AdmissionsApplicationCommon ApplicationEssay

Starting College Application Essays: Finding Your Story

By June 4, 2014 No Comments

bigstock-Laptop-with-blank-notepad-and-35817068“What should I write about?” is often the toughest question for students to answer when they’re faced with college application essays. They’re presented with prompts and given word limits but they’re also left with a lot of freedom. That can be very daunting as students try to choose how to write their essay.

We want students to cast aside their fear of freedom and instead embrace the creativity that it allows in their writing. This is an opportunity for students to differentiate themselves from their peers and tell their personal story.

Summer is the perfect time to really dig into the essay. The 5 Common Application prompts for 2014-2015 have already been released but the application itself isn’t available until August. Students can focus on getting their essays put together before worrying about the actual process of filling out applications.

Below are steps to help students kickstart their essay writing over the summer and generate ideas that they can then turn into unique, compelling essays.


The purpose of the college essay is to give students the chance to express themselves in their own words. It is a window into their inner lives, something admissions counselors wouldn’t have access to by looking at the application form alone.

To find the best way to represent their inner lives, students should do some brainstorming. Consider the thinking points below and make a list or sketch a word map of ideas that come to mind. Try to generate as many ideas as possible, even the ridiculous ones. Students may find a point of inspiration in something they initially thought was absurd.

Before they start to write, students should spend some time reflecting about who they are as people. If they’re going to write an essay about themselves, it’s helpful to asses where they are at that moment in their lives. What kind of person are they? What are their passions? Their strengths and weaknesses? What are their hopes for the future? What are they looking to get out of college? Equipped with some of these answers, students will have a better sense of themselves as they move forward.

Unique stories
Students should think of stories from their lives that are unique to them and that would be interesting for others to read about. Essays that tell a story and present a snapshot of a student’s life really help bring them to life in the eyes of an admissions counselor. Keep in mind that stories don’t have to be big or dramatic; they can be small and about everyday life. What makes a story unique isn’t that nobody else has ever experienced what the student has, but that when the student tells their story, they include details that makes the story theirs and thus unable to be told by anybody else.

These stories should reveal something about the student, whether it’s about their beliefs, their passions, their love of family or their intellectual curiosity. The personal stories are vehicles to tell the reader more about the personality and character of the student.

Choosing a Prompt

The Common Application allows students to apply online to over 500 schools and provides 5 personal essay prompts for students to choose from as part of that application. The essay is capped at 650 words so students have limited space to tell a compelling story that reveals something about themselves.

Instead of obsessing about which prompt to choose, students should think about what came up during their brainstorming and see what personal stories fit best with which prompt. It’s helpful to read the prompts before brainstorming so students know generally what’s being asked of them, but they shouldn’t let prompts restrict the free flow of ideas.

Common Application prompts

    Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
    Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
    Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
    Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
    Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.


Writing a quality essay is a process. It takes time, multiple drafts, revising, editing, and proofreading. In the beginning, students shouldn’t be bogged down with trying to get it right the first time. The beginning is a time to get creative and let ideas flow.

Freewriting is a technique that allows people to write continuously without thought to grammar, punctuation or organization. It’s a chance to explore options and see where different ideas lead. It’s often messy and disorganized but students will get a feeling for which of their stories have the most workable material and the most potential.

During freewriting, students can try responding to a few of the prompts, just to see which one yields the best results. In the beginning, it’s better to have too much material than not enough. Students can always cut out unneeded material but adding more is usually more difficult.


After investigating a number of possible topics during freewriting, students should decide which direction they want to go in and write their first cohesive draft. Accept that this won’t be perfect either. A first draft is just a stepping stone to the final draft. There will be many drafts in between.

It’s important for students to have their drafts looked at by a trusted adult like a teacher, a parent or a tutor who can provide helpful feedback and proofread for grammatical errors.

Students end up writing essays about everything. They write about their job at McDonalds, about shopping for clothes at a thrift shop with their mom, about not quitting an internship that they wish they had. They use these stories to illustrate something about them, the lives they lead and the things that matter to them.

Look for our second installment about college application essays where we’ll talk about working through the later stages of essay writing and focusing on helping students with the mechanics of putting their story together.