Are you getting your college applications ready? In most cases, you’ll need a copy of your transcript, letters of recommendation, and the often-dreaded admissions essay. To make the process a little easier, read on as Ann Arbor, MI teacher Elaina R. shares some of the most common admissions essay topics you might run into…
College admissions essays act as the human element in the otherwise statistic-driven admissions process. Where test scores and GPAs could easily be evaluated by an algorithm, someone has to actually sit down and read your essay. The goal of the college admissions essay is simple: getting to know the person behind the statistics. If you do a good job, the admissions officer gets a little glimpse of your personality that tips the scales in your favor.
Colleges tend to use the same types of essay topics and prompts each year. Knowing what to expect, and remembering to focus on yourself – not your nervous college applicant self, but your real, quirky, interesting self – gives you a good shot at writing an essay worth remembering.
1. A Defining Experience
“Describe an experience that changed your life.” “Tell us about an experience that defines who you are.” This is probably the most common essay topic. While some students have a truly life-changing experience that they want to write about, many others are left wondering whether they should write about winning softball regionals or going to Disney World.
If you are one of the many students without a crazy story to tell, spend some time brainstorming about who you are and what it is you want the admissions committee to know. Small-scale stories can be just as effective as large-scale ones. My own college admissions essay was about a haircut, but I used it to show how I had grown as a person and overcome adversity. It got me into a great school.
2. A Hobby or Interest
When faced with the “Write about your favorite hobby” prompt, many students’ first inclination is to write about an extracurricular already displayed prominently on their application. The admissions officer already know that you are captain of the football team if it says so on your extracurriculars list. That doesn’t mean that you can’t write about the football team (or debate team or drama club), but it does mean you should take a second look first.
Make a list of all of the hobbies and activities you enjoy. Remember, the admissions officer is going to read hundreds of essays about sports, but how many essays will be about baking artisan bread or collecting preserved beetles? Those are the essays admissions officers are more likely to remember.
3. The Role Model Essay
Don’t write about how Albert Einstein is your role model just to impress the admissions officer. Since the goal is getting to know you better, picking a famous historical figure for the wrong reasons could backfire. If Albert Einstein is genuinely your role model and you’ve read dozens of books on him, it will show. If he isn’t, that will show as well.
Make a list of people who have inspired you or made a difference in your life. Your role model could turn out to be your grandmother, a grocery store clerk, or even a fictional character.
4. Why Our University?
Even this question is about you. Admissions officers do not want you to rattle off statistics about their university. They work in the admissions office and probably know all of the statistics already. They know that the school is great; what they want to know is what you would do if you got in.
Do some research on your specific areas of interest within the school. That includes academic departments, professors who have worked in your field, and classes that sound interesting. Look into activities as well – a cappella groups, intramural sports, charitable organizations, and so on. Tell the admissions officer exactly what your life at their school would look like.
No matter what the essay topic is, when writing a college admissions essay, always focus on you. The college admissions committee wants to know who you are and what you have to say. Be honest, be creative, and above all, be yourself.
Elaina R. is a writer, editor, singer, and voice teacher based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her book Slaying Your Admissions Essay Dragon shows how to write application essays that are actually fun to read. Elaina has served as an editor for several notable books as well, including NFL great Adrian Peterson’s autobiography Don’t Dis My Abilities. Learn more about Elaina here!
Photo by LOLitsLloyd
The 2014-15 Common Application is open for the Class of 2019! Unlike last year’s Common App, which was marred with technical difficulties through the final application deadlines, the application has seen a smooth first week, with more than 600 applications submitted on Aug. 1.
As high school students prepare to complete their applications, especially those applying early decision or early action, it’s important to understand what’s expected on this year’s Common Application, and how to prepare.
Here’s what to know about this year’s Common Application:
No change in the Common Application essay prompts.
Even after much criticism last year with elimination of the “topic of choice” and “activity” essay, the Common Application essay prompts have stayed the same for this year, along with the 650-word limit. Here are this year’s essay prompts, of which students will choose one to write on:
- 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.
- Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
- Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
- Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
- Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
More quirky and unusual prompts – some created by previous applicants.
The trend of fun, unusual, and downright quirky essay supplements has continued, with many schools adding or reusing odd essay prompts from supplements past. Here are some wacky Common App prompts that some students will have to complete if they’re applying to these colleges:
- Describe your favorite “Bazinga” moment. (Lehigh University)
- What one invention would you uninvent if you could, and why? (Brandeis University)
- The Block Plan at Colorado College has a tradition of innovation and flexibility. Please design your own three-and-a-half week course and describe what you would do. (Colorado College)
- Give us your Top Ten. (Wake Forest University)
- What sets your heart on fire? (Villanova University)
- Little pigs, french hens, a family of bears. Blind mice, musketeers, the Fates. Parts of an atom, laws of thought, a guideline for composition. Omne trium perfectum? Create your own group of threes, and describe why and how they fit together. (University of Chicago – inspired by student in the Class of 2018)
New member institutions.
Despite some notable schools also turning to the Universal Common Application, a Common App competitor, in light of last year’s difficult application season, the Common App added more member colleges this year, brining the total membership to over 550.
Some of the new member colleges for the 2014-15 application season include Bard College, Georgia State University, and High Point University.
When building your balanced college list, it’s important to make note of colleges’ application systems and whether they accept the Common Application, host their own separate application, or both. If some colleges also accept the Universal College Application, you will also want to make note of that as it might be a better fit for some of your application goals.
Common App vs. Universal College Applications: What are the differences and which should you use?
The rise of the Common Application has really only brought forth one competitor – the Universal College Application (UCA). While the UCA has significantly fewer member colleges – 44 compared to Common App’s 550 – some of the country’s most selective colleges and universities are accepting applications on the UCA, including Cornell, Duke, UChicago, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, and Vanderbilt.
One of the most significant differences between Common App and UCA, besides the size, is the content. While the Common App offers five prompts with no “topic of choice” or separate activity essay, the UCA offers only one essay that is completely open – allowing students to write on whatever they choose. Here is the UCA essay prompt in full:
- Please write an essay (650 words or fewer) that demonstrates your ability to develop and communicate your thoughts. Some ideas include: a person you admire; a life-changing experience; or your viewpoint on a particular current event.
The UCA also offers a section for an “activity essay” in the extracurricular activities section, a popular essay prompt that was taken off the Common App last year. Here is the activity essay prompt in full:
- Tell us about one of your extracurricular, volunteer, or employment activities.
Also, like the Common Application, the UCA hosts college-specific supplements that are required for consideration at member colleges.
While both applications are very similar, their major differences in the writing prompts can influence some students’ essays. The Common App essay topics are sometimes considered broad enough to allow students to write about whatever they want, but the explicit “topic of choice” UCA prompt might be attractive to more students. The short answer on which application you should use? Whichever you prefer.
If you’re applying to 10-15 schools that all accept the Common Application, then that application choice will probably be the easiest for you to use. If you’re applying to some colleges that do not use either the Common App or UCA (like Georgetown) and some that host on both, choose the application that offers the most flexibility for your essays. If you have a knockout activity essay that you wish to submit to colleges that accept the UCA, use that option. No one application is favored over the other, so choose the application that is the best fit for you.
If you’re unsure about how to proceed with varying applications, supplements, and application timelines, our team of expert counselors is here to help! Contact us today for more information on how we can help you make the most of your college admissions experience.
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