The essay and personal statement portion of an application can determine whether a person is accepted, given all other aspects being equal between them and other applicants. Prospective students should plan to write many drafts of their essays or personal statements to ensure they are strong and well-written.
Universities usually require prospective undergraduate students to write at least two essays. These could be about personal motivation to follow a particular career path, reasons why a particular university is a good fit, or stories that demonstrate important values and ways the student approaches life challenges and engages with other people. Universities that use the Common Application may require students to write responses to their own essay prompts and ones from a list that is updated on the Common Application each year.
A few samples prompts are:
- 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 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?
- Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
Universities in the Coalition for College also have a list of standard prompts each year. A few samples prompts are:
- Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
- Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.
- Has there been a time when you have had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?
When colleges read through applications, they are looking for students who will be a good fit at their university and ones that are able to write well. College essays are the part of the application that students can use to portray who they are as individuals and make a convincing case for why they should be chosen by the university to be a new student there. The essay prompts that students respond to are typically very open-ended. They are an opportunity for prospective students to provide information that has not already been included in their application (such as: grades, activities and hobbies, awards, transcript of courses taken). The essay fills in the picture of the prospective student—not just what they have achieved academically or activities they have participated in, but also how they react to stress and difficulties; what they have learned from mistakes; experiences that have shaped who they are and how they make choices now. The college essay is a great opportunity for prospective students to distinguish themselves from other applicants.
For graduate school applicants, there are also may online resources for writing a statement of purpose (such as career aspirations and fit for the program) and/or research proposal. Some guides include ones from Northeastern University, University of Wisconsin, and Berkeley.
Most universities have student writing centers with open online resources. These can be helpful for prospective students writing college essays and statements of purpose.