Welcome to The Friend Zone—our blog dedicated to providing you with exceptional, time-tested advice about the College Application Essay delivered with a hint of humor and a whole lot of encouragement.
Just take a deep breath (maybe check out our free calming meditations) and then grab a pencil. Let’s get writing!
How can I make my College Essay “flow” more smoothly?
“How can I make my essay flow better?” is a question students ask me all the time. And is usually code for: how can I smoothly connect my ideas? My sentences? My paragraphs?
Well, let’s talk about it.
Step 1: Evaluate your paragraph organization.
Are your paragraphs organized with intention or haphazardly? Does each paragraph build upon the last one? In other words, if you were to reposition one of the paragraphs, what would happen to the overall meaning of your essay? In an essay that’s organized intentionally and not haphazardly, the meaning would be DRASTICALLY affected.
Let’s consider an example.
Sample paragraph organization for an essay describing your lifelong passion for food
Paragraph 1: sets up your first important food memory in vivid detail—eating lobster when you were 3
Paragraph 2: explores the emotions you remember feeling at that time and your family’s reaction
Paragraph 3: describes how, as a result of this experience, you became an adventurous foodie; this leads you to describe another example of this adventurous spirit, which really sets up your “why”
Paragraph 4: dives deeply into your why, discussing why these memories and your relationship to food are such an important part of who you are
Do you see how these paragraphs build on each other, each one leading to the next in a way that’s both logical and thoughtful? If we say, traded paragraph 3 for paragraph 4, our organization would unravel and our essay stop making sense. THIS is how we know our essay organization is strong and smooth, as opposed to being random or even “listed!!”
Let’s look at a second example exploring the same subject matter.
Paragraph 1: sets up your first important food memory in vivid detail—eating lobster when you were 3—and explains why it’s important
Paragraph 2: describes a second food memory, important for a different reason than the lobster
Paragraph 3: describes a third food memory, also important for its own reasons
Paragraph 4: sums up all 3 memories and why they each were important
With this example are you noticing how easily we could trade paragraph 2 for paragraph 3 without impacting the overall meaning of the essay whatsoever? Heck, we could even move paragraph 1 around since there doesn’t seem to be a substantive reason for it to be first beyond the fact that it chronologically occurred first. In other words, these paragraphs have ZERO build! They’re just a list of three separate events the writer doesn’t really tie together until the last paragraph—and even then, they have 3 separate reasons to reflect on, instead of one unifying reflection. This is not what you want if you want your essay to “flow!”
Step 2: Inspect your transition words.
Of course, step 1 is a big-picture suggestion, but there’s also work to be done at the level of your transition words.
Because your College Essay should sound more like a personal story than a traditional 5-paragraph essay, you want to choose natural transition words that match the overall tone of your story. Conversely, you want to avoid transition words that sound especially stiff or heavy-handed— like my own transition word “conversely” 😊. While “conversely” certainly belongs in a blog post where I’m providing a formal writing lesson, it might not be the best fit for your College Essay.
The other BIG no-no’s are listed transitions like “first, second, finally”—talk about heavy-handed!! (Also, side note: listed transitions are great to use in an actual list or when we’re just starting out as writers. But in your College Essay, you want to strive for transitions that are a step-above.)
Expanded List of Transition Words
Transitions to use:
- Even though
- In spite of
- On the other hand
- In other words
- as well as
- Not only…but also…
- For this reason
- In this way
- In short
- Above all
Transitions to avoid:
- First, second, third
- In conclusion
- In summary
- To sum up
Transitions to use with caution (use only if they feel natural and match the tone of YOUR essay):
- In contrast
- In comparison
- As a result
- As such
- For example
- For instance
*This list isn’t meant to be exhaustive, just a resource. And there are other ways to create transitions besides just through transition words. I’ll talk more about this in an upcoming post, but in the meantime, this list should certainly get you rolling smoothly!
What’s in a Name: The Personal Statement vs. The College Application Essay?
A long time ago (about the 1500’s), in a far-away land (England), Shakespeare (ever heard of the guy?) wrote the following:
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
English teachers love to highlight this quote when teaching Romeo and Juliet, so you might already know what it means. But basically, Shakespeare was trying to convey that the names we attach to people or things, don’t really matter. For instance, if we were to call a rose something different, it wouldn’t affect the rose; it would still look and smell as lovely as ever, regardless of its new name.
The same is true for the College Essay. Even though it has a bunch of different names, each name actually refers to the same thing: the essay you have to write as part of your college application.
Possible names include:
-The Personal Statement
-The College Admissions Essay
-The College Application Essay
-The Common App Essay
-The Essay of Agony and Doom (just kidding!!)
You’ll see us using a mix of terms at College Essay Friend, but don’t let that throw you. No matter what names we use, our tips and tricks are sure to help you craft a winning essay!
Umm…How long should my College Essay be exactly?
I get this question a lot and really, kind of annoyingly, the answer depends.
For some essays your word-count limit could be 650 words; for others, it could be 500; some only require 250 words!
(Quick Tip: If you’re answering one of the Common Application prompts, the length for all Common App essays is 250-650 words.)
So my advice is to know your limits from the start. You don’t want to write this beautiful, 900-word masterpiece only to realize your word limit is 250 words…that’s the actual worst.
At the same time, while I encourage you to be informed, I also encourage you not to obsess about your essay length during the drafting process. Instead, write the story you want to tell, in all its glorious detail; you can concentrate on cutting for length during the revision process.
Here are 3 quick tips to help you trim:
- Cut the least important and least impactful material first
- Combine sentences/paragraphs whenever possible
- Ask a friend or parent to help
-They won’t be as emotionally attached to every word!But remember: when you revise, you don’t want to just cut for length or just revise for proofreading errors like I talk about in our You also want to deeply revise your opening and closing paragraphs; refine your structure; and sprinkle in purposeful creative risks because these are the things that elevate good essays to great essays.
I know you can do it!
How do I write my College Essay? Should I write it like the other essays I write for English class?
The answer to this question is a little bit yes, and…a little bit no.
A little bit yes: No matter what we’re writing, or who we’re writing it for, we should always strive for:
-a consistent focus
-precise and evocative word choice
This is true for English class and your College Application Essay.
A little bit no: When writing a traditional 5-paragraph essay in school, we’re usually taught to include an opening paragraph (or introduction) that includes a very formal thesis statement. However, your College Admissions Essay isn’t the place for a very formal thesis statement because, like…BORING! But it is the place for a “soft” thesis that gives readers a gentle nudge in the direction of your essay’s main take-away.
(Interested in learning more about successful opening paragraphs? Then check out our online courses where we teach you the two 2 tricks to creating a compelling opening paragraph every time.)
You also want to ditch the 5-paragraph structure. In fact, there’s no set number of paragraphs required in your college essay. Instead, you’re free to tell your story in as many paragraphs as it takes—which leads me to my final piece of advice.
Don’t even think of your essay as an “essay.” Instead, think of it as a personal story that recreates an important event, memory, or realization from your life, and, along the way, reveals deep insight into who you are beyond your SAT scores or high school transcripts. Reframing it this way is sure to help you create a strong and engaging piece of writing!
What topics should I write my Personal Statement about?
For this frequently asked question, let’s start with what you should NOT write your personal statement about:
-volunteer or mission trips
-sports injuriesChoosing to write about these topics is one of the TOP mistakes covered in our —you definitely should watch this one if you haven’t already.
But basically, you want to avoid choosing these topics because every year, a bajillion students write about them. And if you write about them too, you’ll be throwing away a powerful opportunity to set yourself apart from the pack via a more original and compelling topic.
So what constitutes a more original and compelling topic, you ask?
-a story about learning to ride your bike
-a story about your first job
-a story about what it’s like growing up as “the middle child”
These are just a few quick examples, but do you see what they have in common?
They all set you up to tell an authentic and unique personal story not about some great big drama, but about one of those beautiful, ordinary moments that make up a life. In fact, that’s the key piece of advice here: to remember that the best essays tell ORDINARY stories in EXTRAORDINARY ways. You want your essay topic to do this too!
If you need a little extra help making this magic happen, and coming up with a topic in general, we offer brainstorming deep dives in our online courses. In our Boot Camp, you even get topic pre-approval before you start writing. How cool is that??
Happy brainstorming, friends!
Common App Essay Prompt Questions
Which Common Application Essay Prompt Should I Choose? (Part 1 of a 7-part series)
Since most colleges now allow students to apply to their school via the Common Application (Common App), most students are also choosing to write their application essays in response to one of the 7 essay prompts provided by the Common App.
(More about these specific prompts in a minute.)
That there are 7 essay prompts to choose from is one of the best parts of the Common App, but also…the worst. With so many prompts to choose from how do you know which one is right for you?
This is the exact quandary I’m here to help you sort out today, and for the next 7 blogs as I break down what each question is really asking; highlight common mistakes; steer you towards overlooked questions; and even suggest possible topics to inspire you.
Let’s start with Prompt #1, shall we?
Prompt 1: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.
Every year, this emerges as a very popular prompt likely because it’s so broad, freeing you up tell any story you want about your background, identity, interests, or talents, as long as it’s personally meaningful. I’m emphasizing this part of the question because it’s the most overlooked! So while yes, you’re free to tell any related story you want, it NEEDS to convey a clear sense of personal meaning, or larger message.
In our online courses, we refer to this larger message as the essay’s main “take-away”—the lesson, realization, or piece of insight your story builds to, which helps convey a deeper understanding about your personality, values, aspirations, worldview, etc.
So, as you brainstorm possible personal stories to share, make sure you also brainstorm possible take-aways because a story without a clear take-way won’t get the job done.
(We offer really awesome brainstorming support in our Brainstorming Blueprint, in case you’re interested in learning more!)
Additional prompt advice:
-Don’t tell a story about your background and talents. Just pick one category to build your own story around.
-Make sure you browse the other 6 prompts before selecting this one and here’s why: lots and lots of students choose this question, which means it will be harder to offer a fresh perspective admissions counselors haven’t heard a thousand times before. However, after carefully evaluating all 7 prompts, if this one still passionately grabs you, then I say, go for it. Following what you feel passionate about is a crucial element of the writing process!
Common App Essay Prompt Breakdown Part 2/7: Beware of the “Easy” Questions
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?
Oh, this question. Sigh, friends, SIGH!
While reviewing student essays every year, I try to keep track of how many students pick this prompt and every year I inevitably fail because there are just TOO MANY TO COUNT!!!
Of course, I understand why this question is so popular: it seems like the easiest. We’ve all faced obstacles, making it super easy to recall a time where said obstacle seemed terrible at first, but then ended up teaching us a valuable life lesson.
But just because something seems easy doesn’t mean it’ll translate into a vibrant and original essay! In fact, usually the opposite occurs.
Usually, students describe a rather predictable or even cliché encounter with adversity—like the time they were injured while playing a favorite sport, for example—which they eventually overcame, learning, in the end, a rather predictable and cliché lesson—such as the injury teaching them the value of hard work and determination, while also leading them to their future career as a physical therapist.
Friends, the hard truth is you will NOT stand out with this essay or one like it!
To make this prompt work, you need a creative obstacle (usually not of the athletic or academic variety), with a creative lesson at the end.
So, while it is possible to make this prompt work for you, don’t expect it to be a snap; you’re going to have to push yourself and really think outside the box for this one!
Common App Essay Prompt Breakdown Part 3/7: No Ranting Allowed
Prompt 3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
Recently, I reviewed a student essay tackling this question. The writer talked about how much she used to question, and outright disagree, with her high school’s gym class requirement. (At her high school, all students are required to participate in four years of physical education classes regardless of their feelings on the matter.)
In the second half of the essay, the writer did a wonderful job demonstrating how her opinion evolved following her school’s decision to partner interested students with peers enrolled in the school’s special needs program, leading her to eventually cherish the same class she once dreaded. But the first half of the essay…it sounded like one long rant!
For several paragraphs, she steeped her readers in complaint after complaint, ranting about why she considered the class to be a waste. But that’s not the purpose of this question!
The ability to speak up and question the dominant narrative, or popular opinions of those around you, is indicative of freethinking and personal courage. But you want to make sure you express your disagreements respectfully. You don’t want to come off sounding rude, or judgmental, or combative, or ranty, like this writer did.
Let’s consider another sample scenario together. For instance, maybe you used to agree absolutely with your parents’ politics. But then you took this history class and you learned about the other side’s point-of-view, and suddenly, some latent, dormant thing inside you sprang to life. Let’s say you decide to write your essay about this important transformation. Instead of pointing fingers or ranting angrily about how wrong you suddenly realized your parents were, you’d want to keep the spotlight on yourself. You’d want to talk about why this new perspective resonated with you. How did it transform your way of thinking or relating with the world? What kind of effects continue to ripple outward from this important experience?
Do you see the difference?
Overall, this is a wonderful question, friends, and very underused. I definitely encourage you to give it a go!
Common App Essay Prompt Breakdown Part 4/7: An invitation for joy
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?
This Prompt 4 is a new addition to the Common App Essay Prompt Family, inspired not only by the deep challenges of the past year(s), but by scientific research linking the act of writing about who and what we are grateful for, with elevated spirits. In fact, the writers of this new question, according to the official Common App Blog, hope applicants will see this question as “an invitation to bring joy to their application process.”
If this uplifting intention is already clicking with you, then I certainly encourage you to grab your notebook and get brainstorming. Just be mindful that, in the writing of this essay, you don’t over-emphasize the first part of the question to the neglect of the second part.
By this I mean, don’t lose sight—while describing whatever happy, kind thing someone did for you—of the purpose of your College Essay: to help admissions teams get to know you better. That purpose hasn’t shifted with this new addition. So, you don’t want to spend all your time lauding this special someone; rather, be sure to emphasize how you were “affected” or “motivated” as a result of this experience. You get me?
Two more potential problems I foresee:
1. Try not to select an obvious example tons of other students are likely to choose, like a coach, or a parent, or a loved one who has passed on. Look for someone more unexpected; the question even points you in that direction, suggesting that the happy, kind act might have felt “surprising” to you at the time.
2. Along the same lines, don’t misconstrue “surprising” for necessarily dramatic or over-the-top gestures. Instead, consider smaller, unexpected, every day examples. I predict these will make for the very best essays!
Common App Essay Prompt Breakdown Part 5/7: The Natural
Prompt 5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
The key to unlocking this prompt is the all-important phrase “a period of personal growth.”
Essentially, this is asking you to explore a moment of pivotal change in your life—an accomplishment, event, or realization that jolted you awake, or shifted your worldview, or unearthed a fresh discovery about yourself.
Reading this you might think, “Oh no! But I don’t have anything significant, or dramatic, or tragic enough to write about!”
Well, don’t dismay, friends.
If you’ve watched my free videos, then you know THE BEST essays actually explore ordinary stories in extraordinary ways. So your inciting event doesn’t need to be overly dramatic or tragic. Instead, you could explore accomplishments like getting your driver’s license or learning to make a family-favorite recipe on your own—accomplishments that are of a smaller-scale yes, but still ripe with large-scale, personal meaning.
I also encourage you to spend time brainstorming for this question because of how naturally it sets you up for a moment of self-reflection at the end of your essay. Like I teach in our online course, The College Essay Cure, the closing paragraph of every essay is the place for deep reflection. But with some questions, this turn can feel forced and inauthentic. Not so with this little guy, though! He’s a natural!
Common App Essay Prompt Breakdown Part 6/7: Passion Projects
Prompt 6: Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging 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?
For some mysterious reason, this lonely little question gets almost no love from student writers. But it’s SUCH a fertile question totally worth exploring!
Begin by asking yourself what makes you lose all track of time? What could you spend hours and hours dreaming about without ever getting bored? We all have our things, our passion projects. Maybe yours is studying string theory; or learning about sustainable fashion; or analyzing the rhyme schemes of Kanye West lyrics; or memorizing baseball statistics.
As you can see from this list, your answer to this question doesn’t have to be high-brow; it just has to reflect your authentic passions.
That’s really why I suggest spending some time getting to know this question: it naturally lends itself to discussing a topic that lights you up, which in turn, will lend itself to an engaging, lively personal statement.
It’s also a chance to discuss what you’re personally curious about outside of your required academics—and colleges love students with rich interests and a natural appetite for learning new things. So give this little question a real chance!
Common App Essay Prompt Breakdown Part 7/7: The Freestyle
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.
This question is deceptively tricky. At first glance you might be like, “Awesome! I can write whatever I want? I’ll just recycle an old essay and be done, no muss, no fuss.”
Not so fast, my friends!
By now, you’ve hopefully realized that your College Admissions Essay isn’t like any old essay. In fact, successful essays adhere to a very unique and specific set of guidelines. So that research essay you wrote for history class or that essay on symbolism in Lord of the Flies you wrote for English class, won’t work. They won’t help you write a personal story, which ultimately, artfully reveals a special piece of insight about who you are outside of your transcripts or test scores.
Designing your own question can potentially be problematic too because the topic you land on will need to be both appropriate for your audience and your purpose. However, the upside is not a lot of students brave this prompt. That means, with the right topic, it could be another chance to show off your willingness to take creative risks!
So if/when you do land on a topic you think is right, I really recommend sharing your idea with a trusted friend or family member before you start; they can help double-check that you’re on the right path. You might also want to explore our Brainstorming Blueprint if you haven’t already. Its Topic Wizard Flowchart is a great tool for assessing whether your topic will work or not.
And that, my friends, brings us to the end of our 7-part series breaking down the Common App essay prompts. I hope you found this info super helpful. And remember, if you want to learn more, be sure to check out our online course, The College Essay Cure, which includes an entire lesson devoted to brainstorming and a downloadable brainstorming activity too.
You can learn everything here.
Until next time: Happy Writing, Friends!
Need more help with the Common App Essay Prompts? Watch our Common App brainstorming video series!
We’ve given you a lot of info about brainstorming for the Common App Essay Prompts…but maybe you want to see these tips in action??
That’s why we’ve put together this seven-part video series breaking down ALL 7 Common App prompts. Just press play!
You’ll learn what each question is really asking and how to come up with an authentic topic that grabs your readers.
These videos are chock-full of tips and tricks… as well as some awkward dancing. (Listen…brainstorming is hard. Sometimes you gotta dance it out to make it through!)