University Essay Topics & Information Table of Contents

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University Essay Topics & Information
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Essay Topics:

Florida State University

University of Florida

University of Central Florida

Florida A & M University

University of South Florida 

Florida International University

University of North Florida

Florida Atlantic University

University of West Florida

Florida Gulf Coast University

Bethune-Cookman College

Boston University

University of Miami (Go ‘Canes!)

Cornell University / Princeton / Harvard/ Dartmouth

Duke University

Emory University

George Washington University

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Northwestern University

Tufts University

University of Pennsylvania

UNC-Chapel Hill

Yale University

The University of Chicago

The University of Michigan
Top 12 Essay Topics
Tips for Writing Your Essay


Florida State University:

Your essay should be no longer than 500 words.

For almost 100 years, the Latin words, “Vires, Artes, Mores” have been the guiding philosophy behind FSU. Vires signifies strengths of all kinds-moral, physical, and intellectual; Artes alludes to the beauty of intellectual pursuits as exemplified in skill, craft, or art; and Mores refers to character, custom, or tradition. Describe how one or more of the values embodied in these concepts are reflected in your life.
 University of Florida: In the space provided, please write a concise narrative in which you describe a meaningful event, experience or accomplishment in your life and how it will affect your college experience or your contribution to the UF campus community. You may want to reflect on your ideas about student responsibility, academic integrity, campus citizenship or a call to service.


University of Central Florida:

The personal statements are a very important part of your application. They assist the university in knowing you as an individual, independent of test scores and other objective data. We ask that you respond to two of the topics below. Your personal statement should be no longer than a total of 500 words or 7000 characters for both statements combined. The best personal statements are not necessarily the longest ones.

If there has been some obstacle or "bump in the road," in your academic or personal life, please explain the circumstances.

How has your family history, culture or environment influenced who you are?

Why did you choose to apply to UCF?

What qualities or unique characteristics do you possess that would allow you to contribute to the UCF community?

Florida A&M University: Select one of the three prompts below and use it to write a well-organized and well-reasoned 500-700-word essay.

Essay Prompt #1: Analyze and evaluate the personal story of one of the authors and discuss how the author’s message parallels (or resonates) with your own personal experiences.

Essay Prompt #2: The author, Rameck, discusses giving back in his chapters. How can his ideas about giving back be applied to the personal, academic, and social realms of your life?

Essay Prompt #3: Analyze the meaning of perseverance according to the authors. Discuss how the 3 D’s helped to shape their course towards academic success.


University of South Florida:  No essay is required when applying to this university.


Florida International University:  No essay is required when applying to this university


University of North Florida: No essay is required when applying to this university.


Florida Atlantic University: writing an essay is optional when applying to this university


University of West Florida:  No essay is required when applying to this university.


Florida Gulf Coast University: No essay is required when applying to this university.


University of Miami Please write an essay according to the instructions below. Your essay or personal statement is an important and integral part of the application process. Your academic credentials and list of achievements give us information about part of your life, but your essay will provide us with information about you that is not requested elsewhere in the UM application for Admission. Please write an essay (300-400 words) about one of the topics listed below:

  1. Evaluate a significant experience or achievement that has special meaning to you.

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

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

  4. Explain the role that academic integrity has played in your life.

Bethune-Cookman College Be sure to include your name and Social Security number on your essay. Please limit your discussion to one side of an 8.5” x 11” sheet of paper.

1. Evaluate a significant experience or achievement that has special meaning to you.

2. Identify a local or national social or political issue that concerns you, and describe actions you have taken in your community to influence change.

3. Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you and describe how that person has influenced who you are.

4. Topic of your choice.  

Boston University: All applicants are required to submit a short essay in the space provided on the application form, and one long essay, which should be typed and submitted with the application. The long essay should be no more then 500 words. The short essay should be limited to 20 lines.


  1. Write a personal statement of no more then 500 words on a subject that is most meaningful to you. For example, you may write on an issue about which you feel strongly, an experience that has greatly influenced your life, or other circumstances that you would like the admissions staff to consider in reviewing your application. These are only suggestions, however; the choice of topic is yours.


  1. We would like to know, in no more then 500 words, what experiences have led you to select your professional field and objective. Complete only if you are applying to Sergeant College, the school of education, the college of Engineering, the college of communication, the school of Hospitality Administration, the School of Management, or any of the accelerated programs.


Short Essay: How did you become interested in Boston University? (Please limit response to 20 lines.)

Cornell University / Princeton / Harvard/ Dartmouth (Common Application)

This personal statement helps us become acquainted with you in ways different from courses, grades, test scores, and other objective data. It will demonstrate your ability to organize thoughts and express yourself. We are looking for an essay that will help us know you better as a person and as a student. Please write an essay (250–500 words) on a topic of your choice or on one of the options listed below. Please indicate your topic by checking the appropriate box below.

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

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

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

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

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

6 Topic of your choice.

Attach your essay on a separate sheet(s) (same size please). You must put your full name, date of birth, and name of secondary school on each sheet.

Duke University: Students who used the Common Application were asked to answer Question 1 (a) and have the option to answer Questions 1 (b) or 1 (c) in addition to the Common Application Essay.

These short answer and essay questions provide an opportunity for you to present your ideas to the Admissions Committee and help us understand you as an individual. How you think and express yourself helps us learn more about your intellectual and personal interests.

1. Please answer the following questions. Please limit your answers to no more than one or two paragraphs.

A. (Required) If you are applying to Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, please discuss why you consider Duke a good match for you. Is there something in particular at Duke that attracts you? If you are applying to the Pratt School of Engineering, please discuss why you want to study engineering and why you would like to study at Duke.

b. (Optional) If you have participated in any significant research activity outside of school, please provide a brief description. Please limit this response to one or two paragraphs and attach a separate sheet. If you choose not to submit the information, your chance of admission will not be affected.

c. (Optional) We seek to understand and appreciate you as an individual. If there is a parent, sibling, other relative, or friend of yours who you think could help us do that, we would be happy to receive a one-page letter from one of them. This optional information will be considered in our understanding of you as a person, but will not be formally evaluated as part of your application. If you choose not to submit the information, your chance of admission will not be affected.

2. Please answer one of the following questions. We ask that you limit your essay to no more than 2-3 pages and use double spacing if the essay is typed or computer printed. Remember, this is your opportunity to speak to us in your own voice, so be yourself.

A. Have you witnessed a person who is close to you doing something that you considered seriously wrong? Describe the circumstances, your thoughts, and how you chose to respond. If you discussed it with the person, was his/her justification valid? In retrospect, what, if anything, would you have done differently and why?

B. What has been your most profound or surprising intellectual experience?

C. Write on any topic of importance to you. If you have written a personal essay for another purpose - even an essay for another college - that you believe represents you, your writing, and your thinking particularly well, feel free to submit it.

Emory University: Emory University comprises nine separate schools. Each school, including Emory College, is a division of the larger University. Each school handles its own admissions process.

George Washington University: Freshman are required to submit two essays on separate pages. Applicants to the school of Media and Public Affairs should submit essays B and C, and all other freshman applicants should submit essays A and C. The committee on Admissions will use your essays to determine your ability to organize your thoughts and express yourself clearly.

A.     Choose one of the following and compose an essay of no more than 500 words.

1.      As you strive to further your education, we are interested in knowing what matters most to you. How has an experience you have had, an I interest you have pursued, or a person you have known shaped your thinking

2.      Design your own monument. (Case in Point: The Vietnam veteran memorial was designed by college student Maya Lin Ying, who at age 21 was commissioned to design the memorial after competing nationally for the honor.) Now it is your turn to immortalize a movement, an event, a person, and an icon. Describe what your national monument would commemorate or celebrate.

B.     School of media and Public Affairs should answer one of the following essays in no more than 500 words.

1. Political Communication- If could be any one person who has been active in     politics, who would you choose to be and why?

2. Electronic Media- Tell us what you are most interested in studying: production,   media criticism, or media management, and what you expect to learn in Electronic Media that will help you achieve your goals.

3. Journalism- Write a profile about yourself in news or news feature style, as if you had interviewed yourself.

C. Tell us in no more than 500 words what motivated you to apply and describe what contacts you have had with GW. We have told you about the dynamic GW classroom, campus, and city experience; now tell us how you will make use of these resources in meeting you educational goals.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology:  Provide your response to either Essay A or B. Please keep to a 500-word limit.

Essay A: Life brings many disappointments as well as satisfactions. Tell us about a time in your life when you experienced disappointment, or faced difficult or trying circumstances. How did you react?

Essay B: An application to MIT is much more than test scores, grades and activities. It’s often a reflection of an applicant’s dreams and aspirations, dreams shaped by the worlds we inhabit. We’d like to know a bit about your world. Describe the world you come from, for example, your family, clubs, school, community, city, or town. How has the world shaped your dreams and aspirations?

MIT will also ask you to write the following:

In reading your application we want to get to know you as well as we can. In the space provided (100 words or fewer), use the following questions to give us a sense of who you are and where your interests lie.

a. We know you lead a busy life, full of activities, many of which are required of you. Tell us about something you do for pleasure of it.

b. Although you may not yet know what you want to major in, which department or program at MIT appeals to you and why?

Northwestern University: In the spirit of Northwestern’s tradition of collaborative learning, please provide us with an original essay topic or short statement you’d like to see on next year’s application.

            Northwestern Statement

Please respond to the following question in no more than 300 words.

What are your reasons for wanting to attend Northwestern?

Personal Statements

Please respond to one of the four topics below with an essay of 400-500 words. Note which topics you are addressing at the beginning of your essay.

a.       In 1972 meteorologist Edward Lorenz theorized that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil could cause a tornado in Texas. What small action had a larger impact than you expected? How were you affected by the consequences?

b.      Ballpoint pens do not write in the zero-gravity conditions. Wile a pen manufacturer spent more than $2 million and years of research developing a pen that worked in outer space, astronauts solved the problem by using pencils. Describe a time when you discovered a simple solution to a seemingly complex problem. What was its impact on you or others?

c.       According to astronomer Carl Sagan, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” What unknown would you like to like to see revealed in your lifetime? Why is this of personal importance?

d.      U.S. President Richard Nixon (1969-74) stated. “The Chinese is two brush strokes stands for danger, the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of danger- but recognize the opportunity.” In what “crisis” situation were you aware of the danger but were able to seize the opportunity, and how did this experience affect your future actions?  

Tufts University (Optional): We invite you to submit a second essay (less than 500 words) on one of the two topics listed below. The admissions committee views this additional essay as a way to learn more about you as a person and as a potential member of the Tufts community. We look forward to reading your response. In lieu of the optional second essay, you may send a graded essay complete with teacher comments (the graded essay should be less than five pages in length).  

  1. Write an essay that would instruct the reader on how to do something (e.g., how to cook a certain dish, learn a particular dance, etc.).

  2. Describe the environment in which you grew up and how it has shaped your personal goals.

UNC-Chapel Hill: Required short essay- choose one (please limit your answer to approximately 250 words)

  1. If you could break a record in the Guinness Book of World Records, which record would it be, and why? OR

  2. What advice about life—either serious or lighthearted—would you share with a 10-year-old? OR

  3. 3. Everyone has a shortcoming. What is yours, and how has it helped or hurt you? OR

  4. If you could be a fly on the wall anywhere in the world today—with the exception of a university admissions office!—where would you want to be? Why?

Required Long Essay- choose one (please limit your answer to approximately 500 words)


  1. Complete the following phrase: "I wish I didn’t have to ...." OR

  2. Is censorship in a classroom ever justified? Why or why not? OR

  3. To learn to think is to learn to question. Discuss something you once thought you knew with certainty but have since learned to question. What aspects of this something are you questioning, and what conclusions have you reached so far? OR

  4. If you have written an essay for another school's application that you really like, feel free to use it as your longer essay for us. Please be sure to tell us (a) what question you are answering and (b) why you think this essay represents you well (your explanation will not be included in the essay word count).

Optional Additional Statement- (please limit your answer to approximately 250 words)

Is there anything else you would like to share with us regarding your background or interests? For example, do you have any exceptional talents or passions? Have you overcome exceptional difficulties or challenges? Have you participated in any programs or activities to help you prepare for college, such as Project Uplift, Gear-Up, AVID, Upward Bound, LEAD, or Summer Ventures?

Yale University:

1. Why do you wish to transfer to Yale? What personal or educational experiences influenced your decision to apply?

2.There are limitations to what grades, scores, and recommendations can tell us about a candidate. Write a personal essay on a topic of your choice that will help the Admissions Committee to know you better.

The University of Chicago

Below are the questions for this year's application. Applicants are asked to respond to one of the five questions in a page or two.

Essay Option 1

"One of the very nicest things about life," as Luciano Pavarotti once said, "is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating." Pavarotti, in all of his well-fed wisdom, suggests that eating and meals are a separate kind of activity-often a break from the work and play of life. Yet food and meals sustain our lives in many ways every day. Tell us about an ordinary food or meal that may seem mundane to the rest of the world but holds special meaning for you. Think about how the food is prepared, packaged, or served and by whom. Do you eat it in a distinctive manner? At a special time? In a certain place or with select company? Most importantly, explain how this everyday food sustains or satisfies you in a way that another food or meal could not.

Essay Option 2

If you could balance on a tightrope, over what landscape would you walk? (No net.)

Essay Option 3

In his autobiography A Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela writes, "There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered." Tell us about an unchanging place to which you have returned. In what way has the place never changed? How does its constancy reveal changes in you?

Essay Option 4

Albert Einstein once said, "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science." Propose your own original theory to explain one of the sixteen mysteries below. Your theory does not need to be testable or even probable; however, it should provide some laws, principles, and/or causes to explain the facts, phenomena, or existence of one of these mysteries. You can make your theory artistic, scientific, conspiracy-driven, quantum, fanciful, or otherwise ingenious-but be sure it is your own and gives us an impression of how you think about the world.


Non-Dairy Creamer

Sleep and Dreams 


Crop Circles

The Platypus

The Beginning of Everything


Time Travel    


The End of Everything  

The Roanoke Colony     


Mona Lisa's Smile      

The College Rankings in U.S. News and World Report     


Essay Option 5

Pose and respond to an uncommon prompt of your own. If your prompt is original and thoughtful, then you should have little trouble writing a great essay. Draw on your best qualities as a writer, thinker, visionary, social critic, sage, sensible woman or man, citizen of the world, or future citizen of the University of Chicago; take a little risk and have fun.

University of Michigan: ESSAY

ALL APPLICANTS must answer one of the following questions, either [A], [B], or [C].

Type or print your answers on a separate sheet of paper. Make sure your name and the question text are on each sheet of paper you include.

(approximately 500 words)

[A] Describe a setback that you have faced. How did you resolve it? How did the outcome affect you? If something similar happened in the future, how would you react?
[B] Discuss an issue of local, national, or international concern. Why is this issue important to you? How do you think it should be addressed?
[C] Advances in science and technology often create ethical dilemmas for individuals and society. How does a recent scientific or technological innovation pose an ethical challenge for you?

University of Pennsylvania


Essays 5a and 6 (on page 29) are required for freshman applicants. Essays 5a or b, and 6 (on page 29) are required for transfer applicants. Please return your responses with Form 1B to avoid any delay in evaluating your application.

Answer one of the following essay questions on a separate sheet of paper or in the space provided. (Do not exceed one page.)
5a. Describe the courses of study and the unique characteristics of the University of Pennsylvania that most interest you.Why do these interests make

you a good match for Penn?

5b. Transfer candidates only:

Please state your reasons for transferring to Penn. If this is not your first change in colleges, explain your reasons for the previous transfer. An evaluation

of your college education to date and why your educational goals may be better served at Penn should be addressed. If you have not been

enrolled in school continuously since high school graduation, please indicate how you have spent your time. (This question may be substituted for

question 5a.)
Tufts University (Optional): We invite you to submit a second essay (less than 500 words) on one of the two topics listed below. The admissions committee views this additional essay as a way to learn more about you as a person and as a potential member of the Tufts community. We look forward to reading your response. In lieu of the optional second essay, you may send a graded essay complete with teacher comments (the graded essay should be less than five pages in length).  

  1. Write an essay that would instruct the reader on how to do something (e.g., how to cook a certain dish, learn a particular dance, etc.).

  2. Describe the environment in which you grew up and how it has shaped your personal goals.





1. The University seeks to enroll on each of its campuses an entering class that is academically superior and that embodies a wide range of talents, experiences, achievements, and points of view. Describe the qualities and accomplishments you would bring to the undergraduate student body here.

2. Identify a real or fictional person or character who is a personal hero or heroine and describe the influence this person or character has had on you.

3. Briefly discuss which of your activities (extracurricular and personal activities or work experience) has had the most meaning for you and why.

4.Describe any unusual circumstances or challenges you have faced and discuss the ways you have responded.

5.Many people have experienced a significant event in their lives which has played a critical role in making them who they are today. Describe such an event in your life, an tell us how it has been important to you.

6.Provide us with a summary of your personal and family background. Include information about your parents and siblings, where you grew up, and perhaps a highlight or special memory of your youth. Include any information about yourself that will assist the Committee in evaluating your application.

7.How has the place in which you live influenced the person that you are? Define ‘place’ any way you like... as a context, a country, a city, a community, a house, a point in time.

8. Tell us about an opinion that you have had to defend or an incident in your life which placed you in conflict with the beliefs of a majority of people and explain how this affected your value system.

9. Intellectual vitality is an important value of university life. Describe one of your intellectual achievements such as a paper, project, production, or performance. Explain not only the achievement, but what you gained from it, as well.

10. Select a creative work -- a novel, a film, a poem, a musical piece, a painting, or other work of art -- that has influenced the way you view the world and the way you view yourself. Discuss the work and its effect on you.

11. Please discuss your ideas concerning an event, occurrence or issue of local, state, national or international importance which took place within the last five years. You should address the following in the essay: the final outcome of the event or issue; your opinion of the manner in which the situation was handled; future implications for your community, your state, the nation or the world.

12. Please describe your most significant leadership experience. Feel free to draw upon experiences, extracurricular activities or your personal interactions, describing a period of formal or informal leadership.


Top Ten Tips for Writing the College Essay

  1. Start early. The more time you have, the less stress you'll have. And you'll have plenty of time to give the essay your best effort.

2.    Be yourself. Take a moment to think about what interests you, what you love to talk about, what makes you sit up and take notice if it's mentioned in class or on TV. Then write about it.

One of the biggest mistakes students make is "writing what they think others want to hear, rather than about an issue, event, or person that really had significance for them," says Richard M. Fuller, dean of admission and financial aid at Hamilton College (NY). An essay like that is not just boring to write-it's boring to read.

3.      Be honest. You're running late (see #1), you can't think of what to write-and someone e-mails you a heartwarming story. With just a tweak here and there, it could be a great essay, you think. It's what you would have written if you'd just had enough time.

Don't be fooled! College admission officers have read hundreds-even thousands-of essays. They are masters at discovering any form of plagiarism. Adapting an e-mail story, buying an essay from some Internet site, getting someone else to write your essay-admission people have seen it all. Don't risk your college career by taking the easy way out.

4.      Take a risk. On the other hand, some risks can pay off. Don't settle for the essay that everyone else is writing. Imagine an admission officer up late, reading the fiftieth essay of the day-yours. Do you want that person to nod off because he or she has already read ten essays on that topic?

"The danger lies not in writing bad essays but in writing common essays-the one that admission officers are going to read dozens of," says Scott Anderson, associate director of college counseling at Mercersburg Academy (PA). "My advice? Ask your friends what they are writing-and then don't write about that!"

5.      Keep in focus. This is your chance to tell admission officers exactly why they should admit you. Unfortunately, some students try to list every single reason-their stellar academic record, their athletic prowess, their community service-all in a page or two. When that happens, the essay looks like a grocery list.

Instead, read the essay question carefully and jot down a few ideas. Then choose the one that looks like the most fun to write about. Stick to that main theme throughout the essay. You don't have to list all your achievements-that's what the rest of the application is for. Use the essay to help the admission officers get to know you as a person.

6.      Write and rewrite. Don't try to write a masterpiece on your first try. It's not possible-and all that pressure is likely to give you writer's block. For your first draft, write anything that comes to mind about your topic. Don't worry too much about grammar or spelling. Just get it down on paper (or computer screen). Then let it "rest" for a few hours or a few days.

When you come back to the draft, look for ways to make it more focused and better written. Some people are "fat" writers: they write long, wordy first drafts that need to be shortened later. Others are "skinny" writers: they write short and simple first drafts and then need to add details or examples to "flesh out" the skeleton. Either way, don't be afraid to make major changes at this stage. Are there details that don't really relate to the topic? Cut them. Do you need another example? Put it in.

Here are two other things to try, suggested by college counselor Marti Phillips-Patrick.

    1. Remove the introductory and concluding paragraphs, and then see if your essay seems stronger. These paragraphs are often the most likely to have unnecessary detail.

    2. Go through the essay and cut out every "very" and every "many." Words like these are vague, and your writing is often stronger without them.

7.      Get a second opinion. Even best-selling novelists ask other people to read their manuscripts before they're sent to the publisher. When you've rewritten the essay to your satisfaction, find someone who can give you advice on how to make it even better. Choose a person you respect and who knows something about writing-a favorite English teacher, a parent, a friend who writes for the school paper. Ask them to tell you what they like best about your essay-and what you can do to improve it.

Criticism of your writing can be tough to hear, but try to listen with an open mind. You don't have to make every change suggested-after all, it's your essay and no one else's-but you should seriously consider each suggestion.

8.      Proofread. Finally, you're ready to send your essay. Not so fast! Read it over one more time, looking for those little errors that can creep in as you write or edit. If you're using a computer, also run a spell check.

Sometimes, it can be difficult to catch minor typos-you've read the essay so many times that you see what should be there rather than what is there. To make sure you catch everything, try reading your essay out loud or having someone else read it out loud to you. Another strategy is to read the essay backward, from the last sentence to the first. That makes it just unfamiliar enough for errors to stand out.

9.      Don't confuse applying online with sending e-mail. Applying online is just as serious as applying "the old-fashioned way." It may feel like you're sending e-mail, but you're not.

"One thing I've often seen is that students who apply online submit sub-par essays," says Palmer Muntz, director of admission at Oregon Institute of Technology. He has found that essays submitted online tend to be much shorter than those submitted on paper. In addition, students often use e-mail language-no capitalization, or abbreviations such as BTW or "thanx"-which are not appropriate to a formal document. Make sure that you put as much effort into an online essay as you would if you were sending it snail mail.

10.  Don't expect too much from an essay. The application essay is important, but it's not the only thing that is considered. "Can [the essay] make a difference in getting the 'thin versus thick' envelope? Absolutely," says Fuller. "But that is the exception rather than the rule."

That's because admission officers look at the whole package-your academics, extracurricular activities, standardized tests, and other factors. A great essay rarely makes up for a weak academic record. On the other hand, a mediocre essay won't necessarily consign your application to the "deny" list. So make your essay as well-written as you can, but don't put so much pressure on yourself that the rest of the application fades in importance.


Essays: Do's & Don'ts

They may be no fun to write, but those 300 to 500 words of creativity on your application could be the difference.

You're staring at a blank screen, filled with dread at having to describe "a significant event in your life," "a person who influenced you" or "an important historical figure." And you're just 17! Now imagine the plight of the person who's got to read your answer (and a thousand more): a bleary-eyed admissions officer whittling a mountain of applications into several little molehills: yeses, nos and maybes. When competing applicants have comparable grades, test scores and extracurricular activities, says Katherine Cohen of Ivywise, a Manhattan-based admissions counseling service, "an essay that makes the reader laugh or smile or cry or just connect with you makes all the difference." Even an academic superstar can be tossed aside because of an essay that's flip or bland-or fails to answer the question. But there's the other side: a marginal applicant can compensate for grades or test scores with a compelling story.

Some do's and don'ts:

Show, don't tell:
"Imagine living in a world with red trees, brown apples and purple skies-colors only you can see." This opening line, from an aspiring artist admitted to Penn, reveals something about the applicant available nowhere else on his application.

Imagine if, instead, he had written "I am colorblind." The use of vivid, personal detail, says Cohen, "makes clear immediately the writer's intelligence and originality."

Write about something other than success:
Failure, adversity, even humiliation are powerful teachers. As long as you're not maudlin about it, such stories can show an admissions officer what an applicant is made of-and has had to overcome. One student won acceptance to Amherst with a story about her incarcerated father. "Ever since I can remember, I've been visiting my father in prison, or as my mother so fondly called it, 'school'." The committee was impressed, says admissions director Katie Fretwell, "because she wrote about an experience very unusual in our applicant pool."

Answer the question:
Can you follow directions? If the essay asks about a favorite character in a novel, don't write about all the books you've read. The University of Pennsylvania famously asks students to submit page 217 of their autobiographies. Cohen advises students to start midsentence, just as an actual book would.

Use humor wisely:
A student delighted NYU with an essay on "an important event" by describing a day of the week. "Thursday is cocky; Thursday is a devious tease." This student used his wit to demonstrate creativity and boldness.

Plan ahead:
This is no time to pull an all-nighter. Even though the essays are brief (usually 300 to 500 words), they require weeks, even months, of organization and self-knowledge to prepare. Admissions officers watch your demeanor and body language. They've seen that bored adolescent look a thousand times. "You need to go in with a little pep," says Bobby Sizemore, a guidance counselor at Ft. Myers High School in Florida, who is sending students to Brown, Yale and NYU in 2003-04. Pep may sound old-fashioned, but if pep is what it takes to get in, go with pep.

Don't repeat information:
Reciting facts listed elsewhere on your application is the most common student mistake, says Geoff Cook, founder of, an online editing service. "The essay should reveal the personality behind the grades, scores and achievements." Someone with a 1600 on his SAT should write about his community service, not his intellect.

Don't "thesaurusize":
Words like "plethora" and "myriad" are a turnoff, says Cook. And beware clichés: "I always learn from my mistakes"; "I know my dreams will come true"; "I can make a difference."

Avoid controversy:
Don't write about your first sexual experience, your views on abortion or using drugs. Current events generally work only if you have been personally affected-for instance, if you lost a parent on 9-11 or joined the service.

Don't download an essay from the Internet:
While it's OK to consult the Web for samples and inspiration, you can be sure that admissions offices know exactly what's out there-and will bounce anyone who plagiarizes. If you use a Web-based editing service, choose one where the editor gets to know you and will help your voice come through. The essay is your best chance to talk directly to the people deciding your fate. Let them hear you loud and clear.

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