College Application Essay (aka Personal Statement)

  • Not all colleges require an essay. Check the application requirements on the college website to be sure.

    • Common App colleges require a main essay and often some shorter essays. See below for essay prompts. 
    • University of Washington Seattle requires an essay. See below. 
    • University of Washington Bothell requires an essay. See UW Bothell First Year Application
    • Western Washington University requires an essay. See WWU Freshman Application Essay


    How to Tackle the Essay 

    1. Brainstorm. Write in response to Brainstorming Questions to get in the groove for personal writing. Also try the College Essay Guy's Essence Objects Exercise which will help you think more concretely. Check out the great advice & guidance on
    2. Generate possible topics. Look at the prompts for your schools and create lists of ideas, or concept maps, or fragments of sentences. Try to come up with 20 possibilities. Don't naysay any ideas. 
    3. Write six paragraphs. Choose six of your ideas and write paragraphs that contains the germ of each idea. They do not have to be opening paragraphs, or grammatical, or "good". Simply write something that focuses in on each of your ideas. 
    4. Develop two or three of your most promising paragraphs into longer pieces. Don't worry too much about word count. Shorter drafts can be extended and longer drafts can be condensed. 
    5. Seek feedback on your drafts. 
    6. Revise according to your own goals and feedback from others. 
    7. Edit carefully. Seek help on this; sometimes we don't see usage errors in our own writing. 
    8. Only when you are absolutely ready, copy & paste the essay into the field in the Common App, the Coalition App, or the independent college application. Then, save & close and go back later to make sure that the essay is how you want it. 


    General Tips for your Personal Essay 

    The schools want to know two main things: 1) who you are and 2) how you write. 

    You own your essay. Since it is about you, you can take or leave any feedback from peers, teachers, or counselors. 

    TRY NOT make the essay too personal. Really shocking or traumatic events are not good topics.

    TRY NOT to choose a clichéd topic. College representatives read too many essays about:  influential grandfathers; tough athletic contests barely won/ lost; mission-type trips to developing countries. 

    DO NOT make things up for your essay. Be honest. 

    For more do's & don'ts, see below.  

    Note: fabrication and plagiarism are academically dishonest, and are grounds for

    1. serious disciplinary consequences at Shorewood;
    2. rejection of you as an applicant from the school to which you are applying;
    3. rescission of an acceptance if you do make it in to the school;
    4. expulsion from a school if you enroll.



    2022-2023 Common Application Essay Prompts 650 word limit

    From:  Common App First Year Essay Prompts

    Over 1000 schools use the Common App; look for member colleges at Choose from these seven options:

    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 obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
    3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
    4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
    5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
    6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
    7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

    We will also retain the optional COVID-19 question within the Additional Information section.


    University of Washington Seattle First Year Writing

    From: UW Seattle First Year Application Writing Section

    As of Fall 2022, UW Seattle has joined the Common Application. Note that they will not view the main Common App essay, only the Writing section within the UW Seattle section of the Common App.

    At the UW, we consider the college essay as our opportunity to see the person behind the transcripts and the numbers. Some of the best statements are written as personal stories. In general, concise, straightforward writing is best, and good essays are often 300-400 words in length.

    Please note that the UW essay questions must be answered within our application. For the Common App, that means within our UW questions. We do not consider the Common App essay.

    • Essay prompt [required]
      • Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
      • Maximum length: 650 words
    • Short response [required]
      • Our families and communities often define us and our individual worlds. Community might refer to your cultural group, extended family, religious group, neighborhood or school, sports team or club, co-workers, etc. Describe the world you come from and how you, as a product of it, might add to the diversity of the UW.
      • Maximum length: 300 words
      • Tip: Keep in mind that the UW strives to create a community of students richly diverse in cultural backgrounds, experiences, values and viewpoints.
    • Additional information about yourself or your circumstances [optional]
      • You are not required to write anything in this section, but you may include additional information if something has particular significance to you. For example, you may use this space if:
      • You have experienced personal hardships in attaining your education
      • Your activities have been limited because of work or family obligations
      • You have experienced unusual limitations or opportunities unique to the schools you attended
      • Maximum length: 200 words

    Tip: They mark this as optional, but do not regard it as such!


    UW Bothell Writing

    As of Fall 2022, UW Bothell joined the Common App. Unlike UW Seattle, they do use the Common App essay section. 

    From:  UW Bothell First Year Application 

    The Personal Statement is our best means of getting to know you and your best means of creating a context for your academic performance. When you write your personal statement, tell us about those aspects of your life that are not apparent from your academic record:

    • a character-defining moment;
    • the cultural awareness you've developed;
    • a challenge faced;
    • a personal hardship overcome


    Western Washington University Essay 

    See:  WWU Essay & Activities List for details on both elements of applications to Western. 



    More Tips for Writing

    See the Essay Tips Presentation PDF from the Summer College Application Workshops.

    Brief version:

    • Focus on yourself. 
    • Have a great hook.
    • Use active voice.
    • Be concise.
    • Show, don't tell. 
    • Make readers feel like they are at your shoulder. 
    • Use some sensory details but don't overdo them.
    • Reflect & let the reader know why the incident/ chapter/ object matters. 


    Refining Your Essay 

    Download Refine Your Personal Essay PDF for full tips for revision. 

    Ask yourself two main questions:  

    Is this me, or is it how I want to be represented to colleges? 

    Is this a strong example of how I can write?

    This is a short piece of writing. Make sure that every sentence, every paragraph counts and says something new. Do this even if you are well under the word count.


    Essay Do's and Don'ts 

    Some Do's

    DO be yourself (not your impression of the perfect college applicant) and reveal something about you that the numbers, checkboxes, and lists of activities do not convey.

    DO focus in on a particular incident/ activity/ object. Be specific and show rather than tell.

    DO be honest.

    DO answer the question you have chosen, but don’t restate the question in your essay.

    DO take time. After this summer, set the essay aside for a few weeks and then go back to make sure it rings true.

    DO get some feedback on your essay, but make sure it still sounds like you.

    DO have others proofread your final product to catch errors.

    Recommended: DO have something like a thesis statement. This does not have to be as formal as an argumentative or research paper or even a single sentence you can point to. Simply make sure that, somewhere near the beginning, the reader knows where you are headed.


    Some Do Not's 

    DO NOT make things up. Do not fabricate a hardship to provide drama.

    DO NOT plagiarize.

    DO NOT be afraid to start anew, which is not the same as starting over. Sometime you have to write to see what will work best.

    DO NOT try to include everything. The essay is not an autobiography.

    DO NOT write a “what the admissions committee wants to hear” essay.

    DO NOT write a standard five paragraph essay. Don’t worry too much about paragraphs or sections at first.

    DO NOT sabotage your chances by portraying yourself as difficult, uncooperative, or closed-minded.

    DO NOT use the essay as a bragfest/ puff piece.


    Note: fabrication and plagiarism are academically dishonest, and are grounds for

    1. serious disciplinary consequences at Shorewood;
    2. rejection of you as an applicant from the school to which you are applying;
    3. rescission of an acceptance if you do make it into school;
    4. expulsion from a school if you enroll.

Essay Resources

Title page from Seattle U Personal Essay Presentation
  • Writing an Effective Essay

    Presentation and Conversation with Melore Nielsen, Seattle University Interim Vice President for Enrollment Management

    VP Nielsen offered a kickoff presentation for our 2020 Write & Ready College Essay & Application Workshop. In this presentation, VP Nielsen lets us in on how colleges view the essay, what makes an essay stand out, and how you can tell your story effectively. 


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