It might seem early, but summer is the perfect time to start thinking about your college application essays. You’ll likely have more time on your hands once the school year has ended, and you don’t want to wait until you’re busy with classes again to start on your applications. With so many schools on the Common App, if you haven’t made an account yet, you should check out our advice on getting started. Once you’ve taken those first steps, it’s time to think about your essays!
The overwhelming majority of schools, whether they accept the Common Application or not, will ask you to write a personal statement of around 650 words. This is your chance to tell the colleges what you want them to know about you. It can be hard to know where to begin. Before you start writing, take some time for self-reflection and brainstorm your ideas. Here are some tips to get you thinking about what you’ll want to convey to colleges and what makes you you:
YOU are the topic of your essay.
You can use this year’s Common App prompts for inspiration, but this shouldn’t feel like a school paper where you need to address the prompt. Make sure you’re showing colleges who you really are, not responding in a way you think colleges want to hear. Here’s the list of this year’s essay topics, but make sure you scroll to the end, and you’ll see you can write about anything you want!
- 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.
Why not write to a specific prompt?
While the Common App prompts can be great for generating ideas, there can be pitfalls to trying to write to a prompt. You might feel you need to tell a particular kind of story or exaggerate it (challenges don’t have to be major life events and realizations don’t have to be profound epiphanies!). You might also find that the focus shifts away from yourself, for example, if you’re writing about another person or a topic you love. While you’ll want some kind of story – a narrative thread to hold the essay together – what’s most important is revealing something about who you are. The story is just the springboard.
Before you start writing, think deeply about the kind of person you are and what’s most important to you. Here are some questions that can be helpful for that self-reflection:
- What do you value in yourself and others? Why is it important and how does it affect your beliefs and actions?
- What do you love to do or think about? Does it shape your aspirations? How does it motivate what you do?
- Is there a specific experience (impressive or not) that stands out in your memory? Why does it stand out? Does it demonstrate a character trait you possess or a belief you have, or did you learn something from it, etc.?
- Do you have a daily routine, tradition, or relationship with another person that’s especially meaningful to you? How has it shaped your personality, goals, beliefs etc.? What does it say about what you prioritize?
Dig deep and be authentic!
This is your chance to let colleges see the person behind the transcript. An essay that truly reveals your personality will help differentiate you from students who might otherwise look similar in grades and test scores. And a really authentic essay will be much more fun to read! Try to put aside the stress and enjoy writing your college essay. If you’re excited to share your story, you’re more likely to engage your readers.