Admissions counselors want (and need) to get to know you better — and that means learning about more than just your grades, transcripts, activities, and test scores. By the time you’re applying to colleges and universities, most of your application information is (relatively) set in stone. GPAs, rankings, course loads, ACT/SAT scores, and activities — none of these will change dramatically your senior year. (At least, we hope not.) What about writing your admission essay?
You still have complete control over that. This essay is your chance to express who you are and let the reader get to know you, your values, what makes you one-of-a-kind, and what’s meaningful and important to you and why. And with admissions to some schools getting even more competitive, there’s a good chance the essay will become an even more important part of your application.
Writing your essay may seem like an overwhelming task, but it doesn’t have to be hard. The suggestions here can help you get started, but they’re by no means the only way to come up with a great topic.
There are different prompts you’ll need to answer in your admissions essay, depending on what schools you’re applying to and which application portals they use. The good news is this:
Here are the prompts for three main portals — the Common App, the Coalition App, and ApplyTexas — for the 2021-2022 application year. Take a few minutes to read through them. They might give you some ideas for topics right away, or you might still be stumped about what to write about. It’s OK either way.
Download your copy of the current personal statement prompts for the Common App, Coalition App, ApplyTexas and the University of California system.
Now that you know what the prompts are, set them aside for a bit. Sometimes, instead of picking a prompt and then telling a story, it’s easier to tell a story and then match it to a prompt.
Here’s how to get started with identifying a story you want to tell.
While there are few topics you really should never write about, let’s start out with a few that you’ll want to be careful about. Why? Because either students tend to write about these topics very frequently (which makes it hard for your essay to be memorable in a sea of similar essays) or it’s a sensitive topic that could concern admissions officers or make them question your college readiness. Some of the topics to think twice about are:
For more, watch the “11 Terrible College Essay Topics to avoid” video on YouTube.
So, if you shouldn’t write about those things, what story should you tell?
When writing your admission essay, think about what it is you want to show the admissions officer that they can’t find anywhere else in your application. They’re going to know if you’re a good student. If you served your community. If you had a part-time job. If you were president of NHS or captain of the football team.
What they don’t know is if you’re resourceful or empathetic. If you’re great at thinking on your feet and coming up with unique solutions to common problems. If you’re known for your wit. The qualities you possess and the characteristics you value can show a lot about who you are, and they can also help you stand out with admissions officers. Can you think of some?
If you’re still not exactly sure how to name those specific values, go through The College Essay Guy’s Values exercise. Which do you identify with? Which can you tell a story about?
Another way to identify some of the values you might want to show when writing your admission essay is by looking up at what you might want to do as a career on onetonline.org and see what skills are needed. Do you have them? Can you tell a story about a specific time when you demonstrated them?
Yet another approach is to look at a challenge you’ve been through and what you’ve learned from it. Were you in a skateboarding accident and had to learn to walk again? Did you have to cook Thanksgiving dinner for your extended family — and you have no idea how to boil water? You can write about any challenge you’ve been through — no matter how big or small — as long as you’ve learned something about yourself or the world from it.
You can also simply write about something that makes you, YOU. Do you hate cheese but work in the cheese department of your grocery store? Do you organize a fantasy football league for your friends each year? Do you teach ballroom dance? Have a lucky hat?
Again, anything can be a topic as long as you can share what you’ve learned about yourself or the world. Here are some other examples of topics students have written about for their admissions essay.
Once you’ve identified a few of these top skills, values, or characteristics, it’s time to tell a story about it.
Can you think of ONE specific memory/story from your high school years that would demonstrate that value? This is the “what happened” part of your story. (And yes, it’s important to base most of your essay about what you’ve discovered about yourself during high school. You can mention things that happened earlier, but the main focus should be 9th-12th grade.)
This story should be something no one else could write about in quite the same way. While the TOPIC could be common to other students, what you LEARNED from an experience and how it CHANGED you is unique to you. This is the “why it matters” part of your story.
You’ll want to keep both “what happened” and “why it matters” in mind as you're writing your admission essay.
Here’s an example:
Value/Skill/Characteristic I Want to Show About Myself
Empathy, Connection, Relationships
Specific Memory About One Time When I Showed This Value/Skill/Characteristic
My junior year of high school, I started posting mini mental health challenges on my Instagram page. People started telling me how much it helped them and got them to think about the world differently. Some people told me it even inspired them to talk with their parents about seeing a counselor.
What I Learned From That Experience
I learned that my words have power and that I can help people change their lives. I also learned how important mental health is and for people to have someone they can confide in — and I want to be that person.
Repeat this for a few of your top values. Does one jump out at having more potential?
When you’re writing your admission essay and telling your story, use very clear, descriptive memories that engage the reader and show them who you are, what you value and what’s cool about you.
Think about the five senses — what you see, taste, smell, touch, and hear — and use that to set the tone and the scene and to SHOW the reader what you learned without having to TELL them. Here’s what I mean:
Do you see how in the second paragraph, you can totally understand the author is tired without them ever having to say the words? That’s how you can not only draw your reader in, but you can also demonstrate what you’ve learned and how you’ve grown from an experience.
If you’re still stuck on deciding what topic is going to show something amazing about you, here are some brainstorming ideas and resources you should check out.