College Essay Questions

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Significant Experience | Important Issue | Influential Person | Future Goals

Significant Experience

Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, or risk that you have taken and its impact on you.

This question is actually a combination of two common questions: Describe a significant achievement and describe a time when you grew as a person.

Accomplishment questions show the admissions committee what you value, what makes you proud, and what you are capable of accomplishing. A common mistake in answering this question is repeating information that can be found elsewhere in the application. You should not try to squeeze every achievement on your resume into the essay. If you do choose to write about an accomplishment that the committee can read about somewhere else on your application, be sure to bring that experience alive by demonstrating what it took to get there and how it affected you personally. Do not be afraid to show them that you feel proud. This is not the place for modesty. On the other hand, do not fall to the other extreme--you can toot your own horn, but do it without being snotty. You will not have to worry about either extreme if you spend the bulk of your essay simply telling the story.

If you feel like you have not done anything worth focusing on, then remind yourself that the best essays are often about modest accomplishments. It does not matter what you have accomplished as long as it was personally meaningful and you can make it come alive. Unless specified, the accomplishment can be professional, personal, or academic. Did you get a compliment from a notoriously tough boss? Did you lose the race but beat your own best time? Did you work around the clock to bring your C in physics up to an A? Do not think about what they want to hear--think about what has really made you proud.

For the second part of the question, they are asking you to open up about who you really are. Although you do want to show that you have matured, do not overplay what a terrible person you once were just to make the point of what a great person you are now. No one changes that much. Besides, the "before" portrait might be the one that sticks in the admissions officer's head. Also, focus on your current personality rather than on the "old you" or on every last detail of the event. The reader wants to know what you are like now, not what you were like a long time ago. Finally, describe real events and scenarios to prove that your growth resulted from the decisions you made and the actions you took. Significant events and people can serve as inspiration. Real change, though, always results from the work, effort, and initiative you have put into yourself. Take some credit.

While looking at your application, you are probably asking yourself: "Why in the world are these admissions people asking me this question? What do they want me to write about?" While there is no one answer to either of these questions, there is some reason behind the most popular questions posed by applications.

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Important Issue

Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.

This question is among the hardest to answer. Even here you need to stay personal. If a cause is important to you or you have a strong opinion about it, relate it back to your life. What about you, your experiences, or your upbringing has made this issue resonate for you? Why do you care? Does the issue affect you personally in any way? Be sure to write about both sides of the issues to show that you can think objectively and logically. Showing that you are passionate is great; showing that you are one-sided or bull-headed is not. Finally, be sure to refrain from making sweeping generalizations about issues that would be out of your range of experience.

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Influential Person

Indicate a person, character in fiction, an historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, etc.) who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.

This type of question attempts to learn more about you through the forces that have shaped you. Many students make the mistake of believing that this is an essay about a person. They go on at length, describing the influential person in detail without making a connection between him and themselves. The school doesn't care about your uncle, or some fictional heroine. They care about you. What about that person made an impression on you, and how? What action did you take to turn this impression into personal development and change?

Colleges learn a lot about your values and standards through your description of your mentors. It's like getting to know a person by the people he chooses to hang out with. If you are skeptical, consider the different impression you would have of the candidate who admires a dynamic, colorful athlete compared to someone who looks up to an accomplished but soft-spoken academic. Neither is better nor worse--just different.

There are no wrong answers here. Far more important than whom you choose, though, is how you portray that person. In other words, do not choose someone because you think it will impress the committee. Name-dropping is not only very obvious, it is very ineffective. Heed this one word of caution, though: Applicants very commonly pick one of their parents. Describing your father gives you the advantage of knowing your subject well, but it also means doing some extra work to make your essay stand out from the crowd.

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Future Goals

Why do you want to spend two to six years of your life at a particular college, graduate school, or professional school? How is the degree necessary to the fulfillment of your goals?

Knowing the schools to which you apply is an essential step in answering any essay, but questions such as these ask you to write about them directly. In answering these questions, mention specific factors that tie in with your area of interest. Doing this will help you to avoid the insincere, ingratiating tone that is a danger in this type of essay. Each point will be honest and well-supported, thereby lending credibility to the essay and, in turn, to you. Another challenge is finding a balanced yet truthful tone. Do not be cocky or self-effacing. Show a solid, well-researched knowledge of the school. Be honest and be thorough.

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Move on to Lesson Two: Brainstorming a Topic

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