Types Of College Application Essays Sample
Get help writing your college application essays. Find this year's Common App writing prompts and popular essay questions used by individual colleges.
The college essay is your opportunity to show admissions officers who you are apart from your grades and test scores (and to distinguish yourself from the rest of a very talented applicant pool).
2018-19 Common App Essays
Nearly 700 colleges accept the The Common Application, which makes it easy to apply to multiple schools with just one form. If you are using the Common App to apply for college admission in 2017, you will have 250–650 words to respond to ONE of the following prompts:
- Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
- Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma—anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
- Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
- Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
Tackling the Common App Essay Prompts
Prompt #1: Share your story.
Answer this prompt by reflecting on a hobby, facet of your personality, or experience that is genuinely meaningful and unique to you. Admissions officers want to feel connected to you and an honest, personal statement about who you are draws them in. Your love of superheroes, baking chops, or family history are all fair game if you can tie it back to who you are or what you believe in. Avoid a rehash of the accomplishments on your high school resume and choose something that the admissions committee will not discover when reading the rest of your application.
Prompt #2: Learning from obstacles.
You're trying to show colleges your best self, so it might seem counterintuitive to willingly acknowledge a time you struggled. But overcoming challenges demonstrates courage, grit, and perseverance! That’s why the last piece of this prompt is essential. The obstacle you write about can be large or small, but you must show the admissions committee how your perspective changed as a result.
Prompt #3: Challenging a belief.
Your answer to this question could focus on a time you stood up to others or an experience when your own preconceived view was challenged. Choose this prompt if you have a relevant—and specific!—experience to recount (and reflect on). A vague essay about a hot button issue doesn’t tell the admissions committee anything useful about YOU.
Prompt #4: Solving a problem.
This essay is designed to get at the heart of how you think and what makes you tick. Present a situation or quandary and show steps toward the solution. Admissions officers want insight into your thought process and the issues you grapple with, so explain how you became aware of the dilemma and how you tackled solving it. Don’t forget to explain why the problem is important to you!
Prompt #5: Personal growth.
Just like Prompt #2, the accomplishment or event you write about can be anything from a major milestone to a smaller "aha" moment. Describe the event or ccomplishment that shaped you but take care to also show what you learned or how you changed. Colleges are looking for a sense of maturity and introspection—pinpoint the transformation and demonstrate your personal growth.
Prompt #6: What captivates you?
This prompt is an invitation to write about something you care about. (So avoid the pitfall of writing about what you think will impress the admission office versus what truly matters to you). Colleges are looking for curious students, who are thoughtful about the world around them. The "what or who do you turn to when you want to learn more” bit isn't an afterthought—it's a key piece of the prompt. Make sure you explain how you pursue your interest, as well.
Prompt #7: Topic of your choice.
This question might be for you if you have a dynamo personal essay from English class to share or were really inspired by a question from another college’s application. You can even write your own question! Whatever topic you land on, the essentials of a standout college essay still stand: 1.) Show the admissions committee who you are beyond grades and test scores and 2.) Dig into your topic by asking yourself how and why. There isn’t a prompt to guide you, so you must ask yourself the questions that will get at the heart of the story you want to tell.
More College Essay Topics
Individual schools sometimes require supplemental essays. Here are a few popular application essay topics and some tips for how to approach them:
Describe a person you admire.
Avoid the urge to pen an ode to a beloved figure like Gandhi or Abraham Lincoln. The admissions committee doesn't need to be convinced they are influential people. Focus on yourself: Choose someone who has actually caused you to change your behavior or your worldview, and write about how this person influenced you .
Why do you want to attend this school?
Be honest and specific when you respond to this question. Avoid generalities like "to get a good liberal arts education” or “to develop career skills," and use details that show your interests: "I'm an aspiring doctor and your science department has a terrific reputation." Colleges are more likely to admit students who can articulate specific reasons why the school is a good fit for them beyond its reputation or ranking on any list. Use the college's website and literature to do your research about programs, professors, and other opportunities that appeal to you.
What is a book you love?
Your answer should not be a book report. Don't just summarize the plot; detail why you enjoyed this particular text and what it meant to you. What does your favorite book reveal about you? How do you identify with it, and how has it become personal to you?
Again, be honest in answering this question—don't choose a classic from your literature class or a piece of philosophy just because you think it will make you seem smarter. Writing fluently and passionately about a book close to you is always better than writing shakily or generally about a book that doesn't inspire you.
What is an extracurricular activity that has been meaningful to you?
Avoid slipping into clichés or generalities. Take this opportunity to really examine an experience that taught you something you didn't previously know about yourself, got you out of your comfort zone, or forced you to grow. Sometimes it's better to write about something that was hard for you because you learned something than it is to write about something that was easy for you because you think it sounds admirable. As with all essay questions, the most important thing is to tell a great story: how you discovered this activity, what drew you to it, and what it's shown you about yourself.
Looking for strategic college advice?
Get one-on-one help from former Ivy League and top tier admission officers. Our College Admission Counselors will help you find, apply, and get accepted to your dream school.
The Staff of The Princeton ReviewFor more than 35 years, students and families have trusted The Princeton Review to help them get into their dream schools. We help students succeed in high school and beyond by giving them resources for better grades, better test scores, and stronger college applications. Follow us on Twitter: @ThePrincetonRev.
The Four Most Common Types of College Essays and How to Approach Them
Article Type: Quick and Dirty
Want to skip all the research and get to writing? Go straight to our COLLEGE APPLICATION ESSAY LAB for a step-by-step walkthrough of the writing process, from brainstorming all the way through to revisions.
And now, onto the meat.
Essay is not a four-letter word—though you may feel like using a few of your own when it comes time to write one. Most students would rather swim in a vat full of sharks while singing the national anthem (sharks + singing = Shmoop's worst nightmare) than sit down and write an application essay. And hey, we get it. It's easy to shrug off brainstorming, outlining, and agonizing over essay prompts for a Saturday afternoon snooze or four back-to-back episodes of The Walking Dead. But we also know that, sometimes, all you need to get started is a gentle little Shmoop. (Hint: It means to move things forward a bit.
These essays should be… fun. They're much more like narratives, journal entries, and free form writing than the highly structured, boring 5 paragraph essays you’ve probably been writing in school. In fact, some people say they’re even easier to write because they’re meant to be written in an everyday voice. It should all flow easily once you figure out what you want to write about. That, of course, is the hard part: deciding what stuff to write about.
But the nice thing about applying to colleges is that you’ll be able to recycle some of the essays you write for different schools, so you'll probably only have to write 3-4 essays at most. Sure, there’ll be slight changes here and there and maybe from year to year, but you’ll probably be able to use a couple of your essays multiple times. There are always going to be those schools with that weird prompt that doesn’t fit into any of these (check out UChicago), but even then, odds are you can adapt one of those four into one of the prompts. Most essays can be grouped into four general types:
1. The Personal Statement
The Gist: There are a lot of essay prompts that can be considered personal statements; these will range from “Tell us about yourself” to “Tell us about an experience that defines who you are.” An excellent example is the first essay topic choice from the 2013-2014 Common App:
“Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.”
The point of college essays in general is to show a side of you that the admissions committee can’t see just by looking at your transcript, letters of rec, resume, and whatnot. The point of personal statement essays in particular is to communicate something you do or did in the past—whatever, really—that defines who you are.
Approach: When choosing a topic for this kind of essay, you should select an experience or activity that played an important—even central—role in your life, but one that isn’t covered by the rest of your application. For instance, if most of the awards you won were from mock trial, you had a letter of rec from your mock trial coach, and mock trial filled up half a page on your resume, it might be better to write an essay about something else, unless you provide a story about an intense mock trial that required you to persist under pressure. Remember, the point of the essays is to show the admissions officers something that they can’t garner from the rest of your application.
In other words, write about anything. You can write about how singing in the shower has fundamentally changed the way you see things (we’re not even kidding, check this out), about how much you love baking cookies, or just about how much you loved this one art class you took (even if the rest of your application is pretty hardcore math/science). Colleges want multi-dimensional students, so show them something unique about yourself.
2. Your Favorite Activity
Gist: The answer to this prompt can range from competitive math to basketball to debate to a collection of vintage Superman comics. It can also be used for your personal statement as well. The point of this essay is to demonstrate your passion, have a deep intellectual understanding of something, and notice the details that 99.9% of others wouldn’t notice—anything that makes you stand out from the crowd.
Approach: Think about what your interests are. What do you do in your free time? If you could spend a day doing something, what would you do? Maybe answering watching TV or playing video games isn’t the best idea, unless you happen to run a TV station or have released your own iPhone apps. Think about why it’s your favorite activity and what about it gets you excited and just write. A good way to get material for a first draft is to write like you’re trying to convince someone how great lacrosse or competitive speed-eating or stamp collections really are. Just remember what you’re trying to get across to the people reading your essay: that you truly feel passionate about that activity, and that it brings something out of you that most people can’t match up to.
3. Why [insert school name]?
The Gist: This prompt will ask you why you want to spend the next four years of your life at one particular college. Strategically, this essay accomplishes two things: it shows your interest in the school (which is important, because schools want to maintain high matriculation rates), and it shows that you are a good fit for the school.
Approach: To approach this essay, think about how the admissions officers will see you: a potential math major with an interest in Shakespeare, a politics nerd with a photographic memory, an all-around artist with a knack for biology, whatever. Then, do some research. If you’re applying as a math major, check out the math department’s website. Look up clubs and organizations that you’d like to join at the school. Professors you'd like to work with on their groundbreaking research. In short, you want to communicate to the admissions committee that if you’re admitted, you would attend (regardless of whether it’s on top of your list or on the bottom; the point is to get in first, then decide where you want to go), and that if you were to attend, you’d contribute positively to the school one way or another.
4. Intellectual Curiosity
Gist: College = freedom at last. True, but let's not forget; you're also in school to study. You'll have to choose something to major in, and most schools will want to know what you like to learn in your free time. An example of this kind of question comes from Stanford's Supplemental Essay questions: Stanford students possess an intellectual vitality. Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development.
Approach: What are some of your favorite subjects in school? Do you feign a stomachache before math class so you can skip class? Similar to the other three previous essays, think about what characteristics are not yet portrayed through other essays or parts of your application. The admissions committee wants to know that you have a mind that's always hungry for more knowledge.
The people reading your essays are regular human beings, which means you should write with that in mind. A good way to check your tone is to read your essays out loud. No, not in your head, out loud. Read them to a friend, parent, sibling, whatever, and if you feel embarrassed or uncomfortable by the style, then you should change it. This doesn’t mean you should add in colloquial filler words like like, um, and uh, but it means that the essay should flow smoothly enough that you feel comfortable reading it out loud in front of someone you don’t know very well (don’t actually do that, but you should feel good enough to).
And… have fun. A lot of people think of college essays as a tedious chore, but actually, they’re a valuable experience to learn more about yourself and at the same time shake off the modesty a bit and brag to someone whose job it is to listen.
For a more extensive walk-through of the College Application Essay, check out our Writing the College Application Essay nano-course!