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College Essays

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Most colleges and universities in the United States require applicants to submit at least one essay as part of their application. But trying to figure out what college essay topics you should choose is a tricky process. There are so many potential things you could write about!

In this guide, we go over the essential qualities that make for a great college essay topic and give you 50+ college essay topics you can use for your own statement . In addition, we provide you with helpful tips for turning your college essay topic into a stellar college essay.

What Qualities Make for a Good College Essay Topic?

Regardless of what you write about in your personal statement for college , there are key features that will always make for a stand-out college essay topic.

#1: It’s Specific

First off, good college essay topics are extremely specific : you should know all the pertinent facts that have to do with the topic and be able to see how the entire essay comes together.

Specificity is essential because it’ll not only make your essay stand out from other statements, but it'll also recreate the experience for admissions officers through its realism, detail, and raw power. You want to tell a story after all, and specificity is the way to do so. Nobody wants to read a vague, bland, or boring story — not even admissions officers!

For example, an OK topic would be your experience volunteering at a cat shelter over the summer. But a better, more specific college essay topic would be how you deeply connected with an elderly cat there named Marty, and how your bond with him made you realize that you want to work with animals in the future.

Remember that specificity in your topic is what will make your essay unique and memorable . It truly is the key to making a strong statement (pun intended)!

#2: It Shows Who You Are

In addition to being specific, good college essay topics reveal to admissions officers who you are: your passions and interests, what is important to you, your best (or possibly even worst) qualities, what drives you, and so on.

The personal statement is critical because it gives schools more insight into who you are as a person and not just who you are as a student in terms of grades and classes.

By coming up with a real, honest topic, you’ll leave an unforgettable mark on admissions officers.

#3: It’s Meaningful to You

The very best college essay topics are those that hold deep meaning to their writers and have truly influenced them in some significant way.

For instance, maybe you plan to write about the first time you played Skyrim to explain how this video game revealed to you the potentially limitless worlds you could create, thereby furthering your interest in game design.

Even if the topic seems trivial, it’s OK to use it — just as long as you can effectively go into detail about why this experience or idea had such an impact on you .

Don’t give in to the temptation to choose a topic that sounds impressive but doesn’t actually hold any deep meaning for you. Admissions officers will see right through this!

Similarly, don’t try to exaggerate some event or experience from your life if it’s not all that important to you or didn’t have a substantial influence on your sense of self.

#4: It’s Unique

College essay topics that are unique are also typically the most memorable, and if there’s anything you want to be during the college application process, it’s that! Admissions officers have to sift through thousands of applications, and the essay is one of the only parts that allows them to really get a sense of who you are and what you value in life.

If your essay is trite or boring, it won’t leave much of an impression , and your application will likely get immediately tossed to the side with little chance of seeing admission.

But if your essay topic is very original and different, you’re more likely to earn that coveted second glance at your application.

What does being unique mean exactly, though? Many students assume that they must choose an extremely rare or crazy experience to talk about in their essays —but that's not necessarily what I mean by "unique." Good college essay topics can be unusual and different, yes, but they can also be unique takes on more mundane or common activities and experiences .

For instance, say you want to write an essay about the first time you went snowboarding. Instead of just describing the details of the experience and how you felt during it, you could juxtapose your emotions with a creative and humorous perspective from the snowboard itself. Or you could compare your first attempt at snowboarding with your most recent experience in a snowboarding competition. The possibilities are endless!

#5: It Clearly Answers the Question

Finally, good college essay topics will clearly and fully answer the question(s) in the prompt.

You might fail to directly answer a prompt by misinterpreting what it’s asking you to do, or by answering only part of it (e.g., answering just one out of three questions).

Therefore, make sure you take the time to come up with an essay topic that is in direct response to every question in the prompt .

Take this Coalition Application prompt as an example:

What is the hardest part of being a teenager now? What's the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?

For this prompt, you’d need to answer all three questions (though it’s totally fine to focus more on one or two of them) to write a compelling and appropriate essay.

This is why we recommend reading and rereading the essay prompt ; you should know exactly what it’s asking you to do, well before you start brainstorming possible college application essay topics.

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53 College Essay Topics to Get Your Brain Moving

In this section, we give you a list of 53 examples of college essay topics. Use these as jumping-off points to help you get started on your college essay and to ensure that you’re on track to coming up with a relevant and effective topic.

All college application essay topics below are categorized by essay prompt type. We’ve identified six general types of college essay prompts:

Why This College?

Change and personal growth, passions, interests, and goals, overcoming a challenge, diversity and community, solving a problem.

Note that these prompt types could overlap with one another, so you’re not necessarily limited to just one college essay topic in a single personal statement.

  • How a particular major or program will help you achieve your academic or professional goals
  • A memorable and positive interaction you had with a professor or student at the school
  • Something good that happened to you while visiting the campus or while on a campus tour
  • A certain class you want to take or a certain professor you’re excited to work with
  • Some piece of on-campus equipment or facility that you’re looking forward to using
  • Your plans to start a club at the school, possibly to raise awareness of a major issue
  • A study abroad or other unique program that you can’t wait to participate in
  • How and where you plan to volunteer in the community around the school
  • An incredible teacher you studied under and the positive impact they had on you
  • How you went from really liking something, such as a particular movie star or TV show, to not liking it at all (or vice versa)
  • How yours or someone else’s (change in) socioeconomic status made you more aware of poverty
  • A time someone said something to you that made you realize you were wrong
  • How your opinion on a controversial topic, such as gay marriage or DACA, has shifted over time
  • A documentary that made you aware of a particular social, economic, or political issue going on in the country or world
  • Advice you would give to your younger self about friendship, motivation, school, etc.
  • The steps you took in order to kick a bad or self-sabotaging habit
  • A juxtaposition of the first and most recent time you did something, such as dance onstage
  • A book you read that you credit with sparking your love of literature and/or writing
  • A school assignment or project that introduced you to your chosen major
  • A glimpse of your everyday routine and how your biggest hobby or interest fits into it
  • The career and (positive) impact you envision yourself having as a college graduate
  • A teacher or mentor who encouraged you to pursue a specific interest you had
  • How moving around a lot helped you develop a love of international exchange or learning languages
  • A special skill or talent you’ve had since you were young and that relates to your chosen major in some way, such as designing buildings with LEGO bricks
  • Where you see yourself in 10 or 20 years
  • Your biggest accomplishment so far relating to your passion (e.g., winning a gold medal for your invention at a national science competition)
  • A time you lost a game or competition that was really important to you
  • How you dealt with the loss or death of someone close to you
  • A time you did poorly in a class that you expected to do well in
  • How moving to a new school impacted your self-esteem and social life
  • A chronic illness you battled or are still battling
  • Your healing process after having your heart broken for the first time
  • A time you caved under peer pressure and the steps you took so that it won't happen again
  • How you almost gave up on learning a foreign language but stuck with it
  • Why you decided to become a vegetarian or vegan, and how you navigate living with a meat-eating family
  • What you did to overcome a particular anxiety or phobia you had (e.g., stage fright)
  • A history of a failed experiment you did over and over, and how you finally found a way to make it work successfully
  • Someone within your community whom you aspire to emulate
  • A family tradition you used to be embarrassed about but are now proud of
  • Your experience with learning English upon moving to the United States
  • A close friend in the LGBTQ+ community who supported you when you came out
  • A time you were discriminated against, how you reacted, and what you would do differently if faced with the same situation again
  • How you navigate your identity as a multiracial, multiethnic, and/or multilingual person
  • A project or volunteer effort you led to help or improve your community
  • A particular celebrity or role model who inspired you to come out as LGBTQ+
  • Your biggest challenge (and how you plan to tackle it) as a female in a male-dominated field
  • How you used to discriminate against your own community, and what made you change your mind and eventually take pride in who you are and/or where you come from
  • A program you implemented at your school in response to a known problem, such as a lack of recycling cans in the cafeteria
  • A time you stepped in to mediate an argument or fight between two people
  • An app or other tool you developed to make people’s lives easier in some way
  • A time you proposed a solution that worked to an ongoing problem at school, an internship, or a part-time job
  • The steps you took to identify and fix an error in coding for a website or program
  • An important social or political issue that you would fix if you had the means

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How to Build a College Essay in 6 Easy Steps

Once you’ve decided on a college essay topic you want to use, it’s time to buckle down and start fleshing out your essay. These six steps will help you transform a simple college essay topic into a full-fledged personal statement.

Step 1: Write Down All the Details

Once you’ve chosen a general topic to write about, get out a piece of paper and get to work on creating a list of all the key details you could include in your essay . These could be things such as the following:

  • Emotions you felt at the time
  • Names, places, and/or numbers
  • Dialogue, or what you or someone else said
  • A specific anecdote, example, or experience
  • Descriptions of how things looked, felt, or seemed

If you can only come up with a few details, then it’s probably best to revisit the list of college essay topics above and choose a different one that you can write more extensively on.

Good college essay topics are typically those that:

  • You remember well (so nothing that happened when you were really young)
  • You're excited to write about
  • You're not embarrassed or uncomfortable to share with others
  • You believe will make you positively stand out from other applicants

Step 2: Figure Out Your Focus and Approach

Once you have all your major details laid out, start to figure out how you could arrange them in a way that makes sense and will be most effective.

It’s important here to really narrow your focus: you don’t need to (and shouldn’t!) discuss every single aspect of your trip to visit family in Indonesia when you were 16. Rather, zero in on a particular anecdote or experience and explain why and how it impacted you.

Alternatively, you could write about multiple experiences while weaving them together with a clear, meaningful theme or concept , such as how your math teacher helped you overcome your struggle with geometry over the course of an entire school year. In this case, you could mention a few specific times she tutored you and most strongly supported you in your studies.

There’s no one right way to approach your college essay, so play around to see what approaches might work well for the topic you’ve chosen.

If you’re really unsure about how to approach your essay, think about what part of your topic was or is most meaningful and memorable to you, and go from there.

Step 3: Structure Your Narrative

  • Beginning: Don’t just spout off a ton of background information here—you want to hook your reader, so try to start in the middle of the action , such as with a meaningful conversation you had or a strong emotion you felt. It could also be a single anecdote if you plan to center your essay around a specific theme or idea.
  • Middle: Here’s where you start to flesh out what you’ve established in the opening. Provide more details about the experience (if a single anecdote) or delve into the various times your theme or idea became most important to you. Use imagery and sensory details to put the reader in your shoes.
  • End: It’s time to bring it all together. Finish describing the anecdote or theme your essay centers around and explain how it relates to you now , what you’ve learned or gained from it, and how it has influenced your goals.

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Step 4: Write a Rough Draft

By now you should have all your major details and an outline for your essay written down; these two things will make it easy for you to convert your notes into a rough draft.

At this stage of the writing process, don’t worry too much about vocabulary or grammar and just focus on getting out all your ideas so that they form the general shape of an essay . It’s OK if you’re a little over the essay's word limit — as you edit, you’ll most likely make some cuts to irrelevant and ineffective parts anyway.

If at any point you get stuck and have no idea what to write, revisit steps 1-3 to see whether there are any important details or ideas you might be omitting or not elaborating on enough to get your overall point across to admissions officers.

Step 5: Edit, Revise, and Proofread

  • Sections that are too wordy and don’t say anything important
  • Irrelevant details that don’t enhance your essay or the point you're trying to make
  • Parts that seem to drag or that feel incredibly boring or redundant
  • Areas that are vague and unclear and would benefit from more detail
  • Phrases or sections that are awkwardly placed and should be moved around
  • Areas that feel unconvincing, inauthentic, or exaggerated

Start paying closer attention to your word choice/vocabulary and grammar at this time, too. It’s perfectly normal to edit and revise your college essay several times before asking for feedback, so keep working with it until you feel it’s pretty close to its final iteration.

This step will likely take the longest amount of time — at least several weeks, if not months — so really put effort into fixing up your essay. Once you’re satisfied, do a final proofread to ensure that it’s technically correct.

Step 6: Get Feedback and Tweak as Needed

After you’ve overhauled your rough draft and made it into a near-final draft, give your essay to somebody you trust , such as a teacher or parent, and have them look it over for technical errors and offer you feedback on its content and overall structure.

Use this feedback to make any last-minute changes or edits. If necessary, repeat steps 5 and 6. You want to be extra sure that your essay is perfect before you submit it to colleges!

Recap: From College Essay Topics to Great College Essays

Many different kinds of college application essay topics can get you into a great college. But this doesn’t make it any easier to choose the best topic for you .

In general, the best college essay topics have the following qualities :

  • They’re specific
  • They show who you are
  • They’re meaningful to you
  • They’re unique
  • They clearly answer the question

If you ever need help coming up with an idea of what to write for your essay, just refer to the list of 53 examples of college essay topics above to get your brain juices flowing.

Once you’ve got an essay topic picked out, follow these six steps for turning your topic into an unforgettable personal statement :

  • Write down all the details
  • Figure out your focus and approach
  • Structure your narrative
  • Write a rough draft
  • Edit, revise, and proofread
  • Get feedback and tweak as needed

And with that, I wish you the best of luck on your college essays!

What’s Next?

Writing a college essay is no simple task. Get expert college essay tips with our guides on how to come up with great college essay ideas and how to write a college essay, step by step .

You can also check out this huge list of college essay prompts  to get a feel for what types of questions you'll be expected to answer on your applications.

Want to see examples of college essays that absolutely rocked? You're in luck because we've got a collection of 100+ real college essay examples right here on our blog!

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Want to write the perfect college application essay? Get professional help from PrepScholar.

Your dedicated PrepScholar Admissions counselor will craft your perfect college essay, from the ground up. We'll learn your background and interests, brainstorm essay topics, and walk you through the essay drafting process, step-by-step. At the end, you'll have a unique essay that you'll proudly submit to your top choice colleges.

Don't leave your college application to chance. Find out more about PrepScholar Admissions now :

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Hannah received her MA in Japanese Studies from the University of Michigan and holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern California. From 2013 to 2015, she taught English in Japan via the JET Program. She is passionate about education, writing, and travel.

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12 Strategies to Writing the Perfect College Essay

College admission committees sift through thousands of college essays each year. Here’s how to make yours stand out.

Pamela Reynolds

When it comes to deciding who they will admit into their programs, colleges consider many criteria, including high school grades, extracurricular activities, and ACT and SAT scores. But in recent years, more colleges are no longer considering test scores.

Instead, many (including Harvard through 2026) are opting for “test-blind” admission policies that give more weight to other elements in a college application. This policy change is seen as fairer to students who don’t have the means or access to testing, or who suffer from test anxiety.

So, what does this mean for you?

Simply that your college essay, traditionally a requirement of any college application, is more important than ever.

A college essay is your unique opportunity to introduce yourself to admissions committees who must comb through thousands of applications each year. It is your chance to stand out as someone worthy of a seat in that classroom.

A well-written and thoughtful essay—reflecting who you are and what you believe—can go a long way to separating your application from the slew of forgettable ones that admissions officers read. Indeed, officers may rely on them even more now that many colleges are not considering test scores.

Below we’ll discuss a few strategies you can use to help your essay stand out from the pack. We’ll touch on how to start your essay, what you should write for your college essay, and elements that make for a great college essay.

Be Authentic

More than any other consideration, you should choose a topic or point of view that is consistent with who you truly are.

Readers can sense when writers are inauthentic.

Inauthenticity could mean the use of overly flowery language that no one would ever use in conversation, or it could mean choosing an inconsequential topic that reveals very little about who you are.

Use your own voice, sense of humor, and a natural way of speaking.

Whatever subject you choose, make sure it’s something that’s genuinely important to you and not a subject you’ve chosen just to impress. You can write about a specific experience, hobby, or personality quirk that illustrates your strengths, but also feel free to write about your weaknesses.

Honesty about traits, situations, or a childhood background that you are working to improve may resonate with the reader more strongly than a glib victory speech.

Grab the Reader From the Start

You’ll be competing with so many other applicants for an admission officer’s attention.

Therefore, start your essay with an opening sentence or paragraph that immediately seizes the imagination. This might be a bold statement, a thoughtful quote, a question you pose, or a descriptive scene.

Starting your essay in a powerful way with a clear thesis statement can often help you along in the writing process. If your task is to tell a good story, a bold beginning can be a natural prelude to getting there, serving as a roadmap, engaging the reader from the start, and presenting the purpose of your writing.

Focus on Deeper Themes

Some essay writers think they will impress committees by loading an essay with facts, figures, and descriptions of activities, like wins in sports or descriptions of volunteer work. But that’s not the point.

College admissions officers are interested in learning more about who you are as a person and what makes you tick.

They want to know what has brought you to this stage in life. They want to read about realizations you may have come to through adversity as well as your successes, not just about how many games you won while on the soccer team or how many people you served at a soup kitchen.

Let the reader know how winning the soccer game helped you develop as a person, friend, family member, or leader. Make a connection with your soup kitchen volunteerism and how it may have inspired your educational journey and future aspirations. What did you discover about yourself?

Show Don’t Tell

As you expand on whatever theme you’ve decided to explore in your essay, remember to show, don’t tell.

The most engaging writing “shows” by setting scenes and providing anecdotes, rather than just providing a list of accomplishments and activities.

Reciting a list of activities is also boring. An admissions officer will want to know about the arc of your emotional journey too.

Try Doing Something Different

If you want your essay to stand out, think about approaching your subject from an entirely new perspective. While many students might choose to write about their wins, for instance, what if you wrote an essay about what you learned from all your losses?

If you are an especially talented writer, you might play with the element of surprise by crafting an essay that leaves the response to a question to the very last sentence.

You may want to stay away from well-worn themes entirely, like a sports-related obstacle or success, volunteer stories, immigration stories, moving, a summary of personal achievements or overcoming obstacles.

However, such themes are popular for a reason. They represent the totality of most people’s lives coming out of high school. Therefore, it may be less important to stay away from these topics than to take a fresh approach.

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Write With the Reader in Mind

Writing for the reader means building a clear and logical argument in which one thought flows naturally from another.

Use transitions between paragraphs.

Think about any information you may have left out that the reader may need to know. Are there ideas you have included that do not help illustrate your theme?

Be sure you can answer questions such as: Does what you have written make sense? Is the essay organized? Does the opening grab the reader? Is there a strong ending? Have you given enough background information? Is it wordy?

Write Several Drafts

Set your essay aside for a few days and come back to it after you’ve had some time to forget what you’ve written. Often, you’ll discover you have a whole new perspective that enhances your ability to make revisions.

Start writing months before your essay is due to give yourself enough time to write multiple drafts. A good time to start could be as early as the summer before your senior year when homework and extracurricular activities take up less time.

Read It Aloud

Writer’s tip : Reading your essay aloud can instantly uncover passages that sound clumsy, long-winded, or false.

Don’t Repeat

If you’ve mentioned an activity, story, or anecdote in some other part of your application, don’t repeat it again in your essay.

Your essay should tell college admissions officers something new. Whatever you write in your essay should be in philosophical alignment with the rest of your application.

Also, be sure you’ve answered whatever question or prompt may have been posed to you at the outset.

Ask Others to Read Your Essay

Be sure the people you ask to read your essay represent different demographic groups—a teacher, a parent, even a younger sister or brother.

Ask each reader what they took from the essay and listen closely to what they have to say. If anyone expresses confusion, revise until the confusion is cleared up.

Pay Attention to Form

Although there are often no strict word limits for college essays, most essays are shorter rather than longer. Common App, which students can use to submit to multiple colleges, suggests that essays stay at about 650 words.

“While we won’t as a rule stop reading after 650 words, we cannot promise that an overly wordy essay will hold our attention for as long as you’d hoped it would,” the Common App website states.

In reviewing other technical aspects of your essay, be sure that the font is readable, that the margins are properly spaced, that any dialogue is set off properly, and that there is enough spacing at the top. Your essay should look clean and inviting to readers.

End Your Essay With a “Kicker”

In journalism, a kicker is the last punchy line, paragraph, or section that brings everything together.

It provides a lasting impression that leaves the reader satisfied and impressed by the points you have artfully woven throughout your piece.

So, here’s our kicker: Be concise and coherent, engage in honest self-reflection, and include vivid details and anecdotes that deftly illustrate your point.

While writing a fantastic essay may not guarantee you get selected, it can tip the balance in your favor if admissions officers are considering a candidate with a similar GPA and background.

Write, revise, revise again, and good luck!

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Pamela Reynolds is a Boston-area feature writer and editor whose work appears in numerous publications. She is the author of “Revamp: A Memoir of Travel and Obsessive Renovation.”

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How to Write a Personal Essay for Your College Application

things to write you college essay about

What does it take to land in the “accept” (instead of “reject”) pile?

How can you write an essay that helps advance you in the eyes of the admissions officers and makes a real impression? Here are some tips to get you started.

  • Start early.  Do not leave it until the last minute. Give yourself time when you don’t have other homework or extracurriculars hanging over your head to work on the essay.
  • Keep the focus narrow.  Your essay does not have to cover a massive, earth-shattering event. Some people in their teens haven’t experienced a major life event. Some people have. Either way, it’s okay.
  • Be yourself.  Whether writing about a painful experience or a more simple experience, use the narrative to be vulnerable and honest about who you are. Use words you would normally use. Trust your voice and the fact that your story is interesting enough in that no one else has lived it.
  • Be creative.  “Show, don’t tell,” and that applies here — to an extent. The best essays typically do both. You can help your reader see and feel what you are describing by using some figurative language throughout your piece.
  • Make a point. As you finish your final body paragraphs ask yourself “So what?” This will help you hone in on how to end your essay in a way that elevates it into a story about an insight or discovery you made about yourself, rather than just being about an experience you had.

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We’ve all heard about the dreaded “college essay,” the bane of every high school senior’s existence. This daunting element of the college application is something that can create angst for even the most accomplished students.

  • AA Amy Allen is a writer, educator, and lifelong learner. Her freelance writing business,  All of the Write Words , focuses on providing high school students with one-on-one feedback to guide them through the college application process and with crafting a thoughtful personal essay. A dedicated poet, Amy’s work has also been published in several journals including  Pine Row Press ,  Months to Years,  and  Atlanta Review .

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  • How to Make Your College Essay Stand Out | Tips & Examples

How to Make Your College Essay Stand Out | Tips & Examples

Published on October 25, 2021 by Kirsten Courault . Revised on August 14, 2023.

While admissions officers are interested in hearing about your experiences , they’re also interested in how you present them. An exceptionally written essay will stand out from the crowd, meaning that admissions officers will spend more time reading it.

To write a standout essay, you can use literary devices to pull the reader in and catch their attention. Literary devices often complement each other and can be woven together to craft an original, vivid, and creative personal essay. However, don’t overdo it; focus on using just a few devices well, rather than trying to use as many as possible.

Table of contents

Essay structure devices, storytelling devices, imagery devices, tone devices, sentence-level devices, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about college application essays.

You can frame your essay with symbolism or extended metaphors, which both work well in a montage or narrative essay structure .

Symbolism is the use of tangible objects to represent ideas. In your college essay, you can use one major symbol that represents your essay’s theme. Throughout your essay, you can also intentionally place related minor symbols to communicate ideas without explicitly stating them. The key is to use original, meaningful symbols that are not cliché.

For example, if your essay’s theme is “family,” your symbol could be a well-worn beloved Lord of the Rings Monopoly game set. Rather than directly saying, “The Lord of the Rings Monopoly game has brought my family happiness,” share stories with this game to demonstrate your family’s closeness, joy, and loyalty.

Supporting symbols:

  • Story 1: Chipped and mismatching collectible Gandalf the Grey coffee mugs surround the Monopoly board during a lazy weekend
  • Story 2: A folding card table supports our family’s mobile Monopoly game while the family plays at a campsite
  • Story 3: An extended edition LOTR box set plays in the background during Thanksgiving feasts with extended family. We have a Monopoly competition after dinner.
  • Story 4: Matching Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry Halloween outfits are proudly worn by me and my family members. We always play a game of Monopoly the afternoon before going out together to our town’s annual Halloween carnival.

In the example below, a student depicts “The Monster,” an imaginary symbolic figure that represents the student’s jealousy.

Main idea: I have been on a quest to slay the Monster, the toxic envy that overtakes me when I compare myself to one of my friends.

Narrative: I remember first encountering the Monster in second grade when Laurel bobbed her hair. Everybody raved about how cute she looked. The Monster had plenty to say about how ugly, unpopular, and undesirable I was compared to Laurel. After that day, the Monster never seemed to leave my side.

Extended metaphor

A metaphor directly compares two unrelated objects, giving deeper meaning and multi-dimensional imagery. Since metaphors create a new reality between two objects, use them sparingly throughout your essay to avoid overwhelming the reader with too many comparisons.

You can also use an extended metaphor, which builds upon a simple metaphor throughout the essay with other literary devices and more in-depth descriptions.

To brainstorm your extended metaphor, you should first identify feelings or values associated with your story and then brainstorm images associated with these feelings.

Keep the following in mind when crafting your extended metaphor:

  • Keep the comparison simple.
  • Use a few other literary devices such as imagery or anecdotes to enrich your extended metaphor.
  • Avoid making cliché comparisons.
  • Don’t exaggerate or make an unrealistic comparison.

In the example below, a student uses the extended metaphor of a museum to explore the theme of identity. Each anecdote is framed as an “exhibit” that tells us something about her life.

  • The Sight Exhibit: Flashback illustrating how racial discrimination led to my identity as a writer
  • The Sound Exhibit: Snapshots of musical memories, identity as a musical theater lover
  • The Smell Exhibit: Scents of my family’s Thanksgiving meal, identity as a daughter, granddaughter, and member of the Arimoto family
  • The Touch Exhibit: Feel of warm water washing away academic and extracurricular worries while washing dishes, identity as a level-headed honors student
  • The Taste Exhibit: Taste of salty sweat while bike training with a friend, identity as an athlete

In the next example, a student uses the river as an extended metaphor for his educational journey. The different parts of the river’s course represent different challenges he has overcome.

Prevent plagiarism. Run a free check.

Here are the most effective literary devices to enrich your storytelling in college essays.

Into the midst of things, in medias res

In medias res , Latin for “into the midst of things,” is a device that involves starting in the middle of the action. Then, important details are added to fill in the story. Similar to the beginning of an action or thriller movie, in medias res immediately drops the reader into a scene, allowing them to discern the story through sensory imagery.

Unlike a linear chronological narrative, flashbacks can be used to transport your reader from the present moment to a key past event to give a clearer understanding of your current personality, values, and goals.

Dialogue is a conversation between two or more people. Using dialogue in your essay can sometimes create suspense, transport readers into a scene, or highlight an important message. However, it should be used sparingly and strategically to avoid an anti-climatic or redundant moment.

Famous quotes should be avoided since they are overused, but using quotes from important people in your life can be original, personal, and powerful. But make sure the quote adds value to your essay.

You can use both figurative and literal imagery throughout your essay to paint a clearer, richer image in your reader’s mind.

Similes , like metaphors, compare two unrelated objects but use the words “as” or “like.”

In a metaphor, the two objects are considered the same, but in a simile, the word “like” or “as” creates some distance between the objects.

Five senses

Illustrate your five senses with descriptive language to help your readers quickly imagine your story in a vivid, visceral way. Sensory language also helps to convey your interest and knowledge of a topic.

Personification

Personification uses human characteristics and behaviors to describe inanimate objects, animals, or ideas. This can help show your emotional connection to something in an original and poetic way.

Here are a few tone devices to help improve your essay’s authenticity and voice .

Colloquialisms

While most slang is too informal for college essays, regional colloquialisms can sometimes improve your essay’s authenticity when used strategically, enhancing your ability to connect with admissions officers and adding a memorable element.

However, you should ensure that they don’t seem shoehorned in or otherwise affect the flow, clarity, or professionalism of your essay. If applying to schools outside your region of origin (or if you’re applying as an international student ), be sure the colloquialism is one that will be widely understood.

Hyperbole is dramatic exaggeration to express the intensity of your feelings about something. Use hyperbole sparingly to ensure the greatest impact and avoid sounding overly dramatic. Make sure to be original, avoiding overused comparisons.

Sentence-level devices are useful for dramatic effect or to highlight a point. But use them sparingly to avoid sounding robotic, redundant, or awkward.

To have the greatest impact, use these devices against the backdrop of varying sentence structures and at a critical or vulnerable moment in your essay, especially during reflection.

If you want to know more about academic writing , effective communication , or parts of speech , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

Academic writing

  • Writing process
  • Transition words
  • Passive voice
  • Paraphrasing

 Communication

  • How to end an email
  • Ms, mrs, miss
  • How to start an email
  • I hope this email finds you well
  • Hope you are doing well

 Parts of speech

  • Personal pronouns
  • Conjunctions

A standout college essay has several key ingredients:

  • A unique, personally meaningful topic
  • A memorable introduction with vivid imagery or an intriguing hook
  • Specific stories and language that show instead of telling
  • Vulnerability that’s authentic but not aimed at soliciting sympathy
  • Clear writing in an appropriate style and tone
  • A conclusion that offers deep insight or a creative ending

Your college essay accounts for about 25% of your application’s weight. It may be the deciding factor in whether you’re accepted, especially for competitive schools where most applicants have exceptional grades, test scores, and extracurricular track records.

Though admissions officers are interested in hearing your story, they’re also interested in how you tell it. An exceptionally written essay will differentiate you from other applicants, meaning that admissions officers will spend more time reading it.

You can use literary devices to catch your reader’s attention and enrich your storytelling; however, focus on using just a few devices well, rather than trying to use as many as possible.

You can use humor in a college essay , but carefully consider its purpose and use it wisely. An effective use of humor involves unexpected, keen observations of the everyday, or speaks to a deeper theme. Humor shouldn’t be the main focus of the essay, but rather a tool to improve your storytelling.

Get a second opinion from a teacher, counselor, or essay coach on whether your essay’s humor is appropriate.

Avoid swearing in a college essay , since admissions officers’ opinions of profanity will vary. In some cases, it might be okay to use a vulgar word, such as in dialogue or quotes that make an important point in your essay. However, it’s safest to try to make the same point without swearing.

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Tips for Writing an Effective Application Essay

student in library on laptop

How to Write an Effective Essay

Writing an essay for college admission gives you a chance to use your authentic voice and show your personality. It's an excellent opportunity to personalize your application beyond your academic credentials, and a well-written essay can have a positive influence come decision time.

Want to know how to draft an essay for your college application ? Here are some tips to keep in mind when writing.

Tips for Essay Writing

A typical college application essay, also known as a personal statement, is 400-600 words. Although that may seem short, writing about yourself can be challenging. It's not something you want to rush or put off at the last moment. Think of it as a critical piece of the application process. Follow these tips to write an impactful essay that can work in your favor.

1. Start Early.

Few people write well under pressure. Try to complete your first draft a few weeks before you have to turn it in. Many advisers recommend starting as early as the summer before your senior year in high school. That way, you have ample time to think about the prompt and craft the best personal statement possible.

You don't have to work on your essay every day, but you'll want to give yourself time to revise and edit. You may discover that you want to change your topic or think of a better way to frame it. Either way, the sooner you start, the better.

2. Understand the Prompt and Instructions.

Before you begin the writing process, take time to understand what the college wants from you. The worst thing you can do is skim through the instructions and submit a piece that doesn't even fit the bare minimum requirements or address the essay topic. Look at the prompt, consider the required word count, and note any unique details each school wants.

3. Create a Strong Opener.

Students seeking help for their application essays often have trouble getting things started. It's a challenging writing process. Finding the right words to start can be the hardest part.

Spending more time working on your opener is always a good idea. The opening sentence sets the stage for the rest of your piece. The introductory paragraph is what piques the interest of the reader, and it can immediately set your essay apart from the others.

4. Stay on Topic.

One of the most important things to remember is to keep to the essay topic. If you're applying to 10 or more colleges, it's easy to veer off course with so many application essays.

A common mistake many students make is trying to fit previously written essays into the mold of another college's requirements. This seems like a time-saving way to avoid writing new pieces entirely, but it often backfires. The result is usually a final piece that's generic, unfocused, or confusing. Always write a new essay for every application, no matter how long it takes.

5. Think About Your Response.

Don't try to guess what the admissions officials want to read. Your essay will be easier to write─and more exciting to read─if you’re genuinely enthusiastic about your subject. Here’s an example: If all your friends are writing application essays about covid-19, it may be a good idea to avoid that topic, unless during the pandemic you had a vivid, life-changing experience you're burning to share. Whatever topic you choose, avoid canned responses. Be creative.

6. Focus on You.

Essay prompts typically give you plenty of latitude, but panel members expect you to focus on a subject that is personal (although not overly intimate) and particular to you. Admissions counselors say the best essays help them learn something about the candidate that they would never know from reading the rest of the application.

7. Stay True to Your Voice.

Use your usual vocabulary. Avoid fancy language you wouldn't use in real life. Imagine yourself reading this essay aloud to a classroom full of people who have never met you. Keep a confident tone. Be wary of words and phrases that undercut that tone.

8. Be Specific and Factual.

Capitalize on real-life experiences. Your essay may give you the time and space to explain why a particular achievement meant so much to you. But resist the urge to exaggerate and embellish. Admissions counselors read thousands of essays each year. They can easily spot a fake.

9. Edit and Proofread.

When you finish the final draft, run it through the spell checker on your computer. Then don’t read your essay for a few days. You'll be more apt to spot typos and awkward grammar when you reread it. After that, ask a teacher, parent, or college student (preferably an English or communications major) to give it a quick read. While you're at it, double-check your word count.

Writing essays for college admission can be daunting, but it doesn't have to be. A well-crafted essay could be the deciding factor─in your favor. Keep these tips in mind, and you'll have no problem creating memorable pieces for every application.

What is the format of a college application essay?

Generally, essays for college admission follow a simple format that includes an opening paragraph, a lengthier body section, and a closing paragraph. You don't need to include a title, which will only take up extra space. Keep in mind that the exact format can vary from one college application to the next. Read the instructions and prompt for more guidance.

Most online applications will include a text box for your essay. If you're attaching it as a document, however, be sure to use a standard, 12-point font and use 1.5-spaced or double-spaced lines, unless the application specifies different font and spacing.

How do you start an essay?

The goal here is to use an attention grabber. Think of it as a way to reel the reader in and interest an admissions officer in what you have to say. There's no trick on how to start a college application essay. The best way you can approach this task is to flex your creative muscles and think outside the box.

You can start with openers such as relevant quotes, exciting anecdotes, or questions. Either way, the first sentence should be unique and intrigue the reader.

What should an essay include?

Every application essay you write should include details about yourself and past experiences. It's another opportunity to make yourself look like a fantastic applicant. Leverage your experiences. Tell a riveting story that fulfills the prompt.

What shouldn’t be included in an essay?

When writing a college application essay, it's usually best to avoid overly personal details and controversial topics. Although these topics might make for an intriguing essay, they can be tricky to express well. If you’re unsure if a topic is appropriate for your essay, check with your school counselor. An essay for college admission shouldn't include a list of achievements or academic accolades either. Your essay isn’t meant to be a rehashing of information the admissions panel can find elsewhere in your application.

How can you make your essay personal and interesting?

The best way to make your essay interesting is to write about something genuinely important to you. That could be an experience that changed your life or a valuable lesson that had an enormous impact on you. Whatever the case, speak from the heart, and be honest.

Is it OK to discuss mental health in an essay?

Mental health struggles can create challenges you must overcome during your education and could be an opportunity for you to show how you’ve handled challenges and overcome obstacles. If you’re considering writing your essay for college admission on this topic, consider talking to your school counselor or with an English teacher on how to frame the essay.

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College essay is a chance to tell your story to a complete stranger. Why some colleges demand it to be included in the application? First of all, amount of people wanting to to be admitted is several times bigger than amount of places. Scores, grades, academic achievements, extracurricular activities are important. They are the primary factor to select the best candidates. That's why committee sets talented ones apart from others by reading their works.  

"How is going to read what I write ? My essay is useless thing" - consider several people. This where they are wrong. Admission officers study and compare every single work that they receive. What should be there to catch their attention with guarantee?

Personality and soul. You don't have to seem intelligent to impress readers. Just be yourself.

Subject that really matters to you. Honesty is a key to success.

Motivation. It shoul shine through the pages of your work.

Uniqueness. Do not try to sound like someone great. Show simplicity and your real thoughts.

When in doubt, contact essay writing service to edit your work. If you have no idea at all how to begin, what to include and what to avoid, a professional essay writer will make the job done.

What essay writing service can do  

Services were created to help brilliant students to proofread and make necessary edits in their essays. Usually, people who work there have degrees, diplomas and proper education, as well as experience in the tasks of such kind. Essay help doesn't involve cheating or making writing for you.  

The best part of service is its globalization. You can sit in one state and get a help from best essay writing service located on the other side of the country. Surprisingly, you will find yourself released from stress immediately after assigning task to expert. They are ready to perform any kind of job depending on what you want. If your text " write my essay for me ", it would be crafted from a scratch. If you text "Edit my work", it would be reviewed and made according to requirements.  

Both essay rewriter and writer have necessary knowledge in the sphere you want to describe in your paper. Giving a task be specific, add as many details as possible, so the performer would be deeply immersed in your thoughts.

Is it legal to seek the help?  

However, it seems very simple just to open Google and contact service for making life easier, plenty of people have second thoughts about the legacy of this process. We want to assure everyone that seeking editor or help to proofread paper is totally normal. You might have given it to a teacher or college counsel anyway, but instead you decided to take a huge step forward and ask experts to help you.  

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Open Letters: Our New Opinion-Writing Contest

We invite students to write public-facing letters to people or groups about issues that matter to them. Contest dates: March 13 to May 1.

By The Learning Network

What’s bothering you? Who could do something about it? What could you say to them that would persuade them to care, or to make change?

And … what if we all read your letter? How could you make us care too?

These are some of the questions we’re asking you to ponder for our new Open Letter Contest. An open letter is a published letter of protest or appeal usually addressed to an individual, group or institution but intended for the general public. Think of the many “Dear Taylor Swift” open letters you can find online and on social media: Sure, they’re addressed to Ms. Swift, but they’re really a way for the writer to share opinions and feelings on feminism, or ticket sales, or the music industry, or … the list goes on.

As you might already know if you’ve read Martin Luther King’s famous Letter From Birmingham Jail , an open letter is a literary device. Though it seems on the surface to be intended for just one individual or group, and therefore usually reads like a personal letter (and can make readers feel they are somehow “listening in” on private thoughts), it is really a persuasive essay addressed to the public. This recent letter signed by over 1,000 tech leaders about the dangers of A.I. , this funny 2020 letter addressed to Harry and Meghan , and this video letter from young Asian Americans to their families about Black Lives Matter are all examples of the tradition.

Now we’re inviting you to try it yourself. Write your own open letter, to anyone you like on any issue you care about, as long as it is also appropriate and meaningful for a general Times audience.

Whom should you write to? What should you say? How do open letters work?

The rules and FAQ below, along with our Student Opinion forum and related how-to guide , can walk you through ways to get started.

This is a new contest and we expect questions. Please ask any you have in the comments and we’ll answer you there, or write to us at [email protected]. And, consider hanging this PDF one-page announcement on your class bulletin board.

Here’s what you need to know:

The challenge, a few rules, resources for students and teachers, frequently asked questions, submission form.

Write an open letter to a specific audience that calls attention to an issue or problem and prompts reflection or action on it.

Whether you choose to write to your parents, teachers, school board members or mayor; a member of Congress; the head of a corporation; an artist or entertainer; or a metonym like “Silicon Valley” or “The Kremlin,” ask yourself, What do I care about? Who can make changes, big or small, local or global, to address my issue or problem? What specifically do I want my audience to understand or do? And how can I write this as an “open letter,” compelling not just to me and the recipient, but to the general audience who will be reading my words?

The Times has published numerous open letters over the years, to both famous and ordinary people. You can find a long list of free examples in our related guide .

This contest invites students to express themselves and imagine that their words can lead to real change.

Your open letter MUST:

Focus on an issue you care about and with which you have some experience. You can write about almost anything you like, whether it’s a serious issue like bullying , or something more lighthearted like why bugs deserve respect , but we have found over the years that the most interesting student writing grows out of personal experience. Our related Student Opinion forum and how-to guide can help you come up with ideas.

Address a specific audience relevant to the issue. Choose an individual, group, organization or institution who is in a position to make change or promote understanding about your topic.

Call for action, whether the change you seek is something tangible , like asking Congress to enact a law or demanding a company stop a harmful practice, or something more abstract, like inviting your audience to reflect on something they may have never considered.

Be suitable and compelling for a wide general audience . An open letter simultaneously addresses an explicit recipient — whether Joe Biden or your gym teacher — as well as us, the general public, your implicit audience. Though your letter might seem to be meant just for one person, it is really trying to persuade all readers. Make sure you write it in such a way that it is relevant, understandable, appropriate and meaningful for anyone who might come across it in The New York Times. (Again, our related guide can help.)

Be written as a letter, in a voice and tone that is appropriate for both your audience and purpose. Are you simply taking an argumentative essay you’ve written for school already and slapping a “Dear X” on top of it and a “Sincerely, Y” on the bottom? No. A letter — even an open letter — is different from a formal essay, and your writing should reflect that. Can you be informal? Funny? If that makes sense for your purpose and audience, then yes, please.

Our related guide, and the many examples we link to, can help you think about this, but we hope the format of a letter will let you loosen up a bit and express yourself in your natural voice. (For example, you’ll be writing as “I” or “we,” and addressing your letter’s recipient as “you.”)

Also attempt to persuade a general audience. Though it is written in the form of a letter, it is an opinion piece, and you are trying to make a case and support it with evidence, as you would any argument. Remember that you are trying to change hearts and minds, so you’ll be drawing on the same rhetorical strategies as you might have for our long-running editorial contest . (Again, more on this in the related guide .)

Make your case in 460 words or fewer. Your title and sources are not part of the word count.

Inform with evidence from at least two sources, including one from The Times and one from outside The Times. We hope this contest encourages you to deepen your understanding of your topic by using multiple sources, ideally ones that offer a range of perspectives. Just make sure those sources are trustworthy .

Because this is a letter, not a formal essay, we are not asking you to provide in-text citations, but we will be asking you to list the sources you used — as many as you like — in a separate field that does not contribute to your word count. Keep in mind, however, that if you include evidence from those sources, our readers (and judges) should always be able to tell where it came from. Be careful to put quotations around any direct quotes you use, and cite the source of anything you paraphrase.

In addition to the guidelines above, here are a few more details:

You must be a student ages 13 to 19 in middle school or high school to participate , and all students must have parent or guardian permission to enter. Please see the F.A.Q. section for additional eligibility details.

The writing you submit should be fundamentally your own — it should not be plagiarized, created by someone else or generated by artificial intelligence.

Your open letter should be original for this contest. That means it should not already have been published at the time of submission, whether in a school newspaper, for another contest or anywhere else.

Keep in mind that the work you send in should be appropriate for a Times audience — that is, something that could be published in a family newspaper (so, please, no curse words).

You may work alone or in groups , but students should submit only one entry each.

You must also submit a short, informal “artist’s statement” as part of your submission, that describes your writing and research process. These statements, which will not be used to choose finalists, help us to design and refine our contests. See the F.A.Q. to learn more.

All entries must be submitted by May 1, at 11:59 p.m. Pacific time using the electronic form at the bottom of this page.

Use these resources to help you write your open letter:

Our step-by-step guide : To be used by students or teachers, this guide walks you through the process of writing an open letter.

A list of free examples of open letters published both in and outside The New York Times, which you can find in our step-by-step guide .

A writing prompt: To Whom Would You Write an Open Letter? This prompt offers students a “rehearsal space” for thinking about to whom they’d like to write, the reason they’re writing and why they think that issue is important — not only for the recipient but also for a wider audience.

Argumentative writing prompts: We publish new argumentative writing prompts for students each week in our Student Opinion and Picture Prompt columns. You can find them all, as they publish, here , or many of them, organized by topic, in our new collection of over 300 prompts .

Argumentative writing unit: This unit includes writing prompts, lesson plans, webinars and mentor texts. While it was originally written to support our Student Editorial Contest , the resources can help students make compelling arguments, cite reliable evidence and use rhetorical strategies for their open letters as well.

Our contest rubric : This is the rubric judges will use as they read submissions to this contest.

Below are answers to your questions about writing, judging, the rules and teaching with this contest. Please read these thoroughly and, if you still can’t find what you’re looking for, post your query in the comments or write to us at [email protected].

Questions About Writing

How is this contest different from your long-running Editorial Contest? Can we still use those materials?

For a decade we ran an editorial contest , and the students who participated wrote passionately about all kinds of things — A.I. , fast fashion , race , trans rights , college admissions , parental incarceration , fan fiction , snow days , memes , being messy and so much more . You can still write about the issues and ideas that fire you up — it’s just that this time around you’ll be framing your work as a letter to a person who has the power to make change on or bring understanding to that issue.

Our related guide has more about the differences between a traditional opinion essay and an open letter, but the many materials we developed for that earlier contest are also woven into the guide, as concepts like ethos, logos and pathos are still very much relevant to this challenge.

I have no idea what to write about. Where should I start?

Our Student Opinion forum can help via its many questions that encourage you to brainstorm both the audience you might write to and the topics you’d like to address.

Can I actually send my open letter?

You can! Just wait until after you have submitted your work to us to do so. (As always for our contests, you retain the copyright to the piece you submit, and can do whatever you like with it.)

Questions About Judging

How will my open letter be judged?

Your work will be read by New York Times journalists, as well as by Learning Network staff members and educators from around the United States. We will use this rubric to judge entries.

What’s the “prize”?

Having your work published on The Learning Network and being eligible to have your work published in the print New York Times.

When will the winners be announced?

About 8-10 weeks after the contest has closed.

My piece wasn’t selected as a winner. Can you tell me why?

We typically receive thousands of entries for our contests, so unfortunately, our team does not have the capacity to provide individual feedback on each student’s work.

QUESTIONS ABOUT THE RULES

Who is eligible to participate in this contest?

This contest is open to students ages 13 to 19 who are in middle school or high school around the world. College students cannot submit an entry. However, high school students (including high school postgraduate students) who are taking one or more college classes can participate. Students attending their first year of a two-year CEGEP in Quebec Province can also participate. In addition, students age 19 or under who have completed high school but are taking a gap year or are otherwise not enrolled in college can participate.

The children and stepchildren of New York Times employees are not eligible to enter this contest. Nor are students who live in the same household as those employees.

Can I have someone else check my work?

We understand that students will often revise their work based on feedback from teachers and peers. That is allowed for this contest. However, be sure that the final submission reflects the ideas, voice and writing ability of the student, not someone else.

Do I need a Works Cited page?

Yes. We provide you with a separate field to list the sources you used to inform or write your open letter. You’re allowed to format your list however you want; we will not judge your entry based on formatting in this section. Internal citations in your letter are not necessary.

Why are you asking for an Artist’s Statement about our process? What will you do with it?

All of us who work on The Learning Network are former teachers. One of the many things we miss, now that we work in a newsroom rather than a classroom, is being able to see how students are reacting to our “assignments” in real time — and to offer help, or tweaks, to make those assignments better. We’re asking you to reflect on what you did and why, and what was hard or easy about it, in large part so that we can improve our contests and the curriculum we create to support them. This is especially important for new contests, like this one.

Another reason? We have heard from many teachers that writing these statements is immensely helpful to students. Stepping back from a piece and trying to put into words what you wanted to express, and why and how you made artistic choices to do that, can help you see your piece anew and figure out how to make it stronger. For our staff, they offer important context that help us understand individual students and submissions, and learn more about the conditions under which students around the world create.

Whom can I contact if I have questions about this contest or am having issues submitting my entry?

Leave a comment on this post or write to us at [email protected].

QUESTIONS ABOUT TEACHING WITH THIS CONTEST

Do my students need a New York Times subscription to access these resources?

No. All of the resources on The Learning Network are free.

If your students don’t have a subscription to The New York Times, they can also get access to Times pieces through The Learning Network . All the activities for students on our site, including mentor texts and writing prompts, plus the Times articles they link to, are free. Students can search for articles using the search tool on our home page.

How do my students prove to me that they entered this contest?

After they press “Submit” on the form below, they will see a “Thank you for your submission.” line appear. They can take a screenshot of this message. Please note: Our system does not currently send confirmation emails.

Please read the following carefully before you submit:

Students who are 13 and older in the United States or the United Kingdom, or 16 and older elsewhere in the world, can submit their own entries. Those who are 13 to 15 and live outside the United States or the United Kingdom must have an adult submit on their behalf.

All students who are under 18 must provide a parent or guardian’s permission to enter.

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If you have questions about your submission, please write to us at [email protected] and provide the email address you used for submission.

Is a robot writing your kids’ essays? We asked educators to weigh in on the growing role of AI in classrooms.

Educators weigh in on the growing role of ai and chatgpt in classrooms..

Kara Baskin talked to several educators about what kind of AI use they’re seeing in classrooms and how they’re monitoring it.

Remember writing essays in high school? Chances are you had to look up stuff in an encyclopedia — an actual one, not Wikipedia — or else connect to AOL via a modem bigger than your parents’ Taurus station wagon.

Now, of course, there’s artificial intelligence. According to new research from Pew, about 1 in 5 US teens who’ve heard of ChatGPT have used it for schoolwork. Kids in upper grades are more apt to have used the chatbot: About a quarter of 11th- and 12th-graders who know about ChatGPT have tried it.

For the uninitiated, ChatGPT arrived on the scene in late 2022, and educators continue to grapple with the ethics surrounding its growing popularity. Essentially, it generates free, human-like responses based on commands. (I’m sure this sentence will look antiquated in about six months, like when people described the internet as the “information superhighway.”)

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I used ChatGPT to plug in this prompt: “Write an essay on ‘The Scarlet Letter.’” Within moments, ChatGPT created an essay as thorough as anything I’d labored over in AP English.

Is this cheating? Is it just part of our strange new world? I talked to several educators about what they’re seeing in classrooms and how they’re monitoring it. Before you berate your child over how you wrote essays with a No. 2 pencil, here are some things to consider.

Adapting to new technology isn’t immoral. “We have to recalibrate our sense of what’s acceptable. There was a time when every teacher said: ‘Oh, it’s cheating to use Wikipedia.’ And guess what? We got used to it, we decided it’s reputable enough, and we cite Wikipedia all the time,” says Noah Giansiracusa, an associate math professor at Bentley University who hosts the podcast “ AI in Academia: Navigating the Future .”

“There’s a calibration period where a technology is new and untested. It’s good to be cautious and to treat it with trepidation. Then, over time, the norms kind of adapt,” he says — just like new-fangled graphing calculators or the internet in days of yore.

“I think the current conversation around AI should not be centered on an issue with plagiarism. It should be centered on how AI will alter methods for learning and expressing oneself. ‘Catching’ students who use fully AI-generated products ... implies a ‘gotcha’ atmosphere,” says Jim Nagle, a history teacher at Bedford High School. “Since AI is already a huge part of our day-to-day lives, it’s no surprise our students are making it a part of their academic tool kit. Teachers and students should be at the forefront of discussions about responsible and ethical use.”

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Teachers and parents could use AI to think about education at a higher level. Really, learning is about more than regurgitating information — or it should be, anyway. But regurgitation is what AI does best.

“If our system is just for students to write a bunch of essays and then grade the results? Something’s missing. We need to really talk about their purpose and what they’re getting out of this, and maybe think about different forms of assignments and grading,” Giansiracusa says.

After all, while AI aggregates and organizes ideas, the quality of its responses depends on the users’ prompts. Instead of recoiling from it, use it as a conversation-starter.

“What parents and teachers can do is to start the conversation with kids: ‘What are we trying to learn here? Is it even something that ChatGPT could answer? Why did your assignment not convince you that you need to do this thinking on your own when a tool can do it for you?’” says Houman Harouni , a lecturer on education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Harouni urges parents to read an essay written by ChatGPT alongside their student. Was it good? What could be done better? Did it feel like a short cut?

“What they’re going to remember is that you had that conversation with them; that someone thought, at some point in their lives, that taking a shortcut is not the best way ... especially if you do it with the tool right in front of you, because you have something real to talk about,” he says.

Harouni hopes teachers think about its implications, too. Consider math: So much grunt work has been eliminated by calculators and computers. Yet kids are still tested as in days of old, when perhaps they could expand their learning to be assessed in ways that are more personal and human-centric, leaving the rote stuff to AI.

“We could take this moment of confusion and loss of certainty seriously, at least in some small pockets, and start thinking about what a different kind of school would look like. Five years from now, we might have the beginnings of some very interesting exploration. Five years from now, you and I might be talking about schools wherein teaching and learning is happening in a very self-directed way, in a way that’s more based on … igniting the kid’s interest and seeing where they go and supporting them to go deeper and to go wider,” Harouni says.

Teachers have the chance to offer assignments with more intentionality.

“Really think about the purpose of the assignments. Don’t just think of the outcome and the deliverable: ‘I need a student to produce a document.’ Why are we getting students to write? Why are we doing all these things in the first place? If teachers are more mindful, and maybe parents can also be more mindful, I think it pushes us away from this dangerous trap of thinking about in terms of ‘cheating,’ which, to me, is a really slippery path,” Giansiracusa says.

AI can boost confidence and reduce procrastination. Sometimes, a robot can do something better than a human, such as writing a dreaded resume and cover letter. And that’s OK; it’s useful, even.

“Often, students avoid applying to internships because they’re just overwhelmed at the thought of writing a cover letter, or they’re afraid their resume isn’t good enough. I think that tools like this can help them feel more confident. They may be more likely to do it sooner and have more organized and better applications,” says Kristin Casasanto, director of post-graduate planning at Olin College of Engineering.

Casasanto says that AI is also useful for de-stressing during interview prep.

“Students can use generative AI to plug in a job description and say, ‘Come up with a list of interview questions based on the job description,’ which will give them an idea of what may be asked, and they can even then say, ‘Here’s my resume. Give me answers to these questions based on my skills and experience.’ They’re going to really build their confidence around that,” Casasanto says.

Plus, when students use AI for basics, it frees up more time to meet with career counselors about substantive issues.

“It will help us as far as scalability. … Career services staff can then utilize our personal time in much more meaningful ways with students,” Casasanto says.

We need to remember: These kids grew up during a pandemic. We can’t expect kids to resist technology when they’ve been forced to learn in new ways since COVID hit.

“Now we’re seeing pandemic-era high school students come into college. They’ve been channeled through Google Classroom their whole career,” says Katherine Jewell, a history professor at Fitchburg State University.

“They need to have technology management and information literacy built into the curriculum,” Jewell says.

Jewell recently graded a paper on the history of college sports. It was obvious which papers were written by AI: They didn’t address the question. In her syllabus, Jewell defines plagiarism as “any attempt by a student to represent the work of another, including computers, as their own.”

This means that AI qualifies, but she also has an open mind, given students’ circumstances.

“My students want to do the right thing, for the most part. They don’t want to get away with stuff. I understand why they turned to these tools; I really do. I try to reassure them that I’m here to help them learn systems. I’m focusing much more on the learning process. I incentivize them to improve, and I acknowledge: ‘You don’t know how to do this the first time out of the gate,’” Jewell says. “I try to incentivize them so that they’re improving their confidence in their abilities, so they don’t feel the need to turn to these tools.”

Understand the forces that make kids resort to AI in the first place . Clubs, sports, homework: Kids are busy and under pressure. Why not do what’s easy?

“Kids are so overscheduled in their day-to-day lives. I think there’s so much enormous pressure on these kids, whether it’s self-inflicted, parent-inflicted, or school-culture inflicted. It’s on them to maximize their schedule. They’ve learned that AI can be a way to take an assignment that would take five hours and cut it down to one,” says a teacher at a competitive high school outside Boston who asked to remain anonymous.

Recently, this teacher says, “I got papers back that were just so robotic and so cold. I had to tell [students]: ‘I understand that you tried to use a tool to help you. I’m not going to penalize you, but what I am going to penalize you for is that you didn’t actually answer the prompt.”

Afterward, more students felt safe to come forward to say they’d used AI. This teacher hopes that age restrictions become implemented for these programs, similar to apps such as Snapchat. Educationally and developmentally, they say, high-schoolers are still finding their voice — a voice that could be easily thwarted by a robot.

“Part of high school writing is to figure out who you are, and what is your voice as a writer. And I think, developmentally, that takes all of high school to figure out,” they say.

And AI can’t replicate voice and personality — for now, at least.

Kara Baskin can be reached at [email protected] . Follow her @kcbaskin .

Should college essays touch on race? Some feel affirmative action ruling leaves them no choice

A group of teenagers of color sit together on a floor

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When she started writing her college essay, Hillary Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. About being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana and growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. About hardship and struggle.

Then she deleted it all.

“I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping,” said the 18-year-old senior at Lincoln Park High School in Chicago. “And I’m just like, this doesn’t really say anything about me as a person.”

When the Supreme Court ended affirmative action in higher education , it left the college essay as one of few places where race can play a role in admissions decisions. For many students of color, instantly more was riding on the already high-stakes writing assignment. Some say they felt pressure to exploit their hardships as they competed for a spot on campus.

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 29: Kashish Bastola, a rising sophomore at Harvard University, hugs Nahla Owens, also a Harvard University student, outside of the Supreme Court of the United States on Thursday, June 29, 2023 in Washington, DC. In a 6-3 vote, Supreme Court Justices ruled that race-conscious admissions programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina are unconstitutional, setting precedent for affirmative action in other universities and colleges. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Supreme Court strikes down race-based affirmative action in college admissions

In another major reversal, the Supreme Court forbids the use of race as an admissions factor at colleges and universities.

June 29, 2023

Amofa was just starting to think about her essay when the court issued its decision, and it left her with a wave of questions. Could she still write about her race? Could she be penalized for it? She wanted to tell colleges about her heritage but she didn’t want to be defined by it.

In English class, Amofa and her classmates read sample essays that all seemed to focus on some trauma or hardship. It left her with the impression she had to write about her life’s hardest moments to show how far she’d come. But she and some classmates wondered if their lives had been hard enough to catch the attention of admissions offices.

This year’s senior class is the first in decades to navigate college admissions without affirmative action. The Supreme Court upheld the practice in decisions going back to the 1970s, but this court’s conservative supermajority found it is unconstitutional for colleges to give students extra weight because of their race alone.

Still, the decision left room for race to play an indirect role: Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote that universities can still consider how an applicant’s life was shaped by their race, “so long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability.”

Scores of colleges responded with new essay prompts asking about students’ backgrounds.

EL SEGUNDO, CA - OCTOBER 27, 2023: High school senior Sam Srikanth, 17, has applied to elite east coast schools like Cornell and Duke but feels anxious since the competition to be accepted at these elite colleges has intensified in the aftermath of affirmative action on October 27, 2023 in El Segundo, California.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Post-affirmative action, Asian American families are more stressed than ever about college admissions

Parents who didn’t grow up in the American system, and who may have moved to the U.S. in large part for their children’s education, feel desperate and in-the-dark. Some shell out tens of thousands of dollars for consultants as early as junior high.

Nov. 26, 2023

When Darrian Merritt started writing his essay, his first instinct was to write about events that led to him going to live with his grandmother as a child. Those were painful memories, but he thought they might play well at schools like Yale, Stanford and Vanderbilt.

“I feel like the admissions committee might expect a sob story or a tragic story,” said Merritt, a senior in Cleveland. “I wrestled with that a lot.”

Eventually he abandoned the idea and aimed for an essay that would stand out for its positivity.

Merritt wrote about a summer camp where he started to feel more comfortable in his own skin. He described embracing his personality and defying his tendency to please others. But the essay also reflects on his feelings of not being “Black enough” and being made fun of for listening to “white people music.”

Like many students, Max Decker of Portland, Ore., had drafted a college essay on one topic, only to change direction after the Supreme Court ruling in June.

Decker initially wrote about his love for video games. In a childhood surrounded by constant change, navigating his parents’ divorce, the games he took from place to place on his Nintendo DS were a source of comfort.

Los Angeles, CA - February 08: Scenes around the leafy campus of Occidental College Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022 in Los Angeles, CA. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

‘We’re really worried’: What do colleges do now after affirmative action ruling?

The Supreme Court’s ban on affirmative action has triggered angst on campuses about how to promote diversity without considering race in admissions decisions.

But the essay he submitted to colleges focused on the community he found through Word Is Bond, a leadership group for young Black men in Portland.

As the only biracial, Jewish kid with divorced parents in a predominantly white, Christian community, Decker wrote he felt like the odd one out. On a trip with Word Is Bond to Capitol Hill, he and friends who looked just like him shook hands with lawmakers. The experience, he wrote, changed how he saw himself.

“It’s because I’m different that I provide something precious to the world, not the other way around,” wrote Decker, whose top college choice is Tulane in New Orleans because of the region’s diversity.

Amofa used to think affirmative action was only a factor at schools like Harvard and Yale. After the court’s ruling, she was surprised to find that race was taken into account even at public universities she was applying to.

Now, without affirmative action, she wondered if mostly white schools will become even whiter.

LOS ANGELES-CA-MARCH 11, 2020: Classes have moved to online only at UCLA on Wednesday, March 11, 2020. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

A lot of what you’ve heard about affirmative action is wrong

Debate leading up to the Supreme Court’s decision has stirred up plenty of misconceptions. We break down the myths and explain the reality.

It’s been on her mind as she chooses between Indiana University and the University of Dayton, both of which have relatively few Black students. When she was one of the only Black students in her grade school, she could fall back on her family and Ghanaian friends at church. At college, she worries about loneliness.

“That’s what I’m nervous about,” she said. “Going and just feeling so isolated, even though I’m constantly around people.”

The first drafts of her essay didn’t tell colleges about who she is now, she said.

Her final essay describes how she came to embrace her natural hair. She wrote about going to a mostly white grade school where classmates made jokes about her afro.

Over time, she ignored their insults and found beauty in the styles worn by women in her life. She now runs a business doing braids and other hairstyles in her neighborhood.

“Criticism will persist,” she wrote “but it loses its power when you know there’s a crown on your head!”

Collin Binkley, Annie Ma and Noreen Nasir write for the Associated Press. Binkley and Nasir reported from Chicago and Ma from Portland, Ore.

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CLAREMONT, CA - APRIL 12: A campus tour takes place at Claremont McKenna College on Monday, April 12, 2021 in Claremont, CA. The school has reopened in-person tours after shutting them down last year amid the pandemic. The college tour is a key aid in helping students make their big decisions. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

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LYNWOOD, CA-SEPTEMBER 7, 2023: Ozze Mathis, 17, a senior at Lynwood High School, is photographed on campus. College presidents and admission experts are expecting a big boost at historically Black colleges and universities as application portals begin to open up for enrollment next year. It would be the first application cycle since the conservative-majority Supreme Court outlawed racism-based affirmative action admission policies. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

HBCUs brace for flood of applications after Supreme Court affirmative action decision

Sept. 22, 2023

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 17: Royce Hall on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) as UCLA lecturers and students celebrate after a strike was averted Wednesday morning. Lecturers across the UC system were planning to strike Wednesday and Thursday over unfair labor practices. UCLA on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021 in Los Angeles, CA. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times).

Opinion: In a post-affirmative action world, employers should learn from California’s experience

Sept. 16, 2023

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4 Things To Keep in Mind When Writing Your College Essays

This article was written based on the information and opinions presented by Robert Crystal in a CollegeVine livestream. You can watch the full livestream for more info.

What’s Covered:

Be confident in your topic, find unlikely connections, use unique language, draw insights from your personal anecdotes and experiences.

In this article, we will discuss how to improve your college essays, particularly “montage essays,” where you use a theme or topic to showcase different parts of who you are. For more guidance on writing college essays, read our post on how to write the Common Application essays .

It is important to choose a topic that you feel confident writing about. This confidence may come from enjoying what you do, feeling proud about something you have accomplished or because this activity or pursuit makes you feel unique. For topics that are commonly written about, such as Girl Scouts, robotics, or basketball, you will need to work hard to find an interesting angle that will help you stand out.

If possible, try to choose a topic that is less common and more unique to you and various aspects of your identity and background. Ultimately, only you and you alone will know if you are writing about something that makes you feel confident. But if you find yourself struggling during the writing process, there is a strong likelihood that you are not confident about the topic you have chosen.

Try to find unlikely connections to the topic that you have chosen. For example, with a more common topic like Girl Scouts, you could discuss a time when you accomplished something or performed an act of service for which there was no badge to put on your vest. This could lead to a rich discussion on the importance of random acts of kindness, being generous of spirit, and always doing your best to serve your community, especially when your actions go unrecognized.

To find unlikely connections, consider the following questions in relation to your topic: 

  • What did you learn and how did you end up learning it? 
  • How did you change or grow as a result of what you learned?
  • How does this relate to your values and goals?
  • What is an unexpected takeaway that you had from it?
  • Are there other people who had the same experience or takeaways as you?

Part of what makes an essay compelling is not what you choose to write about, but how you write about that topic. Your voice will be more memorable if you use language that is typical for you but unique to others.

For instance, if you are writing about your passion for working on car engines, you might use technical jargon that demonstrates your strong understanding of auto mechanics. If you are writing about working at your family’s Chinese restaurant, you might include Chinese characters or pinyin (with English translations) for the slang that the cooks in the kitchen shout at each other. This would make your essay feel more authentic and represent the restaurant environment better.

A large portion of what you will write about in your college essays are anecdotes and experiences that demonstrate your values, character, thought processes, and way of conducting yourself in the world. Consequently, it is important that you identify anecdotes and experiences that are unique to you and ripe for discussion and analysis.

Here is a helpful exercise to do as you begin to write an essay:

  • Write a list of the most cliche aspects of your chosen topic. Use this list as a reminder of what not to include in your essay.
  • Write a list of personal anecdotes and experiences that are unique to you (and only you) in relation to your chosen topic. The best way to determine if your anecdotes and experiences are unique to you is to ask yourself if they could be copy-pasted into someone else’s essay.
  • Write a list of core values that you hold, such as honesty, patience, and active communication. 
  • Draw connections between the unique aspects that you identified in Step 2 and the core values that you listed in Step 3. You may need to identify more unique anecdotes or experiences to relate to the values you listed in Step 3. 

By relating your personal anecdotes and experiences to your values, you lay the groundwork for deep insight. Insight refers to the meaning that you find or make from the experiences that you have. In other words, insight is what you have learned about yourself and the world around you, with some of the best insights being gained from making mistakes or being incorrect. The last one or two sentences of each paragraph in your essay or the concluding paragraph of your entire essay are great locations for you to share your insights.

Use Representative Examples

A powerful move you can make in your essays is to turn a specific example into a representative example where you show how to apply the skills you gained and lessons you learned in other areas of your life as well as in your short and long-term goals. 

For instance, consider an applicant who writes about their passion for long-distance running. The applicant describes training for their very first marathon and the high degree of mental fortitude and physical endurance that were required. They discuss how they trained diligently, made incremental progress over many months of training, and always stayed positive in the face of setbacks. 

This applicant could transform their specific example into a representative example by discussing how the skills they developed through marathon training will translate to pursuing their other long-term goals, such as graduating from college, earning a doctorate degree, becoming a tenured professor, and completing the World Marathon Majors.

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things to write you college essay about

I was just accepted into Princeton University after the repeal of affirmative action. As a person of color, I'm feeling conflicted.

  • I'm a person of color who was just accepted into Princeton after the repeal of affirmative action.
  • When applying, I made sure to prove I was a person, not just a grade. 
  • I'm happy I got in, but I can't stop thinking about the other POC who weren't so lucky.

Insider Today

The college admissions process is a game. Unlike other games, though, you don't necessarily have the chance to fail, to practice, to test-drive, or to get good; you just have to win. You just have to play the game that has been impending since you set foot in high school.

I played the game. As a recently accepted student to Princeton University, it might've been the best I ever played.

But I had to because I was in the first class to apply to college post-affirmative action . As a person of color, I was the guinea pig round of the increasingly unpredictable admissions process. I wondered what would merit admission, how I could talk about my experiences, and what the "holistic" application took into account.

Luckily, I gained admission to my dream school , but I can't help but think about the other disadvantaged peers who didn't.

I tried to show the admissions officers I'm a person — not a score

I went test-optional. I didn't want to be quantifiable. Even though I am number one in my class, have a high GPA, and took 21 AP courses throughout high school, removing the SAT put a larger weight on my essays.

I figured it would be harder to reject a person than a number, so I gave them a person. I spent my essays talking about ideas I was passionate about and went in depth about my activities and why I did them. The "why" was a large part of my application — from my involvement in local and national journalism to my work at a local farm.

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I took any chance I had to write in the margins of the application, describing my circumstances, from the small notes about being in the first generation of my family to attend college in the US to how being a low-income student prevented me from acquiring specialized academic tools. The additional information section was my solace. I didn't pay for a single summer program, extracurricular, or club. Everything I did, I wanted to do — and a good measure of that is my hope to continue many of my high school activities in college.

Of course, I had always been doing these activities, but after the repeal of affirmative action, intentionally emphasizing them was one way I felt I could add dimension to myself. I wanted to show the admissions office that I was an actual person with actual interests beyond school.

But I have bittersweet feelings about getting into an Ivy League school

I'd be lying if I said the feeling after getting into Princeton was all sunshine and roses. I often think about other students like myself, who struggled to share their circumstances or lost a spot after affirmative action. Somehow, I survived the game when others didn't.

But the truth is I didn't have to beat out other poor kids, other POCs, or other minorities. I had to beat the majority. My competition was never the people from my background or tax bracket . I had to beat out the system that went against me, the larger injustice — even though some of my peers couldn't.

I remind myself I didn't steal anyone's spot, and the bittersweet feeling associated with getting in is actually a good thing. It means I still have my humanity in a world where "climbing the ladder" is the norm. But also, it means I survived; I didn't succumb. I played the game instead of taking the back door, which was offered to many affluent students and legacy applicants . For that, I am glad.

Ironically, this same feeling was verbalized best by playwright Finegan Kruckemeyer, whom I wrote about in my Princeton essay, when he says:

"This was a good thing, this was a bad. Of this, I feel guilty; of this, I feel glad…Some things I can change and some I can't fix. I'm alone, but as well, I'm part of a mix."

I do think I belong among the Ivy League mix, but like any good thing, I also feel like I have to answer for the flawed system.

Watch: Rikers Island is one of the world's most notorious jails — here's what it's actually like

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Good Friday

Should college essays touch on race? Some feel the affirmative action ruling leaves them no choice

Hillary Amofa listens to others member of the Lincoln Park High School step team after school Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. She described hardship and struggle. Then she deleted it all. "I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping," said the 18 year-old senior, "And I'm just like, this doesn't really say anything about me as a person." (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Hillary Amofa listens to others member of the Lincoln Park High School step team after school Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

things to write you college essay about

When the Supreme Court ended affirmative action, it left the college essay as one of few places where race can play a role in admissions decisions. (AP Video: Noreen Nasir)

Hillary Amofa listens to others member of the Lincoln Park High School step team after school Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. She described hardship and struggle. Then she deleted it all. "I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping," said the 18 year-old senior, "And I'm just like, this doesn't really say anything about me as a person." (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Hillary Amofa listens to others member of the Lincoln Park High School step team after school Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. She described hardship and struggle. Then she deleted it all. “I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping,” said the 18 year-old senior, “And I’m just like, this doesn’t really say anything about me as a person.” (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

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Hillary Amofa, laughs as she participates in a team building game with members of the Lincoln Park High School step team after school Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. She described hardship and struggle. Then she deleted it all. “I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping,” said the 18 year-old senior, “And I’m just like, this doesn’t really say anything about me as a person.” (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Hillary Amofa stands for a portrait after practice with members of the Lincoln Park High School step team Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. She described hardship and struggle. Then she deleted it all. “I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping,” said the 18 year-old senior, “And I’m just like, this doesn’t really say anything about me as a person.” (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Max Decker, a senior at Lincoln High School, sits for a portrait in the school library where he often worked on writing his college essays, in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, March 20, 2024. (AP Photo/Amanda Loman)

Hillary Amofa stands for a portrait after practice with members of the Lincoln Park High School step team Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Hillary Amofa, second from left, practices with members of the Lincoln Park High School step team after school Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. She described hardship and struggle. Then she deleted it all. “I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping,” said the 18 year-old senior, “And I’m just like, this doesn’t really say anything about me as a person.” (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Max Decker, a senior at Lincoln High School, stands for a portrait outside of the school in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, March 20, 2024. (AP Photo/Amanda Loman)

*Hillary Amofa, reflected right, practices in a mirror with members of the Lincoln Park High School step team after school Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. She described hardship and struggle. Then she deleted it all. “I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping,” said the 18 year-old senior, “And I’m just like, this doesn’t really say anything about me as a person.” (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Max Decker, a senior at Lincoln High School, sits for a portrait outside of the school in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, March 20, 2024. (AP Photo/Amanda Loman)

Hillary Amofa, left, practices with members of the Lincoln Park High School step team after school Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. She described hardship and struggle. Then she deleted it all. “I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping,” said the 18 year-old senior, “And I’m just like, this doesn’t really say anything about me as a person.” (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Hillary Amofa sits for a portrait after her step team practice at Lincoln Park High School Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. She described hardship and struggle. Then she deleted it all. “I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping,” said the 18 year-old senior, “And I’m just like, this doesn’t really say anything about me as a person.” (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

FILE - Demonstrators protest outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, in this June 29, 2023 file photo, after the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions, saying race cannot be a factor. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

CHICAGO (AP) — When she started writing her college essay, Hillary Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. About being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana and growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. About hardship and struggle.

Then she deleted it all.

“I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping,” said the 18-year-old senior at Lincoln Park High School in Chicago. “And I’m just like, this doesn’t really say anything about me as a person.”

When the Supreme Court ended affirmative action in higher education, it left the college essay as one of few places where race can play a role in admissions decisions. For many students of color, instantly more was riding on the already high-stakes writing assignment. Some say they felt pressure to exploit their hardships as they competed for a spot on campus.

Amofa was just starting to think about her essay when the court issued its decision, and it left her with a wave of questions. Could she still write about her race? Could she be penalized for it? She wanted to tell colleges about her heritage but she didn’t want to be defined by it.

In English class, Amofa and her classmates read sample essays that all seemed to focus on some trauma or hardship. It left her with the impression she had to write about her life’s hardest moments to show how far she’d come. But she and some of her classmates wondered if their lives had been hard enough to catch the attention of admissions offices.

“For a lot of students, there’s a feeling of, like, having to go through something so horrible to feel worthy of going to school, which is kind of sad,” said Amofa, the daughter of a hospital technician and an Uber driver.

This year’s senior class is the first in decades to navigate college admissions without affirmative action . The Supreme Court upheld the practice in decisions going back to the 1970s, but this court’s conservative supermajority found it is unconstitutional for colleges to give students extra weight because of their race alone.

Still, the decision left room for race to play an indirect role: Chief Justice John Roberts wrote universities can still consider how an applicant’s life was shaped by their race, “so long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability.”

“A benefit to a student who overcame racial discrimination, for example, must be tied to that student’s courage and determination,” he wrote.

Scores of colleges responded with new essay prompts asking about students’ backgrounds. Brown University asked applicants how “an aspect of your growing up has inspired or challenged you.” Rice University asked students how their perspectives were shaped by their “background, experiences, upbringing, and/or racial identity.”

*Hillary Amofa, reflected right, practices in a mirror with members of the Lincoln Park High School step team after school Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. She described hardship and struggle. Then she deleted it all. "I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping," said the 18 year-old senior, "And I'm just like, this doesn't really say anything about me as a person." (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Hillary Amofa, reflected right, practices in a mirror with members of the Lincoln Park High School step team after school, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

WONDERING IF SCHOOLS ‘EXPECT A SOB STORY’

When Darrian Merritt started writing his essay, he knew the stakes were higher than ever because of the court’s decision. His first instinct was to write about events that led to him going to live with his grandmother as a child.

Those were painful memories, but he thought they might play well at schools like Yale, Stanford and Vanderbilt.

“I feel like the admissions committee might expect a sob story or a tragic story,” said Merritt, a senior in Cleveland. “And if you don’t provide that, then maybe they’re not going to feel like you went through enough to deserve having a spot at the university. I wrestled with that a lot.”

He wrote drafts focusing on his childhood, but it never amounted to more than a collection of memories. Eventually he abandoned the idea and aimed for an essay that would stand out for its positivity.

Merritt wrote about a summer camp where he started to feel more comfortable in his own skin. He described embracing his personality and defying his tendency to please others. The essay had humor — it centered on a water gun fight where he had victory in sight but, in a comedic twist, slipped and fell. But the essay also reflects on his feelings of not being “Black enough” and getting made fun of for listening to “white people music.”

“I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to write this for me, and we’re just going to see how it goes,’” he said. “It just felt real, and it felt like an honest story.”

The essay describes a breakthrough as he learned “to take ownership of myself and my future by sharing my true personality with the people I encounter. ... I realized that the first chapter of my own story had just been written.”

Max Decker, a senior at Lincoln High School, sits for a portrait in the school library where he often worked on writing his college essays, in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, March 20, 2024. (AP Photo/Amanda Loman)

Max Decker, a senior at Lincoln High School, sits for a portrait in the school library where he often worked on writing his college essays, in Portland, Ore., March 20, 2024. (AP Photo/Amanda Loman)

A RULING PROMPTS PIVOTS ON ESSAY TOPICS

Like many students, Max Decker of Portland, Oregon, had drafted a college essay on one topic, only to change direction after the Supreme Court ruling in June.

Decker initially wrote about his love for video games. In a childhood surrounded by constant change, navigating his parents’ divorce, the games he took from place to place on his Nintendo DS were a source of comfort.

But the essay he submitted to colleges focused on the community he found through Word is Bond, a leadership group for young Black men in Portland.

As the only biracial, Jewish kid with divorced parents in a predominantly white, Christian community, Decker wrote he constantly felt like the odd one out. On a trip with Word is Bond to Capitol Hill, he and friends who looked just like him shook hands with lawmakers. The experience, he wrote, changed how he saw himself.

“It’s because I’m different that I provide something precious to the world, not the other way around,” he wrote.

As a first-generation college student, Decker thought about the subtle ways his peers seemed to know more about navigating the admissions process . They made sure to get into advanced classes at the start of high school, and they knew how to secure glowing letters of recommendation.

Max Decker reads his college essay on his experience with a leadership group for young Black men. (AP Video/Noreen Nasir)

If writing about race would give him a slight edge and show admissions officers a fuller picture of his achievements, he wanted to take that small advantage.

His first memory about race, Decker said, was when he went to get a haircut in elementary school and the barber made rude comments about his curly hair. Until recently, the insecurity that moment created led him to keep his hair buzzed short.

Through Word is Bond, Decker said he found a space to explore his identity as a Black man. It was one of the first times he was surrounded by Black peers and saw Black role models. It filled him with a sense of pride in his identity. No more buzzcut.

The pressure to write about race involved a tradeoff with other important things in his life, Decker said. That included his passion for journalism, like the piece he wrote on efforts to revive a once-thriving Black neighborhood in Portland. In the end, he squeezed in 100 characters about his journalism under the application’s activities section.

“My final essay, it felt true to myself. But the difference between that and my other essay was the fact that it wasn’t the truth that I necessarily wanted to share,” said Decker, whose top college choice is Tulane, in New Orleans, because of the region’s diversity. “It felt like I just had to limit the truth I was sharing to what I feel like the world is expecting of me.”

FILE - Demonstrators protest outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, in this June 29, 2023 file photo, after the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions, saying race cannot be a factor. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Demonstrators protest outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, in this June 29, 2023 file photo, after the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions, saying race cannot be a factor. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

SPELLING OUT THE IMPACT OF RACE

Before the Supreme Court ruling, it seemed a given to Imani Laird that colleges would consider the ways that race had touched her life. But now, she felt like she had to spell it out.

As she started her essay, she reflected on how she had faced bias or felt overlooked as a Black student in predominantly white spaces.

There was the year in math class when the teacher kept calling her by the name of another Black student. There were the comments that she’d have an easier time getting into college because she was Black .

“I didn’t have it easier because of my race,” said Laird, a senior at Newton South High School in the Boston suburbs who was accepted at Wellesley and Howard University, and is waiting to hear from several Ivy League colleges. “I had stuff I had to overcome.”

In her final essays, she wrote about her grandfather, who served in the military but was denied access to GI Bill benefits because of his race.

She described how discrimination fueled her ambition to excel and pursue a career in public policy.

“So, I never settled for mediocrity,” she wrote. “Regardless of the subject, my goal in class was not just to participate but to excel. Beyond academics, I wanted to excel while remembering what started this motivation in the first place.”

Hillary Amofa stands for a portrait after practice with members of the Lincoln Park High School step team Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. She described hardship and struggle. Then she deleted it all. "I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping," said the 18 year-old senior, "And I'm just like, this doesn't really say anything about me as a person." (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Hillary Amofa stands for a portrait after practice with members of the Lincoln Park High School step team, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

WILL SCHOOLS LOSE RACIAL DIVERSITY?

Amofa used to think affirmative action was only a factor at schools like Harvard and Yale. After the court’s ruling, she was surprised to find that race was taken into account even at some public universities she was applying to.

Now, without affirmative action, she wondered if mostly white schools will become even whiter.

It’s been on her mind as she chooses between Indiana University and the University of Dayton, both of which have relatively few Black students. When she was one of the only Black students in her grade school, she could fall back on her family and Ghanaian friends at church. At college, she worries about loneliness.

“That’s what I’m nervous about,” she said. “Going and just feeling so isolated, even though I’m constantly around people.”

Hillary Amofa reads her college essay on embracing her natural hair. (AP Video/Noreen Nasir)

The first drafts of her essay focused on growing up in a low-income family, sharing a bedroom with her brother and grandmother. But it didn’t tell colleges about who she is now, she said.

Her final essay tells how she came to embrace her natural hair . She wrote about going to a mostly white grade school where classmates made jokes about her afro. When her grandmother sent her back with braids or cornrows, they made fun of those too.

Over time, she ignored their insults and found beauty in the styles worn by women in her life. She now runs a business doing braids and other hairstyles in her neighborhood.

“I stopped seeing myself through the lens of the European traditional beauty standards and started seeing myself through the lens that I created,” Amofa wrote.

“Criticism will persist, but it loses its power when you know there’s a crown on your head!”

Ma reported from Portland, Oregon.

The Associated Press’ education coverage receives financial support from multiple private foundations. AP is solely responsible for all content. Find AP’s standards for working with philanthropies, a list of supporters and funded coverage areas at AP.org .

COLLIN BINKLEY

IMAGES

  1. College Essay Format: Simple Steps to Be Followed

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  2. How to Write a College Essay About Yourself

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  3. 32 College Essay Format Templates & Examples

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  5. 26 Outstanding College Essay Examples /

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VIDEO

  1. What Did You Write Your College Essay On? 📝🤔

  2. Editing YOUR College Essays

  3. 5 Ways to End Your College Essay (And Stand Out to Admissions Officers)

COMMENTS

  1. 53 Stellar College Essay Topics to Inspire You

    Once you've chosen a general topic to write about, get out a piece of paper and get to work on creating a list of all the key details you could include in your essay. These could be things such as the following: Emotions you felt at the time. Names, places, and/or numbers. Dialogue, or what you or someone else said.

  2. 21 College Essay Topics & Ideas That Worked

    College Essay Topic Samples. Here's a list of essay topics and ideas that worked for my one-on-one students: Essay Topic: My Allergies Inspired Me. After nearly dying from anaphylactic shock at five years old, I began a journey healing my anxiety and understanding the PTSD around my allergies.

  3. 27 Outstanding College Essay Examples From Top Universities 2024

    This college essay tip is by Abigail McFee, Admissions Counselor for Tufts University and Tufts '17 graduate. 2. Write like a journalist. "Don't bury the lede!" The first few sentences must capture the reader's attention, provide a gist of the story, and give a sense of where the essay is heading.

  4. What Should I Write My College Essay About? How to Brainstorm + Examples

    In a word, you! Your college essay is your chance to show the admission officers the things they only get a glimpse of, or can't see at all, in the rest of your application. Here's a useful way to understand and reframe college essay topics: Essentially, your "topic" (e.g. Home or Light) is just an excuse—your topic is always you. Who ...

  5. Choosing Your College Essay Topic

    If you do choose a common topic, ensure you have the following to craft a unique essay: Surprising or unexpected story arcs. Interesting insight or connections. An advanced writing style. Here are a few examples of how to craft strong essays from cliché topics. Common topic.

  6. 19 College Essay Topics and Prompts

    Avoid passing your paper along to too many people, though, so you don't lose your own voice amid all of the edits and suggestions. The admissions team wants to get to know you through your writing and not your sister or best friend who edited your paper. 5. Revise your essay. Your first draft is just that: a draft.

  7. 5 Awesome College Essay Topics + Sample Essays

    Awesome College Essay Topics + Sample Essays. The truth is that a "good" college essay topic varies by individual, as it really depends on your life experiences. That being said, there are some topics that should work well for most people, and they are: 1. A unique extracurricular activity or passion.

  8. How to Write a College Essay

    Prompt overlap, allowing you to write one essay for similar prompts; You can build your own essay tracker using our free Google Sheets template. College essay tracker template. Choose a unique topic. Ideally, you should start brainstorming college essay topics the summer before your senior year. Keep in mind that it's easier to write a ...

  9. 12 Strategies to Writing the Perfect College Essay

    Don't Repeat. If you've mentioned an activity, story, or anecdote in some other part of your application, don't repeat it again in your essay. Your essay should tell college admissions officers something new. Whatever you write in your essay should be in philosophical alignment with the rest of your application.

  10. 21 Stellar Common App Essay Examples to Inspire Your College Essay

    Common App Essay Examples. Here are the current Common App prompts. Click the links to jump to the examples for a specific prompt, or keep reading to review the examples for all the prompts. Prompt #1: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without ...

  11. How to Write a Personal Essay for Your College Application

    Here are some tips to get you started. Start early. Do not leave it until the last minute. Give yourself time when you don't have other homework or extracurriculars hanging over your head to ...

  12. How to Make Your College Essay Stand Out

    Keep the comparison simple. Use a few other literary devices such as imagery or anecdotes to enrich your extended metaphor. Avoid making cliché comparisons. Don't exaggerate or make an unrealistic comparison. In the example below, a student uses the extended metaphor of a museum to explore the theme of identity.

  13. How to Write a Stand-Out College Essay

    The essay will stand out because of your voice, your perspective, and your way of experiencing the world. You will not be penalized for what you have not experienced or achieved, as admissions officers understand that not everyone has access to the same set of opportunities and that geographic location, socioeconomic status, family connections ...

  14. Tips for Writing an Effective Application Essay

    Follow these tips to write an impactful essay that can work in your favor. 1. Start Early. Few people write well under pressure. Try to complete your first draft a few weeks before you have to turn it in. Many advisers recommend starting as early as the summer before your senior year in high school.

  15. How to Write a College Application Essays in 2024

    1. Repetitive information. Your grades, test scores, and academic achievements are already added elsewhere in the application. Admissions officers use the essay to gain insights beyond transcripts and course lists. Highlight stories, experiences, and personal growth that don't overlap with other sections. 2.

  16. 11 Topics to Avoid in College Essays

    Sports is a common topic, though, which can make it much harder for you to stand apart from the competition. Even if this is your strongest area of interest, it's better to choose a different topic. 7. Humorous Topics or Jokes. Topics to avoid in college essays also include jokes or humor. Writing your entire college essay in a humorous tone ...

  17. 3 Things Your College Essay MUST Say Without Actually Saying It

    Well, there are 3 things your college essay MUST say to stand out and none of them are about you. These 3 things must be said, but not obviously. These 3 things will undoubtedly let the school know that you are the one to choose and while they will never tell you outright, they want to hear these things. 1. If You Accept Me, I Will Accept You.

  18. 35+ Best College Essay Tips from College Application Experts

    This college essay tip is by Chris Peterson, Assistant Director at MIT Admissions. The tip below is paraphrased from the post "How To Write A College Essay" on the MIT blog. 6. Tell a good story. Most people prefer reading a good story over anything else. So... tell a great story in your essay.

  19. Professional Essay Help: 24/7 Service

    Services were created to help brilliant students to proofread and make necessary edits in their essays. Usually, people who work there have degrees, diplomas and proper education, as well as experience in the tasks of such kind. Essay help doesn't involve cheating or making writing for you. The best part of service is its globalization.

  20. Open Letters: Our New Opinion-Writing Contest

    If you have questions about your submission, please write to us at [email protected] and provide the email address you used for submission. We invite students to write public-facing letters ...

  21. Is a robot writing your kids' essays?

    Now, of course, there's artificial intelligence. According to new research from Pew, about 1 in 5 US teens who've heard of ChatGPT have used it for schoolwork. Kids in upper grades are more ...

  22. Race in college essays? Some feel ruling leaves them no choice

    CHICAGO — When she started writing her college essay, Hillary Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. About being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana and growing up ...

  23. 4 Things To Keep in Mind When Writing Your College Essays

    The best way to determine if your anecdotes and experiences are unique to you is to ask yourself if they could be copy-pasted into someone else's essay. Write a list of core values that you hold, such as honesty, patience, and active communication. Draw connections between the unique aspects that you identified in Step 2 and the core values ...

  24. I Was Accepted Into Princeton; I'm Feeling Conflicted As a POC

    Essay by Aina Marzia. Mar 28, 2024, 8:15 AM PDT. The author was accepted to Princeton University. Courtesy of Aina Marzia & Education Images /Getty Images. I'm a person of color who was just ...

  25. College application: Should race be in essay after affirmative action

    Scores of colleges responded with new essay prompts asking about students' backgrounds. Brown University asked applicants how "an aspect of your growing up has inspired or challenged you.". Rice University asked students how their perspectives were shaped by their "background, experiences, upbringing, and/or racial identity.". Hillary ...

  26. How to Prepare For College in 2024: 10 Essential Tips

    Treat yourself: When you do meet those goals, reward yourself. For example, if you're in the middle of binge-watching a great show, allow yourself to watch an episode if you meet your study goals for the day. 2. Participate in extracurricular activities.