written by
Julia Riew

College Essay FAQ: Ask An Admissions Officer

College FAQs 10 min read
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In the following article, an admissions officer answers frequently asked questions about the college essay (also known as the CommonApp Essay, or the Personal Statement)! For more guidance on your college essay and the college application process in general, sign up for a monthly plan to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.


What is a college essay?

A college essay is a writing sample that is submitted with your application. It is a personal statement that shares more information about you with the admission committee. The other pieces of the application - the transcript, the activities, the letters of recommendation - will all look very similar when compared with other applicants to highly selective colleges. The essay is your opportunity to humanize your application by sharing a personal anecdote about yourself as well as to demonstrate a high level of thinking through your writing abilities. The essay distinguishes you and your application from all other candidates.

What is the CommonApp essay?

The CommonApp essay is the response to one of seven essay prompts in the Common Application. Students respond to one of the questions which is then sent to all of the schools to which they apply. The benefit is that the student only needs to write one essay total as opposed to one essay for each school.

What are the college application essay prompts?

Essay prompts vary, so it is important to review the topics for each application. Students should be strategic and select a topic that allows them to share something about themselves that may not already be included in the application. Admission committees do not expect 18-year-olds to write about unique life experiences, but they do expect students to write unique essays about common experiences.

The seven first-year CommonApp essay prompts are as follows:

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, 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 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 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.

How long is a college essay?

Essay length requirements will vary between schools, but they’re generally not long. The Common App essay requires at least 250 but no more than 650 words, but the University of California essays are limited to 350 words each. Students should plan to write an essay with a word count close to, but not exceeding, the limit. Many applications, including the CommonApp, will not allow students to submit more than the maximum word count.

How important is a college essay?

The role of the essay will vary by school. At highly selective colleges, the essay is arguably just as important as the transcript. There is very little to distinguish between the top students academically, so the essay provides an opportunity to shine. This is where you talk about yourself as a person, not just a student. Academics are the priority in the admission process, but admission officers are also looking for students who will contribute positively to their community.

For other schools, the essay may play a very minor role in the admission decision. This can happen at larger universities where admission offices do not have the time or resources to heavily evaluate your writing. It can also occur for program-specific applications where the admission office places more emphasis on course progressions and test scores.

When should I start planning my college essay? When should I write my college essay?

Students should use the summer before their senior year to reflect on their experiences and determine what they would like to share with the admission committee. Ideally, you should complete the first draft of your essay by the start of school in September, which will allow you to focus on your senior year.

How do I pick a topic for my college essay?

Select the topic that interests you most. When you choose to write about something you’re excited about, you will automatically write a stronger essay. There is a common misconception that students need to write a unique essay. Instead, the focus should be on writing an authentic essay. The admission committee reads hundreds or even thousands of essays each year. They are not judging your experiences. Instead, they are evaluating your ability to effectively communicate those experiences. The best way to do that is by choosing a topic that is meaningful to you.

When is my college essay due?

The essay is due when the application and supporting documents are submitted. If you apply using the CommonApp or the Coalition Application, the essay is submitted with the application.

How should a college essay be formatted?

The application essay is a formal piece of writing and this should be reflected in the formatting.

Choose a standard 12-point font, double space between lines, and make sure to either indent paragraphs or have extra spaces. If you drafted your essay in Word or Google Docs and then pasted it into the application, you will need to proofread carefully. This process often erases your formatting and can translate it into to block text or out-of-place characters.

What happens to my college essay after submission?

Once the application is submitted, the essay is converted into a PDF and sent directly to the colleges connected with this particular application. The college will receive the file as a PDF and import it directly into the student’s record. The admission committee will review it in this format. Once you click the submit button, you can no longer make any changes to the document.

Who reads my college essay?

Your essay will be read by the admission committee, which will include admission counselors and in some cases professors. Typically, the counselor that either works with students from your area or evaluates applications for the major to which you have applied will be the first person to read your application. At large universities, this may be the only person to see your application. At smaller schools, it will likely undergo a more rigorous process including a second review and a committee discussion.

What are college essay readers looking for?

Essay readers are first looking to make sure that the student has an understanding of the basic mechanics of writing. A great essay will show a powerful command of the English language where each word supports the storyline. Students don’t need to use sophisticated language (avoid the thesaurus trap!) but instead should think about using their vocabulary in a sophisticated way. The admission committee wants to hear the student’s voice throughout the entire essay.

Next, they want to see that the student answered the question. Are they telling a story from start to finish, or are they reflecting on an experience and sharing what they learned about themselves? The best essays show a deeper level of thinking and reflection when addressing the topic.

What college essay topics should I avoid?

The general rule is to not share something with the admission committee that you would not share with your family over dinner. Remember, the application readers are looking for a good academic fit, but they are also trying to determine if you are a good social fit for their community. You want to avoid topics that are too personal that may lead the committee to question your ability to be successful. The essay is your opportunity to shine amongst thousands of other applicants, and writing about a negative or questionable experience is a missed opportunity.

Can a college essay be funny?

Yes, but be careful. When done well, writing a funny essay can be an effective way to share your sense of humor with the committee. However, like sarcasm, humor doesn’t always translate through the computer screen. Plan to have several other people read your essay and see if they understand the tone. A good rule to follow is to simply allow your natural voice to come through. If you’re funny in person, then there is a good chance that the humor will shine through.

Can a college essay be too personal?

Yes. Again, if you’re writing about something that you would not discuss at the dinner table, then the topic is likely too personal. Your essay will be evaluated by people whose job is to find students who will be a good fit for their institution both academically and socially. You should choose a topic that allows the admission committee to see that you are a good fit. If you think your essay might be too personal, re-read it and then ask yourself what the reader learns about you. Are you highlighting your strengths? If not, pick another topic.

Can a college essay be about anything?

Students can write about any topic they choose as long as it directly relates to the question in the prompt.

Can a college essay be informal?

No. Students should think of the essay as a tool to help differentiate themselves from the other candidates. It is a formal piece of writing that is meant to highlight their thinking, writing and communication skills, so admission officers expect to see polished pieces of writing. Using an informal tone can impact your application negatively.

Are there any college applications without an essay?

There are some colleges that do not require an essay with the application. These could be large universities that receive a high number of applications but have limited resources to evaluate them. Other schools may choose to not require an essay as a way to attract more applicants to their institution.

Can I use quotations in my college essay?

You may include quotes in your essay, though you should use them minimally. Using quotes introduces a different voice when the applicant should be highlighting their own voice. Most applications have a maximum word count that students may find restrictive, and using quotations limits your voice even further.

What should I do if my college essay is too long?

Most applications will not allow you to submit essays that exceed the word limit, so it is important to watch the word count closely. If it is too long, read it out loud to identify phrasing that doesn’t directly support your topic or areas with awkward phrasing. Are you over-explaining? Did it take you five sentences to say something that could have been done in two? If you make these changes and you’re still over the word limit, put it aside for a week or two and come back to it. Viewing it through a fresh lens can help you see exactly what changes need to be made.

How do I find a college essay tutor or someone to help me with my essay?

The admission committee expects to read a highly polished piece of writing demonstrating that the student has given it considerable time and thought. While school counselors and English teachers can fine-tune the writing mechanics, CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Experts can help strategize ways to create an attention catching essay. In addition, students using the Platinum and Ivy Plus packages have the option to work with a former admission officer to learn exactly how an admission committee would evaluate their writing. The CollegeAdvisor.com method elevates a student’s writing without compromising their voice.


Didn’t see your question on the list? To get help writing your college essay from CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Experts, register with CollegeAdvisor.com today.