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If you’ve clicked on this article, it might be because you’re tired at staring at your blank screen (or, if you’re more traditional, your blank piece of notebook paper) thinking about what to write about for your college essays. Don’t worry, this happens to this best of us. Maybe you feel your life has been so boring that there’s nothing remotely interesting you could spend up to 650 words talking about. Or maybe when you try to reflect on your life, you remember such a vast body of events that seems impossible to narrow down. Here are some tips for coming up with ideas for your essays; these will differ depending on what kind of essay you’re trying to write.

For Personal Essays

These essays prompt you to draw from the experiences in your life and really are meant to get a better sense of who you are and what you value. The Common Application’s prompts are a prime example of this. My advice for this kind of essay is to look back at how you’ve spent your time. Here’s an excuse to look back at old Facebook photos (or even those pictures in frames on your bookshelf), turn pages in agendas from years ago, maybe even look at text messages. When doing so, be sure to focus more on moments (just a few strands on the head of hair that is your life) or other things you can use to make a point about some aspect of your character–ideally something that can’t be gleaned from other facets of your application. Ultimately, how, where, and with whom you spend your time can be invaluable for allowing admissions officers a glimpse into the complex individual you are.

For the Common App in particular, if there isn’t a certain prompt that sticks out to you, I would recommend copy-and-pasting all the prompts on a Word document. Then, underneath each of them, use bullet points to list some possible topics you could write about–just whatever comes to mind when you look at the prompt. For instance, say you’re dealing with “Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content.” You might first put down the verdant field your band marches on every week, or maybe even in front of a grand piano. Another tip–you don’t have to take the prompt completely literally (though, of course, your response should still clearly address it).

For “Why This College?” Essays

These essays are pretty straightforward, asking you to write about why you want to attend the college, and why you would fit in there. Honestly, if you’re having trouble coming up with ideas for this prompt, you might have to start questioning why you’re even applying (or do more research on the college–the university website is a great place to start). Ideally, this question should have an answer before you put a college on your list.

Nevertheless, those who like a particular university might still have trouble writing this essay. I would recommend looking at the opportunities the university can provide (be they academic, professional, or extracurricular) and drawing connections with what you’re already interested in. Perhaps there’s a particular class you want to take, a program you can’t find anywhere else, or a club you plan on joining. Also consider the student-faculty ratio (which can give you an idea of how large classes tend to be) and the environment the school is in.

When you’re applying to a college, you’re saying that you could see yourself not just attending classes, but living there, for four years–ask yourself why you think you could see yourself doing so at that school. Then write it down. 

For Quirky Essays

These essays are, by definition, not particularly common, but depending on where you’re applying to, you might encounter some of these. UChicago and Tufts are perhaps the most infamous for posing such bizarre questions, but that doesn’t mean other universities don’t occasionally get in on the fun. It’s evident that these prompts try to get a sense of your creative, fun side, but it’s important to remember that essays like these can be a great way to show how you think and how well you can write.  

These essays vary wildly in what they ask, but they tend to come in bunches–that is, for each college, there are usually a variety of prompts you can choose from. If you can’t think up anything to write about for one prompt, check out the others and see if any of them appeal to you. Do not be afraid to take risks–be that by weaving a story or even taking the prompt completely seriously. Still, don’t try to be unusual for the sake of being unusual; rather, use the strangeness of the prompt to highlight your own, personal brand of weirdness. For instance, let’s say you’re confronted with a prompt about a huge jar of mustard. If physics is your thing, maybe write an essay about what happens as that jar is dropped from a shelf eight feet tall.

When it really comes down to it, the key to knowing what to write for your college essays is knowing yourself.  

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