College essay
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Purpose of College Essays

Purpose of College Essays

"What is the purpose of college essays?" Students who don't know the answer will struggle to write compelling essays. After all, how can writing be effective without knowing what the audience is looking for?

Students tend to give two answers: "I need to write essays because they're required to get into college," or "colleges want to learn something about me." Unfortunately, these answers lead students to focus on the wrong things in their essays. The full answer is:

The purpose of college essays is to prove you'll be successful in college and beyond.

Proving you'll be successful is very different than merely sharing something about yourself. We often see students writing about athletics, their love for music or a community service experience. However, scoring the game-winning goal doesn't prove you'll be successful. Enjoying playing or listening to music doesn't prove you'll be successful. Spending a few hours helping others doesn't prove you'll be successful.

Your personality traits are what prove you'll be successful, and your experiences prove you have these traits. At Prompt, we've identified five traits colleges look for in applicants: drive, intellectual curiosity, initiative, contribution and diversity of experiences. You can read more about the five traits in tomorrow's article, but first, we'll discuss the four ways colleges define success.

1. Colleges want students who will do well in their classes and will graduate. They're seeking students who are going to succeed academically. Colleges care about academic success, not just for altruistic reasons but also for monetary reasons. Students who drop out before graduating stop paying tuition. The best way to retain students is to ensure the students they admit have a high likelihood of being academically successful.

2. Colleges want students who will contribute positively to the school's community. They want a student body that will support each other and learn from one another. Each student should have a unique contribution to the college's community. Colleges know academics aren't the only reason to attend the college. The "network" and lifelong connections are just as valuable. Therefore, colleges seek to admit students who are highly likely to engage with other students and seek out ways to make the community better.

3. Colleges want students who will have a positive impact on whatever they choose to do in the future. They fulfill their mission by having successful alumni. While each college may have a different definition of a successful alum, all colleges seek out students who have traits that are likely to make them more successful after graduation, such as leadership, entrepreneurship and contributing to a group.

4. Colleges want students who the college can help achieve their goals or put them on a path to achieving them. Colleges are more likely to admit students who are a good fit for the college, and the college is a good fit for the students. Colleges like it when they feel they are uniquely positioned to help a student along their journey.

What you've accomplished in the past is indicative of what you're likely to do in the future. Sharing your experiences related to one or more of the five traits will help you prove you'll be successful. Students with the five traits are more likely to succeed academically. They're more likely to contribute to the college's community. They're more likely to succeed after they graduate.

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The above articles and a step-by-step guide to approaching the college essay writing process can be found in our Help Center.

Brad Schiller
Brad Schiller graduated from MIT with a Bachelors of Science in Mechanical Engineering and Management Science with a concentration in Operations Research. He has worked in business consulting with McKinsey, founded two businesses, and written a book. He started Prompt with two fellow MIT people, Jordan and John, to make people better writers. Their premise was simple: give everyone access to on-demand feedback on their writing from subject-knowledgeable Writing Coaches. Years later, Prompt is the largest provider of feedback on admissions essays in the world. Come and join us on our journey by emailing