As with any other piece of writing, it is important to think about what you’re doing before committing pen to paper. Whether you are writing an essay for English class, a US university/college essay or even a best -selling novel, you have to be clear about, and focus on, the following:

Purpose – to persuade the admissions tutor to offer you a place
Audience – the admissions tutor
Content – addresses the topic/ title and supports your purpose
Register – the appropriate style of English

However, before we get down to the details, we need to be clear about what a university/college essay is and how many you are going to need to write.

University/college essays come in many different forms and of varying lengths, typically between 50 and 500 words. Only 50 words I hear you say, that won’t take long. Well consider this, if you are going to do justice to the title and express your views about it, then being restricted to 50 words is quite challenging. 

Above all else, do not underestimate how much time writing your university/college essay, or perhaps we should say essays, is going to take you. Also consider how many university/colleges you’re going to apply to as some university/colleges require multiple essays. Just as an aside, one former student of mine wrote 82  US university/college essays; I did try and talk him out of it but he was determined to go ahead.  You’re probably wondering whether with all that work he was accepted into a US university. Well, in the end he decided to go and study in the UK where you only need to write one personal statement.

 Students have often told me that writing US university/college essays is the equivalent of doing an extra IB subject. So think carefully about where you apply and how many applications you make.

Read this! Click here to find a complete written guide…

Advice on how to plan and write the essay

Brainstorming linked to essay topic

Let’s start with YOU. You are at the centre of this process and if you are going to write an effective essay it has to come from you. And by this we mean write about something where you have the passion, a topic that truly speaks to you and who you are.

The most important part you need to get right is the subject matter. Try and find a topic that resonates with you. University/college essays often focus around the following topics/ themes

  • What are your major/proudest accomplishments? Do not limit yourself to accomplishments where you were formally recognised with a prize, award, certificate etc. but to consider also accomplishments that may have seemed relatively minor at the time but placed in the context of your life have proven to be more important than you at first realised.
  • What distinguishes you from everyone else?
  • What was the most difficult time in your life and why? What did you learn by this experience?
  • Describe the moment when you overcame adversity and achieved success? What made you successful?
  • Think about your favourite book or movie, how has it influenced you?
  • Describe a life changing moment and how you now see things differently.
  • What is your most noticeable character trait? How would your friends describe you? 
  • Who do you admire most, and why?
  • What have you done outside of the classroom that demonstrates qualities sought after by universities? Describe the most important/impressive.
  • What are your most important extra-curricular activities? Choose one and write about your commitment.
  • What are your dreams of the future? How does this particular university fit into your plans for the future?
  • Role models: who do you admire and why? 

Having brainstormed ideas for all or some of the above, you should have a clearer idea as to the content you could develop into a fully-fledged essay. If the above task is turning out to be too difficult, then you could try an alternative approach.

  • Ask your friends to identify your character traits and then try and match these to life experiences
  • Think about your interests that began in childhood. Who was influential? Who was a role model?

Read sample essays with feedback comment from admissions tutors. You will find some here: Prep Scholar sample essays and analysis 

Always remember who is reading your university/college essay, it is an admissions tutor who has read hundreds of essays already, many of which are very ‘samey’. The challenge is to stand out from the rest. Be unique! The only way to write a unique essay is to have experiences that support your chosen topic. 

Most students will be applying to US universities/colleges through the Commonapp. The Commonapp requires you to write an essay and to give you an idea of what you need to write about, here is the choice of Commonapp essays currently on their website.

Commonapp Essays 2020-21

  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.

Commonapp essays 

Very important! You will also be writing essays to each university/college you apply to, so the Commonapp essay is just a starting point, albeit a mandatory one.