You may be wondering why college admissions officers ask for essays, and what college essays topics you should expect! While it’s true that sending a transcript and supporting materials, such as your SAT or ACT scores and a college recommendation letter is a large bulk of work, admissions officers also want to hear from you and get to know you beyond the numbers they see on paper! Read on to learn what college essay topics are common, and discover prompts to help you get started!
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College Essay: Common Prompts for your Admissions Essay
College essays are important for college admissions because they give you an opportunity to show the admissions committee a side of you that isn’t reflected in your transcript and test scores.
You don't have to be a professional writer, but you do need to try hard and think about what you want to say. The essay prompt is usually just one sentence long (but sometimes longer). In it, colleges are essentially asked you, “Tell us about yourself—what makes you special?”.
Some prompts will ask for specifics like your strengths, setbacks, hobbies or activities; others will ask for more general information about how your family, background and experiences have influenced who you are today. Whatever prompt you get, it’s always best to use experiences and examples from your life that can demonstrate your suitability for your chosen college, self-awareness and your strengths.
Now, let’s go over some of the most common types of college admissions essay and supplemental college application essay prompts, so you can start brainstorming for your essays!
Prompt 1: Describe who you are/share your story
This is a very common prompt, and it's important to understand how to tackle it.
When you brainstorm how to answer this prompt, come up with a few key events or experience that made you—you. Who is your family? What is your background? What life events formed your worldview? What interests and activities made you who you are today?
Remember, less is more here. For example:
“I am passionate about everything I set my mind to, and I never walk away from a task until I’ve made a considerable effort at succeeding. I’ve been this way since the age of four; that was when I decided that I wanted to try figure skating after watching the Olympics with my dad that winter. Although I tried, I wasn’t good at figure skating whatsoever, but I still enjoyed the process of learning and attended lessons every weekend for nearly a year. Then, I saw other girls in my grade demonstrating their ballet skills at recess in the first grade, so I decided to transfer my passion for figure skating into my new mission, which was to become a talented dancer.
By the age of ten, I still hadn’t excelled, but I enjoyed dance and learned a lot about resiliency and confidence because of it. However, I came to enjoy soccer even more. For the duration of my childhood, dozens of posters with images of athletes, musicians, and other public figures who had skills and talents I admired hung in my bedroom. I was fascinated by their strength and dedication, no matter what they were famous for. I wanted to be just like them, and I looked to them for inspiration, guidance, and advice…especially after my dad died when I was eleven. That same year, I tried to manifest the positive energy I perceived my idols to have, and ended up becoming captain of my soccer team. It was difficult to do without my dad there, but I discovered that even during a tough time, I had innate leadership abilities and was able to exhibit a lot of strength, just like the athletes and celebrities I admired.
I was often mocked for having so many aspirations as I grew, and told to “just pick one thing”, but the truth was, I loved trying new things, and I loved the challenge of finding my niche in life. Through my athletic experience as a soccer player, ex-dancer, and ex-figure skater, as well as my personal experiences, I learned how to appreciate the beauty in every experience and every person, professional athlete or everyday individual. I learned how to draw on several personal strengths and areas of interest to persevere during the worst times; if not for my leadership role on my soccer team after my dad passed, and the support of my like-minded team members, I feel I would have lost a bit of my spark.
I plan to continue to play soccer throughout my journey toward becoming an exceptional psychotherapist and helping other young people discover their potential.”
Prompt 2: An event that changed you
When you are asked to write an essay about an event that changed you, colleges want to see your personal, unique perspective and what you learned from the experience. How did the event affect your values and goals? What were the outcomes of this experience? As a result of this event, how have you grown and matured as a person?
This should be a narrative essay, just like all your admissions essays. Give the reader a brief outline of the event, and share what you took away from the experience. How has your life and character changed? It’s important to focus on what you have learned from the experience and whether or not there’s been significant growth in your character. For example:
“It was mid-July, I was in the backseat of our family Dodge, listening to my parents chat about the family barbeque we had just attended. My sister and I were both listening to music with our headsets in, and suddenly, my dad swerved. A deer had jumped out onto the road, and suddenly our car, and our lives, were spinning out of control. I locked eyes with my sister as the window shattered around her when we collided with a tree.
We all survived, however, my sister, who was sixteen at the time, suffered a traumatic brain injury. I’ve watched my sister tackle her brain injury with extreme positivity and perseverance, but the past few years have been nothing short of turbulent. The feeling you get when you watch your sister, once an established theatre-geek and dancer, struggle to feed herself and have to relearn how to walk, speak, and move is not something I can easily explain. However, as I spent more time at the children’s hospital with her, specifically in the first year after her injury, I realized that she wasn’t the only person out there dealing with a traumatic injury or illness. And, I realized how truly special some physicians, nurses and surgeons are; working with injured children and teens was rewarding to many of them, and they never became desensitized to the traumatic nature of their patient’s injuries. Their care and dedication were inspirational to me.
Two years after the accident, I decided to start volunteering at the same hospital that saved my sister. I wanted to give back, and I wanted to be “okay” with what had happened. Initially, this was a healing journey for me, I hadn’t ever thought I’d be able to manage volunteering with young people who were suffering… I used to want to be a teacher. But experiencing what my family did, and continuing to learn through my volunteer work at the hospital, I quickly became inspired to work harder in school and shift my career focus. That’s why I’d like to one day become a neurosurgeon, and focus on pediatric care.”
Wondering how to write a good college essay?
Prompt 3: Why a certain place is important to you and your passions
Your answer can consider any of the following:
- Your background. Reflect on your hometown, your culture, and your family. Many of the experiences we go through, and locations we visit in our formative years can create compelling stories for such prompts
- A specific experience you had at a location that became dear to you. Perhaps it was an exciting concert that inspired your love of music, or perhaps it was when you learned something important about yourself while volunteering at an animal shelter.
- How this location makes you feel when visiting—and what emotions are evoked by going there. For example:
“When I visit the local duck pond, I think of growth. I think of the beauty of life and even when I am stressed out and uncertain of my next move, I am grounded when I am there. Some people have asked why I endure the walk—which takes about forty minutes—even on days when the weather is unfavorable. My answer is always, “because it is my spot” and nothing more.
When I immigrated to this country fifteen years ago, I barely spoke English. I was scared, and so were my family members…my grandfather in particular. He was troubled by the atrocities he’d witnessed as a soldier and a life-long citizen of our home country. My grandfather took my siblings and I to the duck pond as soon as he’d discovered it on a walk only months after we moved here. Our parents worked constantly, and our grandfather had become a bit of a private, sheltered man, so this was initially his way of entertaining us within his comfort zone. And, we loved it.
With the ducks quacking around us, and various other birds and creatures stirring in the tall grass, we felt free, which was something we had yet to feel in our new country. At the duck pond, we were free to be scared and cry, but also free to feel comfort and bliss. We could speak our own language without being mocked or ridiculed, and, we could practice our English, or do our homework, in our own time. We liked to joke that the ducks celebrated our milestones with us. They heard us utter our first English sentences, talk about the new friends we eventually found, and one summer, they watched us try Klondike bars for the first time.
The ducks also brought comfort to my grandfather that nobody else could; he would rip them pieces of bread delicately and utter phrases to them in our mother tongue, and I would swear the ducks understood him, and were empathetic toward a tormented old man who sought their company for peace. Throughout my undergraduate degree, the ducks saw me study, weep, and celebrate.
Sometimes I visit alone, as my siblings moved away, but some days, I carry the pendant my grandfather gave me before he died with me. I think the ducks miss him too, so I bring a piece of him along whenever I can. The duck pond is my place that reminds me of where I’ve been, and how far I—and my entire family—have come. It reminds me of what is possible, and that fear does dwindle. My parents worked tirelessly to provide us with the opportunity to access education, and while they saved every penny, my grandfather did all that he could to provide us with a safe space in nature to help us grow and find ourselves in a new land.”
Prompt 4: A time when you learned something about yourself/ describe a time where you failed.
These types of essay prompts may require some reflection. Learning about yourself isn’t always easy, and neither is accepting failure, and while it’s okay to discuss something you realized about the world or others, it’s best to focus on the impact of what you learned about yourself (through failure or general experience) had on you. In other words, how did you overcome the setback? How did it make you stronger?
In this prompt, don’t just tell a story of how you learned something new. Give details and make a point! You want to use this essay as an opportunity to show the admissions team that you’re self aware and constantly reflecting, which is a great skill to have as an academic. Highlight how your experiences have shaped your worldview and how they’ve taught you valuable life lessons! For example:
“When I was 16, I failed horribly at something I wanted so badly to succeed in, and it crushed me. I wanted to be an actor so badly, I’d studied hours of musical theatre songs and choreography and dedicated a large part of my personality to being a ‘theatre kid’. But, my only problem was, I couldn’t really sing well, my dancing was subpar compared to the other kids, and my acting was mediocre at best. Still, I shoved every potential new friendship, opportunity and activity aside in an attempt to excel at something I loved.
But, right when I was about to give up, I realized something. I looked around at the crew on and off stage, and for the first time I really wrapped my head around the fact that there are multiple skillsets and talented people involved in making a great show. I discussed my revelation with my theatre teacher, and in second semester that year, I joined the production crew. There, I learned organizational skills and exceled and both directing and producing scenes. By the time I graduated high school, I produced two plays, one of which received outstanding reviews! I loved producing, and have recently found a knack for screenwriting, too. Once a theatre kid, always a theatre kid, even if not in the conventional way!; that is why I am applying to the Directing program at X University.”
Prompt 5: Your future goals and aspirations
With this prompt, it’s important to reflect, but more so to focus on where you seen yourself in a year, five years, and even ten years from now. Don't think of it as a way to tell the admissions committee about your accomplishments, rather, a way for them to see, in a few short paragraphs, what potential you have, and what vision you have for yourself.
Tip: If a prompt asks for your vision for yourself, then it is asking for what you want out of life, and out of your education. These answers may seem hard to answer, or almost ‘textbook’, as in “I want to become a pediatrician” but, it should go much deeper than that. Oftentimes, this type of prompt should encourage you to address what your values, vision and mission are beyond just a job title or academic credential that you hope to achieve. Additionally, some students find their future vision and goals are laid out by their parents’ expectations, so it’s important to be genuine here and share what you truly want to happen in your future and how your education will help you get there. For example:
“My vision is to create an incredibly open and inclusive learning space for neurodivergent and neurotypical students alike, where all students are able to excel and feel welcomed. When I graduate from my Bachelor of Education program in two years’ time as a primary-junior educator, I hope to have a toolbox of resources that will help me create a flexible learning environment for all of my students. My goal is to introduce students to several styles of learning—from tactile, to visual or auditory, for example— and allow them to approach different subject areas and lessons in ways that work for them. Whether they absorb information best when guided by myself, as a group with other classmates, or solo, I want to foster each child’s individual understanding of their learning style and help them flourish as unique individuals.
I firmly believe in helping children overcome obstacles and diminish any barriers they’ve previously had with academic subjects, and with multitasking, organization, and social skills. I want my students to understand that everybody is good at something, but nobody is good at everything, and sometimes changing our approach to instructing subjects is enough to help students grasp concepts with ease. My goal is to ensure nobody feels discouraged in my classroom, and that every student leaves my class at the end of each day feeling fulfilled, safe, and eager to face challenges. When I eventually retire, I envision myself as being the teacher who has her students—who will be adults with their own families—continuing to write to me and visit. I want to bring only positive change, useful instruction, and unforgettable mentorship to young lives.”
Prompt 6: Describe a challenge you overcame
This type of prompt can be especially difficult because it requires a lot of introspection and self-awareness from you, the writer. You'll have to think deeply about what matters most to you and your future path, and then look to your past experiences to decide what challenging moment/time you were able to overcome, and why it matters. People overcome challenges daily in some cases, and while you may have overcome something very notable, such as growing up in poverty with limited resources, a learning disability, or a bad habit of skipping class, you may have to think about this question for some time. An example of a great response is:
“As a bi-racial student with a learning disability who came from a single parent home, I faced several obstacles as a teen. In elementary school, I didn’t really notice my economic status difference, nobody mentioned my difficulty processing academic materials, and I seldom felt my skin tone was a part of my identity. But, when I entered the ninth grade, everything shifted. I wasn’t quite ‘black’ enough (or, white enough) to blend seamlessly with any peer group at my school. I was also dubbed as the ‘slow’ kid fairly quickly. While my classmates meant nothing by their teasing, I still felt they were derogatory in nature, and they caused me a bit of an identity crisis.
By the second semester of high school, I didn’t actually know who I was. The teachers accused me of not trying to understand my math homework and kicked me out in the hall for asking questions. I needed guidance, and help with my ADHD and Dysgraphia, but I didn’t know how to ask for it, or where I’d even start. Eventually, I skipped class daily and began to run with a crowd who I was more or less disinterested in, but, they accepted me when it felt like others wouldn’t, and I didn’t expect anyone to ever take me seriously.
It wasn’t until I approached my senior year when I noticed how hard my mom had worked to get me to where I was, when I decided to help myself. I had always wanted to go to college and make a name for myself, but I knew I couldn’t do it alone. I had to ask for help, and it wasn’t easy. I reluctantly approached a teacher who had known me since the ninth grade and told her about my problems, and she was kind enough to be supportive and attend my first meeting with a guidance counselor with me. I was nervous to admit that I had two learning disabilities, but felt a sense of relief I’d longed for. I was proud of myself for telling the truth, that I was lost among my peers, but was so desperate to succeed.
With regular meetings with my counselor, along with some CBT exercises and a bit of a clearer path ahead of me, I was about to immerse myself in my subjects, remember who I was and who I wanted to be, and I managed to improve my grades from D’s to A’s and B’s within a semester. I talked to my teachers and expressed my concerns regularly, instead of scoffing, staying quiet, or skipping class. My attendance record improved drastically, and it wasn’t long before the staff who had once ignored me were greeting me in the halls, or even asking me to join their teams and clubs. I feel, for the first time in years, that I know who I am, and I am proud of myself for overcoming this enormous challenge that I faced for several years of my life.”
Prompt 7: Who inspires you/describe your mentor
This prompt is fairly self explanatory! Whether you’ve got a teacher, a coach, a parent, or an older friend who inspires you to excel academically and thrive in your personal life, taking your time to detail what makes them special in general, and why they’re an inspiration and/or mentor to you, makes for a great college essay. For example:
“My high school teacher, Mr. Doe, is both my mentor and inspiration in life. I met Mr. Doe three years ago and was initially a bit scared of him. He’s large, he’s loud and he knows how to be sarcastic enough to make you laugh but simultaneously make you question whether or not he’s serious. But, he’s also incredibly caring, understanding, and inspiring. I learned years ago that he was adopted as a child, and raised in extremely unfavorable conditions; at one point, he recalled that he was homeless and used to imagine he had a family. He once detailed that it took him a while to save money, and that he was a bit older than the other students in his program, but he eventually went to college while working part time at a local McDonalds.
Mr. Doe openly shares with his students that he saw terrible things growing up and wanted to make a difference in society. At first, he became a police officer, but after three years in the field, he decided to return to school and obtain his Bachelor of Education…he often says, “I wanted to help kids specifically, and I wanted to do so before they ended up in cuffs. I want to change their lives so that they never have to commit a crime”. Mr. Doe has now been happily married for fifteen years and teaching for thirteen; he has two biological children and three adopted children. He teaches sociology and psychology at my high school and is a fan of immersive, hands-on lessons. He is happiest when his students are excited to learn, and regularly collects our feedback to see how he can improve. He has an open-door policy and often purchases meals for students in need, or provides a quiet space for students who need a place to gather their thoughts.
Not only is he a great high school teacher, but I think Mr. Doe is an exceptional, compassionate human being. As somebody who hopes to be a Guidance Counsellor for teens, I will be doing an amazing job in my role if I can be anything like Mr. Doe. Whenever I’ve been doubtful about myself or my future, even if I’m just joking, he always asks me, “what is your goal/what do you want to do about it?”, whatever I answer, he always replies, “so, just do it, you can do anything.” It sounds simple, but he’s right. Mr. Doe helped realize that often, we are the ones standing in our own way. Mr. Doe is a great example of somebody who manifested his future and overcame several obstacles to do what he wanted to do; make a difference in society, and help improve the lives of young people.
Need some help with your Common App essay?
1. What is the purpose of college essays?
The purpose of college essays, such as the Common App essay or the supplemental essays, is to give you, the applicant, an opportunity to show the admissions committee a bit more about who you are as a person, what you love, what inspires you, and what your future goals are. College essay topics are often personal in nature and require reflection and genuine, well thought out responses.
2. What should I avoid including in my college essays?
In general, it’s important that your essay is well structured, professional, and free of errors. Additionally, your essays should be as concise as possible, double spaced, and shouldn’t exceed the word limit requested by your chosen school(s). Providing a narrative with no clear point, or detailing too many stories can make your essay difficult to follow. It’s best to identify your prompt, decide on 1 or 2 events you want to detail, and jump right in!
3. How can I use prompts and examples to get started?
Once you know what topic/prompt you’d like to answer, review an example (such as the examples written in this blog) and think of how you would rewrite it using your own story. Check out Common App essay examples and supplemental essay examples to inspire your own! You can start by writing one draft of your completed essay, and/or organizing your story into points. Then, you should revise and edit, as well as read aloud, your essay a few times to ensure it flows well and gets right into the good information that admissions will love to read! If you are ever unsure, reach out to college admissions consulting professionals to help you!
4. How long are college essays?
Because admissions teams are reading thousands of essays, it’s best that you keep yours brief! These aren’t your typical academic essays in most cases, but rather, 250-700 words, or, about half of a page, in length.
Always read what each institution requires before submitting your essays! There are situations where longer essays are preferred, so it’s best to double check.
5. I’m not a great writer, can somebody write my essays for me?
No! Your college essay(s) will act as a way for you to answer a few personal prompts in a way that shows the admissions committee a bit about who you are as a person and what drives you. These essays are also a great opportunity to showcase your communication skills. It’s a good idea to have a friend or college essay review services revise your essays, but all of your ideas need to be genuine and original!
6. Should my essay topics draw on past experiences or be future oriented?
It depends on the topic and prompt! Many essay topics involve discussing challenges you overcame, or moments or places that changed you, or even sharing a bit about your mentor. Others, however, will ask you to detail your future goals and dreams. Make sure you read each question carefully to understand what type of focus your response should have.
7. How many essays will I have to write?
Typically, most colleges ask for two essays. Some ask for less, and others, more! You should always review your application process for each program and ensure you’re writing the correct number of essays.
8. Can I submit the same essays to different colleges?
Yes, but, you should tailor each essay for each school/program that you are applying for. Before you submit the same template and/or prompt for different programs, you must read all instructions carefully and ensure the wordcount, format, and prompts for each essay submission are all meeting the requirements of each individual program.
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