Writing the College Essay Types of College Essays: Personal Achievements

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Writing the College Essay

Types of College Essays:

  • Personal Achievements
    Scholarships exist to reward and encourage achievement. So you shouldn't be surprised to find essay topics that ask you to brag a little.


  • Describe how you have demonstrated leadership ability both in and out of school.

  • Discuss a special attribute or accomplishment that sets you apart.

  • Describe your most meaningful achievements and how they relate to your field of study and your future goals.

  • Why are you a good candidate to receive this award?

  • Background and Influences
    Who you are is closely tied to where you've been and who you've known. To learn more about you, some scholarship committees will ask you to write about your background and major influences.


  • Pick an experience from your own life and explain how it has influenced your development.

  • Who in your life has been your biggest influence and why?

  • How has your family background affected the way you see the world?

  • How has your education contributed to who you are today?

  • Future Plans and Goals
    Scholarship sponsors look for applicants with vision and motivation, so they might ask about your goals and aspirations.


  • Briefly describe your long- and short-term goals.

  • Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

  • Why do you want to get a college education?

  • Financial Need
    Many scholarship providers have a charitable goal: They want to provide money for students who are going to have trouble paying for college. In addition to asking for information about your financial situation, these committees may want a more detailed and personal account of your financial need.


  • From a financial standpoint, what impact would this scholarship have on your education?

  • State any special personal or family circumstances affecting your need for financial assistance.

  • How have you been financing your college education?

Why Your Choice of Essay Matters

The college regards your choices as a way to evaluate your preferences, values, mental processes, creativity, sense of humor, and depth of knowledge. Your writing reflects your power of persuasion, organizational abilities, style, and mastery of standard written English.
Here is what colleges look for: 

Your Preferences: Your essay topic reveals your preferences. Are you an arts person or a hard-facts science type? Certainly, there is a difference between the person who'd like to talk about the Cold War with Machiavelli and someone who'd like to get painting tips from Jackson Pollock.

Your Values: Choice also reflects values. The person who drives a beat-up, rusty, 1971 Volkswagen is making a statement about how she wants to spend her money and what she cares about. We say, "That dress isn't me" or "I'm not a cat person." In choosing, you indicate what matters to you and how you perceive yourself.

Your Thought Process: Choosing shows how you think. Are you whimsical, a person who chooses on impulse? Or are you methodical and careful, a person who gathers background information before choosing? Questions about you and about career and college reflect these choosing patterns. Even a question about a national issue can show your particular thinking style, level of intelligence, and insight.

College Essay Writing Tips

Write an Effective Application Essay

A great application essay will present a vivid, personal, and compelling view of you to the admissions staff. It will round out the rest of your application and help you stand out from the other applicants. The essay is one of the only parts of your application over which you have complete control, so take the time to do a good job on it. Check out these tips before you begin.

  • Grammatical accuracy is key. A thoughtful essay that offers true insight will stand out unmistakably, but if it is riddled with poor grammar and misspelled words, it will not receive serious consideration. It is critical that you avoid all grammatical errors. We just can't stress this enough. Misspellings, awkward constructions, run-on sentences, and misplaced modifiers all cast doubt on your efforts. Admissions officers will wonder, how much care did you put into the essay's composition?

  • Good writing is writing that is easily understood. You want to get your point across, not bury it in words. Don't talk in circles. Your prose should be clear and direct. If an admissions officer has to struggle to figure out what you are trying to say, you're in trouble. Also, almost every college requires freshmen to complete a course or two in composition, even if you plan on majoring in a subject that isn't writing-intensive, like chemistry. If you can demonstrate that you have good writing skills, you'll have a serious edge in these required courses.

  • Get to the point in three pages. Don't be long-winded and boring. Admissions officers don't like long essays. Would you, if you were in their shoes? Be brief. Be focused. And if there is a word limit, abide by it.


  • Keep Your Focus Narrow and Personal

Your essay must prove a single point or thesis. The reader must be able to find your main idea and follow it from beginning to end. Try having someone read just your introduction to see what he thinks your essay is about.

Essays that try to be too comprehensive end up sounding watered-down. Remember, it's not about telling the committee what you've done—they can pick that up from your list of activities—instead, it's about showing them who you are.

  • Prove It

Develop your main idea with vivid and specific facts, events, quotations, examples, and reasons. There's a big difference between simply stating a point of view and letting an idea unfold in the details:

  • Okay: "I like to be surrounded by people with a variety of backgrounds and interests"

  • Better: "During that night, I sang the theme song from Casablanca with a baseball coach who thinks he's Bogie, discussed Marxism with a little old lady, and heard more than I ever wanted to know about some woman's gall bladder operation."
  • Be Specific

Avoid clichéd, generic, and predictable writing by using vivid and specific details.

  • Okay: "I want to help people. I have gotten so much out of life through the love and guidance of my family, I feel that many individuals have not been as fortunate; therefore, I would like to expand the lives of others."

  • Better: "My Mom and Dad stood on plenty of sidelines 'til their shoes filled with water or their fingers turned white, or somebody's golden retriever signed his name on their coats in mud. I think that kind of commitment is what I'd like to bring to working with fourth-graders."


  • Don't Tell Them What You Think They Want to Hear

Most admissions officers read plenty of essays about the charms of their university, the evils of terrorism, and the personal commitment involved in being a doctor. Bring something new to the table, not just what you think they want to hear.
  • Don't Write a Resume

Don't include information that is found elsewhere in the application. Your essay will end up sounding like an autobiography, travelogue, or laundry list. Yawn.

  • "During my junior year, I played first singles on the tennis team, served on the student council, maintained a B+ average, traveled to France, and worked at a cheese factory."
  • Don't Use 50 Words When Five Will Do

Eliminate unnecessary words.

  • Okay: "Over the years it has been pointed out to me by my parents, friends, and teachers—and I have even noticed this about myself, as well—that I am not the neatest person in the world."

  • Better: "I'm a slob."
  • Don't Forget to Proofread

Typos and spelling or grammatical errors can be interpreted as carelessness or just bad writing. Don't rely on your computer's spell check. It can miss spelling errors like the ones below.

  • "After I graduate form high school, I plan to work for a nonprofit organization during the summer."

  • "From that day on, Daniel was my best fried."

This article is based on information found in The College Application Essay, by Sarah Myers McGinty.

Example College Essay:

Accepted by Stanford

When I look at this picture of myself, I realize how much I’ve grown and changed, not only physically, but also mentally as a person in the last couple of years. Less than one month after this photograph was taken, I arrived at the [school’ s name] in [school’ s location] without any idea of what to expect. I entered my second year of high school as an innocent thirteen year-old who was about a thousand miles from home and was a new member of not the sophomore, but “ lower-middle” class. Around me in this picture are the things which were most important in my life at the time: studying different types of cars and planes, following Michael Jordan’ s latest move, and seeing the latest blockbuster show like “ Phantom of the Opera” or “ Jurassic Park” . On my t-shirt is the rest of my life -- tennis. Midway through my senior year at the special [school’ s name] school, the focuses in my life have changed dramatically.

If there is one common occurrence which takes place for every single person in the diverse student body at [school’ s name], it is that we all grow up much faster for having lived there. I do not know whether this speeding up of the maturing process is generally good or bad, but I definitely have benefited.

The classroom has become a whole different realm for me. Before, the teachers and students alike preached the importance of learning, but it was implicitly obvious that the most important concern was grades. At [school’ s name] teachers genuinely believe that learning is the most importance objective and deeply encourage us to collaborate with each other and make use of all resources that we may find. In fact, in a certain class this year, my teacher assigned us to prepare every day of the week to discuss a certain book; there were only two requirements in this preparation -- we had to maximize our sources, gleaning from everything and everyone in the school, but we were not allowed to actually look at the book. As a result, I know more about that book than any other that I have actually read. It is teaching methods such as this which ensure that we will learn more. Indeed, this matter of “ thinking” has been one of the most important aspects of my experience. Whether in Physics or English, I’ m required to approach every problem and idea independently and creatively rather than just regurgitate the teacher’ s words. In discussion with fellow students both inside and outside of class, the complex thoughts flowing through everyone’ s brain is evident.

However, I believe that the most important concepts that I have espoused in being independent of my parents for half of each year, deal with being a cosmopolitan person. The school’ s faculty and students are conscious about keeping all of the kids’ attention from being based on the school. Every single issue of global concern is brought forth by one group or another whether it be a faculty member, publication, ethnic society, or individual student. Along with being aware of issues of importance, after attending [school’ s name] my personality has evolved. First, my mannerisms have grown: the school stresses giving respect to everyone and everything. Our former headmaster often said, “ Character can be measured not by one’ s interaction with people who are better off than him or herself, but by one’ s interactions with those who are worse off.” The other prime goal of the school’ s community is to convert every single timid lower-classman into a loud, rambunctious senior. Basically, if you have an opinion about something, it is wrong not to voice that opinion. Of course, being obnoxious is not the idea. The key is to become a master of communication with teachers, fellow students, all of who are a part of the community, and most importantly, those who are outside of the community.

I do not want to make [school’ s name] sound as if it produces the perfect students, because it doesn’t. But the school deserves a lot of credit for its efforts. Often, some part of the mold does remain. As the college experience approaches, I am still the same person, only modified to better maximize my talents. Although I still have some time to play tennis and see movies, perhaps one of the few similarities between this photograph and me now is my smile.

This essay is fairly well written. The essayist makes boarding school his focus, using it to explain and describe how and why he has changed over the years. A lot of students write about what wonderful people they have become, but they fail to do a good job of understanding and explaining the forces that prevailed to make them change. This writer focuses on the strengths of the school itself. He demonstrates the sort of values it tries to instill in its students such as, “Encouraging us to collaborate with each other and make use of all resources that we may find,” and “Giving respect to everyone and everything.” Because the writer does so, the reader never doubts that the applicant possesses all the qualities that he credits to the school. Using this method has two advantages. First, the positive, upbeat attitude he has toward his institution is rare. Second, Stanford, for one, recognized that this would reflect well on his ability to adapt to and be a positive force at their school.

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