College Essay Hub
Your complete guide to writing college essays that make admissions officers laugh, cry, gasp — and move your application into the "yes" pile.Schedule a Free Consultation
From blank page to boldly you.
When it comes to writing irresistible college essays, your authentic voice is your best advantage. That, and a specific understanding of the college essay's intended purpose. In this guide, we'll help you develop both.
Welcome to Private Prep’s College Essay Hub — your complete guide to writing knock-out essays that will have admissions officers dying to meet you.
In general, if you’re applying to schools in the US, there are two types of college essays you’ll submit — a personal statement and supplemental essays. Below, we’ve included an absolute bonanza of resources to help you navigate both of those writing tasks, no matter what stage of the writing process at which you find yourself.
If you’re at the beginning of the process, we recommend starting with the personal statement. Why? Well, supplemental essay prompts don’t get rolled out until August — but you can get started on your personal statement as early as June, right after the conclusion of your junior year! Also, it’s a good idea to get started on the personal statement early, because the open-ended nature of the prompt requires a lot of reflection. (And a lot of drafts!)
Ready to write your way to your next phase of life? Grab a notebook (or open a Google Doc), and let’s get started.
PART I: The Personal Statement Lab
What is a personal statement?
The majority of schools to which our students apply are on the Common App, which includes a personal statement: a 650-word essay that helps a school understand your personality, character, values, or experiences.
In other words, this essay is what helps the admissions officers understand the person behind the stats. Most admissions committees read the rest of the application first, so when they get to your essay(s), they’ll already know your grades, achievements, awards, and other qualifications. Here, they’re on the hunt for the more human stuff that can be tough to glean from a transcript. They want to know what makes you tick, what drives you, what makes you you (in, you know, 650 words or fewer).
A personal statement is not...
- An academic paper with you as the subject. In the papers you write for class, you are taught to conduct analysis at a distance — using “I” may have been stamped out of you. But if you employ that kind of style in your personal statement, you’ll end up with a cold, clinical piece of writing that could frustrate an admissions officer who’s trying to get to know you. Remember: in a personal statement, your goal is to close the distance between you and the reader.
- A summary of your accomplishments. Students anxious to stand out from the crowd might be tempted to write a personal statement that’s simply a run-down of their resume in paragraph form. But if you do that, you’re wasting precious space by re-treading information that’s already available elsewhere on your application! Admissions officers want to learn about you on a human level — don’t thwart them by rattling off your accolades instead.
- A short story. Yes, great personal statements often tell great stories, but they also need to do more than that — they need to get at the heart of who you are. What makes a personal statement distinct from just a short story is that a personal statement should involve at least a few moments of deep personal insight — moments where you zoom out from the plot to reflect deeply on how the events of the story have shaped your character or influenced your development as a person.
Timeline for your personal statement
Many high school English classes—especially in junior year—make use of in-class exercises or assignments to encourage kids to begin drafting their personal statements during the school year. We love this idea, but we also advise juniors to think about these assignments more as invaluable brainstorming opportunities and less as the Real Deal.
Summer Between Junior and Senior Year
This is prime college-essay-writing time. In general, prioritize your personal statement in June and July so that you can shift your focus to supplemental essays when they get rolled out in August.
Late Summer and Fall of Senior Year
Ideally, by the time fall rolls around, your personal statement should be complete. However, you might use this time to show your personal statement to one or two trusted teachers for their feedback, so that you can make final tweaks and adjustments.
Brainstorming for your personal statement
The Personal Artifacts Exercise
Generate 10-15 ideas for your personal statement that are true to you, through and throughTry it
"If you really knew me"
A simple (but powerful) brainstorming exercise to ensure a more personal college essayTry it
The Values Exercise
Connect with what matters to you most, and use those values to fuel an authentic college essay.Try it
The Identity Wheel
Colleges want to understand all of the wonderful facets of who you are. Fill out each slice of our Identity Wheel according to your many amazing identities.Try it
Using Your Phone as a Brainstorming Tool
How that shiny distraction machine can help you write better college essaysSee our tips
Our Top Tips for Personal Statements
Simple and impactful advice from our experts on the daunting task of college admissions essay writingSee our tips
Writing and revising your personal statement
A guide to structuring your personal statementTry it
8 Common College Essay Mistakes
Getting started on writing or revising your personal statement? Keep an eye out for these common mistakes.See our tips
4 Overdone College Essay Topics
Thinking about writing one of these cliched college essays? You may want to reconsider.See our tips
PART II: The Supplemental Essay Lab
What are supplemental essays?
Look, we’re big fans of the Common App; we love how it increases the ease and accessibility of college applications. However, schools who sign on to the Common App do give up a certain amount of control — for example, they don’t have a say in the personal statement parameters, how students’ activities lists are arranged, or what demographic questions are covered.
That’s why many colleges include a supplemental essay section — it’s one of the only places on the Common App where they have total freedom to ask any question they like of their applicants. As you can imagine, schools take great care in crafting their supplemental essay questions to suss out which students will be an awesome fit for their campus in terms of academic opportunities, extracurricular resources, and student culture. Basically, the personal statement is about showing who you are, and the supplemental essays are about showing why you’re a great fit for a specific school.
Supplemental essays, which are generally released on August 1st for each application cycle, tend to be shorter than the personal statement, but they can range a great deal in length, from a few sentences to 350 words or so. Technically, colleges can ask whatever off-the-wall questions they please (we’re looking at you, UChicago), but — lucky you — there are some prompts that show up again and again across a wide variety of schools, which means that you can re-use certain supplemental essays for multiple schools with minor tweaks. Here are some of the most common questions that colleges ask on their supplements!
- Why do you want to attend our school specifically?
- What are your primary areas of academic interest, and why?
- Tell us about your engagement with a community to which you belong.
- How will you contribute to the diversity of our campus community?
- Tell us about a time when your beliefs were challenged.
How many supplemental essays will I have to write?
It depends! In general, the more schools you apply to, the more supplemental essays you’ll have to write. Also, because more selective schools tend to ask for more supplemental essays, the more your school list is populated by selective and highly selective schools, the more supplemental essays you can expect to write. (For example, in 2022-2023, Stanford asked EIGHT (!!) supplemental essay questions.)
Our hope for you is that you can avoid the nightmare of writing fifty supplemental essays by strategically re-using and adapting your essays to suit the needs of different colleges. To that end, we’ve included some resources below to help you draft the most common supplemental essay prompts.
Writing your supplemental essays
How to Write the "Why Us" Essay
Tips on writing colleges your most specific, well-researched love lettersSee our tips
How to Write the "Why Major" Essay
Nerd out about your intellectual passions — and make colleges excited to meet youRead our step-by-step guide
How to Write the "Community" Essay
Breathe. You belong to lots of communities, and you have so much to say about each one. Let us show you.Read our step-by-step guide
How to Write the "Diversity" Essay
Tap into one of your communities, identities, or perspectives, and show colleges you value diversity and equity just as much as they do.See our tips
How to Write the "Differing Opinions" Essay
How do you respond when your fiercely held beliefs are challenged?See our tips
How to Make a Video Essay
How to make memorable movie magic!See our tips
DEIB Brainstorming Questions
Looking for a quick, concise resource to help you with a community essay, a diversity essay, or a differing opinions essay? Start here.Check it out
Thinking of applying to UK schools?
Essays look a little different across the pond. Here's what you need to know.
We are seeing more and more students interested in pursuing their undergraduate degrees internationally—which is a great thing! There are many outstanding higher education institutions outside the United States, many of which have even stronger international reputations than top US schools.
Check out our blog below, where we highlight some of the key differences between the UK application process and the domestic one.