The essay: It’s one of the most important parts of your college application, and it can be the hardest. But it doesn’t have to be. Take a look at some of the most commonly asked essay questions and use them to prepare for your applications. Brainstorm ideas, do some research or create your own “stock” of application essays from the commonly used questions below.
Current Events and Social Issues
To test your skills at problem-solving and check how up-to-date you are on current issues, many applications include questions about problems and issues facing society.
- What do you consider to be the single most important societal problem? Why?
- Pick a controversial problem on college campuses and suggest a solution.
- What do you see as the greatest threat to the environment today?
Colleges are looking for students who have achieved in some area of their lives. So you shouldn’t be surprised to find essay topics that ask you to brag a little.
- Describe how you have demonstrated leadership ability both in and out of school.
- Discuss a special attribute or accomplishment that sets you apart.
- Describe your most meaningful achievements and how they relate to your future goals.
Background and Influences
Who you are is closely tied to where you’ve been and who you’ve known. To learn more about you, some admissions committees will ask you to write about your background and major influences.
- Pick an experience from your own life and explain how it has influenced your development.
- Who in your life has been your biggest influence and why?
- How has your family background affected the way you see the world?
- How has your education contributed to who you are today?
Future Plans and Goals
Colleges look for applicants with vision and motivation, so they might ask about your goals and aspirations.
- Briefly describe your long- and short-term goals.
- Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
- Why do you want to get a college education?
Some essay questions don’t seem directly related to your education or life experience, but committees use them to test your creativity and get a better sense of your personality.
- Choose a person or persons you admire and explain why.
- Choose a book or books and that have affected you deeply and explain why.
While you can’t predict every essay question, knowing some of the most common ones can give you a leg up on applications.
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When applying to any school, whether it’s undergraduate or graduate, you will always be required to submit one or more written documents. The purpose of these documents is to allow the admissions committee to find out more about the students on a personal level. Looking at your test scores, credentials, class rank, and similar data is not enough. There are thousands of students applying from all over the world with similar application to yours. Therefore, your writing is arguably more important than anything else you submit, as it gives you the chance to express what makes you stand out from the rest of the applicants.
However, different schools ask for different formats, and this tends to confuse students, which leads to off-topic writing. Writing off-topic, no matter how creative and special your story is, could lead to an automatic filtering by the admissions committee because you have failed to read the requirements and deliver what they are asking for.
Let’s look at the differences individually.
Statement of Purpose (SOP) – Just by looking at the title, we should already know that this paper is focused on your purpose, or the reasons why you want to study a particular course/major at this university. Usually, schools will assign what they call “prompts,” which are focused questions which you need to answer in detail. Failure to answer the question automatically marks you as an unfit candidate. It is very important to direct your response to the particular questions at hand. Don’t go off topic and start talking in detail about your past achievements, hopes, or dreams. Effective SOP writing discusses your career plan and future goals. This must be well thought out, as it takes focus and determination to pursue a degree, especially if you are applying for a master’s or doctorate degree. The admissions committee wants to see how well organized and prepared you are. Your readers need to know that you are serious about the degree program. They do not want slackers; they want well-defined research interests. A well-written SOP formally expresses the candidate’s background (education, interests, credentials, etc.), but the candidate does not brag. The candidate explains in detail his or her desire to gain acceptance into the program of choice.
Personal Statement – The keyword “personal” already tells you how different this is from an SOP. Here is your chance to show off what you have accomplished in your academics, any major skills you have, and any extracurricular activities in which you have participated. In this paper, you have the chance to represent yourself to stand out from the other students; you have the freedom to talk about anything and everything in your life, as long as it is relevant to the program to which you are applying. A common mistake with this type of document is that some applicants have too much to say, and they do not know how to choose relevant details or transition fluidly from idea to idea. Jumping from one story to another in one paragraph will put off the admissions committee, so organize your thoughts in advance. Plan what you want to write and structure your essay logically. Most importantly, don’t lie! The best personal statements are straightforward, reflective, and honest, so don’t overthink the task. Just express yourself.
Study Plan – A study plan is just another way some schools around the world, particularly in Asia, refer to a personal statement/SOP. They are looking to learn about your personality, past achievements, present roles, and future goals. There may be a shorter word limit for a study plan or no limit at all, depending on each individual school’s guidelines. When you are reading through the requirements, pay special attention to what the school is asking for so that you can focus the essay accordingly. If you do research on how to write a study plan, notice that the term “study plan” can also refer to a planned schedule to help students prepare for tests and exams. For instance, some students make study plans or schedules to determine how many words per day they should review for the SAT, GRE, or TOEFL. However, this use of the term “study plan” is unrelated to the application essay, so make sure you do not confuse these two meanings. One way to avoid confusion is to read about personal statements and use those guidelines instead.
To simplify the differences, you can think of them this way. An SOP describes why you want to attend a university while offering some details about your fit for the program, whereas a personal statement or study plan is all about representing yourself, your skills and accomplishments, and why this university should choose you.