Sample Essay questions & some tips

2016-17 Common App Questions:

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

2. The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea.  What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Getting Started — whether writing is one of your strongest skills, or something you work harder for — the college essay is one of the most important writing samples you’ve had to date.  It’s important to start your mind working early.  Try a few of these exercises over the summer before your 1st Semester Senior year to help you get your thoughts flowing!  Remember, these exercises are just for you, so try not to censor yourself while you’re writing.

  • Inventory – Compile lists of your activities and accomplishments.  Just make the list, don’t worry about the details of how you got into it or why, or whether you’re a total pro — just write down the things you’ve done.  Make yourself sit for at least 20 minutes and don’t get up before that…you may think of other things as you read over your list!
  • Stream of Consciousness – Take 20 minutes to answer a few questions:  “Who Are You?” and “What Do You Want?”  Write whatever comes to mind, don’t worry about complete sentences or eloquent writing.  Set an alarm and don’t pick up your pen for the whole 20 minutes.  This can cover any area of life  — let yourself go, have fun!  You might surprise yourself by what comes out!
  • Morning Pages– When you wake up each morning, before you get out of bed, start writing.  This is the time when your brain is most free.  Write about anything that comes to mind, don’t stop until you’ve filled at least one page!
  • Journal Writing – keep a journal for a few weeks, especially if you are stuck and your brainstorming isn’t going anywhere.  Try not to write about what  you did; instead write about what you thought and how you felt about what happened that day.
  • Top Ten Favorites – Write down your top ten favorites in several areas: movies, books, songs, musicians, sports, paintings, historical eras, and famous people.  Afterwards, read over these lists – which ones are you most excited about?  How have these things affected your outlook, opinions, personality or direction?  What do they say about you?
  • Free-Flow Writing – choose a word from your essay questions like “influence,” “strengths,” “career,” “diversity,” or “goals” and brainstorm about it.  Write for 10 minutes without stopping.

5 Key Attributes to Writing a Great College Essay

  • Get Personal
  • Details, Details, Details — get specific!  Back up every point that you make by offering specific examples from your own experience.
  • Be Different/Unique/Interesting/Funny – you are a unique person, illustrate that in your essay!  Don’t be afraid to incorporate humor or even be a little bit controversial.
  • Be Honest! — admissions officers read hundreds of essays per year, they’re pretty good at reading through the bull and not being honest will make them think that you’re dishonest or unethical.
  • Tell a Story – Start by telling a story from your own experience, engage the reader! Use a conversational style and easy to understand language — try reading your essay out loud to hear if it flows well.

Sample Essay Questions – Now that you’ve prepared, try writing a few examples for practice.  The questions below come from past applications to University of Chicago, Harvard, and the Common App.

  • Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  • Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  • Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
  • Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
  • Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
  • Write Page 217 of your 300 page autobiography
  • Please define your current personality with anecdotes from your childhood
  • What’s so odd about odd numbers?
  • Little pigs, french hens, a family of bears. Blind mice, musketeers, the Fates. Parts of an atom, laws of thought, a guideline for composition. Omne trium perfectum? Create your own group of threes, and describe why and how they fit together.
  • Why are you here and not somewhere else?

*All information pulled from Barron’s ESSAYS THAT WILL GET YOU INTO COLLEGE, Fourth Edition, available in the DSA library.  Check it out for more tips and advice as well as samples of successful essays.

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