College Essays

Of all the factors colleges consider in your application, the essay is the one that causes seniors the most stress.  How do you tell an invisible stranger on an admission committee who you are and what makes you you? 

Let’s start with a basic question: Why do colleges require essays? Of course an essay demonstrates your writing ability, but it is also your chance to share something about yourself that you think is important.  Don’t ask yourself, “What do the colleges want to know about me?”  Instead, ask, “What do I want to tell them?” Your essay should highlight something about you that a reader wouldn’t discover in another part of your application.

Some Do’s and Don’t's

There are many online tips from admission officers for writing a great college essay.  Here’s an amalgamation of the best:

  • It goes without saying that your essay needs to be written by you. Period.
  • Choose a topic that’s right for you.  Write about something that interests you. If you aren’t interested in what you’re saying, no one will be.
  • Share something about yourself, not everything about yourself.
  • Offer something only you could write and remember, the details make it interesting.  Stay away from your obvious passion.  We’ll learn more about you if you share something we’re unlikely to find out about you otherwise.
  • Stay away from fads/current events. Stick to your own experience.
  • Avoid writing about other people. We all have grandparents we love, but they’re not applying to college—you are.
  • Don’t try to be funny if you’re not.
  • Use a strong opener. Catch our attention right from the start.
  • Rarely is an essay about breaking school rules or a run-in with the law a good idea.
  • Your essay should not be one long excuse for academic issues.
  • Put away the thesaurus.
  • Show rather than tell.
  • EDIT—use spellcheck and then proofread carefully to catch their/there and it’s/its kind of mistakes.
  • Get someone to proofread, but don’t let that person over edit and make it stale.
  • Make it your best, most correct writing.
  • Be bold. You’ve got a great essay in you!

Common Application Essay Prompts

The Common Application website has very detailed information. Check the Common App Training Resources to view introductory guidelines for filling out and submitting the Common Application.

2019-2020 Common Application Essay Prompts

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.

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?

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

4. 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.

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

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?

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.

AND.... Common App announced they will include a question on the 2020-2021 application related to Covid-19:

  1. Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces.
  • Do you wish to share anything on this topic? Y/N
  • The question will be optional and will appear in the Additional Information section of the application.The response length will be limited to 250 words.


Coalition Application Essay Prompts

Many of the colleges and universities that accept the Coalition application require you to submit at least one essay as part of your application. You can start working on these essays at any time and save drafts in your MyCoalition Locker. While there is no perfect length for an essay, we recommend that you aim for 500 to 550 words. For more information on specific application requirements, please consult the website for each institution to which you are applying, as requirements often vary

The essay prompts for the 2019-20 application year are:

  • Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
  • Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.
  • Has there been a time when you’ve had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?
  • What is the hardest part of being a student now? What’s the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?
  • Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.

You've Written Your Essay, Now What?

Proofread, proofread, proofread! And then proof it again. Perhaps a final grammar check is in order? Visit the MASH to talk with an English teacher about your essay. If you would like the CRC to read it and give you feedback, contact the CRC. Drop in during office hours or set up a meeting with Ms. Belstra. Your counselor, parents and friends who have been through the application process are great resources as well.