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Writing College Admissions Essays @ Alvin Sherman Library: Essay Topics

Resources for high school students who are preparing to write college admissions essays.

The "You" Question

‚ÄčThis question boils down to "Tell us about yourself." The college wants to know students better and see how students introduce themselves.

Example: "The University of Vermont values a diverse student body. What contributions might you make to our campus community outside of academic achievement?"

Plus: This type of direct question offers students a chance to reveal something about themselves other than grades and test scores.

Danger: The open-ended nature of these questions can lead to an essay that's all over the place.

The "Why Us" Question

Some institutions ask for an essay about a student's choice of a college or career. They're looking for information about the applicant's goals, and about how serious the student’s commitment is to this particular college.

Example: "How did you become interested in American University?"

Plus: This type of question provides a focus for the essay; that is, why the student chose this particular college or path — and the answer to that will (hopefully) be clear.

Danger: Any factual errors in the essay will reveal that the student really hasn't thought deeply about the choice. For example, writing about attending Carleton College to major in agriculture would be a blunder, because Carleton doesn't have an agriculture major.

An upside to this type of question is that while working on the essay, the student might realize that the college is not a good match — and it's better to know that sooner than later.

The "Creative" Question

The goals of the "creative" question are to evaluate a candidate's ability to think and write creatively and to assess the breadth of the student’s knowledge and education.

Example: "Sharing intellectual interests is an important aspect of university life. Describe an experience or idea that you find intellectually exciting, and explain why."

Plus: This kind of question gives students an opportunity to convey their personalities and views.

Danger: Some students may take the "creative" aspect of the question as license to be obscure, pretentious or undisciplined in their writing.

Sample Essay Questions

1. Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

2. Discuss some issue of personal local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.

3. Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.

4. Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.

5. A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community or an encounter that demonstrated the important of diversity to you. 


Information based, in part, from The College Admissions Essay by Sarah Myers McGinty. Retrieved from

Sample essay questions retrieved from