The Ultimate College Application Essay

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August 24, 2023

The Ultimate College Essay Guide: Prompts and Writing Tips

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When we at Ivy Coach hear the term “the college essay,” we instinctively roll our eyes because there is not one college essay. While The Common Application includes a Personal Statement that is submitted to every Common App.-subscribing school, most of America’s highly selective universities feature additional essays on their unique supplements — and these essays are just as critical as the Personal Statement.

Since many schools change their supplemental admissions essay prompts from year to year, especially this year after the Supreme Court struck down Affirmative Action in late June of 2023 (the essays are, in some ways, a legal loophole allowing colleges to consider a student’s background when weighing their case for admission), it’s hard to find all of the new prompts for America’s top colleges in one place. Until now , that is.

2023-2024 College Essay Prompts

Below, applicants to the Class of 2028, you’ll find this year’s essay prompts for America’s highly selective universities — directly from each school’s admissions office:

How to Address the 2023-2024 College Essay Prompts

Below, you’ll find Ivy Coach’s tips on approaching the 2023-2024 supplemental essay prompts at America’s highly selective universities. If we haven’t yet posted our annual tips for a specific university, whose essays are hot off the presses, rest assured that it will be posted in short order.

Ivy Coach’s Assistance Tackling the 2023-2024 College Essays

If you’re interested in optimizing your case for admission to America’s highly selective universities by submitting compelling narratives, fill out Ivy Coach ’s consultation form , and we’ll respond by outlining our college counseling service offerings for seniors.

You are permitted to use www.ivycoach.com (including the content of the Blog) for your personal, non-commercial use only. You must not copy, download, print, or otherwise distribute the content on our site without the prior written consent of Ivy Coach, Inc.

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How to Write a College Application Essay

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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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How to Write an Outstanding College Application Essay

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The college application essay is an essential part of the admissions process. However, when Prompt.com reviewed thousands of application essays, the company noticed that the average essay was rated C+. A report by the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that grades in college prep courses were the most important factor, followed by admission test scores. However, the application essay was ranked much higher than recommendations from counselors and teachers, class rank, the interview, extracurricular activities and many other factors. Since the college application essay is so important, ThoughtCo spoke with several experts to discover the best ways to write one that will win over college admissions officers.

Why the College Application Essay is So Important

So many elements are included in the application process that students may wonder why they need to worry about the essay. Brad Schiller, co-founder and CEO of Prompt.com , tells ThoughtCo that many applicants to the same schools may have comparable grades and test scores. “However, the essay is the differentiator; it's one of the few pieces of an application over which a student has direct control, and it provides readers with a sense of who the student is, how the student will fit in at the school, and how successful the student will be both in college and upon graduation.”

And for students with an uneven profile, the college application essay may provide a chance to shine. Christina DeCario, the associate director of Admissions at the College of Charleston , tells ThoughtCo that the essay provides clues about a student’s writing skills, personality and preparedness for college . She advises students to view the essay as an opportunity. “If your profile is a little uneven, like you’re successful outside the classroom but your grades aren’t quite there, or you’re the valedictorian but you’re not a good test taker, the essay can push you from a maybe to a yes,” DeCario explains.

How to Choose a Topic

According to Schiller, such topics as the student’s goals, passions, personality, or periods of personal growth are all good areas in which to start brainstorming. However, he says that students rarely select topics in these areas.

Cailin Papszycki, director of college admissions programs at Kaplan Test Prep agrees, and says the aim of the essay is to present the student as thoughtful and mature. “The key is to inspire using a personal story that captures this quality.” Papszycki believes that transformational experiences are great topics. “For example, did you overcome extreme shyness by shining in the school musical production? Did a family crisis change your outlook on life and make you a better child or sibling?” When students can tell a sincere and persuasive story, Papszycki says colleges believe they can bring distinct experiences to the college environment.

Creativity is also a good tool to employ when writing the essay. Merrilyn Dunlap, interim director of Admissions at Clarion University of Pennsylvania , tells ThoughtCo, “I still remember reading an essay about why the orange flavored tic tac is the best tic tac to eat.”

She also recalls an essay that was written when the MasterCard “priceless” ads were popular. “The student opened the essay with something like:

Cost to visit five college campuses = $200.

Application fees for five colleges = $300

Moving away from home for the first time = priceless

In addition, Dunlap says she likes to see essays on why a student chose a particular field of study because these types of essays tend to bring out the student’s emotions. “When they write about something that they are passionate about, it is in their favor; they become real to us.”

So, what types of topics should be avoided? Schiller cautions against any subject that could portray the student negatively. “Some common poor choices of topics we see are getting poor grades due to lack of effort, depression or anxiety that you have not overcome, conflicts with other people that went unresolved, or poor personal decisions,” he warns.

Do’s and Don’ts to Writing a College Application Essay

After choosing a compelling topic, our panel of experts offer the following advice.

Create an outline.  Schiller believes that it’s important for students to organize their thoughts, and an outline can help them structure their thoughts. “First, always start with the end in mind – what do you want your reader to think after reading your essay?” And, he recommends using the thesis statement to quickly get to the essay’s main point.

Don’t write a narrative. While Schiller admits that the college essay should provide information about the student, he warns against a long, rambling account. “Stories and anecdotes are an integral part of showing your reader who you are, but a good rule of thumb is to make these no more than 40% of your word count and leave the rest of your words for reflection and analysis.”

Have a conclusion. “So many essays start off well, the second and third paragraphs are solid, and then they just end,” laments DeCario. “You need to explain why you told me all the things you wrote about earlier in the essay; relate it to yourself and the essay question.”

Revise early and often . Don’t just write one draft and think you’re done. Papszycki says the essay will need to undergo several revisions – and not just to catch grammatical errors. “Ask your parents, teachers, high school counselors or friends for their eyes and edits.” She recommends these individuals because they know the student better than anyone else, and they also want the student to succeed. “Take their constructive criticism in the spirit for which they intend - your benefit.”

Proofread to the max. DeCario recommends having someone else proofread it. And then, she says the student should read it out loud. “When you proofread, you should check for grammar and sentence structure; when someone else proofreads, they will be looking for clarity in the essay; when you read it out loud, you’ll catch errors or even entire missing words like ‘a’ or ‘and’ that you didn’t catch when you read it in your head.”

Don’t cram for the essay. Start early so there will be plenty of time. “The summer before senior year can be a great time to start work on your essay,” Papszycki explains.

Use humor judiciously . “It’s fine to use wit and imagination, but don't try to be humorous if that's not your personality,” Papszycki advises. She also warns against forcing humor because it can have an unintended effect.  

Additional Tips

For students who want more information on ways to write a stellar college application essay, Schiller recommends a persona.prompt.com quiz that helps students identify their "personas," and also an essay outlining tool .

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College admissions

Course: college admissions   >   unit 4.

  • Writing a strong college admissions essay
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the ultimate college application essay

How to Write College Application Essays

Use the links below to jump directly to any section of this guide:

College Application Essay Fundamentals 

How to prepare to write your essay , how to approach different essay types, how to structure your essay , how to revise your essay, how to find essay writing help , resources for teaching students how to write a college essay, additional resources (further reading).

Of all the materials in a college application, the essay provides the greatest opportunity for you to set yourself apart. Unlike the transcript or resume, the essay is creative and expressive; in it, you can show the admissions counselors who you are and what you can do (that is, how well you can write!). A good application essay should have a memorable main idea, a cohesive structure, and a strong introduction and conclusion. Although essay topics can vary by college, the most common prompts deal with personal experiences and aspirations for the future. This guide   contains a diverse set of resources to help you orient yourself to the college application essay and, ultimately, to write the most competitive essay possible. 

The college application essay is a requirement for admission to almost all institutions of higher learning. Though in some ways it resembles essays you've written in class or on standardized tests, in other ways it's a unique writing exercises with its own particular requirements. Use the resources below to help you understand how the essay should be structured and what kind of content to include. 

"How Long Should College Application Essays Be?" (Learn.org)

This webpage guides you through some basic tips on writing the college essay—including essay length, sticking to the prompt, and maintaining an original tone. 

"College Application Essay" (College Board)

This webpage from the College Board discusses the different types of application essays, what length you should aim for, and most importantly, why colleges value this aspect of the application so much. 

"College Essays, College Applications" (College Board) 

The College Board's website is a great resource for any student looking to apply to college. This webpage contains several links to helpful resources, including sample essays and genuine student interviews. 

"Timeline for College Applications" (College Essay Guy)

This colorful, one-page guide from a college application specialist offers an illustrated timeline for high school students looking to apply for college. 

Before putting your ideas down on paper, it's important to conceptualize your essay, to craft strategically your tone and style, and,  crucially, to choose a topic that suits you and the school to which you're applying. The resources in this section include writing tips, lists of common mistakes you should avoid, and guides dedicated to the college application essay.

How to Plan Your Essay

"3 Common College Essay Mistakes to Avoid" (CNBC)  

This article from CNBC broadly outlines the most common mistakes students make when writing their college application essays. Although these mistakes may seem obvious, even the most experienced writers can fall into these common traps.

"7 Effective Application Tips" (Peterson's)

This article from Peterson's (a company providing academic materials for test prep, application help, and more) lists seven pieces of advice designed to make your writing pop. 

"The Secret to Show, Don't Tell" ( The Write Practice Blog)  

You've heard it before: show, don't tell. This is a great writing tip, but how do you pull it off? Here, the writing blog  The Write Practice  outlines how you can make your writing more descriptive and effective. 

"Passive Voice" (University of North Carolina)  

Avoiding passive construction is a subtle yet effective way to upgrade any piece of writing. Check out this webpage from a university writing center for some tips on recognizing and avoiding passive voice. 

"Using Appropriate Words in an Academic Essay" (National University of Singapore)

There are many ways to upgrade your vocabulary. Often, words can be replaced with more impressive substitutes, phrases can be shortened or lengthened depending on context, and transitions can be used for a smoother flow. The link above expands on these strategies and offers several others. 

How to Brainstorm Topic Ideas

"Bad College Essays: 10 Mistakes to Avoid" (PrepScholar)

This article from a well-known tutoring service and test prep program describes what to avoid when writing your essay. Essays that are too graphic, too personal, or too overconfident are all problematic, and this article explains why. 

"5 Tricks for Choosing Your College Essay Topic" (CollegeXpress)

Lost on how to choose a topic? This webpage from CollegeXpress outlines five sources of inspiration you can mine for ideas as you're getting started.

"The College Admission Essay: Finding a Topic" (The Choice Blog)

This article from New York Times  blog The Choice  breaks down three essential questions to ask yourself when choosing a topic for your college essay. 

"COLLEGE ESSAY GUIDE: Choosing a Prompt for the Common Application" (YouTube)

In this five-minute video, a Yale student discusses how to choose a college essay prompt and how to approach the essay writing process. His channel is filled with original videos on the college application process. 

"Where to Begin? 3 Personal Essay Brainstorming Exercises" ( CollegeVine Blog)

Approaching the Common App essay prompts can be difficult. This blog post explains several tactics you can use to narrow down your options, such as writing down a list of your greatest convictions.

"Using First Person in an Academic Essay: When Is It Okay?" (WritingCommons.org)

Most high school students are told to avoid using the first person point of view; this can be confusing when writing college essays, which typically ask what  you  think. This article breaks down when (and why) it's acceptable to write in the first person. 

Although all college essays serve the same purpose - articulating why you should get into a college - they come in different kinds. While topics on the Common Application are relatively consistent from year to year, personal statements and so-called "supplemental essays" vary by institution. Each of these essays requires a slightly different approach. The resources in this section will prepare you to answer the various types of essay prompts you're likely to encounter. 

Common Application Essays

CommonApp.org

The Common Application's official website is the best place to start getting acquainted with the service to which the majority of US colleges and universities now subscribe - a service which allows you to streamline your application process and minimize duplication of materials.

"What's App-enning" Blog (Common App)  

The Common App runs a blog with a wealth of information on common application-related news, including periodic updates on common application essay prompts for each application cycle. You can practice brainstorming with old prompts, or even start preparing your application by looking at this year's prompts.

125 College Essay Examples (PrepScholar Blog)

Here, PrepScholar provides a variety of Common App essays that got their respective applicants into their desired schools. Along with the body text of the essays, the website provides analysis on  what  makes the essays so great. 

A Few Essays That Worked (And a Few That Didn't) (NYTimes Blog)

This article analyzes unsuccessful essays, illuminating the ways in which they fell short. Although you should exercise caution and adjust your approach to your specific school, it's always good to pick up on general things to avoid. 

Personal Statements

What Is a Personal Statement? (PrepScholar Blog)

Although personal statements and Common App essays are similar, not all personal statement essays are administered through the Common App. This article from PrepScholar's blog will provide you with everything you need to know about writing a personal statement.

Examples of Successful Statements (Purdue OWL)

The Purdue OWL online writing lab collate links on this page to several successful personal statement. It can be useful to read successful statements and to consider how and why the statements made an impact on their readers. 

Past Threads on Advice for Writing Your College Essay (Reddit Post)

Although not about the personal statement  per se , this Reddit post has links to several past threads that may be of use to any prospective college applicant. 

What 10 Things Should Your Personal Statement Include? (Which University UK)  

This site outlines ten things to consider when writing a personal statement, including outlining what you will bring to the course, not what the course will bring to you. 

Supplemental Essays

How to Write Great Supplemental College Essays (IvyWise Newsletter)

Supplemental essays can often be challenging, asking a range of questions from the mundane to the oddly specific. This article from college application site IvyWise will break down example prompts to make them more approachable. 

Write Your Supplemental Essays (College Essay Guy)

Looking for a comprehensive guide to supplemental essays? Look no further than this page provided by the "College Essay Guy," who breaks down how to write supplemental essays that ask different kinds of questions. 

An Awesome Guide to the UChicago Supplement (Dyad)

Dyad, a college mentoring service, walks you through how to approach UChicago's supplemental essay question. Although the article is specific to UChicago, it contains general tips that are helpful to any college applicant. 

Reading My Yale Supplement Essay (YouTube)

Josh Beasley is back in this short YouTube video, where he reads the supplemental essay that got him into Yale and extrapolates advice for current and prospective applicants. 

A college application essay (like any academic essay) should have an introduction, a conclusion, and body paragraphs. Additionally, it should have overall coherence (that is, it should make a point) and cohesion (that is, it should flow well from paragraph to paragraph). We've collected the most relevant resources here to help you structure your college essay correctly and efficiently. 

How to Make Your Essay Stand Out 

College Essays That Stand Out From the Crowd (NYTimes)

This NYTimes article includes links to several recent essays that caught the eyes of the admissions readers by taking risks. You can even listen to an essay being read aloud by a current Princeton student.

50 Successful Ivy League Application Essays (Gen / Kelly Tanabe)  

If you have some time on your hands, this hefty PDF document contains 50 essays from successful Ivy League applicants. After reading these essays, consider what they have in common and how they might be a model for your own essay.

Make Your Application Essay Stand Out (CampusExplorer.com)

In this article from CampusExplorer, you'll find general tips on how to make your essay more appealing to the admissions readers. The writers include general writing tips as well as more targeted advice for the tone and audience of the application essay.

How to Write a College Application Essay that Stands Out (Boston University)

This short video from BU's own admissions department touches briefly on what impresses their admissions readers, including risk-taking, memorable stories, and honesty. 

Essay Structure (Monash University)

This chart from Monash University visually demonstrates how your content should be organized in order to keep your argument or story on track. 

How to Write an Introduction

How to Start a Personal Statement: The Killer Opening (Which University UK)  

Any good introduction both forecasts what your essay will be about and catches the reader's attention. This page will give you some helpful advice on starting your essay with a bang. 

How to Start a College Essay Perfectly (PrepScholar Blog)

This article from PrepScholar shows you how to "hook" your reader at the start of your application essay with colorful language, a vivid story, and an "insightful pivot" to your main point.

Let Me Introduce Myself (Stanford University)

This article from Stanford U's alumni page details the first-line openings of the essays for some current Stanford undergrads. 

Five Ways to NOT Start Your College Application Essays (PowerScore)

In this article, you'll learn five techniques to avoid, as they typically land a college application essay in the "reject" pile; these include beginning with dictionary definitions or famous quotations. 

How to Write a Conclusion 

Ending the Essay: Conclusions (Harvard University)

Harvard's writing center suggests bringing closure to your essay (that is, wrapping up your argument) while still expanding outward to broader applications or insights in your final paragraph.

Concluding Paragraph (Easybib)  

Although you may have used Easybib to make a bibliography before, did you know they have many resources on how to write a good essay? Check out this page for succinct advice on what your conclusion should entail. 

5 Ways to Powerfully End Your College Essay (College Greenlight)

This blog post instructs you to end with action (that is, a story or anecdote) rather than summary, giving you five ways to do this effectively, including addressing the college directly.

How to Write the Best Conclusion for a College Application Essay and Supplement (Koppelman Group)

The Koppelman Group, a college application consulting firm, warns you, above all, not to end "in conclusion" or "to conclude." They also provide targeted advice for the Common App and Supplement essays, respectively. 

No essay is perfect in its first-draft form; college application essays in particular are limited by word counts that can be difficult to meet. Once you've communicated your ideas, you'll want to edit your essay in order to make sure it's the best it can be. You'll also need to cut or add words to make sure it's within the specifications set by the institution. The resources in this section include tips and tricks for revising your college application essay. 

3 Ways to Increase Word Count (WikiHow)

Complete with illustrations, this WikiHow page outlines several ways you might go about substantively expanding your essay. These tips include clarifying points, reworking your introduction and conclusion, adding new viewpoints and examples, and connecting loose threads. 

Admissions 101: What an Essay Word Limit Really Means (Veritas Prep) 

In this blog post, Veritas Prep's college preparation tutors assure you that being a little over or under the limit is acceptable, recommending ways you can think about the word limit's purpose.

College Essay Word Limit - Going Under? (College Confidential) 

In this College Confidential discussion forum, students discuss the possible ramifications of writing under the word limit for a college essay. 

How to Increase Your Essay Word Count (WordCounter)

This article from WordCounter outlines different ways you might go about meeting word count, including addressing different viewpoints, adding examples, and clarifying statements. 

Hitting the Target Word Count in Your College Admissions Essay (Dummies.com)

This article details how to hit the target word count. Scroll down to the middle of the article for advice on where you should cut words from to meet word count. 

Some Tricks to Reduce Word Count (EastAsiaStudent.net)

This article recommends simplifying your style, deleting adverbs, deleting prepositions, and revisiting connectives and adjectives to reduce word count. 

Advice on Whittling Your Admissions Essay (NYTimes) 

In this New York Times article, Andrew Gelb discusses how to go about cutting down your admissions essay in order to meet the requisite word limit.

How to Shorten an Essay Without Ruining the Content (Quora) 

This Quora post from a concerned student yielded useful community responses on how to effectively shorten an essay without losing the original message. 

Feel like you've hit a wall revising your essay on your own? You're not alone, and there are plentiful resources on the web through which you can connect with fellow college applicants and/or professional tutors. The links in this section will take you to free services for improving your college application essay, as well as two of the top paid writing tutor services.

College Confidential Forums 

College Confidential is a free, public forum in which you can post your essay and receive feedback from current college students, current college applicants, and even teachers or other experienced users. 

/r/CollegeEssays (Reddit)

This subreddit is a great place to look for crowdsourced help on your essay, ask questions about college essays, or even find a private tutor. 

Essayforum.com

Essayforum.com provides another platform for students to share their application essays. Although this link takes you to the site's forum for applicants to undergraduate degree programs, you can submit and review essays in other categories as well.  Varsity Tutors

Varisty Tutors offers tutoring services from freelance tutors based on location. Prices and services vary, but their site is easy to use and there are many tutors available to choose from.

Princeton Review

Princeton Review, one of the largest providers of college preparation tutoring (ranging from standardized test preparation to essay help) offers online essay tutoring services with a free trial period. 

Using in-class time to prepare your students to write college application essays is, of course, rewarding, but can also be challenging. If you're a teacher looking to incorporate the college essay into your curriculum but you're not sure where to start, take a look at the useful resources below.

TeachersPayTeachers

College Essay Writing

This product includes material for more than one full lesson plan, including powerpoint presentations, assessments, and homework on the topic of college essays. 

Narrative Writing Ideas and Prompts

Appealing to students 9th grade and up, this product includes lesson plans, handouts, and homework for developing narrative writing for the college essay process. 

College Essay: Comprehensive 7-Session Workshop Series

This PDF includes entire courses, manuals, and handouts designed to teach students the ins and outs of the college essay process, either in an individual or group setting. 

College Essay Revision Forms & Rubrics

These PDFs provide students with visual organizers and rubrics to assess their own writing and learn how to become better college essay writers. 

Free Resources

Teaching the College Essay (Edutopia) 

Teaching your students about writing the college essay can be incredibly intimidating -- as a teacher, how should you approach the process? This article from Edutopia outlines how to go about introducing the college essay to your students. 

Essay Lesson Plan Ideas for College Applications (EssayHell)

If you're a teacher looking for a concrete lesson plan on college essays, this guide recommends using the first day to discuss the importance of the essay, the second day for brainstorming, and so on. Click on the link above to examine their full guide. 

Help Your Students Write a Killer College Essay (EdWeek Blog)

This blog post goes over various techniques designed to help your students choose an appropriate topic and write their essay with passion. 

The Biggest College Essay Mistakes & How to Fix Them (Talks With Teachers)

Looking to help your students avoid the minefield of mistakes in the college essay field? Check out this post from Talks With Teachers, a journal that shares "inspiring ideas for English teachers." 

Curious to read more about college application essays, or to see fun and unusual examples of what students have written? The articles, blog posts, and books in this section are a good place to start surveying the field.

One Over-the-Top Admissions Essay (Huffington Post)

This piece from the Huffington Post talks about a humorous response to a Stanford supplemental essay topic, the so-called "letter to my future roommate."

College & University - Statistics and Facts (Statista.com) 

In the process of writing your college essay, you may find yourself wondering who exactly goes to college, how many colleges there are in the United States, etc. This site gives the up-to-date statistics for various US demographics, both in aggregate and by university, as well as other information.

Who Made That College Application? (NYTimes)

This piece from the NYTimes outlines the history of the college essay from its origins in the 1800s, to the first "modern" college application, produced by Columbia University in 1919, to the present.  

How They Got Into Harvard (Staff of the Harvard Crimson)

This highly-rated collection of successful Harvard application essays, available on Amazon, is both an entertaining read and an instructive resource for anyone looking for exemplary essays to use as models. 

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College Essays

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In many ways, the most labor-intensive part of your college application process is the essay. It’s not just about forwarding transcripts or entering a list of extracurricular activities—you have to craft something personal and compelling to show the admissions committee who you are beyond your resume.

In this article, we’ll go over our 13 best tips for writing college essays. We’ll give tips for every step of the process including planning, writing, and editing your essay, as well as some quick and easy tips to boost any essays you already have written! With these college essay tips, you’ll be that much closer to the best admissions essay ever!

5 Tips for College Essay Planning

Doing a good job planning makes the college essay process that much easier. These five college essay tips will help you get started and pave the way for a great final product.

#1: Make a Plan of Attack for Your Essays

The first thing you’ll need to do is identify all the essays you’ll need to write and their deadlines. It may help you to make a spreadsheet with the essay guidelines for each school, the word count, the prompts, the due date, and any special instructions. This will help you figure out:

How many essays you’ll need to write, and how long those essays need to be.

Whether you can reuse any essays: In general, you can reuse essays for prompts that are about your life, broadly similar in theme, and have a similar word count. You probably can’t reuse essays that are very specific to the college, like “Why This College” essays .

Which essay you should write first: You’ll probably want to start first on the essay with the earliest application deadline. Alternatively, if you have plenty of time or the deadlines are close together, you could start with the longest essay (which will take the most time) or the essay that will be used for the most schools (like a Common Application essay). Do what you feel most comfortable with.

With all this information gathered, you’ll be able to make a plan of attack for your essays and make sure nothing gets lost in the application shuffle. (In fact, I actually advise keeping track of all necessary components of your application in a spreadsheet for the same reason).

#2: Start Early

You want to start writing way before the deadline. If possible, give yourself at least two months, and maybe even more time if you can. This will make sure that you have enough time to adequately plan your essay, draft it, and edit it.  

And, of course, the more essays you have to write, the earlier you should start!

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#3: Choose the Right Topic

Choosing the right topic has two facets: first, choosing the right prompt (if there’s a choice) and second, choosing the right topic to write about for that prompt.

The Right Prompt

If there’s a choice of prompts, you may want to actually start by brainstorming the specific topic or thing in your life that you want to write about, and then reverse-engineer back to the most appropriate prompt. Most college essay prompts are pretty vague, so a broad range of topics and issues can be applied.

You can also use prompts to help you brainstorm if you’re having a hard time figuring out what to write about. Think about the prompt that seems most appealing to you at first. What intrigues you about it? What do you think you could communicate about yourself through that question?

Here’s some tailored guidance on some of the most common college essay prompt types . And if you’re writing a Common Application essay, here’s advice on how to choose the right Common App prompt for you .

The Right Topic

When you’re trying to choose something about your life to write about, consider the following:

What are you excited to write about? A good college essay can be about a wide variety of topics, but it should show that you’re passionate about something. This could be anything from a hobby you have to your favorite book or even your most beloved stuffed animal, just so long as you can make it memorable and positive. Also, your writing will be a lot better if you are writing about something you care about and are interested in!

Whatever you write about should be primarily about you. You should be the focal point. Even if you’re writing about someone who has influenced you, for example, you need to relate it back to yourself. What does this tell admission officers about you?

What makes you stand out? This should be something that goes beyond what’s in the rest of your application. Your test scores and GPA are already there. What really shows something unique about you?

Choose a topic you can be honest about . If you’re not being genuine, it will end up coming through in your writing. So don’t write about how much your membership in Youth Group meant to you if you only went to make your mom happy and you actually didn’t care that much.

In general, you should avoid topics that are overly controversial, like things that are politically charged, doing things that are illegal, or anything involving graphic descriptions of any bodily function. So if you’re going to write about recovering from hip surgery, probably leave out the gory details of you being constipated and your oozy scars.

Check out our 35 brainstorming techniques for college essays for even more help coming up with a topic!

If you’re really stumped, consider asking your friends and family what they think could be good topics. They may help you figure out something memorable and interesting. But also, don’t feel like you have to write about a topic just because someone else thinks it would be great. You need to be genuinely interested in what you’re writing about to write an engaging essay!

#4: Decide on Your Approach

In general, there are two main approaches you might take to write your essay. It might primarily take a narrative format, or it might take a thematic format.

In a narrative format, you’ll be relating a particular anecdote or experience and what it means to you. In a thematic format, you’ll present a particular theme—say, your love of parakeets or your secret talent for balancing books on your head—and expound on that theme in a descriptive way to reveal more about you and your personality.

Sometimes your approach will be determined by the prompt or topic that you choose. For example, if a prompt says to relate a particular event or anecdote, you’ll probably use a narrative approach. By contrast, if you want to write about how your favorite book changed your life, that will probably be a thematic essay.

#5: Write an Outline

Doing a little bit of outlining before you put fingertips to keyboard to write your essay is always a good idea. You don’t necessarily need to make a super-detailed plan before you starting writing, but a general idea of where you are going and the points you want to make will be very helpful when you start drafting. Otherwise, you may find yourself spending a lot of time staring at a blank Word document.

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Yes, good, very detailed essay plan. 

4 Top College Essay Writing Tips

Here are four tips for writing college essays and making sure your work  stands out in a good way:

#6: Use Specific Details

The more details you use, the more your writing will come alive. Try to use words that are vivid and specific, instead of ones that are vague like “nice,” “good,” and so on. This will really flesh out the scene and help the reader picture what’s going on.

So take something like this:

One of my biggest accomplishments in life was teaching my little brother to ride a bicycle. I encouraged him to keep going when he fell down. Now he’s a great cyclist!

To something more like this:

One of my biggest accomplishments in life was teaching my eight-year-old brother to ride the racy red bicycle he got for his birthday. He wanted to give up when he took a tumble and skidded across the sidewalk. But while I bandaged up his knees with Batman band-aids, I convinced him to give it another try. I told him to think about how he would be able to bike all around the neighborhood exploring. Now I smile whenever I see him zooming down our street—wearing his helmet, of course!

See the difference? Wouldn’t you rather read the second one?

#7: Be Genuine

It’s important to get beyond the superficial in your personal statement. You should be writing about something that’s genuinely important or significant to you, so try to get beyond the surface. Instead of writing vague platitudes about how you really like the violin but it’s hard, really get at the meat: did you ever think about quitting? What’s frustrated you the most? What really keeps you going?

This means you shouldn’t try to write about things where it’s too painful to be honest. So if your parents got a divorce last year, it may be too raw to write about, which is perfectly fine. If, however, they got divorced when you were 5 and you can honestly reflect on how it changed your life, go for it.

Of course, you want to be honest in a reasonable and appropriate way. If you overshare, it will make it seem like you have bad judgment or don’t understand social norms—not good impressions to give the admissions committee. So probably don’t write about how much you despise your mother and think she is evil since she had an affair with your school librarian. It’s fine to feel how you feel, but there are some things that are a little too charged to write in your college essay.

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#8: Be Unique, but Not Bizarre

You definitely want your writing to set you apart—but you want it to set you apart in a good way. This means you want high-quality writing about unique experiences and qualities you bring to the table that aren’t covered elsewhere in your application.

This does not mean you should get really avant-garde with your essay formatting. Don’t send in a piece of art instead of an essay, or make a video, or write a poem instead of an essay, unless those things are explicitly allowed.

Similarly, while your essay doesn’t have to be 100% deadly serious in tone, you should be careful with humor. This doesn’t mean absolutely no jokes or tongue-in-cheek moments or that your essay should read like an 18th-century book of sermons. But if your essay relies too much on humor, you’ve got a lot riding on whether or not the person reading your essay “gets” it. They may well be annoyed. So deploy humor carefully and selectively.

#9: Avoid Cliches and Platitudes

The more cliches you use in your writing, the more boring and less insightful your essay will be. Cliches are phrases that are so overused that they are essentially meaningless, and they are likely to make any reader roll their eyes. Phrases like “a dime a dozen,” “outside the box,” “cold as ice,” “dirt cheap,” “flash in the pan,” and so on are frequently deployed in conversation because they convey a common idea quickly. But you don’t want your essay to be common, so avoid cliches. Try to think about how you can communicate the same idea in a more specific and interesting way.

Here’s a list of over 600 cliches . But for the most part, you won’t need a list; you’ll know something is a cliche because you will have heard it a million times already.

You should also avoid platitudes or sweeping generalizations about life. These are statements that are so broad and far-reaching as to be both obvious and completely uninsightful.

So avoid making statements like “And that’s how I learned that hard work pays off,” or “There’s no ‘I’ in team.” You may think you sound sage or wise, but the truth is, platitudes are going to sound immature and poorly-formed to the reader. Similarly, don’t say things that sound like they could come from an inspirational quote account on Instagram. (See, ahem, “You miss 100% of the shots you never take,” “Shoot for the moon,” and so on.)

How do you avoid the platitude problem? Try to keep what you’re saying specific to you. So instead of saying “And that’s how I learned that hard work pays off,” try, “This experience helped me to realize that when I put concentrated effort into something that’s important to me, I can accomplish it even when there are roadblocks.” Keep the focus on what you can and will do in your own life.

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Avoid  trite sayings like this one.

2 Tips for Editing Your College Essay

You may think that once you’ve gotten a draft done that you’re good to go. Not so! Editing is one of the most important parts of writing the best college essay possible, and here are two essential college essay tips for editing.

Tip #10: Ask for Help

It’s always wise to get another set of eyes on your college essays. In fact, several sets of eyes is even better! Other people can help you make sure your essay flows, you have enough detail, that everything is relevant, and that you sound as engaging and interesting as you really are! They can also help you catch typos and other minor errors—although you’ll want to double and triple-check for that yourself before submitting.

Here’s advice on how to ask for help with all parts of the college essay process , including editing.

Tip #11: Be Prepared to Cut a Lot

Brace yourself for cutting up your initial draft into tiny little ribbons and rearranging the remaining pieces Frankenstein-style. A first draft is really just a starting place to get your ideas down before you revamp the entire thing into a more streamlined, better organized, highly polished version. So you have to be ready to let go of pieces of your essay, no matter how much you love a particular turn of phrase or analogy. The ultimate goal is to turn the rough stone of your first draft into a polished and clear piece of writing—and that’s going to take a lot of chipping and sanding!

2 Final Tips for College Essay Success

Here are two quick but essential college essay tips you can implement easily.

Tip #12: Have a Standout First Sentence

One thing you can do to give any essay a boost is to make sure that your first sentence is attention-grabbing. If you can pique the interest of the admissions counselor right away, you’ll help keep their attention throughout your essay.

Here’s our guide to getting that perfect first sentence!

Tip #13: Triple-check for Typos and Errors

The most important quick thing you can do for your essay is to make sure there are no typos or grammatical errors. It will make your essay look sloppy and unfinished, and that’s the last thing you want! College admissions officers expect a polished product, and there’s nothing less polished than misspelled words and comma splices.

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13 College Essay Tips: Key Takeaways for a Great College Essay

To recap, here’s our 13 tips for the best college essay ever:

College Essay Planning Tips:

  • Create a plan of attack for all of your essays so you can keep track of everything.
  • Start early—at least two months before the due date, if not more.
  • Choose the right prompt and topic for you.
  • Decide between a narrative or a thematic approach to the topic.
  • Outline before you start writing!

College Essay Writing Tips:

  • Use vivid, specific details.
  • Be genuine—get beyond the superficial.
  • Be unique, but not bizarre.
  • Avoid cliches and platitudes; they are boring and unimaginative.

College Essay Editing Tips:

  • Get other people to look at your essay.
  • Be prepared to change, cut, and rearrange a lot!

Final Tips for College Essays:

  • Make sure your first sentence is stellar.
  • Triple check for typos and grammatical errors!

What’s Next?

You’ve read our tips for success—now see 10 college essay mistakes to avoid .

Looking for some college essay examples? See 133 essay examples and expert analysis here , along with 11 more places to find great college essay examples .  

Check out our complete guides to ApplyTexas essays , UC Personal Insight questions , and the Common Application essay !

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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the ultimate college application essay

How to Craft a Winning College Application Essay

December 11, 2023

the ultimate college application essay

In the competitive landscape of college admissions, your essay stands as a powerful tool to showcase your uniqueness, personality, and aspirations. Crafting a standout college essay requires a strategic blend of personal narrative, creativity, and clarity to captivate the attention of admissions officers. To help with your journey, we’ve put together a comprehensive guide on how to craft a compelling college essay that will set you apart in the application process.

Understanding the Purpose of Your College Essay

The college essay is more than just another component of your application; it's a chance to go beyond your grades and test scores, allowing admissions officers to glimpse your character, values, and aspirations. It serves as a platform to showcase your voice, experiences, and potential contributions to the college community.

5 Key Components of a Standout Essay:

1. authentic storytelling.

When crafting your essay, it is crucial to delve into the depths of your personal experiences and share a story that is truly your own. Think about those pivotal moments in your life that have shaped you into the person you are today. Perhaps it was a challenging obstacle that you overcame with determination and perseverance, or maybe it was an eye-opening experience that completely transformed your perspective on life. Whatever the case may be, the key is to be authentic and honest in your storytelling. By sharing a unique and genuine narrative, you have the power to captivate the admissions officers and leave a lasting impression. Whether it's a heartwarming tale of triumph or a thought-provoking reflection on a personal struggle, authenticity is what will resonate with admissions officers the most.

In a world saturated with generic essays, it is those that stand out for their authenticity and honesty that truly leave a lasting impact. So, as you embark on your essay writing journey, remember to dig deep into your personal experiences and tell a story that is uniquely yours. 

2. Clear and Cohesive Structure

When it comes to crafting a standout college essay, one of the key components is a compelling introduction that immediately grabs the attention of the admissions officer. Your introduction should leave them wanting to read more, eager to dive into the story you are about to tell. Whether it's a captivating anecdote, a thought-provoking question, or a powerful statement, your introduction should set the tone for the rest of your essay and make the reader excited to continue.

Once you have successfully hooked the admissions officer with your introduction, develop your story in a logical and coherent manner. Your essay should have a clear beginning, middle, and end, allowing the reader to follow along easily and understand the progression of your thoughts and ideas. Each paragraph should flow seamlessly into the next, guiding the reader through your essay with ease. Transitions between paragraphs are crucial in maintaining the overall cohesiveness of your essay. They serve as bridges between different ideas, ensuring a smooth flow and preventing your essay from feeling disjointed or fragmented. Effective transitions allow your essay to read like a cohesive whole rather than a collection of individual paragraphs. By mastering these key components, you can create an essay that leaves a lasting impression on the reader and increases your chances of standing out among other applicants.

3. Show, Don't Just Tell

Use descriptive language and vivid details to paint a picture for the reader. Engage their senses to make your experiences come alive. When crafting your essay, it's essential to go beyond simply telling the admissions officer about your experiences; you must show them through sensory details that allow the reader to fully immerse themselves in your story. Incorporating sensory details can help evoke emotions and create a deeper connection between the reader and your experiences. 

By engaging the reader's senses, you make your experiences more relatable and memorable. You allow the admissions officer to not only understand your story but also experience it alongside you. This not only enhances the overall quality of your essay but also helps you stand out among other applicants who may only provide a surface-level description of their experiences.

4. Reflective Insight

When reflecting on your experiences in your essay, it is important to not only share what happened but also delve into why it mattered. This allows the admissions officer to gain a deeper understanding of the impact your experiences had on you and how they shaped your character.

To effectively reflect on the significance of your experiences, consider the lessons you learned, the personal growth you experienced, or the perspectives that were changed as a result. For example, if you write about a challenging situation you faced, such as overcoming a fear of public speaking, you can reflect on the valuable lessons you learned about facing your fears and the personal growth that came from pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. Additionally, you can discuss how this experience changed your perspective on the power of perseverance and the importance of taking risks.

Reflecting on the "why" behind your experiences adds depth and meaning to your essay. It shows the admissions officer that you are not just recounting events, but actively thinking about the impact they had on your life. This level of introspection demonstrates maturity and self-awareness, which are highly valued qualities in college admissions.

By sharing the lessons learned, personal growth, or changed perspectives resulting from your experiences, you provide the admissions officer with valuable insights into who you are as a person and what you can bring to their university community. Your ability to reflect on the significance of your experiences will set you apart from other applicants and make your essay truly standout.

5. Concise and Focused Writing

In addition to being mindful of word count, it is essential to ensure that every sentence in your essay contributes meaningfully to your narrative. Each sentence should serve a purpose and add value to your overall message. By carefully selecting and crafting your sentences, you can create a more impactful and engaging essay.

When editing your essay, be ruthless in your pursuit of clarity and precision. Remove any unnecessary words or phrases that do not contribute to the overall meaning of your essay. Trim down sentences that may be too long or convoluted to ensure that your ideas are communicated effectively. By eliminating any extraneous or redundant information, you can make your writing more concise and focused.

Furthermore, editing for clarity involves ensuring that your ideas are expressed in a straightforward and easily understandable manner. Avoid using overly complex or technical language that may confuse the reader. Instead, opt for clear and concise language that conveys your message directly. Additionally, pay attention to the structure of your sentences and paragraphs to ensure that your ideas flow smoothly and logically.

Precision is also crucial in editing your essay. Use precise and specific language to convey your ideas accurately. Avoid vague or ambiguous statements that may leave the reader confused or unsure of your meaning. Instead, choose words that are clear and specific, allowing your message to be understood with precision.

By being mindful of word count, ensuring that every sentence contributes meaningfully, and editing ruthlessly for clarity and precision, you can create a more polished and impactful essay. This attention to detail and focus on concise and focused writing will help you stand out among other applicants and leave a lasting impression on the admissions officer.

Tips for Crafting Your College Essay:

  • Start Early and Revise: Begin brainstorming and drafting your essay well in advance. Revise multiple times to refine your ideas and language.
  • Know Your Audience: Research the college and understand its values, mission, and culture. Tailor your essay to align with what the institution seeks in its students.
  • Be Authentic: Write in your own voice. Avoid clichés or trying to sound like someone else. Admissions officers want to get to know the real you.
  • Seek Feedback: Share your essay with trusted mentors, teachers, or counselors for constructive feedback. Use their insights to improve your essay.

Gain a Competitive Edge With the Help of the Best College Admissions Experts 

Crafting a standout college essay is an opportunity to leave a lasting impression on admissions officers. By weaving a compelling narrative that reflects your personality, experiences, and aspirations, you can set yourself apart in a crowded field of applicants. Embrace your uniqueness, tell your story authentically, and let your essay be the key that unlocks the door to your academic future. Remember, the college essay is not just about getting accepted; it's about finding the best fit for you and showcasing what you bring to the table. Best of luck in your writing journey!

If you are looking for a college admissions counselor to help maximize your chances of getting into your dream school, we can help! InGenius Prep has helped more than 6,000 students around the world gain admission into the most competitive schools including Harvard, Yale, MIT, Johns Hopkins, Cornell, NYU, and more. Sign up for a free strategy call today and join the 6,000+ students we've helped get accepted into their dream schools. 

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21 Stellar Common App Essay Examples to Inspire Your College Essay

What’s covered:, what makes a good common app essay, is your common app essay strong enough.

When you begin writing your Common App essay, having an example to look at can help you understand how to effectively write your college essay so that it stands apart from others. 

These Common App essay examples demonstrate a strong writing ability and answer the prompt in a way that shows admissions officers something unique about the student. Once you’ve read some examples and are ready to get started, read our step-by-step guide for how to write a strong Common App essay.  

Please note: 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. 

Read our Common App essay breakdown to get a comprehensive overview of this year’s supplemental prompts.

It’s Personal

The point of the Common App essay is to humanize yourself to a college admissions committee. The ultimate goal is to get them to choose you over someone else! You will have a better chance of achieving this goal if the admissions committee feels personally connected to you or invested in your story. When writing your Common App essay, you should explore your feelings, worldview, values, desires, and anything else that makes you uniquely you.

It’s Not Cliché

It is pretty easy to resort to clichés in college essays. This should be actively avoided! CollegeVine has identified the immigrant’s journey, sports injuries, and overcoming a challenging course as cliché topics . If you write about one of these topics, you have to work harder to stand out, so working with a more nuanced topic is often safer and easier.

It’s Well-Done

Colleges want good writers. They want students who can articulate their thoughts clearly and concisely (and creatively!). You should be writing and rewriting your essays, perfecting them as you go. Of course, make sure that your grammar and spelling are impeccable, but also put in time crafting your tone and finding your voice. This will also make your essay more personal and will make your reader feel more connected to you!

It’s Cohesive

Compelling Common App essays tell a cohesive story. Cohesion is primarily achieved through effective introductions and conclusions , which often contribute to the establishment of a clear theme or topic. Make sure that it is clear what you are getting at, but also don’t explicitly state what you are getting at—a successful essay speaks for itself.

Common App Essay Examples

Here are the current Common App prompts. Click the links to jump to the examples for a specific prompt, or keep reading to review the examples for all the prompts.

Prompt #1 :  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.

Prompt #2 :  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?

Prompt #3 :  Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

Prompt #4 : 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? (NOTE: We only have an example for the old prompt #4 about solving a problem, not this current one)

Prompt #5 :  Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Prompt #6 :  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?

Prompt #7 :  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.

Note: Names have been changed to protect the identity of the author and subjects.

Prompt #1: 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.

Prompt #1, example #1.

The room was silent except for the thoughts racing through my head. I led a spade from my hand and my opponent paused for a second, then played a heart. The numbers ran through my mind as I tried to consider every combination, calculating my next move. Finally, I played the ace of spades from the dummy and the rest of my clubs, securing the contract and 620 points when my partner ruffed at trick five. Next board.

It was the final of the 2015 United States Bridge Federation Under-26 Women’s Championship. The winning team would be selected to represent the United States in the world championship and my team was still in the running.

Contract bridge is a strategic and stochastic card game. Players from around the world gather at local clubs, regional events, and, in this case, national tournaments.

Going into the tournament, my team was excited; all the hours we had put into the game, from the lengthy midnight Skype sessions spent discussing boards to the coffee shop meetings spent memorizing conventions together, were about to pay off.

Halfway through, our spirits were still high, as we were only down by fourteen international match points which, out of the final total of about four hundred points, was virtually nothing and it was very feasible to catch up. Our excitement was short-lived, however, as sixty boards later, we found that we had lost the match and would not be chosen as the national team.

Initially, we were devastated. We had come so close and it seemed as if all the hours we had devoted to training had been utterly wasted. Yet as our team spent some time together reflecting upon the results, we gradually realized that the true value that we had gained wasn’t only the prospect of winning the national title, but also the time we had spent together exploring our shared passion. I chatted with the winning team and even befriended a few of them who offered us encouragement and advice.

Throughout my bridge career, although I’ve gained a respectable amount of masterpoints and awards, I’ve realized that the real reward comes from the extraordinary people I have met. I don’t need to travel cross-country to learn; every time I sit down at a table whether it be during a simple club game, a regional tournament or a national event, I find I’m always learning. 

I nod at the pair that’s always yelling at each other. They teach me the importance of sportsmanship and forgiveness.

I greet the legally blind man who can defeat most of the seeing players. He reminds me not to make excuses.

I chat with the friendly, elderly couple who, at ages ninety and ninety-two, have just gotten married two weeks ago. They teach me that it’s never too late to start anything.

I talk to the boy who’s attending Harvard and the girl who forewent college to start her own company. They show me that there is more than one path to success.

I congratulate the little kid running to his dad, excited to have won his very first masterpoints. He reminds me of the thrill of every first time and to never stop trying new things.

Just as much as I have benefitted from these life lessons, I aspire to give back to my bridge community as much as it has given me. I aspire to teach people how to play this complicated yet equally as exciting game. I aspire to never stop improving myself, both at and away from the bridge table.

Bridge has given me my roots and dared me to dream. What started as merely a hobby has become a community, a passion, a part of my identity. I aspire to live selflessly and help others reach their goals. I seek to take risks, embrace all results, even failure, and live unfettered from my own doubt.

This student draws readers in with a strong introduction. The essay starts ambiguous—“I led with a spade”—then intrigues readers by gradually revealing more information and details. This makes the reader want to keep reading (which is super important!) As the writer continues, there is a rather abrupt tone shift from suspenseful to explanatory with statements like “It was the final of the 2015 United States Bridge Federation Under-26 Women’s Championship” and “Contract bridge is a strategic and stochastic card game.” If you plan to start with an imagery-heavy, emotional, suspenseful, or dramatic introduction, you will need to transition to the content of your essay in a way that does not feel abrupt. 

You will often hear that essays need to “show, not tell.” This essay actually does both. First, the student tells readers the importance of bridge, saying “we gradually realized that the true value that we had gained wasn’t only the prospect of winning the national title, but also the time we had spent together exploring our shared passion” and “I’ve realized that the real reward comes from the extraordinary people I have met.” Then, the student shows the lessons they have learned from bridge through a series of parallel sentences: “I nod… sportsmanship and forgiveness” “I greet… not to make excuses” “I chat… it’s never too late to start anything” and so on. This latter strategy is much more effective than the former and is watered down because the student has already told us what we are supposed to get out of these sentences. Remember that your readers are intelligent and can draw their own conclusions. Avoid summarizing the moral of your story for them!

Overall, this essay is interesting and answers the prompt. We learn the importance of bridge to this student. The student has a solid grasp of language, a high-level vocabulary, and a valuable message, though they would be better off if they avoided summarizing their point and created more seamless transitions. 

Prompt #1, Example #2

Growing up, I always wanted to eat, play, visit, watch, and be it all: sloppy joes and spaetzle, Beanie Babies and Steiff, Cape Cod and the Baltic Sea, football and fussball, American and German.

My American parents relocated our young family to Berlin when I was three years old. My exposure to America was limited to holidays spent stateside and awfully dubbed Disney Channel broadcasts. As the few memories I had of living in the US faded, my affinity for Germany grew. I began to identify as “Germerican,” an ideal marriage of the two cultures. As a child, I viewed my biculturalism as a blessing. I possessed a native fluency in “Denglisch” and my family’s Halloween parties were legendary at a time when the holiday was just starting to gain popularity outside of the American Sector.

Insidiously, the magic I once felt in loving two homes was replaced by a deep-­rooted sense of rootlessness. I stopped feeling American when, while discussing World War II with my grandmother, I said “the US won.” She corrected me, insisting I use “we” when referring to the US’s actions. Before then, I hadn’t realized how directly people associated themselves with their countries. I stopped feeling German during the World Cup when my friends labeled me a “bandwagon fan” for rooting for Germany. Until that moment, my cheers had felt sincere. I wasn’t part of the “we” who won World Wars or World Cups. Caught in a twilight of foreign and familiar, I felt emotionally and psychologically disconnected from the two cultures most familiar to me.

After moving from Berlin to New York at age fifteen, my feelings of cultural homelessness thrived in my new environment. Looking and sounding American furthered my feelings of dislocation. Border patrol agents, teachers, classmates, neighbors, and relatives all “welcomed me home” to a land they could not understand was foreign to me. Americans confused me as I relied on Urban Dictionary to understand my peers, the Pledge of Allegiance seemed nationalistic, and the only thing familiar about Fahrenheit was the German after whom it was named. Too German for America and too American for Germany, I felt alienated from both. I wanted desperately to be a member of one, if not both, cultures.

During my first weeks in Scarsdale, I spent my free time googling “Berlin Family Seeks Teen” and “New Americans in Scarsdale.” The latter search proved most fruitful: I discovered Horizons, a nonprofit that empowers resettled refugees, or “New Americans,” to thrive. I started volunteering with Horizon’s children’s programs, playing with and tutoring young refugees.

It was there that I met Emily, a twelve­-year-­old Iraqi girl who lived next to Horizons. In between games and snacks, Emily would ask me questions about American life, touching on everything from Halloween to President Obama. Gradually, my confidence in my American identity grew as I recognized my ability to answer most of her questions. American culture was no longer completely foreign to me. I found myself especially qualified to work with young refugees; my experience growing up in a country other than that of my parents’ was similar enough to that of the refugee children Horizons served that I could empathize with them and offer advice. Together, we worked through conflicting allegiances, homesickness, and stretched belonging.

Forging a special, personal bond with young refugees proved a cathartic outlet for my insecurities as it taught me to value my past. My transculturalism allowed me to help young refugees integrate into American life, and, in doing so, I was able to adjust myself. Now, I have an appreciation of myself that I never felt before. “Home” isn’t the digits in a passport or ZIP code but a sense of contentedness. By helping a young refugee find comfort, happiness, and home in America, I was finally able to find those same things for myself.

Due to their endearing (and creative) use of language—with early phrases like “sloppy joes and spaetzle” as well as  “Germerican” and “Denglisch”—readers are inclined to like this writer from the get-go. Though the essay shifts from this lighthearted introduction to more serious subject matter around the third paragraph, the shift is not abrupt or jarring. This is because the student invites readers to feel the transition with them through their inclusion of various anecdotes that inspired their “feelings of cultural homelessness.” And our journey does not end there—we go back to America with the student and see how their former struggles become strengths.

Ultimately, this essay is successful due to its satisfying ending. Because readers experience the student’s struggles with them, we also feel the resolution. The conclusion of this essay is a prime example of the “Same, but Different” technique described in our article on How to End Your College Essay . As the student describes how, in the end, their complicated cultural identity still exists but transitions to a source of strength, readers are left feeling happy for the student. This means that they have formed a connection with the student, which is the ultimate goal!

Prompt #1, Example #3

“1…2…3…4 pirouettes ! New record!” My friends cheered as I landed my turns. Pleased with my progress, I gazed down at my worn-out pointe shoes. The sweltering blisters, numbing ice-baths, and draining late-night practices did not seem so bad after all. Next goal: five turns.

For as long as I can remember, ballet, in all its finesse and glamor, had kept me driven day to day. As a child, the lithe ballerinas, donning ethereal costumes as they floated across the stage, were my motivation. While others admired Messi and Adele, I idolized Carlos Acosta, principal dancer of the Royal Ballet. 

As I devoted more time and energy towards my craft, I became obsessed with improving my technique. I would stretch for hours after class, forcing my leg one inch higher in an effort to mirror the Dance Magazine cover girls . I injured my feet and ruined pair after pair of pointe shoes, turning on wood, cement, and even grass to improve my balance as I spun. At competitions, the dancers with the 180-degree leg extensions, endless turns, and soaring leaps—the ones who received “Bravos!” from the roaring audience—further pushed me to refine my skills and perfect my form. I believed that, with enough determination, I would one day attain their level of perfection. Reaching the quadruple- pirouette milestone only intensified my desire to accomplish even more. 

My efforts seemed to have come to fruition two summers ago when I was accepted to dance with Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet at their renowned New York City summer intensive. I walked into my first session eager to learn from distinguished ballet masters and worldly dancers, already anticipating my improvement. Yet, as I danced alongside the accomplished ballerinas, I felt out of place. Despite their clean technique and professional training, they did not aim for glorious leg extensions or prodigious leaps. When they performed their turn combinations, most of them only executed two turns as I attempted four. 

“Dancers, double- pirouettes only.” 

Taken aback and confused, I wondered why our teacher expected so little from us. The other ballerinas seemed content, gracing the studio with their simple movements. 

As I grew closer with my Moscow roommates, I gradually learned that their training emphasized the history of the art form instead of stylistic tricks. Rather than show off their physical ability, their performances aimed to convey a story, one that embodied the rich culture of ballet and captured both the legacy of the dancers before them and their own artistry. As I observed my friends more intently in repertoire class, I felt the pain of the grief-stricken white swan from Swan Lake , the sass of the flirtatious Kitri from Don Quijote, and I gradually saw what I had overlooked before. My definition of talent had been molded by crowd-pleasing elements—whirring pirouettes , gravity-defying leaps, and mind-blowing leg extensions. This mindset slowly stripped me from the roots of my passion and my personal connection with ballet. 

With the Bolshoi, I learned to step back and explore the meaning behind each step and the people behind the scenes. Ballet carries history in its movements, from the societal values of the era to each choreographer’s unique flair. As I uncovered the messages behind each pirouette, kick, and jump, my appreciation for ballet grew beyond my obsession with raw athleticism and developed into a love for the art form’s emotive abilities in bridging the dancers with the audience. My journey as an artist has allowed me to see how technical execution is only the means to a greater understanding between dancer and spectator, between storyteller and listener. The elegance and complexity of ballet does not revolve around astonishing stunts but rather the evocative strength and artistry manifested in the dancer, in me. It is the combination of sentiments, history, tradition, and passion that has allowed ballet and its lessons of human connection to become my lifestyle both on and off stage.

The primary strength of this essay is the honesty and authenticity of the student’s writing. It is purposefully reflective. Intentional language creates a clear character arc that begins with an eager young ballerina and ends with the student reflecting on their past. 

Readers are easily able to picture the passion and intensity of the young dancer through the writer’s engagement with words like “obsessed,” “forcing,” and “ruined” in the second paragraph. Then, we see how intensity becomes pride as they “wondered why our teacher expected so little from us.” And ultimately, we see the writer humbled as they are exposed to the deeper meaning behind what they have worked so hard for. This arc is outstanding, and the student’s musings about ballet in the concl usion position them as vulnerable and reflective (and thus, appealing to admissions officers!)

The main weakness of this essay (though this is a stellar essay) is its formulaic beginning. While dialogue can be an effective tool for starting your essay, this student’s introduction feels a bit stilted as the dialogue does not match the overall reflective tone of the essay. Perhaps, in place of “Next goal: five turns,” the student could have posed a question or foreshadowed the growth they ultimately describe.

Prompt #1, Example #4

My paintbrush dragged a flurry of acrylic, the rich colors attaching to each groove in my canvas’s texture. The feeling was euphoric.

From a young age, painting has been my solace. Between the stress of my packed high school days filled with classes and extracurriculars, the glide of my paintbrush was my emotional outlet.

I opened a fresh canvas and began. The amalgamation of assorted colors in my palette melded harmoniously: dark and light, cool and warm, brilliant and dull. They conjoined, forming shades and surfaces sharp, smooth, and ridged. The textures of my paint strokes — powdery, glossy, jagged — gave my painting a tone, as if it had a voice of its own, sometimes shrieking, sometimes whispering.

Rough indigo blue. The repetitive upward pulls of my brush formed layers on my canvas. Staring into the deep blue, I felt transported to the bottom of the pool I swim in daily. I looked upward to see a layer of dense water between myself and the person I aspire to be, an ideal blurred by filmy ripples. Rough blue encapsulates my amorphous, conflicting identity, catalyzed by words spewed by my peers about my “oily hair” and “smelly food”. They caused my ever present disdain toward cultural assemblies; the lehenga I wore felt burdensome. My identity quivers like the indigo storm I painted — a duel between my self-deprecating, validation-seeking self, and the proud self I desire to be. My haphazard paint strokes released my internal turbulence.

Smooth orange-hued green. I laid the color in melodious strokes, forming my figure. The warmer green transitions from the rough blue — while they share elements, they also diverge. My firm brushstrokes felt like the way I felt on my first day as a media intern at KBOO, my local volunteer-driven radio station, committed to the voices of the marginalized. As a naturally introverted speaker, I was forced out of my comfort zone when tasked with documenting a KBOO art exhibition for social media, speaking with hosts to share their diverse, underrepresented backgrounds and inspirations. A rhythmic green strength soon shoved me past internal blue turbulence. My communication skills which were built by two years of Speech and Debate unleashed — I recognized that making a social change through media required amplifying unique voices and perspectives, both my own and others. The powerful green strokes that fill my canvas entrench my growth.

Bright, voluminous coral, hinted with magenta and yellow. I dabbed the color over my figure, giving my painting dimension. The paint, speckled, added depth on every inch it coated. As I moved the color in random but purposeful movements, the vitality ushered into my painting brought a smile across my face. It reminded me of the encounters I had with my cubicle-mate in my sophomore year academic autism research internship, seemingly insignificant moments in my lifelong journey that, in retrospect, wove unique threads into my tapestry. The kindness she brought into work inspired my compassion, while her stories of struggling with ADHD in the workplace bolstered my empathy towards different experiences. Our conversations added blobs of a nonuniform bright color in my painting, binding a new perspective in me.

I added in my final strokes, each contributing an element to my piece. As I scanned my canvas, I observed these elements. Detail added nuance into smaller pictures; they embodied complexities within color, texture, and hue, each individually delivering a narrative. But together, they formed a piece of art— art that could be interpreted as a whole or broken apart but still delivering as a means of communication.

I find beauty in media because of this. I can adapt a complex narrative to be deliverable, each component telling a story. Appreciating these nuances — the light, dark, smooth, and rough — has cultivated my growth mindset. My life-long painting never finishes. It is ever-expanding, absorbing the novel textures and colors I encounter daily.

This essay is distinct from others due to its melodic, lyrical form. This is primarily achieved because the student’s form follows the movements of the paintbrush that they use to scaffold their essay. As readers, we simply flow through the essay, occasionally picking up bits of information about its creator. Without even realizing it, by the end of the essay, admissions officers will know that this student is a swimmer, was in Speech and Debate, is Indian, and has had multiple internships.

A major strength of this essay is the command of language that the student demonstrates. This essay was not simply written, it was crafted. Universities are, of course, interested in the talents, goals, and interests of applicants, but an essay being well-written can be equally important. Writing skills are important because your reader will not learn about your talents, goals, and interests if they aren’t engaged in your essay, but they are also important because admissions officers know that being able to articulate your thoughts is important for success in all future careers.

While this essay is well-written, there are a few moments where it falls out of the flow and feels more like a student advertising their successes. For example, the phrases “media intern at KBOO” and “autism research internship” work better on a resume than they do in this essay. Admissions officers have a copy of your resume and can check your internship experiences after reading your essay! If you are going to use a unique writing style or narrative form, lean into it; don’t try to hybridize it with the standard college essay form. Your boldness will be attractive to admissions officers.

the ultimate college application essay

Readers are easily able to picture the passion and intensity of the young dancer through the writer’s engagement with words like “obsessed,” “forcing,” and “ruined” in the second paragraph. Then, we see how intensity becomes pride as they “wondered why our teacher expected so little from us.” And ultimately, we see the writer humbled as they are exposed to the deeper meaning behind what they have worked so hard for. This arc is outstanding, and the student’s musings about ballet in the conclusion position them as vulnerable and reflective (and thus, appealing to admissions officers!)

Prompt #2: 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?

Prompt #2, example #1.

“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 is a prime example that you don’t have to have fabulous imagery or flowery prose to write a successful Common App 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.

The only part of this essay that could use a bit of work is the introduction. A short introduction can be effective, but this short first paragraph feels thrown in at the last minute and like it is missing its second half. If you are keeping your introduction short, make it matter.

Prompt #2, Example #2

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.

This Common App essay is well-written. The student is showing the admissions officers their ability to articulate their 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, 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 their 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?” feels perfectly justified after they establish that they were pondering their failure.

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

Prompt #2, Example #3

The muffled voices behind thin walls heralded trouble.

They were fighting about money.

It wasn’t the first time this had happened and it wasn’t going to be the last. It was one of those countless nights I had to spend curled up under the blanket while pretending to be asleep. My father had been unemployed for five years now, and my mother, a local kindergarten teacher, was struggling to support the family alone. Our situation was bleak: Savings had run out and my parents could no longer hide our lack of money from me. To make matters worse, I was a few weeks away from starting high school, which would inevitably lead to college, yet another financial stressor for my family.

The argument didn’t sound like it would end soon.

“Why did you spend money on that?” my mother said, with an elongated sigh.

“I had to,” my father said, decidedly.

Every fight over the years had left me in despair and the idea of going through another fight daunted me. I had looked forward to my teen years all my life, an age that allows, for the first time, more responsibility. Indeed, after this fateful night, after my fourteenth birthday, I felt a mounting responsibility to help my family, and started brainstorming.

Always being fascinated by computers, I spent my childhood burying myself under computer cabinets, experimenting with computer parts. Naturally, I wondered if my skills in this area might be marketable.

The next morning, my friend, Naba, mentioned that her computer wasn’t working. A tuk-tuk ride later, and I was at her doorstep, and her mother was leading me to her room. I was off to work: I began examining her computer, like a surgeon carefully manages his scalpels and tools. A proper diagnosis was not far from reach, as I realized a broken pin in her computer’s SATA slot. After an hour of work, and a short trip to the hardware store, I successfully fixed the computer. To my pleasant surprise, Naba’s mother drew out two fresh 500 Rupee notes. One covered the cost of the parts I bought and the other was a token of appreciation. Bidding her goodbye, I went straight back home and put one of the 500 Rupee notes inside my family’s “savings-jar.”

Later that day, I devised a plan. I told my friends to spread the word that I was available to fix computers. At first, I got only one or two calls per week. I would pick up the computer from my client’s home, fix it quickly, and return it, thus earning myself a commission. While I couldn’t market my services at a competitive price, because I wasn’t able to buy the parts wholesale, I compensated by providing convenience. All my clients had to do was call me once and the rest was taken care of. Thus, my business had the best customer service in town.

At the beginning of my junior year, after two years of expanding my business through various avenues, I started buying computer parts from hardware suppliers in bulk at a cheaper rate. My business grew exponentially after that. 

Before long, I was my town’s go-to tech person. In this journey throughout high school, I started realizing that I had to create my own opportunities and not just curl up under a blanket, seeking only comfort, as I used to. Interacting with people from all walks of life became my forte and a sense of work ethic developed in me. My business required me to be an all-rounder– have the technical skills, be an easily approachable person, and manage cash flow. Slowly becoming better at this, I even managed to sway admins of a local institution to outsource their computer hardware purchases and repairs through me. As my business upsized throughout the years, I went from being helpless to autonomous – the teenager I always aspired to be.

This essay truly feels like a story—almost making you forget you are reading a college essay. The student’s voice is strong throughout the entire essay and they are able to give us insight into their thoughts, feelings, and motivations at every step of the story. Letting the reader into personal challenges like financial struggles can be daunting in a college essay, but the way this student used that setback to establish an emotional ethos to their narrative was well done.

Because the essay is essentially just telling a story, there’s a very natural flow that makes it enjoyable and easy to read. The student establishes the conflict at the beginning, then describes their solution and how they implemented it, and finally concludes with the lessons they took away from this experience. Transitions at the beginning of paragraphs effortlessly show the passage of time and how the student has progressed through the story.

Another reason this essay is so successful is because of the abundance of details. The reader truly feels like they are hiding in the room with the student as their parents yell because of the inclusion of quotes from the argument. We understand the precision and care they have for fixing computers because of the allusion to a surgeon with their scalpel. Not only does this imagery make the story more enticing, it also helps the reader gain a deeper appreciation for the type of person this student is and the adversity they have overcome.

If there were one thing this essay could do to improve, it would be to include a resolution to the conflict from the beginning. The student tells us how this business helped them grow as a person, but we don’t ever get to find out if they were able to lessen the financial burden on their parents or if they continued to struggle despite the student working hard. It doesn’t have to be a happy ending, but it would be nice to return to the conflict and acknowledge the effect they had on it, especially since this prompt is all about facing challenges.

Prompt #3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

Prompt #3, example #1.

When I was younger, I was adamant that no two foods on my plate touch. As a result, I often used a second plate to prevent such an atrocity. In many ways, I learned to separate different things this way from my older brothers, Nate and Rob. Growing up, I idolized both of them. Nate was a performer, and I insisted on arriving early to his shows to secure front row seats, refusing to budge during intermission for fear of missing anything. Rob was a three-sport athlete, and I attended his games religiously, waving worn-out foam cougar paws and cheering until my voice was hoarse. My brothers were my role models. However, while each was talented, neither was interested in the other’s passion. To me, they represented two contrasting ideals of what I could become: artist or athlete. I believed I had to choose.

And for a long time, I chose athlete. I played soccer, basketball, and lacrosse and viewed myself exclusively as an athlete, believing the arts were not for me. I conveniently overlooked that since the age of five, I had been composing stories for my family for Christmas, gifts that were as much for me as them, as I loved writing. So when in tenth grade, I had the option of taking a creative writing class, I was faced with a question: could I be an athlete and a writer? After much debate, I enrolled in the class, feeling both apprehensive and excited. When I arrived on the first day of school, my teacher, Ms. Jenkins, asked us to write down our expectations for the class. After a few minutes, eraser shavings stubbornly sunbathing on my now-smudged paper, I finally wrote, “I do not expect to become a published writer from this class. I just want this to be a place where I can write freely.”

Although the purpose of the class never changed for me, on the third “submission day,” – our time to submit writing to upcoming contests and literary magazines – I faced a predicament. For the first two submission days, I had passed the time editing earlier pieces, eventually (pretty quickly) resorting to screen snake when hopelessness made the words look like hieroglyphics. I must not have been as subtle as I thought, as on the third of these days, Ms. Jenkins approached me. After shifting from excuse to excuse as to why I did not submit my writing, I finally recognized the real reason I had withheld my work: I was scared. I did not want to be different, and I did not want to challenge not only others’ perceptions of me, but also my own. I yielded to Ms. Jenkin’s pleas and sent one of my pieces to an upcoming contest.

By the time the letter came, I had already forgotten about the contest. When the flimsy white envelope arrived in the mail, I was shocked and ecstatic to learn that I had received 2nd place in a nationwide writing competition. The next morning, however, I discovered Ms. Jenkins would make an announcement to the whole school exposing me as a poet. I decided to own this identity and embrace my friends’ jokes and playful digs, and over time, they have learned to accept and respect this part of me. I have since seen more boys at my school identifying themselves as writers or artists.

I no longer see myself as an athlete and a poet independently, but rather I see these two aspects forming a single inseparable identity – me. Despite their apparent differences, these two disciplines are quite similar, as each requires creativity and devotion. I am still a poet when I am lacing up my cleats for soccer practice and still an athlete when I am building metaphors in the back of my mind – and I have realized ice cream and gummy bears taste pretty good together.

This essay is cohesive as it centers around the theme of identity and the ability for two identities to coexist simultaneously (an interesting theme!). It uses the Full Circle ending strategy as it starts with a metaphor about food touching and ends with “I have realized ice cream and gummy bears taste pretty good together.”

The main issue with this essay is that it could come off as cliché, which could be irritating for admissions officers. The story described is notably similar to High School Musical (“I decided to own this identity and embrace my friends’ jokes and playful digs, and over time, they have learned to accept and respect this part of me”) and feels slightly overstated. 

At times, this essay is also confusing. In the first paragraph, it feels like the narrative is actually going to be about separating your food (and is somehow going to relate to the older brothers?). It is not entirely clear that this is a metaphor. Also, when the writer references the third submission day and then works backward to explain what a submission day is and that there are multiple throughout the semester, the timeline gets unnecessarily confusing. Reworking the way this paragraph unfolded would have been more compelling and less distracting.

Overall, this essay was interesting but could have been more polished to be more effective.

Prompt #3, Example #2

I walked into my middle school English class, and noticed a stranger behind my teacher’s desk. “Hello,” she said. “Today I will be your substitute teacher.” I groaned internally. “Let me start off by calling roll. Ally?” “Here!” exclaimed Ally. “Jack?” “Here.” “Rachel?” “Here.” “Freddie?” “Present.” And then– “…?” The awkward pause was my cue. “It’s Jasina,” I started. “You can just call me Jas. Here.” “Oh, Jasina. That’s unique.” The word “unique” made me cringe. I slumped back in my seat. The substitute continued calling roll, and class continued as if nothing had happened. Nothing had happened. Just a typical moment in a middle school, but I hated every second of it.

My name is not impossible to pronounce. It appears challenging initially, but once you hear it, “Jas-een-a”, then you can manage it. My nickname, Jas (pronounced “Jazz”), is what most people call me anyway, so I don’t have to deal with mispronunciation often. I am thankful that my parents named me Jasina (a Hebrew name), but whenever someone hears my name for the first time, they comment, and I assume they’re making assumptions about me. “Wow, Jas is a cool name.” She must be pretty cool.“I’ve never heard the name Jasina before.” She must be from somewhere exotic. “Jas, like Jazz?” She must be musical and artsy. None of these assumptions are bad, but they all add up to the same thing: She must be unique. 

When I was little, these sentiments felt more like commands than assumptions. I thought I had to be the most unique child of all time, which was a daunting task, but I tried. I was the only kid in the second grade to color the sun red. I knew it was really yellow, but you could always tell which drawings were mine. During snack time, we could choose between apple juice and grape juice. I liked apple juice more, but if everyone else was choosing apple, then I had to choose grape. This was how I lived my life, and it was exhausting. I tried to continue this habit into middle school, but it backfired. When everyone became obsessed with things like skinny jeans and Justin Bieber and blue mascara (that was a weird trend), my resistance of the norm made me socially awkward. I couldn’t talk to people about anything because we had nothing in common. I was too different. 

After 8th grade, I moved to Georgia, and I was dreading being the odd one out among kids who had grown up together. Then I discovered that my freshman year would be Cambridge High School’s inaugural year. Since there were students coming in from 5 different schools, there was no real sense of “normal”. I panicked. If there was no normal, then how could I be unique? That’s when I realized that I had spent so much energy going against the grain that I had no idea what my true interests were or what I really cared about. 

It was time to find out. I stopped concentrating on what everyone else was doing and started to focus on myself. I joined the basketball team, I performed in the school musical, and I enrolled in Chorus, all of which were firsts for me. I took art classes, joined clubs, and did whatever I thought would make me happy. And it paid off. I was no longer socially awkward. In fact, because I was involved in so many unrelated activities, I was socially flexible. My friends and I had things in common, but there was no one who could say that I was exactly like anyone else. I had finally become my own person.

My father named me Jasina because he wanted my nickname to be “Jazz.” According to Webster, “jazz” is “music characterized by syncopated rhythms, improvisation, and deliberate distortions of pitch.” Basically, jazz is music that is off-beat and unpredictable. It cannot be strictly defined. 

That sounds about right. 

Right off the bat, this essay starts extremely strong. The description of attendance in a class with ample quotes, awkward pauses, and the student’s internal dialogue immediately puts us in the middle of the action and establishes a lot of sympathy for this student before we’ve learned anything else. 

The strength of this essay continues into the second paragraph where the use of quotes, italics, and interjections from the student continues. All of these literary tools help the student express her voice and allow the reader to understand what this student goes through on a daily basis. Rather than just telling the reader people make assumptions about her name, she shows us what these assumptions look and sound like, and exactly how they make her feel.

The essay further shows us how the student approached her name by providing concrete examples of times she’s been intentionally unique throughout her life. Describing her drawing red suns and choosing grape juice bring her personality to life and allow her to express her deviance from the “norm” in a much more engaging and visual way than simply telling the reader she would go against the grain to be different on purpose.

One part of the essay that was a bit weaker than the others was the paragraph about her in high school. Although it was still well written and did a nice job of demonstrating how she got involved in multiple groups to find her new identity, it lacked the same level of showing employed in previous paragraphs. It would have been nice to see what “socially flexible” means either through a conversation she had with her friends or an example of a time she combined her interests from different groups in a way that was uniquely her.

The essay finishes off how it started: extremely strong. Taking a step back to fully explain the origin of her name neatly brings together everything mentioned in this essay. This ending is especially successful because she never explicitly states that her personality aligns with the definition of jazz. Instead, she relies on the points she has made throughout the essay to stick in the reader’s memory so they are able to draw the connection themselves, making for a much more satisfying ending for the reader.

Prompt #4 (OLD PROMPT; NOT THE CURRENT PROMPT): 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.

Prompt #4, example #1.

“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 a strong 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!

The main weakness of this essay is that it is slightly confusing at times—how the other students found coaches feels unintentionally under-explained (a simple phrase like “through pleading and attracting sympathy” in the fourth paragraph could have served the writer well) and a dojang is never defined. Additionally, the turn of the essay or “volta” could’ve packed a bigger punch. It is put quite simply with “I soon realized that I would have become the coach myself.” A more suspenseful reveal could’ve served the author well because more drama did come later.

Prompt #5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Prompt #5, example #1.

Tears streamed down my face and my mind was paralyzed with fear. Sirens blared, but the silent panic in my own head was deafening. I was muted by shock. A few hours earlier, I had anticipated a vacation in Washington, D.C., but unexpectedly, I was rushing to the hospital behind an ambulance carrying my mother. As a fourteen-year-old from a single mother household, without a driver’s license, and seven hours from home, I was distraught over the prospect of losing the only parent I had. My fear turned into action as I made some of the bravest decisions of my life. 

Three blood transfusions later, my mother’s condition was stable, but we were still states away from home, so I coordinated with my mother’s doctors in North Carolina to schedule the emergency operation that would save her life. Throughout her surgery, I anxiously awaited any word from her surgeon, but each time I asked, I was told that there had been another complication or delay. Relying on my faith and positive attitude, I remained optimistic that my mother would survive and that I could embrace new responsibilities.

My mother had been a source of strength for me, and now I would be strong for her through her long recovery ahead. As I started high school, everyone thought the crisis was over, but it had really just started to impact my life. My mother was often fatigued, so I assumed more responsibility, juggling family duties, school, athletics, and work. I made countless trips to the neighborhood pharmacy, cooked dinner, biked to the grocery store, supported my concerned sister, and provided the loving care my mother needed to recover. I didn’t know I was capable of such maturity and resourcefulness until it was called upon. Each day was a stage in my gradual transformation from dependence to relative independence.

Throughout my mother’s health crisis, I matured by learning to put others’ needs before my own. As I worried about my mother’s health, I took nothing for granted, cherished what I had, and used my daily activities as motivation to move forward. I now take ownership over small decisions such as scheduling daily appointments and managing my time but also over major decisions involving my future, including the college admissions process. Although I have become more independent, my mother and I are inseparably close, and the realization that I almost lost her affects me daily. Each morning, I wake up ten minutes early simply to eat breakfast with my mother and spend time with her before our busy days begin. I am aware of how quickly life can change. My mother remains a guiding force in my life, but the feeling of empowerment I discovered within myself is the ultimate form of my independence. Though I thought the summer before my freshman year would be a transition from middle school to high school, it was a transformation from childhood to adulthood.

This essay feels real and tells readers a lot about the writer. To start at the beginning, the intro is 10/10. It has drama, it has emotions, and it has the reader wanting more.

And, when you keep going, you get to learn a lot about a very resilient and mature student. Through sentences like “I made countless trips to the neighborhood pharmacy, cooked dinner, biked to the grocery store, supported my concerned sister, and provided the loving care my mother needed to recover” and “Relying on my faith and positive attitude, I remained optimistic that my mother would survive and that I could embrace new responsibilities,” the reader shows us that they are aware of their resilience and maturity, but are not arrogant about it. It is simply a fact that they have proven!

Sometimes writing about adversity can feel exploitative or oddly braggy. This student backs up everything they say with anecdotes that prove and show their strength and resilience, rather than just claiming their strengths. When I read this essay, I want to cheer for its writer! And I want to be able to continue cheering for them (perhaps, if I were an admissions officer, that would make me want them at my school!).

Prompt #5, Example #2

Armed with a red pen, I slowly walked across the room to a small, isolated table with pink stools. Swinging her legs, my young student beamed and giggled at me, slamming her pencil bag on the table and bending over to pick up one of her toys. Natalie always brought some new toy with her to lessons—toys which I would sternly take away from her and place under the table until she finished her work. At the tutoring center where I work, a strict emphasis on discipline leaves no room for paper crowns or rubber chickens. 

Today, she had with her a large stuffed eagle from a museum. As she pulled out her papers, I slid the eagle to the other side of the table. She looked eagerly around, attempting to chat with other students as I impatiently called her attention to her papers. “I should name my eagle,” she chimed, waving her pencil in the air. I cringed—there was no wondering why Natalie always had to sit by herself. She was the antithesis of my academic values, and undoubtedly the greatest adversary of my teaching style.  

As the lesson progressed, Natalie became more fitful; she refused to release her feathered friend, and kept addressing the bird for help with difficult problems. We both grew increasingly more frustrated. Determined to tame this wryly, wiggling student, I stood my ground, set on converting this disobedient child to my calm, measured ways of study.  

As time slowly crept by, I noticed that despite Natalie’s cheerful tone and bright smile, the stuffed eagle was troublesomely quiet and stern-faced. Much like myself. Both the eagle and I were getting nowhere in this lesson—so we hatched a quick plan. Lifting the eagle up in the air, I started reading in my best impersonation of an eagle, squawking my way through a spelling packet. The result provided a sense of instant gratification I never knew I needed. She sang out every letter, clapped her hands at every page, and followed along with the eagle, stopping at every few letters to declare that “E is for eagle” and pet her teacher fondly on the beak.  

Despite my ostensibly dissatisfied attitude toward my students, I did not join the tutoring center simply to earn money. I had always aspired to help others achieve their fullest potential. As a young adult, I felt that it was time for me to step out of the role of a pupil and into the influential role of a teacher, naively believing that I had the maturity and skill to adapt to any situation and help these students reach their highest achievements academically. For the most part, the role of a stern-faced, strict instructor helped me get by in the workplace, and while my students never truly looked happy, I felt that it was part of the process of conditioning a child to learn. 

Ironically, my transition to adulthood was the result of a stuffed animal. It was indisputable that I always had the skill to instruct others; the only thing needed to instruct someone is knowledge of the subject. However, it was only upon being introduced to a stuffed bird in which I realized that students receive the most help not from instructors, but teachers. While almost anyone can learn material and spit it back out for someone, it takes the maturity and passion of a teacher not only to help students improve in their students, but also to motivate them and develop them into better citizens. From my young pupil and her little bird, I have undergone a change in attitude which reflects a growth in maturity and ability to improve the lives of others that I hope to implement in my future role as a student, activist, and physician. My newfound maturity taught me that the letter “e” stands for many things: empathy, experience, enthusiasm, and eagle.

In this essay, the student effectively explores their values (and how they learned them!) then identifies these values through a reflective conclusion. While the writer humbly recognizes the initial faults in their teaching style, they do not position their initial discipline or rigidity as mean or poorly intentioned—simply ineffective. This is important because, when you are discussing a transition like this, you don’t want admissions officers to think of you as having been a bad person. 

My favorite part about this essay is its subtlety. The major shift in the essay comes through the simple sentence “The result provided a sense of instant gratification I never knew I needed.” The facts of this narrative are not too complicated. Simply put, the writer was strict then learned that it’s sometimes more effective not to be strict. The complexity of this narrative comes through reflection. Notably, through the ending, the student identifies their values (which they hadn’t given a name to before): “it takes the maturity and passion of a teacher not only to help students improve in their students, but also to motivate them and develop them into better citizens.” 

The final sentence of this essay ties things up very nicely. Readers are left satisfied with the essay and convinced that its writer is a kind human with a large capacity for reflection and consideration. That is a great image to paint of yourself!

Prompt #5, Example #3

When it’s quiet, I can still hear the Friday night gossip and giggles of my friends. It’s a stark contrast from the environment I’ve known all my life, my home. My family has always been one to keep to themselves; introverts with a hard-working mentality—my father especially. He spent most of his time at work and growing up without him around, I came to be at peace with the fact that I’d probably never really get to know him. The thought didn’t bother me at the time because I felt that we were very different. He was stoic and traditional; I was trying to figure out who I was and explore my interests. His disapproval of the American music I listened to and my penchant for wearing hand-me-downs made me see him as someone who wanted to restrain my individuality. That explains why I relied heavily on my friends throughout middle and high school; they liked me for who I was. I figured I would get lonely without my friends during quarantine, but these last few months stuck at home gave me the time to make a new friend: my father. 

It was June. I had the habit of sleeping with my windows open so I wouldn’t need to set an alarm; the warmth of the sun and the sounds of the neighborhood children playing outside would wake me. One morning, however, it was not the chirping of birds or the laughter of children I awoke to, but the shrill of a saw. Through the window screen, on the grass below, my father stood cutting planks of wood. I was confused but didn’t question him—what he did with his time was none of my business. It was not until the next day, when I was attempting to work on a sculpture for an art class, that the sounds of hammering and drills became too much to ignore. Seeking answers, I trudged across my backyard towards the corner he was in. On that day, all there was to see was the foundation of what he was building; a shed. My intrigue was replaced with awe; I was impressed by the precision of his craft. Sharp corners, leveled and sturdy, I could imagine what it would look like when the walls were up and the inside filled with the tools he had spread around the yard. 

Throughout the week, when I was trying to finish my sculpture for art class—thinking about its shape and composition—I could not help but think of my father. Art has always been a creative outlet for me, an opportunity to express myself at home. For my dad, his craftsmanship was his art. I realized we were not as different as I had thought; he was an artist like me. My glue and paper were his wood and nails.

That summer, I tried to spend more time with my dad than I have in all my 18 years of life. Waking up earlier than usual so we could have our morning coffees together and pretending to like his favorite band so he’d talk to me about it, I took advantage of every opportunity I had to speak with him. In getting to know him, I’ve recognized that I get my artistry from him. 

Reflecting on past relationships, I feel I am now more open to reconnecting with people I’ve perhaps misjudged. In reconciling, I’ve realized I held some bitterness towards him all these years, and in letting that go, my heart is lighter. Our reunion has changed my perspective; instead of vilifying him for spending so much time at work, I can appreciate how hard he works to provide for our family. When I hear him tinkering away at another home project, I can smile and look forward to asking him about it later.

This is an outstanding example of the great things that can be articulated through a reflective essay. As we read the essay, we are simply thinking alongside its author—thinking about their past relationship with their father, about their time in quarantine, about aspects of themselves they think could use attention and growth. 

While we reflect, we are also centered by the student’s anecdote about the sculpture and the shed during quarantine. By centering us in real-time, the student keeps us engaged in the reflection.

The main strength here is the maturity we see on the part of its writer. The student doesn’t say “and I realized my father was the best dad in the world;” they say “and I realized my father didn’t have to be the best dad in the world for me to give him a chance.” Lots of students show themselves as motivated, curious, or compassionate in their college essays, but a reflective essay that ends with a discussion of resentment and forgiveness shows true maturity.

Prompt #5, Example #4

As a wide-eyed, naive seven-year-old, I watched my grandmother’s rough, wrinkled hands pull and knead mercilessly at white dough until the countertop was dusted in flour. She steamed small buns in bamboo baskets, and a light sweetness lingered in the air. Although the mantou looked delicious, their papery, flat taste was always an unpleasant surprise. My grandmother scolded me for failing to finish even one, and when I complained about the lack of flavor she would simply say that I would find it as I grew older. How did my adult relatives seem to enjoy this Taiwanese culinary delight while I found it so plain?

During my journey to discover the essence of mantou, I began to see myself the same way I saw the steamed bun. I believed that my writing would never evolve beyond a hobby and that my quiet nature crippled my ambitions. Ultimately, I thought I had little to offer the world. In middle school, it was easy for me to hide behind the large personalities of my friends, blending into the background and keeping my thoughts company. Although writing had become my emotional outlet, no matter how well I wrote essays, poetry, or fiction, I could not stand out in a sea of talented students. When I finally gained the confidence to submit my poetry to literary journals but was promptly rejected, I stepped back from my work to begin reading from Whitman to Dickinson, Li-Young Lee to Ocean Vuong. It was then that I realized I had been holding back a crucial ingredient–my distinct voice. 

Over time, my taste buds began to mature, as did I. Mantou can be flavored with pork and eggplant, sweetened in condensed milk, and moistened or dried by the steam’s temperature. After I ate the mantou with each of these factors in mind, I noticed its environment enhanced a delicately woven strand of sweetness beneath the taste of side dishes: the sugar I had often watched my grandmother sift into the flour. The taste was nearly untraceable, but once I grasped it I could truly begin to cherish mantou. In the same way the taste had been lost to me for years, my writer’s voice had struggled to shine through because of my self-doubt and fear of vulnerability.

As I acquired a taste for mantou, I also began to strengthen my voice through my surrounding environment. With the support of my parents, peer poets, and the guidance of Amy Tan and the Brontё sisters, I worked tirelessly to uncover my voice: a subtle strand of sweetness. Once I stopped trying to fit into a publishing material mold and infused my uninhibited passion for my Taiwanese heritage into my writing, my poem was published in a literary journal. I wrote about the blatant racism Asians endured during coronavirus, and the editor of Skipping Stones Magazine was touched by both my poem and my heartfelt letter. I opened up about being ridiculed for bringing Asian food to school at Youth Leadership Forum, providing support to younger Asian-American students who reached out with the relief of finding someone they could relate to. I embraced writing as a way to convey my struggle with cultural identity. I joined the school’s creative writing club and read my pieces in front of an audience, honing my voice into one that flourishes out loud as well.

Now, I write and speak unapologetically, falling in love with a voice that I never knew I had. It inspires passion within my communities and imparts tenacity to Asian-American youth, rooting itself deeply into everything I write. Today, my grandmother would say that I have finally unearthed the taste of mantou as I savor every bite with a newfound appreciation. I can imagine her hands shaping the dough that has become my voice, and I am eager to share it with the world.

This essay is structurally-sound, with the student’s journey learning to savor mantou and their journey trying to find their voice serving as outstanding parallels. Additionally, as they describe the journey to find a voice in their writing, they definitely show off their voice! The clear introduction provides a great image and draws us in with an intriguing question. Additionally, their little inserts like “a strand of sweetness” and “falling in love with a voice that I never knew I had” work very well.

When the student describes their first published poem, however, their writing gets a little more stilted. This is a common error students make when writing about their achievements. If this student is writing about the craft that goes into writing, we should hear the details of the craft that went into the poem, instead of simply learning that they “opened up about being ridiculed for bringing Asian food to school at Youth Leadership Forum.” This is interesting information but would be stronger if it were supplemented by descriptions of the voice they created, comparisons to the styles of other poets, and analysis of their stylistic choices. This would make the essay feel more cohesive, centering entirely around concepts of voice and style.

Prompt #6: 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?

Note: We don’t have a stellar example for this prompt, so instead, we’re sharing a couple examples that need improvement, and what can be done to make the essays more engaging. 

Prompt #6, Example #1

What factors shape the depth and allure of a literary character? This is the exact question I asked myself as my eyes riveted on the white pages covered with little black letters.

I was reading my old novels. I’ve written three novels and many short stories. Each of them repetitively portrayed the hero as intelligent and funny, and the antagonists as cold and manipulative. I came to the appalling realization that my characters were flat, neither exciting nor original. They just didn’t stand out! 

As Oscar Wilde said, ‘Vice and virtue are to the artist material to an art.’ Their mixing makes a novel addictive because its plot is rich with turnarounds and its characters more engaging. In his famous work The Picture of Dorian Gray , Wilde deconstructs the psyche of his characters. He brilliantly plays with the protagonist’s youthful appearance and the decaying portrait to build a truly unique idiosyncratic identity. The persona of Dorian Gray is so complicated a psychologist could analyze it for hours on end!

Inspired by this character, It was my turn to explore good and evil into characters to make my stories more enthralling. I skillfully played with vice and virtue, separating, merging them… My latest novel is the fruit of this exercise. I chose to set it in 20th century London. Its opium dens and exclusive salons; middle-class workers, peasants and politicians breathed the same newly industrialized air; modernity in Blackfriars bridge and tradition in St Paul’s Cathedral; all of these contrasts set the perfect environment for my characters to grow. Following Laclos’ Valmont, Maupassant’s Georges Duroy and Duffy’s Myra Hindley, I played with those contrasts to present an intricate character, truly creative – unlike my previous ones. Insanity, religion, depravity and love are merged into each character, reflecting Edwardian London. As I reflected on my work, I realized vice and virtue altogether made them more human and credible. These characters stood out, they were interesting, I even wanted to know more about them! 

After rewriting, erasing, typing, and thinking countless times, I realized writing is a unique exercise. Nothing is definite when you are holding a fountain pen, hearing its screeching sound on the white paper and watching the ebony ink forming letters. When I wasn’t too happy about a change I made in my story, I simply erased and rewrote it. Everything I imagined could happen: white pages are the only place the mouse eats the cat or the world is taken by a zombie attack! 

This exact exercise of diversifying my characters satisfied my relentless curiosity. Asking myself ‘how could this character be if she had lost her parents in a maritime tragedy?’ allowed me to view the world from different perspectives (some very dissimilar to my own) and considering how each character would react to different situations brought them to life. As I was writing, I was aiming to change the usual narratives I had previously traversed. I loved experimenting with countless personality traits in my characters – minutes flowing, my hand dancing on the paper as my mind was singing words coming alive….

There were times where my hand just stopped writing and my mind stopped raging. I tried thinking differently, changing a character’s background, the story, the setting. I was inspired by Zola, A.Carter, Fitzgerald, the Brontë sisters… I could observe the different reactions of their characters, and reflect on mine theoretically. But it was only part one of the work: I then had to write, sometimes aimlessly, sometimes frantically, always leading to fresh ideas – I was exploring the practical, trying, erasing and rewriting. Both theory and practice are required to gain intellectual independence and experience, in writing and more globally: before I can change a character, I have to understand it. Before we can change the world, we have to understand it.

The main strength of this essay is the authenticity of the topic the student chose. They aren’t making anything up or stretching the truth. Writing is something that captivates them, and that captivation shines through—particularly through their fourth paragraph (where they geek out over specific plots and characters) and their fifth paragraph (where they joyfully describe how writing has no limitations). Admissions officers want to see this passion and intensity in applicants! The fact that this student has already written three novels also shows dedication and is impressive.

The main weakness of this essay is its structure. Ironically, it is not super captivating. The essay would have been more compelling if the student utilized a “anecdote – answer – reflection” structure. This student’s current introduction involves a reflective question, citations about their past writing experience, then their thoughts on Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray. Instead, this student could’ve provided one cohesive (and powerful!) image of them being frustrated with their own writing then being inspired by Dorian Gray. This would look something like:

“I stayed up three nights in a row studying my own writing—bored by my own writing. The only thing more painful than seeing failure in the fruits of your labor is not seeing a path for improvement. I had written three novels and numerous short stories, and all I could come up with was funny and intelligent heroes going up against cold and manipulative villains. What kind of writer was so consistently cliche? On the third night, I wandered over to my bookshelf. Mrs. Dalloway caught my eye (it has such a beautiful cover). I flipped through. Then, I grabbed Giovanni’s Room . I was so obsessed with my shortcomings that I couldn’t even focus long enough to see what these authors were doing right. I picked up The Picture of Dorian Gray and decided to just start reading. By the end of the night, I was captivated.”

An introduction like this would flow nicely into the student describing their experience with Dorian Gray then, because of that experience, describing how they have altered their approach to writing. The conclusion of this essay would then be this student’s time for reflection. Instead of repeating content about their passion—“I then had to write, sometimes aimlessly, sometimes frantically” and “I was exploring the practical, trying, erasing and rewriting”—, the student could dedicate their conclusion to reflecting on the reasons that writing is so captivating or the ways that (until the day they die) writers will always be perfecting their craft.

This essay is a great example of how important it is to pick a topic that truly excites you. It also illustrates how important it is to effectively structure that excitement.

Prompt #6, Example #2

Astonished by the crashing sound of waves in my ear, I was convinced this magical shell actually held the sound of the big blue sea — my six-year-old self was heartbroken when I couldn’t take the thirty-dollar artificial shell from SeaWorld’s gift shop . It distinctly reminded me of the awestruck feeling I had when I witnessed the churning waves of a windy night by the ocean the previous weekend; I lost track of time gazing at the distant moonlit border dividing our world from the ever-growing black void. Turning to my mom, I inquired curiously, “Can we go to the place where the water ends one day?”

She explained to me I could never reach the end of the ocean because the harsh line I had seen was actually an illusion called the horizon —  there was no material end to the ocean. For a mind as young as mine was, the idea of infinity was incomprehensible. As my infatuation with the ocean continued to grow, I finally understood that regardless of how far I travel, the horizon is unattainable because it’s not a physical limit. This idea is why the ocean captivates me — no matter how much you discover, there is always more to explore. 

Learning about and exploring the ocean provided an escape from one reality into another; though we are on the same planet, it’s an entirely separate world. Through elementary and middle school, I devoted vast amounts of my free time to learning about simpler concepts like a dolphin’s ability to echolocate and coral reef ecosystems. I rented countless documentaries and constantly checked out books from my local library — my all-time favorite was an episode of the television series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey titled “The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth.” This episode remained memorable because it was centered around the impacts of fossil fuels on marine animals; it was the first time I’d learned about the impending crisis we are faced with due to the human mistreatment of our planet.

Prior to viewing that episode, I relied on the ocean as an outlet — I fueled all of my emotions into studying marine organisms. Once I learned of its grave future, I delved into the world of environmental activism. This path was much more disheartening than studying echolocation — inevitable death due to climate change took a toll on my mental health. I attended two climate strikes in November of my sophomore year. Following the strikes, I joined Sunrise Movement Sacramento, a youth-led climate justice organization advocating for the Green New Deal. While analyzing legislation and organizing protests were significant takeaways from my experience with climate activism, they were not the most important. I became an organizer because of my love for the ocean and I remain an organizer because of my passion for dissolving the disproportionalities marginalized groups face due to the sacrificing of people’s livelihood for the sake of profit. The more I learned about our modern society, the more hopeless I grew that I could see any significant change within my lifetime.

However, this hopelessness comes in waves; every day, I remind myself of the moment I discovered the horizon. Or the moment I first dove into the beautiful waters of the Hawaiian coast and immediately was surrounded by breathtaking seas of magnificent creatures and coral gardens — life felt ethereal and beautiful. I remind myself that like the ocean, the vast majority of the universe has yet to be discovered; that distant border holds infinite opportunity to learn. In a universe as vast as ours, and life as rare as ours, individuals still choose to prioritize avarice over our planet. Despite this grave individualism, the ocean reminds me every day there is hope in the fight for a better world. Though I will never discover every inch of the ocean’s floor, I will forever envision and reach for new horizons.

Sometimes the path to a great essay is taking something normal and using it to show admissions officers who you are and what you value—that is precisely this student’s approach! Finding the ocean fascinating is not unique to this student. Tons of kids (and adults, too!) are obsessed with the ocean. What this student does is take things a step further as they explain their curiosity about the ocean in relation to their pain about the destruction of the environment. This capacity for reflection is great!

This student shows a good control of language through their thematic centering on ocean and horizons that carries through their essay—with ”this hopelessness comes in waves” and “I will forever envision and reach for new horizons.” The details provided throughout are also effective at keeping readers engaged—things like “ my six-year-old self was heartbroken when I couldn’t take the thirty-dollar artificial shell from SeaWorld’s gift shop” and “ my all-time favorite was an episode of the television series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey titled “The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth.”

The main weakness of this essay is the lack of reflection when the student discusses environmental activism. There’s reflection on the student’s connection to the ocean and horizons at the beginning and at the end, but when the student discusses activism, the tone shifts from focusing on their internal thoughts to their external actions. Remember, a lot of students write about environmental activism, but not a lot of students write about an emotional connection to the ocean as an impetus for environmental activism. This student would stand out more to admissions officers if they had dug into questions of what the ocean means to them (and says about them) in the paragraphs beginning “Learning about and exploring the ocean…” and “Prior to viewing that episode.”

Prompt #7: 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.

Prompt #7, example #1.

Scalding hot water cascades over me, crashing to the ground in a familiar, soothing rhythm. Steam rises to the ceiling as dried sweat and soap suds swirl down the drain. The water hisses as it hits my skin, far above the safe temperature for a shower. The pressure is perfect on my tired muscles, easing the aches and bruises from a rough bout of sparring and the tension from a long, stressful day. The noise from my overactive mind dies away, fading into music, lyrics floating through my head. Black streaks stripe the inside of my left arm, remnants of the penned reminders of homework, money owed and forms due. 

It lacks the same dynamism and controlled intensity of sparring on the mat at taekwondo or the warm tenderness of a tight hug from my father, but it’s still a cocoon of safety as the water washes away the day’s burdens. As long as the hot water is running, the rest of the world ceases to exist, shrinking to me, myself and I. The shower curtain closes me off from the hectic world spinning around me. 

Much like the baths of Blanche DuBois, my hot showers are a means of cleansing and purifying (though I’m mostly just ridding myself of the germs from children at work sneezing on me). In the midst of a hot shower, there is no impending exam to study for, no newspaper deadline to meet, no paycheck to deposit. It is simply complete and utter peace, a safe haven. The steam clears my mind even as it clouds my mirror. 

Creativity thrives in the tub, breathing life into tales of dragons and warrior princesses that evolve only in my head, never making their way to paper but appeasing the childlike dreamer and wannabe author in me all the same. That one calculus problem that has seemed unsolvable since second period clicks into place as I realize the obvious solution. The perfect concluding sentence to my literary analysis essay writes itself (causing me to abruptly end my shower in a mad dash to the computer before I forget it entirely).  

Ever since I was old enough to start taking showers unaided, I began hogging all the hot water in the house, a source of great frustration to my parents. Many of my early showers were rudely cut short by an unholy banging on the bathroom door and an order to “stop wasting water and come eat dinner before it gets cold.” After a decade of trudging up the stairs every evening to put an end to my water-wasting, my parents finally gave in, leaving me to my (expensive) showers. I imagine someday, when paying the water bill is in my hands, my showers will be shorter, but today is not that day (nor, hopefully, will the next four years be that day). 

Showers are better than any ibuprofen, the perfect panacea for life’s daily ailments. Headaches magically disappear as long as the water runs, though they typically return in full force afterward. The runny nose and itchy eyes courtesy of summertime allergies recede. Showers alleviate even the stomachache from a guacamole-induced lack of self-control. 

Honestly though, the best part about a hot shower is neither its medicinal abilities nor its blissful temporary isolation or even the heavenly warmth seeped deep into my bones. The best part is that these little moments of pure, uninhibited contentedness are a daily occurrence. No matter how stressful the day, showers ensure I always have something to look forward to. They are small moments, true, but important nonetheless, because it is the little things in life that matter; the big moments are too rare, too fleeting to make anyone truly happy. Wherever I am in the world, whatever fate chooses to throw at me, I know I can always find my peace at the end of the day behind the shower curtain.

This essay is relatable yet personal! The writer makes themself supremely human through discussing the universal subject of showering. That being said, an essay about showering could easily turn boring while still being relatable. This writer keeps its relatable moments interesting and fun through vivid descriptions of common feelings including “causing me to abruptly end my shower in a mad dash to the computer before I forget it entirely” and “the stomachache from a guacamole-induced lack of self-control.”

While describing a universal feeling, this student also cleverly and intentionally mentions small facts about their life through simple phrases like “I’m mostly just ridding myself of the germs from children at work sneezing on me” and “the childlike dreamer and wannabe author in me.” To put it simply, though we are talking about a shower, we learn about so much more!

And, at the end, the student lets us know that that is exactly why they love showers. Showers are more than meets the eye! With this insightful and reflective ending (“the big moments are too rare, too fleeting to make anyone truly happy”), readers learn about this student’s capacity for reflection, which is an important capacity as you enter college.

The one major error that this writer commits is that of using a trite transition. The inclusion of “Honestly though” at the beginning of this student’s ending detracts from what they are trying to say and sticks out in their writing.

Prompt #7, Example #2

Steam whooshed from the pot as I unveiled my newest creation: duck-peppercorn-chestnut dumplings. The spicy, hearty aroma swirled into the kitchen, mingling with the smell of fresh dough. Grinning, I grabbed a plump dumpling with chopsticks, blew carefully, and fed it into the waiting mouth of my little sister. Her eyes widening, she vigorously nodded and held up five stubby fingers. I did a little happy dance in celebration and pulled my notebook out of my apron pocket. Duck-peppercorn-chestnut: five stars.

In my household, dumplings are a far cry from the classic pork and cabbage. Our menu boasts everything from the savory lamb-bamboo shoot-watercress to the sweet and crispy apple-cinnamon-date. A few years ago, my sister claimed she was sick of eating the same flavors over and over. Refusing to let her disavow our family staple, I took her complaint as a challenge to make the tastiest and most unconventional dumplings to satisfy her. With her as my taste tester and Mum in charge of dough, I spent months experimenting with dozens of odd ingredient combinations. 

During those days spent covered in flour, my dumplings often reminded me of myself—a hybrid of ingredients that don’t usually go together. I am the product of three distinct worlds: the suburbs of Boston, the rural Chinese village of [location removed], and the coastal city of [location removed]. At school, I am both the STEM nerd with lightning-fast mental math and the artistic plant mom obsessed with funky earrings. I love all that is elegant, from Chinese calligraphy to the rolling notes of the Gourd flute, yet I can be very not elegant, like when my sister and I make homemade slime. When I’m on the streets, marching for women’s rights and climate action, I’m loud, bellowing from the bottom of my gut. In the painting studio, though, I don’t speak unless spoken to, and hours can slip by like minutes. I’m loud and quiet. Elegant and messy. Nerdy and artistic. Suburban, rustic, and metropolitan.

While I’m full of odd combinations, they are only seemingly contradictory. Just as barbeque pork and pineapple can combine beautifully in a dumpling wrapper, different facets of my identity also converge. After my tenth-grade summer, when I spent six weeks studying design at art school and another three researching the brain at Harvard Med, I began asking myself: What if I mixed art and neuroscience together? That fall, I collaborated with my school’s art museum for an independent research project, exploring two questions: How are aesthetic experiences processed in the brain? And how can neuroscience help museums design exhibits that maximize visitor engagement? I combed through studies with results from tightly controlled experiments, and I spent days gathering my own qualitative data by observing museum visitors and asking them questions. With the help of my artistic skills, I could identify the visual and spatial elements of the exhibits that best held visitors’ attention. 

By synergizing two of the ingredients that make me who I am—art and neuroscience—I realized I shouldn’t see the different sides of myself as separate. I learned to instead seek the intersections between aspects of my identity. Since then, I have mixed art with activism to voice my opinions nonverbally, created Spotify playlists with both Chinese and western pop, and written flute compositions using music theory and math. In the future, by continuing to combine my interests, I want to find my niche in the world. I can make a positive impact on society without having to choose just one passion. As of now, my dream is to be a neuroscientist who designs art therapy treatments for mental health patients. Who knows though? Maybe my calling is to be a dim sum chef who teaches pottery on the side. I don’t know where I’ll go, but one thing’s for sure—being a standard pork and cabbage dumpling is definitely not my style.

This essay is outstanding because the student seems likable and authentic. With the first image of the student’s little sister vigorously nodding and holding up “five stubby fingers,” we find ourselves intrigued by the student’s daily life. They additionally show the importance of family, culture, and creativity in their life—these are great things to highlight in your essay!

After the introduction, the student uses their weird dumpling anecdote to transition to a discussion of their unique intersections. This is achieved smoothly because weirdness/uniqueness is the focus of both of these topics. Additionally, the comparison is not awkward because dumplings are used as more than just a transition, but rather are the through-line of the essay—the student weaves in little phrases like “Just as barbeque pork and pineapple can combine beautifully in a dumpling wrapper,” “By synergizing two of the ingredients that make me who I am,” and “being a standard pork and cabbage dumpling is definitely not my style.” This gives the essay its cohesive feel.

Authenticity comes through in this essay as the student recognizes that they don’t know what the future holds. They just know what kind of a person they are—a passionate one! 

One change that would improve this student’s essay would be focusing on fewer intersections in their third and last paragraph. The student mentions STEM, music, family activities, activism, and painting, which makes it feel like a distraction in middle of the essay. Focus on the most important things you want to show admissions officers—you can sit at intersections, but you can’t be interested in everything.

Prompt #7, Example #3

“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. 

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!

Prompt #7, Example #4

Flipping past dozens of colorful entries in my journal, I arrive at the final blank sheet. I press my pen lightly to the page, barely scratching its surface to create a series of loops stringing together into sentences. Emotions spill out, and with their release, I feel lightness in my chest. The stream of thoughts slows as I reach the bottom of the page, and I gently close the cover of the worn book: another journal finished.

I add the journal to the stack of eleven books on my nightstand. Struck by the bittersweet sensation of closing a chapter of my life, I grab the notebook at the bottom of the pile to reminisce.

“I want to make a flying mushen to fly in space and your in it” – October 2008

Pulling back the cover of my first Tinkerbell-themed diary, the prompt “My Hopes and Dreams” captures my attention. Though “machine” is misspelled in my scribbled response, I see the beginnings of my past obsession with outer space. At the age of five, I tore through novels about the solar system, experimented with rockets built from plastic straws, and rented Space Shuttle films from Blockbuster to satisfy my curiosities. While I chased down answers to questions as limitless as the universe, I fell in love with learning. Eight journals later, the same relentless curiosity brought me to an airplane descending on San Francisco Bay.

“I wish I had infinite sunsets” – July 2019

I reach for the charcoal notepad near the top of the pile and open to the first page: my flight to the Stanford Pre-Collegiate Summer Institutes. While I was excited to explore bioengineering, anxiety twisted in my stomach as I imagined my destination, unsure of whether I could overcome my shyness and connect with others.

With each new conversation, the sweat on my palms became less noticeable, and I met students from 23 different countries. Many of the moments where I challenged myself socially revolved around the third story deck of the Jerry house. A strange medley of English, Arabic, and Mandarin filled the summer air as my friends and I gathered there every evening, and dialogues at sunset soon became moments of bliss. In our conversations about cultural differences, the possibility of an afterlife, and the plausibility of far-fetched conspiracy theories, I learned to voice my opinion. As I was introduced to different viewpoints, these moments challenged my understanding of the world around me. In my final entries from California, I find excitement to learn from others and increased confidence, a tool that would later allow me to impact my community.

“The beauty in a tower of cans” – June 2020

Returning my gaze to the stack of journals, I stretch to take the floral-patterned book sitting on top. I flip through, eventually finding the beginnings of the organization I created during the outbreak of COVID-19. Since then, Door-to-Door Deliveries has woven its way through my entries and into reality, allowing me to aid high-risk populations through free grocery delivery.

With the confidence I gained the summer before, I took action when seeing others in need rather than letting my shyness hold me back. I reached out to local churches and senior centers to spread word of our services and interacted with customers through our website and social media pages. To further expand our impact, we held two food drives, and I mustered the courage to ask for donations door-to-door. In a tower of canned donations, I saw the value of reaching out to help others and realized my own potential to impact the world around me.

I delicately close the journal in my hands, smiling softly as the memories reappear, one after another. Reaching under my bed, I pull out a fresh notebook and open to its first sheet. I lightly press my pen to the page, “And so begins the next chapter…”

The structuring of this essay makes it easy and enjoyable to read. The student effectively organizes their various life experiences around their tower of journals, which centers the reader and makes the different stories easy to follow. Additionally, the student engages quotes from their journals—and unique formatting of the quotes—to signal that they are moving in time and show us which memory we should follow them to.

Thematically, the student uses the idea of shyness to connect the different memories they draw out of their journals. As the student describes their experiences overcoming shyness at the Stanford Pre-Collegiate Summer Institutes and Door-to-Door Deliveries, this essay can be read as an Overcoming Obstacles essay.

At the end of this essay, readers are fully convinced that this student is dedicated (they have committed to journaling every day), thoughtful (journaling is a thoughtful process and, in the essay, the student reflects thoughtfully on the past), and motivated (they flew across the country for a summer program and started a business). These are definitely qualities admissions officers are looking for in applicants!

Prompt #7, Example #5

“We’re ready for take-off!” 

The tires hit the tarmac and began to accelerate, and I just realized what I had signed up for. For 24 hours straight, I strapped myself into a broken-down SUV whereas others chose the luxury of soaring through the skies for a mere two hours. Especially with my motion sickness and driving anxiety, I would call myself crazy too.

To say I have always remained in my comfort zone is an understatement. Did I always order chicken fingers and fries at a restaurant? Yup! Sounds like me. Did I always create a color-coded itinerary just for a day trip? Guilty as charged. Did I always carry a first-aid kit at all times? Of course! I would make even an ambulance look unprepared. And yet here I was, choosing 1,000 miles of misery from Las Vegas to Seattle despite every bone in my body telling me not to.

The sunlight blinded my eyes and a wave of nausea swept over me. Was it too late to say I forgot my calculator? It was only ten minutes in, and I was certain that the trip was going to be a disaster. I simply hoped that our pre-drive prayer was not stuck in God’s voicemail box. 

All of a sudden, I noticed brightly colored rocks in the distance, ones I had been dying to see for years. Their fluorescence popped amongst the magnificent winding hills as the sunset became romantic in hue. The desert glistened with mirages of deep blue water unlike anything I had ever seen. Nevada was home, but home always seemed to be just desert and casinos. For once, I looked forward to endless desert outside my window rather than a sea of clouds.

I never realized how little I discovered of the world beyond home. For years I complained about how there was nothing to do or discover outside. Not once did I set out to prove myself wrong. Instead, I chose a daily routine of homework at the kitchen table and late-night TV. However, as summer vacation ended, I decided to set my stubbornness aside and finally give this drive back home a chance. Little did I know that it would turn out to be my favorite trip of all time. 

As we drove along, the world chose to prove me wrong when I discovered Heaven on Earth along Shasta Lake. I stood out of the sunroof, surrounded by lush green mountains and fog. I extended my arms out and felt a sense of flight that no plane could ever take me on. As the water vapor kissed my face, I floated into a dreamland I never wanted to leave. I didn’t have to go to great lengths to discover the beauty of the world; it was right in front of me.  From this moment on, comfort and convenience would no longer be my best friends. Rather than only looking for famous travel destinations or following carefully mapped-out routes, I would let curiosity lead the way. 

Since then, my daily life has been anything but routine. I’m proud to boast of my family’s homemade kombucha attempts, of flights purchased and taken in one day, and of a home flooded with knick-knacks from thrifting trips. Every day I set out to try something new, see a different perspective, and go beyond normal. Whether it is by trying a new recipe using taro, making a risky fashion choice with wide-legged pants, or listening to a new music genre in Spanish, I always act with curiosity first.

Over the years, I have devoted my time towards learning Swedish, building computers, and swimming. Although my accent is horrid, some computers almost broke, and even a starfish would outswim me, I continue to enjoy activities I once criticized. For me, there is no enjoyment without some risk. Nobody I know is a kazoo-playing, boogie-board loving, boba connoisseur like me.

This essay is an Overcoming Challenges story that centers around a single anecdote. The structure works nicely as the student describes what they were like before their road trip, what happened on the road trip, and what they were like after. 

The most major improvement that this essay needs is better-communicated authenticity. At the beginning, it feels a bit gimmicky. The student describes their preparedness, particularly the fact that they always carry a first aid kit, and it’s not super believable. Then, when they write “Was it too late to say I forgot my calculator?” it feels like we are in a sitcom and the student is that funny obsessive kid. Sitcom characters don’t feel real and you want to make yourself appear profoundly real.

On a similar note, the narrative arc of this essay isn’t entirely believable. The student describes a large personality and value shift but doesn’t describe any struggles that accompany the shift. A quick shift like that is far from easy. On the other hand, if the immediacy of the shift was easy, they could write about moments after their shift in mindset when they have felt troubled by residual desires to stay in their comfort zone, instead of writing “I always act with curiosity first.”

The greatest strength of this essay is the paragraphs beginning “I never realized how little…” and “As we drove along…” The fixation on comfort seems much more believable when it involves “homework at the kitchen table and late-night TV.” The descriptions of the drive provide beautiful, evocative imagery. And it’s topped off with some nice reflection! Digging into this great portion of the essay would make this an even stronger essay!

Want to see more examples? Check out this post with 16 strong essay examples from top schools , including common supplemental essay questions.

At selective schools, your essays account for around 25% of your admissions decision. That’s more than grades (20%) and test scores (15%), and almost as much as extracurriculars (30%). Why is this? Most students applying to top schools will have stellar academics and extracurriculars. Your essays are your chance to stand out and humanize your application.

That’s why it’s vital that your essays are engaging, and present you as someone who would enrich the campus community.

Before submitting your application, you should have someone else review your essays. It’s even better if that person doesn’t know you personally, as they can best tell whether your personality shines through your essay. 

That’s why we created our free Peer Essay Review tool , where you can get a free review of your essay from another student. You can also improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays. 

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!

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the ultimate college application essay

Next Gen Admit

ATTENTION : All high schoolers who feel overwhelmed , stressed , and scatter-brained when it comes to creating a stand-out application to your dream colleges...

Dyllen Nellis Stanford

Join the Admissions Edge to...

Sharpen your admissions spike. craft powerful college essays that capture the true you . get accepted to your dream schools., ...without sacrificing your authenticity, sounding cliché, or wasting time on endless mediocre essay drafts.

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"This course made the whole process much more manageable!"

Tamish – stanford university india.

the ultimate college application essay

"Dyllen understands the college application process, and I knew I could trust her."

Eve – university of pennsylvania new york.

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"Thanks to this program, I was accepted into my dream school!"

Nell – harvard university missouri.

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"I was able to get into multiple Ivy leagues, ultimately deciding to go to Columbia University!"

Angela – columbia university texas, "this course was a huge lifesaver that made me excited to work on my application", raisa – uc berkeley california.

frustrated student looking at laptop

I know how you feel...

🤯 your days are jam-packed with challenging classes and extracurriculars, and now you’ve gotta apply to college on top of that 😭 you’ve got a ton of pressure to get into college and make yourself and your family proud, but honestly… you just have no idea how . ☹️ you’ve tried drafting your college essays, but every time they just sound so… bland . and how the heck do you convey your entire story in just 650 words 😵‍💫 you have no clue where to begin , so you procrastinate even starting. 😢 you’re beginning to think that you just aren’t unique enough to get into your dream schools., your mind is swirling with questions, but you’ve got no one to answer them., 🤨 how do i avoid sounding cliché and instead stand out 🤨 do i really have to sell my pain as a “sob story” to get into college that feels icky 🤨 how do i create college essays that feel authentic instead of braggy, and sooner or later…, you become trapped in a time-wasting cycle of scrapping and rewriting poor essay drafts., the stress increases, your well-being takes a toll, and college applications live on in your mind as literal h, e, double hockey sticks. (believe me, i’ve been there.), let's face it., college admissions strategy is not taught in most high schools... yet it can literally make or break an application., let’s cut the rumors & misconceptions that float in the hallways, yeah.

the ultimate college application essay

So you’re telling me you didn’t cure cancer or go through a seriously traumatic event? Neither did I, and I got into every school I applied to! Real talk: Everyone has a story to tell, no matter how big or how small. Sometimes, the most meaningful essays come from the smallest moments. You could make your whole essay about a trip to the grocery store! (And yes, someone has successfully done that.)

When you engage in deep self-reflection and use the right strategy, you can turn any story into a compelling college essay., sorry to break it to you, but while gpa can get you in the door, it won’t set you apart. most students will have similar scores as you, but no one has your story ., unlike grades, your college essays have the power to showcase the person behind the paper., top-tier universities are looking for students with a cohesive narrative and strong personal values (literally, most competitive universities mark character/personal qualities as "very important" on their common data sets) so what does this mean you need holistic college admissions strategy. our students get into their top schools because they build connections between their values, experiences, and interests throughout their entire application , you have what it takes., you have powerful stories. you have admirable values. but no one will know how incredible you are unless you effectively articulate these qualities in the best way. this is the strategy we teach inside the admissions edge., with test-optional policies & the ai boom..., now more than ever, colleges want to see your personal values shine through in your essays, activities, and the rest of your application..

the ultimate college application essay

Let’s flip this false belief right on its head: With my Proven Process, you will actually SAVE at least 3 hours a week. (Wait… really??) Yup, this course is carefully designed to best utilize your time every step of the way.

Without proper strategy, you will find yourself….

  • Wasting your time fumbling through tons of essay drafts you aren’t proud of.
  • Feeling extremely stressed and scattered throughout the process.
  • Submitting a mediocre application that fail to convey your true potential.

You can craft a winning college application in only 1 hour a day, and I’ll show you how.

How would it feel to submit a stand-out application that conveys the true you and gets accepted to your dream schools, 🤩 a sneak peek into your future…, 🔥 approach your college apps with expert strategy – feeling stress-free and having fun along the way, 🔥 complete your applications early – with extra time to cherish your friendships before splitting off in different directions., 🔥 submit your applications with confidence – knowing you did everything in your power to create the future you desire., 🔥 supercharge your skills in writing, storytelling, and self-reflection – that will benefit you for the rest of your life., 🔥 repurpose your excellent essays – and win $20,000+ in scholarships., i’ve helped students around the world achieve exactly this. and i can’t wait to show you how too..

Dyllen Nellis Graduation

^ This could be you!!

But first, have we met, hey there, i'm dyllen 👋, when i applied to college in 2018, i had big dreams of getting into top colleges, but i had no idea how . my parents weren’t familiar with the competitive college admissions landscape and i noticed a lack of guidance at my high school . (anyone relate) but after educating myself on the ins and outs of the college application process and developing my own strategy... i was accepted into every school i applied to including stanford, usc, ucla, nyu, and more. most importantly, i experienced an incredible journey of self-discovery, becoming more grounded in my values and identity than ever before., your application is more than what you've done.  it’s about how you strategically present your experiences and values to show the admissions committee who you are and your potential to succeed at their institution..

Dyllen Nellis

Even with my success, I was still *incredibly stressed* throughout the process. I spent so many months sifting through millions of random resources to figure out the strategy to get into my top schools, that I didn’t have a comfortable amount of TIME to actually execute what I had learned.

I’ve made the mistakes, put in the work, and felt the stress so you don’t have to., i have taken everything i’ve learned from….

  • Years of coaching THOUSANDS of students across the world to successfully get into Stanford, Harvard, Columbia, USC, and more!
  • Getting into every school I applied to.
  • Analyzing my Stanford admissions file to understand exactly what led to my acceptance.
  • Writing and storytelling strategies I developed through coaching students and my coursework at Stanford University.

…to create the ultimate success system for stress-free college apps.

Maggie – harvard university california, "through this course, i got into schools that i would never have fathomed getting into - schools with below 5% acceptance rates. it has truly been a dream come true.", "i loved how organized this entire course is and how easy it makes it for students to craft meaningful essays while also being authentic and truthful to who they are. this course allowed me to learn a lot about myself , and in turn, teach those reading my essays who i am as well.".

the ultimate college application essay

Julie – Columbia University California

"this course was like taking a bubble bath when there's a zombie apocalypse outside your door.", "the college application process was super stressful and scary, but dyllen made it easy to step back and get to the root of my problems . her course was super helpful because she identified specific things people did to make their essays impactful and impressive and made it easy to apply those methods to your own work . dyllen broke down the structure and made it easy to pinpoint the most interesting things about me and figure out what to write about. i have friends starting the application process, and i'm recommending (aggressively pushing) this course to them.", introducing..., the admissions edge, the program for high-achieving applicants to create stand-out college applications that gain acceptance to your dream schools, win $20,000+ in scholarships, and convey the true you..

the ultimate college application essay

Winner of the OZY Genius Award • Sponsored by Chevrolet

This course was 1 of 10 projects chosen out of thousands of applicants to receive funding and mentorship from industry experts..

the ultimate college application essay

"This course helped me feel really confident about creating an outline and drafting my essays with all these examples that showed me how to put together all of my ideas.”​

“before the program, i felt like i was getting a ton of advice thrown at me, but had no examples or stories to prove that all this advice worked or how to put it all together. but what really helped me was reading the example essays in the course and seeing the breakdown of how admissions officers would interpret each part of the essay .".

Hudson USC

Parent of Hudson – USC California

"dyllen pushed my son beyond anything i would've thought possible.", "my son learned more about writing in the two weeks between christmas and the new year than in his 4 years of school i only wish that we had found dyllen a year earlier. she went out of her way to be encouraging with rough love and pushed my son beyond anything i would've thought possible.", it's truly the complete success system., take a sneak peek inside the admissions edge.

the ultimate college application essay

Prep Module

Holistic application strategy.

How to Work Smart, Not Hard (Saving You 3+ Hours Per Week!)

  • Strategy to Craft a Cohesive Application (Focused > Scattered!)
  • The High Achiever's Game Plan to Maximize Success & Eliminate Procrastination

The Perfect Fit: How to Tailor Your Applications to the University Values

Discover Your Story - Brainstorming

Why Most Students Write Mediocre College Essays (And What YOU Are Going to Do Differently)

The Stand-Out Qualities Colleges Look For in Students

5+ Brainstorming Exercises

Essay Topic FAQs: Cliché Topics, Sob Stories, Application Theme, and More!

the ultimate college application essay

Craft Your Story - Structuring

  • How to Choose Your Best Topic & Define Your Essay's Theme

The Two Main Essay Structures for Every Type of College Essay

  • Every MUST-HAVE Storytelling Component For a Stand-Out Essay
  • The Step-by-Step to Creating a Complete Essay Outline (You can kiss writer's block goodbye!)

Write Your Story - Drafting & Revising

  • Actionable Writing Strategies to Optimize Your Time, Showcase Your Unique Voice, and Make Your Essay 10x Better
  • How to Capture the AOs Attention with an Engaging Start and End to Your Essay
  • Enhance Your Essay's Creativity: Metaphors, Anecdotes, Easter-Egg Technique, and MORE!
  • Avoid Every Mistake & Overused Phrase I've Identified From Editing THOUSANDS of Essays
  • Meet the Word Limit Without Sacrificing Your Story's Substance

the ultimate college application essay

How to Write The "Why Us" Essay

Fun fact: this is one of the trickiest essays to get right. most students fall into clichés, but you know your dream schools don't accept most students..

  • How to Stop Sounding Like Everyone Else (And Use Our Proven Framework!)
  • Identifying Your Aspirations & Values That Align With the School
  • Strategic College Research and Note-Taking
  • Then Easily Transform Your Notes Into the Outline of Your "Why Us" Essay!

Supplemental Essay Strategy

  • Specific Techniques to Tailor Your Story for the Common App, UC Personal Insight Questions, Why Us Essays, & Supplemental Essays

How to Repurpose Your Essays Across Multiple Applications

  • The Ultimate List of Overlapping Supplemental Essay Prompts
  • The Supplemental Essay Master Doc (all your prompts color-coded & organized!)

Worksheets to Brainstorm & Outline Specific Prompts (such as the Diversity Essay, Why Major Essay, and more!)

the ultimate college application essay

  • Effective Framing of Your Activities & Awards List

Your achievements are superrrrr impressive, but are you explaining them in the best way? Level up your achievements – just by the way you communicate them!

  • Showcasing Your Roles, Responsibilities, & Measurable Impact
  • How to Strategically Order Your Activities List

The Complete Word Bank of Strong Verbs

The Common App vs UC App

  • $20,000+ Scholarship Strategy

How to Maximize Your Chances of Winning Scholarships

  • Which Scholarships You Should (And Shouldn't) Apply To

Scholarship Organization Sheet

the ultimate college application essay

And on top of all that... You're gonna get some sweet BONUSES to make success even easier!

the ultimate college application essay

Essays That Work: 30+ Successful College Essay Examples

By real students accepted into top-ranked universities (analyzed & color-coded to break down the structure), common app essays, uc piqs, & supplemental essays.

the ultimate college application essay

Digital Worksheets

Brainstorming exercises, essay outlines, and templates to map out your ideas and keep your college apps organized.

the ultimate college application essay

Your AI-Powered Toolkit

Specially trained on strategies to set you apart at the most competitive universities in the u.s our tools will help you develop & present your essays & activities for maximum impact – in ways that general ai tools cannot, *we believe ai is a tool, not a replacement for human power. we strongly discourage the use of ai to write your essays for you..

the ultimate college application essay

One Free Round of Expert Essay Editing

A member of our essay editing team will provide comments, suggestions, and a comprehensive note of feedback on one of your essays we'll help improve your essay structure , sentence phrasing , clarity , cohesion , flow , and storytelling., my students have done it, and so can you.

Vania Cornell

"I got a full ride to an Ivy League!"

"with dyllen's program, i learned what to do before the writing process , how to level up the essays , and how to save crucial time by recycling essays in the best way possible there are plenty of resources on how to write essays but this program really gave me a new perspective on portraying me as a human and how to stand out as an international fgli student. i wouldn't have been able to make it without your help dyllen", vania – cornell university peru.

Maya UPenn

"I'm going to UPenn!"

"i learned how to better organize my essay response and i realized my response did not have to be one life-changing moment, but could be a series of events and life experiences that built my character ", maya – university of pennsylvania maryland, how much is it worth to you to stop spending hours frantically revising essay drafts that never had the right topic, structure, or strategy to begin with, if your essay still doesn't feel "right" after multiple revisions, your wording is not the problem, it's your topic & structure., 😇 save time sifting through random resources online and follow a proven 3-step process . 😇 save time & money on endless essay edits and learn to build a solid foundation for your essay from the ground up . 😇 save money on college consulting call packages with this self-guided solution . and most importantly... save yourself the stress., are you ready to create a winning college application – with ease, join the admissions edge and get instant access to....

  • Holistic Application Strategy to Sharpen Your Spike
  • 3-Step Framework to Craft ALL of Your College Essays
  • 5+ College Essay Outlines
  • College App Task Manager Tool & Template
  • College Data Vault & University Vibe Check Spreadsheets
  • Specific Strategy for Common App, UC PIQs, Why Us Essays, and Supplemental Essays
  • Time-Saving Techniques to Make Your Essays 10x Better
  • BONUS: 30+ Successful College Essay Examples (Color-Coded & Analyzed!)
  • BONUS: Digital Worksheets to Craft Your Essays
  • BONUS: AI-Powered Toolkit to Boost Your Activities
  • BONUS: One Round of Expert Essay Editing by Our Team!

Just a one-time payment of $397

When you purchase this course, you also provide one to a first-generation, low-income student you will receive a thank you email with the first name of the fli student you helped..

the ultimate college application essay

Uriel – USC Presidential Scholar Washington

"it was definitely worth it i would recommend it", "the course helped me so much throughout my college application process. it really allowed me to add structure to the process and identify what i needed to work on . the workbook was amazing at helping me organize my ideas and evaluate what i truly wanted to convey in my essays . the videos and curriculum integrated into the course really helped me tell my story and be proud of my writing.", abraham – ucla california, "i never imagined i could craft the quality of essays necessary to be admitted to some of the country’s most competitive and high-ranked universities.", this program was invaluable in my journey to craft the best college application essays possible .  like most, the college application and essay writing process initially felt daunting and intimidating. but after enrolling in the ultimate guide to craft your story and completing the workbook, i understood more about who i was and the personal values and stories i wanted to convey throughout my college application essays . the step-by-step workbook allowed me to break the process down into more manageable pieces to which i could better fine-tune the details and be less stressed . everything is methodically well-planned and detailed.  dyllen also has an incredible team of editors whom i had the privilege to work with. they provided constructive and detailed feedback that allowed my essays to improve with each new draft. as a result, i was admitted into some of my top choices, including berkeley & ucla , and i am certain that i could not have done it without dyllen and the ultimate guide to craft your story., 100% risk-free guarantee, when you join the admissions edge, you gain access to the strategy you need to craft a powerful college application that will impress admissions officers. lack of results stems from lack of support. this is a proven process that has worked for thousands of students across the world, and if you fully commit and put in the work, you will achieve the results you desire. an investment in your education is invaluable. these are skills you will use in college and beyond so as you make a decision to commit, it's important to me that you feel safe. that is why i offer a 100% money-back guarantee. if you join and find the fit isn’t right, simply request a refund within 7 days of purchase. no strings attached., *don't be the person who logs on, downloads all the worksheets, absorbs all the content, and asks for their money back, k years of hard work have been poured into this program and i value your integrity to honor the support this program provides..

the ultimate college application essay

"I discovered my strengths, themes, and learned how to build connections between my experiences!"

Before using dyllen's resources, my essay ideas were scattered and i struggled to find themes. using the program, i discovered my strengths and how they connected to experiences and relationships i had . that helped me form cohesive stories that highlighted my creativity, perseverance, and successes . i realized how valuable it was to dig deep in my past, uncovering hobbies and challenges throughout my life, and thinking about how relationships shaped me, in the brainstorming exercises that dyllen provided. i also realized that tying several, what seemed like unrelated topics together was possible and helpful . i felt so relieved after using dyllen's program and talking with her over zoom calls. dyllen's prompts and structure made writing the essays so much easier, and actually fun . her instructions to use timelines helped me stay on track . overall, her program made this daunting process doable way less stressful . i am so grateful, sunny – university of california san diego california, proven strategy. step-by-step guide. real results..

Dyllen Nellis Stanford

Here's what happens once you enroll...

As soon as you enroll, you’ll be sent a welcome email with your username and password to access the admissions edge. then, everything is yours & you can get started right away, this course is perfect for you if..., you value a streamlined process over information overload., noise on the internet can be anxiety-provoking. there's so many random resources out there and it's hard to pick apart just the "good stuff". unlike my youtube videos, the content in this course is much richer . for every strategy i teach, i explain why you should do it, how it will impact admissions officers , and the consequences of not doing it. you will learn how to achieve each strategy with actionable steps and specific examples ., you believe in becoming a smarter, more confident version of yourself., this isn't just a college admissions course, it's a journey toward self-discovery. in order for admissions officers to recognize your personal values, you need to identify them for yourself. the course includes brainstorming & structuring exercises – you won't find anywhere else – to help you analyze your experiences, identity, and emotions . i will teach you to embrace vulnerability while practicing self-compassion ..

the ultimate college application essay

You believe problems should be solved with empathy.

This course is designed with empathy . it includes exercises and advice to boost your motivation , support your well-being , and foster a growth mindset. stop comparing yourself to others and focus on building your best application, there is a way to complete your college apps without the excess stress ., there is a way for the college application process to be easy and fun ., there is a way to submit your essays with confidence and pride ., you have what it takes to reach your goals. the admissions edge is your bridge to success., karla – usc california, "the writing tips paid off as i was able to get into a school i didn't expect to get into (usc) which increased my self-confidence.", "i loved this course i felt like my thoughts were scattered all over the place, with online advice scattered everywhere. but the ultimate guide to craft your story turned my college application process into something more than just a stressful situation. top-notch essay examples, essay structures, and space to begin creating were found all in one guidebook i am proud of the learning experience i got from all this. may positivity and inspiration forever exist", "it has allowed me to have fun and be creative during a time that is tend to be filled with stress over college applications. every lecture you gave was all super helpful and constructive . it was so worth it.", can't wait to see you on the inside.

Admissions Edge

The hype is real.

"reading other accepted applicants essays was a great way for me to gauge if i'm on the right track and am using the required level of language. watching the videos in combination with the essays made the whole process much more manageable.".

the ultimate college application essay

"I really loved the course because of how much it built my confidence and readiness for the essays."

"i initially felt unsure if i could write a standout essay to get into my reach school, because of how different the college essays were from what they teach us here in nigeria. but with the course i learned how to use anecdotes and i believe i created a fantastic starting. the course also helped me in structuring my essay and knowing which parts i should emphasize , which was very important to me.", oseremhen – vanderbilt university nigeria.

UCLA logo

"I'm going to UCLA!!"

" honestly, i absolutely loved it this program was extremely helpful in helping me organize my college list and most definitely helped me figure out which values and qualities i wanted to highlight in my essays . it was also really colorful and aesthetically pleasing.", khushi – ucla jamaica.

I absolutely loved your course! I was so worried about the application process because I had no idea how to write a college essay, and then enrolled in your course and it helped so much and made organizing and brainstorming essays so easy . I loved your words of encouragement and humor throughout the course and it felt really personal . I am so grateful for your program and all your advice that helped me get into all 6 schools that I applied to!

I liked how relatable this course was , being able to see that Dyllen had the same writing struggles I had gave me more reassurance . This course provided many essay examples that were highlighted and broken down, it taught me how to effectively write a compelling story , or as Dyllen calls it “a window into our complex lives”. Also, I appreciate that she goes above and beyond to make taking this course as equitable as possible for more students through scholarships, YouTube videos, and free introductory sessions. I hope more school districts can provide this amazing course to build more confidence in students’ story writing abilities as it did for me.

A BIG thank you for creating this course. It has helped me become more comfortable with sitting myself down and learning more about myself. I feel more connected and in-tune with myself now that I have completed the admissions process. The "things I feel vulnerable about" part honestly brought me to tears. It’s helping me become more comfortable with facing things that I otherwise buried deep. VERY thorough instructions and doesn't feel like work when solving the workbook. Thank you Dyllen!

College applications are difficult, especially when you have no one to guide you through the process and lack exposure to information. But Dyllen's course against all odds helped me to create a tangible essay draft; not just one essay, but all of my college essays . Essays that spoke my mind and soul. Essays that I would never dare to write without her help. Dyllen, I am so grateful you are helping many disadvantaged and less fortunate high school students like me in many countries. Your work is a true masterpiece.

This course was a lifesaver during college apps. It was incredibly helpful in providing examples of successful essays from students who got into a lot of the schools I applied to. Every example was analyzed line by line which made it easier for me to view my own essay objectively while writing and editing (Dyllen is also a great editor)! Another helpful thing is the list of overused phrases . Hearing from someone who has read a ton of essays tell you what won't stand out was SO HELPFUL and I definitely caught myself trying to use some of those phrases. This course is helpful no matter what step of the essay writing process you're on and helped relieve a lot of stress for me!

Dyllen!!! I just want to say you have been BY FAR the MOST helpful resource I've gotten throughout this college process . Like you, I didn't come from a family with money to pay for a college counselor, and I've spent months and months researching on my own. I was at the tail end of submitting my applications when I discovered your course and it has helped me really dig into my values to create essays that speak to me . I am 100% recommending your course to my younger sister who has a few years before she starts this process. So much love for you girl <3

Scholarships for First-Gen Low-Income Students

Let's collab, organizations & foundations: i would love to work with you to help underserved students achieve their dreams of higher education you can purchase this course in bulk for a discounted price to either provide for your students or fgli students i connect with around the world. if this is of interest to you, contact me through the button below.

As a low-income and international student , I struggled with all the application and essay writing process since day one. I was not used to talking about myself through words and I didn't know if my story was impactful, nor if it was worth sharing. But being a recipient of a scholarship to enroll in this course was extremely helpful. I learned to brainstorm, choose my topics strategically, construct my ideas, analyze the impact on me and others, and create an essay that portraits my voice. Dyllen was amazing by giving free resources and creating this course. I appreciate all the time invested in this huge project and hopefully, it will continue to grow to help other students as it helped me .

ADMISSIONS DISCLAIMER Any college acceptances shown through our website are only to demonstrate what might be possible now or in the future. There can be no assurance as to any particular admissions outcome based on the use of our website. You agree that we are not responsible for your college admissions decision, the success or failure of your personal decisions, or any other result of any kind that you may have as a result of information presented to you through our website. You are solely responsible for your results. TESTIMONIALS We present testimonials and insights about other people’s experiences with our program for purposes of illustration only. The testimonials, examples, and photos used are of actual students. They are not intended to represent or guarantee that current or future students will achieve the same or similar results; rather, these testimonials represent what is possible for illustrative purposes only.

College Essay Course

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How to Craft a Cohesive Application

The High Achiever’s Game Plan to Maximize Success & Eliminate Procrastination

3 Success Stories From Real Students

What If There’s No Happy Ending? All Your Questions ANSWERED.

How to Choose Your Best Topic

How to Define Your Essay’s Theme

Every Storytelling Component For a Stand-Out Essay

How to Create a Complete Outline For Your Essays (You can kiss writer’s block goodbye!)

Drafting Strategies to Best Optimize Your Time

How to Start and End Your Essay

How to Use a Metaphor to Make Your Essay Shine

Every Mistake & Overused Phrase I’ve Identified From Editing THOUSANDS of Essays

Actionable Strategies to Make Your Essay 10x Better

How to Cut Down Words

Common App vs UC PIQ Writing Strategy

How to Stop Sounding Like Everyone Else

Identifying Your Aspirations & Values That Connect With the School

How to Strategically Take Notes While Researching Colleges

And Transform Your Notes Into the Outline of Your “Why Us” Essay

(This is one of the trickiest essays to get right! Stop falling into clichés and learn how to STAND OUT!)

The Ultimate List of Common Supplemental Essay Prompts

The Supplemental Essay Master Doc (all your prompts color-coded & organized!)

Your achievements are super impressive, but are you explaining them in the best way? Level up your achievements – just by the way you communicate them!

Do’s & Don’ts

How to Order Your Activities List

Which Scholarships You Should (And Shouldn’t) Apply To

  • High School
  • College Search
  • College Admissions
  • Financial Aid
  • College Life

The Ultimate College Application Checklist: From Freshman to Senior Year

Deciding to go to college is undoubtedly exciting, but it can be overwhelming to think about all the work it takes to get there. When you’re at the very beginning of your high school years, how can you know that you’re setting yourself up for success down the road? When you’re starting senior year, how can you stay on top of the many deadlines and requirements for college applications? With so much to do, it’s hard to know where or when to start! 

To keep you on the right path, we’ve created the Ultimate College Application Checklist. Follow along from freshman to senior year to make sure you’re focusing on the important things when it comes to preparing for and applying to college.

Freshman Year

  • Learn how your school calculates GPA. Different schools use different scales and methods for calculating that one big number. For example, you will probably earn extra points for taking advanced classes — but how many? Take a look at your school handbook or talk to your teachers or counselors to figure out what goes into your GPA.
  • Maintain good grades. While college can feel far away if you’re only starting high school, your freshman year grades are still important. Be sure to take a mix of classes that challenge you and also allow you to explore your interests.
  • Get involved in meaningful extracurricular activities. When it comes time to apply for college, the admissions committee is going to want to see what makes you unique, not just what grades you made. Choose extracurricular activities that interest you not only to start building your resume, but also to make new friends, be a part of your community and have fun!
  • Search for scholarships. Even with financial aid, college can be expensive. Scholarships, or award money you don’t have to pay back, can help you cut down on cost. Start with Niche’s How to Pay for College video for tips on finding scholarships from multiple sources.

Sophomore Year

  • Meet with your school counselor to go over your class schedule and goals. Your school counselor is there to help you every step of the way on your journey to college. Meet with them to make sure you’re taking good classes for your skill set and goals.
  • Keep up those good grades!
  • Stay involved in your extracurriculars. There may be leadership opportunities for upperclassmen in your clubs or organizations, so be sure to stay involved during sophomore year. You’ll thank yourself later!
  • Create a Niche account to start researching colleges. You can start reading reviews of colleges you already know about or you can explore colleges you haven’t heard of. The possibilities are endless!
  • Take The Niche College Quiz for personalized recommendations. You tell us about yourself, your priorities and interests, and then we give you a list of colleges that would be a great fit. After you’re done, visit your suggested schools’ profiles to research and add the ones you like to your list.
  • Research potential majors. While you don’t have to know what you want to study when you apply for college, it’s good to have some general ideas. Watch our How to pick your college major video to get started and use our guide to college majors to research your options.
  • Take the PSAT if your school offers it. This is a great way to kick start your test prep because it’ll show you which parts of the SAT you’re already strong in and which parts you should focus on when you study.
  • Continue scholarship search. Keep using those tips you learned in the How to Pay for College video !

Junior Year

September – February

  • Begin test prep and take the PSAT to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship Program. If you haven’t already taken it, now’s the time. When you take the PSAT during your junior year, you’ll be considered for the National Merit Scholarship Program, which means you may have a chance to gain national recognition and receive a scholarship.
  • Attend college fairs. Virtual or in-person, college fairs can be a great place to acclimate to the college search process. Here’s our guide on making the most of college fairs.
  • Build your college list on Niche by adding 5-10 schools. Keeping the colleges you’re considering in one place will help you research and compare them. Include lots of safety, target and reach schools for now and narrow them down later. Consider factors like location , tuition, reputation, size and if the school has a strong program for your intended major (if you know it already). Check out this blog post for more tips on how to start your college list .
  • Find out which colleges on your list are test-optional and create a testing plan. While the shift to test-optional or test-blind policies was initially a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many colleges still have them in place years later (as of fall 2023, the number is approximately 2,000). Look at the schools on your list and each of their admissions requirements to decide which tests, if any, you want or need to take.
  • The SAT is generally offered March-June and October-December. Get a rundown of the SAT basics here.
  • The ACT is offered February-December. Learn more and sign up on the official ACT website.
  • Not sure which to take? Here’s our quick comparison of the SAT and ACT.

February – June

  • Sign up for campus visits and/or virtual tours. Colleges can seem like a dream on paper, but there’s not always the same feeling once you get there. When you visit, get a feel for academic offerings, campus layout, dining options, dorm situation and social scene. To make the most of your visits, plan them properly . If you can’t go in-person, explore virtual visit options.
  • Meet with your school counselor to review your college list and senior year schedule. Your counselor can help you figure out which schools are safeties, targets and reaches if you’re unsure, and they can also make sure you’re all set for a successful senior year.
  • Research majors and related careers. It can be easy to get stuck focusing on your day-to-day, but it’s important to zoom out and think about the bigger picture every now and then. Our How to pick your college major video has tips for you as you consider what to study and what kind of career to pursue after college.
  • Take the SAT/ACT and retest (if necessary). Before you show up on test day, check out our tips and tricks . We’ve got plenty of suggestions for proper test prep to help you earn your ideal score. If you don’t like your score, set a new goal, hit the books and try again in the fall—or superscore it . Still need help? There are plenty more test prep resources.
  • Keep your grades up! Junior year grades are the most closely analyzed by college admissions teams. Give that extra effort so you’re putting your best academic self out there.
  • Request recommendation letters. Ideally, ask your junior year teachers or, if you know your intended major, a teacher who teaches a relevant subject—and ask months ahead of your deadline so your recommenders have plenty of time. We have some pointers for getting counselor recs , too. Check out our guide to all the things you should consider when asking for a letter of recommendation.
  • Continue scholarship search.
  • Read student/alumni reviews on Niche to see what colleges are really like. One of the best ways to figure out what a college is really like is to talk to people who actually went there—and reading reviews on Niche is like talking to hundreds of them at once.
  • Narrow down your college list. Start deciding which schools you’re most interested in. Be sure to keep a good balance of reaches, targets and safeties!
  • Get summer experience. Spend your summer wisely by volunteering, getting a job, job shadowing or participating in a summer college program or camp. Your best bet to impress schools is to do something relevant to your interests, skills or goals.
  • Make an activities/honors list. As you begin filling out college and scholarship applications, a high school resume will be extremely helpful . List your activities, accomplishments, awards, volunteer work and actual work experience from freshman year until now. Mention the tasks you accomplished, skills you gained and/or leadership roles you held. Creating an all-purpose brag sheet can also help you prep for your personal essay, scholarship apps, alumni interviews and more.
  • Brainstorm personal essay ideas . This is your time to share something about yourself that the admissions team can’t know from your resume alone. It’s a big task, but our How to write a college essay video can help you get started—and finish the job.
  • Start planning out your finances. It can be a touchy subject, but it’s best to hash out the financial responsibilities with your parents or other members of your support system before you get too far along in your search. Go back to our How to pay for college video for a refresher on all things financial aid and budgeting, or work your way through our financial aid checklist for the most productive convos.
  • Many application portals open Aug. 1st! You’ve prepared for so long, and now’s the time. Keep an eye on the schools on your list so you know when their application portals will be open.
  • Finalize your college list. It’s time to narrow down your list to only the schools you’re actually applying to. Be strategic: Choose at least two safety schools, several target schools and one or two reach schools.
  • Create application account(s) (ex: Common App, Coalition App, ApplyTexas, UC Application). Each application account serves different colleges, so do some research to see which application is accepted by which schools on your list.
  • Review applications to note requirements, essays, deadlines, etc. While there will probably be a lot of overlap, some schools may have unique supplemental questions you need to answer, or different materials they require. Make sure to keep a list of everything you need for each college on your list so you don’t miss anything.
  • Get your materials together (resume, unofficial transcript, etc.). You may need to contact your school’s administration office or school counselor for some of these items, so it’s important to know what you’ll need early in the process.
  • Draft your personal essay. Put pen to paper—well, fingertips to keyboard. For a little inspo and insight, go back and watch How to write a college essay or check out our guide to acing the college essay .

Direct Admissions

In the fall of your senior year, you officially become eligible for Niche Direct Admissions ! Through this program, colleges can offer you acceptance and a scholarship based on your Niche Profile — no application needed. Just create or log into your Niche account, make sure your profile is up-to-date, start exploring Direct Admissions colleges and add the ones you like to your list. That’s all it takes to be considered! For more details and to see our FAQs, visit this page .

Senior Year

  • Follow up with your recommenders. Follow our guide to reminding your recommenders and you’ll have your letters of recommendation in no time.
  • Begin online portion of applications. Start filling out what you can, and take note of the supplemental materials you’ll need to send in after you finish the online portion.
  • Retake the SAT/ACT (if needed). If you weren’t happy with your previous SAT score, now is the time to take it again.
  • Complete your CSS profile for non-federal financial aid. Here’s the most up-to-date list of schools that require a CSS profile. And here are all the ins and outs on how to create a CSS profile—and why.

October – November

  • Tell your school counselor you’ll need your transcript and/or a recommendation letter for EA/ED/Priority deadlines (if necessary). Protocol varies at each high school, but you’ll want to request them at least two weeks before they’re due. For the whole spiel, check our comprehensive guide on requesting transcripts for college. Not sure whether you’re interested in applying early action (EA) or early decision (ED)? We can help you decide which admission types best fit you.
  • Review all application materials for errors or missing pieces.
  • Submit EA/ED/Priority applications and send any supplemental documents (transcripts, letters, test scores) required. Most early application/early decision deadlines are Nov. 1 or Nov. 15. The Common Application early decision deadline is typically Nov. 1.
  • Set up your account for each college’s portal to ensure your materials have been received. This is important for several reasons—it’s where you’ll be able to see if your application has been received, where you’ll be notified if you missed any documents and often where you’ll find your admissions decision when it’s ready.
  • Create an FSA ID. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid ( FAFSA ) determines your eligibility for financial aid. Even if you think your family won’t qualify, submit a FAFSA. You never know what you might receive, and FAFSA also often determines your eligibility for work study jobs on campus. Create a username and password (FSA ID) on the FAFSA website to get started. You’ll be able to file in December.
  • Tell your school counselor you’ll need your transcript and/or a recommendation letter for regular deadlines (if necessary). Again, you’ll want to request your transcripts at least two weeks before they’re due (and ideally, you requested your recommendation letters months before!). For the whole spiel, check our comprehensive guide on requesting transcripts for college.
  • Complete and submit FAFSA.
  • Review EA/ED acceptances. If accepted, celebrate! If deferred, send a letter of continued interest. If rejected, review your application and its essay, and decide whether to make improvements for future applications.  
  • Submit regular deadline applications and send any supplemental documents (transcripts, letters, test scores) required. Before you do: Read our last-minute reminders. Most regular decision deadlines are Jan.1 or Jan. 15. The Common Application deadline is typically Jan. 1. After hitting “submit,” there are still a few things to wrap up.

January – February

  • Submit mid-year grade reports (if necessary). Some colleges require mid-year or second semester grade reports. If this is the case, make sure your counselor has the necessary forms.
  • Apply for scholarships. The internet is your friend—most of the time. Here are really easy and inventive ways to use Google to fuel your scholarship search.
  • Prepare for any interviews you may have. Many schools set up interviews between applicants and alumni. If you have this opportunity, do all the prepwork for a successful interview , including how to navigate a virtual interview.
  • Review EA/ED/Priority acceptances. If accepted, celebrate! If deferred, send a letter of continued interest. If rejected, review your application and its essay, and decide whether to make improvements for future applications.

March – April

  • Review acceptance letters and financial aid packages. First, celebrate any acceptances you received! If deferred/waitlisted, reach out and write a letter of continued interest. If rejected, send an appeal letter. And if you need help understanding your financial aid offer, we’ll walk you through it with our Understanding financial aid award packages video .
  • Decide on your top schools.
  • Keep applying for scholarships.
  • Make your final decision by May 1 — and celebrate! Yes, you did it! After you notify your school that you’ll be attending in the fall (and let the other schools know you’re heading elsewhere), it’s time to celebrate!
  • Submit your deposit and housing application. 
  • Sign up for orientation.
  • Send in your final transcript. 
  • Thank your supporters for all of their help. Let your friends, family, teachers and counselor know where you’ve decided to go. They’ll be so happy for you! A note, a gift, a high five—just show them how much you appreciate their support. Here’s a rundown of all the people you should be thanking. Congratulations!

the ultimate college application essay

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Essay Papers Writing Online

Mastering the art of crafting impactful application essays.

How to write application essays

When it comes to applying for college or a job, your application essay can make a huge difference in setting you apart from the competition. Crafting a compelling and well-written essay can showcase your personality, skills, and aspirations in a way that numbers and grades simply cannot.

So, how can you ensure that your application essay stands out? Here are some expert tips to help you craft an outstanding piece that will impress admissions officers or potential employers:

1. Tell a compelling story: Make sure your essay has a clear narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. Use concrete details and examples to bring your story to life and engage the reader.

Understand the Prompt Clearly

Understand the Prompt Clearly

One of the most crucial aspects of crafting an outstanding application essay is to thoroughly understand the prompt given by the college or university. Take the time to carefully read and analyze the prompt, paying attention to the key components such as the question being asked, any specific instructions provided, and the overall tone or theme of the prompt.

Make sure you fully comprehend what the admissions committee is looking for in your response. Understanding the prompt clearly will help you tailor your essay to address the specific requirements and showcase your unique qualities and experiences that align with the prompt’s objectives.

Brainstorm Ideas Creatively

When it comes to crafting outstanding application essays, one of the first steps is to brainstorm ideas creatively. To generate compelling content, try the following techniques:

1. Mind Mapping: Use a blank sheet of paper or a digital tool to create a mind map of your thoughts, experiences, and interests. Branch out from main ideas to uncover new connections and insights.

2. Freewriting: Set a timer for 10-15 minutes and write non-stop about a topic or prompt related to your application essay. Don’t worry about grammar or structure; focus on generating raw material for your essay.

3. Visual Inspiration: Look for visual prompts such as photographs, artwork, or quotes that resonate with you. Use these images as starting points for brainstorming essay ideas or themes.

4. Personal Reflection: Take time to reflect on pivotal moments in your life, challenges you’ve overcome, or values you hold dear. Consider how these experiences can shape your essay content and showcase your unique qualities.

By approaching brainstorming with creativity and an open mind, you can uncover rich material for your application essays and set yourself apart from other applicants.

Showcase Your Unique Voice

Tip: Use storytelling to bring your experiences to life. Show, don’t just tell, by using vivid details and personal anecdotes that illustrate your strengths, passions, and motivations.

Remember: Your voice is what sets you apart from other applicants, so don’t be afraid to let it shine through in your writing.

Revise and Edit Diligently

After you have written your application essay, it is crucial to revise and edit it carefully. Revision is a key step in the writing process that allows you to improve the clarity, coherence, and overall quality of your essay. Here are some tips for revising your application essay:

Give yourself time: Set aside enough time to revise your essay thoroughly. Don’t rush through this process, as careful revision can make a significant difference in the final outcome.

Read your essay aloud: Reading your essay aloud can help you identify awkward phrasing, repetitive words, and grammatical errors that you may have missed while reading silently.

Check for coherence: Ensure that your essay flows logically and that your ideas are presented in a clear and organized manner. Make sure that each paragraph transitions smoothly to the next.

Eliminate unnecessary words: Trim down any wordy sentences and remove unnecessary words that do not add value to your essay. Concise writing is often more effective.

Seek feedback: Ask a trusted friend, family member, or teacher to read over your essay and provide feedback. Fresh eyes can catch mistakes and offer valuable suggestions for improvement.

Remember, revising and editing your application essay diligently can help you create a polished and compelling piece that showcases your strengths and leaves a lasting impression on the admissions committee.

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Tips and Techniques on how to write a stand out college application essay

When each component of the college application is vital to admission, the college essay is undoubtedly an essential component. While grades and test scores are important, the essay is the only part of the application where the student maintains complete control. A well-crafted essay showcases a student’s personality, voice, and unique experiences, which can distinguish them from other applicants. Successful essays also give admissions officers insight into a student's writing ability, critical thinking, and creativity. In short, a strong college essay can make a difference in the admissions process and help students stand out in a crowded and competitive pool of applicants.

When to begin writing your college application essay

The rule of thumb is to start as early as possible. Ideally, you should start reflecting on your essays during junior year of high school. At the very latest, the process should start the summer before a student’s senior year. Essays require time to conceptualize, craft, and revise. It is impossible to write a strong application essay in a short period of time: edits and planning are required to craft an essay that truly showcases a student’s voice and personal strengths. 

The essentials of a strong college application essay

To create a compelling college application essay that stands out to admissions officers, make sure to include the following key components in your writing:

A strong hook

A compelling story, personal reflection, authenticity, concrete details, cohesive structure, effective conclusion, analyzing past successful college application essays.

Among past students, some successful examples include a touching narrative of how an estranged relationship with a family member was repaired, and a heartwarming story on how a cow emoji signified the student’s growth in self-confidence. A successful college essay was able to gain a student admission to top tier universities despite a weaker academic and extracurricular profile. In contrast, weak essays can undermine a strong academic and extracurricular profile as well.

Guide to drafting your college application essay

When drafting an essay, start with the below 4 steps.

S tep 1: Understand the Prompt

The first step is to review and understand the prompt. Carefully read the prompt, and make sure you know what the prompt is asking. The essay should not be off-topic or unfocused.

Read more about our  UC Essay Prompts Explained  and check out our UC Writing Prompt  series where we will be dissecting each of the UC essay prompts in depth, providing examples, structure, and tips on how you can make your application stand out.

the ultimate college application essay

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  1. How To Write A College Application Essay

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  2. 100+ College Essay Examples

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  4. 11 Best College Application Essay Examples (Format Guide)

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VIDEO

  1. IMPROVE Your College Essay With These 30-SECOND Fixes

  2. What Should a College Application Essay be Like

  3. Undergraduate Application: Essay Writing Workshop Part 3 out of 3

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  5. Why Your College Application Essay is So Bad

  6. Undergraduate Application: Essay Writing Workshop Part 1 out of 3

COMMENTS

  1. The Ultimate College Application Essay

    The Ultimate College Application Essay. This is an essay written by Hugh Gallagher when applying to New York University. He graduated from NYU in May 1994. In 1995, this essay was reprinted in The Guardian. Are there any significant experiences you have had, or accomplishments you have realised, that have helped to define you as a person?

  2. Ultimate Guide to Writing Your College Essay

    Want free help with your college essay? UPchieve connects you with knowledgeable and friendly college advisors—online, 24/7, and completely free. Get 1:1 help brainstorming topics, outlining your essay, revising a draft, or editing grammar. Learn More about UPcheive.

  3. Tips for Writing an Effective Application Essay

    Follow these tips to write an impactful essay that can work in your favor. 1. Start Early. Few people write well under pressure. Try to complete your first draft a few weeks before you have to turn it in. Many advisers recommend starting as early as the summer before your senior year in high school.

  4. The Ultimate College Essay Guide: Prompts and Writing Tips

    Below, you'll find Ivy Coach's tips on approaching the 2023-2024 supplemental essay prompts at America's highly selective universities. If we haven't yet posted our annual tips for a specific university, whose essays are hot off the presses, rest assured that it will be posted in short order. College/University. US News 2023 Rank.

  5. How to Write Your College Essay: The Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide

    Your essay is very important to your application — especially if you're applying to selective colleges. You should also take advantage of the following free resources: Peer Essay Review. Become a stronger writer by reviewing your peers' essays and get your essay reviewed as well for free. Essay Livestreams.

  6. How to Write a College Essay

    Your college admissions essay accounts for about 25% of your application's total weight一and may account for even more with some colleges making the SAT and ACT tests optional. The college admissions essay may be the deciding factor in your application, especially for competitive schools where most applicants have exceptional grades, test ...

  7. How to Write the Best College Application Essay

    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.

  8. How to Write an Outstanding College Application Essay

    Don't cram for the essay. Start early so there will be plenty of time. "The summer before senior year can be a great time to start work on your essay," Papszycki explains. Use humor judiciously. "It's fine to use wit and imagination, but don't try to be humorous if that's not your personality," Papszycki advises.

  9. Writing tips and techniques for your college essay

    Don't summarize. Avoid explicitly stating the point of your essay. It's far less effective when you spell it out for someone. Delete every single "That's when I realized," "I learned," and "The most important lesson was...". It's unnecessary, unconvincing, and takes the reader out of the moment.

  10. How to Write College Application Essays

    How to Structure Your Essay. A college application essay (like any academic essay) should have an introduction, a conclusion, and body paragraphs. Additionally, it should have overall coherence (that is, it should make a point) and cohesion (that is, it should flow well from paragraph to paragraph).

  11. The 13 Best College Essay Tips to Craft a Stellar Application

    With these college essay tips, you'll be that much closer to the best admissions essay ever! 5 Tips for College Essay Planning. Doing a good job planning makes the college essay process that much easier. These five college essay tips will help you get started and pave the way for a great final product. #1: Make a Plan of Attack for Your Essays

  12. How to Craft a Winning College Application Essay

    Your ability to reflect on the significance of your experiences will set you apart from other applicants and make your essay truly standout. 5. Concise and Focused Writing. In addition to being mindful of word count, it is essential to ensure that every sentence in your essay contributes meaningfully to your narrative.

  13. How to Write an Amazing Common App Essay (2024-2025)

    (Note: This guide can also be found in our free, 110-page comprehensive guide to top college admissions, How to Get Into America's Elite Colleges: The Ultimate Guide.)----Part 1: Introduction. What is the Common Application? Why does the Common App Essay—and other college essays—matter? What are these mystical college essays, anyway?

  14. How to Write a College Application Essay

    The Common App, for example, has a maximum 650-word piece. The Coalition Application essay should be 500-650 words. Some states use specific applications, such as ApplyTexas, which has 500-1,500 words depending on your chosen prompt. The College Board recommends that if there's no word limit mentioned, stay with the CommonApp 650 words.

  15. 21 Stellar Common App Essay Examples to Inspire Your College Essay

    Common App Essay Examples. Here are the current Common App prompts. Click the links to jump to the examples for a specific prompt, or keep reading to review the examples for all the prompts. Prompt #1: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without ...

  16. Admissions Edge: The Ultimate College Essay Course

    Like most, the college application and essay writing process initially felt daunting and intimidating. But after enrolling in The Ultimate Guide to Craft Your Story and completing the workbook, I understood more about who I was and the personal values and stories I wanted to convey throughout my college application essays.

  17. College Application Essay: The Definitive Guide

    The myth unfolds as follows: 1 essay about an extracurricular activity + 1 essay about an academic subject + 1 essay about a life challenge = guaranteed admission to college!. Wouldn't it be wonderful if admission to college was so simple? Unfortunately, this formula disregards one key element: personal experience.Every student's experiences are different,

  18. The Ultimate College Application Checklist: From Freshman to Senior

    Finalize your college list. It's time to narrow down your list to only the schools you're actually applying to. Be strategic: Choose at least two safety schools, several target schools and one or two reach schools. Create application account (s) (ex: Common App, Coalition App, ApplyTexas, UC Application).

  19. How to Write a College Essay Step-by-Step

    Step 2: Pick one of the things you wrote down, flip your paper over, and write it at the top of your paper, like this: This is your thread, or a potential thread. Step 3: Underneath what you wrote down, name 5-6 values you could connect to this. These will serve as the beads of your essay.

  20. Ultimate Guide to College Application Essays

    In fact, essays are thought to be the third most important part of the admissions process after SAT/ACT scores and transcripts. We know that essays can also be intimidating. That's why we created this guide to help you write powerful essays that will help you get into college. Writing in the admissions process can be grouped into 2 buckets:

  21. Expert Tips for Crafting Outstanding Application Essays

    1. Mind Mapping: Use a blank sheet of paper or a digital tool to create a mind map of your thoughts, experiences, and interests. Branch out from main ideas to uncover new connections and insights. 2. Freewriting: Set a timer for 10-15 minutes and write non-stop about a topic or prompt related to your application essay.

  22. The Ultimate Guide to Supplemental College Application Essays (Examples

    Part 2: From outlining to writing. In preparing for your Common App essay, you likely left some material "on the cutting room floor," so to speak—meaning you probably thought about topics or experiences that moved you but weren't "the one" for your personal statement.

  23. 27 Outstanding College Essay Examples From Top Universities 2024

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  24. The Ultimate Guide to College Essays

    Analyzing past successful college application essays. Among past students, some successful examples include a touching narrative of how an estranged relationship with a family member was repaired, and a heartwarming story on how a cow emoji signified the student's growth in self-confidence.