What makes a college essay stand out

May 1, 2020, by

Your writing voice is unique to you.

 The phrase “be creative!” can be very intimidating; many people think it means you have to be ultra-clever or 100% original (which is simply impossible). What being creative actually means is creating something that is authentically YOU. That is all. And since no one has your voice or your unique set of life experiences (however seemingly significant or insignificant…and by the way, it’s all significant), you are the only one who can write your college essay.

Starting, however, is never easy. So, we’ve put together some prompts that we hope you will find fun to think and write about. Some of the questions may seem easy or obvious, while others may take more time for you to process and formulate responses to. We encourage you to answer all of the questions honestly and without judging yourself. There is no “right” or “best” answer; your responses should simply be true to you and your life experiences, just as your eventual college essay will be.

So, take your time and have some fun getting to know yourself all over again. You might be surprised with what you come up with. (And you might be even more surprised how your responses pave the way towards a fantastic college essay.)

Here are 12 pre-writing exercises to get your creativity flowing…


  1. What are your five top values at this moment in time? (For example, mine are family, work, silence, fresh air, and reading for pleasure.) Now, think of a story for each that shows a time in your life when you prioritized that value. (For example, the time when I drove 12 hours – 6 in each direction – to New York just so my parents could see their granddaughters for 1 hour.)

 

  1. What’s the funniest or most embarrassing thing that you ever did or had happen to you? Now, what did it teach you about yourself? (For example, I split my pants straight down the middle during my first year teaching freshman English. I wanted to die. Instead, I tied a sweatshirt around my waist and kept going.)

 

  1. What is the saddest or most profound event you have ever witnessed/been a part of? Now, what did it teach you about yourself? (For example, my grandmother died the same day that I delivered my twin daughters. I learned that grief and joy are not mutually exclusive, that I could feel both intensely at the same time, but that I had to carve out time for myself in order to truly understand the depths of both.)

 

  1. What is the most inspirational place you have ever visited? How did it change you? (For example, visiting Ireland in my junior year of college made me realize that I wanted to be a writer. So I changed my academic trajectory and applied for an MFA that gave me the opportunity to study creative writing in Galway for two years.)

 

  1. What is an ongoing struggle you face? How have you coped with it, learned from it, and/or even conquered it? (For example…I think you get the point now and can continue on your own!)

 

  1. What are five words you would use to describe yourself? Can you think of a story from your life in which you are the main character doing something that illustrates that word? Can you think of five?

 

  1. Homework! Sometimes others seem to see us more clearly than we see ourselves. Ask your parents, siblings, and friends what word each would use to describe you. (Ask at least five people.) Now, try to think of stories from your life in which you are the main character doing something that illustrates each word.

 

  1. It’s hard to write about yourself, right? So why not take some pressure off and talk about three objects of significant to you. Try to tell a story about yourself through each of these objects.

 

  1. What are a few things that you absolutely love to do that you feel are not relevant to your college application? (This is a really important question because it can reveal so much about the real you, the most authentic you, the one who isn’t trying to impress a college admissions reader. And that is the person we want to meet!)

 

  1. Surprise: You made it to the college of your dreams! Now describe your perfect day there…and be rich in detail!

 

  1. What do you picture yourself doing in ten years? (Again, be rich in detail!)

 

  1. Bonus question: Which of the questions above did you most enjoy answering? Which did you least enjoy answering? (Pay attention to why that might be.)

 

Comments are closed.