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Essay Questions

The Journey to Great Essays


A story’s lead captures the reader’s attention, but it is the structure that guides the adventure. Margo Bartsch founded College Essay Coach in 2004 to apply her marketing and branding expertise in assisting students to develop exceptional essays and application strategies for college admissions (undergraduate and graduate), transferring colleges, and applying to prep school.

Margo's writing philosophy is that the story must have a compelling theme and organizational structure, whether in marketing or in essay writing. She applies Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to share character traits and personal values that make stories come to life with word count limits.

Like a good ad, people remember how a story makes them feel, beyond what is said. This big idea differentiates the student and connects with the reader. Writing is a life skill that can be fun!

Common App

Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has that gratitude affected and motivated you? (The Common Application, 650 words, 2023-2024)

This essay question allows you to select a person who has a significant influence on your life, but in answering this question, you can either discuss a specific person or explain how a character in fiction, historical figure or creative work (as in art, music, etc…) has influenced you.

This question probes how ideas have made you who you are. Your response is not necessarily about a “person,” rather it can be about how that person’s ideas, choices, expressions or circumstances made an impression on you and helped to influence your personal development. Your essay allows you to share the values you identify with and your personal ideals by describing your role models or mentors.

Who you choose to write about does not need to be a much-noted, influential person. This is your chance to make a small hero into a big superstar-- because in your eyes, this is something special to you that others should notice. Whether you choose your parents or a power broker in the news, your writing needs to describe why these ideas are important in influencing who you are and how you approach life.

University of Michigan

Describe the unique qualities that attract you to the specific undergraduate College of School that you are applying to at the University of Michigan. How would that curriculum support your interests? (The University of Michigan, 550 words, 2023-2024)

With this essay question, the college is gauging the depth of your interest in the school. They seek students who truly want to go to their school. Your answer can be analytical and emotional, or a balanced combination of the two. This is your opportunity to explain how the particular college program will allow you to excel in the area you have chosen (or will choose) to pursue.

Approaching it from another angle, if you are intent on spending extra money to attend a specific school, there has to be a reason why the cost is worth the added benefit. What makes this college special or its approach different? How does the academic program, learning philosophy or social environment appeal to you?

In writing your essay, think of it as having a conversation with someone who already is “inside” of where you want to be. Your reader represents the college, the student and faculty community, and its values. Your writing style should be both humble and enthusiastic in explaining the specific reasons why the college curriculum, environment, and philosophy are relevant to your areas of interest. Your essay should confidently and candidly convey that you have a solid knowledge of the school as being a great match to succeed in your academic career.

Coalition for College

Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it. (Coalition for College, 650 words, 2023-2024)

This is actually a two-part question: 1) what makes you proud and 2) how this experience helped you grow. Together your response will show what you are capable of achieving. Your answer should not repeat information that is already in your application. This is an opportunity for you to share an experience by making it come to life-- what it took to get you there (emotionally and physically) and how it affects who you are today. You have bragging rights to this story because it is your personal account of how change and choices helped you grow. Your experience should inspire others and make them want to get to know you better.

Brown University

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 different than your own. How did you respond? (Brown University, 250 words, 2023-2024)

This essay quotation asks that you discuss some issue of personal, local, national or international concern and its importance to you. Your response should not be written as a research paper with an overview and facts; rather, your personal viewpoint is what shows why you are involved with the outcome. This is your chance to share how your personal experiences have made you engaged with the issue. This is an opportunity for you to take a “BIG” issue and make it “small”-- reflect on why you have a personal stake in the outcome. How does this issue help to describe who you are? Your college essay should explain how your experiences or your personal circumstances makes this issue important to you… why you care.

Although there are two sides to every story, this question does not want objective writing. This is a subjective conversation between you and the reader. It is important that your essay include solid points that link the overall concept or question with your personal discussion. How you organize your essay shows that you can think objectively and logically, yet connect the topic with your personal circumstances. This essay allows you to explain how you view the topic first-hand, yet your ability to think globally while acting locally.

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