Most selective colleges require you to submit an essay or personal statement as part of your application.
It may sound like a chore, and it will certainly take a substantial amount of work. But it's also a unique opportunity that can make a difference at decision time. Admissions committees put the most weight on your high school grades and your test scores. However, selective colleges receive applications from many worthy students with similar scores and grades—too many to admit. So they use your essay, along with your letters of recommendation and extracurricular activities, to find out what sets you apart from the other talented candidates.
Telling Your Story to Colleges
So what does set you apart?
You have a unique background, interests and personality. This is your chance to tell your story (or at least part of it). The best way to tell your story is to write a personal, thoughtful essay about something that has meaning for you. Be honest and genuine, and your unique qualities will shine through.
Admissions officers have to read an unbelievable number of college essays, most of which are forgettable. Many students try to sound smart rather than sounding like themselves. Others write about a subject that they don't care about, but that they think will impress admissions officers.
You don't need to have started your own business or have spent the summer hiking the Appalachian Trail. Colleges are simply looking for thoughtful, motivated students who will add something to the first-year class.
Tips for a Stellar College Application Essay
1. Write about something that's important to you.
It could be an experience, a person, a book—anything that has had an impact on your life.
2. Don't just recount—reflect!
Anyone can write about how they won the big game or the summer they spent in Rome. When recalling these events, you need to give more than the play-by-play or itinerary. Describe what you learned from the experience and how it changed you.
3. Being funny is tough.
A student who can make an admissions officer laugh never gets lost in the shuffle. But beware. What you think is funny and what an adult working in a college thinks is funny are probably different. We caution against one-liners, limericks and anything off–color.
4. Start early and write several drafts.
Set it aside for a few days and read it again. Put yourself in the shoes of an admissions officer: Is the essay interesting? Do the ideas flow logically? Does it reveal something about the applicant? Is it written in the applicant’s own voice?
5. No repeats.
What you write in your application essay or personal statement should not contradict any other part of your application–nor should it repeat it. This isn't the place to list your awards or discuss your grades or test scores.
6. Answer the question being asked.
Don't reuse an answer to a similar question from another application.
7. Have at least one other person edit your essay.
A teacher or college counselor is your best resource. And before you send it off, check, check again, and then triple check to make sure your essay is free of spelling or grammar errors.
Looking for strategic college advice?
Get one-on-one help from former Ivy League and top tier admission officers. Our College Admission Counselors will help you find, apply, and get accepted to your dream school.
About Rob FranekRob Franek, Editor-in-Chief at The Princeton Review, is the company's primary authority on higher education. Over his 24-year career, he has served as a college admissions administrator, test prep teacher, author, publisher, and lecturer. Read more and follow Rob on Twitter: @RobFranek
Resources / College / 35 College Essay Prompts and Topics
35 College Essay Prompts and Topics
The college application process can be stressful and sometimes overwhelming. A great way to stand out from the crowd and boost an application for a “reach” school is with a strong essay. We’ve put together a list of common prompts and advice for how to answer them.
- Describe a facet of your identity, background or story that is essential to who you are.
For this essay, try finding a part of your identity that will set you apart and highlight the unique perspective you will bring to the university. Try to avoid writing an essay that a school will most likely get a million different times — for example, an essay about your talent playing a sport or your early love of learning. Think about an aspect of your personality, family or upbringing that is truly special.
- Write about a time that you failed at something. How did that failure affect you?
Don’t be afraid to dig deep and talk about something that may feel vulnerable. Try to conclude with an example of how the failure improved the way you deal with similar situations now. It can be uncomfortable for anyone to admit they’re less-than-great at something, but that honesty can be refreshing, especially if you tell your story in an authentic, relatable way.
- Tell us about a time where you challenged your pre-existing worldview. Why? Would you do this again?
In this essay, choose a time that you were able to listen to experiences and perspectives contrary to yours with respect and maturity. Demonstrate that you are able to zoom out from your personal worldview and learn from those you may disagree with. This can not only give colleges an idea of your ability to engage in difficult ideological debates, but also your character and humility.
- Write about a problem that you have or want to solve. It can be as big or as small as you can think of!
For this question, don’t be afraid to think outside of the box. It is easy to say a typical world issue — like hunger — but a creative problem can showcase your specific passions and interests and set you apart. An admissions officer is much more likely to remember an applicant who has a very specific essay written in a unique and quirky way.
- Write about a moment that illustrated your shift from child to adult within your community or family.
If you can’t immediately think of a pivotal event for this essay, you may want to skip it and try a different one. Essays like this are best answered with significant and unique moments rather than less important ones.
- Describe a favorite book or movie where the main character has to decide something difficult. What did you think about their choice?
The defining factor for this essay is what book or movie you choose. Stay away from pop culture novels that many people may use (Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, etc.) and try to pick a book you have read in school or something unique you read for fun that stayed with you. However, don’t use a book you didn’t enjoy! Inauthenticity will always come through in your writing.
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- Write your top 10 list.
With this prompt, get creative. Don’t simply put 10 things you enjoy — get specific! Pick something you love and give your top 10 — maybe top 10 memories of your life, top 10 favorite books, top 10 quotes, etc. Make sure you give clear explanations of the items on your list as well. The more specific your list is, the better.
- Tell us a topic that you have changed your mind on in the past three years.
For this essay, don’t hesitate to get silly or serious — but make sure you go all the way whichever side you choose! Pick an issue that doesn’t come immediately to mind. Try to pinpoint a specific “a-ha” moment your opinion changed, and make sure to give an example of how your changed perspective has influenced your behavior.
- Write about your life goals.
To answer this prompt, go beyond the generic career and family goals. Try to answer things with a personal spin — maybe talk about goals you have for yourself as a person (e.g., to be more kind) or something unique you want to check off your bucket list!
- Pick a quote that describes a lot about you, and explain why you connect with it.
For this essay, choose a quotation that the admissions officers won’t see over and over. Stay away from individuals who are constantly quoted — like Dr. Seuss — and make 100 percent certain your quote is correctly attributed! Genius Tip: Check out these 25 inspiring volunteer quotes.
- Write about your most embarrassing moment and how you learned from it.
This is a great opportunity to get creative and share a funny experience! Try transitioning the experience into a more serious explanation of how it changed you — for example, maybe it encouraged you to be more considerate toward others’ feelings.
- Tell us about a time where you had to either take a risk or stay safe. What did you do? What happened? Would you do it again?
For this situation, if you made a poor decision, focus on the way you would change it. On the other hand, if you made a good decision, focus on what influenced you to make that decision and how it has changed you. You might think you have to pick an example where you took a risk, but your essay could be more memorable if you choose a candid example of when you chose to play it safe.
- Describe something you’re passionate about. How do you learn more about it? What makes it so appealing?
This is the perfect essay to set yourself apart from other applicants. Talk about that thing you love, that obscure topic you’re an expert about — anything, as long as your passion shines through in your writing!
- Pick your own topic for this essay.
This is a great instance to use an essay you’ve already written for another college. (Make sure to include modifications as needed.) This way, you can limit the number of essays you write and focus on quality of writing over quantity of essays.
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- Tell us the best advice you’ve ever gotten, who told you it and whether or not you followed the advice.
Don’t write a generic essay — find an example of advice that was specific and personal to you. Explain why it was so important, and connect it to a specific example in which you did or did not follow it.
- Write about the role that a certain activity (sports, theater, band, etc.) has had on your life.
This prompt gives you the opportunity to talk about your passions and show off your extracurricular activities. Make sure to connect the importance of the activity to a certain experience or story to give the essay direction.
- If you could meet with any person, living or dead, for an hour, who would it be and what would you say to them?
For this prompt, stay away from figures that are likely to be written about by hundreds of potential students (presidents, Mother Teresa, etc.), and pick a figure you are actually passionate about and interested in, rather than what you think sounds most academic. If you want to go personal and choose a family member, make sure you have a memorable and unique reason.
- If you were to give a very important speech or a TED talk, what would it be about?
When writing this essay, pick a topic of interest. Additionally, make sure whatever you write about has a clear, one sentence takeaway that you can stress throughout the essay to give it direction. To prep, watch a few TED talks online to help give your essay voice.
- If you were to teach a class, what would your class be on?
This essay topic is a great opportunity for humor. Choose a unique topic that others might not think of, and whatever you choose, make sure you know a lot about it!
- Tell us a “Eureka” moment that you had and what sparked it.
For this essay, make sure you think of a turning point that’s also an interesting story. This can be an opportunity to talk about an experience from one of your jobs or extracurricular activities. Tie it in to what you learned and how you’ve taken that lesson and incorporated it into your life.
- Write an essay about a time that you had to be brave or stand up for what you believed in.
This can be a great opportunity to talk about what’s important to you and what beliefs you hold most central to who you are. Center the essay around one experience or time in your life. Don’t play this one down the middle — take a stance and defend it.
- What makes you angry? What are you doing or what have you done about it?
Take this essay as big or as small as you want, but commit to it! Whether you write a funny essay about pet peeves or write one about large social problems, go all the way.
- If you could change one day of your life, what would you change? Why?
If you can’t immediately think of a significant day, you probably don’t have a lot of material for this essay. Save this essay for an unusual experience!
- Talk about a personal accomplishment that is unrelated to academics, but that means a lot to you.
For this essay, focus on a unique accomplishment that illustrates the diversity that you can bring to your university and really tells a lot about who you are. It can be a big or small accomplishment as long as it means a lot to you.
- If you could time travel to any time and place, where would you go?
When writing this essay, either pick a historical, personally significant or futuristic moment, but make sure you are passionate about whichever moment you choose. Begin with explaining the moment’s significance and your desire to experience it, then describe your personal connection to it.
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- If you could give any advice to an incoming high school student, what would it be?
In this essay, try to stay positive. Give advice about helpful things the student could do to benefit their high school career, rather than pointing out and seemingly complaining about the negative parts of high school (unless you are really funny) and then giving advice about how to deal with it. Be honest about your high school experiences while also displaying the perspective you have gained.
- If you could stop one invention from being invented, what would it be?
Try to be unique for this prompt. Make sure to outline not only your reasons for choosing the invention, but also the impact that the invention not being created would have on the world.
- Why do you want to attend this college/university?
For this essay: BE SPECIFIC! Colleges can tell when your essay is just a form essay. Make sure your essay mentions specific and unique aspects of the college/university you’re applying to so it’s clear that your essay is not just generic. There’s so much information out there on the Internet that there’s really no excuse for a poorly researched response.
- Pick a law and explain why it is so important to you.
There are many ways to interpret this kind of prompt. Whether you talk about a political law, religious law, physical law or something else, make sure to connect it your personal experiences. The more unique you are, the more likely an admissions officer will remember your essay.
- What do you want people to know about you but are afraid to tell them?
In this essay, don’t be afraid to get vulnerable and be specific. Whether you pick a trait or simply a specific memory, connect it to what it means to you personally and why you don’t generally tell people about it.
- If you could add an amendment to the Constitution, what would you add?
Silly or serious, this essay can be fun. Just make sure the amendment is NOT already part of the Constitution, and be sure to outline the impact your new amendment would have. Go a step further by explaining your strategy for getting the amendment passed.
- Talk about a person in your life who has helped you understand yourself better.
For this essay, give a few examples of how this person has impacted you. Then, conclude the essay with how you have understood yourself better because of these experiences.
- What book would you recommend to everyone?
Stay away from books that are likely to appear many times. This might go without saying, but make sure it’s a book you’ve already read! Rather than just summarizing the book, explain why you’re recommending it.
- Who is someone you have spoken up for because he/she cannot speak for him/herself?
If you don’t have a good example for this essay, don’t massage a story to make it fit. You’ll risk sounding privileged. This essay can be good, but it needs to be about a significant moment where you spoke up for someone who couldn’t speak for him/herself.
- What is one thing you want to accomplish in college?
In this essay, focus on the interests/activities that you’re passionate about. Make sure to focus your essay around one or two focused and achievable goals. This is also a great opportunity to mention specifics about the college you’re applying to.
With these prompts and ideas, you’ll be off to a great start on your college applications. One last piece of advice: Give yourself plenty of time to outline ideas and review — don’t wait until the last minute!
Kayla Rutledge is a college student who spends most of her time writing, singing for her church and eating quesadillas.
Posted by Kayla Rutledge
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