The difference between a good essay and a great essay can often lead to admission of one student over another, despite them being equally academically successful. The whole point of submitting a college essay is so that an admissions counselor can learn as much as they can about a prospective student. Though test scores, transcripts and letters of recommendation demonstrate a student’s academic potential, an admission counselor does not necessarily learn about other vital and subjective areas of a student’s personality through these aspects of their application. It is important to keep in mind that admissions counselors are the true audience of the student’s essays.

Many institutions accept the Common Application, an online application which includes one personal essay of 650 words. Students select one of the Common Application prompts (see the next section), and the same application and personal essay will be sent to all of the schools that the student wishes to apply to that accepts the Common Application. Along with the personal essay, a student’s Common Application  includes a required extracurricular activities list. Most universities will also ask for shorter, supplemental essays or documentation such as a portfolio, depending on the student’s intended major.

Despite each university setting their own supplemental essay prompts, the questions tend to be similar. As such, students may be able to modify and reuse essays they have already written for one school and use it for another. See the below section for some supplemental essay prompts.

Through their essay(s), a student is able to show admissions counselors who they really are—their character, motivation, future goals and what makes them an individual. They become more than just a name and identification number in a file.

Essay Topics

Brainstorming and deciding on an essay topic is one of the most difficult tasks for many of our students. When it comes to choosing a topic, students are encouraged to try many things and see what is best for them. Below is a list of topics we do not recommend. If you see that your mentee is continuing to pursue a topic that fits in one of these categories or may not be a good fit for an application essay, please let Michaela and Nanor know.

  • Details that are overly intimate, graphic, or illegal 
  • Long-form list of activities and accomplishments
    • We want the essay to provide new information about the student, not repeat existing components.
  • Health Issues: This depends on how it is framed, but usually only health conditions of severe gravity should be included and furthermore, should focus on what they’ve learned/how they’ve been impacted by the situation and not just explaining the health issue itself.
    • Mental health issues are a complicated issue to address in a college essay. We hope to validate students’ experiences as much as possible, but steer them away from this particular topic as the main focus of an essay.
  • Religion: Unless it is a supplemental essay for a religious university, we generally do not recommend students making religion and their religious beliefs the main focus of an essay. Universities are looking for open minds and anything that could demonstrate a narrow worldview could work against students.
  • Complaints and excuses: Universities want to see positive, flexible students.
  • Term Paper: Prompt 7 is an open prompt, but that does not mean that a student should submit writing they completed for another assignment or school project. The goal of the personal essay is to showcase the student’s personality and values, and reusing an assignment does not reflect well on them.
  • Travel: Some of our students have had the privilege of traveling to many places. If students want to write about travel it needs to be about what the trip meant to them and how it impacted them.
  • Community Service: This topic can work if it is approached in a nuanced way in terms of class, social justice, race and economics. This is true for community service in their local community and stories about voluntourism. We encourage students to consider the context of their volunteering work and focus on the relevance of their work and what they learned from it.

Common App Personal Statement

Below is a list of the essay prompts available for the 2022-2023 Common Application: 

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

As you can see, these prompts are very broad! This means that students are free to respond in a plethora of ways to the same question. The essay will be an opportunity for them to be creative with their writing, whilst still conveying the important aspects of themselves that they wish to showcase.

No matter the format they choose for their essay, your mentee wants to ensure that an admissions counselor will come away from their complete application review knowing: 

  • What is their character like? What are their skill sets?
  • What are they passionate about? 
  • How has their academic background prepared them for success at this university? 
  • How have their personal qualities, leadership experience, life experience or extracurricular involvement prepared them to contribute to the student life or diversity of this university?

Supplemental Essays

Institutions may require that students write supplemental essays in addition to the Common Application Personal Essay in order to learn more about the student and how they might be a good fit for the university. Supplemental essays can vary in length, but usually are shorter than the Personal Essay and can range anywhere from 100-350+ words. They are just as important, if not more important, as the Personal Essay, so please work with your student on these thoughtfully as well.

Similar to the Personal Essay, supplemental essays are used to find out more about the student! Institutions will use supplemental essays to find out more about the student’s personality, their potential at a specific university or even why they should be admitted into a particular major or department, like an Honors Program.

Although supplemental essays can vary greatly, below are some common prompts that institutions might pose:

Why _______ University?

One of the most common college application supplemental essays is the Why ____ University? prompt. Often much shorter in length, this type of prompt aims to find out exactly why a student wishes to attend this specific university.  

Your mentee needs to give the university specific and personal reasons why they want to attend. For example, they might talk about why they are interested in this specific university or program and how it aligns with their personal ‘fit’ or moral outlook. They should detail why a particular class, major, or research or study abroad opportunity makes them excited to study at that particular school. Talking about learning with a specific faculty member or taking part in an extracurricular club demonstrates what the university can offer them as well as what they can offer the university. It will not be enough for the student to say something like “because it’s the best school in the world” or “it’s very prestigious.”

Students can look at a school’s mission statement, blogs, virtual campus visits, department pages, etc. to help with this. College websites can be really daunting places, especially when you are trying to navigate them in your non-native language. Helping your mentee develop their research skills through the university webpages will be a beneficial way for them to learn more about the universities that require this type of supplemental essay. 

Why do you want to study ______________?

Like the Why ________ University? prompt, this supplemental essay prompt seeks to find out more about the student’s interest in their chosen field(s) of study. An essay like this may be used to determine not just admission to an institution, but admission to a particular department or program.

Your mentee could discuss their intrinsic or personal interest in this field. They could talk about particular experiences, classes or circumstances that lead them to this field. They could also talk about a specific school’s program of study in that field, explaining how the classes, professors or research initiatives get them excited to pursue their degree. Either way, the student needs to show that they are motivated and have given serious thought to their chosen major(s).

Helping your mentee brainstorm when they became interested in their chosen field(s) of study, what specific part of the field they like or even how they study this subject in school already might be a good place to start. Make sure that this essay is unique to the student and their field; it should not be so generic that it would still make sense if the student’s name or field of study was changed to another.

Tell us about a community you are a part of/elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities.

The goal of this prompt is to allow the student to provide more detail about an important community in their lives/one of their extracurricular activities, which they only have 150 characters to describe in their extracurricular activities list. This supplemental essay will allow the institution the ability to not only understand the community or activity more clearly (especially if it is a cultural activity), but also how it is an important aspect of the student’s life and identity. 

Have your mentee think about what their involvement in the community or activity that they select for this essay will say about them. Your mentee should select a community or activity that is meaningful to them. When talking about their lives outside of school, what does your mentee get the most excited to talk about? Further, ask your mentee if they plan to continue this involvement while on campus–institutions will want to hear about it if so! 

How will you get involved in the community at _________ University?

Like the others above, this essay prompt seeks to learn about the student’s personality and extracurricular interests, but also about their own initiative to take part in campus life. Institutions want to know that they are investing in students who will not only perform well academically, but will be an integral part of the unique campus community. 

You may be able to help your mentee with this essay by assisting in their research of what activities, sports, clubs or groups are available at this particular university. From there, your mentee might want to talk about how they plan to continue activities that they already do now, such as a sport. They might talk about trying something new, or even making a club or group that they are interested in, but don’t see available on campus. Your mentee could even talk about the community outside of the institution’s campus, such as a local community organization or religious group. 

Unpredictable Prompts

Unpredictable prompts are often short, but can be difficult to answer! These prompts are opportunities for your mentee to express their creativity and showcase their unique personality. How can you stand out to admissions officers?

Remind your mentee that writing multiple drafts is okay; these questions can be tough. Try talking through them together in order to brainstorm first! 

Here is one example of an unpredictable prompt used by Occidental College: “Quirks, idiosyncrasies, peculiarities. They help differentiate us. What is one of yours? (133 words max).

A %d blogueros les gusta esto: