College Application Essay FAQs


Q: How do I begin to write my essay?

A: Start by reading the Common App and UC prompts, which you can find here.

Q: How many essays will I need to write?

A: Depends. If you’re applying to the UCs, you’ll write the Common App main statement, UC 1, UC 2, plus supplements, which number anywhere from 6-20, depending on the number of schools you apply to.

Q: How long should my essays be?

A: Your main essay can be up to 650 words (on the Common App); your supplemental essays will vary.

Q: When are my essays due?

A: Depends on the school. Go to and open an account if you haven’t. Add the schools to which you’re applying. Click on each school to find out its due date.

Q: What should my essay be about?

A: In a word, you.

Q: What are college admissions officers looking for?

A: They're looking for the answers to these three questions:

  1. Who is this person?
  2. Will this person contribute something of value to our campus?
  3. Can this person write?

Q: How do college admissions officers evaluate my essay?

A: Each school has its own criteria and different readers will prefer different elements. Michael Gulotta, Associate Director of Admissions at American University, for example, has told me he most looks to the essay to assess a student's writing ability. But Rick Diaz, Regional Director of Undergraduate Admission at SMU, is less interested in writing ability and more interested in a student's story.

Q: So which is more important: your story or your writing skill?

A: Both are important. "A good story, well told." That's your goal.

Q: When should I start writing my essay?

A: If you’re reading this fall of your senior year and you haven’t started yet the answer is probably right now.

Q: How much do essays matter?

A: It depends on the college, but generally between 10% and 30%. Essays tend to matter more for small schools or schools who look at applications holistically.

Q: If my grades are bad, can I get into Harvard with a great essay?

A: Nope. Schools look at your GPA, course rigor, and test scores more than anything. When you're being compared to other students with similar GPA/SAT scores, that's when the essays can make a difference. But there are lots of other great schools besides Harvard. For a list of Colleges That Change Lives, Google "Colleges That Change Lives."

Q: Can a bad college essay negatively affect my application?

A: Yes.

Q: What should I write about?

A: That’s a big question. Something that’s uniquely you. Or a combination of things that are uniquely you.



Written by Ethan Sawyer – In addition to being the College Essay Guy, Ethan is a writer, teacher, speaker, and voice actor. He has worked at Elite since 2003 is also the coordinator for the Elite Community Scholars Program, a program very close to his heart. You can email him at The views expressed in this blog post are Ethan's and don't necessarily reflect those of Elite Educational Institute.