What is a college application essay?


A college application essay is the name for the longer essay, generally between 500-650 words, many colleges and universities require as part of your application. The college application essay offers students an opportunity to talk about their lives in meaningful ways or show another side to their identity not captured by GPA, test scores, accomplishments, or activities.


Occasionally, students can choose any topic for the college application essay. If that’s the case, I recommend using one of the prompts from the Common Application as a guide.


What is the Common Application?


Many private colleges, public universities, and religious and secular institutions, use the Common Application, a not-for-profit membership organization that provides a streamlined application process in partnership with hundreds of universities. Think of the Common Application as a membership website bringing together college-bound students with universities and colleges to make the application process easier. Note: not every school uses the common application.


In addition to important application questions, personal information, and portals for teacher recommendations and other supporting documents, the Common Application contains prompts for essays, with a 650-words or less requirement. These prompts are typically personal and give students pathways for thinking about their lives as identity stories, turning point stories, and coming-of-age stories, and more.


How will I know if my school takes the Common Application?


If you create an account on the Common Application, you can input the names of schools where you’ll be applying. If your school accepts the Common Application, then it will show up in their database. Visit the Common Application website at http://www.commonapp.org/.



What are the prompts for the Common Application?


The Common Application changes their prompts periodically, so it’s best to check their website for yourself. To see the prompts, check their website at http://www.commonapp.org/. The Common Application announces the prompts in January for the academic year, so be sure you’re looking at the most recent update to the prompts. I also have a link to the current Common Application prompts on my website, which I update regularly:


Are there bad prompts for the Common Application essay?


In my experience, almost any prompt on the Common Application can make a great essay. But your approach, the subject of the first part of my book Write Big, out in spring 2018,  is a very important part of the final outcome.


However, I do have some caution for two of the prompts.


  • If you choose to write about failure, be sure to not only show the lessons you’ve learned from the experience but also the process you use today to avoid or work through tough problems with similar themes. Colleges would love to see how you’ve overcome circumstances, but they also want to see you are ready and able for the rigors of their institution. Personally, I like writing about “failure with a twist,” meaning it’s more interesting when students write about overcoming perfectionism or failing to build a 1,000 piece Lego ship because of a missing piece. Both of these examples show a mindset of advancement and achievement and foreshadow learning how to become a more emotionally-balanced individual or creative problem solver.



  • Recently, the Common Application added a “share a piece of writing from school” option as one of the prompts for the college application essay. As a writing coach, my first thought is don’t fall for that one. Why? Well for most institutions you want to demonstrate you’re a hard worker, willing to take on the challenge of college. I’m not sure submitting an old essay does that. Moreover, the context for creating that specific writing is very different from the expectations of the college application essay, so you really can’t just slide another essay in and satisfy the “get-to-know-you” opportunity the college application essay provides. You certainly do not want to submit something that wreaks of an assignment, meaning the content is based on specific assignment criteria which only make sense to your teacher. If you choose this option at all, I highly recommend extensive revisions and to include your essay under one of the other prompts instead.


What are writing supplements for your college application?


There’s a huge range of expectations from universities and colleges on how much writing they require from you. Write Big is devoted to the longer college application essay, but below is information and resource links to help guide your expectations for writing beyond the college application essay.


If you are applying to a state school, you may be asked for very little or no writing. For example, Oregon State University asks for something called an insight resume, which is essentially a list of essay questions. The answers are typically 250 words or less.


However, if you apply to private liberal arts colleges, you will likely be asked to write a college application essay (via the Common Application) and smaller writing supplements. These shorter writing supplements differ in length from 250-500 word micro-essays. Questions vary in approach and content, with prompts ranging from “Why do you want to attend Gonzaga?” to “Design your own class for Sarah Lawrence College” or “Choose give words that describe you and explain why.” There’s a strategy for answering supplemental questions that I teach all of my students. I’ll be adding resources in March 2018 on writing supplemental answers for college applications: http://www.boxcarwritinglabs.com/college-essay-application-coaching/college-application-essay-resources/.




Finally, if you are applying to highly competitive institutions, Ivy League schools, “Little Ivies,” Claremont Colleges Consortium, or other top-tier national universities, then expect to write a lot of supplemental essays. The essay length for these writing supplements may be 100-800 words, depending on the writing prompt. If a school is in your top five, make sure to really take your time creating a strong essay. You can utilize the storytelling instruction in Write Big, available in spring 2018, to help you.


 Are scholarship essays part of my writing supplements?


In addition to merit aid, most colleges and universities will have additional scholarship opportunities for students. The selection for these scholarships is so varied that you must work with each school to understand them. However, many schools offer scholarship dollars in two ways: 1) in conjunction with your application and 2) as an invitation after you receive acceptance. These scholarships almost always ask you to write an additional essay.


The storytelling techniques and instruction included in these pages are transferrable. If you write more essays for scholarships, whether it’s for your college or the National Merit scholarship, the approach in Write Big will help you stand out.


Is the University of California universal application the same as the Common Application?


While many public universities are members of the Common Application, the public colleges of California are not. Instead UC has its own system and does not require a 500-650 words essay. Instead, you’re given eight personal insight questions and asked to write a 350-words essay on four selections. You can see the current prompts here: http://admission.universityofcalifornia.edu/how-to-apply/personal-questions/freshman/index.html.




Should I write an essay if it’s labeled “optional”?


My colleague, Dr. Deborah Barany, tells college-bound students optional stands for opportunity. Dr. Barany believes every opportunity on your college application should be seized, including additional writing prompts. Often these optional questions ask about an important value to the school where you’re applying or perhaps give you another way to show a glimpse of who you are. If you’ve worked so hard on your application, you should go this last step as well. Like writing supplements, there are no chapters focused on optional essays in Write Big, but I do believe the storytelling instruction within this book can serve as a guide through these essays and more.