that binds together all the other parts of your application.
It can provide a central theme that conveys the passion and reasoning that drove you to pursue certain courses, activities and projects, further confirmed by your transcripts and recommendation letters. Essays are your chance to complete the picture of you for an admissions committee to view.
And YOU are in complete control.
J.R. Moehringer graduated from Yale, Class of 1986. He won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing, is the author of bestselling memoir Tender Bar and Sutton - A Novel, and was the ghost-writer of Open, the bestselling autobiography of Andre Agassi.
What types of essays do colleges ask for?
Colleges typically provide opportunities for applicants to submit the following essays:
- A Personal Essay, or a one-page statement about yourself.
- Explanations regarding disciplinary incidents.
- An optional Additional Information section.
- Additional answers to questions that are college-specific may be required by some universities.
How much do essays count?
In general, the more selective the college, the more the essays are weighed. A mediocre essay will probably not eliminate a student from consideration; however, a poor essay may negatively affect chances for acceptance. An outstanding essay, on the other hand, may provide an admissions officer with a reason to accept a student with weaker test scores and grades.
Do all colleges require essays?
Not all colleges require essays.
- Close to 200 Common App colleges do not require a Personal Essay.
- Almost 350 Common App colleges do not require additional college-specific essays.
However, if you’ve taken the time to write a Personal Essay for other colleges you’re applying to, you should go ahead and submit it.
What is a Personal Essay? How long should it be?
A Personal Essay is the main writing component of a college application. It's your opportunity to tell a college admissions committee who you are beyond your grades, test scores or recommendation letters. It can demonstrate that you can write clearly, express yourself effectively, and allows you to describe your aspirations, values or passions.
The Personal Essay is a chance for you to speak in your own voice. This means that you convey your topic clearly but in a less formal and more conversational tone. The Personal Essay is NOT a creative writing test, nor is it a term paper or dissertation.
Most admissions counselors expect about a one page, single-spaced essay. The Common App allows for 250-650 words, while the Coalition App provides space for up to 550 words.
What are Disciplinary History statements? Should I talk about my mistakes?
Most colleges expect full disclosure of:
- Any behavioral or academic infractions that resulted in disciplinary action during high school.
- Any misdemeanor or felony conviction, unless it "has been expunged, sealed, annulled, pardoned, destroyed, erased, impounded, or otherwise required by law or ordered by a court to be kept confidential."
Your counselor is asked the same questions about your disciplinary history in the School Report.
If you have anything to report regarding either school or legal violations, you have an opportunity to explain these transgressions (the Common App allows 400 words each). Be sure to include the following:
- Disclose the offense.
- State the disciplinary actions that were imposed on you.
- Explain what you learned.
- State what you would do differently in the future.
Remember that colleges don't expect to admit perfect students, but they do require reassurance that you will not be a campus liability. If you have any questions regarding the Disciplinary History section of your application, please see your counselor.
I don't have anything else to say. Do I really need to write an Additional Information essay?
Many application forms provide an Additional Information space to allow elaboration on special circumstances or any topic of your choice.
Because the Additional Information section is optional, many students decline to provide more information. However, if you are applying to more selective schools or if you believe that other essay opportunities provided have not allowed you to convey your entire story, the Additional Information space is a good opportunity to further describe yourself.
Take advantage of the Additional Information section to write about anything else you think should be considered by the colleges you are applying to. This is another opportunity to convey information about yourself, including but not limited to:
- Another significant experience that shaped you.
- Further explanations for any of your clubs or activities.
- Obstacles you have overcome.
- Jobs you’ve held outside of school.
- Family or personal situations that may have affected your grades or test scores.
- Specific opportunities at the college that have compelled you to apply. (Note: The Common App allows unlimited updates to the its essays. Just be sure to remove references to other colleges from the main section when you submit your application to a college.)
Space in college application forms will vary, but most allow for approximately one page, single spaced. The Common App provides for up to 650 words, while the Coalition App allows up to 550 words.
What are "supplemental" essays?
Some colleges require you to provide additional short answers or longer reflections on topics unique to their school.
Examples of the most common college-specific prompts include:
- Why this college/major?
- Elaborate on an extracurricular activity of significance to you.
- Discuss a time when your beliefs were challenged by a different point of view.
- Person/Event/Experience that was an important influence on who you are today
- Describe yourself to your future roommate.
NOTE: Close to 350 Common Application colleges DO NOT require additional college-specific essays. However, for more selective schools, treat all optional prompts as required.
When should I start?
Your junior year is the appropriate time to begin thinking about what you would like to say. Even if you do not know the specific questions, you can start developing a personal essay and trying out topic ideas. Exact essay questions can be viewed when the latest college applications come out in the summer, but the questions often remain the same for several years.
Fairview Language Arts teachers introduce the personal essay in the spring of your junior year. You will be encouraged to explore a topic and produce a working draft.
Most students applying to a number of selective colleges will begin exploring several topics and angles over the summer before senior year.
How do I find all the prompts for each college?
- See the Quick Links above right for Common App and Coalition App prompts.
- To view prompts for non-Common App or non-Coalition App schools, go to its freshman or undergraduate admissions website to access all application questions.
- To view additional prompts in any online application, answer all main profile and academic questions first. Some prompts are only visible depending on how you answer academic questions.
In the 2016 Common App, a green check mark automatically appears next to optional sections to indicate completion, even if you have not previously viewed the section. Be sure to open those sections to check for optional questions.
What should I write about?
Personal Essay prompts are meant to be open-ended, so that any topic a student chooses can be used to answer one or more of the prompts.
Many students (and teachers) are tempted to begin by collecting all of the college essay prompts, and then proceed to massage their own personal stories to fit the prompts.
Consider thinking about topics that are important to you first, then assign the prompt that fits your topic.
Decide on five to six topics that you want to convey about yourself. Some topics to explore might include:
- An activity that consumes most of your time, such as a job, caring for younger siblings, an extracurricular project or club, or a favorite pastime. Believe it or not, when juggled with full-time course work, even the most mundane, time-consuming tasks involve critical thinking, planning, an execution process and a goal.
- A big influence in your life or the way you think, such as an event, person, class, or encounter. Include a short list of things you did that resulted.
- A future goal that you want to pursue, including a short list of courses or activities that contributed to this decision, and how you hope to attain that goal in college. An intent to pursue specific opportunities offered by colleges, whether you’ve declared a major or not, is a clear statement that you are not applying to a school blindly. Fleshing out the content of this topic will require website research on each school’s academic programs, clubs and accessible community opportunities.
- An extracurricular in which you hope to be heavily involved in college (and make sure each college on your list offers this activity) and why.
- A description of what you like to do in your free, unstructured time.
- Any other topic of importance to you.
What should I NOT write about?
- Avoid repetition. Don't rehash anything that can already be found on another part of your application. Remember, the personal essay is an opportunity to convey what activity lists, test scores or transcripts cannot elaborate.
- Topics regarding extreme beliefs or lifestyles should be measured. While colleges welcome students with varying opinions, a tone that conveys any form of intolerance is a red flag.
- Don't try to be someone else. If you are not normally a funny person, your college essay is not the place to start.
- Know what's TMI (too much information). Avoid topics about your love life, sexual experiences, drugs or alcohol abuse, pranks or illegal activity. Your essays need to reflect the kind of student you will be on a college campus, and offering too much information about your personal life is not necessary. Note that application forms provide a "Disciplinary History" space for you to disclose and explain infractions. See the Disciplinary History FAQ for more guidance.
- Avoid complaints or extreme negativity about your parents, teachers, coach, peers, employer, or anyone else.
- Refrain from expressions that may depict conceit or bias.
- Don't make it about someone else. While it's acceptable to write about your travels, your grandmother, the child you babysit or your boss, remember that the personal essay is about YOU. It should not take half the allotted space to finally begin talking about yourself.
- Do not plagiarize or fabricate any part of your essay. Most colleges use readily available technology to check for plagiarism. A college can rescind an admissions offer if you represent yourself dishonestly.
Where do I start? I need help with the writing process.
I composed my essay on a word processor (e.g., MS Word or Apple Pages) and my word/character count is different when I copy and paste it into the application. How do I fix that?
An essay composed in MS Word, Pages or other rich text editor will include invisible formatting that increases word or character count when copied and pasted into the answer field of an online application.
To strip all hidden formatting, first copy and paste your essay into a plain text editor, such as Notepad (Windows) or TextEdit (Apple), before copying and pasting into the online application. This should give you a more accurate word count.