Students prepare for applying to selective colleges by taking rigorous courses, participating in extracurricular activities, studying for standardized tests, and more. All of this preparation, however, can distract attention from one of the most notorious sections of the college application: the essays.
The essay is both the most and the least visible part of the competitive admissions process. Everyone knows that the essay is critical, but few actually get to see what “successful” essays look like. Some online resources, like The College Board, post examples of college application essays, but they often lack the necessary context for a reader to truly assess how accurately that essay conveys a student’s personality and interests.
When choosing a topic for an essay, students need to consider what the essay prompt is asking, the universities to which they’re applying, their goals, and, ultimately, what the essay says about them as a student and as a person.
Why the Essay Matters
Before you can choose a compelling essay topic, you first need to understand why there’s an essay in the first place. When evaluating college applications, most colleges use a “reading rubric” to evaluate the different components of each application. Aside from the “hard factors,” like grades, GPA, and test scores, colleges also look at the “soft factors,” such as extracurriculars, recommendation letters, demonstrated interests, and essays. The point of evaluating all these factors is to enable colleges to holistically build a well-rounded class of specialists. The essay (or essays) is a great way to learn more about an applicant, her motivations, life experiences, and how she can contribute to the campus community.
According to NACAC, 83 percent of colleges assign some level of importance to the application essay, and it’s usually the most important “soft factor” that colleges consider. The essay is important because it gives students the chance to showcase their writing and tell the college something new. It also allows admissions officers to learn more about students and gain insight into their experiences that other parts of the application do not provide. Just like any other admissions factor, a stellar essay isn’t going to guarantee admission, but students do need to craft compelling and thoughtful essays in order to avoid the “no” pile.
Related: How a Great College Essay Can Make You Stand Out
Types of Essays
Let’s talk about the different types of essays that a college may require applicants to submit. Over 500 colleges and universities use the Common Application, which has one required essay, called the personal statement. There are five new prompts to choose from, and this essay can be used for multiple colleges.
Related: Why I Love the New Common Application Essay Prompts
Beyond the Common Application essay, many colleges also have supplements that ask additional, university-specific questions which applicants must respond to with shorter-form essays. While topics vary from supplement to supplement, there are a few standard essay formats that many colleges use:
This is the most common essay and is used for the main Common Application essay. In this essay, the applicant talks about a meaningful life experience that helped shape who she is today. The book “Admission Matters: What Students and Parents Need to Know About Getting into College” has a great section on the personal statement and how students can craft effective essays.
“Why This College?” Essay
Many colleges, including Columbia University and Duke University, use the supplement to ask applicants to explain why they have chosen to apply to this particular college. In this essay, students need to be detailed and offer specific examples for wanting to attend this school. Not only does it help students reiterate their passions, it also serves as a gauge for demonstrated interest and a vehicle for students to better articulate how they will contribute to the campus environment.
In this essay, students write about an extracurricular activity or community service project that was especially meaningful to them. This essay was previously on the standard Common Application, but was removed starting in the 2014–15 application season. Instead, some colleges, like Georgetown University, choose to include a variation of this essay among their supplements by asking students to discuss an activity and its significance to their life or course of study. In this essay, students should choose an activity they’re most passionate about and include details about how they expect to continue this activity at the particular college.
Related: Using Your High School Internship as Inspiration for Your College Essay
In an effort to challenge students to think creatively, some colleges include short, “quick take” prompts that require only a few words or sentences for the response. Some examples include University of Southern California’s “What’s the greatest invention of all time?” and University of Maryland’s sentence completion prompts like “My favorite thing about last Wednesday…”
What NOT to Write About
In order to stand out, it’s important to realize that there are a number of essay topics that are cliché and overused. Avoid writing about things like scoring the winning goal, topics of public consciousness like natural disasters, or something that happened to you in middle school. Also, avoid gimmicks like writing in a different language, presenting your essay as a poem, or anything else that is stylistically “out of the box.” Your focus should be on the message rather than the presentation.
It’s also important to avoid inappropriate or uncomfortable topics. Some students choose to write about things like sex or romantic relationships in order to stand out; yet, these topics fail to add substance or depth to an application. There’s a fine line between interesting and trite — don’t stand out for the wrong reasons.
Successful Essay Topics
A successful essay will reveal something about you that the admissions reader may not have already known, and will show how you interact with family and friends and demonstrate your beliefs or explore your passions. This doesn’t mean you have to regurgitate your resume — in fact, you definitely shouldn’t.
For example, a student whose number one extracurricular activity is swimming should not write an essay about “the big meet.” Instead, she could explore a more personal topic, such as something she is learning in class that conflicts with her religious beliefs. She can discuss the intersection of religion and education in her life and how she reconciled the differences — or didn’t.
A great essay also provides readers with a vivid picture. When crafting an essay, think of it as offering admissions readers a window into a certain event or story. Focus on the most meaningful moments, not the irrelevant background details.
For example, a student once wrote an essay about feeling out of place culturally during an internship. Instead of giving a general description of the internship and his conflicts, he opened the essay with a vivid description of what he saw when he first arrived, and used this scene to frame the feelings of alienation he underwent — giving the reader a striking image of his experience in great detail.
Remember, your college application essay is about you. There’s a lot of pressure to be “unique” and “interesting,” but at the end of the day, the key to standing out is to just be yourself. Admissions officers can tell when students are embellishing or being insincere in their essays, so it’s best to keep it simple and tell a story about you and the person you are today. In the end, with careful planning, research, and a thoughtful essay, you’ll get into the best-fit college for you!
For further guidance and examples, check out Noodle's collection of expert advice about college essays.
The essay is perhaps the most daunting part of college applications, alongside standardized tests. SATs and essays essentially act as bookends to the admissions process. While students will not be let in on their SAT or ACT scores alone, for many selective colleges these results function at least as a simple “sorting hat” that divides the possible admits from the merely hopeful. Similarly, while an outstanding personal essay will probably not overcome the weight of poor grades or lukewarm letters of recommendation, they help admission officers choose from among a surfeit of strong candidates.
They’re mattering a lot more. The percentage of all colleges, public and private, for which the essay is a significant factor in selectivity, has increased from 14% in 1993 to 25% in 2012, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling in its latest annual report. Inevitably, the more selective private institutions with their growing pools of high-performing applicants tend to review applications more holistically and, therefore, place the most emphasis on non-quantitative elements such as the personal statement.
Given the opaque but obviously significant role of personal essays in American applications, it is not surprising that a recent blog post that revealed essays written by students admitted to Columbia’s class of 2017 elicited the vitriolic response that it did. While some decried the release of these “sacred texts” and the public mockery of their young writers, others pointed to the banality, absorption and self-aggrandizement of the published examples.
Admission officers at highly selective institutions like Columbia are well aware of the skill, social breadth and intellectual depth they can reasonably expect from some of the world’s highest performing students. But they also remain deeply conscious that they are poring over the writings of high school children.
Meanwhile, a recent decision by the Common Application (the online application used by 400 universities) to radically overhaul the personal statement has once again highlighted the role of the essay in an American college application. Some counselors responded strongly to the new absence of an open-ended “topic of your choice,” while others sighed in relief on behalf of admission officers who will have fresh horizons of teenage angst to explore as questions change each year. Many others, including me, have pointed out that the new questions are effectively asking students to address the same essential ideas, and perhaps that is a good thing.
Inevitably, as admission officers slog through literally thousands of essays, they will continue to develop a personal catalog of the kind of essays that annoy, bore or simply leave the reader cold. In my own experience as a former Ivy League admission officer, the worst college essays tend to fall into definable categories within which they can be tagged by type. They leave the reader with questions about the creativity, good judgment and depth of the writer.
- The road less traveled is oddly crowded. The problem with countless essays about courageously traveling off the beaten path and boldly exploring new places is not that admission readers will doubt the students’ sincerity, but rather the fact that teenagers usually lack the perspective to know that notwithstanding their desire to be different, others have already arrived at the same places, explored the same worlds, and wrote essays about it.
- Poor but happy peasants. Summer trips and mission tours to exotic locales, both overseas and in the Deep South, have become grist for the college essays of both affluent Americans and their counterparts in countries like France and Singapore, where students still refer to their activities by blunt reference to “charity” work. However good their intentions, or those of the parents footing the big bills, these students’ essays often persuade readers that their experiences have been so sheltered that they return home with no deeper understanding of the impact of their unequal access to resources on those they went to serve.
- I have overcome. Many students apply to US colleges having struggled against and having overcome astonishing odds. Such inspirational accounts leave those who have lived happy, secure lives casting around, however, for a hook on which to hang their own stories of growth and change. Admission officers will not doubt the sting a teenager felt on being overlooked for the varsity captaincy or on scoring a poor grade, but they can and do expect bright 17-year-olds to take the relative measure of their suffering.
- Take me to your leader. Given their recruitment pitches, admission officers often have only themselves to blame when they are deluged by essays in which students treat leadership not as a process in which they participate and their hard work is reflected in the regard of their peers, but as a trophy to achieve and display on the mantle piece that is a college resume.
In contrast, admission officers will recall great essays in specific details. The teenager who sits on a Queens rooftop at night to ponder her city; the Boston boy who sees in the condition of his mother’s feet, her sacrifices on the factory floor on his behalf; the wannabe comic honing his skills in comedy clubs, usually with mixed success; the mathematician trying to describe the beauty he sees in Mandelbrot sets—these are essays I still remember because each offered a distinctive insight into the specific experience of an individual teenage life. But even the exceptional essays play a role only within a broader narrative that encompasses all the academic and social choices a student made throughout high school. They are the exclamation points to that story, not the centerpiece.
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