College Essay 101: What is a College Application Essay, and How Do I Choose a Prompt?
“What advice would a wisdom tooth have?”
“You are on an expedition to found a colony on Mars…”
“If you could give any historical figure any piece of technology, who and what would it be…”
These are parts of three of the University of Chicago’s extended essay prompts for the 2022-2023 admissions cycle. While essay prompts for the Common App, accepted by over 900 colleges and universities, may not raise as many eyebrows, every college essay is an opportunity for applicants to showcase their individual voices, perspectives, and even quirks!
According to a 2019 study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, 33.2% of 220 schools surveyed considered the college essay or writing sample to have moderate importance in the admissions process, while 23.2% assigned it considerable importance. While highly selective colleges have long tended to place more weight on the college essay than less competitive schools, the essay is arguably more important than ever in 2022’s increasingly competitive admissions landscape. On top of that, given the pandemic-driven rise of test-optional admissions policies, the essay may literally carry more weight; the absence of test scores means one less application component for admissions committees to consider.
With the pressure to write an outstanding college essay as high as ever, it is never too early to begin learning about the process. To kick off, we will cover two themes that surface near the beginning of the essay-writing journey: understanding the purpose of college essays and selecting a prompt.
What is the point of college application essays?
First and foremost, the essay is an opportunity to showcase your personality within your application. Admissions officers will receive plenty of information about you in the body of your application, from your grades, to your academic course load, to your roster of extracurricular activities. While each of these puzzle pieces fills in part of your story, the college essay is your chance to tell your story in your own words. It is an opportunity to showcase what you want the admissions committee to know about you, your motivations, and your values.
Of course, the college essay also allows you to demonstrate your ability to communicate effectively and engagingly in writing. Whether or not writing is your forte, the college essay is one component of your application that is completely under your control! Because you have the chance to work on your essay well before submission time, admissions officers will expect it to be grammatically correct and polished. You can brainstorm, write, revise, and revise again for as long as you need. This is where teachers, counselors, and friends can help. Ask teachers or trusted adults to read your essay so that you can fine tune it and work out any usage or style kinks, ensuring that it presents you in the best light.
In addition to putting your best foot forward grammar-wise, the college essay allows you to choose a tone that complements your overall application. Your essay should humanize you; it should flesh out the person you are beyond your academic and extracurricular accomplishments. In other words, your essay represents you to the admissions committee. It should sound like you. To accomplish this, read your essay aloud. Does it sound like something you would say, or is your voice lost between big words and complicated syntax? The best college essays transmit the applicant’s natural voice to the admissions committee and demonstrate how a student will enrich the campus community. Think of the essay not as another task, but as an opportunity to set the tone of your application!
How do I choose a prompt?
With seven essay prompts to choose from for the Common App essay alone, it can be overwhelming to narrow down your options. When choosing a college essay topic, strategy is the name of the game. It is your mission to pinpoint the prompt that will produce the strongest college essay. Sometimes, this may not be the prompt that initially jumps out at you. It may not be the prompt you like the best. It should be the prompt that results in the most specific, compelling essay.
While your best college essay will certainly be engaging, grammatically correct, and representative of your individual perspective, also consider how your essay topic can work for you. Imagine that your college application includes a stellar GPA, all Honors and AP courses, and every extracurricular under the sun. Would a clichéd, overly formal essay that describes how you won the Mock Trial Championship succeed in rounding out your college application? Probably not. Instead, a vivid essay anchored in a specific anecdote that draws on another aspect of your life would be more likely to do the trick. On the other hand, if you feel that your application is missing something, such as higher test scores or a longer list of extracurriculars, use your essay to help fill in the gap, connect the dots, or stand out in another way.
If you begin your essay-writing process early, you can discover which prompt to choose through brainstorming and freewriting. You may develop drafts for two or three possible prompts before narrowing it down. Only the process of prewriting, writing, and revising will reveal which essay prompt resonates most with you. Ask yourself: What makes me interesting? What do I really care about, and what lights me up inside? These are examples of the many questions you can use to jumpstart your essay-writing journey!
How can I make sure my college essay is the best it can be?
As any English teacher might preach to you: Revise, revise, revise! While many experts recommend beginning to work on your college essays during the summer before your senior year, the quality of your essay will ultimately depend on the overall time and effort you pour into it. In addition to enlisting the help of teachers and trusted adults, here are a few resources to support you:
iLearn Academy can help you write effective college admissions essays, from the initial brainstorm to the final proofread! To learn more, email us at email@example.com, call us at (847) 834-0791, or fill out our online request form.
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