Creating A Perfect Personal Statement: College Essays
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Sitting down to write college essays is probably one of the most stressful parts of the application: there are so many prompts and requirements, and it’s not always easy to know what to write about. This article breaks down the most common essay prompts colleges use, and outlines some tips on how to get started!
Types of Essays
There are three main categories that most college application essays fall under: essay topics that ask you to discuss yourself and your experiences, essays used to gauge interest and fit for a university, and creative prompts. Beyond this, some colleges may have supplemental essay prompts relating to a specific topic, or the department you’re applying to may also require additional essays.
Essays That Ask You to Discuss Yourself
- This type of essay usually has questions such as:
- Tell us about the environment you grew up in
- Discuss a major obstacle you’ve overcome and how it has changed you
- Tell us about your interests and passions outside of school
- Describe a problem you’d like to solve if you had the time and resources to do so
- Meant to allow applicants to discuss aspects of themselves that can’t be explained in a resume
- More open ended than other prompts so be careful to give the essay a clear structure
- This essay seems “easiest” for those who have had an unusual background or experiences, and you may feel your life has been pretty average – but remember that everyone has something unique about them that can be leveraged into a great essay, so don’t get discouraged!
- Most Common Application and Coalition Application essays fall in this category
Essays That Pertain to a University
- This type of essay usually has questions in the format of:
- Why did you choose _____ university?
- Why do you believe you’re a good fit for _______ university/department?
- Why are you interested in studying _______?
- What changes would you implement at ________ university?
- Meant to help admissions counselors gauge a student’s true interest and fit for the university or program of study
Essays That Have Open-Ended Creative Questions
- Unique questions used as supplemental prompts; examples are:
- If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?
- If you had ___ dollars, how would you spend it?
- Tell us about an invention you would be interested in building and patenting
- Would you rather _____ or _____?
- What kind of course would you teach if you were a professor?
- Used to evaluate a student’s creativity, and allow them to express a different side of themselves
- Usually deemed the most challenging, but can be fun to write about
Common Application, Coalition Application, Regional, and University-Specific Prompts
- Common Application and Coalition Application are both platforms that allow you to allow to multiple universities through a common set of application guides
- Common Application serves more universities than Coalition Application, while some universities accept both, one or the other, or neither (check with your specific university for their requirements)
- Common Application essay prompts
- Coalition Application essay prompts
- Some regions of colleges have their own application system
- ApplyTexas is one such example – it’s an application portal specifically for Texas universities
- These organizations usually have their own set of essay prompts to submit, so make sure to look up the requirements for the university you’re looking into
- Most universities also have their own optional (or required) prompts, short answers, and departmental essay requirements
- For example, the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) requires short answer responses to a list of questions specific to UT Austin, in addition to ApplyTexas prompts
Brainstorming Essay Topics
- Looking at all the different prompts, it’s easy to get “writer’s block” and not know where to start, especially for open-ended questions! Consider the following tips to help you get started:
- If you’re not sure what aspects of yourself you can discuss, try opening up a blank document and list out a bunch of facts about yourself that immediately come to mind
- They can be both simple things and serious aspects
- This is an example of a small part of a student’s list while they were brainstorming:
- This may look silly at first but it can help you get an idea of what’s important to you and what is unique to you, which may form the basis for prompts
- You can also copy down the essay prompt and list points that first come to mind, and from those, you can choose one or two to begin an outline on
- Talk to friends, family, teachers, and others who know you well! Sometimes others can offer us insight about ourselves much easier than we can by ourselves
- Look back through your most important memories and moments in your life so far, and see if some of those instances can be used as an essay background
Essay Skeletons and Example Formats
- Once you have chosen your topic for a particular prompt, the next challenge is finding a way to articulate those thoughts in a well-written manner. You should make sure your essay has an easy-to-follow structure to it so that it isn’t all over the place. Additionally, your writing should be as succinct as possible, without compromising on description.
Here are some ideas on how to outline your essay:
- A specific example leading to a general explanation
- Begin with one very specific example or set of examples that provoke powerful imagery and emotion in the reader
- Build from that example and expand the essay to talk about how other instances like it have shaped you, and what it means
- An example excerpt from an essay (the prompt asked to explain the student’s background):
“…As I exchanged money with the customers all evening, the clink of coins dropping into the jar reminded me of a very different evening many years ago.
I was walking back from the bank with my parents, and my hand was sore from gripping the knot of a plastic bag brimming with loose change. As we stood on a street corner waiting for the signal to change, I heard the tinkling of coins. I glanced down to see that the bag had ripped open and a shiny trail of coins outlined our steps. I looked to my parents in embarrassment, but they simply patted my head, and we retraced our path, picking up each penny.
We had moved to the United States when I was seven years old, with high hopes that our penny picking days would soon be over. It wasn’t until we boarded the plane…”
- In this example, the writer uses a flashback to a particularly memorable night in her life, uses that memory to transition into her background about moving to the United States, and continues the essay from there
- Chronological order
- If you’ve experienced several different stages in your life, or if your topic has a background that starts early on and develops through a longer period of time, this layout would enable you to easily discuss the entire process
- Do not use the entire timeline of your life or process – only choose the noteworthy points and be clear about what the different stages are
- Scene in the day of your life
- This structural idea might be good for essays that ask you to describe yourself or your ambitions because you can talk about an average day in your life and connect that to the prompt
- Can also be used for prompts asking for hypothetical scenarios
- Be careful to not go into too much unnecessary detail while describing the scene
- Some students mix two or more essay formats, which can also work well! The best way to know what works for your topic is to first free write, then analyze and edit the structure of your essay
- Keep all versions of an essay: create folders for each prompt, then make a separate copy every time you sit down to write
- This sounds like a lot of work and too many copies, but it’s useful because sometimes you word things specific ways each time you write, and you may not remember what you wrote last time or the way you wrote it
- With all the copies, you can easily go back to see if you’re repeating something from your last version, or cut sections you liked and simply copy and paste those parts
- It can be helpful to print out your essay and edit by hand
- Read your essay out loud, line by line, to make sure it flows and rephrase words as necessary
- Look for more descriptive adjectives when possible, and try to write in a concise manner
- Make sure your essay uses the proper tense where necessary
- Carefully check for typing and grammar mistakes
- Try to connect one or more of your essays to your major or school, and try to present your essays so they each serve a distinct purpose
- Give your essay to others to read and critique, so you can get multiple opinions on flow and writing style
- Make sure to stay under the word limit! Going over the word limit won’t impress the person reading your essay – they have too many other essays to read.