What Should My College Essay be About?

For those of you who have been reading our blog regularly (and, really, what’s better than reading an admission blog on a lovely summer day?), you recently received some tips on maximizing the stylistic elements of a college essay.  To revisit a metaphor I used in that post, style is the wrapping paper of your essay–the content is the gift. As much as we love a pretty package, we want to open it up to find something wonderful inside.

Students frequently ask what they should write about–there is really no way for an admission counselor to answer this question.  You know yourself best and you know what is important to share. All college essays must contain two elements, however: the illustration and the insight. The illustration element can take many shapes, but most students use an anecdote or series of moments to illuminate their personality and experiences.  The insight element can be separate or intertwined, but a strong college essay always includes some type of analysis. Your goal in a personal statement is not only to introduce us to yourself but to show us how you think. That all sounds very heady, but your high school career has prepared you to write a good essay. Now the trick is to make it personal…which is usually where students start to panic.

A useful shaping tool/springboard for brainstorming topics are the essay prompts suggested by the Common Application.  While you do have the option to write on any subject, that amount of freedom can often seem nebulous to students. I suggest you start by doing a quick write for each prompt to see what comes to mind.  It is highly likely that you’ll find some prompts easier to write than others, and your story will naturally be drawn out. On the other hand, you may have a topic you already know you want to address, and the prompts can shape it in a way that allows you highlight what college admission counselors are looking for.

Last year our office read about 64,000 Common App essays. My colleagues have shared their impressions on what succeeds and what misses the mark when it comes to each prompt, and now I pass that collective wisdom on to you. These are not hard and fast rules—an opinion on an essay is just that, an opinion—but these are the trends that our admission counselors have noticed.


Prompt # 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.

What can be effective:

  • Tying aspects of your identity to your goals and aspirations.
    • When ideas coalesce, they tend to shine brighter.  If your identity drives your passions and interests, writing about that in a cohesive way can really bring you “off the page.”  How will your identity carry you into the future?
  • Talking about “hidden identities.”
    • There is much about you that we can’t see in your activities resume or your basic information.  Sharing those aspects of yourself that may not be readily apparent (but are meaningful to you) can be a very clear window into who you are.
  • Highlighting seemingly insignificant interests or talents.
    • Sometimes students worry that it’s silly to talk about the time they spend shopping for sneakers, seeking the perfect sandwich, doing impressions of their grandparents, fill in the blank.  These guilty pleasures, however, can actually be a meaningful (as well as fun and memorable) way to talk about yourself and showcase your personality.

What usually isn’t:

  • Repeating information that is found elsewhere on the application without elaborating.
    • You have very limited space on the Common App to show us who you are and what you are capable of.  If you use different sections of the application to share the exact same information, you are losing out on an opportunity to show us more! If you plan on answering the USC short answer question regarding identity, for example, we wouldn’t recommend you copy and paste that essay.
  • Sharing an entire life story.
    • Biographies can be incredible pieces of work…they are also significantly longer than 650 words.  If you are trying to include all 17 years of your life in a college essay, you do not have the space to do your experiences justice.  The meaning of it all gets glossed over. Focusing on specific, significant moments gives you the room to shed light on their impact on your life.

Prompt # 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?

What can be effective:

  • Anecdotes that show how you grew, even if there wasn’t a happy ending.
    • Things don’t always work out perfectly but that’s life!  The story you tell is secondary to showing us how you approach difficulties, and considering you’re applying to a place of higher learning, reflecting on the lessons you learned is a major plus.

What usually isn’t:

  • Treating common obstacles in common ways.
    • Students often fear their essays are cliché but that’s understandable—there are many experiences that are common to 17- and 18-year-olds!  This prompt tends to elicit many essays on sports injuries and failure to receive leadership positions. While these essays can be done quite well, it takes a good writer with strong personal insight to do so. Any topic can make an effective essay, but if your content is going to echo many other applicants’, know that you will need to lean more on your stylistic and analytic skills to show us who you are.
  • Discussing problems that solved themselves.
    • When your essay addresses an incident where there was “much ado about nothing,” your essay can easily become “much ado about nothing.”  Unless you can show how your reaction or growth substantively changed your beliefs or your behavior, consider using a different example or answering a different prompt.


Prompt # 3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

What can be effective:

  • Showing your thought process.
    • While we’ve likely all had an epiphany at some point in our lives, we don’t actually change our minds suddenly.  Reevaluating a belief or idea takes some time and is usually invisible (perhaps even subconscious) until it finally tips the other way. Walking us through your thought process so we can see how you wrestled with whatever belief or idea was being challenged is not only more genuine, it’s more interesting as well!
  • Speaking about an inward and/or outward experience.
    • Sometimes students have changed their minds about something and sometimes they have changed the minds of others.  While these are two different approaches to this prompt, both have the opportunity to show us how you interact with the world and can show great insight.

What usually isn’t:

  • Being close minded.
    • We value students who, even when challenging the views of others, show them respect.  USC seeks open-minded students who are eager to learn from others, and simply dismissing someone’s opinion without trying to understand their perspective speaks against that.  Bullying or disparaging others whose views do not align with yours is simply unacceptable in a college essay. You may choose to write about an instance where your ideas were challenged but you still held true to your principles.  While it is possible for this type of essay to be effective, the writers can easily come across as obstinate. Be mindful of your tone and what personal qualities you are trying to highlight.


Prompt # 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.

What can be effective:

  • Focusing on the “personal importance, no matter the scale” part of this prompt.
    • Addressing a topic or issue that may seem insignificant to someone else, but is meaningful to you, provides a great introduction to your personal passions and values.  This prompt is a difficult one—not many students attempt it. However, if you are willing to be a bit vulnerable and show us what’s important to you, it can really pay off.

What usually isn’t:

  • Getting to technical.
    • Some students get stuck on the “research query” section of this question. A personal statement is not an appropriate place to simply recount a research project you did.  You can use it as a starting point, but what we really want to learn about is your academic passions, not your particular findings. It’s easy to get lost in a world you know well, but understand that the people reading your college essay are not necessarily familiar with the jargon that has become a second language to you.  This pitfall can be easily avoided by using laymen’s terms, offering explanations, and including only what’s necessary for understanding your point.


Prompt # 5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

This one’s new! We don’t have any trends yet.  Come back next year 🙂


Prompt # 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?

What can be effective:

  • Spreading your enthusiasm.
    • Some of the most memorable essays are those that introduce us not only to a student but a new idea or subject as well! When students provide enough context or introduction to the idea/concept/topic so we can understand their enthusiasm, we get excited about it too!

What usually isn’t:

  • Am I repeating myself?
    • Please see prompt #1 about effectively using space.  If your USC short answer is all about your intended field of study, doubling up here by discussing your college major isn’t effective.


Prompt # 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.

What can be effective:

  • Using this opportunity to showcase your creativity.
    • I will start by warning you: this isn’t for the faint of heart.  It can be very difficult to pull off a piece of creative writing that still offers insight to your personality and experiences, but if you shine brightest out of the box, go for it!

What usually isn’t:

  • Reusing an essay from class.
    • School essays and the Common App essay serve very different purposes.  While an essay you wrote in class can be a great jumping off point for your personal statement, it usually isn’t yet…well, personal…enough to give admission counselors insight into who you are.  If you don’t feel that any of the other prompts speak to you, that’s fine, but don’t choose this option just because you aren’t willing to dig deeper.


Oof…that was a lot, huh?  It can be overwhelming to sort through his advice, so don’t be afraid to use the resources available to you (counselors, teachers, parents, etc.) to ask for help. And, as always, feel free to share your questions in the comments section below. Happy writing!


2 thoughts on “What Should My College Essay be About?”

    1. Hi, Ruddy! Some departments do ask additional questions. You can learn more on their specific admission websites, but you can also see them in Common App and SlideRoom.

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