First, ask yourself two questions:
- Have you faced significant challenges? (You define "significant.")
- Do you know what you want to study?
Based on these two answers, take a look at the chart above and see which essay approach might work for you.
Get this: You can write a great essay whether you've been through challenges or not, and whether you know what you want to study or not.
The question is: How?
The answer: Find the right structure.
Let me explain...
I believe a good college essay should either:
- go deep, discussing one moment that fundamentally changed your life, or
- go wide, discussing many different elements of your life.
The Narrative Structure, will help you go deep, while the Montage Structure will help you go wide. We'll discuss both structures in the next two sections.
Note that I don’t believe people can generally be reduced to “types.” So if it pains you to think of yourself as a “type” of student, just think of these as different types of strategies.
It’s also important to note that these categories are fluid and it’s possible to move from one to another. A student who has faced significant challenges but doesn’t know what s/he wants to study (Category C), for example, may discover, through a process of research or counseling, what s/he would like to study and so move to Category A. Similarly, a student who has not faced significant challenges and does not know what s/he wants to study (Category D) may discover, through self-reflection or counseling, that s/he has indeed faced significant challenges, and so move to Category C. I recommend reading all the examples; you never know what might resonate.
Finally: There is no surefire approach for essay writing. No essay will, on its own, get a student into a college. Many different students are accepted to colleges each year with many different types of essays. Having said that, the task of the college essay is to shape the student’s life into a coherent narrative. What follows are some strategies that have helped some of my students do just that.
« Previous: 1.5 - Values Exercise | Next: 1.7 - Narrative Structure »
The Four Most Common Types of College Essays and How to Approach Them
Article Type: Quick and Dirty
Want to skip all the research and get to writing? Go straight to our COLLEGE APPLICATION ESSAY LAB for a step-by-step walkthrough of the writing process, from brainstorming all the way through to revisions.
And now, onto the meat.
Essay is not a four-letter word—though you may feel like using a few of your own when it comes time to write one. Most students would rather swim in a vat full of sharks while singing the national anthem (sharks + singing = Shmoop's worst nightmare) than sit down and write an application essay. And hey, we get it. It's easy to shrug off brainstorming, outlining, and agonizing over essay prompts for a Saturday afternoon snooze or four back-to-back episodes of The Walking Dead. But we also know that, sometimes, all you need to get started is a gentle little Shmoop. (Hint: It means to move things forward a bit.
These essays should be… fun. They're much more like narratives, journal entries, and free form writing than the highly structured, boring 5 paragraph essays you’ve probably been writing in school. In fact, some people say they’re even easier to write because they’re meant to be written in an everyday voice. It should all flow easily once you figure out what you want to write about. That, of course, is the hard part: deciding what stuff to write about.
But the nice thing about applying to colleges is that you’ll be able to recycle some of the essays you write for different schools, so you'll probably only have to write 3-4 essays at most. Sure, there’ll be slight changes here and there and maybe from year to year, but you’ll probably be able to use a couple of your essays multiple times. There are always going to be those schools with that weird prompt that doesn’t fit into any of these (check out UChicago), but even then, odds are you can adapt one of those four into one of the prompts. Most essays can be grouped into four general types:
1. The Personal Statement
The Gist: There are a lot of essay prompts that can be considered personal statements; these will range from “Tell us about yourself” to “Tell us about an experience that defines who you are.” An excellent example is the first essay topic choice from the 2013-2014 Common App:
“Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.”
The point of college essays in general is to show a side of you that the admissions committee can’t see just by looking at your transcript, letters of rec, resume, and whatnot. The point of personal statement essays in particular is to communicate something you do or did in the past—whatever, really—that defines who you are.
Approach: When choosing a topic for this kind of essay, you should select an experience or activity that played an important—even central—role in your life, but one that isn’t covered by the rest of your application. For instance, if most of the awards you won were from mock trial, you had a letter of rec from your mock trial coach, and mock trial filled up half a page on your resume, it might be better to write an essay about something else, unless you provide a story about an intense mock trial that required you to persist under pressure. Remember, the point of the essays is to show the admissions officers something that they can’t garner from the rest of your application.
In other words, write about anything. You can write about how singing in the shower has fundamentally changed the way you see things (we’re not even kidding, check this out), about how much you love baking cookies, or just about how much you loved this one art class you took (even if the rest of your application is pretty hardcore math/science). Colleges want multi-dimensional students, so show them something unique about yourself.
2. Your Favorite Activity
Gist: The answer to this prompt can range from competitive math to basketball to debate to a collection of vintage Superman comics. It can also be used for your personal statement as well. The point of this essay is to demonstrate your passion, have a deep intellectual understanding of something, and notice the details that 99.9% of others wouldn’t notice—anything that makes you stand out from the crowd.
Approach: Think about what your interests are. What do you do in your free time? If you could spend a day doing something, what would you do? Maybe answering watching TV or playing video games isn’t the best idea, unless you happen to run a TV station or have released your own iPhone apps. Think about why it’s your favorite activity and what about it gets you excited and just write. A good way to get material for a first draft is to write like you’re trying to convince someone how great lacrosse or competitive speed-eating or stamp collections really are. Just remember what you’re trying to get across to the people reading your essay: that you truly feel passionate about that activity, and that it brings something out of you that most people can’t match up to.
3. Why [insert school name]?
The Gist: This prompt will ask you why you want to spend the next four years of your life at one particular college. Strategically, this essay accomplishes two things: it shows your interest in the school (which is important, because schools want to maintain high matriculation rates), and it shows that you are a good fit for the school.
Approach: To approach this essay, think about how the admissions officers will see you: a potential math major with an interest in Shakespeare, a politics nerd with a photographic memory, an all-around artist with a knack for biology, whatever. Then, do some research. If you’re applying as a math major, check out the math department’s website. Look up clubs and organizations that you’d like to join at the school. Professors you'd like to work with on their groundbreaking research. In short, you want to communicate to the admissions committee that if you’re admitted, you would attend (regardless of whether it’s on top of your list or on the bottom; the point is to get in first, then decide where you want to go), and that if you were to attend, you’d contribute positively to the school one way or another.
4. Intellectual Curiosity
Gist: College = freedom at last. True, but let's not forget; you're also in school to study. You'll have to choose something to major in, and most schools will want to know what you like to learn in your free time. An example of this kind of question comes from Stanford's Supplemental Essay questions: Stanford students possess an intellectual vitality. Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development.
Approach: What are some of your favorite subjects in school? Do you feign a stomachache before math class so you can skip class? Similar to the other three previous essays, think about what characteristics are not yet portrayed through other essays or parts of your application. The admissions committee wants to know that you have a mind that's always hungry for more knowledge.
The people reading your essays are regular human beings, which means you should write with that in mind. A good way to check your tone is to read your essays out loud. No, not in your head, out loud. Read them to a friend, parent, sibling, whatever, and if you feel embarrassed or uncomfortable by the style, then you should change it. This doesn’t mean you should add in colloquial filler words like like, um, and uh, but it means that the essay should flow smoothly enough that you feel comfortable reading it out loud in front of someone you don’t know very well (don’t actually do that, but you should feel good enough to).
And… have fun. A lot of people think of college essays as a tedious chore, but actually, they’re a valuable experience to learn more about yourself and at the same time shake off the modesty a bit and brag to someone whose job it is to listen.
For a more extensive walk-through of the College Application Essay, check out our Writing the College Application Essay nano-course!