Updated to reflect 2017-18 Common App essay prompts
You know that you’ll need to write a variety of essays for your college applications—and if you're a senior, deadlines are quickly approaching. But how will you craft effective messaging that will demonstrate your talent and character to maximize your chances of admission? In this post, we will provide a comprehensive overview of the college application essay planning and writing process, including:
- What kinds of college application essays you will need to write
- The Frontier Tutoring essay planning approach for strategizing your topic and planning your structure, regardless of the prompt
- When you should start planning and writing—including how to get a head start during junior year
- Keys to success for essay planning and writing
- An actual draft essay with feedback that T.D., a Frontier Tutoring college admissions consulting student, finalized for her successful application to the United States Air Force Academy, where fewer than 1 in 6 students is accepted. T.D. successfully adopted the Frontier Tutoring essay planning approach we introduce in this post.
Ready to write? Let's begin!
What Kinds of Essays Will I Need to Write?
Most competitive colleges require applicants to submit essay(s) or personal statement(s). The Common Application, used by over 600 popular colleges including Stanford, USC, and UNC Chapel Hill, requires an essay, as well.
Common App Primary Essay
The Common App contains five primary essay prompts to choose from. These prompts are subject to change each year, but typically stay the same for at least 3-4 years at a time. Each spring semester, the Common App releases prompts for the upcoming academic year. The 2017-18 application year essay prompts (for applicants matriculating in fall 2018) are as follows. Note: Italics indicate language that changed from the 2016-17 application.
- 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. [No change]
2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encountercan be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure.How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? [Revised]
3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? [Revised]
4. Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma - anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution. [No change]
5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. [Revised]
6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more? [New]
7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design. [New]
Institutional Writing Supplements
In addition to the Common App's primary essay, many selective institutions also require separate writing supplements which could take the form of short answer responses, short essays, or longer essays. These assignments may change from year to year and become available each August 1 for that academic year’s application cycle. Example prompts include:
- Tell us why you want to apply to (college name).
- Describe yourself in three words.
- If you could design your own course, what would it be and why?
Many popular colleges use their own proprietary application system in lieu of the Common App. Such colleges include the University of California (UC) system, University of Texas system, and University of Washington.
For example, for the 2016-17 application year (for applicants matriculating in fall 2017), the UC system asks applicants to respond to four of eight "personal insight" questions. Here are a few examples of the available prompts:
1. Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.
2. Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.
3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
The Frontier Tutoring Essay Planning Approach
Now that you have sense of what types of essay assignments you may be faced with, let’s turn to the Frontier Tutoring essay planning approach. The approach will help you strategize your topic and plan your structure—regardless of the prompt.
Step 1: Brainstorm
Before analyzing the essay prompts in depth, we recommend brainstorming for ideas and themes using a writing exercise. Two exercises we use with our own college admissions consulting students are:
- Write 25 unique facts about yourself
- Write a short vignette (a few sentences to a paragraph) of some interesting event/experience for each year of your life that you can remember. Choose events/moments/experiences in your life that had an effect on you and impacted who you are today. Possible topics include: an important event which taught you a lesson, an important event which changed you and how, the most important person in your life and why, your biggest challenge and your reaction to it, or your happiest, saddest, angriest, or most embarrassing moment and what you learned from it.
Step 2: Match
Once you compile your list of experiences and events, compare them side-by-side with the essays you are required to write (e.g., the five Common App primary prompts) and match ideas to prompts.
Step 3: Select for Effectiveness
Next, select the idea/event that you think would make the most effective essay for the given prompt.
Step 4: Write Rough Draft
Write your original draft using the personal narrative style (first person point of view using "I" and "me") and with the following structure:
- Introduction consisting of an anecdote that sets up your story. We walk our college admissions consulting students through a "Five Senses" writing exercise to help them describe details of the anecdote by covering what they could hear, see, smell, taste, and touch. Using these concrete descriptions, piece the phrases together into an introductory paragraph.
- Body Paragraphs: Next, transition from the anecdote into some exposition on how this topic exemplifies the prompt you chose.
- Conclusion: Wrap up your essay with a demonstration of how the skills/characteristics you learned or developed from the topic of the essay will translate to your success as a college student.
Step 5: Revise
Have a trusted advisor—who is also highly proficient in English vocabulary grammar—proofread your rough draft and make comments or editing suggestions. Revise your essay, taking these comments into consideration. The revision process should be repeated as many times as needed until you are satisfied with the final product.
Step 6: Complete Final Edit
Perform a final review and edit to address any grammatical or mechanical issues before uploading the finished document to the Common App or institutional app platform.
When Should I Start? What Should I Do as a Junior? As a Senior?
You should check out the Common App essay prompts as soon they are released in spring of your junior year—as further described in the next section, knowing the prompts will give you time to brainstorm quality experiences. You should begin actually writing your essay in the summer between junior and senior year. Try to complete your main Common App essay before school begins in August.
You should begin Common App member college supplemental writing and most institutional application essay writing starting the August 1 before your senior year begins. Try to finish as much writing and editing before school begins. However, make sure not to sacrifice quality for time.
Keys to Essay Planning & Writing Success
- A single illustrative experience can answer many seemingly unrelated essay topics. Review Common App and other college application essay prompts as far in advance as possible (Common App prompts are released in spring of junior year) and let them sit in the back of your mind for planning purposes. Write down relevant experiences or anecdotes from your memory as they occur to you. When it comes to writing your essay, demonstrating how acted in specific situations is much more powerful than making general statements about yourself or your values.
- Writing is 20% original draft and 80% revision. Write multiple drafts. Make sure someone else reads each draft and provides feedback that addresses clarity of ideas, cohesiveness, and flow.
- Write passionately but credibly. Be a “real” person. Avoid using unnecessarily extravagant vocabulary.
- Do not include facts in your essay that you have already provided in other areas of the application (like your GPA or SAT scores).
- Write the essay yourself (of course!). Don’t plagiarize, which includes intentionally or even accidentally letting someone else write most or all of your essay.
Actual Draft Essay of U.S. Air Force Academy Student
Download an actual draft essay written by T.D., a student who was preparing her application to the United States Air Force Academy in August 2015. It shows feedback from her Frontier Tutoring college admissions counselor. T.D. worked with Frontier Tutoring in a college admissions consulting program to finalize her essays and application materials. She was accepted at the Air Force Academy and recently began basic training!
How to Get Started
Thousands of students with similar GPAs and SAT/ACT scores will be applying to the same colleges you are. Your essay is one of the most critical—and only—opportunities for you to differentiate yourself and stand out from the crowd.
Just as we empowered T.D. to prepare the most effective possible application for admission to the U.S. Air Force Academy, Frontier Tutoring’s expert advisors can set you up for success on your college admissions journey. Check out our premium college admissions consulting plans, which include one-on-one essay revision and editing assistance. You can also take a look at our college acceptance list for students who have worked with us in college admissions consulting programs.
Not sure which college admissions consulting plan is right for you? Whether you're a junior or a senior, sign up to get expert guidance with North to My Future, your free, individualized college admissions strategy session for students in Anchorage. We’ll sit down with you for 45 minutes and discuss how your GPA, SAT/ACT scores, and entire profile compare relative to the norms for the colleges and scholarships you’re considering. We’ll also make sure you’re on the right track for college applications and develop an action plan of specific priorities for you between now and when college applications are due. If our college admissions consulting, SAT/ACT prep, or academic tutoring programs are appropriate to help you achieve your goals, we will also provide recommendations on how you can best use these professional resources.
Good luck as you begin preparing your college applications, and please contact us with any questions!
The Resume and Essay
In the first two parts of this blog series, we talked about the steps you need to take to help your student maximize their opportunity to get into a service academy. In the third and final part of this blog series, as promised, we are sharing some additional examples of a resume and an essay that helped to successfully secure multiple nominations to multiple academies.
Once in high school, the resume fodder begins. Keep in mind that these schools are looking for the “whole person” approach and the resume will need to show accomplishments in academics, athletics, community involvement and leadership. Here is a sample of a winning resume that garnered one million dollars in college scholarships from USNA ($450,000), USAFA($450,000) and UCLA ROTC ($180,000).
Sample Resume for A 2015 USAFA Graduate:
Presidential Appointment to the United States Air Force Academy
Presidential Appointment to the United States Naval Academy
United States Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps at the University of California at Los Angeles
Lancaster City Youth Commission Chairman (this is legitimate, sworn-in commissioners for Lancaster City. It was after and application process, an interview, and a popular vote to get to chairman out of at least 50 top youth in the region)
Assistant Manager and tutor for Math Magicians in Quartz Hill (July 2010-present)
Blockbuster Video (August 2009- August 2010)
Intern at the Honorable Buck McKeon’s office in Palmdale, (Summer of 2009)
Captain for DCHS Varsity Volleyball team for 2 years
Captain for DCHS Varsity Mathletes
Current Class Rank: 2 of 107
Cumulative, Unweighted GPA: 3.97, Weighted: 4.2
Over 1250 hours of volunteering since 9th grade
Summer of 2010
– Attended the United States Air Force Academy Summer Seminar
– Attended the United States Naval Academy Summer Seminar
2009-2010: Junior, Desert Christian High School
– ASB, Activities Representative (Coordinator)
– Vice President of CSF (California Scholarship Federation)(VP of 80+ members)(Is a position for a 12th grader, achieved in 11th grade)
– Member of NHS (National Honor Society)
– Varsity Cross Country (Runner, and Manager)
– Varsity Soccer
– Varsity Volleyball (Team Captain as Junior)
– Varsity Mathletes (Starter)(year round)
– Worship Team, Leader (In charge of 13 musicians), at Desert Christian High School, at The Highlands Christian Fellowship, and at Central Christian Church (playing Guitar, and Bass Guitar)
– Approved Tutor: Chemistry, Biology, Algebra I, Algebra II, Geometry, Physical Science, Math A, English 9, English 10, English 11, Spanish I, Spanish II, Spanish III
– Attended RYLA (Rotary Youth Leadership Awards)(Recommendation from School Administration, then accepted through application process)
Awards for Junior Year:
– United States Achievement Academy: National History and Government Award in AP United States History
– United States Achievement Academy: National Leadership Merit Award in Leadership
– United States Achievement Academy: National Leadership and Service Award for being an All American Scholar
– ACSI Distinguished High School Student for outstanding Achievement in both Academics and for Leadership
(Note: All of these awards are based of raw data [grades, service hours, activities, demonstrated leadership] as well as multiple teacher recommendations. During this awards night, I was one of 3 people, of 400, to receive the last two awards)
2008-2009:, Sophomore, Desert Christian High School
– Varsity Volleyball
– Junior Varsity Mathletes, (Team Captain)
– Worship Team
– Honors English 10, Algebra II, Chemistry (All advanced courses, the only ones offered)
– World History, Spanish II
– California Scholarship Federation, Cabinet, Sophomore Class Representative (3.5 GPA and above)
– National Honor Society (3.2 GPA and above)
– National Honor Roll Award
– Chemistry, Biology, Algebra I, Algebra II, Geometry, Physical Science, Math A, English 9, English 10, English 11, Spanish I, Spanish II
2007-2008:, Freshman, Desert Christian High School
– JV Volleyball
– JV Mathletes
– National Honor Roll Award: Academics, Honor Roll
– Honors English 9, Geometry, Biology, Advanced String Ensemble-Cello (All advanced courses, the only ones offered)
– Spanish I, Freshman Studies (Speech and Health)
– California Scholarship Federation
– Worship Team Member
– Graduate, Desert Christian Middle School, 4.0 GPA (All A’s, no weighted classes offered)
-Student, Desert Christian High School. Expected graduation: June 2011
– National Honor Roll Award: Academics, Honor Roll
– International Foreign Language Award: Spanish
– Presidential Award for Academic Excellence
– Mathletes, Team Captain, 2007-2008, 2008-2009
– Student of the Month: Leadership (Freshman and Sophomore Year)
– Student of the Month: Genuineness (Junior Year)
– Desert Christian High School Letters:
-Varsity Cross Country, Soccer, Volleyball (2 years)
-Fine Arts (Advanced Strings Ensemble)
-Academics (3.5 or higher) (6 of 6 possible Semesters)
-Principle’s List: Freshman, Sophomore, and Junior years
It’s never too early to begin to think about what you would like to write in your admissions application essay. These are very important and should bewell thought out before submitting. Be sure to have you liaison officer review it before you submit it or ask an academy graduate to help. It also wouldn’t hurt to have a faculty member from your school review it as well. More eyes on the project can mean a broader perspective, but it still needs to be your own voice, so you will have the final word on the essay.
The following is an essay that garnered our son, Philip, nominations to both USNA ($450,000) and USMA ($450,000) .
The Essay – Following in a Father’s Footsteps
In the military lifestyle, heroes beget heroes. There are so many families that have a history of military service, and oftentimes, military “brats” will grow into adults who have the desire to serve, as well. Here’s is Philip’s essay:
Growing up in a military home, I saw very little of my father at times. As an officer, he was often gone taking care of his troops, performing his duties, and faithfully serving his country. I never truly understood why he did what he did until his dream became mine. When I walked on the campus of the Naval Academy this past summer during the Summer Leadership Seminar, I saw greatness. I saw an institution that taught men and women to be leaders, thinkers, and people of character. But most important, I saw my cadet commanders as men of high leadership with a servant’s heart. They put our comfort ahead of their own, as my father did with his men.
All my life I have dreamed of one day leading hundreds or possibly thousands of men and women. I have sacrificed much in the process of becoming a competitive candidate for the academy. It was not Summer Leadership School that made me want to be in the military, it was my father’s integrity and service. However, it was the midshipmen that I met that made me determined to attend Annapolis. It was my goal to become an officer; now it is my goal to become a warrior and a gentleman, in the finest sense of the word. To learn “Integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do.” I desire to carry on the legacy of the service academies and to achieve a sense of accomplishment that no other college or career can offer.
Many nights I would stay up late, wondering if my father would come home or be deployed. I wondered if he was okay, or if it was his life that had been taken in one of the plane accidents that occurred in his various Air Force squadrons. However, these experiences did not make me turn against the military—it was quite the opposite. I began to see my father as someone very different from my friends’ fathers. I saw him as a warrior and a true hero. So many times I read about or see the actions of evil men. These are men who would not hesitate to strike down those whom I have come to love and cherish. I knew there was only one thing standing between me and those men—it was my dad. It was men like my father and those with whom he served that rose to stand up to people who seek to destroy everything we hold dear. I knew that I was called to be one of those men who took a stand, and I know it is the service academies that will teach me to stand, and to stand strong and proud.
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”—Martin Luther King Jr.