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Common App Essays | 7 Strong Examples with Commentary

Published on November 19, 2021 by Kirsten Courault . Revised on May 31, 2023.

If you’re applying for college via the Common App , you’ll have to write an essay in response to one of seven prompts.

Table of contents

What is the common application essay, prompt 1: background, identity, interest, or talent, prompt 2: overcoming challenges, prompt 3: questioning a belief or idea, prompt 4: appreciating an influential person, prompt 5: transformative event, prompt 6: interest or hobby that inspires learning, prompt 7: free topic, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about college application essays.

The Common Application, or Common App , is a college application portal that is accepted by more than 900 schools.

Within the Common App is your main essay, a primary writing sample that all your prospective schools will read to evaluate your critical thinking skills and value as a student. Since this essay is read by many colleges, avoid mentioning any college names or programs. Instead, save tailored answers for the supplementary school-specific essays within the Common App.

Regardless of your prompt choice, admissions officers will look for an ability to clearly and creatively communicate your ideas based on the selected prompt.

We’ve provided seven essay examples, one for each of the Common App prompts. After each essay, we’ve provided a table with commentary on the essay’s narrative, writing style and tone, demonstrated traits, and self-reflection.

Prevent plagiarism. Run a free check.

This essay explores the student’s emotional journey toward overcoming her father’s neglect through gymnastics discipline.

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.

When “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” began to play, it was my signal to lay out a winning floor routine. Round off. Back handspring. Double back layout. Stick!

Instead, I jolted off the floor, landing out of bounds. Over the past week, I hadn’t landed that pass once, and regionals were only seven days away. I heaved a heavy sigh and stomped over to the bench.

Coach Farkas saw my consternation. “Mona, get out of your head. You’re way too preoccupied with your tumbling passes. You could do them in your sleep!”

That was the problem. I was dreaming of tumbling and missing my landings, waking up in a cold sweat. The stress felt overwhelming.

“Stretch out. You’re done for tonight.”

I walked home from the gym that had been my second home since fourth grade. Yet my anxiety was increasing every time I practiced.

I startled my mom. “You’re home early! Wait! You walked? Mona, what’s going on?!”

I slumped down at the kitchen table. “Don’t know.”

She sat down across from me. “Does it have anything to do with your father texting you a couple of weeks ago about coming to see you at regionals?”

“So what?! Why does it matter anymore?” He walked out when I was 10 and never looked back. Still, dear ol’ Dad always had a way of resurfacing when I least expected him.

“It still matters because when you hear from him, you tend to crumble. Or have you not noticed?” She offered a knowing wink and a compassionate smile.

I started gymnastics right after Dad left. The coaches said I was a natural: short, muscular, and flexible. All I knew was that the more I improved, the more confident I felt. Gymnastics made me feel powerful, so I gave it my full energy and dedication.

The floor routine became my specialty, and my performances were soon elevating our team score. The mat, solid and stable, became a place to explore and express my internal struggles. Over the years, no matter how angry I felt, the floor mat was there to absorb my frustration.

The bars, beam, and vault were less forgiving because I knew I could fall. My performances in those events were respectable. But, the floor? Sometimes, I had wildly creative and beautiful routines, while other times were disastrous. Sadly, my floor routine had never been consistent.

That Saturday afternoon, I slipped into the empty gym and walked over to the mat. I sat down and touched its carpeted surface. After a few minutes, my cheeks were wet with the bitter disappointment of a dad who only showed up when it was convenient for him. I ruminated on the years of practices and meets where I had channeled my resentment into acrobatics and dance moves, resolved to rise higher than his indifference.

I saw then that my deepest wounds were inextricably entangled with my greatest passion. They needed to be permanently separated. While my anger had first served to launch me into gymnastics, before long, I had started serving my anger.

Anger is a cruel master. It corrupts everything it touches, even something as beautiful as a well-choreographed floor routine.

I changed my music days before regionals. “The Devil” no longer had a place in my routine. Instead, I chose an energetic cyberpunk soundtrack that inspired me to perform with passion and laser focus. Dad made an obligatory appearance at regionals, but he left before I could talk to him.

It didn’t matter this time. I stuck every landing in my routine. Anger no longer controlled me. I was finally free.

Word count: 601

College essay checklist
The student makes a unique connection, showing how her troubled relationship with her floor routine is connected to her anger at her absent father. However, rather than focusing on her difficult past, she highlights a key moment when she overcame her anger and made peace with her relationships with her dad and with gymnastics.
The essay uses a conversational tone but selectively employs elevated language that fits the student’s vocabulary range. The student uses personification to illustrate her close relationship to anger and gymnastics, such as “anger is a cruel master” and “the bars, beam, and vault were less forgiving.”
Through showing, not telling, the student clearly demonstrates dedication, hard work, and resilience. She also displays her commitment to emotional growth and character.
In the final paragraphs, the student contemplates her troubled relationship with her floor routine and realizes its connection to her absent father. She explains how this insight healed her and allowed her to freely perform without anger.

This essay shows how the challenges the student faced in caring for her sister with autism resulted in an unexpected path forward in her education.

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?

I never had a choice.

My baby sister was born severely autistic, which meant that every detail of our home life was repeatedly adjusted to manage her condition. I couldn’t go to bed without fearing that Mindy would wake up screaming with that hoarse little voice of hers. I couldn’t have friends over on weekends because we never knew if our entire family would need to shift into crisis mode to help Mindy regain control.

We couldn’t take a family vacation because Mindy would start hitting us during a long car ride when she didn’t want to sit there anymore. We couldn’t even celebrate Christmas like a normal family because Mindy would shriek and run away when we tried to give her presents.

I was five years old when Mindy was born. For the first ten years, I did everything I could to help my mom with Mindy. But Mom was depressed and would often stare out the window, as if transfixed by the view. Dad was no help either. He used his job as an excuse to be away from home. So, I tried to make up for both of them and rescue Mindy however I could whenever she needed it.

However, one day, when I was slowly driving Mindy around with the windows down, trying to lull her into a calmer state, we passed two of my former classmates from middle school. They heard Mindy growling her disapproval as the ride was getting long for her. One of them turned to the other and announced, “Oh my God! Marabeth brought her pet monster out for a drive!” They laughed hysterically and ran down the street.

After that day, I defied my parents at every turn. I also ignored Mindy. I even stopped doing homework. I purposely “got in with the wrong crowd” and did whatever they did.

My high school counselor Ms. Martinez saw through it all. She knew my family’s situation well. It didn’t take her long to guess what had probably happened.

“Marabeth, I get it. My brother has Down syndrome. It was really hard growing up with him as a brother. The other kids were pretty mean about it, especially in high school.”

I doubted she understood. “Yeah. So?”

“I’m guessing something happened that hurt or embarrassed you.”

“I’m so sorry. I can only imagine how you must have felt.”

It must have been the way she said it because I suddenly found myself sobbing into my trembling, cupped hands.

Ms. Martinez and I met every Friday after that for the rest of the year. Her stories of how she struggled to embrace living with and loving her brother created a bridge to my pain and then my healing. She explained that her challenges led her to pursue a degree in counseling so that she could offer other people what no one had given her.

I thought that Mindy was the end of my life, but, because of Ms. Martinez’s example and kindness, I can now see that Mindy is a gift, pointing me toward my future.

Now, I’m applying to study psychology so that I can go on to earn my master’s degree in counseling. I’m learning to forgive my parents for their mistakes, and I’m back in Mindy’s life again, but this time as a sister, not a savior. My choice.

Word Count: 553

College essay checklist
The essay has a logical flow. It starts by explaining the student’s challenges as her sister’s caretaker, describes her breaking point, and then shows how her counselor pointed her toward a new perspective and career path. It also avoids dwelling on negative details and concludes with a positive outlook and action.
The student’s tone is appropriately conversational to illustrate her feelings with vulnerability.
The essay clearly shows the student’s commitment, resilience, and sacrifice through the narrative of her caring for her sister.
The student reveals her honest thoughts and feelings. She also explains how her counselor helped her see her sister as a gift who motivated her to pursue a meaningful career path.

This essay illustrates a student’s courage in challenging his culture’s constructs of manhood and changing his course while positively affecting his father in the process.

Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

“No son of mine is gonna march around a football field wearing tail feathers while all the real men are playing football!”

I took a step backward and tried not to appear as off-balance as I felt. In my excitement, I had blurted out more information than my father could handle:

“Dad! I made the marching band as a freshman! Nobody does that—I mean nobody!”

As soon as I had said it, I wished I could recall those words. How could I forget that 26 years earlier, he had been the starting wide receiver for the state-champion Tigers on the same field?!

Still, when I opened the email on that scorching hot August afternoon, I was thrilled that five months of practicing every possible major and harmonic minor scale—two octaves up and two octaves down—had made the difference. I had busted reed after reed, trying not to puff my cheeks while moving my fingers in a precise cadence.

I knew he had heard me continually practicing in my room, yet he seemed to ignore all the parts of me that were incongruous with his vision of manhood:

Ford F-150 4x4s. Pheasant hunting. The Nebraska Cornhuskers.

I never had to wonder what he valued. For years, I genuinely shared his interests. But, in the fall of eighth grade, I heard Kyle Wheeling play a saxophone solo during the homecoming marching band halftime show. My dad took me to every football game to teach me the plays, but that night, all I could think about was Kyle’s bluesy improv at halftime.

During Thanksgiving break, I got my mom to drive me into Omaha to rent my instrument at Dietze Music, and, soon after, I started private lessons with Mr. Ken. Before long, I was spending hours in my room, exploring each nuance of my shiny Yamaha alto sax, anticipating my audition for the Marching Tigers at the end of the spring semester.

During those months of practice, I realized that I couldn’t hide my newfound interest forever, especially not from the football players who were going to endlessly taunt me. But not all the guys played football. Some were in choir and theater. Quite a few guys were in the marching band. In fact, the Marching Tigers had won the grand prize in their division at last year’s state showdown in Lincoln.

I was excited! They were the champions, and I was about to become a part of their legacy.

Yet, that afternoon, a sense of anxiety brewed in my belly. I knew I had to talk to him.

He was sweeping the grass clippings off of the sidewalk. He nodded.

“I need to tell you something.”

He looked up.

“I know that you know about my sax because you hear me practicing. I like it a lot, and I’m becoming pretty good at it. I still care about what you like, but I’m starting to like some other things more. I hope you’ll be proud of me whatever I choose.”

He studied the cracks in the driveway. “I am proud of you. I just figured you’d play football.”

We never talked about it again, but that fall, he was in the stands when our marching band won the state championship in Lincoln for the second time. In fact, for the next four years, he never left the stands during halftime until the marching band had performed. He was even in the audience for every performance of “Our Town” at the end of my junior year. I played the Stage Manager who reveals the show’s theme: everything changes gradually.

I know it’s true. Things do change over time, even out here in central Nebraska. I know because I’ve changed, and my dad has changed, too. I just needed the courage to go first.

Word count: 626

College essay checklist
The essay starts with a picture of confrontation that directly reflects the prompt. It then paints a chronological narrative of the student’s journey toward change, while using the literary device of flashback in the middle to add background and clarity to the story.
The student uses a conversational yet respectful tone for a college essay. He effectively uses dialogue to highlight important moments of conflict and mutual understanding throughout the story.
The student clearly demonstrates the qualities of self-reflection, courage, and integrity without directly claiming to have them (show, don’t tell).
The student offers an honest assessment of his culture’s traditional views of manhood, his reasons for challenging them, and his appreciation for his father’s acceptance of his choices.

The student demonstrates how his teacher giving him an unexpected bad grade was the catalyst for his becoming a better writer.

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?

I stared in disbelief at the big red letter at the top of my paper: D. 

Never in my entire high school career had I seen that letter at the top of any paper, unless it was at the beginning of my first name. 

I had a 4.796 GPA. I had taken every pre-AP and AP course offered. My teachers had praised my writing skills! However, Mr. Trimble didn’t think so, and he let me know it:

“Darwin, in the future, I believe you can do better if you fully apply yourself.” 

I furiously scanned the paper for corrections. Not even one! Grammar and syntax? Perfect. Spelling? Impeccable. Sentence and paragraph structure? Precise and indisputable, as always. 

Was he trying to ruin my GPA? Cooper was clearly his favorite, and we were neck and neck for valedictorian, which was only one year away. Maybe they were conspiring to take me down. 

Thankfully, AP Composition was my last class. I fled the room and ran to my car. Defiant tears stained my cheeks as I screeched my tires and roared out of the parking lot. When I got home, I shoved in my AirPods, flopped on my bed, and buried my head under the pillow. 

I awoke to my sister, Daria, gently shaking my arm. “I know what happened, D. Trimble stopped me in the hall after school.”

“I’m sure he did. He’s trying to ruin my life.”

“That’s not what he told me. You should talk to him, D.”

The next day, although I tried to avoid Mr. Trimble at all costs, I almost tripped over him as I was coming out of the bathroom.

“Darwin, can we talk?” 

He walked me down the hall to his room. “Do you know that you’re one of the best writers I’ve ever had in AP Comp?” 

“Then why’d you do it?” 

“Because you’re better than you know, Darwin. You impress with your perfect presentations, and your teachers reward you with A’s and praise. I do frequent the teacher’s lounge, you know.” 

“So I know you’re not trying.”

I locked eyes with him and glared. 

“You’ve never had to try because you have a gift. And, in the midst of the acclaim, you’ve never pushed yourself to discover your true capabilities.”

“So you give me a D?!”

“It got your attention.”

“You’re not going to leave it, are you?”

“Oh, the D stands. You didn’t apply yourself. You’ll have to earn your way out with your other papers.” 

I gained a new understanding of the meaning of ambivalence. Part of me was furious at the injustice of the situation, but I also felt strangely challenged and intrigued. I joined a local writer’s co-op and studied K. M. Weiland’s artistic writing techniques. 

Multiple drafts, track changes, and constructive criticism became my new world. I stopped taking Mr. Trimble’s criticism personally and began to see it as a precious tool to bolster me, not break me down. 

Last week, the New York Public Library notified me that I was named one of five finalists for the Young Lions Fiction Award. They described my collection of short stories as “fresh, imaginative, and captivating.” 

I never thought I could be grateful for a D, but Mr. Trimble’s insightful courage was the catalyst that transformed my writing and my character. Just because other people applaud you for being the best doesn’t mean you’re doing your best . 

AP Composition is now recorded as an A on my high school transcript, and Cooper and I are still locked in a tight race for the finish line. But, thanks to Mr. Trimble, I have developed a different paradigm for evaluation: my best. And the more I apply myself, the better my best becomes. 

Word Count: 627

College essay checklist
The essay begins with an attention-grabbing statement that immediately captures the essence of surprise requested in the prompt. The story then unfolds in a logical sequence, taking the reader on a journey of unexpected transformation.
The student uses an accessible, casual tone that works well in light of his expertise in writing. His use of dialogue with nicknames and colloquialism brings a conversational tone to the storyline.
The student openly shows his motivation for success and his feelings toward his peers and teacher. However, he demonstrates humility in accepting criticism, responding with a diligent attempt to improve his writing skills.
The essay concludes with growth in the student’s character and self-discipline while his circumstances remained the same. He brings the prompt full circle, expressing his gratitude toward his teacher.

This student narrates how she initially went to church for a boy but instead ended up confronting her selfishness by helping others.

Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Originally, I went to church not because I was searching for Jesus but because I liked a boy.

Isaac Ono wasn’t the most athletic boy in our class, nor was he the cutest. But I was amazed by his unusual kindness toward everyone. If someone was alone or left out, he’d walk up to them and say hello or invite them to hang out with him and his friends.

I started waking up at 7:30 a.m. every Sunday morning to attend Grace Hills Presbyterian, where Isaac’s father was the pastor. I would strategically sit in a pew not too close but close enough to Isaac that when the entire congregation was instructed to say “Peace be with you,” I could “happen” to shake Isaac’s hand and make small talk.

One service, as I was staring at the back of Isaac’s head, pondering what to say to him, my hearing suddenly tuned in to his father’s sermon.

“There’s no such thing as a good or bad person.”

My eyes snapped onto Pastor Marcus.

“I used to think I was a good person who came from a respectable family and did nice things. But people aren’t inherently good or bad. They just make good or bad choices.”

My mind raced through a mental checklist of whether my past actions fell mostly into the former or latter category.

“As it says in Deuteronomy 30:15, ‘I have set before you today life and good, death and evil.’ Follow in the footsteps of Jesus and do good.”

I glanced to my left and saw Margaret, underlining passages in her study Bible and taking copious notes.

Months earlier, I had befriended Margaret. We had fourth-period Spanish together but hadn’t interacted much. She was friends with Isaac, so I started hanging out with her to get closer to him. But eventually, the two of us were spending hours in the Starbucks parking lot having intense discussions about religion, boys, and our futures until we had to return home before curfew.

After hearing the pastor’s sermon, I realized that what I had admired about Isaac was also present in Margaret and other people at church: a welcoming spirit. I’m pretty sure Margaret knew of my ulterior motives for befriending her, but she never called me out on it.

After that day, I started paying more attention to Pastor Marcus’s sermons and less attention to Isaac. One year, our youth group served Christmas Eve dinner to the homeless and ate with them. I sat across from a woman named Lila who told me how child services had taken away her four-year-old daughter because of her financial and living situation.

A few days later, as I sat curled up reading the book of James, my heart suddenly felt heavy.

“If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?”

I thought back to Pastor Marcus’s sermon on good and bad actions, Lila and her daughter, and the times I had passed people in need without even saying hello.

I decided to put my faith into action. The next week, I started volunteering at the front desk of a women’s shelter, helping women fill out forms or watching their kids while they talked with social workers.

From working for the past year at the women’s shelter, I now know I want to major in social work, caring for others instead of focusing on myself. I may not be a good person (or a bad one), but I can make good choices, helping others with every opportunity God gives me.

Word count: 622

College essay checklist
The narrative begins by clearly identifying the prompt: the event of church attendance. It has a clear story arc, starting with the student’s church experiences, moving on to her self-examination, and concluding with the changes she made to her behavior and goals to serve others.
The student uses dialogue to highlight key moments of realization and transformation. The essay’s tone is casual, helping the reader feel comfortable in the student’s thoughts and memory.
The student displays an unusual level of self-awareness and maturity by revealing an ulterior motive, the ability to self-reflect, and a desire to authentically apply theoretical teachings in a real-world setting.
While the topic of church and conversion is common, the student’s narrative weaves in unexpected elements to create interest while clearly answering the prompt.

This essay shows how a student’s natural affinity for solving a Rubik’s cube developed her self-understanding, academic achievement, and inspiration for her future career.

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?

The worst part about writing is putting down my Rubik’s cube so that I can use my hands to type. That’s usually the worst part of tackling my to-do list: setting aside my Rubik’s cube. My parents call it an obsession. But, for me, solving a Rubik’s cube challenges my brain as nothing else can.

It started on my ninth birthday. I invited three friends for a sleepover party, and I waited to open my presents right before bed. Wrapping paper, ribbons, and bows flew through the air as I oohed and aahed over each delightful gift! However, it was the last gift—a 3 x 3 x 3 cube of little squares covered in red, green, blue, yellow, white, and orange—that intrigued me.

I was horrified when Bekka ripped it out of my hands and messed it all up! I had no idea how to make all the sides match again. I waited until my friends were fast asleep. Then, I grabbed that cube and studied it under my blanket with a flashlight, determined to figure out how to restore it to its former pristine state.

Within a few weeks, I had discovered the secret. To practice, I’d take my cube with me to recess and let the other kids time me while I solved it in front of them. The better I became, the more they gathered around. But I soon realized that their attention didn’t matter all that much. I loved solving cubes for hours wherever I was: at lunch, riding in the car, or alone in my room.

Cross. White corners. Middle-layer edges. Yellow cross. Sune and anitsune. 

The sequential algorithms became second nature, and with the assistance of a little black digital timer, I strove to solve the cube faster , each time attempting to beat my previous record. I watched speed solvers on YouTube, like Australia’s Feliks Zemdegs and Max Park from Massachusetts, but I wasn’t motivated to compete as they did. I watched their videos to learn how to improve my time. I liked finding new, more efficient ways of mastering the essential 78 separate cube-solving algorithms.

Now, I understand why my passion for my Rubik’s cube has never waned. Learning and applying the various algorithms soothes my brain and centers my emotions, especially when I feel overwhelmed from being around other people. Don’t get me wrong: I like other people—just in doses.

While some people get recharged by spending time with others, I can finally breathe when I’m alone with my cube. Our psychology teacher says the difference between an extrovert and an introvert is the situations that trigger their brains to produce dopamine. For me, it’s time away, alone, flipping through cube patterns to set a new personal best.

Sometimes, the world doesn’t cooperate with introverts, requiring them to interact with many people throughout the day. That’s why you’ll often find me in the stairwell or a library corner attempting to master another one of the 42 quintillion ways to solve a cube. My parents tease me that when I’ve “had enough” of anything, my fingers get a Rubik’s itch, and I suddenly disappear. I’m usually occupied for a while, but when I finally emerge, I feel centered, prepared to tackle my next task.

Secretly, I credit my cube with helping me earn top marks in AP Calculus, Chemistry, and Physics. It’s also responsible for my interest in computer engineering. It seems I just can’t get enough of those algorithms, which is why I want to study the design and implementation of cybersecurity software—all thanks to my Rubik’s cube.

Just don’t tell my parents! It would ruin all the fun!

Word count: 607

College essay checklist
The student immediately captures the reader’s attention with an unexpected statement that captures the prompt’s focus on captivation. Her writing clearly illustrates her love for the Rubik’s cube, showing how the cube has helped her emotionally and academically and inspired her choice of major.
The student uses a conversational tone while inserting elevated language and concepts that surround her field of interest. She also uses the “I” to personalize her experience.
Through her detailed narrative of her Rubik’s cube hobby, the student demonstrates perseverance, focus, curiosity, and an uncanny ability to solve problems.
The student shows awareness of her introversion by explaining how the Rubik’s cube helps her emotionally recharge. She also credits her hobby with helping her in her studies and inspiring her intended major.

In this free topic essay, the student uses a montage structure inspired by the TV show Iron Chef America to demonstrate his best leadership moments.

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.

Iron Chef America: College Essay Edition

The time has come to answer college’s most difficult question: Whose story shows glory?

This is … Iron Chef America: College Essay Edition!

Welcome to Kitchen Stadium! Today we have Chef Brett Lowell. Chef Brett will be put to the test to prove he has what it takes to attend university next fall.

And the secret ingredient is … leadership! He must include leadership in each of his dishes, which will later be evaluated by a panel of admissions judges.

So now, America, with a creative mind and empty paper, I say unto you in the words of my teacher: “Let’s write!”

Appetizer: My first leadership experience

A mountain of mismatched socks, wrinkled jeans, and my dad’s unironed dress shirts sat in front of me. Laundry was just one of many chores that welcomed me home once I returned from my after-school job at Baskin Robbins, a gig I had taken last year to help Dad pay the rent. A few years earlier, I wasn’t prepared to cook dinners, pay utility bills, or pick up and drop off my brothers. I thought those jobs were reserved for parents. However, when my father was working double shifts at the power plant and my mom was living in Tucson with her new husband, Bill, I stepped up and took care of the house and my two younger brothers.

Main course: My best leadership experience

Between waiting for the pasta water to boil and for the next laundry cycle to be finished, I squeezed in solving a few practice precalculus problems to prepare for the following week’s mathletics competition. I liked how the equations always had clear, clean answers, which calmed me among the mounting responsibilities of home life. After leading my team to the Minnesota State Finals for two years in a row, I was voted team captain. Although my home responsibilities often competed with my mathlete duties, I tried to be as productive as possible in my free time. On the bus ride home, I would often tackle 10 to 20 functions or budget the following week’s meals and corresponding grocery list. My junior year was rough, but both my home and my mathlete team needed me.

Dessert: My future leadership hopes 

The first thing I ever baked was a chocolate cake in middle school. This was around the time that Mom had just moved out and I was struggling with algebra. Troubles aside, one day my younger brother Simon needed a contribution for his school’s annual bake sale, and the PTA moms wouldn’t accept anything store-bought. So I carefully measured out the teaspoons and cups of various flours, powders, and oils, which resulted in a drooping, too-salty disaster.

Four years later, after a bakery’s worth of confections and many hours of study, I’ve perfected my German chocolate cake and am on my way to mastering Calculus AB. I’ve also thrown out the bitter-tasting parts of my past such as my resentment and anger toward my mom. I still miss having her at home, but whenever I have a baking question or want to update her on my mathlete team’s success, I call her or chat with her over text.

Whether in school or life, I see problems as opportunities, not obstacles, to find a better way to solve them more efficiently. I hope to continue improving my problem-solving skills next fall by majoring in mathematics and statistics.

Time’s up! 

We hope you’ve enjoyed this tasting of Chef Lowell’s leadership experiences. Next fall, tune in to see him craft new leadership adventures in college. He’s open to refining his technique and discovering new recipes.

Word count: 612

College essay checklist
The student uses a popular TV cooking show as an unexpected concept to display his leadership abilities. Since the prompt is open-ended, the student has more room to craft his response.
The essay juxtaposes the contrived nature of a TV show’s script with a conversational narrative of the student’s leadership stories.
Each story effectively showcases the student’s leadership by showing, not telling. Rather than saying “I’m a great leader,” he provides specific instances of his best moments of demonstrated leadership.
The student honestly shares his reservations about his mother’s new life but shows how he was able to reconcile aspects of their relationship as time passed.

If you want to know more about academic writing , effective communication , or parts of speech , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

Academic writing

  • Writing process
  • Transition words
  • Passive voice
  • Paraphrasing

 Communication

  • How to end an email
  • Ms, mrs, miss
  • How to start an email
  • I hope this email finds you well
  • Hope you are doing well

 Parts of speech

  • Personal pronouns
  • Conjunctions

The Common App essay is your primary writing sample within the Common Application, a college application portal accepted by more than 900 schools. All your prospective schools that accept the Common App will read this essay to understand your character, background, and value as a potential student.

Since this essay is read by many colleges, avoid mentioning any college names or programs; instead, save tailored answers for the supplementary school-specific essays within the Common App.

When writing your Common App essay , choose a prompt that sparks your interest and that you can connect to a unique personal story.

No matter which prompt you choose, admissions officers are more interested in your ability to demonstrate personal development , insight, or motivation for a certain area of study.

To decide on a good college essay topic , spend time thoughtfully answering brainstorming questions. If you still have trouble identifying topics, try the following two strategies:

  • Identify your qualities → Brainstorm stories that demonstrate these qualities
  • Identify memorable stories → Connect your qualities to these stories

You can also ask family, friends, or mentors to help you brainstorm topics, give feedback on your potential essay topics, or recall key stories that showcase your qualities.

A standout college essay has several key ingredients:

  • A unique, personally meaningful topic
  • A memorable introduction with vivid imagery or an intriguing hook
  • Specific stories and language that show instead of telling
  • Vulnerability that’s authentic but not aimed at soliciting sympathy
  • Clear writing in an appropriate style and tone
  • A conclusion that offers deep insight or a creative ending

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college essay 2022

The 2021-2022 Common App Essay Prompts Are Here

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What’s Covered:

2021-2022 common app prompts, what has changed, tips for writing your common app essay.

  • How to Get Your Essay Reviewed for Free

The Common App recently released their essay prompts for the 2021-2022 admissions cycle, and unlike the past several years, the prompts are not the same as before.

In this post, we’ll go over the prompts, the changes, and tips for writing a strong Common App essay.

college essay 2022

Here is a list of the prompts for this cycle. While they are largely unchanged, Prompt #4 is different this year (which is kind of a big deal, considering that the prompts have been the same since 2017).

Prompt #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.

Prompt #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?

Prompt #3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

Prompt #4 (NEW): 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?

Prompt #5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Prompt #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?

Prompt #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.

As usual, there are six prompts, with the seventh allowing you to write on a topic of your choice. The prompts are all the same except for Prompt #4. 

Here’s a side-by-side of the old and new versions of the prompt.

Before: 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.

After: 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?

While all Common App essays should be personal, the old prompt was more “scientific” and analytical than the new one. The focus of the essay was a problem, its relevance to your life, and how you found a solution (or how you would find a solution).

The theme of the new prompt is gratitude, and it is inherently more reflective than the old prompt, as the focus is a personal story. The new prompt is likely to apply to more students, but there are some potential tripwires to keep in mind.

A common mistake is to spend too much time elaborating on the “thing” that was done, or on the person who did it. While you should absolutely provide some context, the essay should mainly be about you and how this event impacted your life.

It’s also important to note that the prompt asks for an act that “made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. ” Admissions officers don’t want just a classic feel good story about an act of kindness. This act of kindness can be small or significant, but it should have a relatively big impact on your life that you may not have expected. The act itself may have also been surprising, or maybe your response to it was the unexpected part. 

While this prompt may seem straightforward, it’s actually encouraging a reflection on a nuanced situation. Some examples of good topics would be: 

  • Your friend signs you up for robotics even though you didn’t want to join at first, but then you discover a love for programming and want to use it to help build medical devices and prosthetics.
  • Your parents don’t approve of your artistic pursuits due to their immigrant background and desire for stability in “practical” careers, but after years of showing no interest in your art, they attend your gallery opening. This leads to a mutual understanding and inspires you to create art based on your parents’ struggles.

college essay 2022

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1. Get a head start

The topics are out, so you should consider drafting your Common App essay before the rush of the fall semester. Once senior year begins, you’ll be dealing with schoolwork, supplemental essays, extracurriculars, and other responsibilities. Your Common App essay will go to most, if not all, of the schools on your list, so it’s important that you take the time to write, edit, and get feedback on your essay. 

Read our ultimate guide to the Common App essay (which will soon be updated with the new prompt) and take a look at some strong essay examples to get a better idea of what admissions officers are looking for.

2. Know what topics are good, and which ones to avoid

There are two ways to brainstorm your essay. You can either pick a prompt that resonates with you and look for a matching story from your life, or come up with a story essential to who you are and find a prompt to match.

Keep in mind that there are some essay topics to avoid, however. Some cliche college essay topics include:

  • Sports injury story
  • Working hard in a challenging class
  • Immigrant story
  • Tragedy (death, divorce, illness)
  • Volunteer trip
  • Your religion
  • Romantic relationships
  • Family pressure to pursue a particular field

In general, these topics are bad because they’re extremely common and too often focus on the event itself rather than you and your personality. This doesn’t mean you can’t cover these topics, but it’s very difficult to do so in an effective way (see the post linked above for tips on how to revamp these cliche topics).

On the flip side, some good topic ideas are:

  • A unique extracurricular activity or passion
  • An activity or interest that contrasts heavily with your profile
  • A seemingly insignificant moment that speaks to larger themes within your life
  • Using an everyday experience or object as a metaphor to explore your life and personality
  • An in the moment narrative that tells the story of a important moment in your life

These topics are much broader and allow for greater creativity. 

3. Answer the 4 core questions

The point of the Common App essay is to humanize your application and put a face to your transcript. That’s a tall order for only 650 words max! 

To make sure you’re sharing the fullest range possible of who you are, try to answer these four core questions in your essay:

  • Why Am I Here?
  • What is Unique About Me?
  • What Matters to Me?

4. Consider the different college essay structures

The Common App essay is a piece of creative storytelling, and not your typical analytical paper for school. You don’t necessarily want to write an essay with the standard introduction, thesis, and supporting body paragraphs. 

How should you structure your essay, then? Here are a few ideas:

  • In-the-moment narrative: Take us to a specific moment in time and share your story as it’s unfolding, using this moment as a segue into broader themes of your life.
  • Narrative told over an extended period of time: This structure allows you to cover several experiences, and is well-suited for those looking to highlight their long-term development.
  • Series of anecdotes, or montage: Use several scenes (that aren’t necessarily related or chronological) to highlight an element of your life or personality.

There are also unconventional essay structures that you may consider, such as writing a movie script or a poem. These are high risk, but also high reward if executed correctly.

Learn more about essay structures and see examples in our blog post.

5. Show, don’t tell

One common mistake students make is to simply state what happened in their essay, rather than to use storytelling techniques like imagery and dialogue. To keep your essay as engaging as possible, you need to bring us to these experiences and allow us to be there with you, rather than telling us what happened. 

Here’s an example of telling: “Running a half marathon was a challenge.”

And here’s an example of showing: “My shoe became untied at mile 11, so I paused and bent over to lace it back up. Pain shot through my lower back. I grimaced and let out an audible groan.”

Where to Get Your Essay Edited for Free

Once you clear the academic threshold for selective schools, your essays and extracurriculars are the deciding factors for admissions officers. In fact, your essays and extracurriculars matter almost as much as grades and test scores at top schools. Why is this? Most students applying to top schools will have stellar academics. Your essays and extracurriculars are your chance to stand out and share your personality.

This is especially true for the Common App essay, as the prompts invite reflection and personal storytelling. It’s vital that your essay is engaging and presents you as someone who would enrich the campus community.

Before submitting your application, you should have someone else review your Common App essay. It’s even better if that person doesn’t know you personally, as they can best tell whether your personality shines through your essay. 

That’s why we created our Peer Essay Review tool , where you can get a free review of your essay from another student. You can also improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays. We highly recommend giving this tool a try!

college essay 2022

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Essays That Worked

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The essays are a place to show us who you are and who you’ll be in our community.

It’s a chance to add depth to something that is important to you and tell the admissions committee more about your background or goals. Below you’ll find selected examples of essays that “worked,” as nominated by our admissions committee. In each of these essays, students were able to share stories from their everyday lives to reveal something about their character, values, and life that aligned with the culture and values at Hopkins.

Read essays that worked from Transfer applicants .

Hear from the class of 2027.

These selections represent just a few examples of essays we found impressive and helpful during the past admissions cycle. We hope these essays inspire you as you prepare to compose your own personal statements. The most important thing to remember is to be original as you share your own story, thoughts, and ideas with us.

college essay 2022

Ordering the Disorderly

Ellie’s essay skillfully uses the topic of entropy as an extended metaphor. Through it, we see reflections about who they are and who they aspire to be.

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Pack Light, But Be Prepared

In Pablo’s essay, the act of packing for a pilgrimage becomes a metaphor for the way humans accumulate experiences in their life’s journey and what we can learn from them. As we join Pablo through the diverse phases of their life, we gain insights into their character and values.

college essay 2022

Tikkun Olam

Julieta illustrates how the concept of Tikkun Olam, “a desire to help repair the world,” has shaped their passions and drives them to pursue experiences at Hopkins.

college essay 2022

Kashvi’s essay encapsulates a heartfelt journey of self-discovery and the invaluable teachings of Rock, their 10-year-old dog. Through the lens of their companionship, Kashvi walked us through valuable lessons on responsibility, friendship, patience, and unconditional love.

college essay 2022

Classical Reflections in Herstory

Maddie’s essay details their intellectual journey using their love of Greek classics. They incorporate details that reveal the roots of their academic interests: storytelling, literary devices, and translation. As their essay progresses, so do Maddie’s intellectual curiosities.

college essay 2022

My Spotify Playlist

Alyssa’s essay reflects on special memories through the creative lens of Spotify playlists. They use three examples to highlight their experiences with their tennis team, finding a virtual community during the pandemic, and co-founding a nonprofit to help younger students learn about STEM.

More essays that worked

We share essays from previously admitted students—along with feedback from our admissions committee—so you can understand what made them effective and how to start crafting your own.

college essay 2022

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2021-2022 Common App essay prompts

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Common App Essay Prompts 2021-2022

“Particularly at this challenging time, we can help students think about something positive and heartfelt in their lives. And we can do it explicitly.” Jenny Rickard, President & CEO, Common App
“As a member of the Common Application Advisory Committee, I appreciated learning about the careful and deliberative process, involving a variety of counseling and student stakeholders, to recommend these revisions to the essay prompts. During these difficult times, it will be encouraging for students and those reviewing these essay responses to be reminded of the joy and hope that generosity and gratitude can foster.” Sacha Thieme, Assistant Vice Provost & Executive Director of Admissions, Indiana University

News and updates

Blog

Make the most of your college journey – Part 1

Blog

Common App welcomes four new members to the 2024-2025 Board of Directors

Blog

NC Central University sees exponential growth in applications

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Tips for Writing the 2022-2023 College App Essays

college essay 2022

By Eric Eng

a male student sitting and smiling

Whether writing comes easy to you or you struggle to string sentences together, the 2022-2023 college app essay prompts will ask you to think deeply and creatively about yourself and your goals for attending college. The essay prompts may change little from year to year or be completely different from previous years.

The goal is to pick the right 2022-2023 college app essay prompts and to produce a written piece that accurately and authentically reflects who you are as a student and learner, but also as a person and potential member of a school’s student body.

Students taking a SAT exam in a room with a long table.

Use our essay writing tips to write your college application essays and make it the strongest it can possibly be. Depending on which essay prompts you select, you’ll be able to showcase aspects of yourself that aren’t already clear in other materials in your application. The 2022-2023 college app essay prompts are simply an additional avenue to show schools why you belong at their school over other students.

Common Application Essay Prompts

Over 800 schools use the Common App , including all eight Ivy League schools. The prompts are carefully selected to give students different options to express themselves.

Each prompt asks you to share something different about yourself, so you’ll want to understand what the question is asking and what life experiences you have that will be a great story to tell. Here’s are the prompts for this year’s college application essays:

  • 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.
  • 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?
  • Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  • 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?
  • Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  • 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?
  • 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.

Now that you’ve got a sense of each of the prompts, these essay writing tips will be helpful in getting started and completing your drafts.

Tip 1: Start early.

Writing your essay and getting it ready for submission will take time. Depending on your writing skills, it may take you anywhere from a few days to several weeks to draft, revise, and proofread. Check out each school’s deadlines for early action and regular decision.

a female student looking at the camera smiling

You’ll want to give yourself enough time to make sure you are meeting the deadlines. By the end of high school, you have a good idea of how long it takes you to write a certain amount of words. Give yourself enough time to write based on the length of time you know you’ll need.

 Tip 2: Read over the prompts and pick 2 to 3 favorites.

Before you begin writing, read over each essay prompt and make sure you understand what each prompt is asking. Does a story or experience immediately come to mind? That can be a good sign that you’ve found the prompt for you to write about.

Try to pick at least two or three prompts for which you can immediately think of experiences to share. If something comes to mind as you’re reading the prompt, even better! Having options to choose from will help you with drafting your college application essays.

Tip 3: Brainstorm multiple prompts.

Brainstorming is the very first step of the writing process. It will be hard to write anything if you haven’t done any thinking about the topics. For each prompt you selected as a favorite, spend 5 to 10 minutes free writing or even drawing everything you can think of about that topic.

There are other ways to brainstorm, but this is the simplest and most straightforward. Once you’ve done a free write for the prompt, you’ll have a sense of what ideas you have and whether they excite you enough to fill 650 words.

Tip 4: Pick the strongest idea that is interesting, representative, and unique.

After you’ve brainstormed in response to several prompts, review your initial thoughts and think about which idea has the strongest story. Which idea sparks the most desire to begin writing right away?

a male student reading a book

Whatever is exciting and enjoyable for you to write will allow you to translate your passion and interests. Engaging essays will be interesting, reflect your personality and experiences authentically, and be unlike any other essay admissions officers may read.

Tip 5: Address all parts of the prompt.

Many of the 2022-2023 college app essay prompts contain multiple parts. You’ll need to be sure you address all parts of the prompt within your essay. That doesn’t mean spending the same amount of time on each question though.

You may find that some parts of the prompt are more important than others. Try to balance out your essay, so the majority of your sentences are spent on the more important parts of the prompt.

Tip 6: Tell the truth.

Avoid lying about anything in your college application essays. You might think it enhances your essay and adds to your appeal, but admissions officers may double check anything you submit. Some admissions officers have been known to investigate anonymous tips to fact check claims.

Make sure every detail you include in your essay is truthful and honest to the best of your knowledge. You will make more of an impression with honest facts than with any lie you could fabricate.

Tip 7: Remember the word count!

Regardless of which prompt you choose, you will have just 650 words to craft your answer. You’ll need to be succinct and get straight to the point. You may want to elaborate on background information or spend paragraphs setting the scene.

The word count means you have about a page and a half double-spaced to convey an impression strong enough to secure your admission. It might be helpful to write a longer draft to give yourself room during revising to cut and rearrange what you come up with. Your final draft should be at or less than 650 words.

Tip 8: Get specific.

Your life and personal experiences will be the bricks you use to build your essay. Use as many sensory details as you can to bring the admissions officers into your experiences. Think about how you can incorporate sensorial language that is concrete more than abstract.

Instead of discussing intelligence, describe the emotions you felt studying a new subject. Rather than abstractly describing compassion, you can show it through describing your volunteer work. Ground your essay in facts and details based on the five senses to invite the admissions officers into your experiences in a specific way.

Tip 9: Stay on topic.

Refer back to your essay prompt after drafting. Make sure your essay sticks to the topic of the prompt. Eliminate any tangential, unnecessary information that wastes space or distracts from your major topic. Staying specific will help you stay on topic.

a boarding school student writing on a paper while looking at the camera smiling

Pick just one experience to highlight and focus on. There won’t be time to go over too many different experiences, so make sure the example you pick addresses the topic enough to not need any other examples to fill the space.

Tip 10: Get an editor.

After you’ve done the work of writing a draft and revising it, you’ll want to have someone else look over it for you. Be careful to pick someone who knows what admissions officers are looking for and who has significant writing skills themselves. AdmissionSight admission consultants are experts who can help with every aspect of the application process, including with the 2022-2023 college app essay prompts.

For each prompt, here are a few ideas to think about and excerpts from the previous year’s common application essay.

The first prompt is flexible and provides you with infinite options on what to write about. As you write, focus the details on your background, the specifics of your identity, your interests, or your unique talents.

Pick something that is meaningful to you and be sure to identify which part. Think about how your life has been shaped and what life experiences, interests, or achievements have been most important in shaping it. Consider what has shaped your career interests. Every detail should convey something essential about who you are.

Similar to prompt #7, this prompt can be used to discuss life experiences, family dynamics, or unique talents. For example, maybe you attended a Beck concert and felt inspired to teach yourself three different instruments.

Maybe you learned to appreciate your culture by visiting your grandmother to make your family’s favorite cultural food. Think about how your experiences have helped you to learn and grow as a result. Show how your personal story relates to the themes of your background, identity, interests, and talents.

The second essay prompt has three parts. You’ll want to pick an experience that conveys a challenge, setback, or failure. Your essay should describe how the experience impacted you and what you learned.

Think of how you changed as a result of the experience and discuss it as a positive example. Whatever the experience is that challenged you or caused you to fail, always think of how it can be illustrated in a way that shows your positive qualities. Use the essay to show that you can respond well to challenges and persevere.

Growing up poor with a single parent or having a disability are great topics, but try to avoid using a frivolous or overdone topic. Never describe anything illegal, illicit, or immoral. This prompt is also not the time to provide too much background information. Focus on how the experience caused you to change and grow as a person. It is also a good idea to describe how your change in values could contribute to a college campus.

The third prompt is a chance for you to show how passionate you are about your ideas, values, and beliefs. Try to do this in a way that doesn’t come off as preachy or sentimental. Avoid overly polarizing topics that might be offensive to admissions officers. You’ll also want to shy away from biting off too large of a value that doesn’t easily parse down into smaller topics.

Admissions officers want to see how you can convey your insights and stand up for your beliefs while being respectful of the ideas of others. Being able to stand up for an unpopular belief or one that deeply matters to you can be used to show your personality and aspirations.

Make sure to pick something you are truly passionate about. The essay is more about showing you can express your opinions and ideas while staying open minded rather than only being right and proving others wrong.

The fourth essay prompt asks you to show examples of your thinking and problem solving skills along with how you respond to problems. Think of a problem you have solved or a problem you want to solve.

You might focus on a problem you’ve solved in the past or challenges you expect in the future. Describe how you have addressed them or how you will address them later. If describing a future challenge, discuss how you have solved similar problems in the past.

Your drive to change the world should be discussed in specific ways that show what you value and how you think about the issue. Be sure to express why the problem matters to you. It should be relevant for you on a personal level.

If you’ve already taken steps to solve a problem, you can list them out or prescribe a hypothetical sequence of steps you’d take to solve the problem. A past or future focus would be both great ways to address this prompt.

The fifth prompt invites you to explain an accomplishment, event, or realization you’ve had. This essay should focus on results you were able to achieve. This can be a big event or small event. Small events can be just as unique and inspiring as bigger ones.

You might describe the time you met an important person, had a mind-bending volunteer experience, or traveling somewhere new. Describe how the experience changed, being sure to emphasize the specific change that happened. What you learned and how you grew or how you might grow in the future can be central to your essay. If you treat people differently or approach situations from a new perspective, this is what you should emphasize.

The sixth prompt asks you to discuss any talent you’ve had for self-directed learning and teaching yourself. Think about what has intrigued you or been important to you. This should be something exciting, and your passion should clearly seep through as you describe it. You can start with something you love and that excites you. Let the admissions officers know clearly why it is something you feel strongly about.

A female student taking a test and wearing a face mask

If you’ve learned how to code or how to knit sweaters, discuss the process you underwent to learn it. Discuss how satisfied you were and how much time you devoted. Highlight the specific passion or idea that intrigued you to learn more about it. Maybe you have a love for fantastical literature or learning about birds.

Make sure it is something you have taught yourself independently instead of something a teacher or tutor has taught you. Use the experience to show your work ethic and determination.

The final essay prompt is the most expansive of all the prompts. You can literally write about anything you want. This makes the prompt both easy and difficult. It’s also a little risky. You’ll want to choose this prompt if you already have a pressing topic in mind that doesn’t fit with any of the other prompts.

If there’s something else about you that the admissions officers need to know that they can’t glean from other application materials, this essay would be the place to include it. If there are any experiences you’ve had that are key to understanding you as a person, then this essay is where you can discuss.

It should describe something you have that other student’s won’t have. Make sure it is a specific experience, and it should relate to who you are as a person and a learner. This prompt is very risky because there is not enough guidance and students can get carried away, appear scatterbrained, and easily get off topic.

Essay Writing Tips At AdmissionSight

When you sign up to work with us at AdmissionSight, we help you with the 2022-2023 college app essay prompts. Our admissions experts will consult with you to identify experiences you’ve had and discuss how they might fit with each of the prompts. If you choose not to apply by the deadline of this year, we can help you with your essay prompts next year, too. Consult with AdmissionSight today to get started with your college application essays.

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The 2021-2022 Common App Essay: How to Write a Great Essay That Will Get You Accepted

Common App essay - magoosh

If you’re reading this, then you’ve probably started the very exciting process of applying to college—and chances are you may be a little overwhelmed at times. That’s OK! The key to getting into the right college for you is taking each step of the application process in stride, and one of those steps is completing the Common App and the Common App essay.

In this post, you’ll learn what the Common Application essay is, how to write one (including a free checklist to help you with the process), example essays, and much more. Let’s get started!

Table of Contents

What is the Common App, and More Importantly, What is the Common App Essay? Quick Facts on the 2021-2022 Common App Essay How Do You Write a Common App Essay?

What Should I Avoid in My Common App Essay? What Are Some Good Common App Essay Examples?

Common Application Essay FAQs

What is the common app, and more importantly, what is the common app essay.

What is the Common App essay - magoosh

The “Common App,” short for the Common Application , is a general application used to apply to multiple college undergraduate programs at once. It’s accepted by hundreds of colleges in the United States as well as some colleges internationally.

The idea is that the Common App is a “one-stop shop” so you don’t have to complete a million separate applications. That said, plenty of colleges still require their own application components, and the Common App, as user-friendly as it aims to be, can still feel like a bit of a challenge to complete.

Part of the reason the Common App can seem intimidating is because of the Common App essay component, which is required of all students who submit a college application this way. But never fear! In reality, the Common App essay is easy to ace if you know how to approach it and you give it your best.

So without further ado, let’s take a look at anything and everything you need to know about the 2021-2022 Common App essay in order to help you get into the school of your dreams. We’ve also created a downloadable quick guide to writing a great Common Application essay.

Button to download 2021-2022 Common App Essay

Quick Facts on the 2021-2022 Common App Essay

Common App essay facts - magoosh

Below are just a few of the short and sweet things you need to know about the 2021-2022 Common App essay, but we’ll elaborate on some of this content later in this post.

There is no fee to complete the Common App, but nearly every college has its own set of necessary submissions fees.
250-650 words
One (but specific colleges may request more than that in their applications)
You have until 11:50 pm in your timezone on the day a college application is due to submit the Common App, including the Common App essay.
(more on this below!)

How Do You Write a Common App Essay?

How to write a Common App essay - magoosh

The million dollar question about the Common App essay is obviously, “How do I actually write it?!”

Now there’s something to keep in mind before exploring how to compose the Common App essay, and that’s the purpose of this task. You may be wondering:

  • What are college admissions boards actually looking for?
  • Why are you being asked to write this essay?

College admissions boards want to see that you can compose a compelling, well-crafted essay. After four years of high school, you’re expected to be able to craft a clear and concise piece of writing that addresses a specific subject.

So yes, you’re actually being evaluated on your essay writing skills, but the purpose of the Common Application essay is deeper than that—it’s to present the type of person and thinker that you are.

Regardless of which prompt you choose, colleges are trying to get a sense of how thoughtfully and critically you can reflect on your life and the world around you .

And furthermore, they want to get a sense of who you are—your interests, your personality, your values—the dimensional aspects of you as an applicant that simply can’t be expressed in transcripts and test scores . In short, you want to stand out and be memorable.

That said, there is no exact formula for “cracking the case” of the Common App essay, but there are plenty of useful steps and tips that can help you write a great essay.

(In a hurry? Download our quick and concise handout that sums up some of the keys to the Common App essay!)

1) Familiarize Yourself With the Common App Prompts and How to Approach Them

The Common App recently released the 2021-2022 essay prompts , which are almost the same as last year’s prompts, but with one BIG difference.

The prompt about problem solving (formerly prompt #4) has been replaced with a prompt about gratitude and how it has motivated you. According to Common App President and CEO Jenny Rickard, this change was inspired by new scientific research on the benefits of writing about gratitude and the positive impact others have had on our lives.

Additionally, the Common App now includes an optional Covid-19 prompt where you can discuss how you’ve personally been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Now, let’s take a look at each 2021-2022 Common App prompt individually. You’ll notice that every prompt really has two parts to it:

  • share, explain and describe a narrative, and
  • reflect on, analyze, and draw meaning from it.

Let’s take a look.

  Prompt #1: A snapshot of your story

Prompt: 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.

  • Discuss a background, identity, or interest that you feel is meaningful to who you are and/or that or sets you apart from others.
  • Reflect on why this attribute is meaningful and how it has shaped you as a person.

  Prompt #2: An obstacle you overcame

Prompt: 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?

  • Recount a time you faced a challenge, setback, or failure.
  • Reflect on how this affected you, what you learned from it, and if it led to any successes later down the line.

  Prompt #3: A belief or idea you questioned or challenged

Prompt: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

  • Explain a time that you questioned a particular belief or way of thinking.
  • Elaborate on what prompted this questioning, what the outcome was, and why this outcome was significant.

  Prompt #4: An experience of gratitude that has motivated you

Prompt: 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?

  • Describe the specific experience or interaction that made you feel a sense of gratitude. Make sure to explain who did something nice for you and why it was surprising or unexpected.
  • Explain, as specifically as possible, how this feeling of gratitude changed or motivated you. What actions did you take a result? How did your mindset change?

  Prompt #5: An accomplishment or event that sparked personal growth

Prompt: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

  • Describe an accomplishment or event that sparked personal growth for you.
  • Reflect on the nature of this growth and/or a new understanding you gained in the process.

  Prompt #6: An interest so engaging you lose track of time

Prompt: 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?

  • Discuss a topic, idea, or interest that is so engaging to you that you lose track of time when focused on it.
  • Reflect on and explain why this interest is so important to you, and your method of learning more about it.

  Prompt #7: An essay topic of your choice

Prompt: 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.

  • Discuss any subject matter or philosophical question of interest to you.
  • Reflect on the implications of this subject or question, and how it has shaped you, transformed you, impacted your life, etc.

  Now keep in mind that to some degree, it doesn’t actually matter which prompt you choose to answer, so long as you write and present yourself well. But you obviously want to pick whichever Common App essay prompt speaks to you most, and the one you think will provide you the meatiest and most meaningful material.

This is an outstanding guide to choosing the right Common App essay prompt, but as a rule of thumb, the “right” prompt will probably stand out to you. If you have to rack your brain, for example, to think of a challenge you’ve overcome and how the experience has shaped you, then that prompt probably isn’t the right one.

Authenticity is key, so choose the prompt you can answer thoroughly.

2) Brainstorm

Whether you know immediately which prompt you’re going to choose or not, do yourself a huge favor and brainstorm . Take out a notebook and jot down or free write all of the ideas that spring to your mind for as many of the prompts that you’re considering. You might be surprised what ideas you generate as you start doing this, and you might be surprised which ideas seem to have the most content and examples to elaborate on.

Also, it’s important to note that your subject matter doesn’t have to be highly dramatic or spectacular. You don’t have to recount a near-death experience, an epic overseas adventure, a 180-degree turn of faith, etc. Your ordinary life, when reflected upon thoughtfully, is interesting and profound.

3) Answer the Question (and Stay on Topic!)

This may sound painfully obvious, but for some of us, it can be hard to stay on topic. Each prompt is posed as a question , so don’t lose sight of that and let your essay devolve into a story about yourself that never really gets at the heart of the prompt.

As you’re drafting your essay—say after each paragraph—pause and refer back to the question, making sure each paragraph plays some part in actually responding to the prompt.

4) Structure and Organize Your Essay Effectively

The Common App essay isn’t like many of the other argumentative essays you’ve been taught to write in school. It is argumentative in that you are essentially arguing for why you are a good candidate for a particular college, using your personal experience as support, but it’s more than that.

The Common Application essay is essentially a narrative essay that is reflective and analytical by nature. This means that regardless of which prompt you select, you’ll be sharing something personal about yourself, and then reflecting on and analyzing why what you shared is important.

And even if this isn’t an essay format that you’re accustomed to writing, you can still rely on your knowledge of basic essay structures to help you. You’ll still need a clear introduction, body, and conclusion.

Let’s talk about those three pieces now.

Introduction

The purpose of an introduction is 1) to grab the reader’s attention and compel them to continue reading, and 2) to introduce the reader to the general subject at hand.

So the most important part of the introduction is a unique attention-getter that establishes your personal voice and tone while piquing the reader’s interest. An example of a good hook could be a brief illustrative anecdote, a quote, a rhetorical question, and so on.

Now, you may be wondering, “Do I need a thesis statement?” This is a great question and the simple answer is no.

This is because some students prefer to hook their reader with a bit of mystery and let their story unfold organically without a thesis sentence “spoiling” what is to come. This doesn’t mean you can’t have a thesis sentence, it just means you don’t need one. It just depends on how you want to build your personal narrative, and what serves you best.

That said, your essay does need a greater message or lesson in it, which is another way of saying a thesis . You just don’t necessarily have to write it out in the introduction paragraph.

It might help you to keep a thesis in mind or even write it down just for your own sake, even if you don’t explicitly use it in your introduction. Doing so can help you stay on track and help you build up to a stronger reflection.

Here are some examples of narrative thesis statements:

  • I moved a lot as a child on account of having a parent in the military, which led me to become highly adaptable to change.
  • The greatest obstacle I’ve overcome is my battle with leukemia, which has taught me both incredible resilience and reverence for the present.
  • An accomplishment that I achieved was making the varsity volleyball team, which has made me grow tremendously as a person, specifically in the areas of self-confidence and collaboration.

As discussed earlier, there are two parts to each prompt: explanation and reflection . Each part should be addressed throughout the essay, but how you organize your content is up to you.

A good rule of thumb for structuring the body of your essay is as follows:

  • Situate your reader: provide context for your story by focusing in on a particular setting, subject matter, or set of details. For example, you may frame an essay about an internship at the zoo with the phrase, “Elephants make the best friends.” Your reader knows immediately that the subject matter involves your interaction with animals, specifically elephants.
  • Explain more about your topic and how it affected you, using specific examples and key details.
  • Go deeper. Elaborate and reflect on the message at hand and how this particular topic shaped the person you are today.

Note that while there are no set rules for how many paragraphs you should use for your essay, be mindful of breaking paragraphs whenever you naturally shift gears, and be mindful of too-long paragraphs that just feel like walls of text for the reader.

Your conclusion should flow nicely from your elaboration, really driving home your message or what you learned. Be careful not to just dead-end your essay abruptly.

This is a great place to speculate on how you see the subject matter informing your future, especially as a college student and beyond. For example, what might you want to continue to learn about? What problems do you anticipate being able to solve given your experience?

5) Write Honestly, Specifically, and Vividly

It may go without saying, but tell your own story, without borrowing from someone else’s or embellishing. Profound reflection, insight, and wisdom can be gleaned from the seemingly simplest experiences, so don’t feel the need to stray from the truth of your unique personal experiences.

Also, make sure to laser in on a highly specific event, obstacle, interest, etc. It is better to go “narrower and deeper” than to go “wider and shallower,” because the more specific you are, the more vivid and engrossing your essay will naturally be.

For example, if you were a camp counselor every summer for the last few years, avoid sharing several summers’ worth of content in your essay. Focus instead on one summer , and even better, on one incident during that summer at camp.

And on that note, remember to be vivid! Follow the cardinal rule of writing: show and don’t tell . Provide specific details, examples, and images in order to create a clear and captivating narrative for your readers.

6) Be Mindful of Voice and Tone

Unlike in most academic essays, you can sound a bit less stuffy and a bit more like yourself in the Common App essay. Your essay should be professional, but can be conversational. Try reading it aloud; does it sound like you? That’s good!

Be mindful, however, of not getting too casual or colloquial in it. This means avoiding slang, contractions, or “text speak” abbreviations (e.g. “lol”), at least without deliberate context in your story (for example, if you’re recounting dialogue).

You’re still appealing to academic institutions here, so avoid profanity at all costs, and make sure you’re still upholding all the rules for proper style, grammar, and punctuation.

7) Revise and Proofread

This one is a biggie. Give yourself time during your application process to revise, rework, and even rewrite your essay several times. Let it grow and change and become the best version it can be. After you write your first draft, walk away from it for a couple days, and return to it with fresh eyes. You may be surprised by what you feel like adding, removing, or changing.

And of course, make sure your essay is pristine before you submit it. Triple and quadruple check for spelling and usage errors, typos, etc. Since this isn’t a timed essay you have to sit for (like the ACT essay test , for example), the college admissions readers will expect your essay to be polished and sparkling.

A tried and true method for both ensuring flow and catching errors is reading your essay aloud. You may sound a little silly, but it really works!

What Should I Avoid in My Common App Essay?

What to avoid in Common App essay - magoosh

Resume Material

Your Common App essay is your chance to provide a deeper insight into you as a person, so avoid just repeating what you’d put on a resume. This is not to say you can’t discuss something mentioned briefly on your resume in greater depth, but the best essays offer something new that helps round out the whole college application.

Controversy

Okay, now this one is a bit tricky. On the one hand, you should write boldly and honestly, and some of the prompts (the one about challenging a particular belief, for example) are appropriate for addressing potentially contentious topics.

But that said, avoid being controversial or edgy for the sake of being controversial or edgy. Be steadfast in your beliefs for the greater sake of the narrative and your essay will be naturally compelling without being alienating to your readers.

Vague Stories

If you have a personal story that you’re not entirely comfortable sharing, avoid it, even if it would make a great essay topic in theory. This is because if you’re not comfortable writing on the subject matter, you’ll end up being too vague, which won’t do your story or overall application justice. So choose a subject matter you’re familiar with and comfortable discussing in specifics.

Unless they really, truly serve your essay, avoid general platitudes and cliches in your language. It is definitely encouraged to have an essay with a moral, lesson, or greater takeaway, but try to avoid summing up what you’ve learned with reductive phrases like “slow and steady wins the race,” “good things come in small packages,” “actions speak louder than words,” “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” and so on.

What Are Some Good Common App Essay Examples?

Common App essay examples - magoosh

There are tons of Common App essays out there, including these Common App essay examples accepted at Connecticut College, which include explanations from admissions readers about why they were chosen.

But let’s take a look here at two versions of an example essay, one that is just okay and one that is great.

Both Common App essay examples are crafted in response to prompt #2, which is:

Essay Version #1, Satisfactory Essay:

During my sophomore year of high school, I tore my ACL, which stands for “anterior cruciate ligament,” and is the kiss of death for most athletic careers. This injury ended up being one of the greatest obstacles of my life. It was also, however, a turning point that taught me to see opportunity amidst adversity.

It was particularly awful that I was just about to score a winning goal during a championship hockey game when I was checked by a guy on the opposing team and came crashing down on my knee. It was pain unlike anything I’d ever felt before, and I knew immediately that this was going to be bad.

For the few months that followed the accident, I was lost, not really knowing what to do with myself. I didn’t know who I was anymore because hockey had been my whole world and sense of identity. Between working out, attending practice, playing home and away games, and watching games to learn more, it was my lifeblood. Losing my ability to play took a toll on me physically and emotionally and I grew lethargic and depressed.

And then one day I heard my school would be adding an advanced multimedia art class for those students who wanted to continue studying art beyond what was already offered. I had taken the handful of art classes my school offered and really enjoyed and excelled at them—though I had never considered them more than just fun electives to fill my scheduled, as required.

After a couple of weeks of the class, I began feeling better. Suddenly I wanted to draw or paint everything I looked at. I wanted to share the world around me as I saw it with others, to connect with people in a way I’d never done before. I met and made friends with many new people in that art class, people I would have never known if I hadn’t taken it, which also opened me up to all kinds of new mindsets and experiences.

We’re all familiar with the common adage, “When one door closes, another opens,” and this is exactly what happened for me. I might never have pursued art more seriously if I hadn’t been taken out of hockey. This has served as a great reminder for me to stay open to new opportunities. We never know what will unexpectedly bring us joy and make us more well-rounded people.

Areas for Improvement in Version #1:

  • It lacks a compelling hook.
  • The discussion of the obstacle and reflection upon it are both a bit rushed.
  • It could use more vivid and evocative language.
  • It uses a cliche (“one door closes”).
  • It is somewhat vague at times (e.g. what kinds of “new mindsets and experiences” did the writer experience? In what ways are they now more “well-rounded”?).

Now let’s apply this feedback and revise the essay.

Essay Version #2, Excellent Essay:

My body was splayed out on the ice and I was simultaneously right there, in searing pain, and watching everything from above, outside of myself. It wasn’t actually a “near death” experience, but it was certainly disorienting, considering that just seconds before, I was flying down the ice in possession of the puck, about to score the winning goal of our championship game.

Instead, I had taken a check from an opposing team member, and had torn my ACL (or anterior cruciate ligament), which is the kiss of death for most athletic careers.

My road to recovery included two major surgeries, a couple months on crutches, a year of physical therapy, and absolutely zero athletic activity. I would heal, thankfully, and regain movement in my knee and leg, but I was told by doctors that I may never play hockey again, which was devastating to me. Hockey wasn’t just my passion—it was my life’s goal to play professionally.

For the few months that followed the accident, I was lost, feeling like a ghost haunting my own life, watching everything but unable to participate. I didn’t know who I was anymore because hockey had been my whole world and sense of identity. Between working out, attending practice, playing home and away games, and watching games to learn more, it was my lifeblood. Losing my ability to play took a toll on me physically and emotionally, and I grew lethargic and depressed.

And then one day I heard my school would be adding an advanced multimedia art class after school for those students who wanted to study art more seriously. I had already taken the handful of art classes my school offered and really enjoyed them—though I had never considered them more than just fun electives to fill my schedule, as required. And, because of hockey, I certainly had never had afternoons open.

After a couple of weeks of the class, I began to feel alive again, like “myself” but renewed, more awake and aware of everything around me. Suddenly I wanted to draw or paint everything I looked at, to bring everything I saw to life. It wasn’t just that I’d adopted a new hobby or passion, it was that I began looking more closely and critically at the world around me. I wanted to share what I saw with others, to connect with people in a way I’d never done before.

My art teacher selected a charcoal portrait of mine to be showcased in a local art show and I’ve never been more proud of myself for anything. Many of my friends, family members, and teammates came to see the show, which blew me away, but also I realized then just how much of my own self worth had been attached to people’s perception of me as a successful athlete. I learned how much better it feels to gain self worth from within. Unlike hockey, which I’d trained to be good at since I was a toddler, art is something that made me much more vulnerable. I didn’t do it to try to be the best, I did it because it felt good. And getting out of my comfort zone in this way gave me a sense of confidence I had never known prior, despite all my time on the ice during high-stakes games.

Today, I’m back in skates and able to play hockey, but will probably not play professionally; while I am disappointed, I’m also at peace with it. We make plans in life, and sometimes life has other plans for us that we have to adapt to and embrace, which is the more profound lesson I’ve learned in the healing process. We can crumple in the face of obstacles, or we can look for a silver lining and allow ourselves to grow into more complex, dynamic, well-rounded people. I don’t know what the rest of life holds for me, but I do know that I’m going to keep making art, and I’m going to keep opening myself up to new opportunities and experiences.

Strengths of Version #2:

  • It has a compelling hook that draws the reader in.
  • It has a clear beginning, middle, and end (expressed as an introduction, body, and conclusion).
  • It directly addresses the prompt at hand and sticks to it.
  • It focuses on one specific incident.
  • It is well balanced in its explanation of and reflection on a given experience.
  • It uses a clear, unique voice and tone as well as vivid, evocative language.
  • It has a logical and cohesive flow.
  • It is highly personal while also polished and professional.

Hopefully these examples have given you ideas of how you can take your Common App essay from good to great. If you have more questions about how to write a Common App essay, keep reading our FAQs below.

Common App essay FAQs - magoosh

How much do I actually have to write for the Common App essay?

Last year, the Common App essay was capped at 650 words with a minimum of 250 words required. The best essays tend to range between 500-650 words.

Think of it this way as you start to draft: 500 words is one single-spaced page (250 words is one double-spaced page), so you should write roughly a page to page and half of typed, single-spaced content.

Where can I find the official Common App essay prompts?

Here are the 2021-2022 Common App essay prompts , which are the same as last year’s, with the exception of a new prompt #4 and the addition of a Covid-19 Common App prompt .

Do I need a title for the Common App essay?

A title is not required for the Common App essay, but you are, of course, more than welcome to include one if you’d like.

Where can I go for more information about the Common App essay?

All of the necessary information for the Common App and the Common App essay can be found on the Common Application home page.

For further reading, here are some posts that tackle and dispel common myths about the Common App essay:

Myth: The Common App essay must sound professional. Myth: Colleges can’t tell if someone helps write a common app essay.

If you haven’t already, you can download our free Common App essay checklist .

Happy Writing!

There you have it! The Common App essay can actually be quite rewarding to write if you give yourself enough time to prepare for it thoroughly. Remember, it’s all about you, and you’re the authority on that! So hunker down and don’t forget to have fun in the writing process.

We’d also love to hear from you! What questions or concerns do you still have about the Common Application essay? What are you thinking about writing on?

Comment below, and good luck!

Nadyja Von Ebers

Nadyja von Ebers is one of Magoosh’s Content Creators. Nadyja holds an MA in English from DePaul University and has taught English and at the high school and college levels for twelve years. She has a decade of experience teaching preparation for the AP exams, the SAT, and the ACT, among other tests. Additionally, Nadyja has worked as an academic advisor at college level and considers herself an expert in all things related to college-prep. She’s applied her college expertise to posts such as UCLA Admissions: The SAT Scores, ACT Scores, and GPA You Need to Get in and A Family Guide to College Admissions . Nadyja loves helping students reach their maximum potential and thrives in both literal and virtual classrooms. When she’s not teaching, she enjoys reading and writing for pleasure and loves spending time in or near the ocean. You can connect with her on LinkedIn !

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By submitting my email address. i certify that i am 13 years of age or older, agree to recieve marketing email messages from the princeton review, and agree to terms of use., popular college application essay topics (and how to answer them).

Get help writing your college application essays. Find this year's Common App writing prompts and popular essay questions used by individual colleges.

The college essay is your opportunity to show admissions officers who you are apart from your grades and test scores (and to distinguish yourself from the rest of a very talented applicant pool).

brainstorming college application essay topics

2023–24 Common App Essays

Nearly 700 colleges accept the The Common Application , which makes it easy to apply to multiple schools with just one form. If you are using the Common App to apply for college admissions, you will have 250–650 words to respond to ONE of the following prompts:

  • 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.
  • 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?
  • Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  • 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?
  • Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  • 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?
  • 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.

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Read More: Get Expert Essay Advice From Former Admissions Officers!

Tackling the Common App Essay Prompts

Prompt #1: share your story..

Answer this prompt by reflecting on a hobby, facet of your personality, or experience that is genuinely meaningful and unique to you. Admissions officers want to feel connected to you and an honest, personal statement about who you are draws them in. Your love of superheroes, baking chops, or family history are all fair game if you can tie it back to who you are or what you believe in. Avoid a rehash of the accomplishments on your high school résumé and choose something that the admissions committee will not discover when reading the rest of your application.

Prompt #2: Learning from obstacles.

You're trying to show colleges your best self, so it might seem counterintuitive to willingly acknowledge a time you struggled. But overcoming challenges demonstrates courage, grit, and perseverance! That’s why the last piece of this prompt is essential. The obstacle you write about can be large or small, but you must show the admissions committee how your perspective changed as a result.

Perfect your college essay video

Prompt #3: Challenging a belief.

Your answer to this question could focus on a time you stood up to others or an experience when your own preconceived view was challenged. Choose this prompt if you have a relevant—and specific!—experience to recount (and reflect on). A vague essay about a hot button issue doesn’t tell the admissions committee anything useful about YOU.

Prompt #4: Reflecting on gratitude.

Colleges are looking for students with unique experiences that can enhance their future campus community, and this is your chance to share that by recognizing what someone else has done for you. Even though this prompt requires you to reflect on the action of another person, make sure that the focus remains on how the act of kindness impacted you and the way you live your life. This essay should make you and the reader smile.

Prompt #5: Personal growth.

Just like Prompt #2, the accomplishment or event you write about can be anything from a major milestone to a smaller "aha" moment. Describe the event or accomplishment that shaped you but take care to also show what you learned or how you changed. Colleges are looking for a sense of maturity and introspection—pinpoint the transformation and demonstrate your personal growth. 

Prompt #6: What captivates you?

This prompt is an invitation to write about something you care about. (So avoid the pitfall of writing about what you think will impress the admission office versus what truly matters to you). Colleges are looking for curious students, who are thoughtful about the world around them. The "what or who do you turn to when you want to learn more” bit isn't an afterthought—it's a key piece of the prompt. Make sure you explain how you pursue your interest, as well.

Read More: QUIZ: Test Your College Knowledge!

Prompt #7: Topic of your choice.

This question might be for you if you have a dynamo personal essay from English class to share or were really inspired by a question from another college’s application. You can even write your own question! Whatever topic you land on, the essentials of a standout college essay still stand: 1.) Show the admissions committee who you are beyond grades and test scores and 2.) Dig into your topic by asking yourself how and why. There isn’t a prompt to guide you, so you must ask yourself the questions that will get at the heart of the story you want to tell.

More College Essay Topics

Individual schools sometimes require supplemental essays. Here are a few popular application essay topics and some tips for how to approach them:

Describe a person you admire.

Avoid the urge to pen an ode to a beloved figure like Gandhi or Abraham Lincoln. The admissions committee doesn't need to be convinced they are influential people. Focus on yourself: Choose someone who has actually caused you to change your behavior or your worldview, and write about how this person influenced you .

Why do you want to attend this school?

Be honest and specific when you respond to this question. Avoid generalities like "to get a good liberal arts education” or “to develop career skills," and use details that show your interests: "I'm an aspiring doctor and your science department has a terrific reputation." Colleges are more likely to admit students who can articulate specific reasons why the school is a good fit for them beyond its reputation or ranking on any list. Use the college's website and literature to do your research about programs, professors, and other opportunities that appeal to you.

Read More: 5 Ways College Application Essays and High School Essays Are Different

What is a book you love?

Your answer should not be a book report. Don't just summarize the plot; detail why you enjoyed this particular text and what it meant to you. What does your favorite book reveal about you? How do you identify with it, and how has it become personal to you?

Again, be honest in answering this question—don't choose a classic from your literature class or a piece of philosophy just because you think it will make you seem smarter. Writing fluently and passionately about a book close to you is always better than writing shakily or generally about a book that doesn't inspire you.

What is an extracurricular activity that has been meaningful to you?

Avoid slipping into clichés or generalities. Take this opportunity to really examine an experience that taught you something you didn't previously know about yourself, got you out of your comfort zone, or forced you to grow. Sometimes it's better to write about something that was hard for you because you learned something than it is to write about something that was easy for you because you think it sounds admirable. As with all essay questions, the most important thing is to tell a great story: how you discovered this activity, what drew you to it, and what it's shown you about yourself.

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How to Write the 2022-23 Common App Essay

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Learn how to write an awesome Common App essay for every single prompt.

Vinay will provide an in-depth breakdown of each of the Common App essay prompts, discussing how to write a great essay in response to each one. He’ll also share his take on the essays and topics you shouldn’t write about for each prompt.

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College Essay Topics for 2022

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Overwhelmed by the many college essay topics you can write about? Don’t be. We’ll show you potential topics you can choose for your college essay.

As discussed in the post about   How to Choose an Essay Topic , don’t start with the Common App, Coalition App, or other college application essay prompts. Instead, begin writing your essay and go back and choose the prompt it answers best later.

Key Takeaways

  • The college essay starts with a compelling essay topic.
  • It's not easy to come up with a college essay topic that is interesting, original, and supports the overall theme of your college application.
  • Start here for ideas on the best college essay topics of 2022

Table of Contents

What is the college essay.

The college essay is the piece of writing in your college application where you tell admission officers:

  • Who you are
  • What value you’d bring to the campus community
  • Why they should accept you. 

The college essay brings color to your file and can give “aha” moments to highlight or bring clarity about why you’re a good candidate for the college. Your college essay is so important that a great essay can push you over the edge if it’s between you and another candidate. A bad college essay will likely lead to a decision to decline your application. College essay topics set the tone of the entire essay.

2020 is the first year that most colleges considered files without test scores. They placed more emphasis on the college essay. Things will be the same in 2020. The University of California and many other colleges have announced that 2021-2022 will also be test-optional.

While we never know the exact impact of the college essay on admissions, before COVID-19,  75% of admissions officers responded that they found the college essay to be a factor in their decisions . This shows that the college essay is important. The essay you write is guided by the college essay topics you choose.  With so many things happening in your life, how do you choose which to write about? 

This post digs into the most compelling topics of the 2022 college application season. The examples presented here will get you started on writing an essay that is unique to you and makes the case for your admissions.

Something you're afraid of

girl covering her face with her blouse

Fear is a great topic to explore in your college essay. It’s one of the most primal of all human emotions. Fear keeps us from making decisions that can hurt us. But more often than not, fear also holds us back from doing things that will help us grow. With a key objective in your essay to show growth, writing your essay about something that keeps you up at night is sure to be a winner. 

Some examples can include the fear of loneliness, fear of failure, or the fear of success . I had a former student write an essay about his fear of heights and how he overcame that fear and worked his way up to riding the Tower of Terror at Hollywood Studios. Here’s an excerpt from the student’s essay:

"I am scared of many things (needles, sharks, blood), but no fear has conquered me more than height fright. I spent a decade visiting Disney World with my mom, dad, and younger brother and never set foot on a thrill ride. I especially feared The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, a Hollywood Studios headliner, engineered to drop at accelerated speeds while being struck by lightning bolts or what epitomized my waking nightmare. In August 2011, when my dad suggested we ride Terror, I profusely refused. His stone-cold face glared at me down when he said, "Logan, this ride isn't even scary!" But I, arms crossed and standing my ground, wouldn't waver. Of course, I got my way, and he stayed back with me. Although relieved for the time being, upon returning to New York, I felt bad that I had burdened my family with my fear, which persisted for five more years. Then, last year, I rode Terror and haven't looked back since. Here's how I did it." Student Writer

Something you're grateful for

girl on the bus laughing looking outside

This topic perfectly aligns with the Common Apps new 2021-2022 essay prompt that says: 

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?

The motivation for this question update is that so much has happened in the last two years. After the COVID-19 pandemic, the world will never be the same. We have lost so many lives. Also, there is social unrest, economic decline, and lots of uncertainty. Some people liken what’s happening to the early 20th century, ironically in the same 20s decade. If you’re alive, breathing, and have had good fortunes this year, this may be an excellent topic for you to dig into further.

Someone who has inspired you

Dad and daugther posing for picture studying in the library

For this essay topic, you’d write about a real person in your life . Avoid choosing a celebrity, popular politician or pubic figure, out of the risk of being too clich é . The person you choose should have a direct or indirect influence on the person you have become. 

This could be someone like your mom or dad, a grandparent, aunt or uncle, cousin, friend, teacher, coach, or anyone else who you can speak vividly and candidly about lessons they have taught you. This person can be living or may have passed on. The essay you write will illustrate what insights and learnings you can apply to your life because of the influence they have had on you.

Here’s an excerpt from a sample student who wrote about her late father: 

"In his final days, I recall my father reclining on a plush black couch. His expressionless face was attached to a gas mask and oxygen tank. It still brings me to tears that the father I loved - the man who walked ten blocks every Sunday to Parisi's Bakery to buy his little girl strawberry-filled bread cookies - was losing his battle with lung cancer. Even as his health started to deteriorate, my father proved himself to be a hero. Like a devout Muslim, he read his favorite Koran passages and prayed five times daily until the eleventh hour. Oblivious to his weakening condition, I sat by his side, asking questions about everything like spelling a word, the question to a Jeopardy answer, and what a fact means. Hoarse and out of breath, my father always gave me an answer. He was aware that this moment might be the last time we would have together. But I believed that he would pull through cancer and be around forever. After all, real heroes never die, right? While difficult to be fully expressed in words, my father strived to be a good parent to my brothers and me. He made sure we got to school on time, taught us how to save for the future, and encouraged us to value our Muslim beliefs. Still, more importantly, he made us earn his approval. On those rare occasions, when I could get him to share a proud smile for something that I achieved, I felt like my world was complete. For example, my father walked with my brothers and me to Rainey Park on Saturdays, where he challenged us to a relay race. Of course, he always won. But during each race, he yelled at me to run faster, pull through the pain gushing through my legs, and pump harder and harder. After following his advice, on one particular Saturday afternoon, I beat him! And when I waited for his expression, his grave eyes finally gave me the approval I yearned for. On the way home, he stopped at the store to buy me red Baby Bottle Pop candy. It was the perfect day!" Student Writer

Something you're fighting for

girl with afro hair protesting

2020 is arguably the year of the most protests in your lifetime (and my lifetime!). Mashable featured a great article about the 15 protests of 2020 that you’ll tell your children about. Why wait? Your college essay is a great place to start, especially if you’ve been part of any of the protests. Nothing explains who you are and what you stand for than sharing causes that you care about. 

Something you're sacrificing for

boy studying in his computer

One of the most incredible moves you can make in your life is sacrificing something in your life for the greater good. For example, maybe you’re an aspiring teen entrepreneur and next founder or creator. You’re building a business, like a few of my students. 

One has a jewelry company and sells her products on Etsy. Another is buying and selling cryptocurrency on an exchange. Running a business comes with sacrifices, such as missing out on having fun with friends. Or perhaps your grades. Many of my entrepreneurial students have less than stellar grades or limited extracurricular involvement because they’ve spent more time building their businesses. 

This essay would serve a dual purpose of explaining why their grades aren’t perfect (addressing something that admissions officers would want to know) and showing their passion for something worth sacrificing the time and energy they’d spend elsewhere that wasn’t as significant.

Something or someone you value

teenager boy opening a secret box

A classic topic, you can use it as your general essay. Some schools, like Stanford University, use this topic as a supplemental essay. At its core, motivation, and passion lead to action. In this essay, you can show admissions officers what type of person you are, how you show up in the world, and your plans for the future – for yourself, the campus community, and society. 

To be sure, this is a BIG essay to write. If you select this topic, be sure to focus on one thing (as opposed to ten) that is meaningful and most important to you. Avoid repeating anything you have said in another part of your application. A great example of this essay is a student who wrote about a memory box where she keeps her most precious treasures. She speaks about each treasure, a book from her mom and a pair of gold hoop earrings, and the significance they’ve had in her life. Here’s an excerpt:

Here’s a college essay excerpt from a student who wrote about a box for her most precious treasures: 

I am a collector. It started with a box. But my head is ingrained with the idea that every object worth saving has a story worth remembering. Peeking out from the edge of the box was Our Moon Has Blood Clots, a book my mom had given me two years ago to read. It vividly details Kashmir's purge of the Kashmiri Pandit community, a part of our history my mom felt was important to understand. But I avoided it. For me, it was too uncomfortable to face a past ridden with war, violence, rape, and exile. I didn't want to relive my parents escaping their homes with only a few documents, living in tents, and everything they worked for and knew was gone and forced to restart their lives from ground zero. Instead of reading it, I buried it, deep, in my memory box. Although I was born 13 years later, I read in a PBS article that trauma is an inherited trait. And like so many victims of trauma, be it first-hand or through DNA, we hold on to things but put memories away. I am without a piece of myself. One day, I'll face the truth and accept how the mass exodus has shaped me. But today, I find solace in understanding that my parents' struggle gave rise to more opportunities I could hope for given their arrival as American refugees. By taking advantage of everything at my disposal, I am grateful for my education and relationships, all assets no one can ever take away." Student Writer

Something you're passionate about

girl listening music in her earphone

This essay topic is a great way to show your curiosity and hunger for knowledge or mastering a skill . You wouldn’t want to write this essay about anything already in your college application, like why you enjoy biology or why you joined your school’s video club. Instead, you’d write about something that shows your interest in something that would not fit anywhere else. You enjoy something so unique that your application would not be complete unless they knew this about you.

Interests you can write about like:

  • Podcasting and video blogging
  • Bitcoin and cryptocurrency
  • Real estate investing
  • Running your own business or nonprofit
  • Spoken word poetry
  • Knitting, scrapbooking, or other creative arts
  • Social media and being an influencer

These are a few examples, and you likely have your own examples of interests you’re passionate about that you do on your own and outside of school. Speaking about your hobbies and interests can give insight into what else you’ve been up to during your high school years. Often for students, these interests may lead to career options or influence how you’ll engage in the campus community, both of which admissions officers are very interested in learning about you.

Your cultural roots and background

girl having a snack in the kitchen

If you’re a newcomer to the United States or a first-generation American with parents who migrated to our country, this may be a good topic for you to explore. You have a unique voice and perspective that college admissions officers highly value. You can speak about so many things — experiences, culture, food — what meaning these things have had in your life, how you’re balancing with ideals in American culture.

You can speak about it directly, such as telling the reader about your journey as a newcomer or first-generation American student. Or you can talk about it indirectly, as one of my students from last year did. The student wrote about his joy in making empanadas. He shares his grandmother’s recipe and what it’s like making them with her and ties it to his cultural ties to Equador and being of Italian heritage. Here’s an excerpt from his essay:

Here’s a college essay excerpt from a student who wrote about his joy of cooking empanadas for his family: 

"I have become more comfortable with the recipe, and I am confident that I can make any empanada I want. I like making empanadas for several reasons. First, I can be very creative with them, changing the ingredients every time I make them. Over the years, I have made empanadas with all kinds of varieties of beef, chicken, cheese, and vegetables. But if I wanted to, I could fill it with tomato sauce and cheese to make a pizza empanada or American cheese and beef to make a cheeseburger empanada. From start to finish, no matter what you put inside, it takes half an hour, and you have yourself a meal. Also, around the time that I made my first empanadas, it was not often that I would find a restaurant that sold them. I had to make them myself. However, as time has passed, I have seen more restaurants and food trucks that strictly serve empanadas open in my neighborhood, where there are few from my Ecuadorian culture living here. And like so many other things, empanadas have arrived in mainstream American culture, making their mark on the world, something so unique, diverse, and delicious. But most importantly, empanadas represent a significant part of Ecuadorian culture, to which I've always felt connected through my grandma's stories. Growing up, I remember vivid stories about her life in Ecuador. She eventually moved to the United States at 18-years-old and was immersed in American culture as a young woman and immigrant. Learning to cook empanadas and staying true to her recipe has strengthened my relationship with my grandma. While I have never traveled to Quito, Ecuador's capital city, where she was born, the empanadas link me to my cultural roots." Student Writer

Once you decide on a topic, then you can proceed to write your college essay. Start here with this post about Writing a College Essay. Also, you can check out an upcoming College Essay Workshop .

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53 Stellar College Essay Topics to Inspire You

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College Essays

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Most colleges and universities in the United States require applicants to submit at least one essay as part of their application. But trying to figure out what college essay topics you should choose is a tricky process. There are so many potential things you could write about!

In this guide, we go over the essential qualities that make for a great college essay topic and give you 50+ college essay topics you can use for your own statement . In addition, we provide you with helpful tips for turning your college essay topic into a stellar college essay.

What Qualities Make for a Good College Essay Topic?

Regardless of what you write about in your personal statement for college , there are key features that will always make for a stand-out college essay topic.

#1: It’s Specific

First off, good college essay topics are extremely specific : you should know all the pertinent facts that have to do with the topic and be able to see how the entire essay comes together.

Specificity is essential because it’ll not only make your essay stand out from other statements, but it'll also recreate the experience for admissions officers through its realism, detail, and raw power. You want to tell a story after all, and specificity is the way to do so. Nobody wants to read a vague, bland, or boring story — not even admissions officers!

For example, an OK topic would be your experience volunteering at a cat shelter over the summer. But a better, more specific college essay topic would be how you deeply connected with an elderly cat there named Marty, and how your bond with him made you realize that you want to work with animals in the future.

Remember that specificity in your topic is what will make your essay unique and memorable . It truly is the key to making a strong statement (pun intended)!

#2: It Shows Who You Are

In addition to being specific, good college essay topics reveal to admissions officers who you are: your passions and interests, what is important to you, your best (or possibly even worst) qualities, what drives you, and so on.

The personal statement is critical because it gives schools more insight into who you are as a person and not just who you are as a student in terms of grades and classes.

By coming up with a real, honest topic, you’ll leave an unforgettable mark on admissions officers.

#3: It’s Meaningful to You

The very best college essay topics are those that hold deep meaning to their writers and have truly influenced them in some significant way.

For instance, maybe you plan to write about the first time you played Skyrim to explain how this video game revealed to you the potentially limitless worlds you could create, thereby furthering your interest in game design.

Even if the topic seems trivial, it’s OK to use it — just as long as you can effectively go into detail about why this experience or idea had such an impact on you .

Don’t give in to the temptation to choose a topic that sounds impressive but doesn’t actually hold any deep meaning for you. Admissions officers will see right through this!

Similarly, don’t try to exaggerate some event or experience from your life if it’s not all that important to you or didn’t have a substantial influence on your sense of self.

#4: It’s Unique

College essay topics that are unique are also typically the most memorable, and if there’s anything you want to be during the college application process, it’s that! Admissions officers have to sift through thousands of applications, and the essay is one of the only parts that allows them to really get a sense of who you are and what you value in life.

If your essay is trite or boring, it won’t leave much of an impression , and your application will likely get immediately tossed to the side with little chance of seeing admission.

But if your essay topic is very original and different, you’re more likely to earn that coveted second glance at your application.

What does being unique mean exactly, though? Many students assume that they must choose an extremely rare or crazy experience to talk about in their essays —but that's not necessarily what I mean by "unique." Good college essay topics can be unusual and different, yes, but they can also be unique takes on more mundane or common activities and experiences .

For instance, say you want to write an essay about the first time you went snowboarding. Instead of just describing the details of the experience and how you felt during it, you could juxtapose your emotions with a creative and humorous perspective from the snowboard itself. Or you could compare your first attempt at snowboarding with your most recent experience in a snowboarding competition. The possibilities are endless!

#5: It Clearly Answers the Question

Finally, good college essay topics will clearly and fully answer the question(s) in the prompt.

You might fail to directly answer a prompt by misinterpreting what it’s asking you to do, or by answering only part of it (e.g., answering just one out of three questions).

Therefore, make sure you take the time to come up with an essay topic that is in direct response to every question in the prompt .

Take this Coalition Application prompt as an example:

What is the hardest part of being a teenager now? What's the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?

For this prompt, you’d need to answer all three questions (though it’s totally fine to focus more on one or two of them) to write a compelling and appropriate essay.

This is why we recommend reading and rereading the essay prompt ; you should know exactly what it’s asking you to do, well before you start brainstorming possible college application essay topics.

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53 College Essay Topics to Get Your Brain Moving

In this section, we give you a list of 53 examples of college essay topics. Use these as jumping-off points to help you get started on your college essay and to ensure that you’re on track to coming up with a relevant and effective topic.

All college application essay topics below are categorized by essay prompt type. We’ve identified six general types of college essay prompts:

Why This College?

Change and personal growth, passions, interests, and goals, overcoming a challenge, diversity and community, solving a problem.

Note that these prompt types could overlap with one another, so you’re not necessarily limited to just one college essay topic in a single personal statement.

  • How a particular major or program will help you achieve your academic or professional goals
  • A memorable and positive interaction you had with a professor or student at the school
  • Something good that happened to you while visiting the campus or while on a campus tour
  • A certain class you want to take or a certain professor you’re excited to work with
  • Some piece of on-campus equipment or facility that you’re looking forward to using
  • Your plans to start a club at the school, possibly to raise awareness of a major issue
  • A study abroad or other unique program that you can’t wait to participate in
  • How and where you plan to volunteer in the community around the school
  • An incredible teacher you studied under and the positive impact they had on you
  • How you went from really liking something, such as a particular movie star or TV show, to not liking it at all (or vice versa)
  • How yours or someone else’s (change in) socioeconomic status made you more aware of poverty
  • A time someone said something to you that made you realize you were wrong
  • How your opinion on a controversial topic, such as gay marriage or DACA, has shifted over time
  • A documentary that made you aware of a particular social, economic, or political issue going on in the country or world
  • Advice you would give to your younger self about friendship, motivation, school, etc.
  • The steps you took in order to kick a bad or self-sabotaging habit
  • A juxtaposition of the first and most recent time you did something, such as dance onstage
  • A book you read that you credit with sparking your love of literature and/or writing
  • A school assignment or project that introduced you to your chosen major
  • A glimpse of your everyday routine and how your biggest hobby or interest fits into it
  • The career and (positive) impact you envision yourself having as a college graduate
  • A teacher or mentor who encouraged you to pursue a specific interest you had
  • How moving around a lot helped you develop a love of international exchange or learning languages
  • A special skill or talent you’ve had since you were young and that relates to your chosen major in some way, such as designing buildings with LEGO bricks
  • Where you see yourself in 10 or 20 years
  • Your biggest accomplishment so far relating to your passion (e.g., winning a gold medal for your invention at a national science competition)
  • A time you lost a game or competition that was really important to you
  • How you dealt with the loss or death of someone close to you
  • A time you did poorly in a class that you expected to do well in
  • How moving to a new school impacted your self-esteem and social life
  • A chronic illness you battled or are still battling
  • Your healing process after having your heart broken for the first time
  • A time you caved under peer pressure and the steps you took so that it won't happen again
  • How you almost gave up on learning a foreign language but stuck with it
  • Why you decided to become a vegetarian or vegan, and how you navigate living with a meat-eating family
  • What you did to overcome a particular anxiety or phobia you had (e.g., stage fright)
  • A history of a failed experiment you did over and over, and how you finally found a way to make it work successfully
  • Someone within your community whom you aspire to emulate
  • A family tradition you used to be embarrassed about but are now proud of
  • Your experience with learning English upon moving to the United States
  • A close friend in the LGBTQ+ community who supported you when you came out
  • A time you were discriminated against, how you reacted, and what you would do differently if faced with the same situation again
  • How you navigate your identity as a multiracial, multiethnic, and/or multilingual person
  • A project or volunteer effort you led to help or improve your community
  • A particular celebrity or role model who inspired you to come out as LGBTQ+
  • Your biggest challenge (and how you plan to tackle it) as a female in a male-dominated field
  • How you used to discriminate against your own community, and what made you change your mind and eventually take pride in who you are and/or where you come from
  • A program you implemented at your school in response to a known problem, such as a lack of recycling cans in the cafeteria
  • A time you stepped in to mediate an argument or fight between two people
  • An app or other tool you developed to make people’s lives easier in some way
  • A time you proposed a solution that worked to an ongoing problem at school, an internship, or a part-time job
  • The steps you took to identify and fix an error in coding for a website or program
  • An important social or political issue that you would fix if you had the means

body_boy_writing_notebook_ideas

How to Build a College Essay in 6 Easy Steps

Once you’ve decided on a college essay topic you want to use, it’s time to buckle down and start fleshing out your essay. These six steps will help you transform a simple college essay topic into a full-fledged personal statement.

Step 1: Write Down All the Details

Once you’ve chosen a general topic to write about, get out a piece of paper and get to work on creating a list of all the key details you could include in your essay . These could be things such as the following:

  • Emotions you felt at the time
  • Names, places, and/or numbers
  • Dialogue, or what you or someone else said
  • A specific anecdote, example, or experience
  • Descriptions of how things looked, felt, or seemed

If you can only come up with a few details, then it’s probably best to revisit the list of college essay topics above and choose a different one that you can write more extensively on.

Good college essay topics are typically those that:

  • You remember well (so nothing that happened when you were really young)
  • You're excited to write about
  • You're not embarrassed or uncomfortable to share with others
  • You believe will make you positively stand out from other applicants

Step 2: Figure Out Your Focus and Approach

Once you have all your major details laid out, start to figure out how you could arrange them in a way that makes sense and will be most effective.

It’s important here to really narrow your focus: you don’t need to (and shouldn’t!) discuss every single aspect of your trip to visit family in Indonesia when you were 16. Rather, zero in on a particular anecdote or experience and explain why and how it impacted you.

Alternatively, you could write about multiple experiences while weaving them together with a clear, meaningful theme or concept , such as how your math teacher helped you overcome your struggle with geometry over the course of an entire school year. In this case, you could mention a few specific times she tutored you and most strongly supported you in your studies.

There’s no one right way to approach your college essay, so play around to see what approaches might work well for the topic you’ve chosen.

If you’re really unsure about how to approach your essay, think about what part of your topic was or is most meaningful and memorable to you, and go from there.

Step 3: Structure Your Narrative

  • Beginning: Don’t just spout off a ton of background information here—you want to hook your reader, so try to start in the middle of the action , such as with a meaningful conversation you had or a strong emotion you felt. It could also be a single anecdote if you plan to center your essay around a specific theme or idea.
  • Middle: Here’s where you start to flesh out what you’ve established in the opening. Provide more details about the experience (if a single anecdote) or delve into the various times your theme or idea became most important to you. Use imagery and sensory details to put the reader in your shoes.
  • End: It’s time to bring it all together. Finish describing the anecdote or theme your essay centers around and explain how it relates to you now , what you’ve learned or gained from it, and how it has influenced your goals.

body_pen_crinkled_up_paper

Step 4: Write a Rough Draft

By now you should have all your major details and an outline for your essay written down; these two things will make it easy for you to convert your notes into a rough draft.

At this stage of the writing process, don’t worry too much about vocabulary or grammar and just focus on getting out all your ideas so that they form the general shape of an essay . It’s OK if you’re a little over the essay's word limit — as you edit, you’ll most likely make some cuts to irrelevant and ineffective parts anyway.

If at any point you get stuck and have no idea what to write, revisit steps 1-3 to see whether there are any important details or ideas you might be omitting or not elaborating on enough to get your overall point across to admissions officers.

Step 5: Edit, Revise, and Proofread

  • Sections that are too wordy and don’t say anything important
  • Irrelevant details that don’t enhance your essay or the point you're trying to make
  • Parts that seem to drag or that feel incredibly boring or redundant
  • Areas that are vague and unclear and would benefit from more detail
  • Phrases or sections that are awkwardly placed and should be moved around
  • Areas that feel unconvincing, inauthentic, or exaggerated

Start paying closer attention to your word choice/vocabulary and grammar at this time, too. It’s perfectly normal to edit and revise your college essay several times before asking for feedback, so keep working with it until you feel it’s pretty close to its final iteration.

This step will likely take the longest amount of time — at least several weeks, if not months — so really put effort into fixing up your essay. Once you’re satisfied, do a final proofread to ensure that it’s technically correct.

Step 6: Get Feedback and Tweak as Needed

After you’ve overhauled your rough draft and made it into a near-final draft, give your essay to somebody you trust , such as a teacher or parent, and have them look it over for technical errors and offer you feedback on its content and overall structure.

Use this feedback to make any last-minute changes or edits. If necessary, repeat steps 5 and 6. You want to be extra sure that your essay is perfect before you submit it to colleges!

Recap: From College Essay Topics to Great College Essays

Many different kinds of college application essay topics can get you into a great college. But this doesn’t make it any easier to choose the best topic for you .

In general, the best college essay topics have the following qualities :

  • They’re specific
  • They show who you are
  • They’re meaningful to you
  • They’re unique
  • They clearly answer the question

If you ever need help coming up with an idea of what to write for your essay, just refer to the list of 53 examples of college essay topics above to get your brain juices flowing.

Once you’ve got an essay topic picked out, follow these six steps for turning your topic into an unforgettable personal statement :

  • Write down all the details
  • Figure out your focus and approach
  • Structure your narrative
  • Write a rough draft
  • Edit, revise, and proofread
  • Get feedback and tweak as needed

And with that, I wish you the best of luck on your college essays!

What’s Next?

Writing a college essay is no simple task. Get expert college essay tips with our guides on how to come up with great college essay ideas and how to write a college essay, step by step .

You can also check out this huge list of college essay prompts  to get a feel for what types of questions you'll be expected to answer on your applications.

Want to see examples of college essays that absolutely rocked? You're in luck because we've got a collection of 100+ real college essay examples right here on our blog!

Want to write the perfect college application essay?   We can help.   Your dedicated PrepScholar Admissions counselor will help you craft your perfect college essay, from the ground up. We learn your background and interests, brainstorm essay topics, and walk you through the essay drafting process, step-by-step. At the end, you'll have a unique essay to proudly submit to colleges.   Don't leave your college application to chance. Find out more about PrepScholar Admissions now:

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Hannah received her MA in Japanese Studies from the University of Michigan and holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern California. From 2013 to 2015, she taught English in Japan via the JET Program. She is passionate about education, writing, and travel.

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Highly-selective colleges and universities often require supplemental application materials. These materials help further personalize the admissions process so that each college’s admissions committee has the information it needs to select a vibrant and diverse incoming class. 

In this article, we will look at 10 supplemental essay prompts from top colleges and universities for the 2022-23 admissions cycle. Once you get a better sense of what to expect from a supplemental essay prompt, we will outline key strategies for answering these prompts, as well as provide practical writing tips to help you get started.

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What are supplemental essays and are they important?

Each college has its own sets of values and criteria that it looks for in applicants. This is why determining college fit is so important. By carefully researching each school on your college list and having several clear and compelling reasons for wanting to attend, you will increase your overall chances of admission.    

One way that colleges gauge whether or not a student would be a good fit for their university is by posing unique supplemental essay prompts. This is why knowing how to write a supplemental essay is so important. Most colleges with supplemental essays will have applicants write the “why this college” essay . 

Many selective colleges will require additional supplemental essays as well. In some cases, you will need to prepare an additional five essays per school, so give yourself plenty of time to complete each essay thoughtfully, write multiple drafts, seek out feedback, and proofread. The college application process can feel overwhelming at times, so make sure you brainstorm ways to stay organized during the college application process . 

Although the style and content of the actual prompts can vary greatly, at the core these prompts have one thing in common: They are designed to get to know who you are as a person, what your values are, and whether you demonstrate compatibility with the university’s overall mission. 

How to write supplemental essays

If you’re looking for supplemental essay tips, you’ve come to the right place! In this section, we will discuss how to write a good supplemental essay, by providing several key application essay tips. 

To start, it’s important to remember that the process of writing supplemental essays is similar to the process of writing a successful personal statement . Review components of a strong personal statement to give yourself a fresh perspective before beginning your supplemental essays.

Tips for writing supplemental essays

Supplemental essays are typically pretty brief. This is why it’s important to learn how to write concisely and powerfully. Having very few words to respond does not mean that you should prepare your responses casually or that your responses shouldn’t include lots of details. Rather, approach each word limit creatively. Whether you have 50 words, 200 words, or 500 words, try to use each sentence and detail to your advantage. One of the best ways to do this is to begin by freewriting. Write down everything that comes to mind. Take time to fully flush out your ideas. Then review what you’ve written and see what feels most important. These are the details you will want to highlight in your response.

Some colleges will require three to five additional essays. Maybe even more! This is why it’s important to be prepared and plan ahead. Supplemental essays are an important part of your college application and they require a lot of time and effort. While some supplemental essay prompts may be similar between schools, in general, you want to avoid recycling your college essays. Admissions officers can tell when a student is tweaking an existing essay to fit a prompt.

While some essay prompts are required, others are optional. In general, try to answer each prompt thoughtfully and creatively. After all, it’s no secret that college admissions are highly competitive so it’s great to give your application “an edge” whenever possible. That said, there are times when you should pass on writing an optional essay. If you’re not sure whether or not you should submit an essay for an optional prompt, begin by drafting a response. Then ask yourself if the essay feels forced or genuine. Does the essay convey something new about you that isn’t included in the rest of your application? If the question doesn’t seem to apply to you and you are genuinely unsure what to contribute, you should probably skip that particular essay. After all, no one wants to read an uninspired essay that doesn’t contribute to your overall application.

2022-23 supplemental essay prompts

As mentioned, supplemental essay prompts can vary significantly. Some prompts ask you to respond in 50 words while other prompts ask you to respond in 500 words. Some prompts focus on academics while others ask you to reflect carefully on your cultural upbringing or life philosophies. Still, other prompts will ask you to introduce who you are as a person or discuss something that you enjoy.

Just as supplemental essay prompts vary in style, your responses will also vary. Some prompts will require you to be thoughtful and serious, while other prompts may encourage you to be humorous or creative. It all depends.

Brown University supplemental essay prompt

As a part of the 2022-23 college applications, Brown University requires three supplemental essays. One of the supplemental essay prompts is as follows:

Brown’s culture fosters a community in which students challenge the ideas of others and have their ideas challenged in return, promoting a deeper and clearer understanding of the complex issues confronting society. This active engagement in dialogue is as present outside the classroom as it is in academic spaces. Tell us about a time you were challenged by a perspective that differed from your own. How did you respond? (200-250 words)

Columbia University supplemental essay prompt

As a part of the 2022-23 college applications, Columbia University requires the following supplemental materials: 1 list of 75 words, 1 list of 125 words, 3 essays of 200 words each, and 1 short answer of 35 words. One of their supplemental essay prompts is as follows:

For the following questions, we ask that you list each individual response using commas or semicolons; the items do not have to be numbered or in any specific order. No explanatory text or formatting is needed. (For example, it is not necessary to italicize or underline titles of books or other publications. No author names, subtitles or explanatory remarks are needed.)  

List the titles of the books, essays, poetry, short stories or plays you read outside of academic courses that you enjoyed most during secondary/high school. (75 words or fewer)

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Dartmouth college supplemental essay prompt.

As a part of the 2022-23 college applications, Dartmouth College requires three supplemental essays. One of the supplemental essay prompts is as follows:

“Be yourself,” Oscar Wilde advised. “Everyone else is taken.” Introduce yourself in 200-250 words. 

Duke University supplemental essay prompt

As a part of the 2022-23 college applications, Duke University requires at least one supplemental essay, with the option to submit an additional two supplemental essays. One of the optional supplemental essay prompts is as follows:

What has been your best academic experience in the last two years, and what made it so good?

Emory University supplemental essay prompt

As a part of the 2022-23 college applications, Emory University requires two supplemental essays. One of the supplemental essay prompts is as follows:

Emory If you could witness a historic event (past, present or future) first-hand, what would it be, and why?

Harvard University supplemental essay prompt

As a part of the 2022-23 college applications, Harvard University requires three supplemental essays. One of the supplemental essay prompts is as follows:

Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (50-150 words)

MIT supplemental essay prompt

As a part of the 2022-23 college applications, MIT requires five supplemental essays. One of the supplemental essay prompts is as follows:

We know you lead a busy life, full of activities, many of which are required of you. Tell us about something you do simply for the pleasure of it.

Princeton University supplemental essay prompt

As a part of the 2022-23 college applications, Princeton University requires three supplemental essays and three short responses. One of the short-answer prompts is as follows:

Please respond to each question in 75 words or fewer. There are no right or wrong answers. Be yourself!

What is a new skill you would like to learn in college?

What brings you joy? 

What song represents the soundtrack of your life at this moment?

Stanford University supplemental essay prompt

As a part of the 2022-23 college applications, Stanford University requires three supplemental essays and five short answer responses. One of the short-answer prompts is as follows:

How did you spend your last two summers? (50-word limit)

UPenn supplemental essay prompt

As a part of the 2022-23 college applications, UPenn requires three supplemental essays. One of the supplemental essay prompts is as follows: 

Write a short thank-you note to someone you have not yet thanked and would like to acknowledge. (We encourage you to share this note with that person, if possible, and reflect on the experience!) (150-200 words)

Yale University supplemental essay prompt

As a part of the 2022-23 college applications, Yale University requires the following supplemental materials: 1 list; 6 short answer questions; 1 additional short essay of 400 words. One of the short answer prompts is as follows:

Yale’s residential colleges regularly host conversations with guests representing a wide range of experiences and accomplishments. What person, past or present, would you invite to speak? What would you ask them to discuss? (200 characters or fewer)

Supplemental essay examples

One of the best ways to prepare your supplemental essay responses is to look at successful past examples. In this section, we will look at three examples and explain why each response is successful. 

This first example was submitted as a part of Harvard’s college application. This essay is in response to the prompt: Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (50-150 words).

Feet moving, eyes up, every shot back, chants the silent mantra in my head. The ball becomes a beacon of neon green as I dart forward and backward, shuffling from corner to far corner of the court, determined not to let a single point escape me. With bated breath, I swing my racquet upwards and outwards and it catches the ball just in time to propel it, spinning, over the net. My heart soars as my grinning teammates cheer from the sidelines. While I greatly value the endurance, tenacity, and persistence that I have developed while playing tennis throughout the last four years, I will always most cherish the bonds that I have created and maintained each year with my team.

This essay uses rich, descriptive language to evoke a clear sense of movement and place. The first paragraph shows a creative and expert control of language, whereas the second paragraph uses straightforward language to highlight key characteristics. Overall, this response is creative, well-balanced, and uses each word to its advantage. 

Source: https://www.collegeadvisor.com/essay-guides/harvard-university-essay-examples-and-why-they-worked/  

This essay was submitted as a part of an MIT college application. The supplemental essay prompt that it addresses is: Describe the world you come from; for example, your family, clubs, school, community, city, or town. How has that world shaped your dreams and aspirations?

We were moving away from my home of thirteen years to go miles and miles away, from my whole life. Worst of all: away from New York City – the only place in the world worth knowing – or so I thought. The town might as well have been called “Miniscule Ville”. I resented every second of it. The real shocking thing to me was almost that anything existed outside of New York City. NYC is a world of its own, with its own pulses and lifeblood. I still think it’s a great place, and I’ll likely at least visit it someday, but right now, I want to visit everywhere. My move humbled me. I began to love nature walks, the friendly camaraderie of the small town, and saw a world I never imagined. I thought I knew it all just because I lived in New York. Here was a great place, hidden from view. I loved experiencing that new world, learning local history, and most of all, learning the life stories of my new neighbors, each one of whom had a fascinating life. My greatest dream is to be a journalist, covering other countries, and learning about new worlds and neighbors. My old perspective feels so limited. If I can share global stories, I can open up my perspective, and I can share those stories with a thousand homes so readers can learn about other perspectives as well. The world is full of different lives. Everywhere is somebody’s home.

This essay covers a lot of material; most impressively, it shows a shift in perspective and its effect on the student’s lived experience. It also clearly explains the student’s academic and professional goals. The tone of this essay is both confident and humble. It demonstrates who this student is as a person, what their goals are, and what they value.  

Source: https://bemoacademicconsulting.com/blog/mit-supplemental-essay-examples  

This essay was submitted as a part of a Duke college application. The essay addresses the prompt: What has been your best academic experience in the last two years, and what made it so good?

Most teachers who taught me talked a big game about wanting students to engage in debate, or “dialectic” as they called it, and to challenge their ideas. In my experience, most of this was a fabrication. The best essay grades and participation marks were found through parroting what was dictated from on high. Did the teacher think such-and-such is the “correct” interpretation of a novel? You did, too, or you lost points. None of that was true for Ms. Jackie Winters. The first essay I sent her came back with the note, “This doesn’t sound like you; it sounds like me.” I asked her about the note, and this initiated a marvelous learning environment, in which I grew faster than I ever have in any other class. Discussions were lively, and the more I presented my authentic views, the more I was respected. My grades were dependent on being backed up by rhetoric, sources, and logic, not by compliance. Due to this engagement, this was the most enjoyable English literature class I had, and I feel like my viewpoints were challenged. I learned to question my ideas and dig into a text for the best results. Best of all, I was putting in more and more effort to find good, quality sources to back up my arguments. I was held to a high standard and shown respect, and I believe that those qualities made for the best learning environment possible

This essay clearly shows a shift in perspective and the effects it had on this student’s ability to think, speak, and write critically. Structurally, this essay uses an anecdote to introduce and contextualize a topic, but the essay itself isn’t overly narrative. Rather, the student explains, in detail, how this teacher’s encouragement and guidance have influenced their willingness and ability to engage with the source material and academic discourse.

Source: https://bemoacademicconsulting.com/blog/duke-supplemental-essay-examples  

Key takeaways and moving forward

Supplemental essays are an important part of your college applications. In fact, they are a key factor in what college admissions officers look for in an applicant . Highly-selective colleges and universities use supplemental essays to further personalize the college admissions process. After all, thousands of qualified students apply to Ivy League institutions each year and only a small fraction are admitted. Supplemental essays allow you to share more about who you are as a person and as a student. Use each prompt as an opportunity to add something new to your college application. If you feel like you could benefit from professional guidance throughout this process, reach out to learn more about our services .

Frequently asked questions and answers

Still have questions about supplemental essays and the effects they have on college applications? Review the following frequently asked questions and answers for further insight on supplemental essays. 

How important are supplemental essays?

Supplemental essays are an incredibly important part of your college applications and should be properly prioritized. If a college didn’t care about your response, they wouldn’t ask you in the first place. Put plenty of time and care into your responses. Write several drafts, seek out feedback, and always proofread.

How long should supplemental essays be?

Always follow directions. Colleges will specify how long each supplemental essay should be, usually right after the prompt itself. Depending on the college, and the prompt, a supplemental essay’s word count may range anywhere from 50 to 500 words.

Do supplemental essays change every year?

It all depends on the college. Colleges often reuse past prompts, but there are no guarantees. This is why it’s important to plan ahead and make a list of supplemental essay prompts early on in the college application process.

Are supplemental essays required?

Sometimes colleges will have both required and optional supplemental essays. That said, the essay prompts are clearly labeled. In short, each college will specify whether supplemental essays are required. 

Do all colleges have supplemental essays?

No, not all colleges have supplemental essays. Highly-selective colleges, however, often require at least one additional essay.

  • December 14, 2022

Supplemental Essay Guide for 2022-23 Prompts

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Class of 2022

These essays are in addition to three similar collections from the  Class of 2026 , Class of 2018 ,  Class of 2012 , and  Class of 2007 .

Sage Tzamouranis

Ridgefield, conn..

There is nothing more irrepressibly badass than the old women of southern Greece. They have never seen a dentist. They can clean their own teeth, thank you very much, all two of them. They are familiar with loss.

Essays that Worked - 2018

The women are like the olive trees, which reside in soil so dry that it crunches under your feet as you walk. Somehow, they manage to grow anyway; persistence and stubborn endurance are all they know. The trees can grow through rock, live without rain. They stagger, twisting and turning toward the heights despite the farmer’s careless pruning; the mere matter of amputated limbs will not stop them.

When I was 5 or 6, I thought that my Yaya was the most beautiful woman in the world, with her wiry white hair fresh out of curlers and laugh lines showing around her eyes like a map of all of her times spent smiling. She used to sing a song called “Μαρ?α με τα Κ?τρινα,” “Maria in Yellow,” and we would laugh because Yaya also had a yellow dress, but she did not emulate the risqué behavior of Maria, who couldn’t decide whom she loved more, “τον ?ντρα σου ? τον γε?τονα” her husband or her next-door neighbor.

As I got older, I realized that there are more worry lines than laugh lines. Deep trenches of lineaments cross her forehead, revealing the hardships of a childhood spent in poverty. More prominent than her crow’s feet are the wrinkles etched into her eyelids, from squeezing her eyes tightly shut, trying to block out the pain of having her daughter taken from her, after only 18 years on this earth, by the unrelenting grip of an untimely death. The most recent are the lines chiseled around her thin mouth, as if out of marble. They are from pursing her lips in an attempt to suppress the pain after my Papou was taken by the same merciless hands that took her daughter away, but this time, those hands looked like cancer.

The yellow dress went away after Papou died.

As did the levity with which we used to make fun of Maria’s foolish infidelity. The black clothes are suffocating; they invite the sun to beat down with more cruelty than before.

Once the sun starts to set and the day cools, my Yaya and the other women of the village venture out of their homes, carrying olive-oil lamps to their husbands’ graves, the lineaments of their faces illuminated by the lanterns. The lines are unforgiving, the trenches have been dug, the stalemate between the want of joy around the eyes and the stubborn endurance of suffering around the silent lips wages on.

However, I know a secret. When the sun sets in southern Greece, it rains.

No matter how helpless the olive trees look, rain will come. When Yaya gets home from the cemetery, she closes the shutters and peels off the black clothes, folding them carefully and placing them on the dresser, next to Papou’s old bifocals.

Yaya has a secret drawer of floral nightgowns that she only wears when the day has ended and the sun can no longer punish her misfortune. Maria’s yellow dress is long gone, but the pinks and blues and purples are still there. I like to think that the other widows also have secret stashes of light, brightly colored clothing. The olive trees flourish and yield fruit despite the oppression of the sun. There can be beauty in spite of loss.

Dylan Morse

Ithaca, n.y..

I kept a firm grip on the rainbow trout as I removed the lure from its lip. Then, my heart racing with excitement, I lowered the fish to the water and watched it flash away.

fish

I caught that 10-inch fryling five years ago on Fall Creek using a $5 fly rod given to me by my neighbor Gil. The creek is spectacular as it cascades down the 150-foot drop of Ithaca Falls. Only 100-feet further, however, it runs past a decrepit gun factory and underneath a graffitied bridge before flowing adjacent to my high school and out to Cayuga Lake. Aside from the falls, the creek is largely overlooked. Nearly all of the high school students I know who cross that bridge daily do so with no thought of the creek below.

When I was a toddler, my moms say I used to point and ask, “What? What? What?” Even now my inquisitive nature is obvious. Unlike my friends, I had noticed people fly fishing in Fall Creek. Mesmerized by their graceful casts, I pestered Gil into teaching me. From that first thrilling encounter with a trout, I knew I needed to catch more. I had a new string of questions. I wanted to understand trout behavior, how to find them, and what they ate. There was research to do.

I devoted myself to fly fishing. I asked questions. I woke up at 4 a.m. to fish before school. I spent days not catching anything. Yet, I persisted. The Kid’s Book of Fishing was replaced by Norman MacLean’s A River Runs Through It . Soon Ernest Hemingway’s essays found their place next to Trout Unlimited magazines by my bed.

I sought teachers. I continued to fish with Gil, and at his invitation joined the local Trout Unlimited Chapter. I enrolled in a fly-tying class.

There I met Ken, a soft-spoken molecular biologist, who taught me to start each fly I make by crimping the hook to reduce harm to fish, and Mike, a sarcastic Deadhead lawyer, who turns over rocks at all times of year to “match the hatch” and figure out which insects fish are eating. Thanks to my mentors, I can identify and create almost every type of Northeastern mayfly, caddisfly, and stonefly.

The more I learned, the more protective I felt of the creek and its inhabitants. My knowledge of mayflies and experience fishing in many New York streams led me to notice the lack of Blue-Winged Olive Mayflies in Fall Creek. I figured out why while discussing water quality in my AP Biology class; lead from the gun factory had contaminated the creek and ruined the mayfly habitat. Now, I participate in stream clean-up days, have documented the impact of invasive species on trout and other native fish, and have chosen to continue to explore the effects of pollutants on waterways in my AP Environmental Science class.

Last year, on a frigid October morning, I started a conversation with the man fishing next to me. Banks, I later learned, is a contemporary artist who nearly died struggling with a heroin addiction. When we meet on the creek these days we talk about casting techniques, aquatic insects, and fishing ethics. We also talk about the healing power of fly fishing. I know Banks would agree with Henry David Thoreau, who wrote “[Many men] lay so much stress on the fish which they catch or fail to catch, and on nothing else, as if there were nothing else to be caught.”

Initially, my goal was to catch trout. What I landed was a passion. Thanks to that first morning on Fall Creek, I’ve found a calling that consumes my free time, compels me to teach fly fishing to others, and drives what I want to study in college.

I will be leaving Fall Creek soon. I am eager to step into new streams. 

Addison Amadeck

Kirkland, wash..

It’s 6:52 a.m. on a frosted-over Friday in September, and my dad and I are running late as we wind down our steep hill to school. My dad ducks down and peeks out the sliver of visibility at the bottom of the windshield. I sit on my hands to keep them warm as sherbet skies rise behind the Cascades. We are harmonizing to The Wood Brothers’ “Keep Me Around.” He sings the melody; I try to find the major third. We click into tune on a word, then I wince as my pitch slips to dissonance until I slide back in. We belt out the lyrics: “Hello, I’m Faith, and I might be blind,” I hit the minor fifth. “But I’m the one who’s gonna keep towin’ the line,” I climb to the octave. “And you land on your feet almost every time,” I drop down to the one, exploring different tones within the key.

At some point in everyone’s life, a promise stops being forever. Marriages end in divorce, BFFs drift apart. But no matter how many times a promise is broken, I’ve always wanted to believe that someone will keep one to me.

dadcar

That night, my dad was due to fly home. And he did: most of him anyway. I noticed that no matter how much I stared at him, he wouldn’t make eye contact. He eventually sat down and looked at me. In that moment, I didn’t know if I wanted to hear the truth or anything but. Anything other than: “I’ve been drinking.”

My ears rang. My mind went blank. All I could hear was the same toxic phrase in my head, over and over, as I stared at a freckle on the wall. I started to worry that if my dad couldn’t keep this promise, no one would ever be able to keep one to me. I couldn’t understand how after all the years of work he’d done, after how much he’d grown, after missing my 7th birthday while in rehab, he could just throw it all away. I had always assumed that this promise would be kept, especially from my dad, and I couldn’t help but feel disappointed and betrayed.

After that night, dad immediately resumed working his AA program, but I found myself stuck to work out my emotions alone. After weeks of songwriting and immersing myself in music, I determined that trust, vulnerability, and acceptance are love’s inherent ingredients. The behavior of others is unpredictable. I found I could apply my acceptance of his relapse to different experiences in my life, whether teenage gossip or catastrophe. I can’t control the actions of others; I can only alter my perspective.

I look over at the driver’s seat on that September morning. My dad plucks the strings of the stand-up bass as I beat the drums on the dashboard. We sing at the top of our lungs, “Try askin’ the dark where the light comes from.” No matter the pitch, every note can be harmonized. I need only transcribe the key.

Alexander McLaughlin

Lexington, mass..

Throughout my childhood, I felt the need to be in control — a need which came to an abrupt halt in June of 2015. I laid down on the balcony of a hotel in the middle of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, staring down the long, straight street that led to the pier. My fresh shirt had long collapsed against my damp chest as the sun ascended into the sky. A crescendo of voices from the street market far below snapped me out of my daze and reminded me of how different this place was from my home. On this trip, the powerful combination of travel and soccer taught me that liberation actually doesn’t come from being in control, but rather comes from fully immersing myself in my surroundings and opening myself up to those around me.

Under the Puerto Rican sun, I stood up from the balcony, using my arm to raise myself off the sizzling tile. I strained my ears in an attempt to make out the rapid Spanish coming from the streets below. As my chest swelled with feelings of curiosity and excitement, I decided it was time to explore. I’d been taking Spanish for six years, mastering every tense and memorizing every irregular conjugation, but as I stepped onto the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan, I was too nervous to string more than two Spanish words together. I dribbled my soccer ball between the street vendors and their stalls, each one yelling to convince me to buy something as I performed a body feint or a step over with the soccer ball, weaving myself away as if they were defenders blocking my path to the goal.

My previous need for control had come from growing up with strict parents, coaches, and expectations from my school and community. Learning in an environment without lenience for error or interpretation meant I fought for control wherever I could get it. This manifested itself in the form of overthinking every move and pass in soccer games, restricting the creativity of my play, and hurting the team. After years of fighting myself and others for control, I realized it was my struggle for control that was restricting me in the first place.

A man hurrying by bumped into my shoulder as I continued down the street, bringing my mind back to the present. Nobody there knew who I was or cared about my accomplishments. I seemed to be removed from the little town as I continued to wander. I felt naked as my safety blankets of being recognized or at the very least understood on a verbal level were stripped away, for the Puerto Ricans did not care about my achievements or past life. I was as much of a clean slate to them as they were to me.

soccerguy

I learned that when I open myself up to others, I am free to attain this rare state of creativity in which I can express myself without restraints or stipulations.

Alexandra Reboredo

Hialeah, fla..

When my mother started a cosmetology business to support our family, I lost my sense of home. Our dining table was no longer for sharing a steaming plate of white rice, ground beef, and black beans. Instead, it was for crisp white towels, bundles of thin, pointed wooden sticks, sterilized tweezers and scissors, and hundreds of bottles of polish.

At first, her clients were quiet. I heard nothing but the gentle hum of the air conditioner accompanied by the whirring of the electric foot rasp, and the occasional ring of a phone echoing through the hallway of closed doors. As her clients returned, they developed familiarity — the one with bleach-blonde hair in heaping curls bound together on the top of her head, her shrill, high-pitched voice wanting her nails lacquered in the darkest crimson; the 50-year-old Cuban woman who always brought pastelitos and complained about her single life, hoping a new haircut would bring her the man of her dreams; the hearty laugh that boomed through the house every Saturday morning was my human alarm clock when a mother of three was happy to have a break from tracking her toddlers. My mom had become a therapist attending her clients’ hands and feet under a white-bulb lamp with watchful eyes and open ears.

momhouse

“Mami, why don’t you talk to me?” I’d ask as she was hunched over the sink and up to her elbows in soap suds.

“Why don’t you come out of your room for once?” she’d scold in Spanish.

Maybe she had a point. To me, “home” was a small room with a twin bed, a desk piled with yearbooks, magazines, newspapers, and a dresser covered in college flyers, polaroid photos, and an assortment of candles. It was my own world. To my mom, however, “home” was where family met work — all her little worlds collided. Six years after she fled from Moldova to Cuba, she and my father headed for the U.S. by raft. My mother left her own family behind, but keeps the door open to those who seek to be a part of ours. Reluctantly, I realized I had to open my own door as well.

Now, when I hear the voices of my favorite clients through the paper-thin wall separating my bedroom and the dining table, I join them. Vivian, dyeing her roots to hide the gray, recounts the stories of her son hitching rides through France, Ukraine, Italy, and Spain. My mother — the diligent listener — occasionally chimes in with questions. Tania comes in for her weekly manicure at 3:50 p.m., complaining about the day’s difficult clients at the attorney’s office where she works. Lily comes on Fridays, taking clients’ phone calls and documenting therapy sessions on her laptop while my mother tends to her toenails. From these women who seek comfort and find vanity, I hear endless stories about family betrayal, the neighborhood chisme about who’s being evicted from the apartment complex, and complaints about overcharged phone bills.

These conversations constructed my new “home”: maybe someday I’ll backpack across Europe, or work for a law firm, or travel with clientele right in my pocket. In the meantime, my mom and I talk more than ever before, trading the whereabouts of my day at school for the moments she shared with her clients. We share our own moments together — and a new definition of home.

Mitchell Greene

St. petersburg, fla..

It all comes down to the essay. Before the college application process began, I was already keenly aware that an essay has the potential to impact and change lives. A personal essay, written before I was born, has influenced my life and is, in a way, responsible for my existence!

Mitchell Greene Essay Illustration

Eerily similar to the college application process, there were many qualified donor applicants. Choosing one donor from the pool of applicants was an insurmountable task for my mom until she realized there was an essay buried in the back of each profile. After reading my donor’s essay, she chose him because he spoke so eloquently about his passion for music and the arts.

My donor’s file is the first item I packed when I recently had to evacuate my home during a hurricane. I treasure and protect the papers because they contain the only insight I have into half of my DNA. His essay is the sole connection I have to a man I will never meet. I will never know more about my donor than what he chose to reveal in his personal essay.

When I was in second grade, I read the essay for the first time and learned the donor was a professional musician and an accomplished guitar player. This knowledge was the catalyst for me to begin exploring my own musical abilities. I quickly learned to play the clarinet and joined the elementary school band. As soon as I was physically big enough to carry around a mini Fender electric guitar, I begged to take guitar lessons. Perhaps it was subconscious at the time, but while many of my elementary school friends were playing sports with their dads, I was looking for a way to connect to my donor through music. During middle school and high school, my enthusiasm for music and performing accelerated in tandem with my talent. In addition to pursuing instrumental music, I began singing in theatre and in an a cappella group.

Through his writing, my donor taught me that when someone is passionate about something, they are willing to make sacrifices and to suffer for it. I have made numerous sacrifices to be a conscientious student at a challenging school and, at the same time, be fully committed to a rigorous performing arts program. My former athletic endeavors and successes are now a distant memory. Over the years, I have missed many social events and spending time with friends and family. I am proud of my academic record, although I suspect my GPA would be a little stronger if I would not have devoted so much time to music and theatre! Looking back, the sacrifices were worth it, and I would not change the decisions I made!

There is not a time I play my clarinet or guitar, step up to a microphone to sing, or take a bow after a performance that I do not wonder what my donor would think of me. I am still searching for a connection to him through performing and music. I am thankful his personal essay swayed my mother to choose him as my donor, and that his writing compelled me to discover and pursue all of my passions in the classroom and on the stage.

Charlotte Guterman

Andover, mass..

globe

I used to whirl this world recklessly, close my eyes, point a finger, and imagine living wherever I landed: in Tel Aviv or Tegucigalpa or Islamabad. After each imagined journey, I traced my way home. Traveling through the Sahara, over the Andes, and past the Nile, until I reached just above Boston, just below New Hampshire. Until I was safe in my little house in a town too small to see.

Once, after looking at my model Earth, I asked my mother about East Germany. She laughed wearily, “That map is old.” And I realized that so many places I had imagined no longer existed. On my globe, the Soviet Union would always spread across a whole hemisphere, the northern ice sheet would never slide into the sea, African nations doomed to divide and recombine and divorce bloodily would forever lie flat and whole beneath my palms.

When my parents divorced my world moved. It was packed up and driven to my mother’s new house where it stood in a corner as I grew up. Each week I walked between two homes, charting the topography of awkward phone calls, overnight bags, and email conversations. At first I mourned the loss of that confident sense of place and of belonging that I experienced when I was little. I felt like I was searching for a feeling, for a country that didn’t exist anymore.

But as I continued to navigate my way through this different type of geography, I would occasionally go back to the hollow model world, watch it wobble on its axis and begin to understand how to live, even grow, despite imperfection.

I am now taller than the globe; my mother has the armoire and my father kept the couch. Yet I do not feel split in half. I no longer have one home to trace my way back to, but I don’t mind. I have learned to make homes for myself: in the art rooms of my high school, in a tent at camp each summer, in the people I am surrounded by — my friends. In my mother, in my father. I have found small places for myself, hung drawings on their walls, bought carpets for their floors, come to know myself beneath their roofs.

I am an artist. I am a writer. I am a daughter. I have paint under my nails and charcoal dust in my hair. I check out too many books from the library and always bring them back overdue. I scribble notes on my hands and in my journals and find scraps of paper in my pockets. I am perpetually in love with hiking boots, the clunky kind. I am an okay cook. I am an awful liar.

I am developing self-awareness, but I still have so much to learn. I want to speak new languages. I want to read all the time. I want to travel to actual countries and take pictures on a bunch of disposable cameras because there is something magic about those blurry images that develop in the dark. I want to scale real mountains, close my eyes and sit cross-legged on their tops while the whole world around me spins wildly into the future.

*These essays were published in the Hamilton Magazine and illustrated by Andrew Vickery. These essays follow three similar collections from the Class of 2026 ,  Class of 2018 , Class of 2012 , and Class of 2007 .

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How not to write your college essay.

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If you are looking for the “secret formula” for writing a “winning” college essay, you have come to the wrong place. The reality is there is no silver bullet or strategy to write your way to an acceptance. There is not one topic or approach that will guarantee a favorable outcome.

At the end of the day, every admission office just wants to know more about you, what you value, and what excites you. They want to hear about your experiences through your own words and in your own voice. As you set out to write your essay, you will no doubt get input (both sought-after and unsolicited) on what to write. But how about what NOT Notcoin to write? There are avoidable blunders that applicants frequently make in drafting their essays. I asked college admission leaders, who have read thousands of submissions, to share their thoughts.

Don’t Go In There

There is wide consensus on this first one, so before you call on your Jedi mind tricks or predictive analytics, listen to the voices of a diverse range of admission deans. Peter Hagan, executive director of admissions at Syracuse University, sums it up best, saying, “I would recommend that students try not to get inside of our heads. He adds, “Too often the focus is on what they think we want.”

Andy Strickler, dean of admission and financial aid at Connecticut College agrees, warning, “Do NOT get caught in the trap of trying to figure out what is going to impress the admission committee. You have NO idea who is going to read your essay and what is going to connect with them. So, don't try to guess that.” Victoria Romero, vice president for enrollment, at Scripps College adds, “Do not write about something you don’t care about.” She says, “I think students try to figure out what an admission officer wants to read, and the reality is the reader begins every next essay with no expectations about the content THEY want to read.” Chrystal Russell, dean of admission at Hampden-Sydney College, agrees, saying, “If you're not interested in writing it, we will not be interested when reading it.” Jay Jacobs, vice provost for enrollment management at the University of Vermont elaborates, advising. “Don’t try to make yourself sound any different than you are.” He says, “The number one goal for admission officers is to better understand the applicant, what they like to do, what they want to do, where they spend the majority of their time, and what makes them tick. If a student stays genuine to that, it will shine through and make an engaging and successful essay.”

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Don’t Be Artificial

The headlines about college admission are dominated by stories about artificial intelligence and the college essay. Let’s set some ground rules–to allow ChatGPT or some other tool to do your work is not only unethical, it is also unintelligent. The only worse mistake you could make is to let another human write your essay for you. Instead of preoccupying yourself with whether or not colleges are using AI detection software (most are not), spend your time focused on how best to express yourself authentically. Rick Clark is the executive director of strategic student success at Georgia Institute of Technology, one of the first institutions to clearly outline their AI policy for applicants. He says, “Much of a college application is devoted to lines, boxes, and numbers. Essays and supplements are the one place to establish connection, personality, and distinction. AI, in its current state, is terrible at all three.” He adds, “My hope is that students will use ChatGPT or other tools for brainstorming and to get started, but then move quickly into crafting an essay that will provide insight and value.”

Don’t Overdo It

Michael Stefanowicz, vice president for enrollment management at Landmark College says, “You can only cover so much detail about yourself in an admission essay, and a lot of students feel pressure to tell their life story or choose their most defining experience to date as an essay topic. Admission professionals know that you’re sharing just one part of your lived experience in the essay.” He adds, “Some of the favorite essays I’ve read have been episodic, reflecting on the way you’ve found meaning in a seemingly ordinary experience, advice you’ve lived out, a mistake you’ve learned from, or a special tradition in your life.” Gary Ross, vice president for admission and financial aid at Colgate University adds, “More than a few applicants each year craft essays that talk about the frustration and struggles they have experienced in identifying a topic for their college application essay. Presenting your college application essay as a smorgasbord of topics that ultimately landed on the cutting room floor does not give us much insight into an applicant.”

Don’t Believe In Magic

Jason Nevinger, senior director of admission at the University of Rochester warns, “Be skeptical of anyone or any company telling you, ‘This is the essay that got me into _____.’ There is no magic topic, approach, sentence structure, or prose that got any student into any institution ever.” Social media is littered with advertisements promising strategic essay help. Don’t waste your time, energy, or money trying to emulate a certain style, topic, or tone. Liz Cheron is chief executive officer for the Coalition for College and former assistant vice president of enrollment & dean of admissions at Northeastern University. She agrees with Nevinger, saying “Don't put pressure on yourself to find the perfect, slam dunk topic. The vast majority of college essays do exactly what they're supposed to do–they are well-written and tell the admission officer more about the student in that student's voice–and that can take many different forms.”

Don’t Over Recycle

Beatrice Atkinson-Myers, associate director of global recruitment at the University of California at Santa Cruz tells students, “Do not use the same response for each university; research and craft your essay to match the program at the university you are interested in studying. Don't waste time telling me things I can read elsewhere in your application. Use your essay to give the admissions officer insights into your motivations, interests, and thinking. Don't make your essay the kitchen sink, focus on one or two examples which demonstrate your depth and creativity.” Her UC colleague, Jim Rawlins, associate vice chancellor of enrollment management at the University of California at San Diego agrees, saying “Answer the question. Not doing so is the surest way we can tell you are simply giving us a snippet of something you actually wrote for a different purpose.”

Don’t Overedit

Emily Roper-Doten, vice president for undergraduate admissions and financial assistance at Clark University warns against “Too many editors!” She says, “Pick a couple of trusted folks to be your sounding board when considering topics and as readers once you have drafts. You don’t want too many voices in your essay to drown you out!” Scripps’ Romero agrees, suggesting, “Ask a good friend, someone you trust and knows you well, to read your essays.” She adds, “The goal is for the admission committee to get to know a little about you and who better to help you create that framework, than a good friend. This may not work for all students because of content but helps them understand it’s important to be themselves.” Whitney Soule, vice provost and dean of admissions at The University of Pennsylvania adds, “Avoid well-meaning editorial interference that might seem to polish your writing but actually takes your own personal ‘shine’ right out of the message.” She says, “As readers, we connect to applicants through their genuine tone and style. Considering editorial advice for flow and message is OK but hold on to the 'you' for what you want to say and how you want to say it.”

Don’t Get Showy

Palmer Muntz, senior regional admissions counselor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks cautions applicants, “Don’t be fancier than you are. You don’t need to put on airs.” He adds, “Yes, proofread your work for grammar and spelling, but be natural. Craft something you’d want to read yourself, which probably means keeping your paragraphs short, using familiar words, and writing in an active voice.” Connecticut College’s Strickler agrees, warning, “Don't try to be someone you are not. If you are not funny, don't try to write a funny essay. If you are not an intellectual, trying to write an intellectual essay is a bad idea.”

Anthony Jones, the vice president of enrollment management at Loyola University New Orleans offers a unique metaphor for thinking about the essay. He says, “In the new world of the hyper-fast college admission process, it's become easy to overlook the essential meaning of the college application. It's meant to reveal Y...O...U, the real you, not some phony digital avatar. Think of the essay as the essence of that voice but in analog. Like the completeness and authenticity captured in a vinyl record, the few lines you're given to explain your view should be a slow walk through unrestrained expression chock full of unapologetic nuances, crevices of emotion, and exactness about how you feel in the moment. Then, and only then, can you give the admissions officer an experience that makes them want to tune in and listen for more.”

Don’t Be A Downer

James Nondorf, vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid at The University of Chicago says, “Don’t be negative about other people, be appreciative of those who have supported you, and be excited about who you are and what you will bring to our campus!” He adds, “While admissions offices want smart students for our classrooms, we also want kind-hearted, caring, and joyous students who will add to our campus communities too.”

Don’t Pattern Match

Alan Ramirez is the dean of admission and financial aid at Sewanee, The University of the South. He explains, “A big concern I have is when students find themselves comparing their writing to other students or past applicants and transform their writing to be more like those individuals as a way to better their chances of offering a more-compelling essay.” He emphasizes that the result is that the “essay is no longer authentic nor the best representation of themselves and the whole point of the essay is lost. Their distinctive voice and viewpoint contribute to the range of voices in the incoming class, enhancing the diversity of perspectives we aim to achieve.” Ramirez simple tells students, “Be yourself, that’s what we want to see, plus there's no one else who can do it better than you!”

Don’t Feel Tied To A Topic

Jessica Ricker is the vice president for enrollment and dean of admissions and financial aid at Skidmore College. She says, “Sometimes students feel they must tell a story of grief or hardship, and then end up reliving that during the essay-writing process in ways that are emotionally detrimental. I encourage students to choose a topic they can reflect upon positively but recommend that if they choose a more challenging experience to write about, they avoid belaboring the details and instead focus on the outcome of that journey.” She adds, "They simply need to name it, frame its impact, and then help us as the reader understand how it has shaped their lens on life and their approach moving forward.”

Landmark College’s Stefanowicz adds, “A lot of students worry about how personal to get in sharing a part of their identity like your race or heritage (recalling last year’s Supreme Court case about race-conscious admissions), a learning difference or other disability, your religious values, LGBTQ identity…the list goes on.” He emphasizes, “This is always your choice, and your essay doesn’t have to be about a defining identity. But I encourage you to be fully yourself as you present yourself to colleges—because the college admission process is about finding a school where your whole self is welcome and you find a setting to flourish!”

Don’t Be Redundant

Hillen Grason Jr., dean of admission at Franklin & Marshall College, advises, “Don't repeat academic or co-curricular information that is easily identifiable within other parts of your application unless the topic is a core tenant of you as an individual.” He adds, “Use your essay, and other parts of your application, wisely. Your essay is the best way to convey who your authentic self is to the schools you apply. If you navigated a situation that led to a dip in your grades or co-curricular involvement, leverage the ‘additional information’ section of the application.

Thomas Marr is a regional manager of admissions for the Americas at The University of St Andrews in Scotland and points out that “Not all international schools use the main college essay as part of their assessment when reviewing student applications.” He says, “At the University of St Andrews, we focus on the supplemental essay and students should avoid the mistake of making the supplemental a repeat of their other essay. The supplemental (called the Personal Statement if using the UCAS application process) is to show the extent of their passion and enthusiasm for the subject/s to which they are applying and we expect about 75% of the content to cover this. They can use the remaining space to mention their interests outside of the classroom. Some students confuse passion for the school with passion for their subject; do not fall into that trap.”

A Few Final Don’ts

Don’t delay. Every college applicant I have ever worked with has wished they had started earlier. You can best avoid the pitfalls above if you give yourself the time and space to write a thoughtful essay and welcome feedback openly but cautiously. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to be perfect . Do your best, share your voice, and stay true to who you are.

Brennan Barnard

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  • Original article
  • Open access
  • Published: 08 July 2024

Can you spot the bot? Identifying AI-generated writing in college essays

  • Tal Waltzer   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0003-4464-0336 1 ,
  • Celeste Pilegard 1 &
  • Gail D. Heyman 1  

International Journal for Educational Integrity volume  20 , Article number:  11 ( 2024 ) Cite this article

Metrics details

The release of ChatGPT in 2022 has generated extensive speculation about how Artificial Intelligence (AI) will impact the capacity of institutions for higher learning to achieve their central missions of promoting learning and certifying knowledge. Our main questions were whether people could identify AI-generated text and whether factors such as expertise or confidence would predict this ability. The present research provides empirical data to inform these speculations through an assessment given to a convenience sample of 140 college instructors and 145 college students (Study 1) as well as to ChatGPT itself (Study 2). The assessment was administered in an online survey and included an AI Identification Test which presented pairs of essays: In each case, one was written by a college student during an in-class exam and the other was generated by ChatGPT. Analyses with binomial tests and linear modeling suggested that the AI Identification Test was challenging: On average, instructors were able to guess which one was written by ChatGPT only 70% of the time (compared to 60% for students and 63% for ChatGPT). Neither experience with ChatGPT nor content expertise improved performance. Even people who were confident in their abilities struggled with the test. ChatGPT responses reflected much more confidence than human participants despite performing just as poorly. ChatGPT responses on an AI Attitude Assessment measure were similar to those reported by instructors and students except that ChatGPT rated several AI uses more favorably and indicated substantially more optimism about the positive educational benefits of AI. The findings highlight challenges for scholars and practitioners to consider as they navigate the integration of AI in education.

Introduction

Artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming ubiquitous in daily life. It has the potential to help solve many of society’s most complex and important problems, such as improving the detection, diagnosis, and treatment of chronic disease (Jiang et al. 2017 ), and informing public policy regarding climate change (Biswas 2023 ). However, AI also comes with potential pitfalls, such as threatening widely-held values like fairness and the right to privacy (Borenstein and Howard 2021 ; Weidinger et al. 2021 ; Zhuo et al. 2023 ). Although the specific ways in which the promises and pitfalls of AI will play out remain to be seen, it is clear that AI will change human societies in significant ways.

In late November of 2022, the generative large-language model ChatGPT (GPT-3, Brown et al. 2020 ) was released to the public. It soon became clear that talk about the consequences of AI was much more than futuristic speculation, and that we are now watching its consequences unfold before our eyes in real time. This is not only because the technology is now easily accessible to the general public, but also because of its advanced capacities, including a sophisticated ability to use context to generate appropriate responses to a wide range of prompts (Devlin et al. 2018 ; Gilson et al. 2022 ; Susnjak 2022 ; Vaswani et al. 2017 ).

How AI-generated content poses challenges for educational assessment

Since AI technologies like ChatGPT can flexibly produce human-like content, this raises the possibility that students may use the technology to complete their academic work for them, and that instructors may not be able to tell when their students turn in such AI-assisted work. This possibility has led some people to argue that we may be seeing the end of essay assignments in education (Mitchell 2022 ; Stokel-Walker 2022 ). Even some advocates of AI in the classroom have expressed concerns about its potential for undermining academic integrity (Cotton et al. 2023 ; Eke 2023 ). For example, as Kasneci et al. ( 2023 ) noted, the technology might “amplify laziness and counteract the learners’ interest to conduct their own investigations and come to their own conclusions or solutions” (p. 5). In response to these concerns, some educational institutions have already tried to ban ChatGPT (Johnson, 2023; Rosenzweig-Ziff 2023 ; Schulten, 2023).

These discussions are founded on extensive scholarship on academic integrity, which is fundamental to ethics in higher education (Bertram Gallant 2011 ; Bretag 2016 ; Rettinger and Bertram Gallant 2022 ). Challenges to academic integrity are not new: Students have long found and used tools to circumvent the work their teachers assign to them, and research on these behaviors spans nearly a century (Cizek 1999 ; Hartshorne and May 1928 ; McCabe et al. 2012 ). One recent example is contract cheating, where students pay other people to do their schoolwork for them, such as writing an essay (Bretag et al. 2019 ; Curtis and Clare 2017 ). While very few students (less than 5% by most estimates) tend to use contract cheating, AI has the potential to make cheating more accessible and affordable and it raises many new questions about the relationship between technology, academic integrity, and ethics in education (Cotton et al. 2023 ; Eke 2023 ; Susnjak 2022 ).

To date, there is very little empirical evidence to inform debates about the likely impact of ChatGPT on education or to inform what best practices might look like regarding use of the technology (Dwivedi et al. 2023 ; Lo 2023 ). The primary goal of the present research is to provide such evidence with reference to college-essay writing. One critical question is whether college students can pass off work generated by ChatGPT as their own. If so, large numbers of students may simply paste in ChatGPT responses to essays they are asked to write without the kind of active engagement with the material that leads to deep learning (Chi and Wylie 2014 ). This problem is likely to be exacerbated when students brag about doing this and earning high scores, which can encourage other students to follow suit. Indeed, this kind of bragging motivated the present work (when the last author learned about a college student bragging about using ChatGPT to write all of her final papers in her college classes and getting A’s on all of them).

In support of the possibility that instructors may have trouble identifying ChatGPT-generated test, some previous research suggests that ChatGPT is capable of successfully generating college- or graduate-school level writing. Yeadon et al. ( 2023 ) used AI to generate responses to essays based on a set of prompts used in a physics module that was in current use and asked graders to evaluate the responses. An example prompt they used was: “How did natural philosophers’ understanding of electricity change during the 18th and 19th centuries?” The researchers found that the AI-generated responses earned scores comparable to most students taking the module and concluded that current AI large-language models pose “a significant threat to the fidelity of short-form essays as an assessment method in Physics courses.” Terwiesch ( 2023 ) found that ChatGPT scored at a B or B- level on the final exam of Operations Management in an MBA program, and Katz et al. ( 2023 ) found that ChatGPT has the necessary legal knowledge, reading comprehension, and writing ability to pass the Bar exam in nearly all jurisdictions in the United States. This evidence makes it very clear that ChatGPT can generate well-written content in response to a wide range of prompts.

Distinguishing AI-generated from human-generated work

What is still not clear is how good instructors are at distinguishing between ChatGPT-generated writing and writing generated by students at the college level given that it is at least possible that ChatGPT-generated writing could be both high quality and be distinctly different than anything people generally write (e.g., because ChatGPT-generated writing has particular features). To our knowledge, this question has not yet been addressed, but a few prior studies have examined related questions. In the first such study, Gunser et al. ( 2021 ) used writing generated by a ChatGPT predecessor, GPT-2 (see Radford et al. 2019 ). They tested nine participants with a professional background in literature. These participants both generated content (i.e., wrote continuations after receiving the first few lines of unfamiliar poems or stories), and determined how other writing was generated. Gunser et al. ( 2021 ) found that misclassifications were relatively common. For example, in 18% of cases participants judged AI-assisted writing to be human-generated. This suggests that even AI technology that is substantially less advanced than ChatGPT is capable of generating writing that is hard to distinguish from human writing.

Köbis and Mossink ( 2021 ) also examined participants’ ability to distinguish between poetry written by GPT-2 and humans. Their participants were given pairs of poems. They were told that one poem in each pair was written by a human and the other was written by GPT-2, and they were asked to determine which was which. In one of their studies, the human-written poems were written by professional poets. The researchers generated multiple poems in response to prompts, and they found that when the comparison GPT-2 poems were ones they selected as the best among the set generated by the AI, participants could not distinguish between the GPT-2 and human writing. However, when researchers randomly selected poems generated by GPT-2, participants were better than chance at detecting which ones were generated by the AI.

In a third relevant study, Waltzer et al. ( 2023a ) tested high school teachers and students. All participants were presented with pairs of English essays, such as one on why literature matters. In each case one essay was written by a high school student and the other was generated by ChatGPT, and participants were asked which essay in each pair had been generated by ChatGPT. Waltzer et al. ( 2023a ) found that teachers only got it right 70% of the time, and that students’ performance was even worse (62%). They also found that well-written essays were harder to distinguish from those generated by ChatGPT than poorly written ones. However, it is unclear the extent to which these findings are specific to the high school context. It should also be noted that there were no clear right or wrong answers in the types of essays used in Waltzer et al. ( 2023a ), so the results may not generalize to essays that ask for factual information based on specific class content.

AI detection skills, attitudes, and perceptions

If college instructors find it challenging to distinguish between writing generated by ChatGPT and college students, it raises the question of what factors might be correlated with the ability to perform this discrimination. One possible correlate is experience with ChatGPT, which may allow people to recognize patterns in the writing style it generates, such as a tendency to formally summarize previous content. Content-relevant knowledge is another possible predictor. Individuals with such knowledge will presumably be better at spotting errors in answers, and it is plausible that instructors know that AI tools are likely to get content of introductory-level college courses correct and assume that essays that contain errors are written by students.

Another possible predictor is confidence about one’s ability to discriminate on the task or on particular items of the task (Erickson and Heit 2015 ; Fischer & Budesco, 2005 ; Wixted and Wells 2017 ). In other words, are AI discriminations made with a high degree of confidence more likely to be accurate than low-confidence discriminations? In some cases, confidence judgments are a good predictor of accuracy, such as on many perceptual decision tasks (e.g., detecting contrast between light and dark bars, Fleming et al. 2010 ). However, in other cases correlations between confidence and accuracy are small or non-existent, such as on some deductive reasoning tasks (e.g., Shynkaruk and Thompson 2006 ). Links to confidence can also depend on how confidence is measured: Gigerenzer et al. ( 1991 ) found overconfidence on individual items, but good calibration when participants were asked how many items they got right after seeing many items.

In addition to the importance of gathering empirical data on the extent to which instructors can distinguish ChatGPT from college student writing, it is important to examine how college instructors and students perceive AI in education given that such attitudes may affect behavior (Al Darayseh 2023 ; Chocarro et al. 2023 ; Joo et al. 2018 ; Tlili et al. 2023 ). For example, instructors may only try to develop precautions to prevent AI cheating if they view this as a significant concern. Similarly, students’ confusion about what counts as cheating can play an important role in their cheating decisions (Waltzer and Dahl 2023 ; Waltzer et al. 2023b ).

The present research

In the present research we developed an assessment that we gave to college instructors and students (Study 1) and ChatGPT itself (Study 2). The central feature of the assessment was an AI Identification Test , which included 6 pairs of essays. In each case (as was indicated in the instructions), one essay in each pair was generated by ChatGPT and the other was written by college students. The task was to determine which essay was written by the chatbot. The essay pairs were drawn from larger pools of essays of each type.

The student essays were written by students as part of a graded exam in a psychology class, and the ChatGPT essays were generated in response to the same essay prompts. Of interest was overall performance and to assess potential correlates of performance. Performance of college instructors was of particular interest because they are the ones typically responsible for grading, but performance of students and ChatGPT were also of interest for comparison. ChatGPT was also of interest given anecdotal evidence that college instructors are asking ChatGPT to tell them whether pieces of work were AI-generated. For example, the academic integrity office at one major university sent out an announcement asking instructors not to report students for cheating if their evidence was solely based on using ChatGPT to detect AI-generated writing (UCSD Academic Integrity Office, 2023 ).

We also administered an AI Attitude Assessment (Waltzer et al. 2023a ), which included questions about overall levels of optimism and pessimism about the use of AI in education, and the appropriateness of specific uses of AI in academic settings, such as a student submitting an edited version of a ChatGPT-generated essay for a writing assignment.

Study 1: College instructors and students

Participants were given an online assessment that included an AI Identification Test , an AI Attitude Assessment , and some demographic questions. The AI Identification Test was developed for the present research, as described below (see Materials and Procedure). The test involved presenting six pairs of essays, with the instructions to try to identify which one was written by ChatGPT in each case. Participants also rated their confidence before the task and after responding to each item, and reported how many they thought they got right at the end. The AI Attitude Assessment was drawn from Waltzer et al. ( 2023a ) to assess participants’ views of the use of AI in education.

Participants

For the testing phase of the project, we recruited 140 instructors who had taught or worked as a teaching assistant for classes at the college level (69 of them taught psychology and 63 taught other subjects such as philosophy, computer science, and history). We recruited instructors through personal connections and snowball sampling. Most of the instructors were women (59%), white (60%), and native English speakers (67%), and most of them taught at colleges in the United States (91%). We also recruited 145 undergraduate students ( M age = 20.90 years, 80% women, 52% Asian, 63% native English speakers) from a subject recruitment system in the psychology department at a large research university in the United States. All data collection took place between 3/15/2023 and 4/15/2023 and followed our pre-registration plan ( https://aspredicted.org/mk3a2.pdf ).

Materials and procedure

Developing the ai identification test.

To create the stimuli for the AI Identification Test, we first generated two prompts for the essays (Table  1 ). We chose these prompts in collaboration with an instructor to reflect real student assignments for a college psychology class.

Fifty undergraduate students hand-wrote both essays as part of a proctored exam in their psychology class on 1/30/2023. Research assistants transcribed the essays and removed essays from the pool that were not written in third-person or did not include the correct number of sentences. Three additional essays were excluded for being illegible, and another one was excluded for mentioning a specific location on campus. This led to 15 exclusions for the Phonemic Awareness prompt and 25 exclusions for the Studying Advice prompt. After applying these exclusions, we randomly selected 25 essays for each prompt to generate the 6 pairs given to each participant. To prepare the texts for use as stimuli, research assistants then used a word processor to correct obvious errors that could be corrected without major rewriting (e.g., punctuation, spelling, and capitalization).

All student essays were graded according to the class rubric on a scale from 0 to 10 by two individuals on the teaching team of the class: the course’s primary instructor and a graduate student teaching assistant. Grades were averaged together to create one combined grade for each essay (mean: 7.93, SD: 2.29, range: 2–10). Two of the authors also scored the student essays for writing quality on a scale from 0 to 100, including clarity, conciseness, and coherence (combined score mean: 82.83, SD : 7.53, range: 65–98). Materials for the study, including detailed scoring rubrics, are available at https://osf.io/2c54a/ .

The ChatGPT stimuli were prepared by entering the same prompts into ChatGPT ( https://chat.openai.com/ ) between 1/23/2023 and 1/25/2023, and re-generating the responses until there were 25 different essays for each prompt.

Testing Phase

In the participant testing phase, college instructors and students took the assessment, which lasted approximately 10 min. All participants began by indicating the name of their school and whether they were an instructor or a student, how familiar they were with ChatGPT (“Please rate how much experience you have with using ChatGPT”), and how confident they were that they would be able to distinguish between writing generated by ChatGPT and by college students. Then they were told they would get to see how well they score at the end, and they began the AI Identification Test.

The AI Identification Test consisted of six pairs of essays: three Phonemic Awareness pairs, and three Studying Advice pairs, in counterbalanced order. Each pair included one text generated by ChatGPT and one text generated by a college student, both drawn randomly from their respective pools of 25 possible essays. No essays were repeated for the same participant. Figure  1 illustrates what a text pair looked like in the survey.

figure 1

Example pair of essays for the Phonemic Awareness prompt. Top: student essay. Bottom: ChatGPT essay

For each pair, participants selected the essay they thought was generated by ChatGPT and indicated how confident they were about their choice (slider from 0 = “not at all confident” to 100 = “extremely confident”). After all six pairs, participants estimated how well they did (“How many of the text pairs do you think you answered correctly?”).

After completing the AI Identification task, participants completed the AI Attitude Assessment concerning their views of ChatGPT in educational contexts (see Waltzer et al. 2023a ). On this assessment, participants first estimated what percent of college students in the United States would ask ChatGPT to write an essay for them and submit it. Next, they rated their concerns (“How concerned are you about ChatGPT having negative effects on education?”) and optimism (“How optimistic are you about ChatGPT having positive benefits for education?”) about the technology on a scale from 0 (“not at all”) to 100 (“extremely”). On the final part of the AI Attitude Assessment, they evaluated five different possible uses of ChatGPT in education (such as submitting an essay after asking ChatGPT to improve the vocabulary) on a scale from − 10 (“really bad”) to + 10 (“really good”).

Participants also rated the extent to which they already knew the subject matter (i.e., cognitive psychology and the science of learning), and were given optional open-ended text boxes to share any experiences from their classes or suggestions for instructors related to the use of ChatGPT, or to comment on any of the questions in the Attitude Assessment. Instructors were also asked whether they had ever taught a psychology class and to describe their teaching experience. At the end, all participants reported demographic information (e.g., age, gender). All prompts are available in the online supplementary materials ( https://osf.io/2c54a/ ).

Data Analysis

We descriptively summarized variables of interest (e.g., overall accuracy on the Identification Test). We used inferential tests to predict Identification Test accuracy from group (instructor or student), confidence, subject expertise, and familiarity with ChatGPT. We also predicted responses to the AI Attitude Assessment as a function of group (instructor or student). All data analysis was done using R Statistical Software (v4.3.2; R Core Team 2021 ).

Key hypotheses were tested using Welch’s two-sample t-tests for group comparisons, linear regression models with F-tests for other predictors of accuracy, and Generalized Linear Mixed Models (GLMMs, Hox 2010 ) with likelihood ratio tests for within-subjects trial-by-trial analyses. GLMMs used random intercepts for participants and predicted trial performance (correct or incorrect) using trial confidence and essay quality as fixed effects.

Overall performance on AI identification test

Instructors correctly identified which essay was written by the chatbot 70% of the time, which was above chance (chance: 50%, binomial test: p  < .001, 95% CI: [66%, 73%]). Students also performed above chance, with an average score of 60% (binomial test: p  < .001, 95% CI: [57%, 64%]). Instructors performed significantly better than students (Welch’s two-sample t -test: t [283] = 3.30, p  = .001).

Familiarity With subject matter

Participants rated how much previous knowledge they had in the essay subject matter (i.e., cognitive psychology and the science of learning). Linear regression models with F- tests indicated that familiarity with the subject did not predict instructors’ or students’ accuracy, F s(1) < 0.49, p s > .486. Psychology instructors did not perform any better than non-psychology instructors, t (130) = 0.18, p  = .860.

Familiarity with ChatGPT

Nearly all participants (94%) said they had heard of ChatGPT before taking the survey, and most instructors (62%) and about half of students (50%) said they had used ChatGPT before. For both groups, participants who used ChatGPT did not perform any better than those who never used it before, F s(1) < 0.77, p s > .383. Instructors’ and students’ experience with ChatGPT (from 0 = not at all experienced to 100 = extremely experienced) also did not predict their performance, F s(1) < 0.77, p s > .383.

Confidence and estimated score

Before they began the Identification Test, both instructors and students expressed low confidence in their abilities to identify the chatbot ( M  = 34.60 on a scale from 0 = not at all confident to 100 = extremely confident). Their confidence was significantly below the midpoint of the scale (midpoint: 50), one-sample t -test: t (282) = 11.46, p  < .001, 95% CI: [31.95, 37.24]. Confidence ratings that were done before the AI Identification test did not predict performance for either group, Pearson’s r s < .12, p s > .171.

Right after they completed the Identification Test, participants guessed how many text pairs they got right. Both instructors and students significantly underestimated their performance by about 15%, 95% CI: [11%, 18%], t (279) = -8.42, p  < .001. Instructors’ estimated scores were positively correlated with their actual scores, Pearson’s r  = .20, t (135) = 2.42, p  = .017. Students’ estimated scores were not related to their actual scores, r  = .03, p  = .731.

Trial-by-trial performance on AI identification test

Participants’ confidence ratings on individual trials were counted as high if they fell above the midpoint (> 50 on a scale from 0 = not at all confident to 100 = extremely confident). For these within-subjects trial-by-trial analyses, we used Generalized Linear Mixed Models (GLMMs, Hox 2010 ) with random intercepts for participants and likelihood ratio tests (difference score reported as D ). Both instructors and students performed better on trials in which they expressed high confidence (instructors: 73%, students: 63%) compared to low confidence (instructors: 65%, students: 56%), D s(1) > 4.59, p s < .032.

Student essay quality

We used two measures to capture the quality of each student-written essay: its assigned grade from 0 to 10 based on the class rubric, and its writing quality score from 0 to 100. Assigned grade was weakly related to instructors’ accuracy, but not to students’ accuracy. The text pairs that instructors got right tended to include student essays that earned slightly lower grades ( M  = 7.89, SD  = 2.22) compared to those they got wrong ( M  = 8.17, SD  = 2.16), D (1) = 3.86, p  = .050. There was no difference for students, D (1) = 2.84, p  = .092. Writing quality score did not differ significantly between correct and incorrect trials for either group, D (1) = 2.12, p  = .146.

AI attitude assessment

Concerns and hopes about chatgpt.

Both instructors and students expressed intermediate levels of concern and optimism. Specifically, on a scale from 0 (“not at all”) to 100 (“extremely”), participants expressed intermediate concern about ChatGPT having negative effects on education ( M instructors = 59.82, M students = 55.97) and intermediate optimism about it having positive benefits ( M instructors = 49.86, M students = 54.08). Attitudes did not differ between instructors and students, t s < 1.43, p s > .154. Participants estimated that just over half of college students (instructors: 57%, students: 54%) would use ChatGPT to write an essay for them and submit it. These estimates also did not differ by group, t (278) = 0.90, p  = .370.

Evaluations of ChatGPT uses

Participants evaluated five different uses of ChatGPT in educational settings on a scale from − 10 (“really bad”) to + 10 (“really good”). Both instructors and students rated it very bad for someone to ask ChatGPT to write an essay for them and submit the direct output, but instructors rated it significantly more negatively (instructors: -8.95, students: -7.74), t (280) = 3.59, p  < .001. Attitudes did not differ between groups for any of the other scenarios (Table  2 ), t s < 1.31, p s > .130.

Exploratory analysis of demographic factors

We also conducted exploratory analyses looking at ChatGPT use and attitudes among different demographic groups (gender, race, and native English speakers). We combined instructors and students because their responses to the Attitude Assessment did not differ. In these exploratory analyses, we found that participants who were not native English speakers were more likely to report using ChatGPT and to view it more positively. Specifically, 69% of non-native English speakers had used ChatGPT before, versus 48% of native English speakers, D (1) = 12.00, p  < .001. Regardless of native language, the more experience someone had with ChatGPT, the more optimism they reported, F (1) = 18.71, p  < .001, r  = .37). Non-native speakers rated the scenario where a student writes an essay and asks ChatGPT to improve its vocabulary slightly positively (1.19) whereas native English speakers rated it slightly negatively (-1.43), F (1) = 11.00, p  = .001. Asian participants expressed higher optimism ( M  = 59.14) than non-Asian participants ( M  = 47.29), F (1) = 10.05, p  = .002. We found no other demographic differences.

Study 2: ChatGPT

Study 1 provided data on college instructors’ and students’ ability to recognize ChatGPT-generated writing and about their views of the technology. In Study 2, of primary interest was whether ChatGPT itself might perform better at identifying ChatGPT-generated writing. Indeed, the authors have heard discussions of this as a possible solution to recognize AI-generated writing. We addressed this question by repeatedly asking ChatGPT to act as a participant in the AI Identification Task. While doing so, we administered the rest of the assessment given to participants in Study 1. This included our AI Attitude Assessment, which allowed us to examine the extent to which ChatGPT produced attitude responses that were similar to those of the participants in Study 1.

Participants, materials, and procedures

There were no human participants for Study 2. We collected 40 survey responses from ChatGPT, each run in a separate session on the platform ( https://chat.openai.com/ ) between 5/4/2023 and 5/15/2023.

Two research assistants were trained on how to run the survey in the ChatGPT online interface. All prompts from the Study 1 survey were used, with minor modifications to suit the chat format. For example, slider questions were explained in the prompt, so instead of “How confident are you about this answer?” the prompt was “How confident are you about this answer from 0 (not at all confident) to 100 (extremely confident)?”. In pilot testing, we found that ChatGPT sometimes failed to answer the question (e.g., by not providing a number), so we prepared a second prompt for every question that the researcher used whenever the first prompt was not answered (e.g., “Please answer the above question with one number between 0 to 100.”). If ChatGPT still failed on the second prompt, the researcher marked it as a non-response and moved on to the next question in the survey.

Data analysis

Like Study 1, all analyses were done in R Statistical Software (R Core Team 2021 ). Key analyses first used linear regression models and F -tests to compare all three groups (instructors, students, ChatGPT). When these omnibus tests were significant, we followed up with post-hoc pairwise comparisons using Tukey’s method.

AI identification test

Overall accuracy.

ChatGPT generated correct responses on 63% of trials in the AI Identification Test, which was significantly above chance, binomial test p  < .001, 95% CI: [57%, 69%]. Pairwise comparisons found that this performance by ChatGPT was not any different from that of instructors or students, t s(322) < 1.50, p s > .292.

Confidence and estimated performance

Unlike the human participants, ChatGPT produced responses with very high confidence before the task generally ( m  = 71.38, median  = 70) and during individual trials specifically ( m  = 89.82, median  = 95). General confidence ratings before the test were significantly higher from ChatGPT than from the humans (instructors: 34.35, students: 34.83), t s(320) > 9.47, p s < .001. But, as with the human participants, this confidence did not predict performance on the subsequent Identification task, F (1) = 0.94, p  = .339. And like the human participants, ChatGPT’s reported confidence on individual trials did predict performance: ChatGPT produced higher confidence ratings on correct trials ( m  = 91.38) than incorrect trials ( m  = 87.33), D (1) = 8.74, p  = .003.

ChatGPT also produced responses indicating high confidence after the task, typically estimating that it got all six text pairs right ( M  = 91%, median  = 100%). It overestimated performance by about 28%, and a paired t -test confirmed that ChatGPT’s estimated performance was significantly higher than its actual performance, t (36) = 9.66, p  < .001. As inflated as it was, estimated performance still had a small positive correlation with actual performance, Pearson’s r  = .35, t (35) = 2.21, p  = .034.

Essay quality

The quality of the student essays as indexed by their grade and writing quality score did not significantly predict performance, D s < 1.97, p s > .161.

AI attitude Assessment

Concerns and hopes.

ChatGPT usually failed to answer the question, “How concerned are you about ChatGPT having negative effects on education?” from 0 (not at all concerned) to 100 (extremely concerned). Across the 40% of cases where ChatGPT successfully produced an answer, the average concern rating was 64.38, which did not differ significantly from instructors’ or students’ responses, F (2, 294) = 1.20, p  = .304. ChatGPT produced answers much more often for the question, “How optimistic are you about ChatGPT having positive benefits for education?”, answering 88% of the time. The average optimism rating produced by ChatGPT was 73.24, which was significantly higher than that of instructors (49.86) and students (54.08), t s > 4.33, p s < .001. ChatGPT only answered 55% of the time for the question about how many students would use ChatGPT to write an essay for them and submit it, typically generating explanations about its inability to predict human behavior and the fact that it does not condone cheating when it did not give an estimate. When it did provide an estimate ( m  = 10%), it was vastly lower than that of instructors (57%) and students (54%), t s > 7.84, p s < .001.

Evaluation of ChatGPT uses

ChatGPT produced ratings of the ChatGPT use scenarios that on average were rank-ordered the same as the human ratings, with direct copying rated the most negatively and generating practice problems rated the most positively (see Fig.  2 ).

figure 2

Average ratings of ChatGPT uses, from − 10 = really bad to + 10 = really good. Human responses included for comparison (instructors in dark gray and students in light gray bars)

Compared to humans’ ratings, ratings produced by ChatGPT were significantly more positive in most scenarios, t s > 3.09, p s < .006, with two exceptions. There was no significant difference between groups in the “format” scenario (using ChatGPT to format an essay in another style such as APA), F (2,318) = 2.46, p  = .087. And for the “direct” scenario, ChatGPT tended to rate direct copying more negatively than students ( t [319] = 4.08, p  < .001) but not instructors (t[319] = 1.57, p  = .261), perhaps because ratings from ChatGPT and instructors were already so close to the most negative possible rating.

In 1950, Alan Turing said he hoped that one day machines would be able to compete with people in all intellectual fields (Turing 1950 ; see Köbis and Mossink 2021 ). Today, by many measures, the large-language model, ChatGPT, appears to be getting close to achieving this end. In doing so, it is raising questions about the impact this AI and its successors will have on individuals and the institutions that shape the societies in which we live. One important set of questions revolves around its use in higher education, which is the focus of the present research.

Empirical contributions

Detecting ai-generated text.

Our central research question focused on whether instructors can identify ChatGPT-generated writing, since an inability to do so could threaten the ability of institutions of higher learning to promote learning and assess competence. To address this question, we developed an AI Identification Test in which the goal was to try to distinguish between psychology essays written by college students on exams versus essays generated by ChatGPT in response to the same prompts. We found that although college instructors performed substantially better than chance, they still found the assessment to be challenging, scoring an average of only 70%. This relatively poor performance suggests that college instructors have substantial difficulty detecting ChatGPT-generated writing. Interestingly, this performance by the college instructors was the same average performance as Waltzer et al. ( 2023a ) observed among high school instructors (70%) on a similar test involving English literature essays, suggesting the results are generalizable across the student populations and essay types. We also gave the assessment to college students (Study 1) and to ChatGPT (Study 2) for comparison. On average, students (60%) and ChatGPT (63%) performed even worse than instructors, although the difference only reached statistical significance when comparing students and instructors.

We found that instructors and students who went into the study believing they would be very good at distinguishing between essays written by college students versus essays generated by ChatGPT were in fact no better at doing so than participants who lacked such confidence. However, we did find that item-level confidence did predict performance: when participants rated their confidence after each specific pair (i.e., “How confident are you about this answer?”), they did perform significantly better on items they reported higher confidence on. These same patterns were observed when analyzing the confidence ratings from ChatGPT, though ChatGPT produced much higher confidence ratings than instructors or students, reporting overconfidence while instructors and students reported underconfidence.

Attitudes toward AI in education

Instructors and students both thought it was very bad for students to turn in an assignment generated by ChatGPT as their own, and these ratings were especially negative for instructors. Overall, instructors and students looked similar to one another in their evaluations of other uses of ChatGPT in education. For example, both rated submitting an edited version of a ChatGPT-generated essay in a class as bad, but less bad than submitting an unedited version. Interestingly, the rank orderings in evaluations of ChatGPT uses were the same when the responses were generated by ChatGPT as when they were generated by instructors or students. However, ChatGPT produced more favorable ratings of several uses compared to instructors and students (e.g., using the AI tool to enhance the vocabulary in an essay). Overall, both instructors and students reported being about as optimistic as they were concerned about AI in education. Interestingly, ChatGPT produced responses indicative of much more optimism than both human groups of participants.

Many instructors commented on the challenges ChatGPT poses for educators. One noted that “… ChatGPT makes it harder for us to rely on homework assignments to help students to learn. It will also likely be much harder to rely on grading to signal how likely it is for a student to be good at a skill or how creative they are.” Some suggested possible solutions such as coupling writing with oral exams. Others suggested that they would appreciate guidance. For example, one said, “I have told students not to use it, but I feel like I should not be like that. I think some of my reluctance to allow usage comes from not having good guidelines.”

And like the instructors, some students also suggested that they want guidance, such as knowing whether using ChatGPT to convert a document to MLA format would count as a violation of academic integrity. They also highlighted many of the same problems as instructors and noted beneficial ways students are finding to use it. One student noted that, “I think ChatGPT definitely has the potential to be abused in an educational setting, but I think at its core it can be a very useful tool for students. For example, I’ve heard of one student giving ChatGPT a rubric for an assignment and asking it to grade their own essay based on the rubric in order to improve their writing on their own.”

Theoretical contributions and practical implications

Our findings underscore the fact that AI chatbots have the potential to produce confident-sounding responses that are misleading (Chen et al. 2023 ; Goodwins 2022 ; Salvi et al. 2024 ). Interestingly, the underconfidence reported by instructors and students stands in contrast to some findings that people often expressed overconfidence in their abilities to detect AI (e.g., deepfake videos, Köbis et al. 2021 ). Although general confidence before the task did not predict performance, specific confidence on each item of the task did predict performance. Taken together, our findings are consistent with other work suggesting confidence effects are context-dependent and can differ depending on whether they are assessed at the item level or more generally (Gigerenzer et al. 1991 ).

The fact that college instructors have substantial difficulty differentiating between ChatGPT-generated writing and the writing of college students provides evidence that ChatGPT poses a significant threat to academic integrity. Ignoring this threat is also likely to undermine central aspects of the mission of higher education in ways that undermine the value of assessments and disincentivize the kinds of cognitive engagement that promote deep learning (Chi and Wylie 2014 ). We are skeptical of answers that point to the use of AI detection tools to address this issue given that they will always be imperfect and false accusations have potential to cause serious harm (Dalalah and Dalalah 2023 ; Fowler 2023 ; Svrluga, 2023 ). Rather, we think that the solution will have to involve developing and disseminating best practices regarding creating assessments and incentivizing cognitive engagement in ways that help students learn to use AI as problem-solving tools.

Limitations and future directions

Why instructors perform better than students at detecting AI-generated text is unclear. Although we did not find any effect of content-relevant expertise, it still may be the case that experience with evaluating student writing matters, and instructors presumably have more such experience. For example, one non-psychology instructor who got 100% of the pairs correct said, “Experience with grading lower division undergraduate papers indicates that students do not always fully answer the prompt, if the example text did not appear to meet all of the requirements of the prompt or did not provide sufficient information, I tended to assume an actual student wrote it.” To address this possibility, it will be important to compare adults who do have teaching experience with those who do not.

It is somewhat surprising that experience with ChatGPT did not affect the performance of instructors or students on the AI Identification Test. One contributing factor may be that people pick up on some false heuristics from reading the text it generates (see Jakesch et al. 2023 ). It is possible that giving people practice at distinguishing the different forms of writing with feedback could lead to better performance.

Why confidence was predictive of accuracy at the item level is still not clear. One possibility is that there are some specific and valid cues many people were using. One likely cue is grammar. We revised grammar errors in student essays that were picked up by a standard spell checker in which the corrections were obvious. However, we left ungrammatical writing that didn’t have obvious corrections (e.g., “That is being said, to be able to understand the concepts and materials being learned, and be able to produce comprehension.“). Many instructors noted that they used grammatical errors as cues that writing was generated by students. As one instructor remarked, “Undergraduates often have slight errors in grammar and tense or plurality agreement, and I have heard the chat bot works very well as an editor.” Similarly, another noted, “I looked for more complete, grammatical sentences. In my experience, Chat-GPT doesn’t use fragment sentences and is grammatically correct. Students are more likely to use incomplete sentences or have grammatical errors.” This raises methodological questions about what is the best comparison between AI and human writing. For example, it is unclear which grammatical mistakes should be corrected in student writing. Also of interest will be to examine the detectability of writing that is generated by AI and later edited by students, since many students will undoubtedly use AI in this way to complete their course assignments.

We also found that student-written essays that earned higher grades (based on the scoring rubric for their class exam) were harder for instructors to differentiate from ChatGPT writing. This does not appear to be a simple effect of writing quality given that a separate measure of writing quality that did not account for content accuracy was not predictive. According to the class instructor, the higher-scoring essays tended to include more specific details, and this might have been what made them less distinguishable. Relatedly, it may be that the higher-scoring essays were harder to distinguish because they appeared to be generated by more competent-sounding writers, and it was clear from instructor comments that they generally viewed ChatGPT as highly competent.

The results of the present research validate concerns that have been raised about college instructors having difficulty distinguishing writing generated by ChatGPT from the writing of their students, and document that this is also true when students try to detect writing generated by ChatGPT. The results indicate that this issue is particularly pronounced when instructors evaluate high-scoring student essays. The results also indicate that ChatGPT itself performs no better than instructors at detecting ChatGPT-generated writing even though ChatGPT-reported confidence is much higher. These findings highlight the importance of examining current teaching and assessment practices and the potential challenges AI chatbots pose for academic integrity and ethics in education (Cotton et al. 2023 ; Eke 2023 ; Susnjak 2022 ). Further, the results show that both instructors and students have a mixture of apprehension and optimism about the use of AI in education, and that many are looking for guidance about how to ethically use it in ways that promote learning. Taken together, our findings underscore some of the challenges that need to be carefully navigated in order to minimize the risks and maximize the benefits of AI in education.

Data availability

Supplementary materials, including data, analysis, and survey items, are available on the Open Science Framework: https://osf.io/2c54a/ .

Abbreviations

Artificial Intelligence

Confidence Interval

Generalized Linear Mixed Model

Generative Pre-trained Transformer

Standard Deviation

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Acknowledgements

We thank Daniel Chen and Riley L. Cox for assistance with study design, stimulus preparation, and pilot testing. We also thank Emma C. Miller for grading the essays and Brian J. Compton for comments on the manuscript.

This work was partly supported by a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship for T. Waltzer (NSF SPRF-FR# 2104610).

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Waltzer, T., Pilegard, C. & Heyman, G.D. Can you spot the bot? Identifying AI-generated writing in college essays. Int J Educ Integr 20 , 11 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40979-024-00158-3

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Anatomy of an AI Essay

How might you distinguish one from a human-composed counterpart? After analyzing dozens, Elizabeth Steere lists some key predictable features.

By  Elizabeth Steere

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Since OpenAI launched ChatGPT in 2022, educators have been grappling with the problem of how to recognize and address AI-generated writing. The host of AI-detection tools that have emerged over the past year vary greatly in their capabilities and reliability. For example, mere months after OpenAI launched its own AI detector, the company shut it down due to its low accuracy rate.

Understandably, students have expressed concerns over the possibility of their work receiving false positives as AI-generated content. Some institutions have disabled Turnitin’s AI-detection feature due to concerns over potential false allegations of AI plagiarism that may disproportionately affect English-language learners . At the same time, tools that rephrase AI writing—such as text spinners, text inflators or text “humanizers”—can effectively disguise AI-generated text from detection. There are even tools that mimic human typing to conceal AI use in a document’s metadata.

While the capabilities of large language models such as ChatGPT are impressive, they are also limited, as they strongly adhere to specific formulas and phrasing . Turnitin’s website explains that its AI-detection tool relies on the fact that “GPT-3 and ChatGPT tend to generate the next word in a sequence of words in a consistent and highly probable fashion.” I am not a computer programmer or statistician, but I have noticed certain attributes in text that point to the probable involvement of AI, and in February, I collected and quantified some of those characteristics in hopes to better recognize AI essays and to share those characteristics with students and other faculty members.

I asked ChatGPT 3.5 and the generative AI tool included in the free version of Grammarly each to generate more than 50 analytical essays on early American literature, using texts and prompts from classes I have taught over the past decade. I took note of the characteristics of AI essays that differentiated them from what I have come to expect from their human-composed counterparts. Here are some of the key features I noticed.

AI essays tend to get straight to the point. Human-written work often gradually leads up to its topic, offering personal anecdotes, definitions or rhetorical questions before getting to the topic at hand.

AI-generated essays are often list-like. They may feature numbered body paragraphs or multiple headings and subheadings.

The paragraphs of AI-generated essays also often begin with formulaic transitional phrases. As an example, here are the first words of each paragraph in one essay that ChatGPT produced:

  • “In contrast”
  • “Furthermore”
  • “On the other hand”
  • “In conclusion.”

Notably, AI-generated essays were far more likely than human-written essays to begin paragraphs with “Furthermore,” “Moreover” and “Overall.”

AI-generated work is often banal. It does not break new ground or demonstrate originality; its assertions sound familiar.

AI-generated text tends to remain in the third person. That’s the case even when asked a reader response–style question. For example, when I asked ChatGPT what it personally found intriguing, meaningful or resonant about one of Edgar Allan Poe’s poems, it produced six paragraphs, but the pronoun “I” was included only once. The rest of the text described the poem’s atmosphere, themes and use of language in dispassionate prose. Grammarly prefaced its answer with “I’m sorry, but I cannot have preferences as I am an AI-powered assistant and do not have emotions or personal opinions,” followed by similarly clinical observations about the text.

AI-produced text tends to discuss “readers” being “challenged” to “confront” ideologies or being “invited” to “reflect” on key topics. In contrast, I have found that human-written text tends to focus on hypothetically what “the reader” might “see,” “feel” or “learn.”

AI-generated essays are often confidently wrong. Human writing is more prone to hedging, using phrases like “I think,” “I feel,” “this might mean …” or “this could be a symbol of …” and so on.

AI-generated essays are often repetitive. An essay that ChatGPT produced on the setting of Rebecca Harding Davis’s short story “Life in the Iron Mills” contained the following assertions among its five brief paragraphs: “The setting serves as a powerful symbol,” “the industrial town itself serves as a central aspect of the setting,” “the roar of furnaces serve as a constant reminder of the relentless pace of industrial production,” “the setting serves as a catalyst for the characters’ struggles and aspirations,” “the setting serves as a microcosm of the larger societal issues of the time,” and “the setting … serves as a powerful symbol of the dehumanizing effects of industrialization.”

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AI writing is often hyperbolic or overreaching. The quotes above describe a “powerful symbol,” for example. AI essays frequently describe even the most mundane topics as “groundbreaking,” “vital,” “esteemed,” “invaluable,” “indelible,” “essential,” “poignant” or “profound.”

AI-produced texts frequently use metaphors, sometimes awkwardly. ChatGPT produced several essays that compared writing to “weaving” a “rich” or “intricate tapestry” or “painting” a “vivid picture.”

AI-generated essays tend to overexplain. They often use appositives to define people or terms, as in “Margaret Fuller, a pioneering feminist and transcendentalist thinker, explored themes such as individualism, self-reliance and the search for meaning in her writings …”

AI-generated academic writing often employs certain verbs. They include “delve,” “shed light,” “highlight,” “illuminate,” “underscore,” “showcase,” “embody,” “transcend,” “navigate,” “foster,” “grapple,” “strive,” “intertwine,” “espouse” and “endeavor.”

AI-generated essays tend to end with a sweeping broad-scale statement. They talk about “the human condition,” “American society,” “the search for meaning” or “the resilience of the human spirit.” Texts are often described as a “testament to” variations on these concepts.

AI-generated writing often invents sources. ChatGPT can compose a “research paper” using MLA-style in-text parenthetical citations and Works Cited entries that look correct and convincing, but the supposed sources are often nonexistent. In my experiment, ChatGPT referenced a purported article titled “Poe, ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ and the Gothic’s Creation of the Unconscious,” which it claimed was published in PMLA , vol. 96, no. 5, 1981, pp. 900–908. The author cited was an actual Poe scholar, but this particular article does not appear on his CV, and while volume 96, number 5 of PMLA did appear in 1981, the pages cited in that issue of PMLA actually span two articles: one on Frankenstein and one on lyric poetry.

AI-generated essays include hallucinations. Ted Chiang’s article on this phenomenon offers a useful explanation for why large language models such as ChatGPT generate fabricated facts and incorrect assertions. My AI-generated essays included references to nonexistent events, characters and quotes. For example, ChatGPT attributed the dubious quote “Half invoked, half spontaneous, full of ill-concealed enthusiasms, her wild heart lay out there” to a lesser-known short story by Herman Melville, yet nothing resembling that quote appears in the actual text. More hallucinations were evident when AI was generating text about less canonical or more recently published literary texts.

This is not an exhaustive list, and I know that AI-generated text in other formats or relating to other fields probably features different patterns and tendencies . I also used only very basic prompts and did not delineate many specific parameters for the output beyond the topic and the format of an essay.

It is also important to remember that the attributes I’ve described are not exclusive to AI-generated texts. In fact, I noticed that the phrase “It is important to … [note/understand/consider]” was a frequent sentence starter in AI-generated work, but, as evidenced in the previous sentence, humans use these constructions, too. After all, large language models train on human-generated text.

And none of these characteristics alone definitively point to a text having been created by AI. Unless a text begins with the phrase “As an AI language model,” it can be difficult to say whether it was entirely or partially generated by AI. Thus, if the nature of a student submission suggests AI involvement, my first course of action is always to reach out to the student themselves for more information. I try to bear in mind that this is a new technology for both students and instructors, and we are all still working to adapt accordingly.

Students may have received mixed messages on what degree or type of AI use is considered acceptable. Since AI is also now integrated into tools their institutions or instructors have encouraged them to use—such as Grammarly , Microsoft Word or Google Docs —the boundaries of how they should use technology to augment human writing may be especially unclear. Students may turn to AI because they lack confidence in their own writing abilities. Ultimately, however, I hope that by discussing the limits and the predictability of AI-generated prose, we can encourage them to embrace and celebrate their unique writerly voices.

Elizabeth Steere is a lecturer in English at the University of North Georgia.

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