Colleges — including UNC — start to release essay prompts

Photo by Robert Kinlaw,

It’s mid-summer, and for all those soon-to-be-seniors who are committed to not being procrastinators with their college applications, I have some good news.

A few colleges, of which UNC Chapel Hill is one, have released their supplemental essay prompts. Many more colleges will begin releasing them over the next several weeks.

Carolina offers four prompts, and students choose two. Each response is limited to 200-250 words.

  • Tell us about a peer who has made a difference in your life.
  • What do you hope will change about the place where you live?
  • What is one thing that we don’t know about you that you want us to know?
  • What about your background, or what perspective, belief, or experience, will help you contribute to the education of your classmates at UNC?

UNC Chapel Hill’s admissions office had this to say about how they evaluate applications and the importance of the essay: “As we sit down to read each application, we really don’t have an ‘ideal’ student in mind. Rather, we like being surprised by each individual applicant’s interests and talents.”

Common themes that emerge as favorites at UNC are students who are:

  • Smart
  • Motivated
  • Service-oriented
  • Curious
  • Creative
  • Courageous

Carolina openly shares that its looking for students who will not only flourish in, but will actively enhance, their community. Strong academic performance and leadership in high school are the greatest indicators for strong academic performance and leadership in college, and for students who will enhance the world after graduation.

Just how important is the college essay anyway?

Until relatively recently, students were judged mostly by the tried-and-true triad of strength of curriculum, grades/rank in class and SAT/ACT scores. Many college admissions professionals believe that as more and more colleges have joined the ranks of test-optional schools, where students have the option of sending in or not sending in their standardized test scores, there is an increased emphasis on the essay. FairTest ( is committed to de-emphasizing the use of standardized tests in making admissions decisions. FairTest currently lists over 900 four-year colleges that do not require the SAT or ACT.

When a college is looking at thousands of applicants, many students will be presenting almost the same curriculum, similar grades and often identical standardized test scores. A well-conceived and a well-written essay is one of the best ways for a student to set themselves apart from the pack.

The frequently required essay is the one component of the application where the student still maintains total control. After all, freshman, sophomore and junior grades are already on the books, and most students don’t vary more than 50-100 points on the tests, even with test prep; so by the time students become seniors, many of the pieces of the college application puzzle are already in place.

While thinking about the power of the essay can be daunting, especially for a student who is on the bubble or whose first-choice college is a “reach” as opposed to a “target” school, most students will come to understand that the essay really presents an opportunity rather than serving as a liability.

There is no magic formula for writing the essay. Students have probably heard the same advice multiple times in college information sessions, from their teachers and from friends; the ubiquitous “be yourself.” Trying to figure that out is really what the college application is all about.


Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions