College Essay Topics That (Almost) Everyone Has to Answer

Student writes college essays
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If you’re applying to college this fall, odds are you’ll have to answer these five essay prompts. 
By: Susanna Cerasuolo, M.Ed.
Main Essay  
99% of students will need to write the main essay. The vast majority of schools have some form of the main essay on their application, and they often call it a “Personal Statement.”  Topics tend to center around your passion for something, a character-building experience, how you’ll bring diversity, or a humorous story where you thought on your feet.  Here are the prompt choices on the Common Application; you pick ONLY ONE:
Please indicate your topic by checking the appropriate button below.

  1. Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, a risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

  3. Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.

  5. Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you and describes that influence.

  7. Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.

  9. A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.
    (I caution you against choosing number three unless you are a very strong writer because the tendency becomes to tell the reader all about your Grandma or your Dad, etc. and the reader learns very little about you. This topic can be done well, but is tricky.)
    Small Common App Activity Paragraph
    If you are applying to even one college on the Common App, then you need this paragraph.  The space limit is 1000 characters WITH spaces maximum, and the topic is “Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences in the space below (1000 character maximum).”
    Use this essay as a complement to your main essay.  Be sure not to overlap the content, and use this one to show a different side of yourself; especially attractive topics include jobs and independent research, imvho.
    Most students who are in the know about college admissions create a “resume” of their high school activities and include it with their applications.  On the East Coast, this is often called a Brag Sheet. It is not the same as a resume you would use to get a job, though in principle they are similar. The Common App allows you to list up to 10 activities, but your own resume allows you to go into more detail and to group entries by categories.  Plus it shows that you cared and took an extra step–always a plus! Use our Resume page to get tips on creating a strong resume.
    Why My Major
    Many colleges will ask you to discuss why you have chosen the major you enter on your application.  Remember, no one is holding you to this, but do try to express some of your interests here.  If you write roughly 150-200 words telling the story of why you chose your major, then you will use it for some colleges most likely, and you will certainly be able to use it in interviews.
    Why This School
    Many colleges ask why you want to attend their school, and the very best way to craft this essay is with research and names.  You research the college on their website (and by visiting, if you can) and then you list–by name–all of the reasons you love the place.  Typical things to include: programs, professors, classes, and clubs.  Spell the names of everything correctly, this shows that you really know your stuff and can clearly articulate that you and the school are a great match.  We have an awesome worksheet for this in the Handouts section of CM under the Resources tag.
    Remember, get started on all of your essays during the summer!  And call any colleges who have not released their prompts, to ask them when they will.  Be very careful not to write an essay that does not say 2013 on it.  We help you organize your college essays on the Essays page in, and if you have any questions, just post them in the Forum.  Yay college!


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