College Essays: Tips and Sample Questions

Learn how to write a college essay that will impress college admissions officers.

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One of the most important aspects of your college application is your personal essay. For most students, an essay is the best way to showcase your individual skills and talents to university staff. A strong college essay can overcome deficiencies in other areas of your application; it can also be the factor that pushes your application over the top and gets you accepted into the school of your choice.

College Essay Topics

The specific questions and topics you are allowed to write about will vary depending on which colleges you are applying to, and in most cases, you will have multiple options to choose from. However, most of the prompts used by colleges will fall under one of these three categories:

Instead of explicitly stating what you gained from the experience you are writing about; leave this to the interpretation of the reviewer by writing well, in other words: Show, don't tell.

  • Personal Statement: The most general personal statements ask you to write about your personality and interests and how you think they will benefit you in college.
  • Why us? You may be asked to write why you are interested in attending the university in which you are applying.
  • Creative Questions: Some college essay topics will be a completely random question, such as “If you could meet any historical figure, who would it be?”

Example College Essay Questions

Below are a list of questions asked by actual universities across the U.S, to help you brainstorm what you would like to write about in your college admissions essay.

  • “If you could redo your initial training in your high school or college years, what would you do differently and why?” (Bates College)
  • The New York City Department of Education is a diverse and dynamic system of 1,450 schools. The principals who lead these schools are searching for great teachers to meet the needs of their students. What are the THREE most important qualities you would want a principal to recognize in you as a potential staff member? (CUNY Hunter College)
  • “Dog and Cat. Coffee and Tea. Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye. Everyone knows there are two types of people in the world. What are they?” (The University of Chicago)

General College Essay Tips

  • Get your ideas down on paper.
  • Swarthmore College admissions staff recommends listing ideas for your essay before you begin any actual writing. By doing so, you will start to see connections between certain ideas, which will make your essay strong and cohesive.
  • Show, don’t tell.
  • According to the MIT admissions office, too many students focus on a “moral of the story” at the end of their essay. Instead of explicitly stating what you gained from the experience you are writing about; leave this to the interpretation of the reviewer.
  • Focus on your tone.
  • The University of Virginia website tells prospective students that “a good essay is good not because of the topic but because of the voice. A good writer can make any topic interesting.”

Remember, no writer is perfect the first time. Edit your essay multiple times and seek out the help of guidance counselors, English teachers and other writers. Oftentimes, the most obvious mistakes get overlooked by the writer, and having a second set of eyes will make your essay that much stronger.

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