PART I: Choosing a College Essay Topic
What you write about says something about YOU
Underlying all essay questions is choice. The essay question may be direct
and ask you to choose something about yourself to discuss, or it may be
indirect and require you to write about something such as an event, book, or
Why your choice of essay matters
The college regards your choices as a way to evaluate your
preferences, values, mental processes, creativity, sense of humor, and depth of
knowledge. Your writing reflects your
power of persuasion, organizational abilities, style, and mastery of standard
Here is what colleges look for:
Your preferences: Your essay topic reveals your preferences. Are you an arts
person or a hard-facts science type? Certainly, there is a difference between
the person who would choose to talk about the Cold War with Machiavelli than the
person who would like to get painting tips from Jackson Pollock.
Your values: Choice also reflects values. The person who drives a
beat-up, rusty, 1971 Volkswagen is making a statement about how she wants to
spend her money and what she cares about. We say, "That dress isn't
me" or "I'm not a cat person." In choosing, you indicate what
matters to you and how you perceive yourself.
Your thought process: Choosing shows how you think. Are you a whimsical person
who chooses on impulse? Or are you a methodical and careful person who
gathers background information before choosing? Questions about you and about
career and college reflect these patterns. Even a question about a national
issue can show your particular thinking style, level of intelligence, and
Think about topics
The topic you select for your essay
can also reveal much about who you are. Yale's application instructs: "In
the past, candidates have used this space in great variety of ways.... There is
no 'correct' way to respond to this essay request...." No answer is wrong,
but sloppy, general, insincere, or tasteless responses can hurt your cause.
Some of the best essays—the
memorable and unusual ones—are about very familiar topics. Essays about your
family, football team, trip to France, or your parents’ divorce can be
effective as long as they're focused and specific: a single Christmas Eve
church service, a meal of boiled tongue in Grenoble, or scooping ice cream
at your summer job.
PART II: Recipe for a Draft
the hardest part of writing a college admissions essay is just getting started.
Here's a quick exercise to get pen to paper (or keyboard to computer).
Step 1: Think about yourself
What are your strengths and weaknesses? What are your best qualities? Are you a
hard worker? An intellectual? A creative type? Curious? Passionate? Determined?
Step 2: Choose a positive quality you'd like to convey to the
Don't pick an event or something you've done. President of the Nuclear
Awareness Club is not a personal quality. Focus on a quality of your mind or of
your character. Complete this sentence: "I am a very _________
Step 3: Tell a story
Set a timer for 20 minutes. Pretend you're taking an exam at high school
and responding to, "Tell a story about an experience or time when you
showed you were a very _________ person." Use the characteristic you
identified in Step 2. Write or type non-stop for 20 minutes; force yourself to
keep telling the story and what it reveals until the timer goes off.
You now have
a rough draft for your college application essay. Look at your college
applications and scan their essay topics. No matter what the questions are, you
have already identified the most important characteristic you want to convey to
PART III: Sample College Essay Questions
What do colleges
want to know?
there are three types of questions: The "you," the "why
us," and the "creative." Here are tips and actual sample
questions for each type. Don't assume that the questions are currently being
used by a college (most colleges adjust questions annually).
have something to react to, a way to show yourself and write about your real
views. Just don't forget the importance of writing an informed essay. For
example, don't write about a fantasy lunch with a famous writer and get the
titles of her novels wrong. Also, when thinking about how creative to get, use
common sense. Being creative to the point of wacky is a risk you may not want
IV: Three Steps to a Great College Essay
You, in 500
words or less
application essay is a chance to explain you; to open your personality, charm,
talents, vision, and spirit to the admissions committee. It's a chance to show
you can think about things and that you can write clearly about your thoughts.
Don't let the chance disappear. Stand up straight and believe in yourself!
Essay Writing Process
up your computer and let's get to it. To write a college essay, use the exact three-step
process you'd use to write an essay for class: first prewrite, then draft, and
finally, edit. This process will help you identify a focus for your essay, and
gather the details you'll need to support it.
you must first collect and organize potential ideas for your essay's focus.
Since all essay questions are attempts to learn about you, begin
- Brainstorm: Set a timer for 15 minutes and make a
list of your strengths and outstanding characteristics. Focus on strengths
of personality, not things you've done. For example, you are responsible
(not an "Eagle Scout") or committed (not "played basketball").
If you keep drifting toward events rather than characteristics, make a
second list of the things you've done, places you've been, accomplishments
you're proud of; use them for the activities section of your application.
- Discover Your Strengths: Do a little research about yourself:
ask parents, friends, and teachers what your strengths are.
- Create a Self-Outline: Now, next to each trait, list five or
six pieces of evidence from your life—things you've been or done—that
prove your point.
- Find Patterns and Connections: Look for patterns in the material
you've brainstormed. Group similar ideas and events together. For example,
does your passion for numbers show up in your performance in the state
math competition and your summer job at the computer store? Was basketball
about sports or about friendships? When else have you stuck with the hard
work to be with people who matter to you?
time to get down to the actual writing. Write your essay in three basic parts:
introduction, body, and conclusion.
- The introduction
gives your reader an idea of your essay's content. It can shrink when you
need to be concise. One vivid sentence might do: "The favorite
science project was a complete failure."
- The body
presents the evidence that supports your main idea. Use narration and
incident to show rather than tell.
- The conclusion
can be brief as well, a few sentences to nail down the meaning of the
events and incidents you've described.
application essay doesn't need to read like an essay about The Bluest Eye or the
Congress of Vienna, but thinking in terms of these three traditional parts is a
good way to organize your main points.
There are three basic essay styles you should
- Standard Essay: Take two or three points from your
self-outline, give a paragraph to each, and make sure you provide plenty
of evidence. Choose things not apparent from the rest of your application
or light up some of the activities and experiences listed there.
- Less-Is-More Essay: In this format, you focus on a single
interesting point about yourself. It works well for brief essays of a
paragraph or half a page.
- Narrative Essay: A narrative essay tells a short and
vivid story. Omit the introduction, write one or two narrative paragraphs
that grab and engage the reader's attention, then explain what this little
tale reveals about you.
have a good draft, it's time to make final improvements to your draft, find and
correct any errors, and get someone else to give you feedback. Remember, you
are your best editor. No one can speak for you; your own words and ideas are
your best bet.
- Let It Cool: Take a break from your work and come
back to it in a few days. Does your main idea come across clearly? Do you
prove your points with specific details? Is your essay easy to read aloud?
- Feedback Time: Have someone you like and trust (but
someone likely to tell you the truth) read your essay. Ask them to tell
you what they think you're trying to convey. Did they get it right?
- Edit Down: Your language should be simple, direct,
and clear. This is a personal essay, not a term paper. Make every word
count (e.g., if you wrote "in society today," consider changing
that to "now").
- Proofread Two More Times: Careless spelling or grammatical errors,
awkward language, or fuzzy logic will make your essay memorable—in a bad
PART V: College Essay Writing Tips
an effective application essay
application essay will present a vivid, personal, and compelling view of you to
the admissions staff. It will round out the rest of your application and help
you stand out from the other applicants. The essay is one of the only parts of
your application over which you have complete control, so take the time to do a
good job on it. Check out these tips before you begin.
Keep your focus narrow and personal
must prove a single point or thesis. The reader must be able to find your main
idea and follow it from beginning to end. Try having someone read just your
introduction to see what he thinks your essay is about.
try to be too comprehensive end up sounding watered-down. Remember, it's not
about telling the committee what you've done—they can pick that up from your
list of activities—instead, it's about showing them who you are.
main idea with vivid and specific facts, events, quotations, examples, and
reasons. There's a big difference between simply stating a point of view and
letting an idea unfold in the details:
- Okay: "I like to be surrounded
by people with a variety of backgrounds and interests"
- Better: "During that night, I
sang the theme song from Casablanca with a baseball coach who thinks he's
Bogie, discussed Marxism with a little old lady, and heard more than I
ever wanted to know about some woman's gall bladder operation."
clichéd, generic, and predictable writing by using vivid and specific details.
- Okay: "I want to help
people. I have gotten so much out of life through the love and guidance of
my family, I feel that many individuals have not been as fortunate;
therefore, I would like to expand the lives of others."
- Better: "My Mom and Dad stood
on plenty of sidelines 'til their shoes filled with water or their fingers
turned white, or somebody's golden retriever signed his name on their
coats in mud. I think that kind of commitment is what I'd like to bring to
working with fourth-graders."
Don't tell them what
you think they want to hear
admissions officers read plenty of essays about the charms of their university,
the evils of terrorism, and the personal commitment involved in being a doctor.
Bring something new to the table, not just what you think they want to hear.
Don't write a resume
include information that is found elsewhere in the application. Your essay will
end up sounding like an autobiography, travelogue, or laundry list. Yawn.
- "During my
junior year, I played first singles on the tennis team, served on the
student council, maintained a B+ average, traveled to France, and worked at
a cheese factory."
Don't use 50 words
when five will do
- Okay: "Over the years it has
been pointed out to me by my parents, friends, and teachers—and I have
even noticed this about myself, as well—that I am not the neatest person
in the world."
- Better: "I'm a slob."
Don't forget to proofread
spelling or grammatical errors can be interpreted as carelessness or just bad
writing. Don't rely on your computer's spell check. It can miss spelling errors
like the ones below.
- "After I
high school, I plan to work for a nonprofit organization during the
- "From that
day on, Daniel was my best fried."
Common Writing Mistakes
“I think” . . . I know you can think. What do you believe?
“That” is the most overused word in
writing. Take it out and read the
sentence out loud. Does it make
sense? Then ditch the “that”.
Wordy expressions. Say it out loud. Does it sound ridiculous? Then change it.
Avoid clichés like the plague.
Don’t use quotations – create your own
Avoid shifting tense or point of view. Be consistent.
Not sure about a grammatical rule? Google it.
There are thousands of sites dedicated to rules of writing.
Don’t talk about their well manicured flower
beds or the beautiful landscaping. Don’t
say you like the really old buildings or the overall “feel” of the
college. They know their campus looks
good. Be specific.
“It would be so much fun to go to Badger
games.” Yes it would. However, that should not be the reason why
you want to go to Madison. Even if it
is, don’t tell that to the admission committee.
Don’t try to impress them with your use of
big words. All that does is prove you have a thesaurus.
Focus, focus, focus. You can’t cover lofty issues in 500 words or
less. Narrow it down to a day, an hour, a
Does it flow?
Can I easily identify the main point of each paragraph and how those
points build upon one another?
“then” vs. “than” or “i.e.” vs. “e.g.” – make
sure you are using the correct one
“My personal opinion” . . . as opposed to
your impersonal opinion?
“My sincere belief” . . . as opposed to your
Does your sentence have more than three
commas? Your sentence is too long. Rambling is not good.
Avoid passive tense.
Irregardless is not a word.
Don’t write in fragments. Texting writing is really not what we would
consider academic writing. K?
Focus on the four C's: Writing
should be Concise, Crisp, Clear, and (grammatically) Correct.
Spell check does not catch everything.
VI: Sample College Essays
You be the
following application essay. See if you can figure out this essay's strengths
application essay 1
time I was able to realize what a university was, all I heard from my mother's
side of the family was about the University of Michigan and the great heritage
it has. Many a Saturday afternoon my grandfather would devote to me, by sitting
me down in front of the television and reminiscing about the University of
Michigan while halftime occurred during a Michigan Wolverines football game.
Later, as I grew older and universities took on greater meaning, my mother and
uncle, both alumni of the University of Michigan, took me to see their old
stamping grounds. From first sight, the university looked frightening because
of its size, but with such a large school comes diversity of people and of
academic and non-academic events.