Updated: April 18, 2023
The college admissions process can be overwhelming even under the best of circumstances. Chances are, you’ve got questions about your admission essays. I may not have all the answers, but I have quite a few of them. Here are some of the most common admission essay questions I’m asked, as well as my responses to them.
Have I missed one? Email me and let me know what it is!
What’s in This Post
Q: What are college admissions officers looking for in my essay?
While each admissions officer and/or reader could be looking at different elements in your application, many of them want to see the answers to questions like:
According to Rick Clark, Director of Undergraduate Admission at Georgia Tech, “In reading essays, admission reviewers simply want to get a sense of students’ ability to express themselves or provide insight into their character, background, motivations, and so on. As a result, essays matter. Nobody adds questions or prompts to their application just to make it longer. We read. We share. We glean insight from student writing.”
Q: My grades aren't great. Can a great essay still get me into an Ivy League school?
No. But don't worry, there are plenty of other great schools that will be a perfect fit for who you are and who you want to become. And you’ll love attending one of those schools.
Q: What about a bad essay? Can that negatively affect my application?
Of course. But the good news is that I've also heard admissions officers say that great essays will help you stand out from the competition more often than a bad essay will negatively impact your chances of admission. So while essays are just a piece of your application, they’re still an important piece.
Q: I have automatic admittance to my desired school. Does that mean I can put less effort into my essay?
Of course you could. That decision is up to you (but I wouldn’t advise it). If you choose to go this route, you probably don’t need to work with an essay coach.
But even if you have automatic admittance to a school, I’ll still encourage you to put the same effort into your essay as you would if you weren't guaranteed acceptance. Consider UT-Austin and A&M, in particular. They're both a little different in that they accept students to the school first, and then they accept them to a major.
So even if you’re auto-admit, you’re accepted to UT-Austin, but you might not get admitted to your first-choice major. In a recent webinar I listened to, they said in 2023 and going forward, your essays and resume will be really important in showing that you’re a good fit for your major.
Q: What makes for an amazing admission essay?
This is a great admission essay question. Your first instinct might be to say “one that’s well-written.” And while that’s important, I’d say it’s not THE most important. Some people are stronger writers than others, and some are applying to much more competitive schools than others. So to compare essays written by students with different skill levels and goals isn’t fair.
What’s more important, in my opinion, is that the writer chooses an important/unique aspect of themselves and can tell their story in an engaging and vulnerable way that shows the reader another side of the writer — one that can’t be found anywhere else in their application — and shows what’s important to them and what will make them a valuable asset to the school.
Personally, I like an unexpected topic, too. It’s hard to write a standout essay on a sports injury or moving unless you have a really unique spin on it. But reading about what you learned from riding a bike at age 17 or how your slime business helped you discover a passion for mental health? Those can really get a reader’s attention!
Q: How important is the word count?
There are a few ways in which word count is really important.
First, use that word count to your advantage. Don’t fill your essay with fluff or filler just to get to the maximum, but don’t skimp either. Tell your story in the number of words needed to tell that story well, without going over the maximum.
And not adhering to word count can be a big mistake. Why?
Now, some essays will have vague word counts — like “in about 250 words” — or they’ll have a maximum word count but will allow you to go over. In that case, I recommend keeping to no more than 10% over that maximum (e.g., 275 words for a 250-word essay). Be respectful of the admission officer’s time!
Q: Why do some colleges require an admission essay and others do not?
Many colleges require essays because it gives them another data point for evaluation (especially if they’ve gone test-optional or test blind) and an opportunity to get to know you on a more personal level. What do you like? What’s important to you? What might you bring to the campus? How and why are you different from all the other applicants with similar academic profiles?
More competitive schools tend to require essays (and several of them). You’ll also find that applications to honors colleges (where applicants are expected to demonstrate higher levels of critical thinking) also will almost always have required essays.
Georgia Tech’s Rick Clark says, “Those who do include writing as an opportunity for students to bring voice and personalization to an otherwise heavily box, number, and line- filled application.”
Q: Why are essays important?
Think about your application. It’s pretty heavily numbers-based right now. You’ve got a GPA, you’ve got a ranking, you’ve got hours of community service, you’ve got test scores, and you’ve got AP scores.
So how does an admission officer determine which student gets accepted, if they’ve got two who come from similar high schools, got a 30 on the ACT, are president of NHS, and are on the golf team?
The essays are your chance to show your personality, what’s important to you, and how you’ll fit into the college community.
Q: How much do essays really matter?
That depends on the college and on your application. Essays often matter more for small schools or schools that look at applications holistically. They matter most when it comes to differentiating you from students with similar academic profiles (grades, test scores, extracurriculars). As schools become/remain test-optional or test-blind or recalculate/dismiss GPAs, it’s likely that the essay will increase in importance to help admission officers evaluate and select right-fit students.
Q: How much time will admissions officers spend reading my admission essay?
Again, it depends. Some admissions officers may read only your opening paragraph. Some may read just the first lines of every paragraph. Yet others may read your whole essay more than once. That's why I encourage students to create a compelling opening that piques the reader's curiosity and encourages them to keep reading.
Q: How do I know what prompt to respond to?
Each application portal has its own set of prompts. For example, if you’re applying to UT or A&M, this is the main essay prompt that you’ll respond to (as of April 2023): Tell us your story. What unique opportunities or challenges have you experienced throughout your high school career that have shaped who you are today?
Super broad, right? Pretty much anything you choose to write about will fit into that prompt.
The same goes for if you’re applying through the Common App. They also have broad prompts, like “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, share your story.”
If given a choice of prompts, pick the one that best fits your story. There’s no one prompt that’s “better” than another. Truly, admission officers aren’t looking at what prompt you’re responding to. They’re interested in your essay.
Q: What if I don't know what to write about?
I've got a packet of great brainstorming activities that will help you start to think outside the box for your essay topics. During our initial brainstorming session, we'll go through those results and dive deeper into them. You'd be surprised at where a topic can come from — even within a casual conversation.
In the end, the best essays are stories about you, told in your words and in your voice.
Q: Are any essay topics off-limits?
We’ll generally avoid common essay topics, like COVID-19, moves, sports, mission trips, the death of a family member, and religion. This doesn't mean you can't write about these topics; instead, it just means you must be more mindful of the story you're telling.
These topics can be challenging because you don’t know who’s on the opposite end reading — what their viewpoints and perspectives on these sensitive topics are. Obviously, you also don’t want to write about anything illegal, and it’s probably best to avoid writing about any unresolved mental health issues. (Colleges want to make sure you’re healthy and ready to take on the rigor of college.)
In general, you don’t want to give the admission reader any reason to say “No” to you and your application
Q: What is your brainstorming process like?
I’ll email you a packet of brainstorming exercises to complete and return to me ahead of our first session. These exercises cover topics like values, memories, and challenges and will help us start to generate the topics needed for application essays.
Why do I have you do this on your own? I want to give you the opportunity to really think about your answers instead of putting you on the spot, and writing your answers versus speaking them may lead you to be more open and honest.
Then in our first session, we'll go over these exercises and look at the topics that interest you, that really exemplify who you are, and that will best position you in front of the admission officers. We may even do some short writing activities to get the creativity flowing.
Q: How do I begin to write my admission essay?
There are many different ways to start brainstorming topics. Here are just a few. Think about what's important to you and what a reader won't learn about you from anywhere else in your application. What are your unique skills and hobbies? What characteristics make you who you are? What experiences have you had in high school that have shaped who you are and what you want to become? How do you spend your time when you have no other obligations?
Another way to brainstorm topics is to think about the things you’re good at. What do you know that nobody else knows? I had a student this year who loves the number Pi, and she’s memorized a crazy amount of digits of Pi. In her essay, she talks about that, but then she also talks about where else that love for numbers also shows up in different places in her life, and it becomes really clear what she values and what’s important to her.
You can also think about the places where you’re a leader. It might be places where you’re an official leader, like the president of NHS. But you might also be the person who always picks the restaurant your friend group goes to.
Even ask yourself, “What would I be on America’s Got Talent for?”
So your topic can be silly, it can be fun. It can be a big challenge you’ve gone through. It can be a small one.
I will say that when you’re writing about challenges, many students tend to write about things like death, divorce, moving, winning or losing the big game, or tearing their ACL. Now, those topics can work, and they’re super-impactful for the student, but they’re also very common.
I don’t want to diminish the importance of these topics, but I do notice it’s harder for students to stand out with them.
If you decide to write on these topics, I’d encourage you to think about how you’re different because of this event. What have you learned from that experience that has shaped who you are and how you go about life differently?
Q: What if I’m still stuck on choosing a topic?
You might be overthinking it. You don’t have to cure cancer or save a baby from a burning building to make for a memorable essay. You can write an amazing essay on a simple topic.
Still stuck? Think about your future career. What three qualities/skills/traits/values does that career require? Can you tell stories about times when you demonstrated each in your life? So if being an accountant requires precision, can you tell a story about a time in your life when you had to be precise and what you learned from that experience?
Q: How long should my essay be?
Your main admission essay will be about 650 words. Some schools, like Texas A&M and UT-Austin, will let you go closer to 750 words on the personal statement, but I’d keep it to about 650 if you plan to submit applications on the Common App too.
If you’re given a firm word count, adhere to it. You’re likely to have your essay cut off mid-sentence if you don’t.
Q: How do I structure my essay?
You may be used to writing standard 5-paragraph essays for English or history class where you’ve had to defend your thesis and prove a point. Luckily, you have a lot more flexibility when writing your admissions essay. You can format it as a poem. It can be a rap. Every line can be its own paragraph. It can be a play. It can be just a handful of paragraphs.
When you're writing your admissions essay and looking to show something special about yourself, you might consider structuring your essay in one of these two ways:
If you’re working with me, we’ll discuss structure in our initial brainstorming meeting and identify which approach you might prefer using, based on the ideas you generate.
Q: What tone and language should I use in my essay?
These are very casual, conversational essays. Use the words you’d use when you’re talking with friends. You can use contractions and slang — even the occasional four-letter word (if it truly adds to the story).
Tell the story you want to tell — not what you think the reader wants to hear — and then tell the story the way you’d tell your friends over coffee.
Q: What kinds of supplemental essays might I have to write?
You’ll see a lot of supplemental essay questions like, “Why do you want to study your selected major?” “Why are you interested in our school?” “What’s an extracurricular activity that has been meaningful to you?”
But here’s the good news: Often, different schools use the same (or similar) prompts. So even if you’re applying to 10 schools and have 40 essays to write, there’s often an overlap with those. That means you can often use the same essay (or a slightly modified version of it) for each school that uses the same prompt.
Q: How many essays will I need to write?
Depending on the schools you're applying to, you could find yourself writing 10-15 essays in total, which includes your personal statement for the ApplyTexas, Common Application, or Coalition Application portals and supplemental essays. You may be writing even more for scholarship essays. Here’s the good news: Some of your essays can be reused for multiple prompts, and you should take a look at all your prompts before you start writing to maximize the results while minimizing the number of individual essays you have to write.
Q: How long will it take to write all these admission essays?
There’s no magic number of hours you’ll need for brainstorming, drafting, and writing your essays. The process depends on several factors, like:
For your main essay, it could take 10 drafts until you’re happy with what you’ve generated — or the process could go much faster.
For supplemental essays, the time needed for writing varies widely based on the word count and prompt. But the brainstorming work you do ahead of time should give you a great start.
Q: How long do essays have to be?
It depends. Your main essay (often called the “personal statement”) will generally be no more than 650 words. The length of your supplemental and scholarship essays will vary and can range from single-word responses to 1,000-word answers.
Q: What if I'm not a great writer?
Maybe you have a hard time writing but you’re a great out-loud storyteller. Some students tell their stories out loud while Google transcribes them, and many are surprised at how much better their essay sounds that way even though it's the same story as the written version.
Sometimes it helps to just type everything you think. Don’t judge, just type. Sometimes those free-flowing ideas serve as a great basis for an outline or first draft.
Keep in mind, too, that this essay will be very different from the ones that you're used to writing for English classes. You may just find that this one is, in some ways, much easier to write.
Q: Which is more important: my story or my writing ability?
Both are important. You want to tell an interesting, authentic story, but it needs to be told in your words. Admissions officers will know if an adult had too heavy of a hand in your essay. Trust me.
But make sure you still proofread and edit your essay. There are tons of great free resources, like Word’s spell check. Use them!
If you want to take spell-check up a notch, I highly recommend the paid version of Grammarly. It finds easily missed mistakes in even a seasoned writer/editor’s work!
Q: Can I reuse admission essays?
Some schools will have similar or even identical essay prompts, letting you submit the same essay for more than one school.
I encourage you to create a list of all the schools you're applying to and the essays they require. Then go through that list, identifying where you could submit the same or even slightly modified essays.
Q: What are some mistakes students make when writing their admission essays?
The biggest no-no is not following instructions. While some prompts are pretty vague (“describe a challenge you’ve experienced…”), there’s still a question you need to answer. So if you’re given a prompt on “Describe a challenge you’ve experienced and what you learned from it,” don’t spend your essay talking about how you want to be a doctor because you love Grey’s Anatomy.
Admission officers want to know that you can follow directions, and failing to do so (even if you have the best of intentions) doesn’t win you any points.
Besides that, some other mistakes include things like:
And some other things that aren’t exactly no-nos; rather, they’re “tread cautiously here” are things like writing your admissions essays on:
Q: How can I get ready for essays before summer starts?
First, if you don’t already have a Common App account, you can start one now and start filling in some of the personal information. Don’t fill out any school-specific information before Aug. 1, because that will likely change once the Common App reopens.
On Aug. 1, everything will roll over and the Common App will reopen with the new prompts. You’ll probably get an email asking if you want to roll your account over, and you just say yes.
While you shouldn’t start writing any school-specific essays until the schools confirm their prompts, you can look at the previous year’s prompts to see what schools were asking and to start getting some ideas.
Q: What other resources do you recommend?
I have a whole page dedicated to some of my favorite essay-writing resources. Go check them out.
Q: When will my essays and applications be due?
Most applications open Aug. 1 (a few will open earlier), and that’s when you can start submitting your applications. Most of the supplemental essay prompts for the specific schools you’re applying to will be released before then.
If you’re applying Early Action or Early Decision, those applications are often due around Oct. 1 or Oct. 15.
For Regular Decision applications, many of those are due in December and January.
Q: When should I start my essays?
Start them the summer after your junior year, and get as much done over the summer as possible.
Take a little breather after school lets out, but then get to work. I’ll tell you: Senior year will come fast, and it’ll come hard. Many Class of 2023 students procrastinated and then regretted it because they didn’t anticipate senior year being as busy and as challenging as it turned out to be.
Q: Do I need a resume?
For college applications? Not necessarily. Some schools let you submit a resume, and UT-Austin encourages the expanded resume, which is a big way to show fit to major. Include all the activities you’ve been involved with during high school, even if you’re no longer involved in them. (But if you paid $25 to join the ceramics club but never went, don’t include that on your resume.)
But here’s another reason you should be working on a great resume: You should give your resume to your teachers to help them write better letters of recommendation.
Q: What should I look for in an admission essay coach?
Make sure you find one you'll be comfortable talking to, as finding the right story to tell in your essay means me asking (and you answering) a lot of questions.
Before you make a decision, I encourage you to ask a coach if they can do a quick Zoom meeting with you so you can get to know them, see their personality, and hear more about their approach.
You'll also want to find someone who can not only help you find meaningful stories to tell, but who can also make sure your essays are grammatically, structurally, and thematically sound. For example, I have my master's in counseling psychology, but I've also been a writer, editor, and proofreader for more than 15 years.
Also keep in mind the number of colleges you'll be applying to and the number of essays you'll need to write, as that will affect the price you pay for coaching.
Some coaches prefer to work virtually, while some prefer in-person sessions. Others are equally at ease with both. I find that Zoom sessions can be just as effective as in-person sessions, so I offer both types of meetings. I encourage you to also check their Facebook page, Google page, or website to read reviews from past and current students and parents.
Q: Will working with an essay coach get me into my dream school?
Because so many factors go into a college deciding whether to admit a student. I make no assurances that your finished essay will guarantee admittance into any college or university— and no other college admissions professional should, either.
Q: When should I start working with an essay coach?
I recommend researching essay coaches in the late winter or early spring of your junior year. Depending on their availability, you might need to put down a deposit to hold a space for you when you're ready to get to work in the summer after your junior year.
Q: Will an essay coach advise me which colleges I should/shouldn't be applying to?
As an essay-only coach, I don’t provide college counseling and can’t adequately advise you as to which schools may or may not be a good fit for you. I can, however, refer you to college coaches or independent educational consultants who can help with that part of the college process and make sure. you have an appropriate mix of “likelies” (schools you expect you'll get in to and that you wouldn’t be upset going to), “targets” (good-fit schools that aren’t easy to get into but that aren’t impossible, either), and “lotteries” (schools that are stiff competition for any applicant).
Note that the ever-changing admissions landscape (pandemics, test optional/blind, etc.) means that a “target” for you this year might not be one next year — and that a target school for you may not be one for a student with an academic profile similar to yours.
While I can't help you set your college list, there are plenty of great resources online that can get you started. One great all-in-one college workbook is the College Prep Project, available on Amazon.
Q: How important is it to let an essay coach or someone else read over, critique, and revise my essay?
There’s no one perfect answer for this. Many students have written, edited, and submitted essays on their own — without anyone else ever reviewing them — and have been accepted into great schools.
But having someone else read it can also give you great feedback. Does it sound good? Does the reader learn something they didn’t already know?
It doesn’t have to be an essay coach that you hire (although you certainly can). You can have your parents, a trusted friend, an English teacher, or another adult review it.
If you DO have someone else review the essay, be really clear about what you want them to do in their review. Just check for typos? Give their opinion on the topic? Identify parts that don’t make sense?
And remember: Admission officers know what 17- and 18-year-olds sound like, and they know what their parents sound like. Don’t let someone else write your essay or have too heavy a hand in editing. It shows.
You don’t have to work with an essay coach to write and submit an amazing essay. Check out “My Favorite Books” for a list of some great resources that can help you do it all on your own. Or get on the College Essay Guy’s email list and take advantage of his free resources.
Knowing that other students are feeling the same nerves about their college applications and have the same questions as you do helps (I hope) reduce some of the stress that comes along with college applications. Remember: These essays are an opportunity for you to highlight your personalities and values while showcasing your writing skills. By following the tips outlined in this post, you can get started on creating a strong essay that captures your voice and sets you apart from other applicants. If you get stuck along the way, just reach out. I’d be happy to tell you how my personalized coaching programs might help.