Applying To College

College Essay Writing and Interview Skills


Common App 2013 Essay Prompts

Common Application essay prompts 2013

The 2013-2014 Common Application won’t formally launch until August 1, but  the Common Application essay prompts are already out.

There are changes from last year:

650 word limit (up from 500)
All-new prompts
No “topic of your choice”

Here are the 2013 Common Application Essay Prompts with Instructions:

Instructions: The essay demonstrates your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and
helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice. What do you want the readers of your application to
know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you
answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and
structure your response. Remember: 650 words is your limit, not your goal. Use the full range if you need it, but don’t feel obligated to do so. (The application won’t accept a response shorter than 250 words.)

  1. 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.
  2. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
  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 place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
  5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

In future posts I’ll give you easy-to-follow tips on writing your 2013 College Application essay.

sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skillsSharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting in Redding, Connecticut.
Need help? I work with students everywhere: in-person, over the phone, and by email. Visit my website for more info. Connect with me on Google+, Twitter and Pinterest:

follow Sharon Epstein on Twitterfollow Sharon Epstein on pinterest



College Essay 500 Word Limit: 5 Simple Ways to Pare it Down

college-essay-500-word-limitMany college essays, including the essay for The Common Application, limit you to 500 words.

It can be tough to write an interesting, creative essay and keep it short, but if you know a few simple tips you can deliver an essay that will impress.

Here are 5 Ways to Succeed with the 500 Word Limit:

1. Think Small Instead of Big. Don’t try to tackle a big topic like world peace or what you did for your entire summer vacation. Choose a shorter span of time and a topic that’s not too broad.

2. Write About a Moment. A moment is a brief period of time when you learned something meaningful to you. Moments can make powerful essays.

Here’s an Example of a Moment:

  • A student working in a store noticed that a customer had dropped some change. It wasn’t a lot and he almost didn’t stop to pick it up, but then he did. The customer was extremely grateful and told him she was counting on that money. The student wrote about how he’d never forget that something insignificant to him could make such a big difference to someone else.

3. Begin in the Middle of Your Story, Where the Action or Conflict Starts. This technique will not only save you words but it’s also a great way to draw the reader into your story. Here are two examples of introductions that were changed to start with action:

Example #1:
“I spent my summer vacation interning in the emergency room of a hospital.”
Changed: “The bloody gurney wheeled past me. I closed my eyes and prayed for the strength not to pass out.

Example #2:
Before: “I always wanted to climb a mountain, so that’s what I decided to do my freshman year.”
Changed: “Hurry up!” my dad yelled, as I scrambled to collect myself for another day of mountain climbing.

4. Use Adjectives and Adverbs Wisely. If your essay is too long try to edit out some of your adjectives and adverbs. Here are two examples of edits and the reasons behind them:

Example #1:
Before: As Andrew walked his large legs made heavy, thumping sounds. He turned to stare at the dawning sunrise.
Changed: As Andrew walked his legs made heavy, thumping sounds. He turned to stare at the sunrise.
Why the Change? 1. Size adjectives, like “large,” are often too general. “Heavy” and “thumping” are specific and convey the idea of being large. 2. “Sunrise” is dawn. Look for these kinds of redundancies.

Example #2:
Before: “He walked convincingly.
After: “He strode.”
Why the Change? One word conveys the same idea.

5. Edit Your Essay. Here are 4 ways to eliminate words:

  1. Eliminate any details or explanations that don’t move you toward your conclusion.
  2. Don’t repeat your ideas.
  3. Pare down adjectives and adverbs (see tip #4).
  4. Ask someone else to read you essay. Sometimes, as writers, we get attached to our material and it becomes difficult to know what to cut. Ask one or more people who know you to give you suggestions.

Can you submit an essay that’s over the limit? Check with the admissions office at the college(s). They’ll be able to guide you.

related posts:
How to Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit: Pt 1 (7 Tips to Remember)
How to Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit: Pt 2 (Think Small and Still Tell a Big Story)
How to Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit: Pt 3 (Essay Samples )
How to Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit: Pt 4 (Ideas that Work)

Read on the Common App Essay Word Limit

sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skillsSharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting, and is the recipient of a Writers Guild Award and two Emmy nominations for her work in television. I work with students everywhere: in-person, over the phone, and by computer. Connect with me on Google+, Twitter and Pinterest:
follow Sharon Epstein on pinterestfollow Sharon Epstein on Twitter


Common App 2012 Essay Prompts

The 2012-2013 Common Application won’t formally launch until August 1, but  the Common Application essay prompts are already out.

Don’t forget, if prompts 1-5 don’t interest you, you can always write on #6: topic of your choice.

Here are the 2012 Common Application prompts:

Please write an essay of 250 – 500 words on a topic of your choice or on one of the options listed below:

  1.   Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have
  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, a 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.

Having trouble knowing where to start?
Write down anything that immediately comes to mind. Ask yourself what experiences in your life have been important to you, and what you’ve learned from them. Mull your ideas over, then write a little bit on the one or two topics that interest you. You’ll be well on your way to writing your college application essay (and beat the friends who’ve waiting until fall).

related posts
How to Succeed with the Common Application 500 word limit, part 1
How to Succeed with the Common Application 500 word limit, part 2
How to Succeed with the Common Application 500 word limit, part 3
How to Succeed with the Common Application 500 word limit, part 4

Sharon Epstein, FIrst Impressions College Consulting..Sharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting
Need help? I work with students everywhere: in-person, over the phone, and by computer. Visit my website for more info.
Connect with me on Google+, Twitter and Pinterest:

follow Sharon Epstein on Twitterfollow Sharon Epstein on pinterest

Leave a comment — let me know what you think!

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College Application Essay Writing: Putting the “I” in Essay

Don’t be silly. There’s no “I” in the word essay.

Wrong. It’s everywhere.

Your teachers may have told you not to use the word “I” when you’re writing a paper. It may have been drummed into you for years. That’s because most high school papers are not about you; they’re about defining a topic, discussing it, and convincing the reader that you’ve made your point. Not much room for “I.”

Your college application essay is all about “I.” Or rather – you. You are what the college admissions officers want to know about. Not 500 words about how your mom cooked pancakes on Christmas Day or the time you went bowling with your dad and how bad he was. They want to know about YOU.

They want to see how you’ve grown, and what you’ve learned. Yes, you might write about the time you went bowling with your dad. But that essay needs to be about YOU. What did you learn that day?

So you have to use the word “I.” Or “me.” Don’t be afraid: “I” will tell you a lot. “I” will give you the direction to write a great college application essay.

Here’s why:

1.    You need to be able to summarize the point of your essay in one sentence using “I” or “me.” For instance, “It’s taken me a long time to be comfortable with my multi-cultural roots, but now I celebrate each culture because I know they all belong to me. (Were you counting? That’s two “I’s” and 2 “me’s.”)
2.    A good essay is about a personal journey. You should be able to fill in this sentence: I learned _________.
3.    A good essay represents you in a positive way. You should be able to fill in this sentence: I want the college admissions reader to know that I am _________. (Thoughtful? Mature? Sensitive? Compassionate?)
4.    A good essay is one that only you can write; it’s specific to you and your experiences. When you write your essay, you need to use specific examples from your life. You’re going to need some “I’s.”

Caution: Too many “I’s” are a bad thing. You don’t want to be writing “I”, “I”, “I” in every sentence.  Boring, not to mention bad writing. Change it up a little. Add some details. Describe a few things. Include some dialogue or a quote. In other words, make your college application as interesting as you can.

But don’t forget the “I.”


Writing College Application Essays: How to Choose a Topic, Part 2

It can be tough deciding on a topic for your college application essay. Many students just can’t think of an idea.

That’s why, in a recent post, I suggested 3 questions to ask yourself if you’re having trouble choosing a topic for your college application essay:

1. Is there a time in my life I’ve taken a risk?

2. Is there a time I’ve turned a failure into a success?

3. Has there been a difficult choice I’ve had to make, but I’m glad I made it?

Here’s another way to choose a topic for your college application essay:

Do this: Close your eyes and think of 2 or 3 moments in your life that stand out. Don’t think too hard! What comes to mind first? Is it a success? A failure? An embarrassment? An opportunity? Maybe it’s a moment spent with a family member, friend, or even someone you briefly met and never saw again. Be honest with yourself. Don’t toss a memory under the rug because it’s painful or embarrassing. Write it down.

Now: Ask yourself why that memory stands out. Did you learn anything from it? Did it change you in any way? Did it influence your actions or thoughts, the choices you later made, or how you see the world somehow?

Sometimes first thoughts are best thoughts. Take the time to figure out why these memories have made an impact on you. They might just make a great college application essay.


Writing College Application Essays: How to Choose a Topic

I was speaking to the Joel Barlow High School PTSA in Redding today (thanks, PTSA!) about writing college application essays, and was asked a great question: Do I have any suggestions for the student who’s having trouble deciding what to write about? Yes!

Choosing a topic for a college application essay can be a daunting, if not downright intimidating experience. Many students think that because nothing big or dramatic has happened to them in their lives they don’t have anything to write about. Wrong!

You don’t have to be the best athlete, have won lots of awards, or had a big “moment of revelation” to write a great college application essay. Far from it. While big experiences can make good essays, the small things can be just as powerful, if not more so.

Remember, colleges look for 3 main things in a college application essay:

  • How well you write
  • How well you organize your thoughts
  • You. What makes you unique? What kind of person are you? What kind of choices do you make?

When you’re choosing a topic you want to find an experience — a story — that will reflect what’s unique about you. You never want 100 other students to be able to write the same essay you’re writing. It should only be able to come from you.

Here are 3 questions to ask yourself if you’re having trouble choosing a topic for your college application essay:

1. Is there a time in my life I’ve taken a risk?

2. Is there a time I’ve turned a failure into a success?

3. Has there been a difficult choice I’ve had to make, but am glad I made it?

Notice that these questions deal with a personal journey —  they ask you to discuss and reflect on some way that you’ve grown into the person you are.

Start with these questions. If you can’t think of an answer, ask your parents. Parents are excellent resources when you’re looking for college essay topics because they know you well, have seen you grow, and may remember something that you don’t.

Always remember that no matter what topic you choose, you want to represent yourself in a positive light. But that light can shine just as brightly on the small things as the big ones — as long as it reflects you.

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Looking for Ideas for Your College Application Essay? Look Behind You

Looking for ideas for your college application essay? Look behind you.

Why? Because life moves forward. We don’t stop. What gets our attention is what demands the most of us at any moment —  often the loudest, the biggest, the most entertaining, or the next most important thing we have to do.

What’s not demanding your attention? Pay attention to that. See what you find.

Here’s an example: I was traveling in rural China when our group stopped to visit a preschool. The children at the school often had visitors, and when they saw us they ran toward us, hoping we’d brought toys or candy. As they held up their hands for colorful balloons I took out my camera, knowing this would make a great picture. Then I turned around. Peeking out from behind a tree was a little girl, holding a small washcloth in her hands. Her eyes were focused on her friends. This was the picture I took. A shy little girl, protected by her tree. Her eyes told a much better story.

When I say “look behind you” I’m saying “pay attention.” Look around and see not only the things that demand your attention, but also the things that don’t. You will find ideas in those moments. You’ll find details. You might just find the makings of a memorable college application essay.

little girl


Real Life Story: College Essay Rejection

This is the story of a young man who made a mistake in one sentence of his college application essay and it cost him admittance to Amherst.

Here’s how it goes:

Recently an NPR reporter went behind the scenes at Amherst College in Massachusetts to see how college admissions decisions are made. The admissions committee was having one of their final meetings; they’d narrowed it down to the top 15 percent of applicants and now, one by one, they were presenting each student’s grades, test scores, extracurriculars, and essays.

The Essay is Discussed

The committee turned to the application of the young man in question. His college application essay caught the attention of a dean, and not in a good way. She was troubled by a sentence that read ”I rarely get truly fascinated by a subject.” The student went on to say that music was his exception. No one was pleased.

“That was flabbergasting,” commented one of the admissions readers.

“Intellectual passion is a must,” said the Dean of Admissions. Everyone agreed. The student was not admitted.

What Went Wrong?

The student clearly intended to write about his passion for music. So why did the college admissions committee care more about what he said first: “I rarely get truly fascinated by a subject”?

The Student Violated 2 Major Rules:

1. Know Your Reader

Amherst is a small, prestigious liberal arts college. If you go to their website and read the school’s philosophy it’s all about intellectual curiosity. Did this student visit Amherst’s website? I don’t know. But when he said he wasn’t fascinated by anything other than music he certainly seemed not to understand.

Remember you’re not writing your college application essay for you — you’re writing it for college admissions readers to read and like. You want them to finish your essay and want you to go to their school. You have to figure out what makes you a good fit and how you’re going to convey that.

One way to begin is to visit the school’s website. You can get a lot of information from a website. What’s their educational philosophy? What kind of students do they want to attract? Then you can begin to decide how to show them you’re that kind of person.

2. Don’t Cast Yourself in a Negative Light

I’m sure this student had no idea he was saying anything negative about himself. After all, he was writing about his love of music. But by saying “I rarely get truly fascinated by a subject” he casts himself in a negative light. He’s telling the college admissions reader “I really don’t care much about stuff, except I like music.”

One other thing I want to point out is his use of the present tense: “I rarely get truly fascinated by a subject” By writing in the present tense he’s talking about now. It’s not something that used to be — he’s not interested now.

What if the sentence were changed slightly? What if this college application essay began, “I started getting fascinated by new ideas when I fell in love with music”? Doesn’t that sound more positive? Instead of the word “rarely” I used the word “started” — something has begun. A transformation. A journey. That might get the attention of the Amherst admissions committee. I’m not saying it would have been right for this student, but you can see the difference it makes. This sentence is now about someone who loves the idea of learning, and is completely positive.

You always want to showcase yourself in a positive light. That’s not to say you shouldn’t write about a personal journey or a learning experience; we all make mistakes or come to important realizations in our lives — that can make a powerful essay. But you don’t want to give a negative impression. Not a smart way to portray yourself.


  • Know your reader
  • Don’t cast yourself in a negative light

If you’re not sure,  have someone read your essays. Find someone who understands what colleges are looking for, and where the pitfalls lie, and ask them for constructive criticism. Make sure to give yourself time to make adjustments.

Ultimately, the admissions process is not an exact science. But college admissions committees don’t take the process lightly; they struggle with knowing they hold each student’s future in their hands.

Make sure you hold as much of your future in your own hands as you can. Write a great essay.

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Writing the Short College Application Essay: Make Every Word Count

Chances are you’ll be writing one or two  — or maybe many — short essays for your college applications. At about 150 words the short essay demands that you be brief, informative, and hopefully memorable. Here are a few tips to help make every word count:

1. Don’t: Repeat the question

Let’s say a college asks why you’re interested in going to their school. You don’t need to begin with “I’m interested in going to your school because…” That wastes words (and isn’t very interesting anyway). Get to the heart of what you want to say right away: i.e.: “From the moment I set foot on the arts quad and had my first cup of coffee at Java Cafe, I felt at home at Whatever U. ” Likewise, don’t repeat the question at the end (“…which is why I’m interested in going to your school.”)

2. Do: Be specific  — but spare the adjectives

Are you a writer who likes adjectives and long sentences? Then you may need to work at editing your essay down to the prescribed length. But while you’re cutting out adjectives don’t cut out the specifics, which help make your essay unique and interesting. For example, let’s say you’re writing about overcoming your fear of flying. The sentence “I had always been afraid of flying” is good. But “I had always been afraid of flying, ever since a turboprop came too close to my family’s car”  is more specific and evocative. However, “I had always been afraid of flying, ever since that hot summer night when a buzzing turboprop heading in for a landing came too close to my family’s car” adds adjectives that you probably won’t have room for.

3. Do: Use your conclusion effectively
Even if the question doesn’t state it specifically, the school always wants to know how you’ve been affected by the experience or event you’ve just written about. So use your conclusion not to summarize, but to show what you’ve gotten out of the experience —  how it changed you, how it shaped your goals, etc.

4. Don’t: Leave the college admissions reader with a weak ending

If you’ve followed step #3, then you’ve probably got a pretty strong ending. But I know how it is – several schools x several short essays adds up to a lot of essays, fatigue sets in and time gets short, and it’s easy to look for shortcuts. But never bail on the ending. Make sure it’s well-written and reflects well on you. Remember that the ending is the last impression your college admissions reader will have about your essay – and you.

5. Do: Stay within word count. College admissions readers have a lot to read.

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Who Should Read Your College Application Essay?

When I was speaking last week at the Mark Twain Library in Redding along with Matthew Dempsey from Fairfield University, we both addressed the question of who should read a student’s college application essay before it’s submitted.

Here are our suggestions:

Ask more than one teacher, preferably an English teacher, to read your essay. Why more than one? Because different people see different things. One teacher might flag your grammar and sentence structure while another might focus more on your story telling and organization.

Try to find someone who knows what’s expected by a college application essay. College application essays are different beasts. Unlike the usual high school essay, this essay has to reflect you —  your interests, your insight, and what makes you unique.

Parents can be good readers, too. Parents may not be your most objective audience (which is why teachers are important), but they know you, and can tell if there’s enough “you” in your essay.

Hire a college essay coach when you need one.

  • College coaches know what colleges expect.
  • College coaches can see the weak points in an essay and provide detailed suggestions on how to strengthen them. They have many tools and teaching techniques at their fingertips.
  • College coaches can relieve family tension. They’ll handle time management and deadlines, so parents don’t have to worry (or squabble with their teens).

Find people you trust to read your college application essay. It’s an important part of the writing process.