writing college essays

Today, we continue with the third post in our College Essay Prompts series.

The supplemental essay as a whole usually gives application readers more insight into the student’s character and interests than the Common App does on its own.  When I was an admissions officer at Tufts, this final essay was always my favorite; it provided the biggest and clearest window into the applicant’s personality. With the following six, very different, options to choose from, Tufts applicants got to write an essay they wanted to write, about something that actually mattered to them.

  1. Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf—the first elected female head of state in Africa and winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize—has lived a life of achievement. “If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough,” she once said.  As you apply to college, what are your dreams?
  2. What makes you happy?
  3. Science and society are filled with rules, theories, and laws such as the First Amendment, PV=nRT, Occam’s Razor, and The Law of Diminishing Returns. In baseball, three strikes and you’re out. A green light on a roadway means “go.” Pick any law and explain its significance to you.
  4. It’s cool to be smart. Tell us about the subjects or ideas that excite your intellectual curiosity.
  5. Nelson Mandela believed that “what counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived.  It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”  Describe a way in which you have made or hope to make a difference.
  6. Celebrate the role of sports in your life.

In the essay a student chose to write in response to one of these prompts, I often most clearly heard the student’s voice. I loved what this prompt did for applicants. So I was surprised, then when transitioning to the counseling side of the desk, to see how many students feel particularly nervous about those prompts. “Why are they asking this? What do they expect to hear?” While my answer to those questions is relevant for every single college essay, it is particularly true for these prompts: tell the story that you want to tell; don’t worry about what the reader wants to hear or how literally you answer the question.

Those of you who play varsity athletics do not have to answer the prompt asking you to “celebrate the role of sports in your life,” nor do you need to avoid that prompt because you are worried about seeming one-sided. And even though “it’s cool to be smart,” you don’t have to talk about particle physics or cutting edge philosophers (is there such a thing?) in order to come across as thoughtful and intelligent. Ditto the “happy” prompt – feel free to talk about Taylor Swift or driving home from school, if either of those subjects allow you to open up about the way you engage with the world.

As with any essay, make sure you are the protagonist of your story, rather than offering a spot-on but glib overview that would be better suited for the Southwest Airlines in-flight magazine (which, I must confess, I love). Remember that the readers want to connect with you, not judge you; a topic you’re excited about, that you discuss with energy, will always be welcome.

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Written by Becky Leichtling
Becky Leichtling is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions consultants. Becky is a graduate of the Stanford Graduate School of Education; prior to joining College Coach, Becky was a senior admissions officer at Tufts University. Visit our website to learn more about Becky Leichtling.