The fall semester can be an exciting and stressful time for high school seniors, as college application deadlines begin in early November and continue through January and into the spring. If your child is like most students nationwide, they’ll probably apply to seven to ten colleges in total.

Your Texas resident student will likely be focusing on the Common Application; prior to Fall 2022, Texas students had to apply to in-state public institutions through a separate application called ApplyTexas, but all major Texas public colleges now accept the Common App. This includes UT Austin and Texas A&M – with an important caveat about their essay requirements that we’ll discuss below.

The Common App requires one substantial essay of up to 650 words, and many individual colleges will require supplemental responses on top of that. This article will walk you through everything you and your student need to know.

It’s Personal; Make Your College Application Essay About You.

After grades and test scores, the essays are easily the third most important part of the college application. Test scores supposedly identify whether or not students have the raw cognitive capability to excel, and school grades are supposed to demonstrate how well students have taken advantage of the classroom opportunities afforded to them.

Assuming that there’s more to a person than just test scores and academics, essays are therefore the most human and intangible component of a college application; they enable students to use their own voice to fill in the rest of the picture of their candidacy.

With maximum word counts of 650-750 words, these essays require careful planning, concise writing, and thoughtful revision. Some key tips to keep in mind:

Three Basic Tips to Create a Winning Essay

  1. Market yourself. Who are you? What makes you unique? Why are you a good fit for the colleges that you’re applying to? You’ll need to make sure these themes come out in your essays.
  2. Be specific. These essays are all about you; they need to include specific examples from your life experiences. Could your best friend pick your response out of a stack of 100 essays? If you take a step back and realize your essay could have been written by anyone, start rewriting.
  3. Be creative. Admissions officers are going to be reading thousands of essays in a short time span, so making an impression is key. Avoid the cookie-cutter, five-paragraph essay format; your goal is to tell an interesting, authentic, and well-written story that the committee will remember. Don’t be afraid to get creative and personal with the structure and content of your response.

The Common App Personal Essay

The Common Application (more commonly known as the Common App) is accepted by more than 900 colleges nationwide. Students applying to private and non-Texas institutions should do research early in the application process to confirm whether the colleges on their list accept the Common App. For major institutions across the country, the odds are good that they do. (One notable exception is the University of California system, which has its own application.)

Most schools accepting the Common App will require that students submit one essay in response to one of the topics listed below. Of course, students will need to put extra thought and care into selecting the prompt that will best allow them to showcase their unique qualifications, interests, identities, and/or experiences.

Common App Personal Essay Prompts 2023-2024

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.
  2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Notice that the last topic choice is essentially an “anything goes” prompt. Students selecting this topic must ensure that their essay is focused and well-constructed, in spite of the lack of a provided prompt. In some ways, this makes Topic 7 the most difficult of the bunch. Students who choose to write about their own topic are encouraged to come up with a specific prompt of their own design to guide them as they write.

Common App Essay Length

The Common App is fairly clear-cut in its length specifications: students can submit an essay between 250 and 650 words in length. While unnecessary filler should always be avoided, students should aim to write between 500 and 650 words in order to ensure that their essays are substantive and sufficiently detailed and reflective.

Essays Requirements for UT Austin and Texas A&M

As alluded to above, UT Austin and Texas A&M differ in their essay requirements from most other colleges on the Common App. These colleges do not require the Common App Personal Essay; instead, they require a response to the following prompt:

  1. Tell us your story. What unique opportunities or challenges have you experienced throughout your high school career that have shaped who you are today?

Families who have been through the college application process before may recognize this prompt as Topic A from the ApplyTexas application, which UT and A&M previously required. This prompt is fairly similar to some of the Common App prompts (especially prompts 1, 2, and 5), so students who have written the Common App Personal Essay may be able to repurpose it to fit UT and A&M’s requirements. Keep in mind, however, that every application essay should be tailored to the prompt at hand as much as possible.

Here are UT and A&M’s specific requirements around this essay:

  • UT requires a response of 500-700 words, which they equate to approximately two to three paragraphs.
  • A&M requires a response of up to 750 words, and they state that students who have already answered a similar prompt for their Common App essay may copy and paste their response to fulfill this requirement.

College-Specific Essay Prompts

The Common App is a great tool because it decreases the amount of work required to apply to multiple schools. However, it doesn’t eliminate all of the hassle. Many colleges that accept the Common App will require additional written responses, or supplemental essays; this is especially true for selective colleges with highly competitive admissions. These supplemental essays are submitted through the Common App platform, but they require college-specific thinking and research.

The topics usually ask students to write about why they’re a good fit for the college, but they may also address specific topics such as leadership, diversity, community, extracurricular activities, and first-choice major.

Sample College-Specific Essay Prompts


  1. Why are you interested in the major you indicated as your first-choice major? 250-300 words.
  2. Describe how your experiences, perspectives, talents, and/or your involvement in leadership activities (at your school, job, community, or within your family) will help you to make an impact both in and out of the classroom while enrolled at UT. 250-300 words.
  3. The core purpose of The University of Texas at Austin is, To Transform Lives for the Benefit of Society. Please share how you believe your experience at UT-Austin will prepare you to Change the World after you graduate. 250-300 words.

Texas A&M

  1. Describe a life event which you feel has prepared you to be successful in college. Up to 250 words.
  2. Tell us about the person who has most impacted your life and why. Up to 250 words.
  3. [For engineering applicants only]: Describe your academic and career goals in the broad field of engineering (including computer science, industrial distribution, and engineering technology). What and/or who has influenced you either inside or outside the classroom that contributed to these goals? It is important to spend time addressing this question as it will be considered as part of engineering review process. Up to 500 words.

Rice University

  1. Please explain why you wish to study in the academic areas you selected. 150 word limit.
  2. Based upon your exploration of Rice University, what elements of the Rice experience appeal to you? 150 word limit.
  3. Please respond to one of the following prompts to explore how you will contribute to the Rice community:
    • The Residential College System is at the heart of Rice student life and is heavily influenced by the particular cultural traditions and unique life experiences each student brings. What life experiences and/or unique perspectives are you looking forward to sharing with fellow Owls in the residential college system? 500 word limit.
    • Rice is strengthened by its diverse community of learning and discovery that produces leaders and change agents across the spectrum of human endeavor. What perspectives shaped by your background, experiences, upbringing, and/or racial identity inspire you to join our community of change agents at Rice? 500 word limit.

How to Get Started

General Academic can help students with their college essays from start to finish. We will meet your student where they are, including with any of the following steps:

  1. Brainstorming. We’ll help your student choose a Common App prompt and develop their ideas into a suitable essay topic.
  2. Outlining. We’ll help your student organize their thoughts in a way that tells the most compelling and memorable story.
  3. Drafting and Revising. We’ll support your student through multiple essay drafts, providing tailored feedback on their writing every step of the way.
  4. Polishing. We’ll help your student refine and polish their essay to ensure it is free of mechanical errors and ready for submission!

Contact us to get started today.


  • Ashley Chang

    Ashley Chang is General Academic's Assistant Manager. She graduated from Millsaps College, where she received her BA in History in 2020. Prior to joining General Academic, Ashley was a high school history teacher as well as an aide in various elementary school classrooms. Ashley has also completed Rice's College Access Counseling Certificate Program.

  • Andy Peters

    Andy Peters is General Academic's Senior Manager. He graduated from the University of Michigan, where he received a BA in English in 2015 and an MA in Educational Studies in 2016. Andy has more than 8 years of teaching and tutoring experience; before joining General Academic, he was a high school English teacher at an innovative Michigan charter school.