High School » Essays



Main Essay: The main essay is an opportunity, beyond the rest of your application, to distinguish yourself—to let the admissions deans know who you really are, to highlight your voice. Through the topic you choose, you will be able to convey an experience, to describe an interest, to show characteristics that you want the admissions committee to know about you—it’s all about you!

The Common Application offers 7 prompts to choose from; the Coalition offers 5. You only need to choose one prompt to answer. The main essay for the Common App has a 650 word limit; for Coalition the main essay has a 550 word limit. You usually can use basically the same essay idea for both. This essay will be sent to all schools that use the Common App or the Coalition, it is basically a “generic” essay.


  • If you were stuck in an elevator with the dean of admission from your favorite college, what are three characteristics you’d want him/her to learn about you?
  • When is a time when you have felt so inspired that you completely lost track of time?
  • When is a time when you feel that you grew through an experience?
  • What was an experience you absolutely loved?
  • What do you love doing outside of school?
  • What about your history/background sets you apart from others?
  • What have you achieved that has been so important in shaping who you are?
  • Has there been anything specific, an event or otherwise that has helped to shape your character?
  • Is there anything unique or quirky that you’d want to share?
  • Link past experiences to your future interests, goals, what you want to accomplish academically, career wise. Some colleges like when students link into their essay what they are interested in studying. Emory, for example, often like to see this, but not a necessity.
****The most important questions to ask yourself are: what do you want to share with the colleges that they don’t already know from your grades, activities, test scores? What values, characteristics, experience, accomplishment do you really want them to know about? What do you really want them to know about you?

Additional Notes:

  • Keep YOU in the essay---if you are talking about a specific event, don’t focus so much on background details of the event, focus on YOU—what you learned, how you changed, how you grew, how you were inspired. Writing in anecdotal (story)form often helps in this case.
- Start your essay in the middle of the action so as to draw the reader in—do not start with too much background info.
  • Using active voice, sensory details, and dialogue is fine because this is more of an anecdote, not a traditional school essay.
  • After the first draft, take a week and then edit it for structure and content; The second draft is for grammar.
  • Do not have an adult write this or part of this---college admissions counselor can tell easily when an essay is not written in the voice of a teenager. Be true to yourself.
Topics to Avoid:
1. Saving the Day: If you have done something to really “save the day”, then it potentially could be an essay topic. But if you start to sound arrogant, it’s not a good essay at all. Stay humble!
2. Political, Social Issues: Avoid issues like gun control and abortion that can potentially alienate your reader. Remember, you don’t know exactly who is reading/reviewing your essay.
3. The Pity Party: Avoid any essays about difficult or traumatic events in your life. It is absolutely horrible if you have lost a parent, but this can be handled in other ways through the application and with your college advisor’s help.
4. Your Travels: While travel can be eye-opening and potentially lead to a good essay topic, writing  about your travels may just show the colleges that you are very privileged, rather than an applicant who has to spend his/her summer working at a grocery store and taking care of his/her siblings. This is a tricky one and usually should be avoided unless you and your counselor decide otherwise.
5. Excuses: If you had had a bad semester or a learning challenge, the essay is not the place to discuss this. Your counselor will help you to express this information through the Additional Information section or a supplement.
6. The Activities Laundry List: You have plenty of room to write about your activities on your actual application; don’t repeat your accomplishments in your essay. This will just sound like a cover letter and bore the reader.
7. The Past: Avoid writing about something that happened in the past unless you are just mentioning it briefly to show growth in the present.
8. Shock Factor/Drama: Avoid unnecessary shock factor, drama.
9. Covid

SUPPLEMENT ESSAYS (usually prompts are updated in August, closer to the time that new applications are available)

For Supplements: 

Supplement essays are shorter essays that some colleges ask applicants to write in addition to the main essay and are sent only to that specific college. Supplements are often equally if not more important than the main essay because they are specific to that particular college. These essays should not be recycled; they should show thought and detail. They allow you to show the college why you are a good match for that school, why they should pick you out of so many highly qualified applicants, that you have researched the school—for example, particular professors, unique research/internship opportunities you would like to take advantage of.

The Bottom Line:
- Why are you and X college a good fit?
- Why should they select YOU over thousands of other applicants?
Ideas to think about while brainstorming:
  • How can studying at X university help you accomplish your goals—academic and personal-- AND therefore you will better be able to contribute to society?
  • Research professors with whom you might want to study, activities/programs you’d want to be involved in, specific to that college.
- For example, do you want to be a human rights lawyer/civil engineer/music major and having the ability to study at X school, with X professors, taking advantage of X opportunities will allow you to do so?
  • How does X area of study excite and inspire you?
  • What is it about this subject area that satisfies your intellectual curiosity? Have you already conducted research or interned in a specific area—this is your time to show that!!
  • What characteristics of the university attract you? Core curriculum? A certain philosophy the school embodies (ex: University of Chicago Life of the Mind)
A Few Additional Tips:
  • Start with academics and if there is room, you can talk about activities you’d like to be involved with, especially if they are very relevant—you were in marching band all through high school and want to continue that at X college.
  • Length—typically 200-300 words but can be up to 750.
  • Because supplements are often similar, you can sometimes use one as a base, but still you need to research and show that you really “know” the school
  • Avoid talking about how nice the campus is, or how great the sports team is
***It is preferable to use Times New Roman font

***Always write the question on top