how to write college essays

It’s a year for changes in big public university admissions systems. The University of California introduced their all-new Personal Insight Questions—which we discussed on our radio show, Getting In: A College Conversation, last week—and way down south, Apply Texas has introduced new prompts for students applying to the University of Texas system and most other institutions in the state. Back in August, my colleague gave advice on essay length for Apply Texas, which doesn’t place rigid constraints on word count. Today, we’re going to talk about the three main essay prompts, Topics A, B, and C, and how you should think about your responses to them.

Topic A: Mandatory for UT-Austin

If this first prompt looks familiar, it’s because it shares a language with many essays for other schools:

What was the environment in which you were raised? Describe your family, home, neighborhood or community, and explain how it has shaped you as a person.

Now let’s unpack it. The key point here will be to keep it focused on you. Don’t get so lost in the description of your surroundings that you forget to bring it back to the impact those surroundings have made on the person you are today. The “what” of your environment is not as important as the “how” in the impact the environment has had on you. Your focus should be on the last phrase of the prompt: how [your environment] has shaped you as a person.

Think of something specific from among the examples, focusing on some detail about your environment that is directly connected to a trait central to your identity. Instead of describing your mom, your neighborhood, your childhood friends, and your church in one essay, identify the one that you feel you can write about most confidently, and use it as a way of sharing your personality with the admissions committee.

B or C: How to decide?

Excepting those applicants who are seeking admission to special programs like architecture, nursing, or social work, everyone will have to choose between Topics B and C for their second essay. And I think you can look at this as a simple choice between an open-ended but fairly “safe” prompt, and a much more risky, creative prompt. B will look very familiar to students who have already written an essay for the Common App, or carved out answers to personal insight questions for the University of California. Topic C, on the other hand, is unusual. It still grants you the opportunity to share something about yourself, but it provides a much greater opportunity to demonstrate creativity and personality. Choose whatever is most comfortable for you—the one you will feel most confident writing. You’ll never be penalized for the prompts you choose, except in the opportunity cost of making a choice that, in its simplicity, fails to fully introduce you to the admissions office.

Topic B: Choose Your Own Adventure

Most students have an identity, an interest or a talent that defines them in an essential way. Tell us about yourself.

The central goal of the prompt can be found in these last four words: tell us about yourself. What would you most like to share? What story would you like to tell? You can literally begin with anything. The usefulness of the prompt is in helping you to aim for a singular idea: an identity, interest, OR talent; not an identity, interest, AND talent. Make sure your focus is razor sharp; just because you get the chance to write about anything doesn’t mean you should write about everything.

Topic C: A Literal Adventure

You’ve got a ticket in your hand—Where will you go? What will you do? What will happen when you get there?

Don’t be scared to be adventurous or show your personality here, but remember that as with all other essay topics, the response needs to come back to you. Where you will go and what you will do isn’t nearly as important as what you will make of the opportunity to have such an experience. This is your chance to shed some light on the kind of personality you will add to a Texas campus. Is there a component of your life, a favorite activity, hobby, or interest that you’ve yet to include in your application? Here’s your chance. Remember the advice I gave in Topic A: don’t let the “what” of your trip overshadow the “why,” namely why this is something you care about. The admissions office wants to know less about the fashion you’ll see when you visit Paris and more about the passion you’ve had for design since you were 13. It is the reason you choose where to go that matters, not the choice you ultimately make. Have fun with this one!

Essay-Pitfalls-CTA

Written by Ian Fisher
Ian Fisher is an experienced educational consultant, part of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Ian received his master’s in policy, organization, and leadership studies from the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Prior to joining College Coach, Ian worked as a senior admissions officer at Reed College.