Us College Essays

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.


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About Rob Franek

Rob 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

If you’re one of the thousands of students that have decided to study in the US this year, you may be aware that unfortunately you cannot escape the dreaded piece of personal writing, even as an international student.

While there is certainly no Ucas system as there is in the UK, you’ll still be required to write a college admissions essay as part of your application. There are three types of applications:

The Common Application and the UCA are used by many US universities and colleges, and you’ll find that if you can write an essay for one of these, you’ll have no problems with any other individual applications.

The key to a successful essay is to start early – with the Common Application this means choosing which one of the five prompts you wish to answer and getting down some initial thoughts.

Think about each prompt carefully and decide whether your skills and life experience relate to one more than the others. Look at the individual words such as “background” and “interest” to help you, and if you still can’t decide, ask your family and friends which prompt they think might suit you best.

Remember that these prompts are just that, and not questions that must be “answered”. If you’re applying to institutions that use the UCA or set their own admissions essay, you won’t have to worry about this part, but the advice that follows will still apply.

When you’ve made a decision, sit down for a brainstorming session and make notes on how the topics below might be used in your essay:

  • After school clubs and extracurricular activities
  • Holidays and other trips abroad or around the UK
  • Hobbies and interests
  • Work experience
  • Family members and friends
  • Special occasions and other life experiences that have influenced you

When you have a few sentences down for each point, you can begin to put together your introduction.

Like the Ucas personal statement, an attention-grabbing opening sentence is crucial if you’re going to highlight yourself as an interesting person who the admissions faculty would want on their course.

Don’t start with something generic, such as “when I go into the city, I visit the museums because I like history”. Everyone goes to museums to learn more about history, so this isn’t a personal story.

Make sure you launch straight into telling the reader why you’re unique, without wasting time restating the prompt or describing what you’re going to write about.

Once you have a solid opening paragraph, think about how you can use your notes to construct several more paragraphs that will make up the bulk of your essay.

You are only given a maximum of 650 words for the UCA personal statement and the Common Application essay, which isn’t a lot of space, but at this stage it’s better to have too much written down that you can then trim, than not have enough. Institutions that set their own essays may offer more words than this, but it’s best to check the application form or their website first.

Think about how your notes from earlier can be used in relation to the prompt you have chosen, and try to link each paragraph so the essay flows well as a whole.

For example, if you’re writing an essay for prompt number five of the common application, “Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family”, you might choose to talk about wanting to get your drivers’ licence as soon as possible. Paragraphs might then be broken down into:

  • Your parent’s view of this and any compromises you had to make with them
  • What you did to prepare for both the theory and practical tests
  • Parts of the learning experience you found difficult and how you overcame them
  • How you paid for lessons and/or a car once you had passed, e.g., getting a part-time job
  • What the experience taught you, e.g., managing money, being organised, etc. and how it improved any of your personal skills or qualities, such as communication, teamwork or problem-solving

Looking at some example admission essays may also be useful in structuring your own.

The conclusion must round off your essay in a way that leaves a lasting good impression upon the admissions tutor. It should be a summary of what you have learned from your experiences and how they have shaped you into the person you are today.

Explain how this will benefit you on the course and make you a valuable asset to the university. You can also include a brief sentence or two about your career path or any other plans you have for the future that your university education will enable you to achieve. Tutors will want to see that you have thought ahead and considered how you’re going to use your degree later on in the field.  

When your first draft is complete, don’t rely on a spellchecker to correct spelling and grammar mistakes; ask tutors, family and friends to look at it and give you their feedback. Make sure you go through at least several rounds of this, and you’ll achieve a polished essay that will give you the best chance of success with your US college applications.

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