College Essays: FAQs

College application essays don't need to be stressful! Personal essays are a key part of the admissions process for many U.S. colleges and universities. These essays give the admissions team a sense of who you are as a person. Colleges look for three things in your admission essay: a unique perspective, strong writing, and an authentic voice. A strong college admission essay is a place to reveal what is unique about your experiences and personality.


What is the college application essay?

The application essay – also called a "personal statement" – is part of the admission process to many U.S. colleges and universities. A successful admission essay goes beyond your grades, test scores, and resume, giving colleges a sense of who you are as a person.

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Does my college admission essay really matter?

Yes! Many students have similar grades, test scores, and activities. Your college admission essay is the place to show what's unique about your character and personality.

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What are colleges looking for in your application essay?

Colleges look for three things in your admission essay: a unique perspective, strong writing, and an authentic voice. People in admissions often say that a great essay is one where it feels like the student is right there in the room, talking authentically to the admissions committee!

Admission essays are very different from the 5-paragraph essays you write in English or history class! Great essays are built around stories, not arguments. They reveal your character, not rehash your achievements. The best essays focus on moments when you changed, learned, or grew as a person.

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When should I start writing my college essay?

If you're in twelfth grade, start now! Many students start the process in the spring of eleventh grade and try a number of different stories as part of the essay process.

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What can I do for my college essay if I’m not a strong writer?

The best college essays begin with stories from your lived experience in your natural speaking voice. You can start by making a list of experiences that have shaped you into who you are, and then tell one of those out loud – on your phone or laptop. Transcribe it, and that's your first draft!

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What can I write about in my college essay if I have not been through anything monumental?

You don’t need to write about “superhero” moments! Often simple, everyday moments reveal who you are most powerfully. So make a list of experiences that have shaped you, and start your essay there!

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How should I start brainstorming topics for my college essay?

The best college essays are based on experiences that have shaped you. You don't need to show your achievements – those are already in the Activities section of your application. Who's the person behind those achievements? What have you done that shows what people can count on you for in college and life?

Start by brainstorming your moments of growth and change. Write down as many as you can think of, and be as specific and detailed as possible about what happened in those moments! You can use that list to answer all your college admission essays – personal statements, supplements, and scholarship essays.

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Is there a list of good topics to start with for my college essay? Are there any topics I should avoid?

There are no preset "good topics." Start with your own experiences, and use specific moments to show who you’ll be in college and life. You should be writing essays that reveal who you are as a person (not the essay you think will “look good” to the colleges).

Generally, students are better off if they avoid the following topics:

  • Sports-related clichés: triumphs after long, hard work; journey from being sidelined from a sports-related injury to MVP in the championship game
  • Vacations and exotic travel, including community service trips
  • Contrived or overly produced community service projects, especially ones where parents or teachers were heavily involved
  • Early childhood anecdotes (you want the colleges to imagine you as a college student, not a little kid)
  • Sex and romance
  • Anything where you argue one point of view at the expense of others (most colleges are looking for students who are open to multiple points of view). Writing about what you've done in the world usually makes a much stronger essay.

The most important thing is to tell a story from your own experience – particularly a moment of learning, growth, or change – in your own authentic voice.

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What format should I use for my college essay?

The best essays are based on actions, things you've done in the world with other people. Start with a story from your unique experience and tell it out loud like you are talking to a diverse group of people who are genuinely interested in who you are as a person.

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How long should my essay be?

The personal statement is usually 250-650 words. Start with a 3-5 minute spoken story and you'll have lots of material to work with.

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How do you fit everything important in 650 words?

You can't! It’s much stronger to tell one important story that reveals your character than to try to pack your whole life into 650 words.

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Who should I ask to review my college essay?

Good essays take time, so be patient with yourself. In the early stages, you want someone who will ask questions that help you find more details about the story. What happened? Who else was there? How did the situation look before and after that experience? You don't want to show your essay to too many people – because it will lose your unique voice and story – but it often helps to have a teacher or counselor you trust to take a look when you feel it's nearly done. Just ask them not to edit, but to make suggestions of how you can make it stronger.

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What’s the #1 piece of advice you wish you knew when you were writing college essays?

"Show them who you really are." It takes most people a while to figure that out, and even once you've found it, you may have doubts. But at every stage that is the best advice: trust your instincts; show people what they can count on you for; what will they miss out on if they don't admit you? Tell the stories only you can tell, and tell them as only you can tell them.

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