If you’re getting started on writing your college apps, especially for schools in the United States, one major part of the application process that probably is going to take up the majority of your effort is the essay portions. Between the Common App, UC Personal Insight Questions, and thousands of schools’ supplemental essays, you’ve got quite a bit of writing ahead of you. Actually, that’s somewhat of a lie; most college app essays are only around 500 words, so it’s not much at all. And that’s all you get to convince these schools why you deserve a spot over thousands of other applicants. Sounds daunting? It can be.
I remember the amount of effort I put into writing my college apps, and boy am I glad that part of my life is over. I found so much advice for how to write the best college applications, and yet I still struggled to get started. 17 years of life experiences flooded my mind, and I couldn’t sort through it all. That’s because I had no idea what I should be writing about.
Deciding on what topic to write about is the most important part of the college app essay. The rest is just applying general writing skills and finding the right tone, but the story you tell is what the admission officers will focus on - because that story will represent you. Despite that, there’s not a lot of information about how to select a topic for each essay. Some prompts are hyper-specific, especially if it is a supplement for a specific school, that point directly to what you should be writing about. Others are as vague as “Share an essay on any topic of your choice.” That’s literally a prompt on the Common App (one of seven, and you only select one).
For anyone who is stuck on this decision process, I’ve been there. You might have the instinct to just think of something that fits and dive right in- try to fight that. Chances are, you won’t go deep enough into the prompt or the experiences you come up with, and shallow essays can break an application. Don’t let that happen to you. This article is a long one, but hopefully it will guide you to figure out what exactly to write about for each essay.
WHAT COLLEGES WANT
Before you even start to think about how to answer a prompt, you should first try to understand why schools are asking that prompt to begin with. What even is the point of these essays, anyways? Simply put, you are more than your report card and résumé, and schools want to see the rest of you that they can’t get from anywhere else but your own words. They want to see who you are, what your values are, what drives you, how you think, and how you move through life. Sounds deep? Yup. That’s the point.
Schools rarely use the essay to measure your intellect as a student. Instead, they want to see you as a person. There are some questions that statistics cannot answer. Will you be a good fit for the school? How do you get along with other people? What is it that you care most about? How do you react to challenges in your life? What else interests you aside from what is on your résumé? What do you love to learn about? Why do you want to go to college? How do you think, and how do you learn? Why do you think you deserve a spot at that school? There are many other questions like these, and I won’t list them all because there is no official list. However, you probably now have a slightly better time understanding what UChicago is really asking for with the prompt, “what can actually be divided by zero?”
Most importantly, colleges want to know how you see yourself. What do you think is the most important thing about who you are? Some prompts explicitly ask for this, others don’t. The key is to not choose a topic based on what you think will impress an admission officer. Back in 2019, I attended an event with Exploring College Options, a cohort of top-tier schools that do undergraduate recruitment and fairs together. One admission officer reminded people to not write to impress: the essay that he remembers the most is one he read several years prior about a tree that a student had planted with his family as a boy and how the student has grown along with the tree. It is a simple concept and relatively unimpressive in terms of what would be on a résumé, but the student wrote from the heart and it showed.
Now that you hopefully have a clearer idea of the goal for these essays, it’s time to start thinking about the topics. You may feel you have too many ideas, or not enough, but it is always good to find a variety of experiences and activities you can draw from to answer any number of prompts and ensure that your application reflects who you are. You will want to start evaluating your life in terms of what activities take up the most of your time, special interests, specific memories-both good and bad, but also evaluate yourself in terms of qualities that you think transcend these moments in your life. Below is a brainstorm similar to my old notes from when I was going through the process for myself.
*I swam competitively from ages 8-11, then started again when I was 16.
With these in mind, the next thing you will want to do is unpack some of the specific examples you have listed out. Your goal is to see how they have shaped you as a person, what you have learned from them, and how they highlight who you are as a person. Focus on experiences that are relatively recent, as colleges want to see who you are now, not who you were years ago. Go deep, and let yourself go on tangents. You’ll find some dead ends, but that’s okay. Never erase anything. The goal for this exercise is to explore the full value of these experiences, not to try to write the essay.
LOOKING AT THE PROMPTS
Only once you have clear ideas of what you could write on your applications should you zero in on the prompts. Prompts can be tricky because they may not always show what a college is truly asking for from you. It’s your job to figure out why the schools are asking those specific questions, or giving those exact prompts. Rarely is there one right answer only. Sometimes, your gut reaction of how to answer a prompt may actually show colleges the exact opposite of what they want. For example, one PIQ asks “What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?” The trick to this prompt is that the talent or skill you mention is less important to the admissions officers than how you have developed and utilized it throughout your life. The point is not to brag about what you can do. It is to show how you make the most of what you’ve got.
As you start to understand the prompts better, you’ll see that some of the topics you’ve brainstormed won’t really fit well for any of them. I personally had wanted to write about my family, but I knew my words were limited. I knew that there was not a whole lot I could share about my family experiences that would truly show to colleges what I know they want to learn about me, so I left the idea behind, along with several others. You may find yourself leaving behind over half of your brainstorm, and that is okay. The point of brainstorming is to just find your options and explore different ideas.
Chances are, some colleges will be reading multiple essays from you. Even if this is not the case for any of the schools you are applying to, it is vital to balance your application. Every school will have some form of a resume, and the essays will merely supplement it. What does your resume show about you, and what is missing? My resume highlighted my academics, so I focused more on my extracurriculars and non-written achievements for my essays. You want your application to show a complete picture of who you are and will be as a college student - in courses and the community. Your essays will fill out the rest of the picture that cannot be taken from anything else on paper. Therefore, if you have multiple essays to the same school, try to make sure they are not too similar. With limited words, you want to show as much of yourself as possible.
Finally, you may find that some topics fall under multiple prompts! Keep these topics in mind. If they are central to your identity, make sure you write something about it. However, sometimes the ideas we brainstorm are not as deep as we originally thought. For me, I found that though writing about my experiences with swimming could work for many of the prompts I was given, I simply would not have enough to say. Make sure you have enough to say on a topic. Most prompts give a word range - always aim for the upper bound.
SELECTING THE TOPICS
By this point, you’ve already done a lot of the work. You know what colleges are looking for. You understand the prompts. You know yourself and what stories about yourself you can tell. At this point, all that is left is to simply decide what topic to write about for each prompt. Sounds easy, right? But be careful - most people rush through this step without realizing, even if they prepared well for this step. Remember, it is okay to change your mind. Nothing is finalized until you hit the submit button, so keep an open mind even once you’ve made these decisions. I myself shifted several of my essays around. After writing out a full essay to answer a prompt about improving my community, I shifted it to answer a different prompt about an academic subject that inspires me. I had to write some more to frame the story properly and make some edits to passages that I enjoyed, but that is alright. I think I wrote at least ten times as many words through my various drafts than what was actually submitted to schools.
Keep the following in mind as you start to commit to your essay prompts:
Hopefully, this article helped you build a process to select what you want to write about for your college applications. With the brainstorming and the first drafts, just write it all out. Don’t try to get it perfect or succinct just yet, just put everything on the page. Narrowing down the topic and editing are quite similar processes and are probably the two most important steps to writing a stellar college application essay. If you get stuck in the brainstorming process or struggle to express yourself on the page, turn to those that know you best. The application is supposed to reflect your own introspection, but you can also find inspiration from the way others describe you.
When I was in high school, my college counselor was not very helpful at any stage of the application essay process. However, there is one thing she said that is very important - someone who knows you should be able to read your essay and identify it as your voice, your identity, and your experiences, not anyone else’s. Part of this comes down to editing and word choice, but mostly it comes from choosing a story that is unique to you. You need to get to the heart of your identity and expose yourself. Some topics require you to show your flaws, and that is okay. Colleges are not expecting perfect people, so don’t try to be one. Just make sure that whatever flaws you describe are countered with related positive qualities.
For essays that are around only 500 words each, the process is long and may seem arduous. Yet without doing this work, those short essays go from being the deciding factor for admissions officers letting you into the school of your dreams to the reason you failed to stand out at any school at all. So please take time with this process. Don’t do it all at once, but a little bit day-by-day or week-by-week. That way, over time, you can change your mind as needed or slowly build to the best possible essay you can write.
Best of luck,