What Are Colleges Looking for in Application Essays?



After four years of classes and multiple Saturdays spent taking the SAT or ACT, the college application essay may seem like a big drag. But don’t give up now. Essays are a very important factor in the college admissions process, as they are your opportunity to set yourself apart from the crowd and show college admissions committees what you are truly passionate about.

Grades, strength of curriculum, and admissions test scores still take the cake as the most important factors in college admissions, but application essays are not to be dismissed or downplayed.

If you’re a middle-of-the-road applicant, your college essay can make or break you.

But we at The University Network (TUN) understand how stressful and difficult it can be to put together a powerful, unique essay. So, to help you out, we spoke with an admissions expert and conducted extensive research.

Here is what we gathered:

#1 — There are 4 different types of essays

Throughout the application process, you will likely come across many different essay questions. But, typically, they can be boiled down into four categories: the “who are you?” essay, the “personal growth” essay, the “what inspires you?” essay, and the “why this school?” essay.

1. The “who are you?” essay

With good reason, the “who are you?” essay is one of the most common. Grades and test scores can only tell so much about an applicant. The “who are you?” essay gives admissions officers the opportunity to learn something unique and personal about the students applying. Generally, these types of essays encourage students to spotlight their academic or personal interests.  

Here are some past example essay questions from the Common App and Brown University:

The Common App essay prompt

Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

Brown University essay prompt

Tell us about the place, or places, you call home. These can be physical places where you have lived, or a community or group that is important to you.

What you should consider when writing “who are you?” essays

It’s important to remember that you shouldn’t explain your life story in these types of essays, for that could cause you to ramble and fail to ever get to the meat of your essay. It is better to take a deep dive into one specific event, idea or thing and explain how that has shaped or influenced you.

2. The “personal growth” essay

Colleges and universities use the “personal growth” essay to gauge how resilient and driven applicants are. Generally, by way of these questions, applicants will have to recall a time where they overcame adversity or faced a fear. College isn’t easy, and schools want to guarantee that the students they admit have the mental strength to graduate.

Here are some past example essay questions from the Common App and Stony Brook University:

The Common App essay prompt

The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

Stony Brook University essay prompt

Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

What you should consider when writing “personal growth” essays

Students who choose to write a “personal growth” essay should remember to be honest and modest. Don’t spend your entire essay giving background information or boasting. The meat of your “personal growth” should come from explaining what effect a specific event or challenge had on you.

3. The “what inspires you?” essay

The “what inspires you?” essay is a college admission department’s attempt at seeing the intellectual and creative aspirations of applicants. Generally, these questions are best fit for students who already have an idea of what they want to study in college and pursue after graduation.

Here are some past example essay questions from the Common App and Yale University:

The Common App essay prompt

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.

Yale University essay prompt

What inspires you?

What you should consider when writing “what inspires you?” essays

When answering “what inspires you?” it is easy to get sidetracked and bounce around to moments throughout your life. But, again, the best essays are stories about one specific event, person, place, or thing that had a deep, lasting impact on your life.

4. The “why this school?” essay

Many colleges and universities want to know why each applicant wants to attend their school. Each school has a unique culture and focus, so they want to make sure applicants will fit in and excel once admitted. Additionally, many prestigious schools want to guarantee that they only admit students who are deeply committed and eager to attend.  

Here are some past example essay questions from Columbia University and Yale University:

Columbia University essay prompt

Please tell us what you value most about Columbia and why.

Yale University essay prompt

What is it about Yale that has led you to apply?

What to consider when writing “why this school?” essays

When writing “why this school?” essays, it’s important to be sincere. Don’t just ramble on about how great a school is. Instead, tell an honest story about what motivated you to apply. And if you are just applying for the sake of applying, maybe think again. College is expensive, and can be difficult. Don’t waste four years of your life at a school you aren’t passionate about attending.

#2 — Past essays can shed some light on what works

Sometimes the best way for applicants to gauge what makes a good college application essay is to take a look at what worked in the past.

Students don’t always have to follow a set path, but the essays below, which were written by students in the past, can give today’s applicants a good idea of what a successful essay looks like.

Johns Hopkins essay examples

Connecticut College essay examples

Hamilton College essay examples

#3 — Some universal tips to apply when drafting any type of application essay

Schools differ in the questions they ask applicants to answer. But, generally, they all look for similar aspects in responses. Here are some universal tips that you should apply, so you can draft the perfect essay.

1. Write about yourself

Application essay questions may vary in wording and topics, but nearly every question you encounter is centered around the theme of individual interest, passion and drive.

“Schools are really trying to gain insights into what the passions and interests of a student are,” said Rodney Morrison, the Associate Provost for Enrollment and Retention Management at Stony Brook University.

So, before drafting an application essay, it’s very important to self-reflect and consider who you are, what you care about, and what separates you from your peers.

You don’t need to have gone through a life-shattering experience or have a burning desire for change in order to write a compelling essay. Even those who consider themselves a “typical high school student” likely have an intriguing story to tell.

Passion — no matter how deep it may be buried — exists in everyone. Take an honest look into yourself and find out what you care about the most.

2. Write about what is important to you

Students will commonly make the mistake of catering their writing to admissions officers, instead of writing from the heart. Disingenuous writing is easy for admissions officers to see through. After all, they read thousands of essays.  

“Don’t write about what you think the admissions office wants to hear. Really write about the things that are important to you,” said Morrison. “That’s really what (admissions officers) want to get out of it . . . the things that are important to the students, not what the student thinks the admissions officers want to hear.”

3. Don’t use humor if you aren’t funny

Students shouldn’t stray from their stylistic comfort zone when writing their application essays. Just because you heard somewhere that admissions officers like humor in the essays they read doesn’t mean you should squeeze an awkward joke in your writing.

Plus, you never know how an admissions officer will receive a joke. It could be perceived as confusing or even offensive.

“If you’re not a humorous writer . . . now is probably not the best time to try it,” said Morrison.

Forced writing is easy to recognize. Don’t make someone wince while reviewing your entry.

4. Don’t fake a sophisticated vocabulary

“Don’t try to use really big SAT words if you don’t typically use them,” Morrison said. “You really want it to sound like it’s coming from you.”

Even more so than failed humor, a forced vocabulary can kill an application essay. Synonyms aren’t interchangeable; every word has a distinct nuance to its meaning — and there is a time and place for every word.

Application officers have read enough essays to know when writing is organic and when it isn’t. Big words don’t impress admissions officers, but deep thoughts do.

5. Answer the question

Although this may seem obvious, according to Morrison, one of the biggest mistakes students can make while writing their application essay is failing to answer the question.

Commonly, students will receive an essay question, dive into it, and submit it without answering it fully. Incomplete answers are detrimental to a student’s response, because essay questions are carefully worded and intended to encourage students to explore and explain a specific thought or belief.

Answering only part of the question is essentially like missing the boat, and good writing will likely not be able to save you.

Take this Common App question for example: “The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?”

The meat of this question lies in the second half. If you spend the entire time giving background, you may get sidetracked and miss out on explaining what you learned — the most important part of the question.

6. Be unique, not generic

You should view your application essay as your opportunity to stand out from the crowd.

“Most schools — particularly competitive schools — they are really trying to pick and choose between a lot of qualified applicants,” Morrison said. “If you’re generic and (admissions officers) can’t tell the difference between you, someone else, and the other thousands of applicants, it doesn’t do you a good service.”

Again, you don’t need to have endured a traumatic or life-altering experience to draft a unique essay. You should consider your application essay as a time to explain what makes you special and worthy of being accepted — something that the numbers in your transcript can’t describe.

7. Use your space wisely

Typically, application essays shouldn’t exceed 650 words. And some schools, including Yale, ask applicants to answer questions in as few as 35 words.

Application officers are busy people with mountains of essays to read through, so it is important you are concise in your writing. Your application essay isn’t the time to explain your life story. Instead, maybe explain one specific moment that had a huge impact on you.

Additionally, it is pivotal that you use your space wisely. Don’t use up too many words on background or wait too long to get to the meat of your essay. This can be done by acknowledging your most compelling point during the brainstorming period prior to writing.  

8. Don’t let proofreaders change your tone or theme

Proofreaders are great. And, in fact, Morrison even encourages them. However, peers, teachers — whoever it may be proofreading —  should not alter or suggest any changes other than punctuation and grammar.

“In other words, the parents shouldn’t be writing it, the friends shouldn’t be writing it, it should really come from that person,” Morrison said.

In conclusion

There is a lot to consider before writing your application essay(s), so don’t wait until the last minute. To the procrastinators out there, don’t ignore this advice. Application essays are not like a nightly homework assignment, and they shouldn’t be treated as one. You need time to brainstorm, write, make edits, and have a peer or teacher review. Plus, the more time you allot yourself to draft your essay(s), the more relaxed you will be when it’s time to write.  

For more college application advice, check here.

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