Of everything you include in your college applications, the essays are the single element over which you have the most control—make the most of this opportunity to define your narrative. You know you’ll need to write a variety of essays for your college applications. The real question: How will you craft effective messaging that demonstrates your talent and character in order to maximize your chances of admission? In this post, we will provide an overview of the college application essay planning and writing process, including:
- What kinds of college application essays you will need to write
- The Frontier Tutoring essay planning formula for strategizing your topic and planning your structure, regardless of the prompt
- Keys to success for essay planning and writing
- When you should start planning and writing—including how to get a head start during junior year
- Actual draft essays—from first draft to final—from Anja L. and Sam L., two Frontier Tutoring college admissions consulting students. Anja was admitted to Middlebury (17% acceptance rate), while Sam was admitted to Georgetown (11.7% early action acceptance rate).
Ready to write? Let's begin!
What Kinds of Essays Will I Need to Write?
Most competitive colleges require applicants to submit a personal statement/essay, plus any number of supplemental essays. Below I describe some of the application systems and essays most frequently required. All students will have to complete one or more of these types of applications, along with potentially dozens of unique essays. An advantage to building your college list early is that you can begin strategizing your essay writing sooner by looking at essays, prompts, and deadlines. In many cases, with appropriate care, you may be able to adapt and repurpose some essays for multiple different applications with similar prompts.
The Common Application is the most widely used application (accepted by over 800 colleges, including Stanford, Gonzaga, and University of Southern California). The majority of colleges using the Common App require submission of the main Common App essay. The Common App now contains seven essay prompts to choose from, and students can submit essays with a word count of up to 650 words. These prompts are subject to change each year, but have remained the same for the past few years. Each spring semester, the Common App releases prompts for the upcoming academic year. The 2020-21 application year essay prompts (for applicants matriculating in fall 2021) are as follows:
- 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 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?
- Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
- Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma—anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
- Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and new understanding of yourself or others.
- Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find do 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.
According to the Common App, during the 2018-19 application, the most popular prompts were #7, #5, and #2.
The Coalition App is a similar online application system to the Common App, though used by 140 member colleges, including the University of Washington, which uses the Coalition App exclusively. As you review the 2019-20 application year essay prompts below, note that many of the topics overlap with those of the Common App, though the Coalition App has a lower word count limit of 550 words. Later in this post, I will discuss how you can repurpose your Common App essay to use with the Coalition App or other essay prompts.
- Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
- Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.
- Has there been a time when you’ve had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?
- What is the hardest part of being a teenager now? What’s the best part? What advice would give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?
- Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.
Many public/state universities have their own institutional applications – either centralized for a university system (e.g., University of California, University of Alaska) or a platform entirely unique to the school (e.g. Georgetown, MIT). Below are some of the most widely-completed institutional applications, along with their essay prompts.
University of California
The UC system requires students to respond to 4 of 8 personal insight questions. Each response is limited to a maximum of 350 words. University of California even publishes their own guide for how to approach these personal insight questions. The 2018-19 application year prompts are listed as follows:
- Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes or contributed to group efforts over time.
- Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.
- What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
- Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
- Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?
- Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside the classroom.
- What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
- Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you stand out as a strong candidate for admissions to the University of California.
Georgetown recommends an essay length of about ½ page, single spaces, or approximately 300-400 words, to respond to both of their two prompts:
- Briefly discuss the significance to you of the school or summer activity in which you have been most involved.
- As Georgetown is a diverse community, the Admissions Committee would like to know more about you in your own words. Please submit a brief essay, either personal or creative, which you feel best describes you.
This application offers a centralized means of applying to over 50 public and private colleges and universities in Texas, including University of Texas – Austin and Texas A&M University. Freshman applicants can choose to write on one of the three below prompts:
- What was the environment in which you were raised? Describe your family, home, neighborhood, or community, and explain how it has shaped you as a person.
- Most students have an identity, an interest or a talent that defines them in an essential way. Tell us about yourself.
- You’ve got a ticket in your hand – Where will you go? What will you do? What will happen when you get there?
In addition to the Common App's primary essay, many selective institutions also require separate writing supplements which could take the form of short answer responses, short essays, or longer essays. Sometimes these supplemental essays are unique to the college/department or major at the university they are applying to. For example, if you were applying to Georgetown, you would have to write a different supplemental essay if you were applying as a political science major than you would if you were applying as a business major. These assignments may change from year to year and typically become available each August for that academic year’s application cycle. Example prompts include:
- Tell us why you want to apply to (college name).
- Tell us why you want to major in (intended major).
- Describe yourself in three words.
- If you could design your own course, what would it be and why?
Some institutions are known for having unique essays that are meant to reflect their own unique character as a college. See below for some examples:
- Cats have nine lives, Pac Man has four lives, and radioactive isotopes have half-lives. How many likes does something else—conceptual or actual—have and why. (University of Chicago, 2019-20 application)
- What do you hope will change about the place where you live? (UNC Chapel Hill, 2018-19 application)
- You have 150 words. Take a risk. (University of Notre Dame, 2018-19 application)
The Frontier Tutoring Essay Planning Formula
Now that you have sense of what types of essay assignments you may be faced with, let’s turn to the Frontier Tutoring essay formula. The formula will help you strategize your topic and plan your structure—regardless of the prompt. This formula works well to approach your personal statement or main Common App/Coalition App essay.
Step 1: Brainstorm
Before analyzing the essay prompts in depth, I recommend brainstorming for ideas using a writing exercise. Some examples include:
- Write 25 unique facts about yourself
- Recall vignettes or anecdotes (interesting events/experiences) for each year of your life as far back as you can remember. Choose events/moments/experiences in your life that had an effect on you and impacted who you are today.
When students are having a difficult time brainstorming, these prompts can help them to come up with more ideas:
- an important event which taught me a lesson
- an important event which changed me and how
- my favorite, or least favorite, place and why
- the most important person in my life and why
- my biggest challenge and my reaction to it
- my most embarrassing moment and its lesson
- my “aha” moment when I realized something important
- the best present I ever got or gave and its meaning
- my scariest moment and its lesson
- my happiest, saddest or angriest moment and its lesson
- my best friend, pet, toy, etc. and his/her/its meaning in my life
Below I’ve listed some examples of ideas that were brainstormed by students I worked with over the past year:
- fascination with the Olympics
- travel experiences, including climbing Mt. Fuji
- witnessing pollution in the Philippines
- relationship with a pet
- relationship with a family member
- volunteer experiences, including service projects in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and disabled communities in the U.S.
The goal is to have as many ideas as possible to start with, so you can then narrow them down for effectiveness in the next steps of the process.
Step 2: Match
Once you compile your list of experiences and events, then compare them side by side with the essays you are required to write (e.g., the seven Common App prompts) and match ideas to the prompts. Below, I have matched some of the brainstormed ideas from Step 1 above, with the corresponding Common App prompt used by those students.
- Fascination with the Olympics - 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.
- Travel experiences, including climbing Mt. Fuji - Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and new understanding of yourself or others.
- Witnessing pollution in the Philippines - Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma—anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
- Relationship with a pet - Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and new understanding of yourself or others.
- Relationship with a family member - Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and new understanding of yourself or others.
- Volunteer experiences - Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and new understanding of yourself or others.
Step 3: Select for Effectiveness
Next, select the idea/prompt combination that you believe would make the most effective essay. An important requirement regarding the topic you choose is that it must connect to a specific experience/story that you can convey in your essay.
Below I’ve listed some more in-depth examples of topics that students I’ve worked with decided to write their essays on and the specific experience/story that that they described in their essay:
- A student’s experience watching the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics catalyzed her interest in international relations and politics.
- A student visited the Philippines with her family on vacation and was appalled by the level of pollution disturbing the otherwise beautiful surroundings. This experience inspired her to develop innovative solutions to minimizing pollution through studying chemical engineering in college.
- A student described his experience volunteering with his family in an impoverished community in rural Nicaragua, then reflected upon his new understanding of happiness, privilege, and community service upon returning to his life in Alaska.
- A student, who is a long-time horseback rider, described the experience of picking up her new horse as it arrives in Alaska, and reflected upon how caring for and building a relationship with her horse provided new insight into herself and taught her about personal responsibility and time management.
- A student wrote about her relationship with her grandfather and how their habit of playing Monopoly affected her throughout her childhood.
Step 4: Write Rough Draft
The first fact to keep in mind when beginning the drafting step is that the college application essay is very different from the type of five-paragraph analytical or academic essay you have learned to write in high school. For many students, the college application process is the first time they’ve had to think introspectively about themselves and their life experiences. Your essay is the place in your application where you have the greatest opportunity to show who you are as a person to the colleges where you are applying.
I recommend writing your original draft using the personal narrative style (first-person point-of-view) and with the following structure:
- Introduction consisting of an anecdote that sets up your story. With my students, I use a "Five Senses" writing exercise to list details of the anecdote by covering what you can hear, see, smell, taste, and touch. Using these concrete descriptions, piece the phrases together into an introductory paragraph. The idea is to “show” not “tell” about the experience.
- Body Paragraphs: Next, transition from the anecdote into some exposition on how this topic exemplifies the prompt you chose. The body of the essay should reflect upon the experience described in the first part of the essay, and explain the significance of that experience.
- Conclusion: Wrap up your essay with a demonstration of how the skills/characteristics you learned or developed from the topic of the essay will translate to your success as a college student or your future in general.
Below I have included examples of a rough draft taken from the list of essay topics in the previous step. Note that in a rough draft, the ideas may not be fully developed, there are visible grammar/punctuation errors, the length may be too long or too short for the desired word count, the word choice may not be precise, there may be repetition or redundancies, and the narrative and/or reflective aspects of the essays may not be fully present. These are the items that I will identify for you to revise and improve upon in the next step of the process.
Step 5: Revise
Ask a trusted advisor—who is also highly proficient in English vocabulary grammar—to proofread your rough draft and make comments or editing suggestions. Revise your essay, taking these comments into consideration. The revision process should be repeated as many times as needed until you are satisfied with the final product. In addition to the detailed feedback I provide to my students in college admissions consulting programs, I encourage students to have a family member, teacher, or other mentor review their essays, in order to obtain another perspective on the strengths/weaknesses of their essay. While students should consider the suggestions reviewers, it is extremely important that the student’s voice not become lost in the revision process. Your essay should still reflect your unique perspective and experience. Don't fall victim to over-editing; admissions representatives can tell when essay has been written by a parent rather than a student.
Another important part of the revision process is ensuring that the essay you’ve written effectively addresses the prompt you have chosen or were given, and that it fits within the word count limit. You could also use revision to repurpose a Common App essay that is ~650 words into a Coalition App essay, which has a shorter word count. One aspect of the essay editing process students find most the difficult is trimming down an essay to meet the defined word count while maintaining all essential information and the student's voice.
In the below screenshots, you can see comments, feedback, and suggested edits from me on the same essay (from Sam L.) from Step 4 above (the drafting step). Note that the suggestions are meant to not only improve the overall writing quality, but also to make the stories more vivid and the reflection both more pointed and less repetitive.
Step 6: Complete Final Edit
Perform a final review and edit to address any grammatical or mechanical issues before uploading the finished document to the Common App or institutional app platform.
Here's the final draft of the same essay by Sam L. we have been following in the drafting and revision stages.
When Should I Start? What Should I Do as a Junior? As a Senior?
You can begin your Common App essay as soon as the prompts are released in spring of your junior year, but we recommend starting in the summer between junior and senior year. As a rising senior, try to complete your main Common App essay before school begins in August.
You can begin Common App member college supplemental writing and most institutional app writing on August 1 before your senior year begins. It would benefit you to get as much complete before school begins to save you some time during the academic semester. Do not sacrifice quality for time though.
If you know that multiple colleges you are applying to require the Common App essay, then it only makes sense to start on that first essay as soon as possible during the summer between junior and senior year. Then, once the Common App, Coalition App, and institutional applications update in August, you can begin strategizing how to approach planning those essays (which order to tackle, which prompts overlap, etc).
Keys to Essay Planning & Writing Success
- A single illustrative experience can answer many seemingly unrelated essay topics. Review Common App and other college application essay prompts as far in advance as possible (Common App prompts are released in spring of junior year) and let them sit in the back of your mind for planning purposes. Write down relevant experiences or anecdotes from your memory as they occur to you. When it comes to writing your essay, demonstrating how acted in specific situations is much more powerful than making general statements about yourself or your values.
- Writing is 20% original draft and 80% revision. Write multiple drafts. Make sure someone else reads each draft and provides feedback that addresses clarity of ideas, cohesiveness, and flow.
- Write passionately but credibly. Be a “real” person. Avoid using unnecessarily extravagant vocabulary.
- Do not include facts in your essay that you have already provided in other areas of the application (like your GPA or SAT scores).
- Write the essay yourself (of course!). Don’t plagiarize, which includes intentionally or even accidentally letting someone else write most or all of your essay.
Ensure you're putting your best foot forward in your essays. Get professional guidance on planning and editing your essays with one of our premium college admissions consulting plans. We'll work with you to develop a comprehensive strategy for your essays that allows you to most effectively demonstrate your unique background, personal qualities, and goals.
How to Get Started
Thousands of students with similar GPAs and SAT/ACT scores will be applying to the same colleges you are. Your essay is one of the most critical—and only—opportunities for you to differentiate yourself and stand out from the crowd.
Just as we empowered Anja and Sam. to prepare the most effective possible application for admission to Middlebury College and Georgetown University, Frontier Tutoring’s expert advisors can set you up for success on your college admissions journey.
Ensure you're putting your best foot forward in your essays. Get professional guidance on planning and editing your essays with one of our premium college admissions consulting plans. We'll work with you to develop a comprehensive strategy for your essays that allows you to most effectively demonstrate your unique background, personal qualities, and goals. To get started, sign up for a 1-hour consultation.
Good luck as you begin preparing your college applications, and please contact us with any questions!