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Make Your Stories Pop:

10 College Application Essay Guiding Questions

Working on the drafts of your personal statements for your college applications? The drafting process is critical and can help make your stories and messages clearer.  Please be willing to draft and re-write to make your essays stronger. Also please don’t get frustrated. These essays are hard to write and get better with each new layer.

Here are 10 questions to help guide you through the editing process. I hope they can help make your stories pop on the page and help you get admitted to your match colleges and receive lots of scholarship money.

  1. Does your essay start with a story that hooks us in from the first paragraph?all college essays
  2. If you start in the past, do you get to the present very quickly? Colleges want to know about the recent you. Great essays can start more recently and weave in past events.1:3 rule
  3. Do you write only in the first person and not spend too much time describing anyone or anything else? Use my one-third-two-third rule. Do not spend more than 1/3 of the essay describing anything other than your own activities and goals.
  4. If you are writing about your community or family, do you get to the present and your life and life works quickly? Can this description only connect to you and your story of who are you and how you are making a difference?
  5. Do you only tell one story and not try to tell your entire life story?
  6. If you are writing about an obstacle or challenge overcome, do you get to how you have responded and made a difference in the life of your community by the second impactor third paragraph of the essay? Admissions officers want to know who are you and how you make an impact drawing upon your obstacles or challenges.
  7. Do you have a metaphor that goes through the entire piece…does this metaphor reveal who you are and what you offer to potential colleges? You can embed this metaphor throughout out your piece.
  8. Can I close my eyes and
    your story? Does it make you sound unique and not like anyone else applying? Can I see your leadership and initiative and the power of what you will offer a college campus?
  9. Do you tell new stories and qualities in each separate essay your write? Do you make sure to reveal powerful information and core messages that colleges will need to know to admit you and give you money to attend?
  10. Endings-Do you end with a bang? Do you make it clear by the end you have goals and aspirations that drive you. Your endings must be specific for some prompts like the University of California and University of Texas, but can be more oblique and implied in Common Application and many supplementary essays. Do you end leaving the reader with the desire to get to know you more, to see you on his or her campus, and to share your essay with someone else?


  1. If you are responding to University of California Prompt 1, do you end with how your story has affected your dreams and aspirations—in terms of majors, life goals, and your community?
  2. If you are responding to University of California Prompt 2, do you make sure to connect whatever you writing about to a major activity or project you have done that makes you proud?
  3. If you responding to the Common Application long essay, do you end with a bang. You don’t have to have a formal ending like the UC applications. Do you clearly let us know that you understand the power of your story?

Video Requirements

In addition to film schools and Goucher’s video application, more and more colleges are adding video requirements to parts of theirScreen Shot 2015-10-05 at 9.02.27 AM application. These essays are great ways for colleges to get to know the real applicant. Here are two samples.

  1. For example, the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance now has a pilot video responses embedded in its Decision Desk prescreening audition.
  2. Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz undergraduate program has an optional video essay.Screen Shot 2015-10-05 at 9.13.57 AM

Tell Me More: Use Writing Supplements To Strengthen Your College Applications

  1. Embrace All Supplemental Writing Requirements. Most selective colleges using the Common tell me moreApplication have individual Member Questions and/or Writing Supplements. Colleges that have supplemental essays really want to learn more about you– from you. So give them what they want. Great supplemental essay responses will give admissions officers more reasons to admit you and even give you a scholarship.
  2. Each college’s supplemental questions are unique. While all colleges will see your Common Application, only the individual colleges will see your additional responses. So each extra writing assignment is12-distinctions-between-small-medium-and-large-businesses-2-638different. Some will have one essay while others will have several. Each question and/or supplement, no matter what it requires you to provide, is another opportunity to provide more valuable information about yourself to the colleges you seek to attend.
  3. Length and formats vary. Be prepared to write a variety of supplemental essays from short one-line responses to medium size varysize responses to 650 word essays. No matter what the length, each response is a new chance to tell a different story or message about what you will offer a college. Also some you paste in a box, while others you upload.
  4. Screen Shot 2015-08-14 at 8.22.44 PMRead college’s specific essay tips. Most colleges now have a variety of ways to communicate their views on college essays. Some even provide model essays, including,Johns Hopkins UniversityCarleton College, and Connecticut College. Others give great tips from The University of California Berkeley and Boston University. Read how colleges view the essays on their websites. College specific tips may help you write essays that you engage your admissions readers
  1. Be even smarter than the smart writing questions or supplements. Some of your questions will appear based on what you answer in Member Question about particular majors or merit scholarships. Don’t be surprised if an essay disappears if you change your major or select no to a particular program or scholarship. Keep a running track of what you have to write for each prompt based on your Member Question selections.
  2. Learn deeply about the personality and reputation of college. Think of what each college values when writing your supplemental essays. If the college is large, and asks a community or diversity question, think how you can make a big campus small. Think how you can enrich a diverse community and how well you can join existing communities. If the college is small, think of ways you can truly engage as a member of an intense learning community. If the college is religious, think of ways you can enrich the spiritual community.
  3. Let us help you. All College Application Essays has done the hard work of collecting all the Supplemental Essays for you. We Screen Shot 2015-08-14 at 7.55.46 PMtell you where to find them, what each additional essay prompt requires, and the length and submission format. Use the time we save you writing powerful essays that communicate even more reasons for a college to accept you.
  4. Recycle recycleessays and re-use supplemental essays wisely. Remember, each question and/or supplement is separate and belongs to the individual college and you. The colleges do not communicate with each other, so you can use some of your essays over and over again, especially the longer ones and the optional activity statements. For example, you can see a way to use your University of Chicago Supplemental essays as your Boston College Supplement. Yet don’t be careless and cut and paste a college specific essay into the wrong college.
  5. Share more core qualities in college “Dating” essays. Many colleges have specific essays prompts geared around why you and the college are a good match. Read the specific wording on these prompts. Some colleges want only academic information while others want an overall essay. Understand that if they have this prompt, they want to know how you will fit into their campuses. They don’t want mere recaps of what they know they offer. Think of how you can engage specifically on their campuses. Some campuses even send these essays out to professors or specific communities to read. Give specific examples from your visits, college fair talks with admissions officers, or emails with professors or current students. Let them picture you on their campuses by literally picturing yourself on their campus. Ultimately, give colleges what they want, a reason to ask you out and ideally propose.
  6. Nothing is optional. Some colleges give you some optional essays. Do not ignore these options to offer new information.  Each essay is a chance to share a new reason why you belong on that campus. Of course, don’t force yourself to answer an essay that doesn’t match.

Five Key Essay Facts in 2015-2016 Common Application

We have been busy exploring the 2015-2016 Common Application. Here are five key facts about the essay completion and submission process to make your work easier. Our website and app provide all the information about the essays required for the 2015-2016 Common Application.Screen Shot 2015-08-01 at 10.02.13 AM

1. Required or Not Required Main Essay With Unlimited Edits. The Common Application main essay is now optional for colleges, which can choose to require it or not require it. Even if a college doesn’t require it, you can still submit it. After adding a college to your list, go to the Common Application Writing Section, and you will see whether the college requires the main essay or not. Remember this year, there are unlimited edits to the Main Essay. 

2. Dashboard Writing Grid. The Common Application now has a grid on the Dashboard to let you know about the Writing Requirements. Screen Shot 2015-08-01 at 10.02.41 AMThere are three columns in the Writing Requirements grid: Personal Essays, Member Questions, and Writing Supplement. There are also three colored symbols. Red means required elements. Yellow means optional components, while Blue means there are extra requirements for particular applicants. The grid won’t tell you where the blue elements are located exactly or what the smart elements are, but at least you know there are smart essays that pop up for different majors.

3. Supplemental Essays in Both Member Questions and Writing Supplement. The supplemental writing requirements are still distributed around the application. Some are included in Member Questions, while others are in the Writing Supplement section. Don’t assume there aren’t required writing requirements for a college if you don’t see a Writing Supplement. For example, Boston University has its required and program specific essays under Member Questions: Essays, while Barnard puts it supplemental essays in its Writing Supplement. Some colleges put writing requirements in both sections. See below for examples.

Screen Shot 2015-08-01 at 10.16.49 AM

Essays in Writing Supplement

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Essays In Member Questions










  1. Smart Essays. There are smart essays embedded in many applications. You will need to find them. Some are for specific major choices like Cornell and USC, while others are for honors programs and scholarships. They vary.
  1. Different Word Requirements. There are different word lengths for required essays for certain circumstances. The educational interruption section explanation is now 250 words or less, while the required explanations of disciplinary issues are now 400 words or less. The Common Application and Additional Information are still 650 maximum words. For supplemental writing requirements, some word limits are provided, while others you will find out by completing the essay.

GW Goes Test-Optional

On July 27, 2015, George Washington University announced its new test optional policies. It is now test washington university

Test optional will NOT apply to the following groups of applicants:

  •  Applicants to the Accelerated seven-year BA/MD program (Must also send in SAT subject examination in science and SAT subject examination in mathematics.)
  •  Students who are homeschooled.
  •  Applicants applying from secondary schools that provide only narrative evaluations rather than some form of grading scale.
  •  Recruited NCAA Division I athletes.

“Effective August 1, 2015, GW will no longer require students applying for freshman or transfer admission to submit standardized test scores, except in select circumstances as indicated below. In developing this policy, it is our goal to create an approach that aligns with our admissions philosophy of holistic review, supports the university strategic plan on access, reflects the most current data analysis regarding the use of testing in admission, and is clear and easy to communicate and understand by prospective students, families and school counselors. 

The policy is further designed to place the decision to submit test scores in the hands of the student. Students who feel their SAT or ACT scores are an accurate reflection of their academic abilities are welcome to submit them for consideration; however, students who do not submit test scores will not be viewed negatively. 

SAT/ACT scores will be considered an “optional” credential, and students may decide whether they will submit their scores to GW to be included in their application. The Admissions Committee will consider scores in a manner that is consistent with other documents that are often submitted by candidates but which are not required for an application to be considered complete, such as resumes, supplemental letters of recommendation from individuals other than a teacher/counselor and interviews.  

Applicants will communicate whether they intend to submit scores for admissions consideration via the Member Screen of the Common Application. They must then arrange to have an official score report sent directly to GW by the appropriate application deadline. Scores must be received by the deadline.

GW will continue to super-score the SAT for applicants who elect to submit their scores. This means that the Admissions Committee will consider only the highest critical reading, math and writing scores submitted, regardless of test administration. However, we will not super-score the ACT. Instead, the committee will consider the highest submitted composite score. We will not recalculate a new composite score from subsection scores on different test dates.”

We are tracking all Class of 2020 Writing Supplements

Here’s a preview with Tufts

Tufts-University-logoThe Tufts Writing Supplement

Class of 2020

When you visit the Common Application website to fill out and submit your application to Tufts, you’ll notice that the application includes a writing supplement. The Tufts writing supplement consists of three required short response questions. We’ve created this page to allow you to peruse the questions without having to leave this site. Visit the Common Application site when you’re actually ready to apply online.

Short Responses (Required of all Applicants)

Think outside the box as you answer the following questions.  Take a risk and go somewhere unexpected.  Be serious if the moment calls for it but feel comfortable being playful if that suits you, too.

  1. Which aspects of Tufts’ curriculum or undergraduate experience prompt your application? In short: “Why Tufts?” (50–100 words)
  2. There is a Quaker saying: “Let your life speak.” Describe the environment in which you were raised – your family, home, neighborhood, or community – and how it influenced the person you are today. (200–250 words)
  3. Now we’d like to know a little bit more about you.  Please respond to one of the following six questions (200-250 words):

    A) 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?

    B) What makes you happy?

    C) 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.

    D) It’s cool to be smart. Tell us about the subjects or ideas that excite your intellectual curiosity.

    E) 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.

    F) Celebrate the role of sports in your life.

It’s time for kids to write great college application essays, The Common Application will go live soon with more than 600 colleges using it, and many public universities are opening up their applications as I write (Yeah, Kansas University and the Universal App, both of which opened July 1).

Yet so many kids get stuck just coming up with unique topics for their personal statements. That leaves so many admissions offices with general, uninteresting essays to read.

So here are some creative ways to help your high school seniors get started with writing active, engaging essays that truly communicate their stories to admissions officers. Continue reading

Rice and Princeton release PDFs of 2016 Supplements

Both Rice and Princeton have released PDFs of their Universal and Common Application Supplements. Both have the same questions as last year, though it seems Rice eliminated the activity statement. Thanks for giving us a preview of what’s to come. Now kids can get started on their apps.

Check out our website and app for specifics. rice princeton



2016 Wake Forest Own Application Essayswake forest

Here’s a peek at one of the short responses from the 2016 Wake Forest own application.

3. Hashtags trend worldwide. Give us a hashtag you wish were trending. #______________________________________ Why?

Check out our website and app for the rest of the application requirements. 


2016 University of Michigan Supplemental Essays

U-M supplemental essay questions for the 2015-2016 Common Application:

Essay #1 (Required for all applicants. Approximately 250 words.)u michigan

Everyone belongs to many different communities and/or groups defined by (among other things) shared geography, religion, ethnicity, income, cuisine, interest, race, ideology, or intellectual heritage. Choose one of the communities to which you belong, and describe that community and your place within it.

Essay #2 (Required for all applicants. 500 words maximum.) FRESHMEN APPLICANTS

Describe the unique qualities that attract you to the specific undergraduate College or School (including preferred admission and dual degree programs) to which you are applying at the University of Michigan. How would that curriculum support your interests?

Essay #2 (Required for all applicants. 500 words maximum.) TRANSFER APPLICANTS

Describe the unique qualities that attract you to the specific undergraduate College or School to which you are applying at the University of Michigan. How would that curriculum support your interests?

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