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What is the College Essay? Your Complete Guide for 2023

Bonus Material: 30 College Essays That Worked

The college essay is one of the most important parts of your college application. 

As important as it is, however, it’s very different from the essays you’re used to writing in high school. 

From word count to genre, the college essay is in a category entirely of its own–and one that can be unfamiliar for most students applying to college.

So, what is the college essay? What role does it play in college admissions?

And, most importantly, how do you get started writing an amazing essay?

We answer all of these questions in this complete college essay guide. 

Plus, we give readers access to 30 college essays that earned applicants acceptance into the nation’s top colleges. They’re free and you can grab them below right now!

Download 30 College Essays That Worked

Here’s what we cover in this guide:

What is the College Essay?

  • Our Expert Definition
  • A College Essay That Worked
  • The Essay’s Role in College Admissions

The 7 Common Challenges in Writing the College Essay

  • How To Get Started Writing an Amazing Essay — 6 Tips
  • Bonus: 30 College Essays That Worked

Most students will use the Common App to apply to U.S. colleges and universities. A smaller number of colleges require students to submit applications through Coalition .

Regardless, both platforms require students to submit a personal statement or essay response as part of their application. Students choose to respond to one of the following prompts in 650 words or fewer .

College Essay Prompts 2022-2023

What do these questions all have in common? They all require answers that are introspective, reflective, and personal. 

Take a look at some of these buzzwords from these prompts to see what we mean:

  • Understanding
  • Belief / Idea
  • Contribution

These are big words attached to big, personal concepts. That’s the point!

But because that’s the case, that means the college essay is not an academic essay. It’s not something you write in five paragraphs for English class. Nor is it a formal statement, an outline of a resume, or a list of accomplishments.

It’s something else entirely.

Our Definition of the College Essay

How do we define the college essay? We’ll keep it short and sweet.

The college essay is a personal essay that tells an engaging story in 650 words or fewer. It is comparable to memoir or creative nonfiction writing, which relate the author’s personal experiences. 

The college essay is fundamentally personal and creative. It is rich with introspection, reflection, and statements of self-awareness. It can have elements of academic writing in it, such as logical organization, thesis statements, and transition words. But it is not an academic essay that fits comfortably into five paragraphs.

Your task with the college essay is to become a storyteller–and, in the process, provide admissions officers with a valuable glimpse into your world, perspective, and/or experiences.

what does college essay do

Example of a College Essay That Worked

Take a look at this essay that earned its writer acceptance into Princeton. We won’t take a super deep dive into the components that make it great. 

But we do want to point out a handful of things that align with our definition of the college essay. This essay:

  • Tells an engaging story
  • Clearly conveys the author’s voice
  • Is rich with introspection and reflection
  • Provides insight into the author’s character, values, and perspective
  • Is not an academic essay or list of accomplishments
  • Is deeply personal

It also exemplifies the 7 qualities of a successful college essay .

Here’s the full essay:

“So long as you have food in your mouth, you have solved all questions for the time being.” – Franz Kafka

Kafka, I’m afraid, has drastically overestimated the power of food. And though it pains me to undermine a statement by arguably the greatest writer of the 20 th century, I recognize it as a solemn duty. Perhaps Kafka has never sat, tongue wild in an effort to scrape residual peanut butter off his molars, and contemplated the almost ridiculous but nevertheless significant role of peanut butter in crafting his identity. Oh, did I just describe myself by accident? Without further ado, the questions (and lack of answers, I point out) that I contemplate with peanut butter in my mouth.

When I was three and a half years old, my tongue was not yet versed in the complex palate of my peers, consisting mainly of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. (It did not help my transition into pre-school that I did not speak English, but Russian and that my name, which had been hurriedly switched from Alya to Alex, was unpronounceable to me.) But it is most worth noting that I refused lunch for months, waited at the windowsill with tear-stained cheeks every day unless my mom left law school midday to bring my own comfort food: borscht, katlety, kampot.

I slowly assimilated into American culture, like most immigrant kids. I began to eat the peanut butter sandwiches at pre-school in the presence of my mom, and then did not need her altogether. She must have been elated that I was comfortable, that she could stay at school all day without worrying. She must have been destroyed when I waved her away the first time and told her I did not need her to come anymore.

I realized much later that the Russian food my mother brought me in pre-school made me comfortable enough to learn the language of the children there, to share their lunches, to make friends. Ironically, my Russian culture enabled the rise and dominance of American culture. When my parents wanted to visit their birthplace, my birthplace, Odessa, Ukraine, I rolled my eyes and proclaimed Disney Land, Florida. I rolled my eyes when I spoke too fast for my parents to understand. I rolled my eyes when I checked my mom’s grammar and when she argued with customer service in her thick Russian accent.

Peanut butter, and foods like it, represented not only my entrance into American culture, but the swift rejection of anything Russian that followed. Chicken noodle soup replaced borscht, meatballs replaced katlety, Sunny D triumphed over kampot. I became embarrassed by the snacks packed in my brown paper bag, begged for Cheetos, lime Jell-O cups, and that creamy spread between two damp pieces of Wonder Bread. My American identity tried to eclipse the Russian one altogether.

I realized later still that the identity battle I fought must have been more difficult to watch for my parents than it could have ever been for me to experience. They let me figure myself out, even though it meant I spent years rolling my eyes at them. Though I do not claim to have discovered a perfect balance of Russian and American, I would venture that a healthy start is eating peanut butter for lunch and katlety at dinner.

So, Kafka, I hope that next time a memorable quote comes to mind, you think before you speak. Because when peanut butter cleaves to the roof of my mouth, I think about what it means “to cleave:” both to adhere closely to and to divide, as if by a cutting blow, especially along a natural weakness. And I think about my dual identity, how the Russian side and American side simultaneously force each other apart and bring each other together. I think about my past, feeling a little ashamed, and about my present and future, asking how I can create harmony between these two sides of me. That, Kafka, does not sound like solved questions to me.

Want to read more essays that worked? Download our 30 college essays that earned their writers Ivy League acceptance for free below.

The College Essay’s Role in Admissions

In our post about what college admissions officers are looking for , we outline the Golden Rule of Admissions.

The Golden Rule of Admissions

We also define “a student of exceptional potential.” In general, competitive applicants to top U.S. colleges and universities exemplify three pillars:

  • Character and personal values
  • Extracurricular distinction
  • Academic achievement

3 Pillars of Successful Applicants

Admissions officers have a lot at their disposal when it comes to assessing extracurricular distinction and academic achievement. They’ve got transcripts, test scores, resumes, and letters of recommendation. 

But how do they assess character and personal values?

A recent survey of admissions officers revealed some interesting answers to this question.

what does college essay do

Source : National Association for College Admissions Counseling

Notice how an overwhelming 87% of officers surveyed reported that they infer character and personal qualities of an applicant from the content of the college essay!

The Common Data Set for individual colleges further supports this notion that officers infer character and values through the college essay, teacher recommendations, and other application components. The CDS for Cornell , for example, reveals that the application essay and character/personal qualities are “very important” in admission decisions.

what does college essay do

What’s more, the COVID-19 pandemic profoundly altered the college application landscape by introducing some serious inequity in the realm of extracurricular activities, academics, and general access. 

Many admissions officers have stressed their focus on character and personal values (more qualitative components) in recent admissions cycles as a result.

what does college essay do

Schools are hungry for as much material as possible that they can use to assess students’ character and values! This is one of the reasons why many top colleges require applicants to answer supplemental essay questions — ones in addition to the college essay. These essays can range from 50-650 words, and many colleges have more than one.

For example, Princeton requires applicants to respond to six supplemental essay questions . Here’s one of them from the 2022-2023 admissions cycle:

At Princeton, we value diverse perspectives and the ability to have respectful dialogue about difficult issues. Share a time when you had a conversation with a person or a group of people about a difficult topic. What insight did you gain, and how would you incorporate that knowledge into your thinking in the future?

So how important is the college essay in the application process?

Princeton’s former Dean of Admissions summed it up nicely with this quote about the college essay in a conversation with the New York Times :

Your ability to write well is critical to our decision because your writing reflects your thinking. No matter what question is asked on a college application, admission officers are looking to see how well you convey your ideas and express yourself in writing. It is our window to your world.

Now that you know what the college essay is and how it influences college admissions, let’s discuss the challenges in writing it. This list isn’t comprehensive, but it does compile some of the most common challenges most students face when preparing to write their personal statement.

Challenge #1: The Pressure

The college essay is integral to the college admissions process. It’s only likely to carry more weight in coming admission cycles in the wake of COVID-19 .

There is immense pressure on students to write essays that will make them competitive in admissions! This essay can also very much feel like uncharted territory for students given their lack of experience in the world of personal writing. This pressure can become a veritable roadblock in writing the college essay.

Challenge #2: What’s Introspection?

Successful college essays are deeply personal and full of introspection. We define introspection as reflection on what’s important in your life — values, beliefs, opinions, experiences, etc. It also can have a lot to do with what makes you you .

To some students, introspection might come naturally. To others, it might not! This is understandable. The high school classroom doesn’t necessarily give space for students to reflect on what they’ve learned from certain experiences or what they believe are their core values. However, this is exactly what admissions officers are looking for in essays!

what does college essay do

Challenge #3: You Just Don’t Write Personal Essays in School

Most English classes spend a lot of time on the academic essay . But most don’t include many units on writing personal essays or creative nonfiction–if any!

Many students writing the college essay thus face an entirely unfamiliar genre that comes with its own word limit, structure, and style of writing.

Challenge #4: The Word Limit

Both the Common App and Coalition require students to limit their essays to 650 words. That’s a little over a page of writing, single-spaced.

This means that students have to be incredibly concise in crafting their responses. This can be a tall order given what the college essay often includes: big ideas, big themes, and big reflection!

Challenge #5: Choosing a Topic

Given the college essay’s requirements, it can be tough to choose the “right” topic . Should you discuss an extracurricular activity ? Personal experience? An important mentorship figure?

Some students have a wide variety of experiences and personal stories to choose from. Others might feel that they have a limited number.

Challenge #6: Choosing a Structure

Let’s say that you’ve chosen your college essay topic. Now how do you fit it into a concise structure that gives ample air space to what college admissions officers are looking for?

Choosing a structure can be critical for telling your specific story in a compelling fashion. But once again, this is unfamiliar terrain for most students who haven’t really written a personal essay before.

And when we say that structure really is critical for college essay writing, we mean it–we’ve written an entire post on college essay structure .

Challenge #7: Getting Started

Last but not least, it can be incredibly difficult simply to start the college essay writing process. From choosing a topic to writing that first draft, there’s a lot to navigate. Many students also have a lot going on in general when they get around to writing their essays, including AP exams, summer programs , and the chaos of senior fall schedules.

If this sounds like where you’re at in the college essay writing journey, keep reading. We’ve got 6 tips coming up to help you take those first steps.

How To Write an Amazing College Essay – 6 Tips

You’ve learned what a college essay is and the weight it carries in college admissions. You’ve also heard a bit about what makes this essay challenging. Now what?

It’s time to get started writing your very own. 

The following tips are designed to help you begin the journey towards an amazing college essay, regardless of your story, college aspirations, or timeline. Let’s dive in.

what does college essay do

Tip #1: Give Yourself Time & Get Organized

Good college essays take time, and we mean time . We recommend that students establish a generous timeline for writing their personal statements. Ideally, students should start thinking about their essays seriously in the spring of their junior year or summer immediately following.

It’s also important to get organized. Create separate documents for brainstorming and free-writes, for example, and clearly mark your drafts based on where you’re at in the writing process.

We also recommend researching supplemental essay prompts for the colleges on your list and keeping track of these–including deadlines and word limits–in a spreadsheet. This is especially important for students applying early.

Tip #2: Practice Introspection

You can start flexing your introspective muscles before writing your essay! Practice journaling, for example, or responding to daily reflective prompts like the following:

  • What is your greatest strength? Weakness?
  • What is one of your core beliefs? Why is it core?
  • What is your best quality?
  • What matters to you? Why?
  • What challenges you? Why?

The New York Times has even released 1,000 free writing prompts for students that range from identity and family to social life and technology.

With introspection, focus on using “I” as much as possible. This can feel awkward, especially as most English teachers encourage students to avoid using “I” in academic essays. But it’s the key to deep reflection.

You can also check out our post on College Essay Brainstorming or download 30 FREE college essay brainstorming questions right here.

Tip #3: Familiarize Yourself with Personal Writing & Storytelling

Immerse yourself in examples of powerful personal writing and storytelling. A great place to start is by downloading our 30 examples of college essays that earned students Ivy League acceptance or checking out our 11 College Essays That Worked post .

Otherwise, check out memoirs or creative essay collections.

The Moth , a storytelling radio project, is another great resource for students looking to learn more about how people tell personal stories in an engaging fashion. Plus, it’s just plain fun to listen to!

Tip #4: Know What Makes for An Amazing Essay

What qualities do most successful college essays have?

We’ve done the research. A successful college essay is often:

  • Introspective and reflective
  • Full of a student’s voice
  • Descriptive and engaging
  • Unconventional and distinct
  • Well-written

We take a deeper dive into these 7 qualities of a successful college essay in a separate post.

Tip #5: Review Supplemental Essay Questions

Don’t forget about supplemental essay questions! It’s easy to overlook these or assume that they are less important than the college essay.

But remember–many colleges require supplemental essays as a means of gaining more information about competitive applicants. The Common App and Coalition also now have optional COVID-19 essay questions (learn our tips for answering these COVID-related questions here ).

Don’t save your supplemental essays for the last minute! Review questions well in advance through the Common App or Coalition platform so that you are aware of the other responses you’ll have to write.

We’ve actually compiled the supplemental essay questions for the top 50 U.S. colleges and universities right here.

You can also check out our 8 tips for writing amazing supplemental essay responses .

Tip #6: Work with a Mentor

Yes, it is possible to write your college essay, personal as it is, under the right one-on-one guidance. Mentors can help you with all stages of the college essay writing process, from topic brainstorms to final draft polishing.

They can also help create an actionable timeline for tackling both the college essay and all of those supplements, and hold students accountable!

You can sign up to work with one of PrepMaven’s master essay consultants if you’d like. Or check out our summer College Essay Workshops .

what does college essay do

One of the best ways to start the college essay writing process is to look at examples of successful essays. But these examples can be hard to find, and few and far between.

That’s why we compiled 30 college essays that earned their writers acceptance into Ivy League schools. You can download these examples for FREE below.

what does college essay do

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay. 

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College admissions

Course: college admissions   >   unit 4.

  • Writing a strong college admissions essay
  • Avoiding common admissions essay mistakes
  • Brainstorming tips for your college essay
  • How formal should the tone of your college essay be?
  • Taking your college essay to the next level
  • Sample essay 1 with admissions feedback
  • Sample essay 2 with admissions feedback
  • Student story: Admissions essay about a formative experience
  • Student story: Admissions essay about personal identity
  • Student story: Admissions essay about community impact
  • Student story: Admissions essay about a past mistake
  • Student story: Admissions essay about a meaningful poem

Writing tips and techniques for your college essay

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By submitting my email address. i certify that i am 13 years of age or older, agree to recieve marketing email messages from the princeton review, and agree to terms of use., crafting an unforgettable college essay.

Most selective colleges require you to submit an essay or personal statement as part of your application.

college essay

It may sound like a chore, and it will certainly take a substantial amount of work. But it's also a unique opportunity that can make a difference at decision time. Admissions committees put the most weight on your high school grades and your test scores . However, selective colleges receive applications from many worthy students with similar scores and grades—too many to admit. So they use your essay, along with your letters of recommendation and extracurricular activities , to find out what sets you apart from the other talented candidates.

Telling Your Story to Colleges

So what does set you apart?

You have a unique background, interests and personality. This is your chance to tell your story (or at least part of it). The best way to tell your story is to write a personal, thoughtful essay about something that has meaning for you. Be honest and genuine, and your unique qualities will shine through.

Admissions officers have to read an unbelievable number of college essays, most of which are forgettable. Many students try to sound smart rather than sounding like themselves. Others write about a subject that they don't care about, but that they think will impress admissions officers.

You don't need to have started your own business or have spent the summer hiking the Appalachian Trail. Colleges are simply looking for thoughtful, motivated students who will add something to the first-year class.

Tips for a Stellar College Application Essay

1. write about something that's important to you..

It could be an experience, a person, a book—anything that has had an impact on your life. 

2. Don't just recount—reflect! 

Anyone can write about how they won the big game or the summer they spent in Rome. When recalling these events, you need to give more than the play-by-play or itinerary. Describe what you learned from the experience and how it changed you.

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3. Being funny is tough.

A student who can make an admissions officer laugh never gets lost in the shuffle. But beware. What you think is funny and what an adult working in a college thinks is funny are probably different. We caution against one-liners, limericks and anything off–color.

4. Start early and write several drafts.

Set it aside for a few days and read it again. Put yourself in the shoes of an admissions officer: Is the essay interesting? Do the ideas flow logically? Does it reveal something about the applicant? Is it written in the applicant’s own voice?

5. No repeats.

What you write in your application essay or personal statement should not contradict any other part of your application–nor should it repeat it. This isn't the place to list your awards or discuss your grades or test scores.

6. Answer the question being asked.

Don't reuse an answer to a similar question from another application.

7. Have at least one other person edit your essay.

A teacher or college counselor is your best resource. And before you send it off, check, check again, and then triple check to make sure your essay is free of spelling or grammar errors.

Read More: 2018-2019 Common Application Essay Prompts (and How to Answer Them)

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12 Strategies to Writing the Perfect College Essay

College admission committees sift through thousands of college essays each year. Here’s how to make yours stand out.

Pamela Reynolds

When it comes to deciding who they will admit into their programs, colleges consider many criteria, including high school grades, extracurricular activities, and ACT and SAT scores. But in recent years, more colleges are no longer considering test scores.

Instead, many (including Harvard through 2026) are opting for “test-blind” admission policies that give more weight to other elements in a college application. This policy change is seen as fairer to students who don’t have the means or access to testing, or who suffer from test anxiety.

So, what does this mean for you?

Simply that your college essay, traditionally a requirement of any college application, is more important than ever.

A college essay is your unique opportunity to introduce yourself to admissions committees who must comb through thousands of applications each year. It is your chance to stand out as someone worthy of a seat in that classroom.

A well-written and thoughtful essay—reflecting who you are and what you believe—can go a long way to separating your application from the slew of forgettable ones that admissions officers read. Indeed, officers may rely on them even more now that many colleges are not considering test scores.

Below we’ll discuss a few strategies you can use to help your essay stand out from the pack. We’ll touch on how to start your essay, what you should write for your college essay, and elements that make for a great college essay.

Be Authentic

More than any other consideration, you should choose a topic or point of view that is consistent with who you truly are.

Readers can sense when writers are inauthentic.

Inauthenticity could mean the use of overly flowery language that no one would ever use in conversation, or it could mean choosing an inconsequential topic that reveals very little about who you are.

Use your own voice, sense of humor, and a natural way of speaking.

Whatever subject you choose, make sure it’s something that’s genuinely important to you and not a subject you’ve chosen just to impress. You can write about a specific experience, hobby, or personality quirk that illustrates your strengths, but also feel free to write about your weaknesses.

Honesty about traits, situations, or a childhood background that you are working to improve may resonate with the reader more strongly than a glib victory speech.

Grab the Reader From the Start

You’ll be competing with so many other applicants for an admission officer’s attention.

Therefore, start your essay with an opening sentence or paragraph that immediately seizes the imagination. This might be a bold statement, a thoughtful quote, a question you pose, or a descriptive scene.

Starting your essay in a powerful way with a clear thesis statement can often help you along in the writing process. If your task is to tell a good story, a bold beginning can be a natural prelude to getting there, serving as a roadmap, engaging the reader from the start, and presenting the purpose of your writing.

Focus on Deeper Themes

Some essay writers think they will impress committees by loading an essay with facts, figures, and descriptions of activities, like wins in sports or descriptions of volunteer work. But that’s not the point.

College admissions officers are interested in learning more about who you are as a person and what makes you tick.

They want to know what has brought you to this stage in life. They want to read about realizations you may have come to through adversity as well as your successes, not just about how many games you won while on the soccer team or how many people you served at a soup kitchen.

Let the reader know how winning the soccer game helped you develop as a person, friend, family member, or leader. Make a connection with your soup kitchen volunteerism and how it may have inspired your educational journey and future aspirations. What did you discover about yourself?

Show Don’t Tell

As you expand on whatever theme you’ve decided to explore in your essay, remember to show, don’t tell.

The most engaging writing “shows” by setting scenes and providing anecdotes, rather than just providing a list of accomplishments and activities.

Reciting a list of activities is also boring. An admissions officer will want to know about the arc of your emotional journey too.

Try Doing Something Different

If you want your essay to stand out, think about approaching your subject from an entirely new perspective. While many students might choose to write about their wins, for instance, what if you wrote an essay about what you learned from all your losses?

If you are an especially talented writer, you might play with the element of surprise by crafting an essay that leaves the response to a question to the very last sentence.

You may want to stay away from well-worn themes entirely, like a sports-related obstacle or success, volunteer stories, immigration stories, moving, a summary of personal achievements or overcoming obstacles.

However, such themes are popular for a reason. They represent the totality of most people’s lives coming out of high school. Therefore, it may be less important to stay away from these topics than to take a fresh approach.

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Write With the Reader in Mind

Writing for the reader means building a clear and logical argument in which one thought flows naturally from another.

Use transitions between paragraphs.

Think about any information you may have left out that the reader may need to know. Are there ideas you have included that do not help illustrate your theme?

Be sure you can answer questions such as: Does what you have written make sense? Is the essay organized? Does the opening grab the reader? Is there a strong ending? Have you given enough background information? Is it wordy?

Write Several Drafts

Set your essay aside for a few days and come back to it after you’ve had some time to forget what you’ve written. Often, you’ll discover you have a whole new perspective that enhances your ability to make revisions.

Start writing months before your essay is due to give yourself enough time to write multiple drafts. A good time to start could be as early as the summer before your senior year when homework and extracurricular activities take up less time.

Read It Aloud

Writer’s tip : Reading your essay aloud can instantly uncover passages that sound clumsy, long-winded, or false.

Don’t Repeat

If you’ve mentioned an activity, story, or anecdote in some other part of your application, don’t repeat it again in your essay.

Your essay should tell college admissions officers something new. Whatever you write in your essay should be in philosophical alignment with the rest of your application.

Also, be sure you’ve answered whatever question or prompt may have been posed to you at the outset.

Ask Others to Read Your Essay

Be sure the people you ask to read your essay represent different demographic groups—a teacher, a parent, even a younger sister or brother.

Ask each reader what they took from the essay and listen closely to what they have to say. If anyone expresses confusion, revise until the confusion is cleared up.

Pay Attention to Form

Although there are often no strict word limits for college essays, most essays are shorter rather than longer. Common App, which students can use to submit to multiple colleges, suggests that essays stay at about 650 words.

“While we won’t as a rule stop reading after 650 words, we cannot promise that an overly wordy essay will hold our attention for as long as you’d hoped it would,” the Common App website states.

In reviewing other technical aspects of your essay, be sure that the font is readable, that the margins are properly spaced, that any dialogue is set off properly, and that there is enough spacing at the top. Your essay should look clean and inviting to readers.

End Your Essay With a “Kicker”

In journalism, a kicker is the last punchy line, paragraph, or section that brings everything together.

It provides a lasting impression that leaves the reader satisfied and impressed by the points you have artfully woven throughout your piece.

So, here’s our kicker: Be concise and coherent, engage in honest self-reflection, and include vivid details and anecdotes that deftly illustrate your point.

While writing a fantastic essay may not guarantee you get selected, it can tip the balance in your favor if admissions officers are considering a candidate with a similar GPA and background.

Write, revise, revise again, and good luck!

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Pamela Reynolds is a Boston-area feature writer and editor whose work appears in numerous publications. She is the author of “Revamp: A Memoir of Travel and Obsessive Renovation.”

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How to Write a Personal Essay for Your College Application

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What does it take to land in the “accept” (instead of “reject”) pile?

How can you write an essay that helps advance you in the eyes of the admissions officers and makes a real impression? Here are some tips to get you started.

  • Start early.  Do not leave it until the last minute. Give yourself time when you don’t have other homework or extracurriculars hanging over your head to work on the essay.
  • Keep the focus narrow.  Your essay does not have to cover a massive, earth-shattering event. Some people in their teens haven’t experienced a major life event. Some people have. Either way, it’s okay.
  • Be yourself.  Whether writing about a painful experience or a more simple experience, use the narrative to be vulnerable and honest about who you are. Use words you would normally use. Trust your voice and the fact that your story is interesting enough in that no one else has lived it.
  • Be creative.  “Show, don’t tell,” and that applies here — to an extent. The best essays typically do both. You can help your reader see and feel what you are describing by using some figurative language throughout your piece.
  • Make a point. As you finish your final body paragraphs ask yourself “So what?” This will help you hone in on how to end your essay in a way that elevates it into a story about an insight or discovery you made about yourself, rather than just being about an experience you had.

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We’ve all heard about the dreaded “college essay,” the bane of every high school senior’s existence. This daunting element of the college application is something that can create angst for even the most accomplished students.

  • AA Amy Allen is a writer, educator, and lifelong learner. Her freelance writing business,  All of the Write Words , focuses on providing high school students with one-on-one feedback to guide them through the college application process and with crafting a thoughtful personal essay. A dedicated poet, Amy’s work has also been published in several journals including  Pine Row Press ,  Months to Years,  and  Atlanta Review .

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College Essays

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If you grow up to be a professional writer, everything you write will first go through an editor before being published. This is because the process of writing is really a process of re-writing —of rethinking and reexamining your work, usually with the help of someone else. So what does this mean for your student writing? And in particular, what does it mean for very important, but nonprofessional writing like your college essay? Should you ask your parents to look at your essay? Pay for an essay service?

If you are wondering what kind of help you can, and should, get with your personal statement, you've come to the right place! In this article, I'll talk about what kind of writing help is useful, ethical, and even expected for your college admission essay . I'll also point out who would make a good editor, what the differences between editing and proofreading are, what to expect from a good editor, and how to spot and stay away from a bad one.

Table of Contents

What Kind of Help for Your Essay Can You Get?

What's Good Editing?

What should an editor do for you, what kind of editing should you avoid, proofreading, what's good proofreading, what kind of proofreading should you avoid.

What Do Colleges Think Of You Getting Help With Your Essay?

Who Can/Should Help You?

Advice for editors.

Should You Pay Money For Essay Editing?

The Bottom Line

What's next, what kind of help with your essay can you get.

Rather than talking in general terms about "help," let's first clarify the two different ways that someone else can improve your writing . There is editing, which is the more intensive kind of assistance that you can use throughout the whole process. And then there's proofreading, which is the last step of really polishing your final product.

Let me go into some more detail about editing and proofreading, and then explain how good editors and proofreaders can help you."

Editing is helping the author (in this case, you) go from a rough draft to a finished work . Editing is the process of asking questions about what you're saying, how you're saying it, and how you're organizing your ideas. But not all editing is good editing . In fact, it's very easy for an editor to cross the line from supportive to overbearing and over-involved.

Ability to clarify assignments. A good editor is usually a good writer, and certainly has to be a good reader. For example, in this case, a good editor should make sure you understand the actual essay prompt you're supposed to be answering.

Open-endedness. Good editing is all about asking questions about your ideas and work, but without providing answers. It's about letting you stick to your story and message, and doesn't alter your point of view.

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Think of an editor as a great travel guide. It can show you the many different places your trip could take you. It should explain any parts of the trip that could derail your trip or confuse the traveler. But it never dictates your path, never forces you to go somewhere you don't want to go, and never ignores your interests so that the trip no longer seems like it's your own. So what should good editors do?

Help Brainstorm Topics

Sometimes it's easier to bounce thoughts off of someone else. This doesn't mean that your editor gets to come up with ideas, but they can certainly respond to the various topic options you've come up with. This way, you're less likely to write about the most boring of your ideas, or to write about something that isn't actually important to you.

If you're wondering how to come up with options for your editor to consider, check out our guide to brainstorming topics for your college essay .

Help Revise Your Drafts

Here, your editor can't upset the delicate balance of not intervening too much or too little. It's tricky, but a great way to think about it is to remember: editing is about asking questions, not giving answers .

Revision questions should point out:

  • Places where more detail or more description would help the reader connect with your essay
  • Places where structure and logic don't flow, losing the reader's attention
  • Places where there aren't transitions between paragraphs, confusing the reader
  • Moments where your narrative or the arguments you're making are unclear

But pointing to potential problems is not the same as actually rewriting—editors let authors fix the problems themselves.

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Your dedicated PrepScholar Admissions counselor will help you craft your perfect college essay, from the ground up. We'll learn your background and interests, brainstorm essay topics, and walk you through the essay drafting process, step-by-step. At the end, you'll have a unique essay that you'll proudly submit to your top choice colleges.

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Craft Your Perfect College Essay

Bad editing is usually very heavy-handed editing. Instead of helping you find your best voice and ideas, a bad editor changes your writing into their own vision.

You may be dealing with a bad editor if they:

  • Add material (examples, descriptions) that doesn't come from you
  • Use a thesaurus to make your college essay sound "more mature"
  • Add meaning or insight to the essay that doesn't come from you
  • Tell you what to say and how to say it
  • Write sentences, phrases, and paragraphs for you
  • Change your voice in the essay so it no longer sounds like it was written by a teenager

Colleges can tell the difference between a 17-year-old's writing and a 50-year-old's writing. Not only that, they have access to your SAT or ACT Writing section, so they can compare your essay to something else you wrote. Writing that's a little more polished is great and expected. But a totally different voice and style will raise questions.

Where's the Line Between Helpful Editing and Unethical Over-Editing?

Sometimes it's hard to tell whether your college essay editor is doing the right thing. Here are some guidelines for staying on the ethical side of the line.

  • An editor should say that the opening paragraph is kind of boring, and explain what exactly is making it drag. But it's overstepping for an editor to tell you exactly how to change it.
  • An editor should point out where your prose is unclear or vague. But it's completely inappropriate for the editor to rewrite that section of your essay.
  • An editor should let you know that a section is light on detail or description. But giving you similes and metaphors to beef up that description is a no-go.

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Proofreading (also called copy-editing) is checking for errors in the last draft of a written work. It happens at the end of the process and is meant as the final polishing touch. Proofreading is meticulous and detail-oriented, focusing on small corrections. It sands off all the surface rough spots that could alienate the reader.

Because proofreading is usually concerned with making fixes on the word or sentence level, this is the only process where someone else can actually add to or take away things from your essay . This is because what they are adding or taking away tends to be one or two misplaced letters.

Laser focus. Proofreading is all about the tiny details, so the ability to really concentrate on finding small slip-ups is a must.

Excellent grammar and spelling skills. Proofreaders need to dot every "i" and cross every "t." Good proofreaders should correct spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and grammar. They should put foreign words in italics and surround quotations with quotation marks. They should check that you used the correct college's name, and that you adhered to any formatting requirements (name and date at the top of the page, uniform font and size, uniform spacing).

Limited interference. A proofreader needs to make sure that you followed any word limits. But if cuts need to be made to shorten the essay, that's your job and not the proofreader's.

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A bad proofreader either tries to turn into an editor, or just lacks the skills and knowledge necessary to do the job.

Some signs that you're working with a bad proofreader are:

  • If they suggest making major changes to the final draft of your essay. Proofreading happens when editing is already finished.
  • If they aren't particularly good at spelling, or don't know grammar, or aren't detail-oriented enough to find someone else's small mistakes.
  • If they start swapping out your words for fancier-sounding synonyms, or changing the voice and sound of your essay in other ways. A proofreader is there to check for errors, not to take the 17-year-old out of your writing.

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What Do Colleges Think of Your Getting Help With Your Essay?

Admissions officers agree: light editing and proofreading are good—even required ! But they also want to make sure you're the one doing the work on your essay. They want essays with stories, voice, and themes that come from you. They want to see work that reflects your actual writing ability, and that focuses on what you find important.

On the Importance of Editing

Get feedback. Have a fresh pair of eyes give you some feedback. Don't allow someone else to rewrite your essay, but do take advantage of others' edits and opinions when they seem helpful. ( Bates College )

Read your essay aloud to someone. Reading the essay out loud offers a chance to hear how your essay sounds outside your head. This exercise reveals flaws in the essay's flow, highlights grammatical errors and helps you ensure that you are communicating the exact message you intended. ( Dickinson College )

On the Value of Proofreading

Share your essays with at least one or two people who know you well—such as a parent, teacher, counselor, or friend—and ask for feedback. Remember that you ultimately have control over your essays, and your essays should retain your own voice, but others may be able to catch mistakes that you missed and help suggest areas to cut if you are over the word limit. ( Yale University )

Proofread and then ask someone else to proofread for you. Although we want substance, we also want to be able to see that you can write a paper for our professors and avoid careless mistakes that would drive them crazy. ( Oberlin College )

On Watching Out for Too Much Outside Influence

Limit the number of people who review your essay. Too much input usually means your voice is lost in the writing style. ( Carleton College )

Ask for input (but not too much). Your parents, friends, guidance counselors, coaches, and teachers are great people to bounce ideas off of for your essay. They know how unique and spectacular you are, and they can help you decide how to articulate it. Keep in mind, however, that a 45-year-old lawyer writes quite differently from an 18-year-old student, so if your dad ends up writing the bulk of your essay, we're probably going to notice. ( Vanderbilt University )

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Now let's talk about some potential people to approach for your college essay editing and proofreading needs. It's best to start close to home and slowly expand outward. Not only are your family and friends more invested in your success than strangers, but they also have a better handle on your interests and personality. This knowledge is key for judging whether your essay is expressing your true self.

Parents or Close Relatives

Your family may be full of potentially excellent editors! Parents are deeply committed to your well-being, and family members know you and your life well enough to offer details or incidents that can be included in your essay. On the other hand, the rewriting process necessarily involves criticism, which is sometimes hard to hear from someone very close to you.

A parent or close family member is a great choice for an editor if you can answer "yes" to the following questions. Is your parent or close relative a good writer or reader? Do you have a relationship where editing your essay won't create conflict? Are you able to constructively listen to criticism and suggestion from the parent?

One suggestion for defusing face-to-face discussions is to try working on the essay over email. Send your parent a draft, have them write you back some comments, and then you can pick which of their suggestions you want to use and which to discard.

Teachers or Tutors

A humanities teacher that you have a good relationship with is a great choice. I am purposefully saying humanities, and not just English, because teachers of Philosophy, History, Anthropology, and any other classes where you do a lot of writing, are all used to reviewing student work.

Moreover, any teacher or tutor that has been working with you for some time, knows you very well and can vet the essay to make sure it "sounds like you."

If your teacher or tutor has some experience with what college essays are supposed to be like, ask them to be your editor. If not, then ask whether they have time to proofread your final draft.

Guidance or College Counselor at Your School

The best thing about asking your counselor to edit your work is that this is their job. This means that they have a very good sense of what colleges are looking for in an application essay.

At the same time, school counselors tend to have relationships with admissions officers in many colleges, which again gives them insight into what works and which college is focused on what aspect of the application.

Unfortunately, in many schools the guidance counselor tends to be way overextended. If your ratio is 300 students to 1 college counselor, you're unlikely to get that person's undivided attention and focus. It is still useful to ask them for general advice about your potential topics, but don't expect them to be able to stay with your essay from first draft to final version.

Friends, Siblings, or Classmates

Although they most likely don't have much experience with what colleges are hoping to see, your peers are excellent sources for checking that your essay is you .

Friends and siblings are perfect for the read-aloud edit. Read your essay to them so they can listen for words and phrases that are stilted, pompous, or phrases that just don't sound like you.

You can even trade essays and give helpful advice on each other's work.

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If your editor hasn't worked with college admissions essays very much, no worries! Any astute and attentive reader can still greatly help with your process. But, as in all things, beginners do better with some preparation.

First, your editor should read our advice about how to write a college essay introduction , how to spot and fix a bad college essay , and get a sense of what other students have written by going through some admissions essays that worked .

Then, as they read your essay, they can work through the following series of questions that will help them to guide you.

Introduction Questions

  • Is the first sentence a killer opening line? Why or why not?
  • Does the introduction hook the reader? Does it have a colorful, detailed, and interesting narrative? Or does it propose a compelling or surprising idea?
  • Can you feel the author's voice in the introduction, or is the tone dry, dull, or overly formal? Show the places where the voice comes through.

Essay Body Questions

  • Does the essay have a through-line? Is it built around a central argument, thought, idea, or focus? Can you put this idea into your own words?
  • How is the essay organized? By logical progression? Chronologically? Do you feel order when you read it, or are there moments where you are confused or lose the thread of the essay?
  • Does the essay have both narratives about the author's life and explanations and insight into what these stories reveal about the author's character, personality, goals, or dreams? If not, which is missing?
  • Does the essay flow? Are there smooth transitions/clever links between paragraphs? Between the narrative and moments of insight?

Reader Response Questions

  • Does the writer's personality come through? Do we know what the speaker cares about? Do we get a sense of "who he or she is"?
  • Where did you feel most connected to the essay? Which parts of the essay gave you a "you are there" sensation by invoking your senses? What moments could you picture in your head well?
  • Where are the details and examples vague and not specific enough?
  • Did you get an "a-ha!" feeling anywhere in the essay? Is there a moment of insight that connected all the dots for you? Is there a good reveal or "twist" anywhere in the essay?
  • What are the strengths of this essay? What needs the most improvement?

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Should You Pay Money for Essay Editing?

One alternative to asking someone you know to help you with your college essay is the paid editor route. There are two different ways to pay for essay help: a private essay coach or a less personal editing service , like the many proliferating on the internet.

My advice is to think of these options as a last resort rather than your go-to first choice. I'll first go through the reasons why. Then, if you do decide to go with a paid editor, I'll help you decide between a coach and a service.

When to Consider a Paid Editor

In general, I think hiring someone to work on your essay makes a lot of sense if none of the people I discussed above are a possibility for you.

If you can't ask your parents. For example, if your parents aren't good writers, or if English isn't their first language. Or if you think getting your parents to help is going create unnecessary extra conflict in your relationship with them (applying to college is stressful as it is!)

If you can't ask your teacher or tutor. Maybe you don't have a trusted teacher or tutor that has time to look over your essay with focus. Or, for instance, your favorite humanities teacher has very limited experience with college essays and so won't know what admissions officers want to see.

If you can't ask your guidance counselor. This could be because your guidance counselor is way overwhelmed with other students.

If you can't share your essay with those who know you. It might be that your essay is on a very personal topic that you're unwilling to share with parents, teachers, or peers. Just make sure it doesn't fall into one of the bad-idea topics in our article on bad college essays .

If the cost isn't a consideration. Many of these services are quite expensive, and private coaches even more so. If you have finite resources, I'd say that hiring an SAT or ACT tutor (whether it's PrepScholar or someone else) is better way to spend your money . This is because there's no guarantee that a slightly better essay will sufficiently elevate the rest of your application, but a significantly higher SAT score will definitely raise your applicant profile much more.

Should You Hire an Essay Coach?

On the plus side, essay coaches have read dozens or even hundreds of college essays, so they have experience with the format. Also, because you'll be working closely with a specific person, it's more personal than sending your essay to a service, which will know even less about you.

But, on the minus side, you'll still be bouncing ideas off of someone who doesn't know that much about you . In general, if you can adequately get the help from someone you know, there is no advantage to paying someone to help you.

If you do decide to hire a coach, ask your school counselor, or older students that have used the service for recommendations. If you can't afford the coach's fees, ask whether they can work on a sliding scale —many do. And finally, beware those who guarantee admission to your school of choice—essay coaches don't have any special magic that can back up those promises.

Should You Send Your Essay to a Service?

On the plus side, essay editing services provide a similar product to essay coaches, and they cost significantly less . If you have some assurance that you'll be working with a good editor, the lack of face-to-face interaction won't prevent great results.

On the minus side, however, it can be difficult to gauge the quality of the service before working with them . If they are churning through many application essays without getting to know the students they are helping, you could end up with an over-edited essay that sounds just like everyone else's. In the worst case scenario, an unscrupulous service could send you back a plagiarized essay.

Getting recommendations from friends or a school counselor for reputable services is key to avoiding heavy-handed editing that writes essays for you or does too much to change your essay. Including a badly-edited essay like this in your application could cause problems if there are inconsistencies. For example, in interviews it might be clear you didn't write the essay, or the skill of the essay might not be reflected in your schoolwork and test scores.

Should You Buy an Essay Written by Someone Else?

Let me elaborate. There are super sketchy places on the internet where you can simply buy a pre-written essay. Don't do this!

For one thing, you'll be lying on an official, signed document. All college applications make you sign a statement saying something like this:

I certify that all information submitted in the admission process—including the application, the personal essay, any supplements, and any other supporting materials—is my own work, factually true, and honestly presented... I understand that I may be subject to a range of possible disciplinary actions, including admission revocation, expulsion, or revocation of course credit, grades, and degree, should the information I have certified be false. (From the Common Application )

For another thing, if your academic record doesn't match the essay's quality, the admissions officer will start thinking your whole application is riddled with lies.

Admission officers have full access to your writing portion of the SAT or ACT so that they can compare work that was done in proctored conditions with that done at home. They can tell if these were written by different people. Not only that, but there are now a number of search engines that faculty and admission officers can use to see if an essay contains strings of words that have appeared in other essays—you have no guarantee that the essay you bought wasn't also bought by 50 other students.

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  • You should get college essay help with both editing and proofreading
  • A good editor will ask questions about your idea, logic, and structure, and will point out places where clarity is needed
  • A good editor will absolutely not answer these questions, give you their own ideas, or write the essay or parts of the essay for you
  • A good proofreader will find typos and check your formatting
  • All of them agree that getting light editing and proofreading is necessary
  • Parents, teachers, guidance or college counselor, and peers or siblings
  • If you can't ask any of those, you can pay for college essay help, but watch out for services or coaches who over-edit you work
  • Don't buy a pre-written essay! Colleges can tell, and it'll make your whole application sound false.

Ready to start working on your essay? Check out our explanation of the point of the personal essay and the role it plays on your applications and then explore our step-by-step guide to writing a great college essay .

Using the Common Application for your college applications? We have an excellent guide to the Common App essay prompts and useful advice on how to pick the Common App prompt that's right for you . Wondering how other people tackled these prompts? Then work through our roundup of over 130 real college essay examples published by colleges .

Stressed about whether to take the SAT again before submitting your application? Let us help you decide how many times to take this test . If you choose to go for it, we have the ultimate guide to studying for the SAT to give you the ins and outs of the best ways to study.

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

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Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.

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How to Write a Stellar “Why This College?” Essay + Examples

What’s covered:, sample “why this college” prompts, faqs about the “why this college” essay.

  • Common Mistakes to Avoid

Good “Why This College?” Essay Examples

  • Brainstorming for this Essay
  • Outlining Your Essay
  • Where to Get Your Essay Edited

One of the most common college essay supplements will ask you to answer the question: “Why This College?” These essays are looking to see whether you’re a good fit for the campus community, and whether the college is a good fit for you and your goals. 

In this post, we’ll show you a couple examples of these prompts, go over good and bad sample responses, and break down how to ensure yours is one of the good ones. 

Let’s start by taking a look at real prompts that fit under the “Why This College?” archetype: 

Tufts: Which aspects of the Tufts undergraduate experience prompt your application? In short, ‘Why Tufts?’ (150 words)

Northwestern: Other parts of your application give us a sense for how you might contribute to Northwestern. But we also want to consider how Northwestern will contribute to your interests and goals. Help us understand what aspects of Northwestern appeal most to you, and how you’ll make use of specific resources and opportunities here. (300 words)

As you can see, these prompts are basically asking why you want to attend the school in question. Northwestern spells it out even further, and specifically asks how you’ll use their resources to achieve your goals.

Both prompts have word counts that are much shorter than that of the Common App, which is typical of supplemental essays. These two word counts are pretty representative, and you can expect the “Why This College?” essay length to be 100-400 words on average. That’s not a lot of space for a pretty important question, so it’s especially vital to use the word count wisely.

What are colleges looking for in the “Why Us” essay?

Colleges want to admit students who will not only enroll (to protect their yield), but also thrive on their campus. They ask this question to see whether you’re truly interested in the school and whether it’s the right place for you. You can write a strong response by citing specific ways the college can support your goals, as well as demonstrating your enthusiasm.

Which colleges have a “Why This College?” essay?

This is one of the most popular supplements among colleges. Here is a selection of top schools that ask this question:

  • Northwestern
  • Boston University
  • University of Michigan

Check out our essay guides for these schools for more in-depth advice on how to write these essays.

What kind of writing style should I use?

This is a straightforward question that generally has a short word count, so you don’t need to use a narrative form at all. You can simply explain what you like about the school and why, but try to use varied sentence structure and organize the essay around your major goals. 

You can start your essay with a story if you want, however. For example, if you visited campus and experienced a really interesting course, or sat in on a meeting of a club you liked, this can make for a strong anecdote to begin your essay. Just make sure that whatever story you tell has some substance, and isn’t just a narration of how nice it was to walk around campus.

Can I copy and paste my essay for other schools?

Absolutely not. If your essay is general enough to apply to other schools, you know you need to rewrite it. The resources you mention should be highly specific to the college you’re writing about.

Common Mistakes When Writing the “Why This College?” Essay

The most common mistake students make is listing generic characteristics that could apply to any school. This negatively impacts your application, since it sends the message that you didn’t do your research, and aren’t truly interested in the school.

Here’s an example of something NOT to list in your “Why this college essay.” We’ll take the example of Tufts since we shared the prompt in the beginning.

What NOT to write: I’m applying to Tufts because of its low student to faculty ratio, the strong math department, and its prime location in Medford, just a hop away from Boston. When I visited campus, the school already felt like home.

This example is bad because many schools have low student to faculty ratios and strong math departments. There are also a ton of schools in or near Boston, many of which have low student to faculty ratios and great math departments too, such as Boston College, Harvard, Northeastern, Boston University, etc. If your statements can apply to other schools, that’s definitely not a good sign (avoid things like location, weather, size, and ranking).

The student also uses an emotional appeal with the line “it felt like home,” which might sound nice, but it has no substance and can be written for any school. You should definitely avoid making any statements like these.

This example shows that the student really hasn’t thought much about their fit with Tufts, and that it probably isn’t their top choice. This will impact your application negatively, especially since Tufts is known for taking applicants’ demonstrated interest more seriously than other schools . So, if you show that you show little interest through your essay, you may end up waitlisted or rejected, even if your stats are excellent.

Another thing that this example gets wrong is that it doesn’t describe the student’s goals or interests at all. It’s important to not only talk about why you picked the school, but also how exactly those aspects will help you grow. Remember, this kind of prompt is two-fold: in addition to explaining why the school is a good fit for you, you want to show why you, out of the many thousands of applicants they get each year, are a good fit for them.

To summarize, the main mistakes to avoid are:

  • Citing generic aspects of the school (location, weather, size, and ranking)
  • Using empty emotional appeals
  • Not describing your goals and interests

Now that we know what a bad example might look like, here’s an example of a rewrite to part of the Tufts essay:

What TO write: As a potential Applied Mathematics major, I hope to gain the tools to model political behavior. I’m especially interested in elections, and am looking forward to taking the course “Mathematics of Social Choice,” as the centerpiece of Social Choice Theory is voting. I would also love to take “Nonlinear Dynamics and Chaos,” because it will teach me to use differential equations to predict chaotic behavior. 

This is a good example, as the courses listed are highly-specific to Tufts, as well as the student’s professional goals. We not only learned something about Tufts, but also the student. Keep in mind that this wouldn’t be a complete essay⁠—it’s just an example of good, specific resources to list, and how to connect them to your own interests. 

If you want an example of a complete essay, here’s this real student response for Boston University’s “Why This College?” prompt.

Prompt: In no more than 250 words, please tell us why BU is a good fit for you and what

specifically has led you to apply for admission.

Boston University’s College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) attracts me because of its support of interdisciplinary study among its wide array of majors. In fact, the CAS now offers a course that combines biology, chemistry, and neuroscience. As I hope to conduct medical research into brain disorders, I plan to pursue all three areas of study. These cross-disciplinary connections at BU will prepare me to do so.

CAS’s undergraduate research program would allow me to work with a mentor, such as Dr. Alice Cronin-Golomb or Dr. Robert M.G. Reinhart related to their research on neurological disorders. With them, I can advance the work I have already completed related to Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). In a summer class at our local university, my partner and I extracted data from fMRI and PET studies and inputted them into a coding program. We then created an indicator map, which we imported into another software program, AFNI, to display significant activity in the brain regions affected by DID. Seeing the representation of our data thrilled me because I knew it could eventually help people who live with DID. I want to experience that feeling again. Successfully analyzing these fMRI and PET studies and learning to code drives me to pursue more research opportunities, and this desire motivates me to study at a university that offers research opportunities to undergraduates. BU’s interdisciplinary approach to psychology and support for independent undergraduate undergraduate research will optimally prepare me for a career as a neurological researcher.

This student clearly outlines BU-specific resources (the interdisciplinary course and undergrad research program), plus how these resources align with their professional goals (to become a neurological researcher). They do “name-drop” professors, but since their work clearly relates to the student’s interests, it doesn’t look disingenuous, and shows that the student has done research on their fit with BU. The student also provides background on why they want to pursue research, and shows that they already have experience, which makes their interest in the undergrad research program more concrete.

The only thing missing from this essay is the student’s fit with BU in terms of extracurriculars and social life. “Why This College?” essays should also cover extracurriculars, as the residential college experience is about more than just class and homework. Admissions officers are also interested in how you’ll contribute to their broader campus community.

In general, these essays should be academic-leaning (especially if they’re under 250 words), but you should still address some social aspects of the college that appeal to you (we recommend about 70% academics, 30% social, with more or less focus on social aspects depending on the word count). Since the student probably already detailed their previous research in their Common App activities section, they could’ve just summarized their research background in one sentence, and used the space saved to talk about a specific social aspect of BU that interests them.

Here’s another sample essay, but for UPenn. This essay’s word count was much longer, so the student was able to really hone in on several specific aspects of UPenn.

Prompt: How will you explore your intellectual and academic interests at the University of Pennsylvania? Please answer this question given the specific undergraduate school to which you are applying (650 words).

Sister Simone Roach, a theorist of nursing ethics, said, “caring is the human mode of being.” I have long been inspired by Sister Roach’s Five C’s of Caring: commitment, conscience, competence, compassion, and confidence. Penn both embraces and fosters these values through a rigorous, interdisciplinary curriculum and unmatched access to service and volunteer opportunities.

COMMITMENT. Reading through the activities that Penn Quakers devote their time to (in addition to academics!) felt like drinking from a firehose in the best possible way. As a prospective nursing student with interests outside of my major, I value this level of flexibility. I plan to leverage Penn’s liberal arts curriculum to gain an in-depth understanding of the challenges LGBT people face, especially regarding healthcare access. Through courses like “Interactional Processes with LGBT Individuals” and volunteering at the Mazzoni Center for outreach, I hope to learn how to better support the Penn LGBT community as well as my family and friends, including my cousin, who came out as trans last year.

CONSCIENCE. As one of the first people in my family to attend a four-year university, I wanted a school that promoted a sense of moral responsibility among its students. At Penn, professors challenge their students to question and recreate their own set of morals by sparking thought- provoking, open-minded discussions. I can imagine myself advocating for universal healthcare in courses such as “Health Care Reform & Future of American Health System” and debating its merits with my peers. Studying in an environment where students confidently voice their opinions – conservative or liberal – will push me to question and strengthen my value system.

COMPETENCE. Two aspects that drew my attention to Penn’s BSN program were its high-quality research opportunities and hands-on nursing projects. Through its Office of Nursing Research, Penn connects students to faculty members who share similar research interests. As I volunteered at a nursing home in high school, I hope to work with Dr. Carthon to improve the quality of care for senior citizens. Seniors, especially minorities, face serious barriers to healthcare that I want to resolve. Additionally, Penn’s unique use of simulations to bridge the gap between classroom learning and real-world application impressed me. Using computerized manikins that mimic human responses, classes in Penn’s nursing program allow students to apply their emergency medical skills in a mass casualty simulation and monitor their actions afterward through a video system. Participating in this activity will help me identify my strengths and areas for improvement regarding crisis management and medical care in a controlled yet realistic setting. Research opportunities and simulations will develop my skills even before I interact with patients.

COMPASSION. I value giving back through community service, and I have a particular interest in Penn’s Community Champions and Nursing Students For Sexual & Reproductive Health (NSRH). As a four-year volunteer health educator, I hope to continue this work as a Community Champions member. I am excited to collaborate with medical students to teach fourth and fifth graders in the city about cardiology or lead a chair dance class for the elders at the LIFE Center. Furthermore, as a feminist who firmly believes in women’s abortion rights, I’d like to join NSRH in order to advocate for women’s health on campus. At Penn, I can work with like-minded people to make a meaningful difference.

CONFIDENCE. All of the Quakers that I have met possess one defining trait: confidence. Each student summarized their experiences at Penn as challenging but fulfilling. Although I expect my coursework to push me, from my conversations with current Quakers I know it will help me to be far more effective in my career.

The Five C’s of Caring are important heuristics for nursing, but they also provide insight into how I want to approach my time in college. I am eager to engage with these principles both as a nurse and as a Penn Quaker, and I can’t wait to start.

This student takes a creative approach to the essay, by using the Five C’s of Caring as a framework. This technique works especially well since these qualities relate to the student’s future career in nursing. In addition to emphasizing the student’s creativity and passion for nursing, having the Five C’s in all caps at the start of each paragraph gives this long essay a clear, easy-to-read format.

What really makes the essay stand out is the depth of the student’s fit with UPenn, and how they’re able to also share more about who they are. The student lists specific courses, research opportunities, technology, and student groups. We also learn that they are a first-generation student, are passionate about increasing access to healthcare (particularly for LGBTQ+ people, minorities, and the elderly), care about health education, and are a feminist who staunchly defends abortion rights (this controversial topic could be risky, but since UPenn is a very liberal school, this should be fine).

Overall, this essay paints a vivid picture of how the student would engage academically at Penn, and we also see clearly how the student would pursue their intellectual passions outside the classroom. Since this essay prompt focused on “intellectual and academic interests,” there was no need to address other aspects of UPenn beyond those supporting their various interests in healthcare.

See more “ Why This College?” essay examples to understand what makes a strong response.

Brainstorming for the “Why This College?” Essay

Now that we’ve gone through a couple examples, you might be wondering how to get started yourself. 

Here are three steps we recommend to get your essay underway:

  • Reflect on your academic and career goals
  • Research unique opportunities related to your academic and extracurricular interests
  • Pick your top academic reasons for applying, and your top extracurricular/social reasons

1. Reflect on your academic and career goals.

The driver behind this essay needs to be you , and not the school itself. Anyone can write nice things about the college, but only you can explain why you would be a good fit for it.

Ask yourself:

  • What do you want to major in, if you know? If you’re undecided, what are the subjects you’re interested in?
  • Which career do you want to pursue, or what are the potential options?
  • What do you want to get out of college? Any particular skills or experiences?

Once you have a clear idea of your college plan, then you can dig into how the college can support your plan.

2. Research unique opportunities related to your academic, career, and extracurricular interests.

You might be wondering where you can find all these specific courses, clubs, and other resources. The school’s website is a good place to start, or if you have a general idea of what you’re looking for, you can even use Google with the school name in your search, such as “Tufts orchestra.” 

Take a look at the website of your department/major and dig into the courses, fellowships, internships, and other resources. For course syllabi, you can visit the website of the professor who’s teaching the course; they’ll often post more detailed information than the online course catalog, including readings and concepts to be covered.

Clubs may have their own websites, but you can also try to find their Facebook groups or Instagram pages, which might be more current and even show events they’re hosting⁠.

If you can, try to speak with a current student. Your school counselor may be able to connect you with one, or you can also reach out to the admissions office to see if they can connect you. If not, speaking with an admissions officer is also great, or you can try to find day-in-the-life videos on YouTube.

3. Pick your top academic reasons for applying, and your top extracurricular/social reasons.

Once you’ve done your research and found specific opportunities to cite in your essay, pick your top 1-3 academic reasons and top 1-3 extracurricular ones, depending on the word count. Going back to the Tufts essay, the good example we gave actually was already 65 words, and it was only able to mention two courses. 

Keep in mind that you not only have to describe resources specific to the school, but also how they’ll contribute to your goals. This personal aspect is just as important as the actual opportunities, so be sure to allot space to describe why exactly these resources make the school a good fit for you.

When it comes to academic reasons, you are free to list anything from special programs to unique majors to specific courses and professors. We want to caution you against “name-dropping” professors, however⁠—unless their work actually fits with your established interests and professional goals. Otherwise, it might seem like you’re being disingenuous.

We also want to reiterate that you should be sure to not only talk about academics in your essay, but also extracurriculars (unless the prompt asks you to focus only on academics, or if the word count is unusually short, i.e. 150 words or fewer). Again, college isn’t just about what you do in the classroom. Admissions committees want to be sure that accepted students will also contribute to the college community. 

Outlining Your “Why This College?” Essay

Once you’ve identified your goals and the resources to support them, it’s time to start writing. An easy format/outline for your essay would be:

  • Introduction to your main goals and the why behind them (great spot for an anecdote). 
  • Your first goal and how the school can support it.
  • Your second goal and how the school can support it.
  • Conclusion where you look towards the future and reaffirm how the college can get you there.

You can adjust the length of the essay by adding or subtracting the number of goals you write about. As noted above, r emember to include extracurriculars when sharing how the college can support your goals. You should plan to spend about 70% of your space on academic reasons, and 30% on extracurricular reasons.

Some students choose to use a more unconventional format, like the Five C’s of Caring essay above, and that works too if you want to show off your creative writing skills. Some examples include a letter to the school or a schedule of your day as a student at the college. These unconventional formats can be harder to pull off though, so only go that route if you’re confident in your writing. The letter format can be especially tricky since it’s easy to sound cheesy and overenthusiastic.

Regardless of the format you choose, remember these two things that your essay should do. It should:

  • Reveal more about your goals and interests.
  • D escribe how the school can help you develop your interests and reach your goals, by naming highly-specific and unique campus resources, both academic and extracurricular.

If your essay checks both of those boxes, you’re well on your way to making your candidacy more compelling to admissions officers!

Where to Get Your “Why This College?” Essay Edited

Do you want feedback on your “Why This College?” essays? After rereading your essays countless times, it can be difficult to evaluate your writing objectively. That’s why we created our free Peer Essay Review tool , where you can get a free review of your essay from another student. You can also improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays. 

If you want a college admissions expert to review your essay, advisors on CollegeVine have helped students refine their writing and submit successful applications to top schools. Find the right advisor for you to improve your chances of getting into your dream school!

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The software says my student cheated using AI. They say they’re innocent. Who do I believe?

In the desperate scramble to combat AI, there is a real danger of penalising students who have done nothing wrong

  • Robert Topinka a senior lecturer in media and cultural studies at Birkbeck, University of London

W hen I sat down to mark undergraduate student essays in the spring of 2023, the hype around ChatGPT was already at giddy heights. Like teachers everywhere, I was worried that students would succumb to the temptation to outsource their thinking to the machine. Many universities, including mine, responded by adopting AI detection software, and I soon had my fears confirmed when it provided the following judgment on one of the essays: “100% AI-generated”.

Essays are marked anonymously, so my heart dropped when I found out that the first “100% AI-generated” essay I marked belonged to a brilliant, incisive thinker whose essays in the pre-ChatGPT era were consistently excellent, if somewhat formulaic in style.

I found myself in an increasingly common predicament, caught between software products and humans: students and ChatGPT on one side, lecturers and AI detectors on the other. Policy demands that I refer essays with high AI detection scores for academic misconduct, something that can lead to steep penalties, including expulsion. But my standout student contested the referral, claiming university-approved support software they used for spelling and grammar included limited generative AI capabilities that had been mistaken for ChatGPT.

The software that scanned my student’s essay is provided by Turnitin, an American “education technology” giant that is one of the biggest players in the academic misconduct market. Before ChatGPT, Turnitin’s primary function was to produce “similarity reports” by checking essays against a database of websites and previously submitted student work. A high similarity score does not always mean plagiarism – some students just quote abundantly – but does make it easier to find copy-and-paste jobs.

Generative AI makes copying and pasting seem old-fashioned. Prompted with an essay question, ChatGPT produces word combinations that won’t show up in a similarity report. Facing a threat to its business model, Turnitin has responded with an AI detection software that measures whether an essay strings words together in predictable patterns – as ChatGPT does – or in the more idiosyncratic style of a human. But the tool is not definitive: while the label announces that an essay is “X% AI-generated”, a link in fine print below the percentage opens a disclaimer that admits it only “might be”.

Unlike the “similarity report”, which includes links to sources so that lecturers can verify whether a student plagiarised or used too many quotations, the AI detection software is a black box. ChatGPT has more than 180 million monthly users, and it produces different – if formulaic – text for all of them. There is no reliable way to reproduce the same text for the same prompt, let alone to know how students might prompt it. Students and lecturers are caught in an AI guessing game. It’s not hard to find students sharing tips online about evading AI detection with paraphrasing tools and AI “humanisers” . It’s also not hard to find desperate students asking how to beat false accusations based on unreliable AI detection.

When my student contested the AI detector’s judgment, I granted the appeal. I admit to trusting the human over the machine. But the defence was also convincing, and this particular student had been consistently writing in this style long before ChatGPT came into being. Still, I was making a high-stakes call without reliable evidence. It was a distressing experience for my student, and one that is being repeated across the sector.

Many academics have translated the hype around AI to a heightened suspicion of students. And it’s true that ChatGPT can plausibly write mediocre university-level essays. A combination of ChatGPT and AI “humanisers” might even carry someone through university with a 2:2.

But if universities treat this as an arms race, it will inevitably harm students who rely on additional support to survive a system that is overwhelmingly biased to white, middle-class, native English speakers without disabilities, and whose parents went to university. Students who don’t fall into those categories are also more likely to turn for support to spelling and grammar checkers like Grammarly, which also uses generative AI to offer stylistic suggestions, putting them at risk of running foul of AI detectors even when the substantive ideas are original. Innocent students will inevitably find themselves in a kind of Kafkaesque computational scenario – accused by one automated software of improperly relying on another.

What is to be done? In the desperate – and largely futile – scramble to “catch up” with AI, there is a real danger that academics lose sight of why we assign essays in the first place: to give students the opportunity to display their ability to evaluate information, think critically and present original arguments. This may even be an opportunity to move away from the sort of conventional essay questions that can so easily be fed into ChatGPT. Students can present original, critical work in presentations, podcasts, videos and reflective writing.

It’s also possible to ask students questions that include information that doesn’t exist in ChatGPT’s training data – for instance, by incorporating content generated in class. Lecturers could also address ambient AI anxiety head-on by prompting ChatGPT with assigned essay questions and asking students to critique the resulting output in class. The goal need not be just to fend off AI-generated essays: expanding the range of assessments can also help universities close the achievement gap that exists in part because traditional forms of assessment tend to favour more privileged students.

Of course, all of this puts more pressure on casualised, overworked staff, which is why the kneejerk response to revert to closed-door, handwritten exams is understandable, if misguided. We can be critical of AI, but we can’t pretend it doesn’t exist if we want to prepare students for a world where humans will have to live and work alongside thinking machines.

Achieving that goal would be easier if students arrived at university as open-minded critical thinkers instead of stressed-out, debt-burdened consumers. In this sense, the panic around AI is only the latest symptom of a broader crisis at UK universities, and it is a crisis that is not equally felt. The Conservative government’s move to force universities to cap admissions on “low-value” degrees – cutting off their primary funding source – is also an attack on working-class and minority-ethnic students. Responding to AI with punitive measures based on unreliable detection software risks contributing to that same attack. If there is any chance of avoiding the bitter irony of the biggest technological breakthrough since the internet entrenching enduring inequalities in education, it will come from lecturers working with AI, instead of joining a losing fight against it.

Robert Topinka is a senior lecturer in media and cultural studies at Birkbeck, University of London

  • Artificial intelligence (AI)
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  • Higher education

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  • What Do Colleges Look For in an Essay? | Examples & Tips

What Do Colleges Look For in an Essay? | Examples & Tips

Published on September 27, 2021 by Meredith Testa . Revised on May 31, 2023.

As part of the college application process , colleges ask prospective students for a personal essay in order to learn more about them. They want to see context on each student’s background, positive traits that the student could bring to campus, and examples of the student demonstrating those qualities.

That means that you, as an applicant, have a great opportunity to make a positive impression on the admissions officers with your essay. You should aim to write an essay that

  • Humanizes you
  • Makes your application memorable and differentiates you from other applicants
  • Demonstrates your unique positive traits

Table of contents

Context: what sets you apart, positive character qualities, proof: show, don’t tell, two strategies for finding your essay’s topic, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about college application essays.

Your application will probably be similar to many other students’ applications. There will likely be many students from the same geographical area as you with comparable grades and test scores who have similar interests. Admissions officers will use your essay to see how you stand out from the crowd.

The context that admissions officers are looking for could be anything about you that differentiates you from other students. It could include your ethnic or socioeconomic background, your values, your passions, or anything else that sets you apart from your peers. International students may want to write about why they want to study in the US.

Prevent plagiarism. Run a free check.

Of course, it’s important to show your best qualities in the essay. Admissions officers want students who can demonstrate specific positive character traits.

Self-reflection and vulnerability

Self-reflection is a sign of maturity, and it can elevate an application from good to excellent. Colleges already have a list of each applicant’s accomplishments, so a student who can admit their mistakes—and prove that they’ve learned from them—will seem more human and likable.

Some students are hesitant to show their flaws, but keep in mind that colleges know you aren’t perfect. If your essay is just about how fabulous you are, you might come across as inauthentic or, worse, arrogant.

Initiative is one of the top qualities that colleges look for. Students who show initiative will likely bring that take-charge attitude with them to college, where it will help them contribute to the campus.

The essay should always involve you taking some kind of action—it shouldn’t just be about things that happened to you. For example, rather than writing about how it was emotionally difficult for you when several family members caught COVID, write about specific coping strategies you developed during that time or ways that you contributed to the family while they needed you.

“Show, don’t tell” means that you should always aim to prove something rather than just state it. This is especially important to avoid sounding arrogant when writing about yourself . For example, don’t just tell admissions officers that you’re hardworking; show them by detailing how you accomplished a goal through hard work.

So how do you actually write all that? The first step is choosing a good topic . Here are two effective ways to choose a topic that meets expectations and impresses admissions officers.

Option 1: Start with your qualities

One approach is to start by thinking of positive character traits you possess and then finding examples of times you demonstrated those traits.

Option 2: Start with a story

You could also approach your topic selection in the opposite way: start with a story, then work backwards to show how it demonstrates your positive qualities.

  • He is independent, as his parents were often preoccupied and couldn’t help him in the same ways that his peers’ parents could.
  • He is unflappable, as dealing with emergencies has always been a regular part of his life.
  • He is empathetic, as he realizes that some people are going through difficult times that aren’t necessarily obvious to outsiders.

Whatever you choose to write about, your essay should give admissions officers plenty of proof that you’re a desirable candidate. And make sure your essay has a memorable introduction and ends effectively to grab the reader’s attention.

If you want to know more about academic writing , effective communication , or parts of speech , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

Academic writing

  • Writing process
  • Transition words
  • Passive voice
  • Paraphrasing

 Communication

  • How to end an email
  • Ms, mrs, miss
  • How to start an email
  • I hope this email finds you well
  • Hope you are doing well

 Parts of speech

  • Personal pronouns
  • Conjunctions

Colleges want to be able to differentiate students who seem similar on paper. In the college application essay , they’re looking for a way to understand each applicant’s unique personality and experiences.

In your application essay , admissions officers are looking for particular features : they want to see context on your background, positive traits that you could bring to campus, and examples of you demonstrating those qualities.

College application essays are less formal than other kinds of academic writing . Use a conversational yet respectful tone , as if speaking with a teacher or mentor. Be vulnerable about your feelings, thoughts, and experiences to connect with the reader.

Aim to write in your authentic voice , with a style that sounds natural and genuine. You can be creative with your word choice, but don’t use elaborate vocabulary to impress admissions officers.

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Testa, M. (2023, May 31). What Do Colleges Look For in an Essay? | Examples & Tips. Scribbr. Retrieved February 19, 2024, from https://www.scribbr.com/college-essay/what-colleges-look-for/

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What is Presidents Day and how is it celebrated? What to know about the federal holiday

Many will have a day off on monday in honor of presidents day. consumers may take advantage of retail sales that proliferate on the federal holiday, but here's what to know about the history of it..

what does college essay do

Presidents Day is fast approaching, which may signal to many a relaxing three-day weekend and plenty of holiday sales and bargains .

But next to Independence Day, there may not exist another American holiday that is quite so patriotic.

While Presidents Day has come to be a commemoration of all the nation's 46 chief executives, both past and present, it wasn't always so broad . When it first came into existence – long before it was even federally recognized – the holiday was meant to celebrate just one man: George Washington.

How has the day grown from a simple celebration of the birthday of the first president of the United States? And why are we seeing all these ads for car and furniture sales on TV?

Here's what to know about Presidents Day and how it came to be:

When is Presidents Day 2024?

This year, Presidents Day is on Monday, Feb. 19.

The holiday is celebrated on the third Monday of every February because of a bill signed into law in 1968 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Taking effect three years later, the Uniform Holiday Bill mandated that three holidays – Memorial Day, Presidents Day and Veterans Day – occur on Mondays to prevent midweek shutdowns and add long weekends to the federal calendar, according to Britannica .

Other holidays, including Labor Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day , were also established to be celebrated on Mondays when they were first observed.

However, Veterans Day was returned to Nov. 11 in 1978 and continues to be commemorated on that day.

What does Presidents Day commemorate?

Presidents Day was initially established in 1879 to celebrate the birthday of the nation's first president, George Washington. In fact, the holiday was simply called Washington's Birthday, which is still how the federal government refers to it, the Department of State explains .

Following the death of the venerated American Revolution leader in 1799, Feb. 22, widely believed to be Washington's date of birth , became a perennial day of remembrance, according to History.com .

The day remained an unofficial observance for much of the 1800s until Sen. Stephen Wallace Dorsey of Arkansas proposed that it become a federal holiday. In 1879, President Rutherford B. Hayes signed it into law, according to History.com.

While initially being recognized only in Washington D.C., Washington's Birthday became a nationwide holiday in 1885. The first to celebrate the life of an individual American, Washington's Birthday was at the time one of only five federally-recognized holidays – the others being Christmas, New Year's, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July.

However, most Americans today likely don't view the federal holiday as a commemoration of just one specific president. Presidents Day has since come to represent a day to recognize and celebrate all of the United States' commanders-in-chief, according to the U.S. Department of State .

When the Uniform Holiday Bill took effect in 1971, a provision was included to combine the celebration of Washington’s birthday with Abraham Lincoln's on Feb. 12, according to History.com. Because the new annual date always fell between Washington's and Lincoln's birthdays, Americans believed the day was intended to honor both presidents.

Interestingly, advertisers may have played a part in the shift to "Presidents Day."

Many businesses jumped at the opportunity to use the three-day weekend as a means to draw customers with Presidents Day sales and bargain at stores across the country, according to History.com.

How is the holiday celebrated?

Because Presidents Day is a federal holiday , most federal workers will have the day off .

Part of the reason Johnson made the day a uniform holiday was so Americans had a long weekend "to travel farther and see more of this beautiful land of ours," he wrote. As such, places like the Washington Monument in D.C. and Mount Rushmore in South Dakota – which bears the likenesses of Presidents Washington, Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt – are bound to attract plenty of tourists.

Similar to Independence Day, the holiday is also viewed as a patriotic celebration . As opposed to July, February might not be the best time for backyard barbecues and fireworks, but reenactments, parades and other ceremonies are sure to take place in cities across the U.S.

Presidential places abound across the U.S.

Opinions on current and recent presidents may leave Americans divided, but we apparently love our leaders of old enough to name a lot of places after them.

In 2023, the U.S. Census Bureau pulled information from its databases showcasing presidential geographic facts about the nation's cities and states.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the census data shows that as of 2020 , the U.S. is home to plenty of cities, counties and towns bearing presidential names. Specifically:

  • 94 places are named "Washington."
  • 72 places are named "Lincoln."
  • 67 places are named for Andrew Jackson, a controversial figure who owned slaves and forced thousands of Native Americans to march along the infamous Trail of Tears.

Contributing: Clare Mulroy

Eric Lagatta covers breaking and trending news for USA TODAY. Reach him at [email protected]

Black History Month: What is it and why is it important?

Black History Month - A visitor at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.

Black History Month is an opportunity to understand Black histories. Image:  Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

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This article was originally published in February 2021 and has been updated .

  • A continued engagement with history is vital as it helps give context for the present.
  • Black History Month is an opportunity to understand Black histories, going beyond stories of racism and slavery to spotlight Black achievement.
  • This year's theme is African Americans and the Arts.

February is Black History Month. This month-long observance in the US and Canada is a chance to celebrate Black achievement and provide a fresh reminder to take stock of where systemic racism persists and give visibility to the people and organizations creating change. Here's what to know about Black History Month and how to celebrate it this year:

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Black history month: key events in a decade of black lives matter, here are 4 ways businesses can celebrate black history month, how did black history month begin.

Black History Month's first iteration was Negro History Week, created in February 1926 by Carter G. Woodson, known as the "father of Black history." This historian helped establish the field of African American studies and his organization, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History , aimed to encourage " people of all ethnic and social backgrounds to discuss the Black experience ".

“Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.” ― Carter G. Woodson

His organization was later renamed the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) and is currently the oldest historical society established for the promotion of African American history.

Why is Black History Month in February?

February was chosen by Woodson for the week-long observance as it coincides with the birthdates of both former US President Abraham Lincoln and social reformer Frederick Douglass. Both men played a significant role in helping to end slavery. Woodson also understood that members of the Black community already celebrated the births of Douglass and Lincoln and sought to build on existing traditions. "He was asking the public to extend their study of Black history, not to create a new tradition", as the ASALH explained on its website.

How did Black History Month become a national month of celebration?

By the late 1960s, thanks in part to the civil-rights movement and a growing awareness of Black identity, Negro History Week was celebrated by mayors in cities across the country. Eventually, the event evolved into Black History Month on many college campuses. In 1976, President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History month. In his speech, President Ford urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history”.

Since his administration, every American president has recognized Black History Month and its mission. But it wasn't until Congress passed "National Black History Month" into law in 1986 that many in the country began to observe it formally. The law aimed to make all Americans "aware of this struggle for freedom and equal opportunity".

Why is Black History Month celebrated?

Initially, Black History Month was a way of teaching students and young people about Black and African-Americans' contributions. Such stories had been largely forgotten and were a neglected part of the national narrative.

Now, it's seen as a celebration of those who've impacted not just the country but the world with their activism and achievements. In the US, the month-long spotlight during February is an opportunity for people to engage with Black histories, go beyond discussions of racism and slavery, and highlight Black leaders and accomplishments.

What is this year's Black History Month theme?

Every year, a theme is chosen by the ASALH, the group originally founded by Woodson. This year's theme, African Americans and the Arts .

"In the fields of visual and performing arts, literature, fashion, folklore, language, film, music, architecture, culinary and other forms of cultural expression, the African American influence has been paramount," the website says.

Is Black History Month celebrated anywhere else?

In Canada, they celebrate it in February. In countries like the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Ireland, they celebrate it in October. In Canada, African-Canadian parliament member Jean Augustine motioned for Black History Month in 1995 to bring awareness to Black Canadians' work.

When the UK started celebrating Black History Month in 1987, it focused on Black American history. Over time there has been more attention on Black British history. Now it is dedicated to honouring African people's contributions to the country. Its UK mission statement is: "Dig deeper, look closer, think bigger".

Why is Black History Month important?

For many modern Black millennials, the month-long celebration for Black History Month offers an opportunity to reimagine what possibilities lie ahead. But for many, the forces that drove Woodson nearly a century ago are more relevant than ever. As Lonnie G. Bunch III, Director of the Smithsonian Institution said at the opening of the Washington D.C.'s National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016: “There is no more powerful force than a people steeped in their history. And there is no higher cause than honouring our struggle and ancestors by remembering".

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For Voters, When Does Old Become Too Old?

Polling shows it’s a broad concern expressed about President Biden, not just one person’s opinion.

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Nate Cohn

By Nate Cohn

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When a reporter asked President Biden on Thursday night about concerns about his age, his first instinct was to reject the premise. He replied in part: “That is your judgment. That is not the judgment of the press.”

The question was about the public’s concern, not the press, but either way the concerns over his age were not just those of one reporter.

A clear majority of Americans harbor serious doubts about it, polls show. To take just one example: In Times/Siena polling last fall, more than 70 percent of battleground state voters agreed with the statement that Mr. Biden’s “just too old to be an effective president.” More than 60 percent said they didn’t think Mr. Biden had “the mental sharpness to be an effective president.” And fair or not, fewer than half of voters express similar doubts about Donald J. Trump’s age or mental acuity.

Of all the reasons Mr. Biden has narrowly trailed Mr. Trump in the polls for five straight months, this is arguably the single most straightforward explanation. It’s what voters are telling pollsters, whether in open-ended questioning about Mr. Biden or when specifically asked about his age, and they say it in overwhelming numbers. In Times/Siena polling, even a majority of Mr. Biden’s own supporters say he’s too old to be an effective president. His political problems might just be that simple.

Now, just because it’s easy to blame Mr. Biden’s age for his political woes doesn’t make it so. There’s no doubt that voters have concerns, but it’s very hard to figure out how much support it’s costing Mr. Biden in the polls. We can’t know, for instance, what his approval rating would be if he were 10 or 20 years younger. Maybe it would be nearly as low, because of the border, the Middle East, earlier inflation, lingering resentments and anxieties after the pandemic — alongside the corroding effects of partisan polarization.

Why can’t we know? The age issue is not like the economy, in which easily measurable data helps us make sense of its import. We know 10 percent inflation or 10 percent unemployment could be sufficient to cost a president re-election. We’ve seen it before, based on decades of hard data. In contrast, the severity of Mr. Biden’s age problem is almost entirely up for debate. That perception is mostly subjective — based on how he appears and sounds, not simply based on the fact of his being 81. (Mr. Trump is 77.)

Superficial and subjective issues like these are hard to analyze, as evidenced by the very wide range of responses to Mr. Biden’s news conference on Thursday. Even a question as simple as “why do voters think Biden is too old, but not Mr. Trump?” is hard to answer. It’s clear voters believe so, but the likely explanation is just as superficial and subjective as the feelings of individual voters. Subjective, of course, does not mean unimportant. Even the most superficial factors like appearance or voice depth can play a powerful role in vote choice. Mr. Biden seems to have crossed an invisible line demarking whether a candidate isn’t just old but “too” old in the view of many voters; Mr. Trump has not.

What’s more, the questions about Mr. Biden’s age are almost entirely without precedent in the era of modern elections. There has never been a president who has faced this level of concern about his age — not even Ronald Reagan in 1984, who was eight years younger than Mr. Biden this cycle. That’s exactly why it’s easy to imagine how concerns about his age might be politically potent. But it also means we’ve never observed the political effect of something like this before.

Almost every election features something unprecedented, with the potential to shake up the usual patterns of politics. In the last four cycles alone, we’ve witnessed the first Black presidential major-party nominee, the first female such nominee, the first without military or elected experience, the first modern election amid a pandemic, and so on. In all of these cases, pundits and analysts speculated — very reasonably — about whether these novel candidates or circumstances might yield an unexpected result.

But in the end, those extraordinary circumstances didn’t yield extraordinary election results. The final numbers looked about as you might have expected if you didn’t know anything unusual promised to shake up the race. It was a huge surprise that Mr. Trump won in 2016, for instance, but it was only surprising insofar as an unconventional candidate managed to achieve such an utterly conventional result. If Republicans had nominated someone like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, no one would have been surprised to see Hillary Clinton narrowly lose the election.

This history is somewhat reassuring for Mr. Biden, who would be the first octogenarian nominee. If he loses in 2024, it will count as the rare case when something out of the ordinary — his age — produced an out-of-the-ordinary result by the standard of usual politics. This depends, of course, on whether the favorable economic news of the last few months continues. If it does, he will find himself in an enviable position: as an incumbent president running with a strong and even improving economy. Historically, that would make him a favorite to win re-election.

For good measure, the political conditions for a Biden comeback do seem to be in place . He’s running against the candidate he beat last time and who now faces scores of criminal charges. His opposition just scuttled a possible solution on the border, the issue it claims to care about most. The Harry Truman 1948 playbook is sitting on the shelf and ready to be opened up.

With all of this working to Mr. Biden’s advantage, the age question was already poised to reassert itself in the campaign — even before the special counsel report on Thursday. If Mr. Biden still trailed in May or June, despite the improved economy, his age would probably be the best remaining explanation for his weakness in the polls. And the stronger economy would perhaps leave Mr. Biden’s age as the top remaining issue for Republicans to attack. One way or another, Mr. Biden was going to have to confront the question. With the special counsel report on Thursday, that confrontation has come early.

As I mentioned, analysis about Mr. Biden’s age in this election is mostly speculative. That extends to analysis of the fallout of the report and the resulting news conference. What’s clear is that the report raised the burden on Mr. Biden to demonstrate his fitness for the presidency. It reinforced a pre-existing weakness and it will probably earn the media attention necessary to break through to the wider public, beyond regular news consumers. Against that backdrop, Mr. Biden’s news conference became a key test of whether he still has what it takes.

Whether he passed his test or not, nothing about his performance will ease the doubts about his political viability if he still trails in the polls in a few months. Those questions will be more pointed than they would have been without the special counsel report.

Nate Cohn is The Times’s chief political analyst. He covers elections, public opinion, demographics and polling. More about Nate Cohn

Our Coverage of the 2024 Presidential Election

News and Analysis

President Biden’s re-election campaign ended January with nearly $56 million on hand , extending his cash advantage over former President Donald Trump, whose campaign had about $30 million available at the end of the month.

Nikki Haley’s relationship with Black voters, a key Democratic faction in South Carolina,  has been long fraught. Her presidential bid has only increased their skepticism, casting further doubt on significant partisan crossover  in the state’s upcoming Republican primary.

Fact-Checking Biden: During campaign and public events in recent weeks, Biden has made some misleading statements  about taxes, industry, jobs and more.

A Right-Wing Nerve Center:  The Conservative Partnership Institute has become a breeding ground for the next generation of Trump loyalists and an incubator for policies he might pursue. Its fast growth is raising questions .

 On Wall Street:  Investors are already thinking about how financial markets might respond to the outcome of a Biden-Trump rematch , and how they should trade to prepare for it.

Devouring the Establishment:  Long a dominant force over the Republican Party’s institutions, Trump is now moving to fully eradicate their independence  and remake them in his own image as November draws closer.

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