College Essays, Personal Statements, Supplemental Essays, Teacher Resources

How to Write an Engaging College Essay: A Cheat Code

I was driving down a winding road and pondering college essays, like you do, when Carrie Underwood came on our local “Mix of the Decades” radio station.

And I thought: That’s it! That’s how you write an engaging college essay!

Let me explain.

The song was “Before He Cheats,” a tribute to women’s empowerment mixed with a little vandalism. In it, songwriters Chris Tompkins and Josh Kear give us a stellar tutorial on using specific images and concrete actions to create an engaging college essay. The song’s a throwback, but hang with me. There’s a reason it won so many awards.

How it Works

Sensory Imagery

You might not have noticed, but there are just two verses, and in them, the song hits all five categories of sensory imagery. Look:

sight: slow dancing with a bleached-blond tramp

taste: buying her some fruity little drink ’cause she can’t shoot a whiskey

touch: behind her with a pool-stick showing her how to shoot a combo

sound: singing some white-trash version of Shania karaoke… saying, “I’m drunk”

smell: dabbing on three dollars worth of that bathroom Polo

Sensory details pour into the description of the boyfriend cheating inside the bar. Concrete verbs fire up the narrative of the furious girlfriend exacting revenge in the parking lot.

Concrete Action

They’re not just any ol’ verbs. In the parking lot, concrete action words loaded with devastating denotations (dictionary definitions) and connotations (feelings and ideas associated with the word) work to carry out revenge. Watch this:

Action 1: dug my key into the side of his pretty little souped-up four-wheel drive

This isn’t a light graze on the paint that dude can buff out later. When you dig something, like dirt, you break it up and move it somewhere else. That paint is ruined.

Action 2: carved my name into his leather seats

When you carve something, you’re creating art, whether it’s an inscription on a monument or a whistle made of wood. With care, the girlfriend leaves her mark for the long haul.

Action 3: took a Louisville slugger to both headlights

In formal English, took isn’t a specific verb, but in the vernacular, taking a baseball bat to anything is synonymous with violent destruction.

Action 4: slashed a hole in all four tires

There’s a whole horror subgenre called slasher, which involves intentional violent acts with sharp objects. You know she means to kill those (probably very expensive if they’re on a souped-up four-wheel drive) tires.

And how do the writers bring it all together to leave the listener with a lasting impression? All the imagery and all the concrete verbs add up to the main point, a life lesson or insight.


For the protagonist of “Before He Cheats,” the main point is this:

I might’ve saved a little trouble for the next girl

‘Cause the next time that he cheats

Oh, you know it won’t be on me

No, not on me

“Before He Cheats” Genius lyrics

Did you notice the language shift at the end? Can you figure out what’s different?

It’s pretty generic. No mention of what kind of trouble. No description of the next girl, other than she’s next. No hint of when or where the next time will be. Do you see that? We’re piling on next‘s, as if he’s, maybe, a serial cheater.

Going general in the bridge gives universality to the ex-girlfriend’s lessons. Women have the power to get out of bad relationships, and they have the power to rescue others too.

Why it Works

So why does Carrie Underwood’s No. 1 smash hit from 2006, “Before He Cheats,” serve as a stellar model for college essays? The techniques these writers use to create one of the most memorable songs of its decade involve brain science. And they will help you tell your story in a way that engages college admissions readers instead of leaving them wishing for the end when they’re only halfway through.

In her ebook Write Now: Essential Tips for Standout College Essays, Maura Allen explores the role of neuroscience in crafting an engaging college essay:

With advanced brain scans, scientists can now identify exactly when and where …story/brain connections occur. Importantly, these responses aren’t something the reader (or listener) is able to control; the reactions are spontaneous—part of our nature… By understanding the different areas of the brain that factor into the science of storytelling you will become a better communicator. Keep in mind, the more areas of the brain your writing stimulates, the more memorable and impactful your story will be (19-20).

One of the reasons high school English teachers say over and over again, “Show, don’t tell,” is that when you draw the audience into your story, allowing them to experience your world through your words instead of just telling them about your life, you engage their brains more fully.

Allen continues,

Writing in a way that triggers these natural responses is a fundamental first step to engaging your audience:

Sensory Cortex + Cerebellum. Fires up with tactile, texture and sensations (wind, shards of glass, etc.)

Motor Cortex. Triggered by action verbs and movement (run, slog, fly, etc.)

Olfactory Cortex. Activated by smell or memories of smells (burnt toast, chocolate chip cookies in the oven, lavender, etc.)

Visual Cortex. Sparked by colors, shapes (orange, triangle, etc.)

Auditory Cortex. Prompted into action by sounds (screeching brakes, woodpecker on a pole, etc.)

Insula. Triggered by emotions (joy, fear, comfort, pride, etc.) Take note… this area of the brain trumps all others when it comes to the science and power of storytelling (20).

In MRI scans, active areas of the brain light up, right? Your goal is to light up different sensory centers in your reader’s brain through your writing. If you present a lifeless overview of your story instead of bringing your reader into your experience, they will probably finish by skimming your statement, relieved to survive another lackluster personal narrative.

However, if you walk your reader through your experience, showing in concrete terms what happened, how you responded, and what you learned, you have a pretty good shot at keeping their attention through the end of your essay.

A quick word of caution: engaging the reader through a high level of detail is best used in moderation. Like an overpowering fireworks display, too much causes your audience to cringe. But just the right amount of flash and pop and smoke and heat keeps readers rolling from one sentence to the next.

While you don’t have to launch an all-out assault on the admission team’s sensory receptors, appealing to multiple areas of the brain using a variety of specific images and concrete verbs creates an engaging experience.

How You Can Light Up Your Admissions Reader’s Brain

Using the lessons we’ve learned from Tompkins and Kear via Carrie Underwood, let’s create a cheat code for college-essay writing. It goes like this:

•When talking about what happened, use descriptive imagery, which by definition appeals to the senses.

•When explaining how you responded, use action words with robust connotations to show what you did.

•When analyzing the impact of the experience, go general in identifying timeless life lessons. These insights weave together your past, present, and future. And the point of personal statements is to tell the reader your story—where you’ve come from, where you are, and where you’re going. Mission accomplished.

Following these steps, you will engage different areas of the reader’s brain and help them see your story to its conclusion. Your essay may even linger in the reader’s memory, and that certainly bodes well for your admissions chances.

Are you ready to get started? Download the free “Planning an Engaging College Essay” PDF and start the writing process for your high-impact essay. Already started drafting? Use the planning worksheet as a revision tool for refining your story.

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.

College Admissions, College Essays, Personal Statements, Supplemental Essays

When should I write my college essays?

Write your college essays during the summer between your junior and senior years.

Give yourself a little time to recover from the academic season. Get some sleep. Unpack your backpack, and clean your room. Enjoy hanging out with your people.

In a couple of weeks, jump on the Common App or Coalition website or both and read the prompts. Begin thinking about which one resonates with you. If you have access to a local college essay draft workshop, sign up. If not, search the internet for virtual college essay workshops. You can never go wrong with the College Essay Guy.

By late July or early August, you should access the supplemental essay options for your narrowed list of schools. Start analyzing the prompts and researching each school’s stated values. Figure out how your values and vision intersect with theirs.

If you would like to work with a college essay coach and have not yet contacted one, you should make sure to reserve a spot on their schedule as soon as possible. Your coach can help guide you to the best approach for both the personal statement and the supplemental essays. The one thing you want to avoid is covering similar details in multiple essays. Each prompt gives you a chance to share a different aspect of your story and build a stronger case for admission.

Hold on, why should I wait that late to start?

You need the most perspective you can get before you start writing, so give yourself time to develop it.

Usually, it’s the parents who approach me and ask, “Should my ninth-grader start working on the college essay now?” Um. No.

I mean, journal? Absolutely!

Start a blog to record high school adventures? That’ll be so fun to look over in the future!

Both a private journal and a public blog will be helpful in a couple of years when you start the college essay-writing process. You’ll have a record of impressions and events and feelings that shaped you. As for actually brainstorming and organizing a personal statement, though, you’ll need to wait until the end of your junior year.

Junior year of high school tends to have a refining effect on many students. Whether it’s a result of the higher-level thinking that happens as you advance through the typical secondary curriculum or the social and cognitive leaps that take place in this stage of adolescence, by the end of your junior year, you are better able to figure out who you are, what path you’ve traveled to get there, and where you aim to go in the future. And those are the elements essential to writing memorable college admissions essays.

But summer is when I take a break!

Exactly. That’s why you should rest before you write. A Huffington Post article quotes “Hamilton” creator Lin Manuel Miranda on the link between rest and creativity:

“It’s no accident that the best idea I’ve ever had in my life — perhaps maybe the best one I’ll ever have in my life — came to me on vacation,” Miranda said.

“When I picked up Ron Chernow’s biography [of Hamilton], I was at a resort in Mexico on my first vacation from ‘In The Heights,’ which I had been working seven years to bring to Broadway,” he continued. “The moment my brain got a moment’s rest, ‘Hamilton’ walked into it.”

The Huffington Post

And so it goes for you. Yes, you need to get started on your college essays relatively early in the summer and definitely before you head back to school for senior year, but you also need to take a break. So take a short break, and then get to work.

Save time to procrastinate

Are you kidding? No, I am not.

One step of the writing process that many people discount is the thinking stage—letting those ideas bounce around your subconscious as you go through daily life. You know how sometimes you obsess over a problem, and you can’t figure out a solution? And then you decide to forget about it and do something else, and while you’re doing something else, you figure out the problem?

That works for essay-writing too.

I recommend that students look over the essay prompts and then take a little time to let the ideas that follow float in and out of your mind. Organizational psychologist and Wharton School professor Adam Grant did a TED Talk in which he explored the benefits of moderate procrastination. His cautionary tale of what happens when you “precrastinate” is worth the 15 minutes it takes to watch the video.

The point is that you need to introduce your brain to the prompts and then give it a little time to work out content. But not too much time.

Also, save time to revise

Before I retired from the classroom, I used to teach an honors-level writing course. One of the exercises we did from time to time involved a heinous-looking resin vase packed with quotes about the writing process. In choosing inspirational words for young authors, I selected heavily from revision-related words of wisdom.

Once writers get the words out, they usually feel a sense of relief. I can’t think of anyone I know who says, “Oh yay! I just spent a ton of time brainstorming and organizing and drafting, and now I get to revise! Woo Hoo!!!”

But revision is where the magic happens. So if you want your essay to be obviously muggle-written, then stop with a rough draft that has minimal proofreading. However, if you want to be an essay wizard, leave time to put your draft on the shelf for a bit and come back to it with a fresh, critical eye.

Try to have your essay on the shelf for at least two weeks before your final read-through and submission. Then make your final tweaks a week before you submit your application. Once you hit “submit,” you’re done. Go celebrate!

And then get back to your senior studies and scholarship essays.

College Admissions, College Essays, Personal Statements, Supplemental Essays

Essays are likely to be more important as SAT and ACT requirements disappear

Raise your hand if you thought the impact of COVID-19 on the college admissions process would be pretty much over by the time the application season rolled around for the class of 2022 seniors.

The general uncertainty about the pandemic that pushed a substantial number of colleges and universities to make standardized test scores optional for students applying for fall 2021 admission continues to bolster the number the SAT/ACT-optional and SAT/ACT-blind schools into 2022.

This spring, FairTest reported that over 1,400 accredited four-year universities have stated they will not require SAT/ACT scores from students applying to college for the fall of 2022. As FairTest pointed out in the article, “That’s more than 60% of the 2,330 undergraduate institutions in the United States.”

No one knows whether this trend is a temporary blip in admissions procedures or whether it represents a long-term trek away from relying heavily on testing data. Many colleges had begun the shift to test-optional in the interest of equity prior to the emergence of COVID-19, but that number skyrocketed with the virus.

Application elements such as GPA, class rank, and standardized test scores give university officials quantitative metrics for admissions. Activities and honors resumes, teacher recommendations, and personal statements complete the application with qualitative information.

The increase of SAT/ACT-optional schools and the cloud of uncertainty surrounding grades earned during remote learning experiences limit the amount of reliable quantitative information available. As a result, more and more experts speculate that the essays will assume a larger role in the admissions packet.

For students applying to top-tier colleges and universities, submitting spectacular admissions essays has long been essential. With a significant number of applicants having perfect GPAs, elite class ranking, and near-perfect standardized test scores, the tipping point for getting in moves from the quantitative to the qualitative. Qualitative elements breathe life into the application by giving dimension and detail to the human beings behind the data. With quantitative data being virtually the same, qualitative details allow admissions officials to select students who best fit the university’s values and vision.

California-based education media outlet EdSource examined the likely outcome of optional SAT/ACT exams in the state and concluded that the loss of standardized test scores places more weight on the college essays in the admissions process.

This shift humanizes the admissions process at all levels of competitiveness, giving applicants the chance to share their personal stories and, interestingly, proving that students are more than just scores. It also places personal statements and supplemental essays in a higher stakes category for a much larger group of students.

College admissions advisors and essay coaches are encouraging applicants to place a higher priority on the writing process. For the Common App essay, students should be intentional and start their work early to allow maximum time for reflection and revision. For the supplemental essays, students should put in time researching the school’s current focus for its campus community and academic programs. These school-specific essays should show that individuals share the school’s vision for higher learning and post-graduation impact.

The more time students give themselves to write, discover, refine, and revise, the better the chance that their essays will help win a spot in the college or university that will best shape them into the global community members they hope to become.

College Admissions, College Essays, Educators, English/ELA, Personal Statements, Students, Teachers

The New Prompts are Here!

That’s right. The Common App announced the 2021-2022 prompts this week, and this year there is a NEW option in the lineup.

Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?

The Common App Blog

The new prompt replaces the problem-solving prompt for two reasons. First, the option to write about a problem you would solve was one of the least selected choices. And second, the Common App cites research demonstrating the benefits of writing about the positive influence of others on our lives. And who couldn’t use some positivity?!

The rest of the prompts remain the same as 2020-2021. The optional COVID-19 question remains in the Additional Information section, which makes sense since the pandemic is still having a significant impact on the planet.

To read more about the 2021-2022 Common App essay changes, click here.

College Essays, Personal Statements

Common App COVID-Specific Essay

Photo by Edward Jenner on

Offering support to students concerned about the effects of the pandemic on their college admissions journey, the Common App has added a COVID-19 question. As the Common App blog so eloquently puts it, “We want to provide colleges with the information they need, with the goal of having students answer COVID-19 questions only once while using the rest of the application as they would have before to share their interests and perspectives beyond COVID-19.”

The question will appear in the Additional Information section of the application and have a 250-word limit. The application will include a FAQ section to guide students in choosing which aspects of their COVID-19 experience they would like to share. 

The current Additional Information question with its 650-word limit will remain. In response to this question, students are invited to share any information they feel is not reflected in other sections of the application. 

Keep in mind that the COVID-19 question is optional. There are pros and cons to weigh in deciding to answer it. And just because you can doesn’t always mean you should

To help students discern how or even if they should write about their pandemic experience, College Essay Guy Ethan Sawyer has crafted an extensive guide titled “How to Write About Coronavirus/COVID-19 In Your College Essay & Application.” And when I say extensive, I mean that he gives the same level of insight into approaching this special question in his online guide as he does into approaching the personal statement in general in his book College Essay Essentials. It’s all kinds of helpful in planning a COVID-19 writing strategy across all your college admissions essays.

Before you get too far into writing any of your personal statements, I highly recommend you check out Ethan’s Coronavirus/COVID-19 guide.