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How to Write a Personal Essay for Your College Application

admission essay ideas

What does it take to land in the “accept” (instead of “reject”) pile?

How can you write an essay that helps advance you in the eyes of the admissions officers and makes a real impression? Here are some tips to get you started.

  • Start early.  Do not leave it until the last minute. Give yourself time when you don’t have other homework or extracurriculars hanging over your head to work on the essay.
  • Keep the focus narrow.  Your essay does not have to cover a massive, earth-shattering event. Some people in their teens haven’t experienced a major life event. Some people have. Either way, it’s okay.
  • Be yourself.  Whether writing about a painful experience or a more simple experience, use the narrative to be vulnerable and honest about who you are. Use words you would normally use. Trust your voice and the fact that your story is interesting enough in that no one else has lived it.
  • Be creative.  “Show, don’t tell,” and that applies here — to an extent. The best essays typically do both. You can help your reader see and feel what you are describing by using some figurative language throughout your piece.
  • Make a point. As you finish your final body paragraphs ask yourself “So what?” This will help you hone in on how to end your essay in a way that elevates it into a story about an insight or discovery you made about yourself, rather than just being about an experience you had.

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We’ve all heard about the dreaded “college essay,” the bane of every high school senior’s existence. This daunting element of the college application is something that can create angst for even the most accomplished students.

  • AA Amy Allen is a writer, educator, and lifelong learner. Her freelance writing business,  All of the Write Words , focuses on providing high school students with one-on-one feedback to guide them through the college application process and with crafting a thoughtful personal essay. A dedicated poet, Amy’s work has also been published in several journals including  Pine Row Press ,  Months to Years,  and  Atlanta Review .

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60+ College Essay Prompts From Actual 2023-2024 Applications

Ideas to inspire every college applicant.

Discuss a time when reflection or introspection led to clarity or understanding of an issue that is important to you.

Writing a college application essay can be a stressful task for a lot of students. The more practice they get in advance, the better! This roundup of college essay prompts gives applicants a chance to explore their thinking, polish their writing, and prepare to make the best possible impression on selection committees. Every one of these questions is taken from real college applications for the 2023-2024 season, so they’re meaningful and applicable to today’s high school seniors.

Common App 2023-2024 College Essay Prompts

2023-2024 coalition for college essay prompts, life experiences college essay prompts, personal college essay prompts, academics college essay prompts, creative college essay prompts.

Hundreds of colleges and universities use the Common App process . For many schools, this includes responding to one of several college essay topics, which can change each year. Here are the essay prompts for the current application cycle (check with your chosen school/s to see if an essay is required).

  • 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?

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.

Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.- college essay prompts

  • 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.

More than 150 colleges and universities use the Coalition for College process . Here are their essay prompts for 2023-2024.

  • Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.

Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.

  • What interests or excites you? How does it shape who you are now or who you might become in the future?
  • Describe a time when you had a positive impact on others. What were the challenges? What were the rewards?
  • Has there been a time when an idea or belief of yours was questioned? How did you respond? What did you learn?
  • What success have you achieved or obstacle have you faced? What advice would you give a sibling or friend going through a similar experience?

What success have you achieved or obstacle have you faced? What advice would you give a sibling or friend going through a similar experience?

  • Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.

Answer these questions by sharing specific examples from your own experience.

  • Who is your favorite conversation partner? What do you discuss with that person?
  • Discuss a time when reflection or introspection led to clarity or understanding of an issue that is important to you.
  • Share an example of how you have used your own critical-thinking skills on a specific subject, project, idea, or interest.

Share an example of how you have used your own critical-thinking skills on a specific subject, project, idea, or interest.- college essay prompts

  • Describe a time when you were challenged by a perspective that differed from your own. How did you respond?
  • What are the best words of advice you have received? Who shared them, and how have you applied them in your own life?
  • Elaborate on an activity or experience you have had that made an impact on a community that is important to you.
  • Using your personal, academic, or volunteer/work experiences, describe the topics or issues that you care about and why they are important to you.
  • Who do you agree with on the big, important things, or who do you have your most interesting disagreements with? What are you agreeing or disagreeing about?
  • Reflect on a personal experience where you intentionally expanded your cultural awareness.
  • When was the last time you questioned something you had thought to be true?
  • Discuss the significance to you of the school or summer activity in which you have been most involved.
  • Reflect on a time when you or someone you observed had to make a choice about whether to act with integrity and honesty.
  • Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.

Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.

  • Describe a time you did not meet expectations and what impact the experience had on you.

These essay topics give schools a better sense of who you are, what you value, and the kind of student citizen you might be.

  • What drives you to create, and what do you hope to make or have you made?
  • Which book, character, song, monologue, or piece of work (fiction or nonfiction) seems made for you? Why?
  • What would you want your future college roommate to know about you?
  • How has your own background influenced the types of problems you want to solve, the people you want to work with, and the impact you hope your work can have?

How has your own background influenced the types of problems you want to solve, the people you want to work with, and the impact you hope your work can have?- college essay prompts

  • Describe any meaningful travel experiences you’ve had.
  • What would you want to be different in your own country or community to further principles of equality, equity, or social justice?
  • What strength or quality do you have that most people might not see or recognize?
  • If you could live your life fighting for one cause, what would it be and why?
  • What gives meaning to your life?
  • If you wrote a letter to yourself to be opened in 20 years, what would it say?
  • If you had the power to change the course of history in your community or the world, what would you do and why?

If you had the power to change the course of history in your community or the world, what would you do and why?

  • Choose one of the communities to which you belong, and describe that community and your place within it.
  • What is the greatest compliment you have ever been given? Why was it meaningful to you?
  • Explain how a text you’ve read—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or literature of any kind—has helped you to understand the world’s complexity.

Topics like these show your academic interests and demonstrate your commitment to learning and discovery.

  • What does it mean to you to be educated?
  • What is your motivation for pursuing higher education?
  • Describe your reasons for wanting to attend the specific school you’re applying to. Who or what factored into your decision?
  • Academic inquiry starts with bold questions. What are some of the bold questions you have pondered that get you excited, and why do they interest you?

Academic inquiry starts with bold questions. What are some of the bold questions you have pondered that get you excited, and why do they interest you?- college essay prompts

  • What has been your best academic experience in the last two years, and what made it so good?
  • If you decide to take a “gap year” between high school and college, what would you do during that time?
  • Many schools place a high value on diverse student populations. How can you contribute to and support a diverse and inclusive student population at your chosen school?
  • Imagine you were just awarded a research grant for a project of your choice. What are you researching and why?
  • What do you love about the subject(s) you selected as potential major(s)? If undecided, share more about one of your academic passions.

What do you love about the subject(s) you selected as potential major(s)? If undecided, share more about one of your academic passions.

  • Describe a time when you’ve felt empowered or represented by an educator.
  • Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.

Use these college essay topics to show off your creativity and innovative thinking.

  • You are tasked with creating a new category for the Nobel Prize. Explain what it would be, why you chose your specific category, and the criteria necessary to achieve this accomplishment.

You are tasked with creating a new category for the Nobel Prize. Explain what it would be, why you chose your specific category, and the criteria necessary to achieve this accomplishment.

  • Pick one person—a historical figure, fictitious character, or modern individual—to converse with for an hour, and explain your choice.
  • If you could witness a historic event (past, present, or future) firsthand, what would it be and why?
  • If you could have a theme song, what would it be and why?
  • Discuss a book that you would call a “great book.” What makes the book great in your view?
  • If you could give any historical figure any piece of technology, who and what would it be, and why do you think they’d work so well together?
  • If I could travel anywhere, I would go to …
  • My favorite thing about last Tuesday was …
  • Write a short thank-you note to someone you have not yet thanked and would like to acknowledge.
  • If you had 10 minutes and the attention of a million people, what would your TED Talk be about?
  • What are your three favorite words in the English language? Explain what they mean to you.
  • Imagine that you could have one superpower. What would it be and how would you use it? What would be your kryptonite?

Imagine that you could have one superpower. What would it be and how would you use it? What would be your kryptonite?- college essay prompts

  • Which Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor (real or imagined) best describes you?
  • If you could create a college course that all students would take, what would it be about and why?
  • What website is the internet missing?

How do you help your students prepare their college application essays? Come share your ideas and ask for advice in the We Are Teachers HELPLINE group on Facebook .

Plus, check out  the ultimate guide to college scholarships.

Looking for writing ideas for your college application? These college essay prompts offer inspirational topics that let every student shine.

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College admissions

Course: college admissions   >   unit 4.

  • Writing a strong college admissions essay
  • Avoiding common admissions essay mistakes
  • Brainstorming tips for your college essay
  • How formal should the tone of your college essay be?
  • Taking your college essay to the next level
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Writing tips and techniques for your college essay

Pose a question the reader wants answered, don't focus exclusively on the past, experiment with the unexpected, don't summarize, want to join the conversation.

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How to Write a College Application Essay

Find the right college for you..

Your essay reveals something important about you that your grades and test scores can't─your personality. It can give admissions officers a sense of who you are and showcase your writing ability. Here are some things that admissions officers look for in a personal essay for college.

1. Open Strong.

Knowing how to start a college essay can create a strong opening paragraph that immediately captures the reader’s interest. You want to make the admissions officer reading your essay curious about what you say next.

2. Show You Can Write.

Colleges want to see that you have a command of the basics of good writing, which is a key component of success in college.

3. Answer the Prompt.

Admissions officers also want to see that the student can give a direct answer while sticking to a comprehensive narrative. When writing college essays, consider the point you want to make and develop a fleshed-out response that fits the prompt. Avoid force-fitting prewritten pieces. Approach every personal essay prompt as if it's your first.

4. Stick to Your Style.

Writing college essays isn't about using flowery or verbose prose. Avoid leaning too heavily on the thesaurus to sound impressive. Choose a natural writing style that’s appropriate for the subject matter.

Also, avoid stressing about trying to write what you think colleges want to see. Learning how to draft a good essay for college is about showcasing who you are. Stay true to your voice. Keep in mind that authenticity is more important than anything else.

5. Proofread.

Correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling are essential. Proofread several times after you've finished. Then ask a teacher, parent, or college English major to give it a quick read as well.

6. Keep Track of Length.

Finally, admissions officers value succinctness. Remember to pay attention to the recommended essay length or word count.

Bonus Tips and College Essay Writing Help

For more on how to write a college essay, check out these Tips for Writing Your College Admissions Essay .

What is the college application essay?

A personal essay for college applications is an opportunity for admission admissions panels to get more insight into who you are and what you have to offer. It's often the most personal component of the application, going beyond grades and standardized test scores. Essays usually have open-ended prompts, allowing you to flex your writing skills and make a personal statement.

Does my college application essay really matter?

Learning how to write a successful essay for college is crucial. This essay's exact weight on your chances of acceptance varies from one school to the next. But it's an element of your application that all admissions teams consider. Your essay could be the thing that gets you off a waiting list or gives you a competitive edge over other applicants.

What are colleges looking for in my application essay?

Knowing what to include in a college essay is half the battle. Admissions teams look for many things, but the most influential are authenticity, writing ability, character details, and positive traits. The purpose of the essay is to shed light on your background and gain perspective on your real-world experiences.

When should I start writing my college essay?

Because you'll want to tailor each application to each school, expect to write multiple personal essays. Advisers typically recommend starting these pieces during the summer before your senior year of high school. This will give you ample time to concentrate on writing a college essay before you're hit with schoolwork.

What can I do to write an effective college essay if I'm not a strong writer?

Good writing skills matter, but the best college essay is about the quality of your response. Authentic stories in a natural voice have impact. The story you want to tell about yourself will work better for you if it’s told in language that’s not overly sophisticated. Work with a writing coach for help with the academic aspects. Make responding with substance a priority.

How can I write my college essay if I have no monumental experiences?

You don't need life-changing moments to impress an admissions panel. Think about your personal experiences. Describe moments that left a lasting impact. The important thing is to have a fleshed-out narrative that provides insight into your life and way of thinking. Some of the best essays revolve around meaningful moments rather than flashy ones.

How should I start brainstorming topics for my college essay?

Most colleges provide open-ended prompts. Using the topic as inspiration, think about critical milestones or essential lessons you learned during your academic career. Tell stories about real-life experiences that have shaped the person you are. Write them down to brainstorm ideas. Choose stories that highlight your best traits.

What is a good list of essay topics to start with? What essay topics should I avoid?

Good topics when writing college essays include personal achievements, meaningful lessons, life-changing challenges, and situations that fostered personal growth. It's best to avoid anything too intimate or controversial. You want to open up, but it's not a good idea to go overboard or alienate members of the admissions panel.

What format should I use for my college essay?

Read the prompt and essay instructions thoroughly to learn how to start off a college essay. Some colleges provide guidance about formatting. If not, the best course of action is to stick with a college standard like the MLA format.

How long should my essay be?

The average length of a personal essay for college is 400─600 words. Always read the prompt. Follow the instructions provided in the application.

Who should I ask to review my college essay?

Turn to your school counselor for review. They understand what college admissions panels are looking for, and they can provide valuable insight into your piece's quality. You can also reach out to English teachers and other educators for proofreading.

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By submitting my email address. i certify that i am 13 years of age or older, agree to recieve marketing email messages from the princeton review, and agree to terms of use., popular college application essay topics (and how to answer them).

Get help writing your college application essays. Find this year's Common App writing prompts and popular essay questions used by individual colleges.

The college essay is your opportunity to show admissions officers who you are apart from your grades and test scores (and to distinguish yourself from the rest of a very talented applicant pool).

brainstorming college application essay topics

2023–24 Common App Essays

Nearly 700 colleges accept the The Common Application , which makes it easy to apply to multiple schools with just one form. If you are using the Common App to apply for college admissions, you will have 250–650 words to respond to ONE of the following prompts:

  • 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.

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Read More: Get Expert Essay Advice From Former Admissions Officers!

Tackling the Common App Essay Prompts

Prompt #1: share your story..

Answer this prompt by reflecting on a hobby, facet of your personality, or experience that is genuinely meaningful and unique to you. Admissions officers want to feel connected to you and an honest, personal statement about who you are draws them in. Your love of superheroes, baking chops, or family history are all fair game if you can tie it back to who you are or what you believe in. Avoid a rehash of the accomplishments on your high school résumé and choose something that the admissions committee will not discover when reading the rest of your application.

Prompt #2: Learning from obstacles.

You're trying to show colleges your best self, so it might seem counterintuitive to willingly acknowledge a time you struggled. But overcoming challenges demonstrates courage, grit, and perseverance! That’s why the last piece of this prompt is essential. The obstacle you write about can be large or small, but you must show the admissions committee how your perspective changed as a result.

Perfect your college essay video

Prompt #3: Challenging a belief.

Your answer to this question could focus on a time you stood up to others or an experience when your own preconceived view was challenged. Choose this prompt if you have a relevant—and specific!—experience to recount (and reflect on). A vague essay about a hot button issue doesn’t tell the admissions committee anything useful about YOU.

Prompt #4: Reflecting on gratitude.

Colleges are looking for students with unique experiences that can enhance their future campus community, and this is your chance to share that by recognizing what someone else has done for you. Even though this prompt requires you to reflect on the action of another person, make sure that the focus remains on how the act of kindness impacted you and the way you live your life. This essay should make you and the reader smile.

Prompt #5: Personal growth.

Just like Prompt #2, the accomplishment or event you write about can be anything from a major milestone to a smaller "aha" moment. Describe the event or accomplishment that shaped you but take care to also show what you learned or how you changed. Colleges are looking for a sense of maturity and introspection—pinpoint the transformation and demonstrate your personal growth. 

Prompt #6: What captivates you?

This prompt is an invitation to write about something you care about. (So avoid the pitfall of writing about what you think will impress the admission office versus what truly matters to you). Colleges are looking for curious students, who are thoughtful about the world around them. The "what or who do you turn to when you want to learn more” bit isn't an afterthought—it's a key piece of the prompt. Make sure you explain how you pursue your interest, as well.

Read More: QUIZ: Test Your College Knowledge!

Prompt #7: Topic of your choice.

This question might be for you if you have a dynamo personal essay from English class to share or were really inspired by a question from another college’s application. You can even write your own question! Whatever topic you land on, the essentials of a standout college essay still stand: 1.) Show the admissions committee who you are beyond grades and test scores and 2.) Dig into your topic by asking yourself how and why. There isn’t a prompt to guide you, so you must ask yourself the questions that will get at the heart of the story you want to tell.

More College Essay Topics

Individual schools sometimes require supplemental essays. Here are a few popular application essay topics and some tips for how to approach them:

Describe a person you admire.

Avoid the urge to pen an ode to a beloved figure like Gandhi or Abraham Lincoln. The admissions committee doesn't need to be convinced they are influential people. Focus on yourself: Choose someone who has actually caused you to change your behavior or your worldview, and write about how this person influenced you .

Why do you want to attend this school?

Be honest and specific when you respond to this question. Avoid generalities like "to get a good liberal arts education” or “to develop career skills," and use details that show your interests: "I'm an aspiring doctor and your science department has a terrific reputation." Colleges are more likely to admit students who can articulate specific reasons why the school is a good fit for them beyond its reputation or ranking on any list. Use the college's website and literature to do your research about programs, professors, and other opportunities that appeal to you.

Read More: 5 Ways College Application Essays and High School Essays Are Different

What is a book you love?

Your answer should not be a book report. Don't just summarize the plot; detail why you enjoyed this particular text and what it meant to you. What does your favorite book reveal about you? How do you identify with it, and how has it become personal to you?

Again, be honest in answering this question—don't choose a classic from your literature class or a piece of philosophy just because you think it will make you seem smarter. Writing fluently and passionately about a book close to you is always better than writing shakily or generally about a book that doesn't inspire you.

What is an extracurricular activity that has been meaningful to you?

Avoid slipping into clichés or generalities. Take this opportunity to really examine an experience that taught you something you didn't previously know about yourself, got you out of your comfort zone, or forced you to grow. Sometimes it's better to write about something that was hard for you because you learned something than it is to write about something that was easy for you because you think it sounds admirable. As with all essay questions, the most important thing is to tell a great story: how you discovered this activity, what drew you to it, and what it's shown you about yourself.

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  • College Essay Examples | What Works and What Doesn’t

College Essay Examples | What Works and What Doesn't

Published on November 8, 2021 by Kirsten Courault . Revised on August 14, 2023.

One effective method for improving your college essay is to read example essays . Here are three sample essays, each with a bad and good version to help you improve your own essay.

Table of contents

Essay 1: sharing an identity or background through a montage, essay 2: overcoming a challenge, a sports injury narrative, essay 3: showing the influence of an important person or thing, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about college application essays.

This essay uses a montage structure to show snapshots of a student’s identity and background. The writer builds her essay around the theme of the five senses, sharing memories she associates with sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste.

In the weak rough draft, there is little connection between the individual anecdotes, and they do not robustly demonstrate the student’s qualities.

In the final version, the student uses an extended metaphor of a museum to create a strong connection among her stories, each showcasing a different part of her identity. She draws a specific personal insight from each memory and uses the stories to demonstrate her qualities and values.

How My Five Senses Record My Life

Throughout my life, I have kept a record of my life’s journey with my five senses. This collection of memories matters a great deal because I experience life every day through the lens of my identity.

“Chinese! Japanese!”

My classmate pulls one eye up and the other down.

“Look what my parents did to me!”

No matter how many times he repeats it, the other kids keep laughing. I focus my almond-shaped eyes on the ground, careful not to attract attention to my discomfort, anger, and shame. How could he say such a mean thing about me? What did I do to him? Joseph’s words would engrave themselves into my memory, making me question my appearance every time I saw my eyes in the mirror.

Soaking in overflowing bubble baths with Andrew Lloyd Webber belting from the boombox.

Listening to “Cell Block Tango” with my grandparents while eating filet mignon at a dine-in show in Ashland.

Singing “The Worst Pies in London” at a Korean karaoke club while laughing hysterically with my brother, who can do an eerily spot-on rendition of Sweeney Todd.

Taking car rides with Mom in the Toyota Sequoia as we compete to hit the high note in “Think of Me” from The Phantom of the Opera . Neither of us stands a chance!

The sweet scent of vegetables, Chinese noodles, and sushi wafts through the room as we sit around the table. My grandma presents a good-smelling mixture of international cuisine for our Thanksgiving feast. My favorite is the Chinese food that she cooks. Only the family prayer stands between me and the chance to indulge in these delicious morsels, comforting me with their familiar savory scents.

I rinse a faded plastic plate decorated by my younger sister at the Waterworks Art Center. I wear yellow rubber gloves to protect my hands at Mom’s insistence, but I can still feel the warm water that offers a bit of comfort as I finish the task at hand. The crusted casserole dish with stubborn remnants from my dad’s five-layer lasagna requires extra effort, so I fill it with Dawn and scalding water, setting it aside to soak. I actually don’t mind this daily chore.

I taste sweat on my upper lip as I fight to continue pedaling on a stationary bike. Ava’s next to me and tells me to go up a level. We’re biking buddies, dieting buddies, and Saturday morning carbo-load buddies. After the bike display hits 30 minutes, we do a five-minute cool down, drink Gatorade, and put our legs up to rest.

My five senses are always gathering new memories of my identity. I’m excited to expand my collection.

Word count: 455

College essay checklist

Topic and structure

  • I’ve selected a topic that’s meaningful to me.
  • My essay reveals something different from the rest of my application.
  • I have a clear and well-structured narrative.
  • I’ve concluded with an insight or a creative ending.

Writing style and tone

  • I’ve crafted an introduction containing vivid imagery or an intriguing hook that grabs the reader’s attention.
  • I’ve written my essay in a way that shows instead of tells.
  • I’ve used appropriate style and tone for a college essay.
  • I’ve used specific, vivid personal stories that would be hard to replicate.
  • I’ve demonstrated my positive traits and values in my essay.
  • My essay is focused on me, not another person or thing.
  • I’ve included self-reflection and insight in my essay.
  • I’ve respected the word count , remaining within 10% of the upper word limit.

Making Sense of My Identity

Welcome to The Rose Arimoto Museum. You are about to enter the “Making Sense of My Identity” collection. Allow me to guide you through select exhibits, carefully curated memories from Rose’s sensory experiences.

First, the Sight Exhibit.

“Chinese! Japanese!”

“Look what my parents did to me!”

No matter how many times he repeats it, the other kids keep laughing. I focus my almond-shaped eyes on the ground, careful not to attract attention as my lip trembles and palms sweat. Joseph couldn’t have known how his words would engrave themselves into my memory, making me question my appearance every time I saw my eyes in the mirror.

Ten years later, these same eyes now fixate on an InDesign layout sheet, searching for grammar errors while my friend Selena proofreads our feature piece on racial discrimination in our hometown. As we’re the school newspaper editors, our journalism teacher Ms. Riley allows us to stay until midnight to meet tomorrow’s deadline. She commends our work ethic, which for me is fueled by writing一my new weapon of choice.

Next, you’ll encounter the Sound Exhibit.

Still, the world is my Broadway as I find my voice on stage.

Just below, enter the Smell Exhibit.

While I help my Pau Pau prepare dinner, she divulges her recipe for cha siu bau, with its soft, pillowy white exterior hiding the fragrant filling of braised barbecue pork inside. The sweet scent of candied yams, fun see , and Spam musubi wafts through the room as we gather around our Thankgsiving feast. After our family prayer, we indulge in these delicious morsels until our bellies say stop. These savory scents of my family’s cultural heritage linger long after I’ve finished the last bite.

Next up, the Touch Exhibit.

I rinse a handmade mug that I had painstakingly molded and painted in ceramics class. I wear yellow rubber gloves to protect my hands at Mom’s insistence, but I can still feel the warm water that offers a bit of comfort as I finish the task at hand. The crusted casserole dish with stubborn remnants from my dad’s five-layer lasagna requires extra effort, so I fill it with Dawn and scalding water, setting it aside to soak. For a few fleeting moments, as I continue my nightly chore, the pressure of my weekend job, tomorrow’s calculus exam, and next week’s track meet are washed away.

Finally, we end with the Taste Exhibit.

My legs fight to keep pace with the stationary bike as the salty taste of sweat seeps into corners of my mouth. Ava challenges me to take it up a level. We always train together一even keeping each other accountable on our strict protein diet of chicken breasts, broccoli, and Muscle Milk. We occasionally splurge on Saturday mornings after interval training, relishing the decadence of everything bagels smeared with raspberry walnut cream cheese. But this is Wednesday, so I push myself. I know that once the digital display hits 30:00, we’ll allow our legs to relax into a five-minute cool down, followed by the fiery tang of Fruit Punch Gatorade to rehydrate.

Thank you for your attention. This completes our tour. I invite you to rejoin us for next fall’s College Experience collection, which will exhibit Rose’s continual search for identity and learning.

Word count: 649

  • I’ve crafted an essay introduction containing vivid imagery or an intriguing hook that grabs the reader’s attention.

Prevent plagiarism. Run a free check.

This essay uses a narrative structure to recount how a student overcame a challenge, specifically a sports injury. Since this topic is often overused, the essay requires vivid description, a memorable introduction and conclusion , and interesting insight.

The weak rough draft contains an interesting narrative, insight, and vivid imagery, but it has an overly formal tone that distracts the reader from the story. The student’s use of elaborate vocabulary in every sentence makes the essay sound inauthentic and stilted.

The final essay uses a more natural, conversational tone and chooses words that are vivid and specific without being pretentious. This allows the reader to focus on the narrative and appreciate the student’s unique insight.

One fateful evening some months ago, a defensive linebacker mauled me, his 212 pounds indisputably alighting upon my ankle. Ergo, an abhorrent cracking of calcified tissue. At first light the next day, I awoke cognizant of a new paradigm—one sans football—promulgated by a stabbing sensation that would continue to haunt me every morning of this semester.

It’s been an exceedingly taxing semester not being able to engage in football, but I am nonetheless excelling in school. That twist of fate never would have come to pass if I hadn’t broken my ankle. I still limp down the halls at school, but I’m feeling less maudlin these days. My friends don’t steer clear anymore, and I have a lot more of them. My teachers, emboldened by my newfound interest in learning, continually invite me to learn more and do my best. Football is still on hold, but I feel like I’m finally playing a game that matters.

Five months ago, right after my ill-fated injury, my friends’ demeanor became icy and remote, although I couldn’t fathom why. My teachers, in contrast, beckoned me close and invited me on a new learning journey. But despite their indubitably kind advances, even they recoiled when I drew near.

A few weeks later, I started to change my attitude vis-à-vis my newfound situation and determined to put my energy toward productive ends (i.e., homework). I wasn’t enamored with school. I never had been. Nevertheless, I didn’t abhor it either. I just preferred football.

My true turn of fate came when I started studying more and participating in class. I started to enjoy history class, and I grew interested in reading more. I discovered a volume of poems written by a fellow adventurer on the road of life, and I loved it. I ravenously devoured everything in the writer’s oeuvre .

As the weeks flitted past, I found myself spending my time with a group of people who were quite different from me. They participated in theater and played instruments in marching band. They raised their hands in class when the teacher posed a question. Because of their auspicious influence, I started raising my hand too. I am no longer vapid, and I now have something to say.

I am certain that your school would benefit from my miraculous academic transformation, and I entreat you to consider my application to your fine institution. Accepting me to your university would be an unequivocally righteous decision.

Word count: 408

  • I’ve chosen a college essay topic that’s meaningful to me.
  • I’ve respected the essay word count , remaining within 10% of the upper word limit.

As I step out of bed, the pain shoots through my foot and up my leg like it has every morning since “the game.” That night, a defensive linebacker tackled me, his 212 pounds landing decidedly on my ankle. I heard the sound before I felt it. The next morning, I awoke to a new reality—one without football—announced by a stabbing sensation that would continue to haunt me every morning of this semester.

My broken ankle broke my spirit.

My friends steered clear of me as I hobbled down the halls at school. My teachers tried to find the delicate balance between giving me space and offering me help. I was as unsure how to deal with myself as they were.

In time, I figured out how to redirect some of my frustration, anger, and pent-up energy toward my studies. I had never not liked school, but I had never really liked it either. In my mind, football practice was my real-life classroom, where I could learn all I ever needed to know.

Then there was that day in Mrs. Brady’s history class. We sang a ridiculous-sounding mnemonic song to memorize all the Chinese dynasties from Shang to Qing. I mumbled the words at first, but I got caught up in the middle of the laughter and began singing along. Starting that day, I began browsing YouTube videos about history, curious to learn more. I had started learning something new, and, to my surprise, I liked it.

With my afternoons free from burpees and scrimmages, I dared to crack open a few more of my books to see what was in them. That’s when my English poetry book, Paint Me Like I Am , caught my attention. It was full of poems written by students my age from WritersCorps. I couldn’t get enough.

I wasn’t the only one who was taken with the poems. Previously, I’d only been vaguely aware of Christina as one of the weird kids I avoided. Crammed in the margins of her high-top Chuck Taylors were scribbled lines of her own poetry and infinite doodles. Beyond her punk rock persona was a sensitive artist, puppy-lover, and environmental activist that a wide receiver like me would have never noticed before.

With Christina, I started making friends with people who once would have been invisible to me: drama geeks, teachers’ pets, band nerds. Most were college bound but not to play a sport. They were smart and talented, and they cared about people and politics and all sorts of issues that I hadn’t considered before. Strangely, they also seemed to care about me.

I still limp down the halls at school, but I don’t seem to mind as much these days. My friends don’t steer clear anymore, and I have a lot more of them. My teachers, excited by my newfound interest in learning, continually invite me to learn more and do my best. Football is still on hold, but I feel like I’m finally playing a game that matters.

My broken ankle broke my spirit. Then, it broke my ignorance.

Word count: 512

This essay uses a narrative structure to show how a pet positively influenced the student’s values and character.

In the weak draft, the student doesn’t focus on himself, instead delving into too much detail about his dog’s positive traits and his grandma’s illness. The essay’s structure is meandering, with tangents and details that don’t communicate any specific insight.

In the improved version, the student keeps the focus on himself, not his pet. He chooses the most relevant stories to demonstrate specific qualities, and the structure more clearly builds up to an insightful conclusion.

Man’s Best Friend

I desperately wanted a cat. I begged my parents for one, but once again, my sisters overruled me, so we drove up the Thompson Valley Canyon from Loveland to Estes Park to meet our newest family member. My sisters had already hatched their master plan, complete with a Finding Nemo blanket to entice the pups. The blanket was a hit with all of them, except for one—the one who walked over and sat in my lap. That was the day that Francisco became a Villanova.

Maybe I should say he was mine because I got stuck with all the chores. As expected, my dog-loving sisters were nowhere to be found! My mom was “extra” with all the doggy gear. Cisco even had to wear these silly little puppy shoes outside so that when he came back in, he wouldn’t get the carpets dirty. If it was raining, my mother insisted I dress Cisco in a ridiculous yellow raincoat, but, in my opinion, it was an unnecessary source of humiliation for poor Cisco. It didn’t take long for Cisco to decide that his outerwear could be used as toys in a game of Keep Away. As soon as I took off one of his shoes, he would run away with it, hiding under the bed where I couldn’t reach him. But, he seemed to appreciate his ensemble more when we had to walk through snowdrifts to get his job done.

When my abuela was dying from cancer, we went in the middle of the night to see her before she passed. I was sad and scared. But, my dad let me take Cisco in the car, so Cisco cuddled with me and made me feel much better. It’s like he could read my mind. Once we arrived at the hospital, the fluorescent lighting made the entire scene seem unreal, as if I was watching the scene unfold through someone else’s eyes. My grandma lay calmly on her bed, smiling at us even through her last moments of pain. I disliked seeing the tubes and machines hooked up to her. It was unnatural to see her like this一it was so unlike the way I usually saw her beautiful in her flowery dress, whistling a Billie Holiday tune and baking snickerdoodle cookies in the kitchen. The hospital didn’t usually allow dogs, but they made a special exception to respect my grandma’s last wishes that the whole family be together. Cisco remained at the foot of the bed, intently watching abuela with a silence that seemed more effective at communicating comfort and compassion than the rest of us who attempted to offer up words of comfort that just seemed hollow and insincere. It was then that I truly appreciated Cisco’s empathy for others.

As I accompanied my dad to pick up our dry cleaner’s from Ms. Chapman, a family friend asked, “How’s Cisco?” before even asking about my sisters or me. Cisco is the Villanova family mascot, a Goldendoodle better recognized by strangers throughout Loveland than the individual members of my family.

On our summer trip to Boyd Lake State Park, we stayed at the Cottonwood campground for a breathtaking view of the lake. Cisco was allowed to come, but we had to keep him on a leash at all times. After a satisfying meal of fish, our entire family walked along the beach. Cisco and I led the way while my mom and sisters shuffled behind. Cisco always stopped and refused to move, looking back to make sure the others were still following. Once satisfied that everyone was together, he would turn back around and continue prancing with his golden boy curly locks waving in the chilly wind.

On the beach, Cisco “accidentally” got let off his leash and went running maniacally around the sand, unfettered and free. His pure joy as he raced through the sand made me forget about my AP Chem exam or my student council responsibilities. He brings a smile not only to my family members but everyone around him.

Cisco won’t live forever, but without words, he has impressed upon me life lessons of responsibility, compassion, loyalty, and joy. I can’t imagine life without him.

Word count: 701

I quickly figured out that as “the chosen one,” I had been enlisted by Cisco to oversee all aspects of his “business.” I learned to put on Cisco’s doggie shoes to keep the carpet clean before taking him out一no matter the weather. Soon after, Cisco decided that his shoes could be used as toys in a game of Keep Away. As soon as I removed one of his shoes, he would run away with it, hiding under the bed where I couldn’t reach him. But, he seemed to appreciate his footwear more after I’d gear him up and we’d tread through the snow for his daily walks.

One morning, it was 7:15 a.m., and Alejandro was late again to pick me up. “Cisco, you don’t think he overslept again, do you?” Cisco barked, as if saying, “Of course he did!” A text message would never do, so I called his dad, even if it was going to get him in trouble. There was no use in both of us getting another tardy during our first-period class, especially since I was ready on time after taking Cisco for his morning outing. Alejandro was mad at me but not too much. He knew I had helped him out, even if he had to endure his dad’s lecture on punctuality.

Another early morning, I heard my sister yell, “Mom! Where are my good ballet flats? I can’t find them anywhere!” I hesitated and then confessed, “I moved them.” She shrieked at me in disbelief, but I continued, “I put them in your closet, so Cisco wouldn’t chew them up.” More disbelief. However, this time, there was silence instead of shrieking.

Last spring, Cisco and I were fast asleep when the phone rang at midnight. Abuela would not make it through the night after a long year of chemo, but she was in Pueblo, almost three hours away. Sitting next to me for that long car ride on I-25 in pitch-black darkness, Cisco knew exactly what I needed and snuggled right next to me as I petted his coat in a rhythm while tears streamed down my face. The hospital didn’t usually allow dogs, but they made a special exception to respect my grandma’s last wishes that the whole family be together. Cisco remained sitting at the foot of the hospital bed, intently watching abuela with a silence that communicated more comfort than our hollow words. Since then, whenever I sense someone is upset, I sit in silence with them or listen to their words, just like Cisco did.

The other day, one of my friends told me, “You’re a strange one, Josue. You’re not like everybody else but in a good way.” I didn’t know what he meant at first. “You know, you’re super responsible and grown-up. You look out for us instead of yourself. Nobody else does that.” I was a bit surprised because I wasn’t trying to do anything different. I was just being me. But then I realized who had taught me: a fluffy little puppy who I had wished was a cat! I didn’t choose Cisco, but he certainly chose me and, unexpectedly, became my teacher, mentor, and friend.

Word count: 617

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

Academic writing

  • Writing process
  • Transition words
  • Passive voice
  • Paraphrasing

 Communication

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

 Parts of speech

  • Personal pronouns
  • Conjunctions

A standout college essay has several key ingredients:

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

There are no set rules for how to structure a college application essay , but these are two common structures that work:

  • A montage structure, a series of vignettes with a common theme.
  • A narrative structure, a single story that shows your personal growth or how you overcame a challenge.

Avoid the five-paragraph essay structure that you learned in high school.

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

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

Most importantly, your essay should be about you , not another person or thing. An insightful college admissions essay requires deep self-reflection, authenticity, and a balance between confidence and vulnerability.

Your essay shouldn’t be a résumé of your experiences but instead should tell a story that demonstrates your most important values and qualities.

When revising your college essay , first check for big-picture issues regarding message, flow, tone, style , and clarity. Then, focus on eliminating grammar and punctuation errors.

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Kirsten Courault

Kirsten Courault

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College Essays

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Writing the college application essay is a tough gig. You've got to be charming, personal, memorable, and insightful--all in under two pages! But I'm going to tell you a secret: half of a great personal essay is a great topic idea. If you're passionate about what you're writing, and if you're truly documenting something meaningful and serious about yourself and your life, then that passion and meaning will come alive on the page and in the mind of your reader.

So how do you come up with an essay idea? The best way is to brainstorm your way to an event from your life that reveals a core truth about you. In this article, I will help you do just that. Keep reading to find 35 jumping off points that touch on every possible memory you could harness, as well as advice on how to use your brainstorming session to fully realize your idea for an essay topic.

What Makes an Essay Topic Great?

What does your application tell admissions officers about you? Mostly it's just numbers and facts: your name, your high school, your grades and SAT scores. These stats would be enough if colleges were looking to build a robot army, but they aren't.

So how do they get to see a slice of the real you? How can they get a feel for the personality, character, and feelings that make you the person that you are? It's through your college essay. The essay is a way to introduce yourself to colleges in a way that displays your maturity. This is important because admissions officers want to make sure that you will thrive in the independence of college life and work.

This is why finding a great college essay topic is so hugely important: because it will allow you to demonstrate the maturity level admissions teams are looking for. This is best expressed through the ability to have insight about what has made you into you, through the ability to share some vulnerabilities or defining experiences, and through the ability to be a creative thinker and problem solver.

In other words, a great topic is an event from your past that you can narrate, draw conclusions from, explain the effect of. Most importantly, you should be able to describe how it has changed you from the kind of person you were to the better person that you are now. If you can do all that, you are well ahead of the essay game.

How Do You Know If Your College Essay Topic Is Great?

Eric Maloof, the Director of International Admission at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas has a great checklist for figuring out whether you're on the right track with your essay topic . He says, if you can answer "yes" to these two questions, then you've got the makings of a great essay:

  • Is the topic of my essay important to me?
  • Am I the only person who could have written this essay?

So how do you translate this checklist into essay topic action items?

Make it personal. Write about something personal, deeply felt, and authentic to the real you (but which is not an overshare). Take a narrow slice of your life: one event, one influential person, one meaningful experience—and then you expand out from that slice into a broader explanation of yourself.

Always think about your reader. In this case, your reader is an admission officer who is slogging through hundreds of college essays. You don't want to bore that person, and you don't want to offend that person. Instead, you want to come across as likable and memorable.

Put the reader in the experience with you by making your narrow slice of life feel alive. This means that your writing needs to be chock-full of specific details, sensory descriptions, words that describe emotions, and maybe even dialog. This is why it's very important to make the essay topic personal and deeply felt. Readers can tell when a writer isn't really connected to whatever he is writing about. And the reverse is true as well: deep emotion shows through your writing.

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Your dedicated PrepScholar Admissions counselor will craft your perfect college essay, from the ground up. We'll learn your background and interests, brainstorm essay topics, and walk you through the essay drafting process, step-by-step. At the end, you'll have a unique essay that you'll proudly submit to your top choice colleges.

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Craft Your Perfect College Essay

Coming Up With Great College Essay Ideas

Some people know right off the bat that they have to write about that one specific defining moment of their lives. But if you're reading this, chances are you aren't one of these people. Don't worry—I wasn't one of them either! What this means is that you—like me—will have to put in a little work to come up with the perfect idea by first doing some brainstorming.

I've come up with about 35 different brainstorming jumping off points that ask questions about your life and your experiences. The idea here is to jog your memory about the key life events that have shaped you and affected you deeply.

I recommend you spend at least two minutes on each question, coming up with and writing down at least one answer—or as many answers as you can think of. Seriously—time yourself. Two minutes is longer than you think! I would also recommend doing this over several sittings to get your maximum memory retrieval going—even if it takes a couple of days, it'll be worth it.

Then, we will use this list of experiences and thoughts to narrow your choices down to the one topic idea that you will use for your college essay.

Brainstorming Technique 1: Think About Defining Moments in Your Life

  • What is your happiest memory? Why? What was good about it? Who and what was around you then? What did it mean to you?
  • What is your saddest memory? Would you change the thing that happened or did you learn something crucial from the experience?
  • What is the most important decision you've had to make? What was hard about the choice? What was easy? Were the consequences of your decision what you had imagined before making it? Did you plan and game out your choices, or did you follow gut instinct?
  • What decision did you not have any say in, but would have wanted to? Why were you powerless to participate in this decision? How did the choice made affect you? What do you think would have happened if a different choice had been made?
  • What the most dangerous or scary thing that you've lived through? What was threatened? What were the stakes? How did you survive/overcome it? How did you cope emotionally with the fallout?
  • When did you first feel like you were no longer a child? Who and what was around you then? What had you just done or seen? What was the difference between your childhood self and your more adult self?
  • What are you most proud of about yourself? Is it a talent or skill? A personality trait or quality? An accomplishment? Why is this the thing that makes you proud?

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Brainstorming Technique 2: Remember Influential People

  • Which of your parents (or parental figures) are you most like in personality and character? Which of their traits do you see in yourself? Which do you not? Do you wish you were more like this parent or less?
  • Which of your grandparents, great-grandparents, or other older relatives has had the most influence on your life? Is it a positive influence, where you want to follow in their footsteps in some way? A negative influence, where you want to avoid becoming like them in some way? How is the world they come from like your world? How is it different?
  • Which teacher has challenged you the most? What has that challenge been? How did you respond?
  • What is something that someone once said to you that has stuck with you? When and where did they say it? Why do you think it's lodged in your memory?
  • Which of your friends would you trade places with for a day? Why?
  • If you could intern for a week or a month with anyone—living or dead, historical or fictional—who would it be? What would you want that person to teach you? How did you first encounter this person or character? How do you think this person would react to you?
  • Of the people you know personally, whose life is harder than yours? What makes it that way—their external circumstances? Their inner state? Have you ever tried to help this person? If yes, did it work? If no, how would you help them if you could?
  • Of the people you know personally, whose life is easier than yours? Are you jealous? Why or why not?

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Brainstorming Technique 3: Recreate Important Times or Places

  • When is the last time you felt so immersed in what you were doing that you lost all track of time or anything else from the outside world? What were you doing? Why do you think this activity got you into this near-zen state?
  • Where do you most often tend to daydream? Why do you think this place has this effect on you? Do you seek it out? Avoid it? Why?
  • What is the best time of day? The worst? Why?
  • What is your favorite corner of, or space in, the place where you live? What do you like about it? When do you go there, and what do you use it for?
  • What is your least favorite corner of, or space in, the place where you live? Why do you dislike it? What do you associate it with?
  • If you had to repeat a day over and over, like the movie Groundhog Day , what day would it be? If you'd pick a day from your life that has already happened, why would you want to be stuck it in? To relive something great? To fix mistakes? If you'd pick a day that hasn't yet occurred, what would the day you were stuck in be like?
  • If you could go back in time to give yourself advice, when would you go back to? What advice would you give? Why? What effect would you want your advice to have?

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Brainstorming Technique 4: Answer Thought-Provoking Questions

  • If you could take a Mulligan and do over one thing in your life, what would it be? Would you change what you did the first time around? Why?
  • Or, if you could take another crack at doing something again, what would you pick? Something positive—having another shot at repeating a good experience? Something negative—getting the chance to try another tactic to avoid a bad experience?
  • Which piece of yourself could you never change while remaining the same person? Your race? Ethnicity? Intellect? Height? Freckles? Loyalty? Sense of humor? Why is that the thing that you'd cling to as the thing that makes you who you are?
  • Which of your beliefs, ideas, or tastes puts you in the minority? Why do you think/believe/like this thing when no one else seems to?
  • What are you most frightened of? What are you not frightened enough of? Why?
  • What is your most treasured possession? What would you grab before running out of the house during a fire? What is this object's story and why is it so valuable to you?
  • What skill or talent that you don't have now would you most like to have? Is it an extension of something you already do? Something you've never had the guts to try doing? Something you plan on learning in the future?
  • Which traditions that you grew up with will you pass on? Which will you ignore? Why?

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Brainstorming Technique 5: Find a Trait or Characteristic and Trace It Back

  • What are three adjectives you'd use to describe yourself? Why these three? Which of these is the one you're most proud of? Least proud of? When did you last exhibit this trait? What were you doing?
  • How would your best friend describe you? What about your parents? How are the adjectives they'd come up with different from the ones you'd use? When have they seen this quality or trait in you?
  • What everyday thing are you the world's greatest at? Who taught you how to do it? What memories do you have associated with this activity? Which aspects of it have you perfected?
  • Imagine that it's the future and that you've become well known. What will you become famous for? Is it for something creative or a performance? For the way you will have helped others? For your business accomplishments? For your athletic prowess? When you make a speech about this fame, whom will you thank for putting you where you are?
  • What do you most like about yourself? This is different from the thing you're most proud of—this is the thing that you know about yourself that makes you smile. Can you describe a time when this thing was useful or effective in some way?

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How to Turn Your Brainstorming List Into an Essay Topic

Now that you have a cornucopia of daydreams, memories, thoughts, and ambitions, it's time to thin the herd, prune the dead branches, and whatever other mixed metaphors about separating the wheat from the chaff you can think of.

So how do you narrow down your many ideas into one?

Use the magic power of time. One of the best things you can do with your stack of college essay topics is to forget about them. Put them away for a couple of days so that you create a little mental space. When you come back to everything you wrote after a day or two, you will get the chance to read it with fresh eyes.

Let the cream rise to the top. When you reread your topics after having let them sit, do two things:

  • Cross out any ideas that don't speak to you in some way. If something doesn't ring true, if it doesn't spark your interest, or if it doesn't connect with an emotion, then consider reject it.
  • Circle or highlight any topics that pop out at you. If it feels engaging, if you get excited at the prospect of talking about it, if it resonates with a feeling, then put it at the top of the idea pile.

Rinse and repeat. Go through the process of letting a few days pass and then rereading your ideas at least one more time. This time, don't bother looking at the topics you've already rejected. Instead, concentrate on those you highlighted earlier and maybe some of the ones that were neither circled nor thrown away.

Trust your gut instinct (but verify). Now that you've gone through and culled your ideas several times based on whether or not they really truly appeal to you, you should have a list of your top choices—all the ones you've circled or highlighted along the way. Now is the moment of truth. Imagine yourself telling the story of each of these experiences to someone who wants to get to know you. Rank your possible topics in order of how excited you are to share this story. Really listen to your intuition here. If you're squeamish, shy, unexcited, or otherwise not happy at the thought of having to tell someone about the experience, it will make a terrible essay topic.

Develop your top two to four choices to see which is best. Unless you feel very strongly about one of your top choices, the only way to really know which of your best ideas is the perfect one is to try actually making them into essays. For each one, go through the steps listed in the next section of the article under "Find Your Idea's Narrative." Then, use your best judgment (and maybe that of your parents, teachers, or school counselor) to figure out which one to draft into your personal statement.

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How to Make Your Idea Into a College Essay

Now, let's talk about what to do in order to flesh out your topic concept into a great college essay. First, I'll give you some pointers on expanding your idea into an essay-worthy story, and then talk a bit about how to draft and polish your personal statement.

Find Your Topic's Narrative

All great college essays have the same foundation as good short stories or enjoyable movies—an involving story. Let's go through what features make for a story that you don't want to put down:

A compelling character with an arc. Think about the experience that you want to write about. What were you like before it happened? What did you learn, feel, or think about during it? What happened afterwards? What do you now know about yourself that you didn't before?

Sensory details that create a "you are there!" experience for the reader. When you're writing about your experience, focus on trying to really make the situation come alive. Where were you? Who else was there? What did it look like? What did it sound like? Were there memorable textures, smells, tastes? Does it compare to anything else? When you're writing about the people you interacted with, give them a small snippet of dialog to say so the reader can "hear" that person's voice. When you are writing about yourself, make sure to include words that explain the emotions you are feeling at different parts of the story.

An insightful ending. Your essay should end with an uplifting, personal, and interesting revelation about the kind of person you are today, and how the story you have just described has made and shaped you.

Draft and Revise

The key to great writing is rewriting. So work out a draft, and then put it aside and give yourself a few days to forget what you've written. When you come back to look at it again look for places where you slow down your reading, where something seems out of place or awkward. Can you fix this by changing around the order of your essay? By explaining further? By adding details? Experiment.

Get advice. Colleges expect your essay to be your work, but most recommend having someone else cast a fresh eye over it. A good way to get a teacher or a parent involved is to ask them whether your story is clear and specific, and whether your insight about yourself flows logically from the story you tell.

Execute flawlessly. Dot every i, cross every t, delicately place every comma where it needs to go. Grammar mistakes, misspellings, and awkward sentence structure don't just make your writing look bad—they take the reader out of the story you're telling. And that makes you memorable, but in a bad way.

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The Bottom Line

  • Your college essay topic needs to come from the fact that essays are a way for colleges to get to know the real you , a you that is separate from your grades and scores.
  • A great way to come up with topics is to wholeheartedly dive into a brainstorming exercise. The more ideas about your life that tumble out of your memory and onto the page, the better chance you have of finding the perfect college essay topic.
  • Answer my brainstorming questions without editing yourself at first. Instead, simply write down as many things that pop into your head as you can—even if you end up going off topic.
  • After you've generated a list of possible topics, leave it alone for a few days and then come back to pick out the ones that seem the most promising.
  • Flesh out your top few ideas into full-blown narratives , to understand which reveals the most interesting thing about you as a person.
  • Don't shy away from asking for help. At each stage of the writing process get a parent or teacher to look over what you're working on, not to do your work for you but to hopefully gently steer you in a better direction if you're running into trouble.

What's Next?

Ready to start working on your essay? Check out our explanation of the point of the personal essay and the role it plays on your applications .

For more detailed advice on writing a great college essay, read our guide to the Common Application essay prompts and get advice on how to pick the Common App prompt that's right for you .

Thinking of taking the SAT again before submitting your applications? We have put together the ultimate guide to studying for the SAT to give you the ins and outs of the best ways to study.

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

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

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Articles & Advice > College Admission > Articles

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College Admission Essay Topics: Best and Worst

What should you write your college admission essay about? Which topics should you avoid? Check out some of the best (and the worst) college essay topic ideas!

by Phoebe Bain Freelance Writer

Last Updated: Apr 6, 2023

Originally Posted: Aug 16, 2017

The essay is easily one of the most difficult parts of the college application process. How can someone describe themselves in such a short amount of space, especially when all their accomplishments are listed on the page before and they don’t want to sound repetitive? There are a few clichés to avoid in the college essay world. Keep reading to find out what to avoid and what to approach in your college essay writing journey.

Worst of the worst

The sports game.

A great college admission essay makes the reader say something along the lines of, “Wow, I’ve never heard of someone who did/experienced that before.” Know what nearly everyone has experienced before? Winning or losing. More specifically, almost everyone has either won or lost a sports game. Talking about your experience coping with your win or loss will pile you in with every other applicant that the admission officer reads about that day, aka the exact opposite of what you want to happen to you and your beloved essay.

The breakup

A lot like dating a bad boy, this essay tempts you. Think about it: talking about your love life seems deep . Maybe a breakup feels like the biggest hardship you have faced thus far, or perhaps you think the way you supported your 10th grade girlfriend during her science competition seems like a great metaphor for how you plan to support your university community. However, just like with any good piece of writing, you need to know your audience. And in this case, your audience does not think anything about your high school relationship sounds impressive. College admission officers have not been in high school for a very long time. They might have been through a divorce or had to support their spouse through the death of one of their parents or children. But they have a bit more perspective on relationships than the average high school senior, so they will probably not find the demise of your junior year relationship as poignant as you do. 

The mission trip

Everyone who has been to Togo/Haiti/Guatemala wants to write about the time they saw real Third World poverty for the first time and extrapolate on how their lives were never the same after said experience. And while that experience may have really affected your life, it affects the lives of thousands of upper–middle class students around America in the exact same way, and they are all writing the same essay about it as we speak. If your time in Sierra Leone really feels like what you need to tell your dream school about, talk about a specific experience, like a conversation you had with someone who lived there. The cliché service trip essay often sounds incredibly vague, so if you must write about your experience, make sure you tell a very specific story that brings the reader into a certain moment with you (more on that later). 

The “different” essay

I once had a friend show me an essay he wrote in which he had to describe the best day of his life. Naturally, he wrote about the time he slept until five in the evening, ate some ice cream, then went back to sleep. However, he was not a lazy kid at all. He was really into piano and lacrosse, but he wanted his essay to sound off the beaten path and unique. So rather than talking about one of his passions, he decided to write about something he knew no one else would try…the time he slept all day. Unfortunately, there is a really good reason no one else wrote that essay. The same goes for trying to be creative and responding with one word, one sentence, or a poem. Although those are very different responses from what admission officers reads, this does not mean they are good responses. There are other ways to stand out without compromising your intelligence. 

Related:  Admission Essay Ideas That Just Don't Work

Better essay ideas

The ridiculous way you grew up (and how it affects you now).

The first time I went to Harvard to hang out with friends, I met a student who was raised by wolves. Yes, you read that right; she actually grew up in a wolf rehabilitation community. Sure, she was also a model and an Economics major, but the whole raised by wolves thing was definitely more memorable than anything else about her. If you grew up in a unique way that affects who you are now, it might be worth writing about in a college essay to make your application more memorable. 

Focusing on a moment

If you decide you have to talk about one of the cliché essay topics mentioned above, a good way to tell a more common story is to focus on one specific moment and build from there. For instance, if I were only interested in field hockey and felt I absolutely had to write about the sport in my essay, I would not write about some vague game and how good it felt when my team won. I would write about the sound the ball makes hitting the back of the goal, how my adrenaline changes in that moment, how all the sounds around me slowly rush into my ears afterwards. Then, most importantly, after describing the moment, I would write about its significance by connecting it to some larger idea or meaning or characteristic about myself. Focusing on a moment that changed your life—such as the time you broke your back as a kid in a car crash, or the time your dad told you the family was moving to a different country—can also function well in your college essay. 

Personality pic

A good friend of mine in high school had to answer an interesting question for the school where he ended up enrolling. The university’s supplemental application asked him to describe one of his quirks. I distinctly recall reading my friend’s essay about him being a storyteller above all else and visibly grinning as my eyes passed over each line, because the essay was just so genuine and true. He was a storyteller; he told all of us tales of his fly-fishing summer job in the Adirondacks, spun yarns about wolves that spoke to him while he was camping, and talked about his skydiving uncle like he was a superhero in a comic book. The storyteller anecdote never would have come through in the rest of his Common Application, but it was truly one of his most significant personality traits. So, lesson learned, read over your Common Application, and at the end, ask yourself, “What’s missing?” Who knows—the answer to that question might be the basis for your admission essay.

Lust for literature

If you have a friend or family member who reads a lot of books in their free time, I bet you think they’re pretty intelligent. Fortunately, colleges will think the same thing about you if you decide to incorporate your love of literature into your essay. Maybe you have a book in which you strongly relate to one of the characters. Perhaps a philosophical text really elucidates your current paradigm. Or maybe you strive to write like a certain author one day. Whatever the case, you really cannot go wrong writing about the literature you love, as your passion for it will shine through the pages.

Related: Top College Admission Essay Myths Debunked

We hope these tips help guide your topic selection when it comes time to write your college application essay! Find even more college essay advice in our Application Essay Clinic .

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  •   Best Ways to Prepare for 5 Different Supplemental Essays
  •   How to Write an Effective, Powerful Personal Statement
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College Admissions Essay Topics, Tips, and Tricks

A small, metal trash can sits on a grey wood floor. Inside is a balled up piece of yellow paper. Outside of the can on the floor are two more pieces of balled up yellow paper.

Summer is here, and with it not only comes lots of fun in the sun but also lots of planning and writing your college admissions essay !

It’s true that most of the weight of your application will be based on your academic achievements – GPA, test scores, etc. – however, when it comes to applying to highly competitive or more selective schools, there’s bound to be someone else with a similar academic record as you.

The college admissions essay is your chance to showcase who you are as a person and why you stand out. It’s the opportunity for you to share your story and how it’s helped shape you into the person you are today. 

Nothing is truly off-limits. It’s really up to your own comfort level of what you want to share with the admissions counselor who is looking over your application. However, there are a few topics that you might want to think twice about .

1. COVID-19

It is understandable that the pandemic has impacted millions of students and you might want to write about your experiences. However, keep in mind that admissions counselors are reading hundreds of essays a day, and this will most likely be a very common essay topic among applicants. 

If your essay is going to be centered around COVID, think about why you’re doing so. Do you have an experience that was impactful to you and others, such as being an essential worker during the pandemic? Or are you going to write about how difficult it was to not travel or hang out with your friends?

2. Summary of your Accomplishments

Everyone has something that they’re proud of. You’ve done a lot, and you want to show that you’re amazing!

On the other hand, it’s going to be difficult for the admissions counselor to read through your laundry list of bragging rights. Instead of telling your reader about your endless list of awards and accolades, try to focus on just one.

Explain how this award or experience relates to you as a person, such as an award for volunteerism and how it tied into your desire to give back to your community. By showing rather than telling, it’ll help the admissions counselor understand your personality and motivations more.

3. Someone Else

The whole premise of the college admissions essay is to showcase YOU! If you write about how important a celebrity, historical figure, or even a pet is to you, make sure you tie it back to you.

Did you work on a project that focused on a specific historical figure and it led you to want to major in history? Tell us that story! Perhaps you had a few pets growing up and your connection with animals led you to look into a career in veterinary sciences .

The point is to focus on how your experiences with these outside forces matter to your story and how these experiences impacted you as a person.

4. No Lessons Learned

Regardless of the topic you choose to write about, make sure you’ve learned something from those experiences. If you write a great essay about an ecology trip you were able to go on with your freshman year biology class to Bali, but only focus on how cool the trip was and the fact you got to go snorkeling, that’s an essay to share with your family and not the admissions counselor.

Why? It only highlights the trip itself, and not what you learned as a result of the trip. That essay would be complete if you then explained how you were able to learn about the different species of fish you encountered and how the trip made you realize the importance of preserving different ecosystems.

Maybe this trip made you think about wanting to study biology in college due to what you learned! Just make sure you demonstrate that you gained something from your experience, and that’ll showcase to admissions counselors that you are dedicated to diving deeper than the surface when it comes to impactful experiences.

Of course, there have been topics that students have written about in the past that do work in showing admissions counselors the best version of you in the admissions process. 

Let’s highlight a few!

1. Your Passions

Are you an avid crocheter? Perhaps you have a knack for coding or hiking! Tell us about one of the passions that make you you.

How did your hobby or talent develop? Did your grandmother teach you how to crochet, or did you Google “how to code” one afternoon? Why did you choose to pursue this? Does it relate to what you want to do in college?

By answering some of these questions, you’ll be off to a great start in crafting an essay that centers around who you are and what makes you stand out.

2. Impactful Events & People

Did you move around a lot as a kid? Was there a specific place you lived in that taught you a lot about you as a person, or a particular person that inspired you to pursue a college degree?

By talking about an impactful moment or person in your life and how this challenged you, you’re not only showing college admissions counselors that you have the potential to grow but are also showcasing another aspect of who you are.

If your sophomore year English teacher inspired you to pursue a career in education because of how he helped you discover your strengths as a writer and a teacher by being a peer tutor, tell us about that experience! 

3. A Teachable Moment

We’re all human, and humans make mistakes. What was a moment in your life that taught you a lesson? How did you grow from this experience, what did you learn, and how can you take this lesson into your future endeavors?

This topic requires a bit of vulnerability because nobody likes to admit that they aren’t perfect, but that’s reality. No one is truly perfect, and by showing admissions counselors that you know this is really important in their decision on whether or not you’re the best fit for their institution.

Keep in mind that what you share will be read by at least one other person, so make sure that what moment you’re sharing is appropriate for your audience. 

Now that we’ve covered some topics that students have covered in the past, let’s shift into some general tips to think about when writing your essay!

1. Keep it Clean & Professional

This is still an essay, and while it’s definitely more relaxed than the typical essays you’d be writing in school, it is essential you keep it to many of the same standards as your academic work.

Utilize spell-check and grammar-check, and avoid using profanity. Make sure your essay makes sense with how it flows. Use paragraphs!

2. Take Breaks

It’s easy to get lost in your own work, or to get frustrated if it seems like you aren’t getting where you want to be with your writing. Remember to take breaks while writing.

I personally used the Pomodoro method ! Take a step away from your essay for a little while, whether it’s a few days or even a week. That way you’ll be reading it with fresh eyes and have a clearer sense of what needs some edits and what needs more elaboration.

3. Give it to someone else before hitting submit

Print or share a draft of your essay with someone you trust to give it a read. You are your worst critic, so by giving it to a teacher or a friend to read over will help you get the feedback you need to put your best foot forward.

If you know your parents will give you meaningful feedback and edits, they can be an option for you. When I was writing my essay, I decided to avoid asking my parents to give feedback because I knew that they would only give me praise and not give any constructive criticism. You know your family best!

4. Pay Attention to Specific Requirements/Deadlines

Some schools have specific prompts for you to follow for their essay. In that case, pay attention to this and if your essay fits, put it in. Don’t hesitate to make edits to your original essay to help it fit the prompt.

Not only is this less work for you in the long run, it still conveys what you think is most important to who you are and what you want the admissions counselor to know about you as an applicant.

Also, make note of any deadlines that are specific to schools. If you’re applying Early Decision or Early Action anywhere, make it a priority to get your essay done prior to those deadlines. Your application won’t be complete without it!

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Author: James Rinker

I am a senior at Keene State College in Keene, NH! I am a communication major with a concentration in philosophy and a minor in professional writing. As a queer, first-generation, and low-income college student I am passionate about helping other students like myself in their college journey. By sharing my story and experiences, I hope I can help make the college admissions process just a little easier!

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Best college essay topics for 2023-2024

The best college essay topics for 2023-2024.

Bonus Material: To check out 30 real examples of essays that worked to get students into schools like Princeton, click the link: Download 30 College Essays That Worked

If you’re getting started on your college application essays, you’re probably looking around for the perfect topic to write about. What isn’t cliche? What will make you stand out? What will get you into your dream school?

PrepMaven’s college essay coaches have helped countless students choose their topics and craft compelling personal statements for the college application process. While we love making our resources freely available on this blog, we always recommend getting personalized help from one of our essay experts . 

In this guide, we break down what you need to know about choosing a college essay topic, and we’ll also cover some topics that you might want to consider–and some you’ll likely want to avoid. 

Download 30 College Essays That Worked

Jump to section: What makes a good college essay topic? So, what kinds of topics work best for college essays? Essay topics to avoid Next steps

What makes a good college essay topic?

While it’s true that a really good writer can write a great essay about anything, it definitely helps to have an interesting and unique topic for college admissions essays. 

College admissions officers will read essays from thousands of other applicants. That means even if you write an incredible essay about a cliche topic, you’re going to risk losing the admissions committee’s attention before you can win them over with your great writing. 

So, how do you decide what makes a good college essay topic? While there’s no objective set of rules, there are guidelines that are backed up by years of experience working with all sorts of student essays. 

Below, check out our list of 7 Qualities of a Great College Essay Topic. 

The best college essay topics should: 

admission essay ideas

  • This is always tricky. You don’t have to be a child prodigy to have something interesting to write about. What we really mean here is you should avoid an essay topic if you think it’s likely lots of other people have written about it in the same way. 
  • Remember: the point of this essay is to show how you’ve become the kind of mature, self-aware person who’s ready for college. The specific story you tell only matters insofar as it lets you show the admissions committee how you became that person. 
  • Colleges want students who are passionate! Whatever you write about, it should be something that presents you to college admission officers as someone with interests, passions, and goals. 
  • Don’t overlook this! If you pick a topic just because it seems like what you should write about, odds are you’ll be bored by it. And if you’re bored by it, how could someone else find it interesting?

admission essay ideas

  • People often forget about this, but there’s a reason college essays are also often called “personal essays” or “personal statements.” These essays aren’t meant to prove that you’re smart, or that you’re qualified for a particular job. They’re about what kind of person you are, how you view the world, and what kind of member you’d be of the college community. 
  • There are exceptions to this, but you should generally refrain from writing about something that happened in the distant past. The simple reason for that is that college admissions officers want to see who you are now , and most things that happened in early childhood won’t really help them do that. 
  • Naturally, you want to come off well! But students often try too hard to impress, listing their accomplishments or rattling off resume points. Remember that the colleges already have all that info–putting it in your essay will make it seem like you’re a little bit too obsessed with what you’ve already done. 

For our guide on how to brainstorm the best topic for you, check out our post on the Diamond Strategy here. 

So, what kinds of topics work best for college essays?

Because you’re unique, your best college application essay topic likely will be too. We’re not going to list out all the topics of the best essays we’ve seen, precisely because these topics are specific to the people who wrote about them. If you haven’t had to, say, renovate a home by yourself or invent a machine with your father, it won’t help you much to hear that other people wrote great essays on those topics. 

But there are certain kinds of topics that lend themselves much better to strong essays. Here, we’ll list a few of those, though of course you might come up with something totally different for yourself. 

So, what kinds of topics usually work best?

  • This can be a number of things. Many great essays have been written about the experiences of growing up a member of a marginalized or minority community. Others have been written about students’ familial or religious backgrounds. The key in either case: show how experiences linked to this identity have helped you understand some aspect of the world. 

admission essay ideas

  • Do you fly planes recreationally? Spend hours each week creating sculptures? Do research in a particular field? Anything of this sort makes for a great essay topic: it’s unusual and lets you explore how this activity helped shape who you are. 
  • Experiences with discrimination, financial difficulties, and even some family problems can be really effective topics. The key: these must be serious problems that were not caused by you, and that you have made some progress in overcoming. Avoid anything that may pose a red flag for admissions committees. 
  • Note: there are lots of obstacles you shouldn’t write about We’ll include a list of these in the section on Internal Link to “Essay topics to avoid” 
  • That’s a bit general, but it has to be, since this looks so different for everyone. But if there was an experience that truly, profoundly changed you for the better, it’s likely to be a great topic (so long as it isn’t in our list of Topics to avoid below). 

Below, we’ve linked a free collection of 30 college essays that worked to get students into schools like Princeton. Read through those, and note how the topics chosen by the students relate to the broad categories we’ve outlined above. 

Essay topics to avoid

While there’s likely a way to write about almost anything successfully, there are some topics that–generally–aren’t worth the risk. 

What makes a topic risky?

Well, think about it this way: your college admissions application is really an attempt to convince a room full of adults that you’ll not only be a good community member and student, but also that you won’t cause problems for the university. Problems can include anything from being someone who ignores rules to being someone who drops out or takes time off from school (remember that universities are always trying to keep their 4-year graduation rates high). 

But something else that can make a college essay topic risky is just that it’s boring! If you write about something cliche or typical, it’ll be much, much harder for you to say something original or interesting about it. And if you can’t say anything original or interesting, then your college admissions essay won’t help you get into that school.

With that in mind, here’s a list of college essay topics that should almost always be avoided :

admission essay ideas

  • We know: this is a real bummer for any student athlete who’s really poured their heart into their game. But the reality of it is this: successful essays on sports are extremely rare . It’s just too hard to say anything original about something that so many people have written about. 
  • Another topic to avoid almost always. Why? While the attitudes around this are changing somewhat, revealing a mental health issue will raise a red flag for many admissions officers, who may view it as a risk to your ability to navigate college life. 
  • What we mean by this is any type of essay that recounts an experience you had with a less fortunate group of people–people in poorer countries or communities, people with disabilities, the homeless, etc.–just to say that seeing their struggles helped you understand “how lucky you are.” 
  • Exception: if you’ve actually done specific work in this kind of community and that has shaped how you view your future goals, your academic pursuits, or social issues, that’s different. The key is: did you actually do something meaningful to help this group, and/or will you continue to do so?
  • While heartbreak and fights with friends are a normal and often important part of life, they don’t make good college admissions essays. Not only will it come off as immature, but it’s also the kind of topic that’s cliche and boring. 
  • It might seem clever at first, but writing the essay about how you’re writing the college essay, or directly addressing the admissions committee, or writing about how you don’t want to address one of the prompts–all of these have been done before, and are now almost guaranteed to annoy admissions committees. 

admission essay ideas

  • Don’t write an angry essay, period. Did a coach unfairly ruin your chances of playing on the team? Did a teacher arbitrarily deduct points because he hated you? That’s a shame, but leave it out of your essay. 

While all the above are controversial topics you’re better off avoiding, some of them can be made to work with the right kind of essay. But the risks are high, and it’ll be much tougher to write a successful college essay on one of these topics. 

Though everyone would benefit from working with an essay expert, if you’re considering writing on a topic you think might be risky, you would especially benefit by getting a second opinion from a writing expert who’s helped many other students craft compelling essays. 

In the meantime, check out our collection of 30 successful college application essays and note what kinds of topics those students focused on as you prepare to write your own. 

After you review the sample essays we’ve provided here, start thinking about what personal experiences from your own life might work as a topic for your college application essay. 

As you get started with the college admissions process, check out our other linked posts below, which cover everything from brainstorming to proofreading!

Related College Essay Posts

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  • Hot to Get into Princeton 2023-2024
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  • How to Answer the UC Personal Insight Questions
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16 Strong College Essay Examples from Top Schools

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What’s Covered:

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

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

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

Looking at examples of real essays students have submitted to colleges can be very beneficial to get inspiration for your essays. You should never copy or plagiarize from these examples when writing your own essays. Colleges can tell when an essay isn’t genuine and will not view students favorably if they plagiarized. 

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

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

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

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

The Multiple Meanings of Point

Prompt: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. (250-650 words)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sparking Self-Awareness

Prompt: The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? (250-650 words)

Was I no longer the beloved daughter of nature, whisperer of trees? Knee-high rubber boots, camouflage, bug spray—I wore the garb and perfume of a proud wild woman, yet there I was, hunched over the pathetic pile of stubborn sticks, utterly stumped, on the verge of tears. As a child, I had considered myself a kind of rustic princess, a cradler of spiders and centipedes, who was serenaded by mourning doves and chickadees, who could glide through tick-infested meadows and emerge Lyme-free. I knew the cracks of the earth like the scars on my own rough palms. Yet here I was, ten years later, incapable of performing the most fundamental outdoor task: I could not, for the life of me, start a fire. 

Furiously I rubbed the twigs together—rubbed and rubbed until shreds of skin flaked from my fingers. No smoke. The twigs were too young, too sticky-green; I tossed them away with a shower of curses, and began tearing through the underbrush in search of a more flammable collection. My efforts were fruitless. Livid, I bit a rejected twig, determined to prove that the forest had spurned me, offering only young, wet bones that would never burn. But the wood cracked like carrots between my teeth—old, brittle, and bitter. Roaring and nursing my aching palms, I retreated to the tent, where I sulked and awaited the jeers of my family. 

Rattling their empty worm cans and reeking of fat fish, my brother and cousins swaggered into the campsite. Immediately, they noticed the minor stick massacre by the fire pit and called to me, their deep voices already sharp with contempt. 

“Where’s the fire, Princess Clara?” they taunted. “Having some trouble?” They prodded me with the ends of the chewed branches and, with a few effortless scrapes of wood on rock, sparked a red and roaring flame. My face burned long after I left the fire pit. The camp stank of salmon and shame. 

In the tent, I pondered my failure. Was I so dainty? Was I that incapable? I thought of my hands, how calloused and capable they had been, how tender and smooth they had become. It had been years since I’d kneaded mud between my fingers; instead of scaling a white pine, I’d practiced scales on my piano, my hands softening into those of a musician—fleshy and sensitive. And I’d gotten glasses, having grown horrifically nearsighted; long nights of dim lighting and thick books had done this. I couldn’t remember the last time I had lain down on a hill, barefaced, and seen the stars without having to squint. Crawling along the edge of the tent, a spider confirmed my transformation—he disgusted me, and I felt an overwhelming urge to squash him. 

Yet, I realized I hadn’t really changed—I had only shifted perspective. I still eagerly explored new worlds, but through poems and prose rather than pastures and puddles. I’d grown to prefer the boom of a bass over that of a bullfrog, learned to coax a different kind of fire from wood, having developed a burn for writing rhymes and scrawling hypotheses. 

That night, I stayed up late with my journal and wrote about the spider I had decided not to kill. I had tolerated him just barely, only shrieking when he jumped—it helped to watch him decorate the corners of the tent with his delicate webs, knowing that he couldn’t start fires, either. When the night grew cold and the embers died, my words still smoked—my hands burned from all that scrawling—and even when I fell asleep, the ideas kept sparking—I was on fire, always on fire.

First things first, this Common App essay is well-written. This student is definitely showing the admissions officers her ability to articulate her points beautifully and creatively. It starts with vivid images like that of the “rustic princess, a cradler of spiders and centipedes, who was serenaded by mourning doves and chickadees, who could glide through tick-infested meadows and emerge Lyme-free.” And because the prose is flowery (and beautiful!), the writer can get away with metaphors like “I knew the cracks of the earth like the scars on my own rough palms” that might sound cheesy without the clear command of the English language that the writer quickly establishes.

In addition to being well-written, this essay is thematically cohesive. It begins with the simple introduction “Fire!” and ends with the following image: “When the night grew cold and the embers died, my words still smoked—my hands burned from all that scrawling—and even when I fell asleep, the ideas kept sparking—I was on fire, always on fire.” This full-circle approach leaves readers satisfied and impressed.

While dialogue often comes off as cliche or trite, this student effectively incorporates her family members saying “Where’s the fire, Princess Clara?” This is achieved through the apt use of the verb “taunted” to characterize the questioning and through the question’s thematic connection to the earlier image of the student as a rustic princess. Similarly, rhetorical questions can feel randomly placed in essays, but this student’s inclusion of the questions “Was I so dainty?” and “Was I that incapable?” feel perfectly justified after she establishes that she was pondering her failure.

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

Why This College?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why This Major?

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

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

Why Duke Engineering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Georgia Tech CompSci

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Extracurricular Essay

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

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

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

A Dedicated Musician

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Complicated Relationship with the School Newspaper

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

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

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

Participating in Democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overcoming Challenges

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

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

The Student Becomes the Master

”Advanced females ages 13 to 14 please proceed to staging with your coaches at this time.” Skittering around the room, eyes wide and pleading, I frantically explained my situation to nearby coaches. The seconds ticked away in my head; every polite refusal increased my desperation.

Despair weighed me down. I sank to my knees as a stream of competitors, coaches, and officials flowed around me. My dojang had no coach, and the tournament rules prohibited me from competing without one.

Although I wanted to remain strong, doubts began to cloud my mind. I could not help wondering: what was the point of perfecting my skills if I would never even compete? The other members of my team, who had found coaches minutes earlier, attempted to comfort me, but I barely heard their words. They couldn’t understand my despair at being left on the outside, and I never wanted them to understand.

Since my first lesson 12 years ago, the members of my dojang have become family. I have watched them grow up, finding my own happiness in theirs. Together, we have honed our kicks, blocks, and strikes. We have pushed one another to aim higher and become better martial artists. Although my dojang had searched for a reliable coach for years, we had not found one. When we attended competitions in the past, my teammates and I had always gotten lucky and found a sympathetic coach. Now, I knew this practice was unsustainable. It would devastate me to see the other members of my dojang in my situation, unable to compete and losing hope as a result. My dojang needed a coach, and I decided it was up to me to find one. 

I first approached the adults in the dojang – both instructors and members’ parents. However, these attempts only reacquainted me with polite refusals. Everyone I asked told me they couldn’t devote multiple weekends per year to competitions. I soon realized that I would have become the coach myself.

At first, the inner workings of tournaments were a mystery to me. To prepare myself for success as a coach, I spent the next year as an official and took coaching classes on the side. I learned everything from motivational strategies to technical, behind-the-scenes components of Taekwondo competitions. Though I emerged with new knowledge and confidence in my capabilities, others did not share this faith.

Parents threw me disbelieving looks when they learned that their children’s coach was only a child herself. My self-confidence was my armor, deflecting their surly glances. Every armor is penetrable, however, and as the relentless barrage of doubts pounded my resilience, it began to wear down. I grew unsure of my own abilities.

Despite the attack, I refused to give up. When I saw the shining eyes of the youngest students preparing for their first competition, I knew I couldn’t let them down. To quit would be to set them up to be barred from competing like I was. The knowledge that I could solve my dojang’s longtime problem motivated me to overcome my apprehension.

Now that my dojang flourishes at competitions, the attacks on me have weakened, but not ended. I may never win the approval of every parent; at times, I am still tormented by doubts, but I find solace in the fact that members of my dojang now only worry about competing to the best of their abilities.

Now, as I arrive at a tournament with my students, I close my eyes and remember the past. I visualize the frantic search for a coach and the chaos amongst my teammates as we competed with one another to find coaches before the staging calls for our respective divisions. I open my eyes to the exact opposite scene. Lacking a coach hurt my ability to compete, but I am proud to know that no member of my dojang will have to face that problem again.

This essay is great because it has a strong introduction and conclusion. The introduction is notably suspenseful and draws readers into the story. Because we know it is a college essay, we can assume that the student is one of the competitors, but at the same time, this introduction feels intentionally ambiguous as if the writer could be a competitor, a coach, a sibling of a competitor, or anyone else in the situation.

As we continue reading the essay, we learn that the writer is, in fact, the competitor. Readers also learn a lot about the student’s values as we hear their thoughts: “I knew I couldn’t let them down. To quit would be to set them up to be barred from competing like I was.” Ultimately, the conflict and inner and outer turmoil is resolved through the “Same, but Different” ending technique as the student places themself in the same environment that we saw in the intro, but experiencing it differently due to their actions throughout the narrative. This is a very compelling strategy!

Growing Sensitivity to Struggles

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

“You ruined my life!” After months of quiet anger, my brother finally confronted me. To my shame, I had been appallingly ignorant of his pain.

Despite being twins, Max and I are profoundly different. Having intellectual interests from a young age that, well, interested very few of my peers, I often felt out of step in comparison with my highly-social brother. Everything appeared to come effortlessly for Max and, while we share an extremely tight bond, his frequent time away with friends left me feeling more and more alone as we grew older.

When my parents learned about The Green Academy, we hoped it would be an opportunity for me to find not only an academically challenging environment, but also – perhaps more importantly – a community. This meant transferring the family from Drumfield to Kingston. And while there was concern about Max, we all believed that given his sociable nature, moving would be far less impactful on him than staying put might be on me.

As it turned out, Green Academy was everything I’d hoped for. I was ecstatic to discover a group of students with whom I shared interests and could truly engage. Preoccupied with new friends and a rigorous course load, I failed to notice that the tables had turned. Max, lost in the fray and grappling with how to make connections in his enormous new high school, had become withdrawn and lonely. It took me until Christmas time – and a massive argument – to recognize how difficult the transition had been for my brother, let alone that he blamed me for it.

Through my own journey of searching for academic peers, in addition to coming out as gay when I was 12, I had developed deep empathy for those who had trouble fitting in. It was a pain I knew well and could easily relate to. Yet after Max’s outburst, my first response was to protest that our parents – not I – had chosen to move us here. In my heart, though, I knew that regardless of who had made the decision, we ended up in Kingston for my benefit. I was ashamed that, while I saw myself as genuinely compassionate, I had been oblivious to the heartache of the person closest to me. I could no longer ignore it – and I didn’t want to.

We stayed up half the night talking, and the conversation took an unexpected turn. Max opened up and shared that it wasn’t just about the move. He told me how challenging school had always been for him, due to his dyslexia, and that the ever-present comparison to me had only deepened his pain.

We had been in parallel battles the whole time and, yet, I only saw that Max was in distress once he experienced problems with which I directly identified. I’d long thought Max had it so easy – all because he had friends. The truth was, he didn’t need to experience my personal brand of sorrow in order for me to relate – he had felt plenty of his own.

My failure to recognize Max’s suffering brought home for me the profound universality and diversity of personal struggle; everyone has insecurities, everyone has woes, and everyone – most certainly – has pain. I am acutely grateful for the conversations he and I shared around all of this, because I believe our relationship has been fundamentally strengthened by a deeper understanding of one another. Further, this experience has reinforced the value of constantly striving for deeper sensitivity to the hidden struggles of those around me. I won’t make the mistake again of assuming that the surface of someone’s life reflects their underlying story.

Here you can find a prime example that you don’t have to have fabulous imagery or flowery prose to write a successful essay. You just have to be clear and say something that matters. This essay is simple and beautiful. It almost feels like having a conversation with a friend and learning that they are an even better person than you already thought they were.

Through this narrative, readers learn a lot about the writer—where they’re from, what their family life is like, what their challenges were as a kid, and even their sexuality. We also learn a lot about their values—notably, the value they place on awareness, improvement, and consideration of others. Though they never explicitly state it (which is great because it is still crystal clear!), this student’s ending of “I won’t make the mistake again of assuming that the surface of someone’s life reflects their underlying story” shows that they are constantly striving for improvement and finding lessons anywhere they can get them in life.

Community Service/Impact on the Community

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

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

Academic Signing Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Climate Change Rally

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

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

Rewind to the present day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Story of a Young Skater

​​“Everyone follow me!” I smiled at five wide-eyed skaters before pushing off into a spiral. I glanced behind me hopefully, only to see my students standing frozen like statues, the fear in their eyes as clear as the ice they swayed on. “Come on!” I said encouragingly, but the only response I elicited was the slow shake of their heads. My first day as a Learn-to-Skate coach was not going as planned. 

But amid my frustration, I was struck by how much my students reminded me of myself as a young skater. At seven, I had been fascinated by Olympic performers who executed thrilling high jumps and dizzying spins with apparent ease, and I dreamed to one day do the same. My first few months on skates, however, sent these hopes crashing down: my attempts at slaloms and toe-loops were shadowed by a stubborn fear of falling, which even the helmet, elbow pads, and two pairs of mittens I had armed myself with couldn’t mitigate. Nonetheless, my coach remained unfailingly optimistic, motivating me through my worst spills and teaching me to find opportunities in failures. With his encouragement, I learned to push aside my fears and attack each jump with calm and confidence; it’s the hope that I can help others do the same that now inspires me to coach.

I remember the day a frustrated staff member directed Oliver, a particularly hesitant young skater, toward me, hoping that my patience and steady encouragement might help him improve. Having stood in Oliver’s skates not much earlier myself, I completely empathized with his worries but also saw within him the potential to overcome his fears and succeed. 

To alleviate his anxiety, I held Oliver’s hand as we inched around the rink, cheering him on at every turn. I soon found though, that this only increased his fear of gliding on his own, so I changed my approach, making lessons as exciting as possible in hopes that he would catch the skating bug and take off. In the weeks that followed, we held relay races, played “freeze-skate” and “ice-potato”, and raced through obstacle courses; gradually, with each slip and subsequent success, his fear began to abate. I watched Oliver’s eyes widen in excitement with every skill he learned, and not long after, he earned his first skating badge. Together we celebrated this milestone, his ecstasy fueling my excitement and his pride mirroring my own. At that moment, I was both teacher and student, his progress instilling in me the importance of patience and a positive attitude. 

It’s been more than ten years since I bundled up and stepped onto the ice for the first time. Since then, my tolerance for the cold has remained stubbornly low, but the rest of me has certainly changed. In sharing my passion for skating, I have found a wonderful community of eager athletes, loving parents, and dedicated coaches from whom I have learned invaluable lessons and wisdom. My fellow staffers have been with me, both as friends and colleagues, and the relationships I’ve formed have given me far more poise, confidence, and appreciation for others. Likewise, my relationships with parents have given me an even greater gratitude for the role they play: no one goes to the rink without a parent behind the wheel! 

Since that first lesson, I have mentored dozens of children, and over the years, witnessed tentative steps transform into powerful glides and tears give way to delighted grins. What I have shared with my students has been among the greatest joys of my life, something I will cherish forever. It’s funny: when I began skating, what pushed me through the early morning practices was the prospect of winning an Olympic medal. Now, what excites me is the chance to work with my students, to help them grow, and to give back to the sport that has brought me so much happiness. 

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

A major strength of this essay comes in its narrative organization. When reading this first paragraph, we feel for the young skaters and understand their fear—skating sounds scary! Then, because the writer sets us up to feel this empathy, the transition to the second paragraph where the student describes their empathy for the young skaters is particularly powerful. It’s like we are all in it together! The student’s empathy for the young skaters also serves as an outstanding, seamless transition to the applicant discussing their personal journey with skating: “I was struck by how much my students reminded me of myself as a young skater.”

This essay positions the applicant as a grounded and caring individual. They are caring towards the young skaters—changing their teaching style to try to help the young skaters and feeling the young skaters’ emotions with them—but they are also appreciative to those who helped them as they reference their fellow staffers and parents. This shows great maturity—a favorable quality in the eyes of an admissions officer.

At the end of the essay, we know a lot about this student and are convinced that they would be a good addition to a college campus!

Finding Community in the Rainforest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Political/Global Issues

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

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

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

Fighting Violence Against Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where to Get Feedback on Your College Essays

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

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

If you want a college admissions expert to review your essay, advisors on CollegeVine have helped students refine their writing and submit successful applications to top schools.  Find the right advisor for you  to improve your chances of getting into your dream school!

Related CollegeVine Blog Posts

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Essay topics.

All first-year applicants will complete a few Yale-specific short answer questions. These required questions are slightly different based on the application platform an applicant chooses. The 2023-2024 Yale-specific questions for the Coalition Application, Common Application, and QuestBridge Application are detailed below.

Short Answer Questions

Applicants submitting the Coalition Application , Common Application , or QuestBridge Application  will respond to the following short answer questions:

  • Students at Yale have time to explore their academic interests before committing to one or more major fields of study. Many students either modify their original academic direction or change their minds entirely. As of this moment, what academic areas seem to fit your interests or goals most comfortably? Please indicate up to three from the  list provided.
  • Tell us about a topic or idea that excites you and is related to one or more academic areas you selected above. Why are you drawn to it? (200 words or fewer)
  • What is it about Yale that has led you to apply? (125 words or fewer)

Applicants applying with the QuestBridge Application will complete the questions above via the Yale QuestBridge Questionnaire, available on the Yale Admissions Status Portal after an application has been received.

Applicants submitting the Coalition Application or Common Application  will also respond to the following short answer questions, in no more than 200 characters (approximately 35 words):

  • What inspires you?
  • If you could teach any college course, write a book, or create an original piece of art of any kind, what would it be?
  • Other than a family member, who is someone who has had a significant influence on you? What has been the impact of their influence? 
  • What is something about you that is not included anywhere else in your application?

Applicants submitting the Coalition Application or Common Application will respond to one of the following prompts in 400 words or fewer. 

1. Reflect on a time you discussed an issue important to you with someone holding an opposing view. Why did you find the experience meaningful?

2. Reflect on your membership in a community to which you feel connected. Why is this community meaningful to you? You may define community however you like.

3. Reflect on an element of your personal experience that you feel will enrich your college. How has it shaped you?

25 College Admission Essay Topics

The process of getting accepted to college is complicated. IN addition to submitting high school transcripts, in-person interviews, and standardized test scores, prospective students interested in reaching the pinnacle of their education careers must also write a compelling college admissions essay.

Unlike other types of essays that strive to inform, argue, or explain, college admissions essays are built to convince. However, while the intentions of the writing may be different from the many essays assigned to students during their high school careers, the structure of creating a compelling college admissions essay that will show how deserving a student is to receive admittance remains the same.

Is Writing a College Admissions Essay Hard?

Even with extensive essay writing practice throughout four years of high school education, college admission essay writing can still be difficult for many students. The primary challenge for many prospective college students is figuring out a topic to write about. Unlike research-oriented essays, a college admissions essay is a personal narrative whose subject matter is deeply personal to the writer and relevant to the admissions board.

Additionally, the vocabulary used in college admissions essay writing requires students to speak in an active voice that better captures an individual’s personality and passion for a topic. In other words, instead of passive sentences that begin with “There was…”, prospective college students should utilize more compelling openings such as “It all began when…”

Fortunately, students struggling with creating a motivating college admissions essay that will ensure acceptance to their school of choice can use this handy guide to get started.

How to Write a College Admissions Essay?

No matter which college a student applies to, the goal of the admissions essay is the same: motivate the admissions board to believe that the writer in question is worthy of acceptance. To achieve this goal, students should craft an essay on a topic that they can write with ease and passion.

The best topics will pertain to the student’s life experiences, demonstrate an understanding of self-awareness, and convey a willingness to learn. Whether this is about hardship, a challenge, or a personal epiphany that the student has faced, an admissions essay should embody experiences that have shaped the writer’s life.

It is recommended to avoid silly topics that don’t showcase the student’s ability to solve a problem, show compassion, or reflect on an experience that has inspired them to grow as a person.

Since the goal of the admissions essay is to convince the admission board that an individual holds certain qualities, it is important to demonstrate how these traits can be utilized in college. For example, if a student wants to go into medicine or science, their essay should describe how the student handled a difficult situation, showcased compassion to their peers, or solved a problem.

The best college admissions essays should also contain anecdotes that clearly explain what the writer is passionate about and why they want to pursue it at the university level. Using this kind of approach to writing an essay for college admission, students can take full advantage of the opportunity to showcase themselves in the best possible light.

Useful Tips for College Admission Essay Writing

Choosing a topic can be difficult, especially when students could write about so many life-changing experiences. To help students narrow down this list, start with recent events freshest in the mind. This way, students can guarantee they are writing about an experience they can explain with ease and enthusiasm.

Furthermore, it is highly recommended that students perform the following tasks at various stages during the writing process to ensure their college admissions essay meets the goal of getting an acceptance into the school of their choice:

  • Write a few drafts to ensure that the essay is as concise as possible.
  • Share the essay with others for feedback.
  • Run the final draft through a grammar-checking program to catch any errors.
  • Use a plagiarism detector to ensure the essay is uniquely original.
  • Avoid using clichés, which are overused phrases that fail to impact the reader.
  • Make sure each sentence drives home a point or contains an interesting detail.
  • Keep it relevant to the topic – don’t stray between different unrelated thoughts.

By keeping these writing tips in mind as students craft their college admissions essay, they can be more confident that their efforts will bear fruit in the form of a letter of acceptance from the school of their choice.

How to Structure a College Admissions Essay

When it comes to structuring a college admissions essay, students should ensure that they have a clear introduction, set of body paragraphs, and a conclusion that wraps the whole thing together.

Be sure to open the introduction with a catchy hook statement that raises an interesting point, offers a unique perspective, or presents a startling fact. This will entice readers to keep going until they get to the end of the essay.

Remember that it’s not about what you are writing but rather how you are writing it. Make sure that for each point made in your essay, there is a reason why this detail is important. To do this, students should consider adding anecdotes or bringing in outside sources to defend their position.

Finally, wrap things up by offering an insight into what the student has learned from this experience and how it’s impacted them as a person. It should be clear that the experiences showcased in the essay have changed or inspired the writer in some way.

All in all, when students follow these simple rules for writing college admission essays, they can rest assured that any application they submit will be as impressive as possible.

If you are struggling to choose an inspiring college admissions essay topic, consider using any of these prompts to get your creative juices flowing.

College Admissions Essay Topics About Hardship

  • The worst day of my life: Adversity and coping skills
  • How I found out who I was: Coping with a crisis in high school
  • The turning point when everything changed: An event that had a lasting impact
  • Breaking free from my past: Overcoming obstacles
  • What it feels like to be homeless: Surviving tragedy

College Admissions Essay Topics About Fear

  • The scariest thing that ever happened to me: Overcoming fear
  • What I’ve learned from being afraid of _____: Learning the importance of not giving up on your dreams
  • My greatest fears, written in third person: Exploring personal demons
  • A time when I was so scared I couldn’t breathe: A frightening experience
  • An encounter with something you can’t explain: Explaining your perspective on fear.

College Admissions Essay Topics About Friendship

  • A childhood friend who meant the world to me: Remembering those who shaped who you are as a person today.
  • What having good friends has done for my self-esteem: Kindness and friendship.
  • How I realized that best friends aren’t always ideal: Realizing you don’t need to be perfect to make someone happy.
  • What it’s like to lose a friend before losing one’s self: Mourning the death of a dear friend.

College Admissions Essay Topics About Sacrifice

  • A time when I had to choose between two impossible options: The importance of making a decision.
  • An experience that taught me about making the most of my time here on Earth: A lesson in taking risks.
  • A choice I had to make with no guarantee of success: Facing an uncertain future head-on.
  • When you have nothing left but love for someone: The bond between family members.

College Admissions Essay Topics About Character Building

  • What I’ve done to make the most of my experiences: Making the most out of every situation.
  • A time when I was faced with a new challenge that required me to rise to the occasion: Being true to yourself no matter what happens around you.
  • My experience taking part in a program that helped others better themselves: Getting the most out of the people around you.
  • What is one thing I can do to make myself a better person? Making the most out of every day.

College Admissions Essay Topics About Resilience

  • An event that made me realize hope is never lost: A moment of clarity.
  • A time when I felt completely drained of energy but then found the strength to keep going anyways: Overcoming adversity.
  • What it’s like to find the light in a place where everything seems dark: The importance of not giving up.

With any of these thought-provoking and moving college admission essay topics, students will be able to create a strong and moving piece of writing that will speak highly of their character and their strength of will.

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

    College Admissions , College Essays The personal statement might just be the hardest part of your college application. Mostly this is because it has the least guidance and is the most open-ended.

  2. 53 Stellar College Essay Topics to Inspire You

    Posted by Hannah Muniz College Essays Most colleges and universities in the United States require applicants to submit at least one essay as part of their application. But trying to figure out what college essay topics you should choose is a tricky process. There are so many potential things you could write about!

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

    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...

  4. 19 College Essay Topics and Prompts

    Avoid passing your paper along to too many people, though, so you don't lose your own voice amid all of the edits and suggestions. The admissions team wants to get to know you through your writing and not your sister or best friend who edited your paper. 5. Revise your essay. Your first draft is just that: a draft.

  5. 60+ College Essay Prompts for 2023-2024 Applicants

    High School 60+ College Essay Prompts From Actual 2023-2024 Applications Ideas to inspire every college applicant. By Jill Staake Aug 28, 2023 Writing a college application essay can be a stressful task for a lot of students. The more practice they get in advance, the better!

  6. Choosing Your College Essay Topic

    Revised on July 3, 2023. A strong essay topic sets you up to write a unique, memorable college application essay. Your topic should be personal, original, and specific. Take time to brainstorm the right topic for you. Some topics are easier to make work than others, but it's possible to write an exceptional essay from a common topic.

  7. Ultimate Guide to Writing Your College Essay

    College admissions essays are an important part of your college application and gives you the chance to show colleges and universities your character and experiences. This guide will give you tips to write an effective college essay. Want free help with your college essay?

  8. How to Write a College Essay

    Knowledge Base College essay How to Write a College Essay | A Complete Guide & Examples The college essay can make or break your application. It's your chance to provide personal context, communicate your values and qualities, and set yourself apart from other students. A standout essay has a few key ingredients: A unique, personal topic

  9. Writing tips and techniques for your college essay

    Admissions look for essays where student highlights their growth and introspection, so your essay should focus on you learning and growing as a person. Don't just brag or describe. Your essay should have a moment of revelation: what did you learn from your experience? How did it make you the person you are today?

  10. How to Write the Best College Application Essay

    Here are some things that admissions officers look for in a personal essay for college. 1. Open Strong. Knowing how to start a college essay can create a strong opening paragraph that immediately captures the reader's interest. You want to make the admissions officer reading your essay curious about what you say next. 2. Show You Can Write.

  11. Popular Application Essay Topics

    Prompt #1: Share your story. Answer this prompt by reflecting on a hobby, facet of your personality, or experience that is genuinely meaningful and unique to you. Admissions officers want to feel connected to you and an honest, personal statement about who you are draws them in.

  12. 10 College Admissions Essay Ideas to Inspire You

    #1: Your meaningful background A classic college essay, this idea gives you a broad prompt where you can choose something from your own life (a background, interest, talent, etc.) that you think your application would be incomplete without. At first, it may be hard to think of something to write about.

  13. College Essay Examples

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

  14. How to Come Up With Great College Essay Ideas

    Make it personal. Write about something personal, deeply felt, and authentic to the real you (but which is not an overshare). Take a narrow slice of your life: one event, one influential person, one meaningful experience—and then you expand out from that slice into a broader explanation of yourself. Always think about your reader.

  15. 14 College Essay Examples From Top-25 Universities (2023-2024

    College essay example #1. This is a college essay that worked for Harvard University. (Suggested reading: How to Get Into Harvard Undergrad) This past summer, I had the privilege of participating in the University of Notre Dame's Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program .

  16. 35 College Essay Prompts and Topics

    35 College Essay Prompts and Topics. The college application process can be stressful and sometimes overwhelming. A great way to stand out from the crowd and boost an application for a "reach" school is with a strong essay. We've put together a list of common prompts and advice for how to answer them. Describe a facet of your identity ...

  17. College Admission Essay Topics: Best and Worst

    What should you write your college admission essay about? Which topics should you avoid? Check out some of the best (and the worst) college essay topic ideas! by Phoebe Bain Freelance Writer Last Updated: Apr 6, 2023 Originally Posted: Aug 16, 2017 Bookmark The essay is easily one of the most difficult parts of the college application process.

  18. How to Write the Common Application Essays 2023-2024 ...

    The Common App essay is the best way for admissions committees to get to know you. While SAT scores, your past course load, and your grades provide a quantitative picture of you as a student, the Common App essay offers adcoms a refreshing glimpse into your identity and personality.

  19. 21 College Essay Topics & Ideas That Worked

    Here's a list of essay topics and ideas that worked for my one-on-one students: Essay Topic: My Allergies Inspired Me. After nearly dying from anaphylactic shock at five years old, I began a journey healing my anxiety and understanding the PTSD around my allergies. This created a passion for medicine and immunology, and now I want to become ...

  20. College Admissions Essay Topics, Tips, and Tricks

    1. COVID-19 It is understandable that the pandemic has impacted millions of students and you might want to write about your experiences. However, keep in mind that admissions counselors are reading hundreds of essays a day, and this will most likely be a very common essay topic among applicants.

  21. Best college essay topics for 2023-2024

    The Best College Essay Topics for 2023-2024. Bonus Material: To check out 30 real examples of essays that worked to get students into schools like Princeton, click the link: Download 30 College Essays That Worked. If you're getting started on your college application essays, you're probably looking around for the perfect topic to write about.

  22. 16 Strong College Essay Examples from Top Schools

    First things first, this Common App essay is well-written. This student is definitely showing the admissions officers her ability to articulate her points beautifully and creatively. It starts with vivid images like that of the "rustic princess, a cradler of spiders and centipedes, who was serenaded by mourning doves and chickadees, who could glide through tick-infested meadows and emerge ...

  23. Essay Topics

    Essay Topics. All first-year applicants will complete a few Yale-specific short answer questions. These required questions are slightly different based on the application platform an applicant chooses. The 2023-2024 Yale-specific questions for the Coalition Application, Common Application, and QuestBridge Application are detailed below.

  24. 25 College Admission Essay Topics

    The process of getting accepted to college is complicated. IN addition to submitting high school transcripts, in-person interviews, and standardized test scores, prospective students interested in reaching the pinnacle of their education careers must also write a compelling college admissions essay.