Skip to content

Essay For College Topics Assays

Top 10 Tips for College Admissions Essays


In the admissions process, US colleges and universities generally use three criteria for determining which students to accept and which to reject:

  1. Previous coursework – your college preparatory work and grade point average (GPA)
  2. Standardized test scores – SAT and ACT are the two most respected.
  3. Admission/Entrance essays

Of the three criteria, the college entrance essay provides you with the greatest opportunity to distinguish yourself from your competition and show off the person behind the statistics. This article will help in writing a college essay and help you boost your chances of being accepted by an American university or college

Section 1: Planning Your Essay

Tip #1: Understand the Admissions Board Psychology

When you have compiled all the pieces of your application and sent it to the college/university of your dreams, all of your hard work gets placed in a pile with hundreds of other applications. Then a small group of admissions officers will review each application, looking over the scores and coursework and reading the college application essays.

The key to convincing the admissions officers is in understanding what they are looking for. They want students who will:

  • Succeed once they are admitted;
  • Contribute to the educational experience of other students; and,
  • Bring honor and prestige to the university once they graduate.

In your college admissions essay, you want to portray yourself as a student who will meet those needs. Of course, the specifics of what qualifies as “succeed” or “bring honor” will depend a bit on the particular university, but all admissions officers share these three goals.

Before you write your college admissions essay, take a few minutes and jot down some answers to the following questions:

  • How can I reassure the admissions board that I will succeed in their school?
  • How will I show that I am determined and ambitious; that I will not get poor grades or drop out?
  • How can I contribute positively to the educational experience of other students?
  • How might I bring honor and prestige to the university?
  • What are my long-term goals? Might I win an award someday, or start a business, or improve a scientific process?

Your answer to these questions will help you frame the content of your essay.

Tip #2: Determine Your Essay Goals

Along with the three questions above, you should contemplate how you want the admissions officers to perceive you. After reading your college admissions essay, what should they think of your personality and activities?

Most students want the college admissions board to view them as responsible, dependable, and academically ambitious. These are excellent essay goals, but you should also consider the essay in relation to your classwork. If your classwork already shows that you are studious and determined (because you have taken a wide variety of advanced classes), then you may want to highlight another feature of your personality.

Along with developing an image of your character, writing the college admissions essay allows you to feature other aspects of your life that are not reflected in your pre-college coursework. Some aspects to consider:

  • Have I worked at an interesting or relevant job?
  • Do I belong to any clubs or organizations?
  • Have I demonstrated leadership or teamwork?
  • Have I demonstrated compassion or community-responsibility?

Tip #3: Distinguish Yourself from the Other Applicants

This bit of strategic thinking should be fairly easy. As an international student, you by definition are different from the bulk of American citizens who apply to American universities. However, it is not enough to simply say, “Well, I’m not from around here.” Instead, you need to reference the strengths of your home culture. You don’t need to elaborate at length; a sentence or two should be enough to ensure that the admissions board pays attention to you.

Remember that you are more than just an international student from an interesting background; you are a complete person with a lifetime of experiences. You should take some time to think about what else makes you different from most the other hundreds of students writing college admissions essays. Add those features (plays piano, excellent at football, speak five languages) to your growing list of essay goals.

Tip #4: Contribute to the University

Remember that one of the goals of the admissions board when reading college admissions essays is to find students who will enhance the educational experience of other students. In other words, how can you contribute to other students’ learning? As with tip #3, you already have an edge by being an international student.

One of the general goals of education is to broaden people’s experiences, so that they come to realize the limits of their own intellect, and then grow beyond those limits. As an international student, you offer other students an opportunity for cultural diversity. As with Tip #3, it is not enough to assume the college admissions board will recognize this benefit. You need to highlight it in your essay. Again, a sentence or two should be enough to accomplish this goal.

Again, remember that you are more than just an international student. You have so much more to contribute to the campus social and learning environment than just your home culture. Take a few moments to consider what else you may contribute.

  • Maybe you are excellent at study groups or other forms of collaborative work.
  • Maybe you will join a student organization or athletic team.
  • Maybe you will write for a student newsletter or blog.

Whatever you feel you can contribute, add that to your list of essay goals.

Tip #5: Understand and Answer the Essay Prompt

At this point, you’ve come up with more ideas than you can possibly fit into one essay. Now you need to focus your goals to only three or four ideas – the ones that will make you the most attractive to the college admissions board. No matter what the prompt asks, you want to ensure you include those three or four ideas in your college admissions essay.

The concept is to present a few ideas very well, rather than list all your ideas poorly. A narrowly focused essay will be much more effective than a general, vague one.

Reading and answering the prompt may seem a bit obvious, but it’s often the obvious that people ignore. You should take the time to read and re-read the essay prompt, so you can answer it fully. Don’t be intimidated; unlike some college exams, the college application essay prompt is not designed to trick you. However, you must demonstrate that you can read and follow directions. Think of that great pile of applications. The admissions officers are looking for a reason to disregard candidates. Don’t let them reject you because you hastily overlooked a sentence in the essay prompt.

On the other hand, the prompt is designed to give you some freedom for creativity, which will allow you to work in those three or four key ideas that you have developed through tips 1 through 4. You are encouraged to find novel ways of answering the prompt, so long as you do indeed answer the questions provided.

If you need more help choosing a topic, you can find some tips on our Choosing a Topic for Your College Essay page.

Section 2: Writing Your Essay

At this stage in the college admissions essay writing process, you have considered the goals and psychology of the college admissions board. You have produced a list of ideas/attributes/details about yourself that colleges will find appealing. You have narrowed that list to the three or four most important ideas – the ones that will get you into your preferred college/university. Now it is time to actually write the essay.

Tip #6: Write with Specific Details

The key to excellent and memorable writing is to write in fine detail. The more specific your essay, the stronger an impression it will make on the admissions board. If you are trying to show that you are a dedicated scholar, don’t write: “I never missed an assignment deadline, no matter how poorly I was feeling the night before.” Instead you write: “In my junior year, I came down with a terrible case of pneumonia. Despite having a 103 degree fever and being required to stay in bed, I still completed my draft speech on the possible impacts of global warming on agriculture.” The latter will make a stronger impression; and people vote for the people they remember.

As you are writing your essay, ask yourself:

  • Is there a specific instance or example that shows this?
  • Can I add imagery (colors, shapes) to make it more interesting?
  • Can I replace general nouns (“class” or “car”) with something specific (“Honors Geometry” or “Honda Civic”)?

You may be thinking, “I don’t really like to boast about my personality; I prefer to let my record speak for itself.” While you should try to avoid sounding too arrogant, the college application essay is not the time for modesty. The admissions officers are expecting you to celebrate yourself, to underline your strengths and personality, so they can make a quick, accurate judgment about you.

Tip #7: Demonstrate College-Level Diction

Diction (word choice) is the fundamental structure of writing. Your word choice reveals a great deal about your personality, education and intellect. Furthermore, as an international student, you want to reassure the college admissions board that you have an excellent command of the English language (remember: they want you to succeed; they need to know that you can actively participate in English-only instruction).

With this in mind, you should replace lower-level words (bad, sad, thing, nice, chance) with higher-level words (appalling, despondent, phenomena, comforting, opportunity). You might consider looking up SAT/ACT vocabulary words and working a handful of those into your essay.

You should also remove any slang or casual diction; the university is not interested in casual language in their admissions essays.

Tip #8: Demonstrate College-level Style

An American proverb states, “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” In other words, you want to present yourself as being ready for the next job. In this instance, you want to show that you already have college-level writing skills. So, in writing your college application essays, you should write with the following features in mind:

  • Write primarily in complex sentences, rather than simple or compound sentences;
  • Include figurative language such as a metaphor, a simile, personification; and
  • Include a trope or scheme, such as chiasmus, oxymoron or anaphora.

As with tip #7, this serves two functions: 1) it distinguishes your essay from those that are poorly written; and 2) it reassures the admissions board of your excellent command of written English.

Tip #9: Have Someone Proofread Your Essay

This is one of the most important tips on this list. Everyone who writes knows that the words in your head don’t always make it onto the page the way they should. Because you know what it should say, it’s easy to trick yourself into thinking the essay says something that it doesn’t. For this reason, you should ask a friend or a relative (or an English teacher) to look over your essay and check your:

  • Grammar: did you write in complete sentences? Do all your subjects and verbs agree?
  • Diction: are all the words used properly for an American audience?
  • Organization: have you grouped sentences together coherently?

Tip #10: Pay Attention to Deadlines

College admissions essays require a tremendous amount of work. As you work and rework the essay, pay attention to the admission deadlines and requirements. Every school has their own system for how and when to file your application. Do not assume that, because one school uses e-mails and PDFs, that another school does as well.

The best way to stay organized through the college admissions process (and at the university when courses begin) is to rigorously maintain a calendar that includes:

  • Final deadlines
  • Reminders of upcoming deadlines
  • Process deadlines (breaking larger tasks into smaller steps)

Bonus Tip: Post, but Don't Panic

At some point, you will file your college admissions application. After you post it, please don’t panic. With these tips, and your determined intellect, you have an excellent chance of being accepted to an American university.

Take a look at our college essay samples to get an idea of what colleges are looking for in your essay.

Admission Essays

Related Content:

Get help writing your college application essays. Find this year's Common App writing prompts and popular essay questions used by individual colleges.

The college essay is your opportunity to show admissions officers who you are apart from your grades and test scores (and to distinguish yourself from the rest of a very talented applicant pool).

2018-19 Common App Essays

Nearly 700 colleges accept the The Common Application, which makes it easy to apply to multiple schools with just one form. If you are using the Common App to apply for college admission in 2017, you will have 250–650 words to respond to ONE of the following prompts:

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter  can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure.  How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  4. Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma—anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Tackling the Common App Essay Prompts

Prompt #1: Share your story.

Answer this prompt by reflecting on a hobby, facet of your personality, or experience that is genuinely meaningful and unique to you. Admissions officers want to feel connected to you and an honest, personal statement about who you are draws them in. Your love of superheroes, baking chops, or family history are all fair game if you can tie it back to who you are or what you believe in. Avoid a rehash of the accomplishments on your high school resume and choose something that the admissions committee will not discover when reading the rest of your application.

Prompt #2: Learning from obstacles.

You're trying to show colleges your best self, so it might seem counterintuitive to willingly acknowledge a time you struggled. But overcoming challenges demonstrates courage, grit, and perseverance! That’s why the last piece of this prompt is essential. The obstacle you write about can be large or small, but you must show the admissions committee how your perspective changed as a result.

Prompt #3: Challenging a belief.

Your answer to this question could focus on a time you stood up to others or an experience when your own preconceived view was challenged. Choose this prompt if you have a relevant—and specific!—experience to recount (and reflect on). A vague essay about a hot button issue doesn’t tell the admissions committee anything useful about YOU.

Prompt #4: Solving a problem.

This essay is designed to get at the heart of how you think and what makes you tick. Present a situation or quandary and show steps toward the solution. Admissions officers want insight into your thought process and the issues you grapple with, so explain how you became aware of the dilemma and how you tackled solving it. Don’t forget to explain why the problem is important to you!

Prompt #5: Personal growth.

Just like Prompt #2, the accomplishment or event you write about can be anything from a major milestone to a smaller "aha" moment. Describe the event or ccomplishment that shaped you but take care to also show what you learned or how you changed. Colleges are looking for a sense of maturity and introspection—pinpoint the transformation and demonstrate your personal growth. 

Prompt #6: What captivates you?

This prompt is an invitation to write about something you care about. (So avoid the pitfall of writing about what you think will impress the admission office versus what truly matters to you). Colleges are looking for curious students, who are thoughtful about the world around them. The "what or who do you turn to when you want to learn more” bit isn't an afterthought—it's a key piece of the prompt. Make sure you explain how you pursue your interest, as well.

Prompt #7: Topic of your choice.

This question might be for you if you have a dynamo personal essay from English class to share or were really inspired by a question from another college’s application. You can even write your own question! Whatever topic you land on, the essentials of a standout college essay still stand: 1.) Show the admissions committee who you are beyond grades and test scores  and 2.) Dig into your topic by asking yourself how and why. There isn’t a prompt to guide you, so you must ask yourself the questions that will get at the heart of the story you want to tell.

More College Essay Topics

Individual schools sometimes require supplemental essays. Here are a few popular application essay topics and some tips for how to approach them:

Describe a person you admire.

Avoid the urge to pen an ode to a beloved figure like Gandhi or Abraham Lincoln. The admissions committee doesn't need to be convinced they are influential people. Focus on yourself: Choose someone who has actually caused you to change your behavior or your worldview, and write about how this person influenced you .

Why do you want to attend this school?

Be honest and specific when you respond to this question. Avoid generalities like "to get a good liberal arts education” or “to develop career skills," and use details that show your interests: "I'm an aspiring doctor and your science department has a terrific reputation." Colleges are more likely to admit students who can articulate specific reasons why the school is a good fit for them beyond its reputation or ranking on any list. Use the college's website and literature to do your research about programs, professors, and other opportunities that appeal to you.

What is a book you love?

Your answer should not be a book report. Don't just summarize the plot; detail why you enjoyed this particular text and what it meant to you. What does your favorite book reveal about you? How do you identify with it, and how has it become personal to you?

Again, be honest in answering this question—don't choose a classic from your literature class or a piece of philosophy just because you think it will make you seem smarter. Writing fluently and passionately about a book close to you is always better than writing shakily or generally about a book that doesn't inspire you.

What is an extracurricular activity that has been meaningful to you?

Avoid slipping into clichés or generalities. Take this opportunity to really examine an experience that taught you something you didn't previously know about yourself, got you out of your comfort zone, or forced you to grow. Sometimes it's better to write about something that was hard for you because you learned something than it is to write about something that was easy for you because you think it sounds admirable. As with all essay questions, the most important thing is to tell a great story: how you discovered this activity, what drew you to it, and what it's shown you about yourself.


Looking for strategic college advice?

Get one-on-one help from former Ivy League and top tier admission officers. Our College Admission Counselors will help you find, apply, and get accepted to your dream school.

Learn More


The Staff of The Princeton Review

For more than 35 years, students and families have trusted The Princeton Review to help them get into their dream schools. We help students succeed in high school and beyond by giving them resources for better grades, better test scores, and stronger college applications. Follow us on Twitter: @ThePrincetonRev.