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By Iris Stone

February 2017

Spoiler alert: there is no such thing as the best college application essay.

Regardless of what anyone tries to tell you, there is no perfect formula that can guarantee admission to the school of your choice, just like there is no one college that is ideal for everyone. When you research universities, you should take some time to think about the factors that matter the most to you - not your friends or teachers. What works for you might not work for someone else, and vice versa.

By the same token, we recommend that you approach your college application essays by thinking about what works best for you: how to showcase your talents, tell your story, and describe your passions, rather than rely on generic advice. And while we don't know you personally, we'll try to offer college admission essay help that enables you to write unique, interesting, and personalized essays.

Writing Successful College Application Essays: The Basics

If you're the type of student who gets particularly stressed out about writing, you might be thinking that there is no point to this torturous tradition. And your anxiety is valid, considering that part of the reason colleges ask applicants to write college app essays is so they can judge your ability to communicate. Math majors may claim that this is a totally unnecessary skill, but the truth is that everyone needs to be able to write effectively - at least to a minimum standard - in order to get through college.

Grammar, Vocab, and Avoiding Errors

Even the best common application essays sometimes suffer from distracting spelling mistakes and awkward phrasing. The importance of using correct English may seem obvious, but any wordsmith will tell you that good grammar and vocab use extends far beyond simply eliminating errors. What's more, the clarity and accuracy of your writing can help the admissions committee answer questions like:

  • Is this student prepared to handle the demands of college-level courses?
  • Did this student acquire the necessary skills in high school? Can he apply these skills effectively?
  • Is this student taking the application process seriously? Is she willing to work hard?

There are a ton of great resources out there that can help improve your skills and give you a reputation as an expert at writing common app essays. But we won't dwell on mechanics. After all, grammar is grammar no matter where you look! But check the conclusion of this article for a list of top-notch resources that spell out all the details for how to improve your essay writing skills.

Unfortunately, spell checking and proofreading your essay is actually the easiest part of the entire process. The bigger issue is not how you write, but what you write about.

Content, Character, and Avoiding an Existential Crisis

The other reason colleges ask you to submit essays is because they want to know who you are as a person. It's difficult to accurately gauge a person's character just by looking at a transcript or resume. But college admissions essays help the committee members understand what makes you tick. They'll use your responses to answer questions like:

  • What motivates this student? What is he passionate about and why?
  • Why does this student want to attend our school? What will she bring to the campus community?
  • How has this student's background impacted who he has become? How does he respond to obstacles or unexpected events?

In a way, writing a college entrance essay is the best part of the whole application because it puts you in the driver's seat. You get to decide what you want the admissions committee to know. It's a great opportunity - but also a huge responsibility - and the pressure may make some students feel like they're having an identity crisis. Try not to fall into an endless abyss of questions like, "Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? What does it all mean?" Remember, nobody has it all figured out.

Writing a Successful Common App Essay

The Common Application is an online portal that allows you to fill out a single application for all the colleges to which you apply. Most schools (nearly 700) participate in this online system, so there's a good chance you will use it. Some schools also require supplementary information or additional essays, but the Common App is still a huge time saver.

The website also releases a list of college admission essay prompts each year, and students can choose which one they want to answer.

Common Application Essay Prompts for 2016-17

  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 failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  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 take to identify a solution.
  5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

At this point, it's probably obvious to you how each of these common app essay prompts zero in on that fundamental question of "what makes you tick." But which prompt you choose can say just as much about who you are and what you think is important.

Picking Your Common App Essay Prompts

Interestingly, the data indicates that nearly half of applicants (47%) stick to writing common application essays about their background/identity or an interest/talent. Nearly a quarter (22%) write about an accomplishment. Far fewer choose to address a lesson or failure (17%), problem they solved (10%), or idea they challenged (4%).

Why is this? There are surely many reasons, but one may be that students find it easiest to write about their own hobbies and experiences. This is also the most straightforward way to showcase your personality. Some students may also have a hard time wrapping their head around the more abstract common app essay prompts - or they may not feel they've been in many situations where they had to solve an ethical dilemma or challenge a belief.

There's plenty to be said for sticking with what you know - and the essay readers will probably be able to tell if you're totally out of your comfort zone. But if you think you have a creative way to highlight your personality by writing about a problem, event, or idea, go for it! Not only will your college entrance essay stand out from the rest, but you'll send a message that you embrace challenges - and in particular, that you're ready for the challenges that college life will bring.

With all that in mind, here are a few more tips for how to write the best common app essay.

More Common App Essay Help: Tips & Tricks

Get started early. Your common application essay is going to represent you at most - if not all - of the colleges to which you apply, so don't blow this one off! Get started early, write multiple versions, and ask for feedback from family and friends. Once you can check this off the list, the rest of the application will be a cake walk in comparison.

Try multiple prompts. No, we're not just trying to waste your time. If you commit to one idea without even considering the other options, you risk missing out on an opportunity to write about something really unique just because you didn't think of it right away. Even if you're convinced the other college app essay prompts are totally "not you," take a few minutes to put pen to paper and see what comes out. You might be surprised!

Show, don't tell. When you're writing college admission essays, be clear about the point you are trying to get across without actually spelling it out. So if you want to say that you have good leadership skills, don't simply write "I am a good leader." SHOW the readers that you are a good leader through a story or example. Aim to create a visual for your audience - after all, a picture's worth a 1,000 words!

That's all the common application essay help we have to offer - but keep reading for advice on how to impress the admissions committee with your supplemental essays.

Writing a Supplemental College Admissions Essay

Wouldn't it be great if all you had to do to get into college was write one essay? While some schools are satisfied with the questions on the Common App, many also ask applicants to complete at least one "supplemental" essay. These questions can range from the standard "Why do you want to go here?" to quirky prompts like, "If you could have any super power, what would it be and why?" And students who are applying to a specific program within the university might get an extra question related to your area of study.

Now that we've sufficiently overwhelmed you with all the possibilities, let's break each type of college entrance essay down one at a time.

The Standard "Why Do You Want to Go Here?" College App Essay

Avoid writing a college admission essay that is: generic and lazy
Successful college admission essays are: specific and thoughtful

This is probably the most common type of supplementary essay you'll see on college apps. Because of this, you might be tempted to write one generic response to copy and paste in all your applications. But resist the temptation! One reason admissions committees ask this question is because they want to make sure the applicant will be a good fit for the campus - and that includes checking that you have a good reason to apply in the first place!

The best way to address this college entrance essay prompt is to be as specific as possible in your responses. Don't just say "I am looking forward to joining some on-campus clubs." The best college admission essays in this category reference specific clubs you want to join and explain why. Try to draw connections between your current interests and the type of opportunities the university offers.

Responding to Standard Prompts

Example 1: Kim is applying to University ABC, which is known for its diversity and high population of international students. He wants to major in International Relations and was active in Model U.N. in high school. In his essay, he writes about how he wants to get involved in many of the university's cultural and social justice clubs in order to get more exposure to other parts of the world.

Example 2: Elena is interested in management and chose to apply to State College because it has a strong business program. However, she also wants to use college as a chance to overcome her shyness. She addresses both of these ideas in her essay by writing about her plans to join the nationally-ranked State College Debate Team, which will get her out of her comfort zone and sharpen her public speaking skills for a career in business.

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The Quirky "Ink Blot" College Admissions Essay

Avoid writing a college app essay that is: unnatural and uninformative
Successful college app essays are: creative and personal

This category includes out-of-the-box questions like "What's your favorite number and why?" and "Who would win in a fight, Batman or Superman?" We call this type of college application essay prompt the "ink blot" because it's like showing you a bunch of smudges and shapes and asking you to describe an intricate scene. In many cases, these prompts are a way for the admissions committee to see how applicants react when thrown a curve ball. And like ink blot tests, they also push you to look beyond the obvious and use your imagination.

Now, there is always a risk that your writing will sound unnatural or forced if you try too hard to be come up with a "quirky" response. But at the same time, don't play it safe or talk in circles because you're afraid of missing the point. Successful college application essays in this category incorporate a personal interest or hobby, but with a unique "twist" that ties in with the prompt. By focusing on a topic you're comfortable with, you can avoid an unnatural sounding essay and give yourself flexibility to be a little bit "off beat."

Responding to Quirky Prompts

Example 1: Mario gets the Batman vs. Superman question. Unfortunately, he doesn't know much about comic books. However, he does enjoy creative writing and wants to major in psychology. For his response, he pretends that he is a psychologist who was hired to assess the heroes' mental status before their big fight. He comes up with psychological profiles for each character and uses these to predict a winner.

Example 2: Tamara's prompt asks for her favorite number. Although she wants to be an engineer, she's more interested in design and doesn't care very much about math! However, she knows that triangles show up a lot in architecture because they are structurally very strong. So she writes about the number three, linking her response to her career interests and knowledge of design in the process.

The "Show Us What You've Got" College Application Essay

Avoid writing a college entrance essay that is: obvious and superficial
Successful college entrance essays are: unique and different

You'll probably have to answer this type of prompt if you are applying to a specific program within the college - especially if that program is prestigious. The process for writing one of the best college app essays in this category is pretty straightforward: show them what you've got! Of course, you also want to avoid focusing too much on what you think they want to hear. Students who take this route can expect their essay to end up tossed in a pile of other papers that all sound exactly the same.

Responding to Prompts for Specific Programs

Example 1:: Maryam is applying to journalism school and has to write a mock interview about someone she admires. Realizing that most applicants will probably write about an important political figure, Maryam instead decides to "interview" her grandmother. In doing so, she highlights the importance of family in her life, shares stories about her cultural background, and reveals her passion for travel.

Example 2: Devon is applying to public policy school and has to draft a proposal to address an issue in his community. Instead of trying to save the world in one essay, Devon writes about a cause close to his heart: the lake behind his house. He talks about his love of nature, explains how littering has harmed the local wildlife, and demonstrates problem-solving skills by crafting a realistic and detailed solution.


OK, do you feel ready to go write the best college entrance essays the world has ever seen? If so, that's fantastic! If not, don't worry; just about everyone else applying to college feels the same way! Even if you forget everything else you read in this article, just try to remember to PUSH:

Be Personal, Unique, Specific, and Honest. Before long, your friends will be asking you for college application essay help!

Resources to Boost Your College Admissions Essay Writing Skills

Basic Mistakes
College Essays: 8 Grammatical Blunders to Avoid
How to Avoid Common Mistakes in Essay Writing
Ivy Coach: College Essays and Grammar
Harvard College Writing Center: Tips on Grammar, Punctuation, and Style
Writer's Digest: How to Improve Your Writing Style in 10 Minutes or Fewer
Best Essay Tips: Improving your Writing Style
40 Useful Words and Phrases for Top-Notch Essays
My College Success Story: Improve Your Writing with These 25 Words

More Advice from BVS
College Admissions Library
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