A killer first sentence. You’ve heard it before, and you’ll hear it again: you have to suck the reader in, and the best place to do that is the first sentence. Great first sentences are punchy. They are like cliffhangers, setting up an exciting scene or an unusual situation with an unclear conclusion, in order to make the reader want to know more. Don’t take my word for it—check out these 22 first sentences from Stanford applicants and tell me you don’t want to read the rest of those essays to find out what happens!
You can also reuse an essay by submitting an essay originally written for a specific prompt for a more general prompt as well. For example, you could submit your ApplyTexas topic B app (the one that's about overcoming a specific obstacle) for the Coalition essay prompt 1 (the one about a meaningful story from your life and what you learned). In that case, you might want to tweak the essay slightly to address the question of what you learned more explicitly, but you could likely use the same personal statement with minimal changes.
The Common App essay is the best way for admissions committees to get to you know you. While SAT scores, your past course load, and your grades provide a quantitative picture of you as a student, the Common App essay offers adcoms a refreshing glimpse into your identity and personality. For this reason, try to treat the essay as an opportunity to tell colleges why you are unique and what matters to you.
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She’s only got 650 words. Which leads us to Tip #1: Take refuge in the anecdote, in the specific, in the particular: everything gets easier if you choose something specific. Many writers—of college essays and other media—get stressed out, believing that they must convey their entire selves in an essay. This just isn’t possible to do in the capsule of space that is your Common App personal statement. And, it will ironically accomplish the opposite—it’ll cause your essay to look shapeless and meandering, therefore communicating very little about you. If you instead use an individual story as a stand-in for something larger, or for something else, your essay becomes a kind of parable or lesson that educates your reader both about you and, hopefully, about a part of the world they’ve never previously considered.
While International Student is specifically a site providing information for international students, their Student Essay Writing Center has a handful of detailed, actionable articles that guide you through the processes of writing different types of essays. They also have a collection of sample essays that you can use as a helpful guide for how your essay should be structured—but remember, don’t plagiarize!
College application essay prompts are written with this goal in mind. Admissions officers want to give you the chance to share your interests, aspirations, and views on the world, so most prompts ask about how your experiences have shaped you or what you're excited about studying or doing in college. I've collected a ton of examples below and provided some analysis to help you begin planning and crafting your own essays.

Explain the car connection better. The essay begins and ends with Bridget's enjoying a car ride, but this doesn't seem to be related either to the Fixer-Upper idea or to her passion for working with special-needs students. It would be great to either connect this into the essay more, or to take it out altogether and create more space for something else.
The First County Bank Richard E. Taber Citizenship Award honors high school students, living in the lower Fairfield County area, who consistently demonstrate good citizenship at school, at home, and in the community. The recipient of this award must be a high school senior and have been accepted to an accredited two or four-year college/university, as well as be a current resident of Stamford, [...] More
This prompt lends itself to consideration of what facets of your personality allow you to overcome adversity. While it’s okay to choose a relatively mundane “failure” such as not winning an award at a Model UN conference, another (perhaps more powerful) tactic is to write about a foundational failure and assess its impact on your development thereafter.
My second family was the Martinez family, who were friends of the Watkins’s. The host dad Michael was a high school English teacher and the host mom Jennifer (who had me call her “Jen”) taught elementary school. She had recently delivered a baby, so she was still in the hospital when I moved into their house. The Martinez family did almost everything together. We made pizza together, watched Shrek on their cozy couch together, and went fishing on Sunday together. On rainy days, Michael, Jen and I would sit on the porch and listen to the rain, talking about our dreams and thoughts. Within two months I was calling them mom and dad.
Seven years down the road, I still take a second glance at the sidewalk cracks and think of my Fixer-Uppers, but now I'm doing so from the driver's seat. As much as I would enjoy it, I now accept that I won't become Emperor of the World, and that the Fixer-Uppers will have to remain in my car ride imaginings. Or do they? I always pictured a Fixer-Upper as a smiling man in an orange T-Shirt. Maybe instead, a Fixer-Upper could be a tall girl with a deep love for Yankee Candles. Maybe it could be me.
The world continues to change rapidly, especially with globalization. It is about time that Hispanic women strive for gender equality. Thus, it is essential that Hispanic women increase their roles and knowledge in finance. The women in my neighborhood shall no longer be left out. I will task myself to help these women become better, stronger and most importantly, take control of their lives. I want to be involved so that they can save themselves from any unforeseen financial crisis. This is a tremendous goal, but for me, it is an opportunity to make a difference – in my neighborhood and for my Spanish community.”

Above all, my family is the most important thing in my life. The meaning of family may differ for everyone, but for me, my family is life. I almost died in the 2010 Haitian earthquake, as Jacmel was one of the worst damaged areas, had it not been for my grandmother and my mom. Later, if it was not for my uncle, my mom would not have been able to come to America to give me a better life. Without my family, I wouldn’t be here. I am forever indebted to their sacrifices, and I am so grateful that I have their eternal love and support.
One of many students’ and parents’ biggest fears is the sheer anonymity of the process. You, the college applicant, have worked hard through high school, earning great grades, expanding your worldview through extracurriculars or jobs, and contributing to your community… and now, it can seem pretty unjust to throw yourself at the mercy of an application system that seems arbitrary, blind to your personality, or even uncaring.
In 200–400 words, you’ll be asked to describe your academic and career plans and any special interest (for example, undergraduate research, academic interests, leadership opportunities, etc.) that you are eager to pursue as an undergraduate at IU. Also, if you encountered any unusual circumstances, challenges, or obstacles in pursuit of your education, share those experiences and how you overcame them.
Now that I am getting ready for college, I feel the effect that Germinal had on me more than ever. I've read it three times since I first discovered it and each time I seem to learn new things. It isn't just that I have a pet rabbit named Poland or that I have a pen-pal who is an orphaned miner's daughter. It goes much deeper than that. Germinal has changed the way I look at myself and the world around me. No other book has done that.
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As an alternative, this prompt gives you the opportunity to address a more ambitious, hypothetical problem you would like to solve. For example, you could address the logistical and legal problems of high-speed rail in the United States, the complex environmental and economic problems of using fossil fuels, or even the ethical dilemma of creating A.I. As long as you are creative and refrain from choosing a cliché topic like “curing cancer,” addressing a hypothetical problem can result in a strong essay. Be careful to frame your hypothetical problem clearly, explain why it is a problem, outline the important points, and explain your steps to create a solution.
The Dirksen family had three kids. They were all different. Danielle liked bitter black coffee, Christian liked energy drinks, and Becca liked sweet lemon tea. Dawn, the host mom didn’t like winter, and Mark, the host dad, didn’t like summer. After dinner, we would all play Wii Sports together. I was the king of bowling, and Dawn was the queen of tennis. I don’t remember a single time that they argued about the games. Afterward, we would gather in the living room and Danielle would play the piano while the rest of us sang hymns.
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As you can see above, a few schools ask simply, “Tell us something about yourself,” but most have a more specific prompt. Still, many questions are pretty similar to each other and can be grouped into three general types. In this section, we'll break down each type of college essay question to see why colleges ask about it and how you can respond effectively.

Studies have shown that there are winning strategies to rock-paper-scissors by making critical assumptions about those we play against before the round has even started. Douglas Walker, host of the Rock-Paper-Scissors World Championships (didn’t know that existed either), conducted research indicating that males will use rock as their opening move 50% of the time, a gesture Walker believes is due to rock’s symbolic association with strength and force. In this sense, the seemingly innocuous game of rock-paper-scissors has revealed something quite discomforting about gender-related dispositions in our society. Why did so many males think that brute strength was the best option? If social standards have subliminally influenced the way males and females play rock-paper-scissors, than what is to prevent such biases from skewing more important decisions? Should your decision to go to war or to feed the hungry depend on your gender, race, creed, etc?
Since that day in Orlando, I have spent much of my spare time learning everything there is to know about manatees. As a junior high and high school student, I attempted to read scholarly articles on manatees from scientific journals. I annoyed my friends and family with scientific facts about manatees-- such as that they are close relatives of elephants--at the dinner table. I watched documentaries, and even mapped their migration pattern on a wall map my sister gave me for my birthday.

Answer: Your essay can draw on whatever moves you, regardless of when the anecdote, event, or inciting incident you’re writing about occurred. However, what matters most, in terms of timeline, is that you show your readers how the event not only influences you now but will continue to inflect your thinking about yourself and the world as the years roll on.

So now, make a list of everything that seems like a fruitful topic. From the questions and prompts, you should find that you have 3-5 strong topic areas and stories—stuff that got you thinking and feeling, and which produced what Hemingway called the “honest sentences” that comprise good writing. Start with the one that moves you most—that’s your personal statement—but save all the others as fodder for your secondaries, or as backup material in case someone you trust tells you to consider switching topics for some reason. (Tip: the stuff that isn’t always linked to an anecdote or story but is important to you can often be useful for those secondaries.)

Every year, the path to college is paved with more roadblocks. Increasing applications from the U.S. and abroad mean that universities across the country are rewarded with an even more elite pool of candidates. Impeccable grades and test scores alone are no longer enough to set students apart from the crowd. As social media and technology begin to change the landscape of higher education, admissions officers are looking for new ways to get to know potential students. There is still no better way to introduce yourself than through an admission essay.
Believe it or not, some scholarship providers actually specify the font type and size as part of their scholarship essay requirements. If you have access to a computer and printer, take the time to prepare a type-written essay following any formatting requirements or guidelines set forth by the scholarship provider. If you have the time and know-how, create address labels for your scholarship envelope. Every little detail towards a clean and professional presentation will make an impression on the person reading your essay.
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While the personal essay has to be personal, a reader can learn a lot about you from whatever you choose to focus on and how you describe it. One of my favorites from when I worked in admissions at Duke University started out, “My car and I are a lot alike.” The writer then described a car that smelled like wet dog and went from 0 to 60 in, well, it never quite got to 60.
OK, that is in no way a direct quotation, nor is it anything close to blank verse, but trust me: the bard would want you to avoid trying to anticipate what the admission staff want to read. So don’t try to be too clever or cutesy in your essay, and don’t try to embellish a perfectly simple story. “We’re trying to discern whether you can you put thoughts on paper in a coherent manner,” says Southwestern University’s Vice President for Strategic Recruitment and Enrollment Tom Delahunt. “The topic doesn’t have to be heavy, like death, dying, or a debilitating illness. It can be light and still give us an indication that you can write and effectively communicate.” Everyday experiences can be meaningful, and you should describe how a particular difficult conversation affected your thinking about cultural differences or how collecting antique typewriters helps you see technology in a different way. But don’t exaggerate the significance of your experience; the effect it’s had on your personal growth does not need to be elevated to the level of global impact.

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Before you dive (or cannonball!) into our pool of essay advice, we’d like to leave you with one last little secret: the prompts are not actually as important as you think they are. In fact, in our instructional writing course and private advising, we encourage applicants to root around for their most meaningful stories first and consider the prompts later. This is a process we call the Backwards Brainstorm, and you can learn more about it here. For now, the main point we want you to take away is this: The prompts don’t really matter. What matters is the story you want to tell. (And that you floss at least every other day—trust us, it will pay off in the long run.) We are as sure as ever that every single one of you has a valuable story (or two or twelve!) to communicate to admissions. All it takes is ample time for reflection and a little writerly elbow grease to find it. So take a peek at what the 2018-19 application has in store for you, absorb what these prompts are really asking, and then forget about them (really!) as you explore the endless possibilities.
What values did you grow up holding dear? Are they the same ones today? Tell the story of the first time you learned about these values—say, a morning at Sunday School or a conversation with a grandparent. If they’ve changed, tell the story of the moment (as best you can place it) when they changed—say, in a classroom, in a conversation with a friend, etc.
You may have heard of Yale University – it’s a private Ivy League research university in Connecticut? It’s also the alma mater of five U.S. presidents, among countless other scholars. With a retention rate of 99 percent, we’re guessing most students don’t answer, “Going to Yale,” as what they've changed their minds about. Perhaps which side of a legal issue you fall on would be a safer answer, especially since Yale Law School is the most selective within the United States. Learn more about Yale University.
While the personal essay has to be personal, a reader can learn a lot about you from whatever you choose to focus on and how you describe it. One of my favorites from when I worked in admissions at Duke University started out, “My car and I are a lot alike.” The writer then described a car that smelled like wet dog and went from 0 to 60 in, well, it never quite got to 60.
Even at first, when the whole research group sat there doing rote calculations and others felt like they were staring down the barrel of defeated purpose, I remained enthusiastic. Time and time again I reminded myself of that famous phrase "great effort leads to great rewards," and sure enough, soon my aspirations began to be met. This shift in attitude also coincided with a shift in location: from the computer desk to the laser lab. It was finally time to get my hands dirty.
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