College Essay Structures & How to Approach Them

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You’ll encounter several different types of essays in the admission process, and the range of structures can leave you a little confused. How do you approach each type? What’s the difference? Why do they each matter? Read on to learn about four of the most common college essays: the personal statement, your favorite activity, the “Why us?” essay, and the intellectual curiosity essay.


1. The Personal Statement

The Run-Down

This is the most traditional type of essay. It’s about you, your personality, and your interests. Usually, you’ll adhere to a specific prompt, but you’ll often have a choice. For example, one of the Common App’s prompts for the 2018-2019 admissions cycle is:


Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.


The Approach

For this essay, you should spend some time brainstorming ideas. This will help you narrow down which prompt you want to answer, as well as your specific topic.


Try to answer questions such as:


Who am I?

What makes me unique?

What are my beliefs?

What matters to me?


Make sure you’re showing—painting a picture of your experiences with words rather than giving a play-by-play of events—and use plenty of imagery and rhetorical devices to portray your ideas.


For more tips, read What Is a College Personal Statement?.



2. Your Favorite Activity

The Run-Down

Some supplements ask you to write about your most important extracurricular—something that has influenced and shaped you.


The Approach

Choose an extracurricular that is relevant to your goals and career path. The activity should have special meaning to you and be something you enjoy, because your enthusiasm or lack thereof will come through.


Explain how the activity has shaped you, and use rhetorical devices and language to describe it.

Keep in mind that you will be asked to identify important extracurriculars in your activities section, but that will be just a short description. Use this essay to also demonstrate your writing skills.

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3. Why [insert school here]

The Run-Down

The “Why this school” essay is an opportunity to show both what you know about the school and how you’ll fit in there. Colleges want to know why you want to go there in particular—not just any rigorous school.


The Approach

Remember that this essay is about you and the college—essentially why you’re a mutual fit.


Show that you’ve done your research by mentioning some interesting (and not readily apparent) aspects of the school, such as a tradition, unique activity, or interesting program. Avoid superficial aspects of the college, such as the weather or low acceptance rate.


To start, make a list of aspects of the school you like and pare it down. Pick some characteristics to highlight, and describe how your interests align with the school’s. For more tips, read How to Write the “Why Us” College Essay.


4. Intellectual Curiosity

The Run-Down

Colleges look for students who are excited to learn, because these are the people who will contribute to their communities and thrive in careers later on. You will see different versions of prompts asking you about your passion for learning. For example, here’s Stanford’s:


The Stanford community is deeply curious and driven to learn in and out of the classroom. Reflect on an idea or experience that makes you genuinely excited about learning. (100 to 250 words)


The Approach

Use anecdotes, such as a classroom experience or time you performed independent research, to illustrate your passion for learning. You might also relate a question that inspired you.


This is another essay where it’s important to show, not tell. Your enthusiasm needs to come across so you sounds genuine. Show how much you love to learn.



Essay Structures: The Takeaway

Remember that you can’t just recycle different types of essays; sometimes, you will need to write multiple. Make sure you understand the different structures so you’re well-versed on how to write each kind.


The wording of prompts will vary, but you should be able to identify the structures from the gist and keywords. For example, some colleges will actually use the phrase “intellectual curiosity” while others may ask you about your love of learning. Some colleges will ask you why you want to attend that school, while others may ask you to connect your experiences to a tradition associated with the college.


Make sure you tackle each structure according to what the prompt is actually asking. Once you’ve written a couple, it should get easier and easier to understand what colleges want and how to approach the essays.


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Laura Berlinsky-Schine
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in Creative Writing and minored in History. She lives in Brooklyn, New York and works as a freelance writer specializing in education. She dreams of having a dog.