What are your chances of acceptance?

Your chance of acceptance
Duke University
Duke University
Your chancing factors
Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


Low accuracy (4 of 18 factors)

8 Questions Your College Essay Should Answer


Your college essay should reflect your opinions and experiences and display clear and critical thinking. It’s more than a list of facts or a highlight reel of successes; it helps college admissions officers understand your character. So show them who you are. Set yourself apart from other candidates by painting a vivid picture of yourself.


Colleges may provide writing prompts or leave the topic up to you. Whether requirements are specific or vague, your college essay should answer important questions to grab the attention of each college admissions officer who reads it.


How Important Is the College Essay?

It depends. If you have a high GPA, competitive test scores, and stand-out extracurricular activities, acceptance is less likely to hinge on your essay. If you’re on the borderline, an essay can’t make up for inadequate scores or stats, but a good essay might give you the edge over another student.


Even at top schools, college essays can make a difference by allowing your personality, passions, and determination to show through. Schools like students with a track record of success. Your essay can show them where you shine and what benefits you’d bring to their community.


According to the College Board, “a majority of colleges and universities believe the essay to be of considerable or moderate importance in determining which academically qualified students they would choose.” Since colleges take essays seriously, you should, too.


Questions to Answer

Including all the facts, feelings, and impressions necessary to set you apart in 600 words is a tall order, but you can do it. Below are questions your college essay might address to get the right kind of attention. Consider these common prompts before you write. Then write to the supplied prompt or choose your own focus. First create an outline and estimate how long each section should be before you start writing. Some schools put no upper limit on size, but if you write more than 700 words, overworked admissions officers become frustrated. Aim for about 550 to 600 words.


1. How can you foster your passion and love of learning at this school?

If you mention specific things about a college, get the facts straight. Mention courses, programs, or opportunities that show you’ve done research. Don’t feel you need to praise the school too much. This isn’t about buttering people up; it’s about showing how you’d fit into the college environment. Share something specific to emphasize what makes you a good fit. Describe how the school would benefit from your presence. Mention planned majors or extracurriculars that show how you’d take advantage of their resources. Demonstrate that you’re ready to be active in classes, leadership opportunities, or other activities.


2. What are your long-term goals?

Show that you’re self-aware. Share your plans. Don’t know what you’ll major in? Focus on your most likely general field of study. Discuss what drew you to it and what you’ll do in future. How is the college the best place for you to meet those goals? Focus on one or two; don’t mention too many things without addressing any in depth.


3. Do you intend to go to graduate school?

This question assesses planning abilities and awareness of strengths. If you see yourself going on to graduate school, describe what you’ll study. Express how you’ll use undergraduate time to prepare for that future. Describe resources that will help you achieve your goals.


Show that you’re open to considering further study once you see how you develop during college. Even if you don’t intend to go to grad school, demonstrate that you’re a devoted student. Focus on how you’ll benefit from undergraduate work. Describe how much it matters to have a first-rate undergrad education.

4. Do you take initiative? Are you self-motivated?

A cardinal rule of good writing is: Show, don’t tell. Don’t tell colleges how important something is—show them what you’ve done. Describe times when you’ve taken action. Write about instances when discipline and persistence helped you. Show evidence of initiative and determination. Describe examples of self-starting behavior so readers imagine you in action.


5. How involved are you in extracurriculars? What have you learned from them?

Extracurriculars show evidence of determination, creativity, teamwork, passion, or civic-mindedness. They clarify what you value, what motivates you, what sets you apart. Give examples of ways you’ve pushed yourself outside of school. Which challenges did you overcome? Focus on one or two and make an impression with personal details.


6. Have you gone beyond the high school curriculum to challenge yourself?

Describing extracurriculars that show talents and interests is valuable. Consider also showing concern for others. Have you volunteered, tutored, been a counselor, helped parents with their business, or worked after school? How do you challenge yourself as part of a team? Help readers see how well you’d integrate into their community.


7. How do you overcome obstacles and problems?

Don’t talk about lofty principles; give examples of problems you’ve solved. Write about ways in which you’ve overcome obstacles. Willingness to get help is good—knowing limits is healthy. Being willing to get assistance and learn from others is impressive. If you show how you’ve improved after getting help, you show willingness to stick to difficult tasks.


8. What sets you apart from other applicants?

Don’t list characteristics; focus on behaviors. Enthusiasm, attitude, and drive are easier to see if you explain that you used them to start a club, work at a dog shelter, or build a boat. Let readers imagine you doing and succeeding. Share times you did something you’re proud of. Let that behavior illuminate who you are.


Once you’ve written your college essay, set it aside, then  re-read it with fresh eyes. Get at least one person (a teacher or counselor is ideal) to proofread i it. Show what you care about and what makes you different. Then you’ll really shine!


Things to Keep in Mind Before You Write

If you’re supplied with a writing prompt, read it carefully. Your essay shows how well you follow directions. Some schools don’t ask a question or suggest a topic; those that do want to see that you address it directly. Don’t let your essay feel generic or written to answer a different prompt.


What’s the reason for the prompt? What does the college hope to learn? Sarah Myers McGinty, author of The College Application Essay, says essays often uncover how well a student might fit at the school, or show whether a student can do the work. She says colleges tend to ask three kinds of questions:


  • You questions about who are you and what you’d offer to the college community
  • Why us questions about why you think the college would be a good fit
  • Creative questions that give you chances to share inventive, original thoughts


Before writing to a prompt, take time to consider what kind of question it asks. What is the college really interested in learning about you? Write to address that interest.


Make answers specific and personal. Don’t write too broadly. Don’t tell your life story or echo the rest of your application. Focus on one thing in detail. Make your story something readers won’t find elsewhere. It should be less about experiences than about how you respond to them. Differentiate yourself from others.


Don’t just describe what happened—reflect on it. Just telling a story isn’t the point. Giving a glimpse into how you think is more important. Show what insights you’ve gained from experiences.


Creative doesn’t mean unfocused. If a college essay prompt is meant to show creativity, you must still write a detailed, logical essay with a point. Avoid meandering or pretention. Even off-the-wall prompts require well-written responses. Don’t let parents or teachers influence your style so much that you sound like they do. Write in your own voice. Also, stick to the truth; don’t embellish your history.


Be careful with humor. Writing vividly without trying to be funny usually works best. Show enthusiasm but avoid jokes or humor that might offend or confuse admissions officers or professors who read what you write.


Don’t write a sob story. Students often write about unusual challenges. Stories about adversity have built-in drama and evoke sympathy. But sympathy alone won’t get you admitted. Don’t rely too heavily on emotions; include important facts. If you focus on challenges, describe how you overcame them.


For more ideas about writing a college essay, check out these articles in the CollegeVine blog:


How to Prepare for College Level Writing in High School

What Is a College Personal Statement?

4 Ways Parents Can Help Their Teen with College Essays


Want help with your college essays to improve your admissions chances? Sign up for your free CollegeVine account and get access to our essay guides and courses. You can also get your essay peer-reviewed and improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays.

Laura Grey
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Laura Grey is an alumna of Mills College and the mother of a Simmons College graduate. Laura’s liberal arts education has served her well over the course of her writing and editing career, and she’s a big supporter of the women’s college experience. She enjoys writing film and music reviews, creating art, studying history and incorporating Godzilla figurines into her holiday decorating.