First, because you'll be able to get a better sense of what colleges are looking for, you will necessarily broaden your own topic brainstorming past your first, easiest, and most clichéd ideas. It's one thing to hear that a completely mundane topic is way better than one focusing on your greatest sports moment. But once you see other students writing about a family meal, or an obsession with a particular board game, or a love of cultivating cacti, you'll be convinced to find your essay in the small moments of your life.
Second, you'll see how your life and writing compares to that of your peers. The great diversity of voices, topics, tones, points of view will show you just how many things you could possibly write about, and how to keep the essay connected to your personality and your voice.
First, the basics. A source is only as good as its content, so make sure you're reading college essays that worked, from people who actually got into the schools they applied to. Also, it's best to focus on new essays (not older than 10-15 years), so you are reading what has worked in the most recent past, rather than seeing outdated ideas and historical perspectives.
Written by Janine W. Robinson, who blogs about college essays at EssayHell, this book features great sample essays. But it's Robinson's precise and clear explanations of how to use a narrative style in your essay to tell a story about your life that make the book really outstanding. Through long and detailed commentary on each essay, Robinson shows why narrative is exactly the kind of structure that works best for personal essays. You can check out sample sections from the book on her blog. The book retails for $10 new on Amazon.
Harry Bauld used to be an admissions officer at Brown, so he certainly knows what he is talking about when he writes about how and why to avoid clichés and explains how to find and keep your specific voice. Bauld demonstrates his points with sample essays, showing how they go from first to final draft. The book is easy to read, uses humor to make points, and his advice will carry over into your college writing as well. It is $12.50 new on Amazon, but there are much cheaper used copies available there as well.
This compilation features college admissions essays written by seniors from Berkeley High School (which is not affiliated with UC Berkeley). Because the city of Berkeley is economically, racially, and ethnically very diverse, these essays are about many different interests, perspectives, and experiences, and are written in many different styles and tones. Although there is no commentary for the essays, this collection is a great way to get a sense of the broad array of essay possibilities.
Also, because many of the students from Berkeley High apply to UC schools, this collection separates out UC application essay packages. (If you are interested in UC, also check out our own guide to writing excellent UC essays!) This book is currently $15 on Amazon.
Edited by the staff of the Harvard Crimson, this is a great collection of essays from a not particularly diverse group of students. It is very useful to see how the very top students approach the college essay, as long as their best effort neither intimidates nor stymies you. The contextual material is excellent, with helpful explanations of what makes each essay work well. This book retails for $12 new on Amazon, with much cheaper used copies also available.
This Princeton Review guide is mostly distinguished by its introductory material, which has detailed interviews with many different colleges at many different tiers about what role essays play in college applications, what kind of mistakes are okay, and what to write and not to write about. The sample essays themselves come without commentary, but each features a very short bio of the student, including test scores, GPA, a list of colleges where the person applied, and a list of colleges where the person got in. Right now, it's $11.50 new on Amazon, but there are cheaper used copies as well.
This collection of of college essays that worked, edited by Gen and Kelly Tanabe, has somewhat spare, but insightful, commentary explaining what each essay does well and what it could have done better. It also includes an interview with an admissions officer explaining how essays are used in admissions decisions and some comments from students about the writing process. The link above is to a downloadable PDF file.
The "Fiske" of the title is Edward Fiske, who used to be the Education editor of the NY Times, and who therefore has some experience with what colleges want from their applicants. The book itself features an introduction with some helpful essay-writing tips, a diverse selection of essays built around narrative, but unfortunately has very little commentary to go with each essay. It retails for $12.50 new on Amazon, with cheaper used options available.
Although there's almost no commentary or discussion of what makes these essays work, this book is a reasonably good collection of essays from students who are now enrolled at Ivy and other top-tier schools. What's particularly appealing about this college essay compilation is how very new these essays are: all are from students who became freshmen in 2015. The book is $14 new on Amazon.
Individual College Websites. There are many essays published online by the various colleges where these students now go. This means these essays are guaranteed to be real, authentic, and to have worked on someone's application. Some of the essays even come with brief commentary by admissions officers about what makes them great. (The link will take you to our list of over 130 essays from more than 15 different colleges.)
I'd advise waiting until after you've done some brainstorming of your own before you start immersing yourself in other people's work and ideas. (If you're not sure how to brainstorm, check out our guide to coming up with great college essay topics.)
Broadly speaking, seeing how other people are approaching the problem of writing a college essay can jog your own creative process. Likewise, reading a diversity of thoughts and voices will show you that even the most normal and boring seeming experiences be made into riveting essays.
In researching this article, I came across books and websites that don't necessarily feature a lot of sample essays, but that give really excellent advice on writing your own college essay. I strongly recommend you spend some time checking them out.
Applying to college can be a tedious and stressful process for students and their parents. In addition to doing the research and paperwork associated with applications, teens may also be juggling the SAT or ACT, college tours and a tough senior year course load.
"The idea behind the Common App is to try and reduce the barriers that students face when applying to college," says Jenny Rickard, president and CEO of Common App, the nonprofit that manages the application.
Despite its popularity, the Common App may be confusing for some families who are new to the college application process. The guide below can help ease students and parents through the application.
For example, students who are applying for early action or early decision may need to submit an application in November or December, whereas the regular decision deadline is more likely to be Jan. 1. Prospective students should treat these ranges as a general rule of thumb and check with individual colleges on deadlines.
The time it takes to fill out an application varies based on a school's requirements, experts say. However, students need to give themselves at least six to eight weeks to complete their college applications, says Christine Chu, a premier college admissions counselor with IvyWise, an education consulting company.
That includes time to fill out background information, gather the required documents, and write the personal statement and any supplemental essays that might be required by schools. Applicants can find the various writing requirements for each school in the Common App's Student Solutions Center.
"Given the increase in the number of applications for some students and the number of supplemental essays that students have to write, I would suggest even longer to work on all the essays," Chu says. "Writing is an iterative process, and with revisions, which take time, students can write good essays."
There are seven Common App first-year essay prompts for the 2022-2023 school year (they are the same as the ones used for the 2021-2022 application), though students only need to choose one prompt. The prompts ask students to, for instance, "reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea" or "discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth." Applicants have a maximum of 650 words for the essay.
Not all schools require students to submit an essay. Some institutions may require students to submit a supplemental essay or additional information. Applicants can see the requirements for all schools on the Common App when they log in to their student accounts or download a PDF from the Common App's website.
Many schools allow students to apply online through their websites. Some states have application systems that students can or must use in order to apply to colleges. For example, Texas has a statewide system for submitting applications, though some Texas schools also accept the Common App.
Some well-known private institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Georgetown University in the District of Columbia accept applications only through their school websites. Many other competitive colleges and universities, such as Harvard University and Amherst College, accept applications through the Common App. 2b1af7f3a8