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Writing your college application essay is one of the most important, not to mention intimidating, steps when it comes to applying to college. It's natural to have a lot of questions about where to begin, what to write about, and how to craft a stellar essay.

Can I be funny? Can I tell a very personal story? How long should this essay be?

What should I write about? This is the most common question students have. Luckily, there are a lot of topics that can help you paint a stellar picture of yourself for the admissions counselors.

Don't feel silly asking these sorts of questions; they are totally normal. And it's super important to get all of your questions answered so you can put your best foot forward as you start writing.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What should my essay be about?

This is the most common question students ask about their essays, and it's often the most difficult one to answer. Finding a topic that can accurately represent all you want to portray about yourself in a few paragraphs is challenging for even the very best writers.

There are three common scenarios when it comes to essay topics.

Often, schools will ask you to craft a personal narrative essay. In this case, you'll tell a story about something that has occurred in your life and how it affected you. Check out some personal narrative examples to give you some inspiration if this is the type of prompt you've received.

In other cases, a school may require a combination of a personal narrative and some sort of creative prompt they have come up with.

Finally, although not as common, some schools won't specify a prompt; instead, they'll expect you to come up with a topic on your own. This might feel intimating to some students, who aren't sure where to even start when it comes to thinking of a topic to write about.

If you need a little help with brainstorming, there are plenty of sites with prompt ideas you can search through. Continue on to the next section below for more on this.

2. Is there a list of good topics somewhere?

As we mentioned above, there is no shortage of links that will lead you to a list of college application essay topics. To start, check out Signup Genius, Common App, and the Princeton Review for some suggestions.

Additionally, here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • A time you took a big risk

  • An embarrassing moment

  • A failure in your life

  • Any moment where you discovered something truly unique about yourself

  • Some extraordinary life goals you have planned for yourself

  • A time when you were brave

Keep in mind that the most important thing about your topic is to focus on a particular moment (not necessarily the entire day, week, year.) Get precise and really detail what this moment meant to you and how it defined you.

3. Are there topics I should avoid?

YES! There are many topics you should avoid. Admissions counselors read thousands of essays, and they are tired of reading the same old story over and over again.

Here are some common topics to avoid:

  • Personal hero tributes

  • Sports games

  • Overcoming injuries

  • Mission trips and volunteer work

  • Death stories of pets or relatives

  • Lists of accomplishments

  • Love stories and breakups

  • Controversial topics (politics, religion, etc.)

The exception to this is if you can narrow down to a specific slice of a moment and it is extraordinary enough to mention.

For example, winning the state cross country meet isn't much of an essay, but an essay that describes the moment you broke through the ribbon at the finish line and reflected on your first race in seventh grade when you finished dead last... well, that might be worth writing about. Or maybe just write about that seventh-grade race.

Also, don't lie and make up stories about your life. It's NEVER a good idea.

4. Can my essay be too personal?

YES! You need to be cautious of oversharing. Don't write about something that you wouldn't feel comfortable discussing in an admissions interview because they might want to follow up with some questions about your essay.

No inappropriate material or illegal material should ever be discussed. Avoid teenage love, family drama, and any other topic that might seem awkward (and probably doesn't clearly link to your awesomeness that you're trying to demonstrate in the essay.)

5. Can my essay be funny?

Yes and no. Can you weave bits of humor in your essay? Sure. That's good writing.

Can you write an entire parody or satire as your essay? Probably not.

It's really difficult to pull off humor in writing. If you attempt to be humorous and no one picks up on your tone, your essay will completely be off course.

It would be the equivalent of telling a joke you find hilarious and the entire room going silent. This is not a risk you want to take with your future college career at stake. Unless you have an amazing gift for writing humor, you should avoid it as the overall tone of your essay.

Trying to be humorous in a college essay often backfires. Adding a bit of humor throughout your essay is much more effective than trying to write an entire essay based on your personal sense of humor.

6. What format should my college essay be in?

A college application essay format can vary depending on the type of essay being written. If you're writing a personal narrative, you can have more freedom in your format. You always want to begin with a hook to get the reader's attention. Then, follow with your story or idea. In the end, be sure to connect the story to a greater purpose and why this moment defines you as a person.

However, if a school has supplied a specific prompt, it might be appropriate to follow a traditional 5-paragraph essay with an introduction, supporting details, and conclusion.

Always be sure to very carefully read over all of the instructions each school provides you so that you can format correctly.

7. How long should my essay be?

Some schools will tell you exactly how long your essay should be. Many will suggest a 500-word essay or a similar word count. If this is the case, follow their suggestions. They are there for a reason.

If there are no guidelines, 350-500 words works well. This is long enough to develop ideas, but short enough the keep someone's interest. You don't want to drone on and on, but you also want to provide some substance to your thoughts.

8. How long does it take to write a college essay?

You will want to allow for at least a few weeks to write a great college essay. Don't procrastinate; there are a lot of steps in the process.

You need to start by brainstorming a topic. Once you've chosen a topic, you'll need to map out your ideas to make sure you have enough to write about and that your topic fully addresses everything you need it to.

Next, you'll write a draft to get your ideas on paper. Then, revise that draft completely...likely more than once.

And don't forget: you definitely want to get feedback on what you write.

Teachers, guidance counselors, and parents can look it over, help proofread it, and ask you to clarify certain parts. Then you need to revise it again based on their suggestions.

And before you send it in with your application, have another set of eyes take a look at it again for typos and spelling errors. You want it to be perfect and that is going to take some time.

Pro tip: Set deadlines for every step in the process to help you stay on track!

9. Can I get help with my college essay?

Yes and no. This depends on the kind of help you're asking for.

Yes to teachers, parents, counselors, and peers helping you brainstorm a topic, talk through ideas, and proofread your essay. These are all great uses of resources.

Yes to reading articles like this one to help answer questions about your essay.

Yes to looking at college application essay examples to get inspiration and to see how good essays take shape.

NO to plagiarizing any part of anyone else's essay. This is not helping. This is cheating. And of course, NO to having someone else write your essay or using someone else's essay. These are surefire ways to get you rejected from all colleges.

10. Can I re-use a college essay?

Yes. If you have written a perfect essay that demonstrates who you are, feel free to use it for multiple colleges as long as it fits their prompt. Change any details that need to be altered (university name, program specifics that you may have mentioned, etc.) but the majority of the essay can stay the same.

If the prompt is vague enough, you can reuse your college essay for another university. If not, however, it is best to start an entirely new essay to specifically address the new prompt.

The exception to this is when a prompt is slightly different. Admissions counselors can tell when you're trying to fit an essay for another college into their specific prompt. Don't do this. If the prompt is specific, you need to write a different essay that fits their requirements.

It is natural to have many questions when you begin writing your college application essay. These answers should get you started on the right foot. By choosing an interesting topic, sharing a bit about your unique self, keeping the correct format and tone, and getting proper help along the way, you will have an amazing college essay written in no time!