Before you write a college essay, it’s important to understand exactly what the admissions team is trying to find out about you. Step 1 begins with a review of the Common Application and some other typical essay prompts. It also provides space for you to evaluate other prompts.
Watch the Video Intro to begin Step 1, then continue reading for more details. When you are done, click Try It Now to complete the activity for this step.
All Application Essays Begin with a Prompt
To help you understand how to read a prompt, take a look at the instructions for the personal statement on the Common Application:
The essay demonstrates your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice. What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response. Remember: 650 words is your limit, not your goal. Use the full range if you need it, but don’t feel obligated to do so. (The application won’t accept a response shorter than 250 words.)
The instructions are followed by seven prompt options (which we will explore in the tabs below.) No matter which prompt you select, the key question is in the instructions: What do you want colleges to know about you? This is your opportunity to shine, to offer readers some insight into who you are beyond your grades, test scores and activities.
Before you select your prompt, take a moment to figure out what you want colleges to know about you that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to find out from your application. Are you industrious? Funny? A leader? Shy? Outgoing? Curious? Are you a risk taker? A passionate reader? Once you know what you want to share, look at the prompts. Then find a story that best illustrates the trait you want to share and also answers the prompt.
Common Application Personal Statement Options
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.
The key word in this prompt is “meaningful.”
To answer this prompt effectively, consider why your background, identity, interest or talent is significant to you. Colleges are more concerned with who you are than your background, identity, interest or talent. What does your talent illustrate about you? What have you learned about yourself because of your background?
At its core, the college essay is all about reflection. What do you want readers to know about you after reading your essay? Why does it matter to you? In your response, you will need to focus on why something is meaningful to you, and also make sure it answers the prompt.
Admissions officers read these essays to find out something they don’t already know about you. They can tell from your application that you are on the lacrosse team or in the school orchestra. They know you worked as a researcher or a hospital aide or a bagger in a grocery store. And if your transcript says you took American Literature, they can assume you read books like A Raisin in the Sun, The Crucible or The Bluest Eye.
They don’t know how those experiences affected you, whom you met along the way or why a particular piece of music is so important to you. They have no idea how you have changed and why you might be a good fit for their school. You can share these reflections in your essay.
You could respond to this prompt by sharing insight gained from any background, identity, interest, or talent– a significant conversation, or a moment when you realized something important about yourself – anything that truly and vividly demonstrates who you are and answers the prompt in a thoughtful manner. Your experience does not have to be particularly impressive; you do not have to write about what you learned while climbing a mountain or how you got over your fear of fires after rescuing three children from a burning building. You could write about how you developed compassion for older people while making meatballs with your grandma, or how you became more confident after navigating a car on an icy highway. Your challenge is to find an idea that illustrates something meaningful. Choose a single moment, or focus on an idea, and then explore it in detail.
What are Admissions Officers Looking For?
No matter the prompt, before you start brainstorming ideas, think about what you want readers to know about you. The question is not “What do they want to hear?” or “What should I write?” Instead, answer this: “What do I want readers to know about me that they couldn’t find out from the rest of my application?” They know that you are on the debate team or that you play soccer. They know that you got a B+ in Algebra or scored well on the ACT. What they don’t know is whether you are creative, decisive, determined, self-motivated or cautious. They don’t know how your experiences have shaped you. Your essay offers an opportunity to consider what you want them to know and remember.