English/ELA, On Wednesdays We Write, Teacher Resources

On Wednesdays We Write – Prompt #23

Prompt #23:

Who or what scurries? Where? Why?

For this exercise, you’ll need three columns and seven rows. Label the first column “who/what.” Label the second column “where.” You choose whether where means location or destination. It doesn’t have to be the same for each who/what. Label the third column “why.”

Complete your chart. You will have seven who/what‘s partnered with their own where‘s and why‘s.

Write one sentence for each, using your most magnificent sentence-structuring skills.

Prompt #23 – Challenge:

Select a mood that you feel works well with the concept of scurrying. Write a scene that includes 3-4 of the who/what‘s from the base prompt. Keep the where‘s and why‘s too.

You don’t have to use the same sentences you created earlier, but you certainly may. Choose diction that best conveys a scurrying mood. Craft imagery that makes your reader feel, well, scurried.

Hint: You might even want to look up scurry to maximize its meaning(s).

English/ELA, On Wednesdays We Write, Teacher Resources

On Wednesdays We Write – Prompt #22

Prompt #22:

Words are magical. Let’s make something spectacular today.

Below you will find five sets of words. Choose one word from each group, and write a sentence using all those words. Look at the lists carefully. Let ambiguity work for you.

You may reorder the words however you like. Include as many additional words as you need. Experiment with sentence structure. Make punctuation do some heavy lifting.

While it’s fun to create nonsensical sentences sometimes, you should aim to write a brilliant and, well, magical sentence with this prompt.

Group 1






Group 2






Group 3






Group 4






Group 5






Prompt #22 – Challenge:

Opening with the sentence you have just crafted, write a narrative of at least 500 words.

College Admissions, Educators, Teacher Resources, Teachers

How to Write A Great Teacher Recommendation Letter

Fall is the season for college applications and teacher recommendations. While students are snowed under the back-to-school course load, extracurriculars, and senior activities, teachers are slammed with parent communications, lunch-hall-carline-whatever duties, lesson plans, in-class engagement, and grading.

Adding a stack of college recommendations to a teacher’s otherwise overstuffed life is a necessary burden. Most teachers who have been around the block a time or two have a go-to formula to help save time and still write insightful information that is helpful to the admissions offices.

For those teachers who are new to the teacher rec-writing game, here are a few suggestions to help develop guidelines for writing college recommendations that give admissions readers crucial information in their decision-making process and also save the teacher a little time in completing this added blessing on the fall to-do list.

1. Be sincere. Your personal integrity with colleges and universities is riding on your honesty and authenticity. Not every student you teach is in the top one-to-two percent of your career or the top ten percent either. Overestimating a student’s ability or character could get that student into a college that is not a good fit. Moderate your language and try not to write everything as a superlative. On the other hand, if a student is at the top of all the students you have taught through the years, break out your strongest endorsements and superlative statements for them.

2. Be up-front. In everyone’s best interest, if you feel like what you can sincerely say about a student will not help their chances of getting into a college or university, let them know so they can ask a different teacher to write the recommendation. One year, I agreed to write recommendation letters for two editors on our student magazine staff. Shortly after, these two students started showing up for class a few minutes after the tardy bell a couple of times a week. Each time, they would apologize profusely and say it was because they were coming from an AP lab course and their lab ran long. When I began to doubt that their AP science class would be doing labs that often, I pulled them aside and told them I could no longer excuse their tardies. They apologized, as usual, and started getting to class on time for about a week. The next time the students were tardy, they came wandering into class halfway through the period, without excuse notes. I asked them where they had been and one student said, “Well, you know, boy problems. We had to have a little girl talk.” I looked at the other student and she said, “Well, I couldn’t tell her no.” Nope. That moment was not one of my better teaching moments, but ultimately, I let both students know that, in their own best interest, they should probably find a different teacher to write their recommendations. Nothing I could say about their character would be helpful in their college admissions process.

3. Be concrete. Open the letter with a significant narrative. Explaining the situation that first made the student stand out to you is a good way to start. Maybe it was a class discussion. Or maybe that student stepped in to defend another student who was being bullied. Or maybe the student routinely spends all of lunch hour tutoring a friend who is struggling to understand a complex concept. Maybe the student’s research project was so well-researched and written that it had an impact on your personal beliefs about the topic. Whatever the story is, tell it. Let your opening paragraph be a verbal “video” of what you remember as most remarkable about this student.

4. Be thorough. Follow your opening narrative with a discussion of one or two character traits that best describe the student. Again, the strength of your own writing will come in your ability to help the reader “see” the student’s character by sharing narrative examples. Tell the story. Tell the story. Tell the story. Don’t shy away from sharing examples of growth… situations in which you’ve seen a student become more confident, kind, or hard-working. While it is easy in the body of the letter to recite the student’s resume, that information is already on the application. What is most helpful for the admissions team is knowing the person behind the accomplishment. Therefore, if an honor or award has a story behind it that shows the student’s character, then tell the backstory. The journey to success is always more interesting than simply knowing there was a success. While most teachers want to paint a picture of perfection, the authenticity of a struggle that leads to growth is often more valuable in identifying whether a prospective student is a good fit with the university’s culture.

5. Be clear about what you see for the student’s future. Try not to end the recommendation letter with something like this: “Therefore, I highly recommend this student for admission to this university.” If you can see that student spending summers as an undergrad volunteering as an office assistant for a pro bono legal services agency near campus in preparation for law school where you are confident they will become a civil rights attorney, then say that. If you believe that the student will be more successful in college than high school because your school has few technology course options, and the student spends every free moment reading coding books and just needs an environment rich in technology to thrive, say that. Get into the specifics of why this student is a good fit for this college and this college is a perfect environment for this student.

Once you get a few teacher recommendation letters written, you will develop your own style and rhythm. Be careful not to slip into autopilot, though. Make sure your recommendations are genuine and thorough.

Free Resource

If your school’s college counseling office does not provide students with a personal information form to give you the details you need to write a spectacular personalized recommendation letter, you can use this one. Feel free to copy, modify, and share. Use these resources in whatever way makes your life a little easier.

Do you have a particular way you prefer to write college recommendations? Please share in the comments below. The more people who jump into the conversation, the better we all become.

English/ELA, On Wednesdays We Write, Teacher Resources

On Wednesdays We Write – Prompt #21

Prompt #21:

In literature, we associate wind with seasons and change. Wind stirs up, brings in, and carries away. Ponder those three actions for a moment.

Write 100-200 words about a time in your life when change came and stirred things up.

Write 100-200 words about a time when change brought something new.

Write 100-200 words about a time when change carried away something.

Prompt #21 – Challenge:

Write a poem of 3-5 stanzas that explores the three actions of winds you contemplated above. Use diction and imagery that craft a mood authentic to what you felt in each season.

English/ELA, On Wednesdays We Write, Teacher Resources

On Wednesdays We Write – Prompt #20

Prompt #20:

Wallpaper. It’s the background to everything that happens in a room. Sometimes it is so muted that no one notices. Other times, it’s so loud that it drowns out everything else.

Good designers coordinate everything that goes into the room with the wallpaper. Harmony abounds. Bad designers ignore it altogether so that sometimes the wallpaper and the objects in the room clash, creating the visual equivalent of cacophony.

Think about your life. What is the wallpaper? What do you have going on in the background? Take a few moments to write a visual description of how the wallpaper looks in the entryway of your life right now. This space represents the part of you that people see when they first meet you. What are the colors? Patterns? Images?

Add details about the objects you’ve collected, the things you give time and space. To what extent do they harmonize or clash with the things you do?

For this part of the prompt, stick to sensory descriptions––sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures.

Prompt #20 – Challenge

Let’s go deeper. Explain the meaning behind the wallpaper and the objects that adorn your life’s entryway.

Why those colors, textures, designs, and objects? What is their significance? Is there obvious meaning in these things, or is their nature hidden? Why?

College Essays, Personal Statements, Supplemental Essays, Teacher Resources

Best College Essay Brainstorming Exercises on YouTube

Getting started is the hardest part. Let’s fast-track that process by finding online resources that will help you brainstorm the best ideas to develop into your Common App and supplemental essays.

I stand by my earlier statement that you need to avoid YouTube rabbit holes that pull you into the world of “model essays,” but there is still a lot of great content on the platform to help you discover your best writing topics.

The eight videos below walk you through brainstorming exercises that will spark memories, identify significant objects and events, and spotlight your core values. They help you discover the raw materials you’ll use to craft a high-impact essay that engages the readers and reveals your character.

Below each video, you’ll find a brief description of the content to help you decide which views are most likely to move you toward your essay goals. Since they are all in workshop format, you’ll need pen and paper, your laptop, or a tablet to participate.

The College Essay Guy’s Collection of Brainstorming Exercises

Think of these next few videos as a boxed set of Ethan Sawyer’s best brainstorming exercises. Together, they give you a STRONG content foundation for your personal statement and your supplemental essays. These four are my favorites and have traditionally yielded great results for my clients.

If you enjoy these exercises, you’ll find a wealth of additional workshop resources on the College Essay Guy YouTube channel.

New content from the best of the best, Ethan Sawyer, this workshop video is a real-time brainstorming session. Grab a tablet or paper and pen and follow the directions Sawyer gives. He’ll even write with you. It’s a fun exercise. I tried it myself. He challenges you to brainstorm 21 ideas in 12 minutes, but you will probably be able to come up with more than the minimum. So keep going, even when you think you may be done. Sometimes the less-obvious topics yield the most notable essays.

Discover meaning in objects you love. One of the biggest challenges in writing college essays is to take an abstract idea and communicate it in tangible ways. Concrete details make your essays more engaging for the readers who are processing an unfathomable amount of writing each day. The Essence Objects Exercise is the #1 best exercise for generating great college essays that pull readers into your story. Sawyer guides you through identifying, describing, and analyzing objects that hold deep meaning for you. You don’t want to skip this one.

Pair concrete descriptions with profound insights, and you have a memorable essay. This workshop for identifying core values will equip you with the vocabulary to communicate insights about yourself and the world around you that come from the experiences you choose to share. It will be helpful to print out/upload the Values PDF before watching this video, so go ahead a view it on YouTube, where you can download the worksheet before you get started.

You’ll want to watch this one on YouTube too. There’s a PDF of “feelings & needs” words you’ll want to access to maximize this workshop experience. In this video, you’ll go into a deep dive through challenges you’ve faced, and you’ll analyze the feelings and needs that underlie the experiences and your responses. It’s a JOURNEY, but it is a great exercise. BONUS: This exercise both brainstorms content and gives you a structural outline. If you’ve procrastinated a little too long and are short on time, and if you have a challenge or significant life event, then THIS may be your saving grace on your personal statement journey.

One-Stop Brainstorming Sessions

Maura Allen, author of Write Now! Essential Tips for Standout College Essays, guides you through several great brainstorming exercises in this video from Khan Academy’s College Admissions channel. I love this exercise, especially for students who have gone a little too far in trying to figure out “what colleges want” and need to re-center their essay journey around who they are. These exercises feature Myers-Briggs personality types, My 3 Words, and Free Writing. If you haven’t waited too long to start, this video is one of the best places to begin searching for your story.

Rachel Lin’s brainstorming video is super-helpful as a self-guided workshop. She uses timestamps to mark the different exercises, so it’s easy to go to the next if one doesn’t work for you. This video gives you a full-blown brainstorming workshop. I highly recommend it. Rachel’s workshop will help you chart a course toward a personal essay that is uniquely YOU.

And a Couple More Random Brainstorming Resources

The College Essay Advisors team takes you through their “backwards brainstorm” process, which means that you ignore the prompts until you figure out what you want to say. They approach brainstorming in layers, giving you broad categories to ponder, followed by specific exercises and prompts to narrow topics. My favorite part of this video (which is a little more lecture-y and a little less workshop-y) is that it suggests ways to step back from the intensity of the experience and allow your brain to find your story.

You know how people have those lists of 100 questions to help you get started thinking about possible essay topics? And you make it through, maybe, the first 20 and skim a few more and then stop reading them because they all blur together? This video allows you to get through every one of those questions without bogging down. Jillian Goldberg rapid-fire reads 100 questions to you. It’s SO MUCH better than trudging through a written list. Instead, you can listen to her ask the questions, pause when you hear one that strikes a chord, and write. It’s a helpful exercise. (Excuse video’s typos because the content is very good.)

I’d love to hear which videos you find most helpful in identifying topics for your college essays. Comment below with reviews of these, or send me links to any others you recommend.

College Essays, On Wednesdays We Write, Updates

August Updates: College Essays and Workshops

It’s the busy season for college applications. Between coaching grad school and undergrad applicants on their essays, updating workshop materials, and taking a little time to enjoy the family, ALHQ has been MIA.

But we’re back now. And here is a quick update.

Thanks to the delta variant, workshops are all virtual now. If you are interested in attending an online overview workshop, please contact me at

An unexpectedly high number of applicants to grad school and competitive undergrad majors are seeking help with their essays, so I am booked for individual coaching through September 1, 2021.

I am scheduling individual coaching for students who have applications due mid-October, starting September 6, 2021. If you would like to work with me, I would love to help you. The back-and-forth of editing and revising a personal essay and supplemental essays for 2-3 specific schools usually takes 2-3 weeks. Please keep this timeframe in mind as you request coaching.

Unfortunately, if you request individual coaching less than a week before your application deadline, I will not be able to help you polish your essay, but I can possibly give you quick feedback. Send me an email, and we’ll see if we can make it work.

The ALHQ blog is back next Monday with a post on the best college essay brainstorming videos on YouTube.

(Wait… didn’t you post that we shouldn’t watch YouTube videos when writing our essays? Yes. Yes, we did, but that post was about watching videos of OTHER students’ essays. These videos are workshop videos you can use to generate top-notch essay ideas.)

On Wednesdays We Write returns on September 1, 2021. We are SO excited. So if you’re a classroom teacher in search of bellringers, journaling topics, or à la carte writing assignments, join us next week. If you’re a student or professional looking for writing inspiration and opportunity, come back on the first. We’ve got a fresh batch of prompts waiting for you.

College Essays, Personal Statements, Supplemental Essays

5 Reasons to Avoid the Rabbit Hole of College-Essay YouTube

YouTube is packed with students reading their admissions-winning essays. You could deep-dive for hours, if not days.

This summer, I tasked my research intern with scouring YouTube for quality college essay resources to link on the resource page I give to students in my workshops. We were looking for a “Best of” collection of solid writing tips, but what we discovered was a glut of admitted students reading their essays on camera.

Here’s my question: what benefit is watching hours of other people read their essays? Looking at a couple of essay models would be profitable, but watching a whole YouTube essay-reading playlist? Nope.

Here are five reasons why you need to make the journey through your college essays with minimal assistance from other student writers, even highly successful ones.

1. Your story is YOUR story.

You own it in every way, and no one can tell your story the way you can. What makes writing college essays challenging is that the process requires you to examine your experiences, character, values, feelings, needs, and aspirations and cultivate insights about who you are and how you hope to impact the planet.

Only you can identify the experiences that have formed your identity. Only you can determine what parts of your identity you want to share with others and how you want to share those stories. Only you know your most challenging circumstances and your most rewarding seasons. And, certainly, only you know how you felt, what values or needs propelled your response, and what you learned about yourself and life in this world.

While you can see the product of another student’s journey, watching hours upon hours of other students read their essays will not get you to your personal statement destination. You have to travel your own path.

2. Originality & authenticity are hard.

Don’t put other students’ stories in your head. One of the worst things you can do with your college essay is to write a fan fiction piece based on another student’s life.

I began teaching high school writing courses over 30 years ago. I’ve learned how to spot a student’s reading habits in their writing. Emerging writers tend to produce content consistent with whatever they’ve immersed themselves in as readers. It’s OK to write about the impact of Stephanie Meyer, John Green, Suzanne Collins, J.K. Rowling, or Angie Thomas, but, goodness, high school creative writing students, stop riffing on these writers and create worlds of your own, based on your experiences. You love their stories. You love their universes. You love their words. It’s awesome to be a fan, but be aware when someone else’s art creeps into your brain and disguises itself as your own story.

The same applies to college essay-writing.

Show readers your story, not another writer’s narrative filtered through your head. The more you consume college essays written by other students, the harder it is to have fresh thoughts about your story.

Ultimately, mimicking ideas and structures from other writers (intentionally or unintentionally) lacks integrity and authenticity, and schools count those character traits as essential in the admissions process.

3. It’s not the whole picture.

The application packet gives admissions readers a picture of each candidate. Quantitative information (all the numbers like GPA and class rank and standardized test scores) and qualitative information (the subjective things like personal statements, supplementary essays, recommendation letters, and activities) combine to identify students who are the best “fit” for the university or college.

The essay-writing journey identifies the aspects of your life that aren’t reflected clearly in the rest of your application. Choosing essay topics and structures involves strategic decisions based on the whole of the application.

When you watch the student who got into all their top-choice, top-tier schools read their essay, you don’t know what the rest of their application featured. You don’t know what their recommendation letters said. You don’t know the X-factor objectives the admissions readers were working to fulfill.

You know only what that person chose to say before and after reading the essay. That’s it. You should not decide your essay’s content based on the information you don’t know about another person’s context.

4. The medium matters.

At least for now, the bulk of college admissions essays are written, although we can look ahead and see the normalization of video essays a short distance down the road. Until that time arrives, though, if you need an essay model for clarity or confidence, read examples of successful college essays.

Reading model essays (as opposed to listening to someone else read them) allows you the visual experience of analyzing structure and style. You can read and reread as much as you need to understand how story and storytelling combine for success.

Reading allows you to be a student of good writing and not just a consumer of content.

5. Avoid fueling comparison. Instead, build skill.

Watching video after video of other people humble-bragging about their victories under the guise of giving helpful tips can take a toll. Students fall down the rabbit hole because they are trying to figure out how to write a great story, and they look to others to boost confidence. Unfortunately, the opposite happens. Instead of feeling more secure about writing their own essays, students get overwhelmed. It makes sense. You’re comparing your initial efforts to someone else’s final product.

Models can be helpful if you give them thoughtful analysis, so read a few if you want, but limit content intake.

Let’s put numbers to it so that you know when to stop. You may read up to five model essays. You may view one or two students reading successful college essays. That’s a total of seven essays, max. Pick good ones.

As you read, observe what story the writer shares, how they tell it, and how it makes you feel in response. If it shakes your confidence as a writer or inflates your sense of superiority, those are red flags. Back away from the models and search your own heart. However, if you can empathize with the writer, then you’re on the right track. Take the lessons you need and return to your writing.

Approach writing models as an intellectual exercise. Try to find essays that professional writing coaches or admissions counselors have critiqued. Pay attention to the strategies they identify as successful communication tools. If you take a long-term approach to write your personal statement and have a little time, check out Writing Tools or The Art of X-Ray Reading by “America’s Writing Coach” Roy Peter Clark. For confidence in writing shorter supplemental essays, Clark’s How to Write Short holds game-changing tips.

What you do not want to do is steep your brain in the accomplishments of others. Remember, the essay-writing journey is for you to discover your story and not compare yourself to others.


I don’t have to tell you that getting on any form of social media, especially video-based social media, will eat time like nothing else.

You might hop on YouTube to look at successful essays as a time-saver for writing, but I guarantee it will become a distraction. What minimal gains you may receive in inspiration are not worth the time lost from quality thinking.

Your best essays will come as a result of self-reflection, and your most limited resource at the beginning of your senior year will be time. You will be a better storyteller and time-steward if you go through an essay-writing workshop, online or in person.

You have a GREAT story to tell. Focus on your journey. Embrace humble confidence. Do the work.

College Essays, Supplemental Essays, Teacher Resources

How to analyze supplemental essay prompts

When you write the wrong response to an essay prompt, it stinks for everyone involved—applicant, writing coach, admissions reader—everyone.

It’s not unlike the U.S. Presidential debates when the moderator asks, “What is your stance on forgiving college debt?” And the candidate rails against the impact of the pandemic and remote learning on student learning.

Yes, the question and answer both had to do with something in education.

Sure, college-debt forgiveness is controversial, and so were pandemic health and safety guidelines for public schools.

Absolutely, both finances and attention spans are limited resources that strain individuals and families alike.

But chances are, a rant solely focused on COVID restrictions in education does not reveal a plan for education debt relief.

In politics, we roll our eyes and say that the candidate is dodging the question. Sometimes we turn the channel on the debate. Sometimes we decide that if a candidate can’t address the question directly, maybe that person won’t heed our voices either. Consequences vary.

Off-topic responses happen frequently in college essay writing too. They are costly mistakes for the applicant that, at best, make you look lazy and, at worst, make you look incompetent. Neither look benefits your admissions chances.

To avoid heading down the wrong road on your essay, start by knowing where you’re going.

You need to analyze the prompts.

You’ve done a close reading of literature before, right? Here’s where those skills you learned in English class pay off big in the real world.

Let’s walk through an example together. This model comes from the Application Prompts for Fall 2021 page for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I chose an old prompt to focus on the skills instead of the actual content. These skills apply to pretty much any prompt you will encounter. You can take them with you wherever you go.

Hark the sound of Tar Heel admissions

Since most applications are fully online, I took screenshots of the essay prompts page and uploaded them to Notability. I liked the look and spacing of landscape orientation. You follow your preference for formatting. After a couple of adjustments for size and spacing, I was able to get everything I needed onto one page in Notability.

You don’t have to use Notability. You can use any note-taking app that allows you to highlight, underline, and write margin notes. Or you can copy and paste the text into a Google doc and highlight, underline, and write comments there. You can print the page and annotate on paper. It doesn’t matter what tools you use; it just matters that you get the analysis done. You do whatever works for you.

Let’s look at this essay section part-by-part. UNC begins with background information.


The introductory sentence helps you know that you are in the right place:

  • Did you mean to apply to UNC? Yes? Good.
  • Are you a first-year or a transfer applicant? Yes? Welcome.
  • Did you intend to apply during the 2020-2021 application season? You did? Awesome.

Now that we’re confident we’re looking at the right information let’s get into the body of the background section.

Three strong verbs organize the objectives underlying the supplemental essays: aspire, believe, and hope.

Aspire means to work toward attaining a goal. Without getting super grammatical, whatever is on the other side of aspire is the object of aspiration. The object of UNC’s aspiration is “…to build a diverse and inclusive community at Carolina….” In your supplemental responses, you will want to show that you are eager to join the university in building that community.

Believe sneaks into the mix in the second half of the sentence that begins with “We aspire….” It clarifies the how behind attaining the goal, the object of aspiration. It points toward a core belief “…that students can only achieve their best when they learn alongside students from different backgrounds.” As you write these prompts, keep in mind that UNC sees diversity in its student body as foundational to personal success. So ponder how your presence will both contribute to and benefit from UNC’s diverse community.

Hope as a verb reveals the overall objective for all the prompts. The admissions readers want to find out “what being a member of such a community would mean to you.” Each prompt gives you a chance to share this information from your personal experience. You can point out how a diverse and inclusive community at UNC continues a trajectory you’ve established thus far in your life. Or you can show how attending a school alongside people from a myriad of backgrounds will help you learn so much more in college than you did in high school because it offers you experiences you’ve craved but never had before.

You’ve not even looked at the actual prompts yet, but already you know that your responses need to hit these three concepts:

  • building a diverse and inclusive community at Carolina,
  • achieving your best because you’re able to learn alongside students from different backgrounds, and
  • showing the admissions readers what being a member of a diverse and inclusive community would mean to you.

You might even want to write down these three points before you start brainstorming the individual prompts. Keep coming back to them as you analyze the prompts, select which ones you’ll write, survey your life experiences, organize your response, and draft your essays.


I have a lengthy, well-worn speech about the dangers of failing to read essay directions, but I’m still a little bitter from years of delivering said speech, so let’s move on.

Carolina labels their supplemental essays “UNC-specific short answer prompts.”

Note that you need to write only TWO of the prompt essays they offer as options.

You have a word count of 200-250. That is short.

It’s not as short as the 25-,30-, or 50-word responses that other schools require, but neither does it give you room to wander around before getting to the point.

Prompt Option 1

What does expand on mean?

My BFF Merriam-Webster says that it means “to speak or write about (something) in a more complete or detailed way.” Wait. “more complete or detailed way” implies that you’ll be talking about something you’ve already expressed. Hmmm. Let’s check another dictionary.

Ah, here’s how Cambridge defines expand on: “to give more details about something you have said or written.”

My buddies over at bury expand on at number seven in their list of definitions. Still, it says, “to express something more fully or in greater detail (usually followed by on or upon),” followed by an example.

Let’s see, what do all three of these definitions have in common?

  • You have identified a topic.
  • You’re going to use details to talk about it more fully.

Let’s look at this task in light of the prompt’s wording.

You’re going to expand on an aspect of your identity. The article an means ONE. You do not have the word count to get into multiple facets of your identity. The prompt asks for (and you should stick to) ONE.

You’re going to expand on an aspect of your IDENTITY. Identity is a big, abstract concept, so let’s see if the prompt helps us narrow what the readers might be looking for. Ah! It says, “…for example, your religion, culture, race, sexual or gender identity, affinity group, etc.” You’ve got concrete examples of identities in the list, but you also have the freedom to go beyond those items listed. That permission comes in the outer sandwich of “for example” and “etc.”

An aspect of identity may be obvious as soon as you read the prompt, or you might want to take a few minutes to look up the keywords in the suggested options list. Sometimes reading the definition of a word sparks connections. Examining the meaning might pull you out of the ruts of conventional thinking and into the creative realm that makes for more memorable essays.

You’re going to choose one aspect of your identity and expand on it. That’s a two-part essay.

Start with presenting what this aspect of your identity looks like in your life. Give enough detail to help the reader see clearly.

Then answer the question — “How has this aspect of your identity shaped your life experiences thus far?”

Remember you’re writing to address the vision, core belief, and writing objective presented in the background paragraph. The identity aspect and impact should demonstrate how your values and experience align with the university.

Prompt Option 2

This prompt is clearly about changing one thing about where you live. It’s divided into two parts—1) what you would change, and 2) why you would change it. Straightforward, right?

Not so fast. What does the prompt mean by “where you live”? Is it your house? Is it your neighborhood? city? town? state? Is it your country? continent? hemisphere? planet?

Hmmm. Good question.

The ambiguity can be either inspiring or overwhelming.

The UNC applicants I worked with last year who responded to this prompt took “where you live” to mean different things, and I think that’s OK.

You can go as small or as big as you want as long as you clearly and concisely explain what you would change and why you would change it. Keep in mind that your essay should show the aspiration of building diversity and inclusion, the core belief that students achieve best when surrounded by people of different backgrounds, and the request to show what being a member of a diverse and inclusive community means to you.

Prompt Option 3

Describe typically means to give sensory details about the subject. You absolutely can do that in this essay, but the second sentence asks you to focus on actions, so the bulk of your discussion of this inspirational person is going to center around what they did and what impact it had on you.

Narrow the subject. This prompt asks for an inspirational person essay: “Describe someone you see as a community builder… How has their work made a difference in your life?” Although the directions request a description of someone else, the purpose is to reveal your values regarding community building. So tell the story in light of how it encouraged and inspired you.

Note the latitude the prompt gives you in choosing a community builder. It could be a family member, a friend, a religious leader, a politician, a writer, a social media influencer, etc. You decide.

Prompt 2 invites you to discuss negative elements of your community that you long to see changed. In contrast, Prompt 3 encourages you to share your positive experiences with community building.

The Common App

Following their school-specific prompts, UNC mentions the Common App essay and gives you a few reminders.

First, it’s 250-650 words in length, so longer than the UNC supplemental essays.

Second, the prompts are the same for all Common App schools, which means that you need to use that space to highlight your personal story and not try to tailor it to a particular university.

Third, COVID-19 overshadowed everything, so you have a chance to call out its impact on you if you want to.

UNC’s mention of the Common App essays is encouragement for you to keep your details fresh. Don’t write about the same people and experiences in your supplemental essays that you already address in your Common App essay.

But wait, there’s more

For first-year students, the supplemental essays factor in the admissions decision and facilitate selection for merit-based scholarships, assured enrollment programs, scholars programs, research programs, and global opportunities.

Supplemental essays are high-stakes writing opportunities. Put in the work to understand the prompts to write your best essays for the highest rewards.

Great writing starts with great thinking. Begin your thought process by understanding the prompts. You can’t write what you don’t know.


This screenshot shows a comprehensive prompt analysis. It identifies key components, defines essential concepts, and notes the school’s requirements for responses. Once you have analyzed the prompt, then it’s time to start brainstorming.

College Admissions, College Essays, Supplemental Essays

Strategies for writing supplemental essays

Supplemental essays are matchmaker essays.

Let me explain.

Personal statements focus on YOU, the applicant. When you write your personal statement, the trick is to narrow all the things you could possibly say to the narrative that gives the clearest view of who you are and what you hope to accomplish.

In contrast, supplemental essays help universities select the students who are the best “fit.” Yes, your story is still essential, but telling your story as it relates to a specific school is what lands you in the sweet spot.

These school-specific essays help admissions readers determine which applicants are the most compatible with their campus’s programs, character, philosophy, values, and goals. And they ask you to get the point by limiting the word count, so there’s not enough space to hedge your bets by saying a little of everything.

Most supplemental essays have somewhere in the neighborhood of a 250-word maximum. Some counts run as low as 50 words per question. You have to be precise, concise, and convincing.

The best strategy for writing attention-grabbing supplemental essays is to put in extra work on the front end to make sure you know what you need to say before you begin drafting.

Analyze the prompt

Read each essay prompt closely. Understanding what information the university is asking you to address is crucial. Don’t just skim the first few sentences and go straight to the action item at the end.

Get out your highlighters and colored pens, and annotate all the sentences. Break down each prompt into the background of the concept, the information it asks you to give, and the mode of writing it requests (narrative, descriptive, persuasive, or expository). Circle and define any words you couldn’t explain to a five-year-old without hesitation. Once you are confident you know what the prompt is asking you to do, it’s time to do some homework.

Investigate the school

To write the most effective supplemental essay, you need to do a little research about the university. Determine the values the school promotes in its portrayal of life on campus and in the surrounding community. What is its cultural vision?

For example, if a school-specific essay topic asks you to talk about your experience with diversity, begin by defining the term in light of the school’s commitment to it. By diversity, does the school mean racial diversity? Economic diversity? Diversity in core beliefs? Is diversity centered around geography, education, age, or social status? How inclusive is the campus? Do they celebrate different styles of learning? Multiple intelligences?

You need insight. To find it, you can survey a range of resources to discover a university’s stance on any culturally relevant topic. Here are three solid places to start:

  • Visit the website. Look at the articles the school has recently posted about its programs, students, and faculty. Discover what’s new and what’s evolving. What changes are happening? What accomplishments do they celebrate? What visionary statements do they make? When they feature an individual student’s story, what do they praise? What partnerships do they have locally, nationally, and globally? What are the notable areas of research? Which programs produce thought-leaders? What opportunities do students have to make professional connections beyond the classroom?
  • Check out social media. Social media marketing highlights the best of a college’s programs and people. Often it is a tool that draws readers to the information posted on the website, but it also highlights campus life and community impact. Find those locally relevant gems. What coverage does the school give to cultural events? How do they promote sports? What happens when there’s extreme weather or a global health crisis? How does the university support students during challenging times? How does the campus interact with its neighbors? What are the school’s treasured traditions?
  • Search the news. Find recent media reports about the school—its administration, faculty, student body, employees, organizations, etc. While the website and social media give you the polished version of the university, the nitty-gritty details appear in the news. What issues face the Board of Trustees? How do the employees view working conditions? What opinions do the students have about how the school advocates for their best interests? How does the university foster campus safety and accessibility?

Researching culture and values requires efforts in discovery and analysis, but it is a critical part of preparing to write supplemental essays.

Make your match in 250ish words

Supplemental essays are short.

You have to hit the nail on the head and drive it into the wood in just a couple of hammer strokes.

I know it’s a little cliche, but honestly, the nail analogy works perfectly here. If you’ve even tried to hammer a nail, you know that you have to hold the nail at the correct angle and press it firmly against the wood. How securely you grip the nail and how accurately you hit it with the hammer combine to accomplish one of four things: you join one piece of wood to another, you smash your fingers, you dent the wood, or you bend the nail. Three out of four are negative outcomes. You have a narrow opportunity to achieve your goal. To protect yourself and your building materials, you need to hit the nail precisely, forcefully, and repeatedly.

So it goes with writing short essays.

To hit the one-out-of-four good outcome, you need to plan. You’ve already analyzed the prompt, so you know precisely the topic and approach the admissions department wants. You’ve researched the school’s culture and values as presented in intentional branded marketing, incidental campus snapshots, and external critical commentary. Now it’s time to figure out the sweet spot where your values intersect with the school’s values in light of the supplemental prompt’s topic.

To discover this connection, try using a graphic organizer like a three-column chart (Headers: School’s values, My values, Experiences that show where we connect). Once you identify the connection and the story that supports it, then you can start drafting.

I’ve found the most successful supplemental essays have the following structure.

First, identify your thesis precisely and immediately. Don’t even try to inject suspense. Supplemental essays are not the venue for a delayed opening. Second, present concrete details that prove your thesis to be true. Show first, then tell. Analyze after you’ve given concrete information. Finally, convince the reader that your presence at the university benefits both you and the school. Present an undeniable collision between your experience and the school’s values. Conclude by telling how your presence will reinforce the university’s cultural values and how your time at the university will equip you to achieve your goals.

It’s a proverbial “match made in heaven.”


Rethink your options

What happens when you’ve done all the research, and you realize there are things about the school’s culture and values that are incompatible with your values and goals? What if they aren’t supportive of your lifestyle or identity? What if they don’t embrace the free expression of your faith or political views? What if you realize they don’t have the major you need to accomplish your long-term goals?

During the writing process, you may realize a university you always thought you’d want to attend is just not a good fit. Congratulations!!! You just saved yourself (and possibly your parents) a lot of time and money.

Unless there is another reason that outweighs the mismatch, you will do best to cross this option off your list and direct your energy toward writing supplemental essays for schools that are a better fit.

Save time to revise

For many schools, supplemental essays are higher stakes than the personal statement. These school-specific essays often factor into scholarship consideration and honors college invitations. So don’t wait until the last minute to write your supplement essays just because they’re short and specific.

Save time to let your draft age just a little bit. Once you finish the initial writing, don’t look at it again for a week or two. Then, when you come back to revise it, begin by reading the prompt aloud, followed by reading your response aloud. Your ear will let you know where your transitions need work. Your eyes will find grammatical and mechanical errors too. You become your own best editor when you read your essay aloud.

As you finish your essay journey, tie up any loose ends. Check your word count. Make sure you give the admissions readers the information the prompt requests. Simplify your verbs. Vary your sentences. Persuade your audience.

Make your match.