Writing A Compelling Topic A Essay for Your Application to the University of Texas at Austin

All freshman applicants to the University of Texas at Austin must submit the Topic A essay in ApplyTexas, or the UT Austin Required Essay in the Coalition application. This essay, between 500 and 700 words, plays a crucial role in the holistic review process for applications.

Essay A is a student's primary vehicle for communicating the aspects of their personality, perspectives, and relationships that a resume alone can't convey. It's their chance to give the admissions committee a sense of who they are and how they see the world. 

Here's the prompt:

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

Students are used to writing academic papers, where their teachers provide clear prompts, a list of expectations, and even a rubric that lays out exactly what they need to do to earn full credit. Personal essays are a different beast. This Essay A prompt is particularly open-ended. That means the expectations can seem frustratingly amorphous, and no one can tell your student with 100% accuracy what they need to do to succeed. That freedom of thought, though, is representative of what college will be like for your student, so it's a great chance to embrace that new mindset.

Here, we'll offer some targeted advice on how to approach the brainstorming and drafting process for Essay A. The goal is to spark ideas and help demystify the process of writing a personal essay. 

Breaking Down the Prompt

To start, it can be helpful for a student to rewrite the prompt in their own words to be sure they're clear on what it's asking. We've "translated" the prompt here to give you an idea of what we mean. Here's our take on what Essay A is asking.

Tell us a story. It might be a big, important story about an event or experience that completely changed the course of your life. But it might also be a small story: a memory or experience that's a special meaning to you, even if it doesn't seem important from the outside. We hope you'll choose an interesting story, but ultimately, the story is just a window into your world. We don't get to spend years in your company, becoming friends with you or getting to know you in your everyday life. But when we look through the lens of your story, we'll get a glimpse of who you are beyond this application. We'll begin to form an understanding of what you care about and how you make sense of the world. You get to choose where in your life or history you want to open that window for us—and then you get to tell us why that's the spot you've chosen. 

With that in mind, the Essay A prompt can be broken down into two primary parts.

Part 1: The narrative component ("Tell us your story. What unique opportunities or challenges have you experienced throughout your high school career...")

Part 2: The reflection component ("...that have shaped who you are today?")

Let's take a look at each of these sections separately.

The Narrative Component: "Tell Us Your Story"

Why do we call this the "narrative" section instead of the "story" section? They're similar terms, but narrative suggests development, change, and growth. In other words, a narrative isn't just one thing happening after another, or a bunch of disconnected events happening simultaneously. In a personal essay like this one, the narrative arc traces some aspect of your student's development as a person. 

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Which story should you tell?

Although this story might be rooted in your student's earliest experiences, the primary focus of the narrative should be on the past three or four years. For most teenagers, high school is a period of rapid personal and interpersonal growth. During that time, your student has probably begun to form their own individual ideas and beliefs, explore new interests, and take on more responsibility at school and at home. They've also gained experience navigating new social and emotional challenges, and they may have started developing a stronger sense of what they have to contribute to the communities they belong to. 

In short: Their narrative should explore some aspect of their personal growth, regardless of what area they choose to focus on.

Opportunities and challenges

We’ve noticed that the “opportunities or challenges” language from the prompt can sometimes confuse students or prematurely narrow their thinking in the brainstorming phase.

The first common stumbling block is students feeling like they need to choose an experience that's either clearly an "opportunity" or clearly a "challenge." In reality, most experiences contain elements of both. For instance, taking on a major leadership role might be an opportunity to create change within the community, but it would also be challenging to balance schoolwork with the responsibilities of the new position. Pursuing an independent study gives the student an opportunity to delve deeply into a topic that fascinates them, but it challenges them to improve their time management skills and to learn how to solve problems without as much formal guidance as they're used to. 

The second common stumbling block can be a little trickier because it's rooted in a misconception about what the personal essay should do. When students hear the stock phrase "opportunities or challenges," they assume the admissions committee must want to hear about either their most impressive achievement or their most harrowing defeat. In brainstorming examples from their lives, students tend to focus almost exclusively on extremes (the highest highs, the lowest lows), which are usually things they've already listed on their resume as well.

These don't necessarily make for bad essay topics—in the hands of a thoughtful, introspective writer, virtually any subject can make for a compelling and personally revelatory piece. But both have certain risks.

  • Focusing too narrowly on extreme highs and achievements (including activities, honors, and so on) can result in essays that read more like long-form resumes than visceral, compelling stories. Too much of an external focus makes the essay flat, giving the reader little sense of the writer's inner life.

  • By contrast, when students write about extreme lows, including a traumatic event or loss, they can sometimes get too caught up in exploring painful thoughts and feelings. They also may not yet be ready to reflect on the experience. The experience begins to define the writer, instead of the writer defining the experience and placing it within the broader context of their personality and life. 

Remind your student that it's okay to pick a topic that seems less extreme. Often, it's the subtler experiences that are more defining.

Bottom line: Be sure your student doesn’t worry too much about labeling an experience as a challenge or an opportunity. Instead, they should focus on moments that have produced some type of change in their life or thinking. Change, whether they experience it as positive or negative, opens up the possibility for growth, which will be important for the second part of the essay. 

How should you tell the story?

Imagine you're listening to someone you've just met tell you a story about a recent experience. Part of your attention is probably focused on the content of the story itself: You might be picturing the scene in your imagination, for instance, or making connections between the story and your own experiences. 

But as you listen, you're also forming an impression of the storyteller themselves. Whether you consciously realize it or not, your brain is busy gathering data about who this person is, where they come from, and what it feels like to spend time in their company. As the person continues speaking, offering new details, your brain continues to flesh out those initial impressions, adjusting or revising your mental image of the storyteller. By the time you leave the person's company, you might not remember all the details of their story, but you will probably walk away with a distinct impression of what that person is like. 

You form these impressions based not only on the content of the story, but also on the way the person chooses to tell the story. The expressions someone uses, the descriptive details they decide to include, their reliance on humor or a more serious, intellectual tone—all these are choices a storyteller makes that communicate information to their listener. 

For example, if someone walked up to you at an event and began to deliver a formal, scripted address, avoiding the first person and using lots of technical jargon, you might think they were a little cold, a little aloof, or even intentionally intimidating. Of course, that judgment might be wildly off-base, but since you part ways with them immediately after the story's end, all you have to go on is your initial perception.

Remind your student that the words they use to tell the story are just as important as the story itself. Most importantly, the essay should sound like them.

Brainstorming and freewriting ideas

As your student decides on a story and begins formulating how they'll communicate it, be sure they imagine themselves as both the storyteller and the listener. The first part is simple—that's them. But putting themselves in the shoes of the listener will help them figure out how they might make the most authentic impression on the admissions committee.

Here are some questions they can ask themselves:

  • If you were listening to someone tell you this story, what aspects of their personality would stand out most to you?

  • What would you walk away knowing about this person? 

  • What would you leave not knowing or still wondering about them? 

  • Would you find this person interesting to talk to? Would you want to spend more time getting to know them? Why or why not? 

  • What details about their personality or their experiences stick out in your mind? 

  • Is it easy to create a vivid mental picture of this person's world? If they chose to tell a story set in a specific place, or if they described a specific experience that affected them, can you envision yourself in that scene?

  • After the storyteller walks away, how would you describe them to someone else? What aspects of their personality or story would you relate to a friend? 

This exercise will be difficult at first. It takes practice to get outside of your own perspective and try to see yourself from someone else's point of view. It can be helpful for your student to talk through their ideas with a friend or family member, someone who can remind them of the parts of themselves that they take for granted or have trouble seeing. And if those people have heard this story before, or remember it happening themselves, they can also help remind your student of details they might have forgotten. 

It can also be intimidating or stressful to think about how others perceive us. Your student might struggle to come up with a story not because they can't think of examples, but because they're worried that the story they've chosen won't seem "good enough" or impressive enough to the admissions committee. And regardless of how your student reacts to this kind of concern—covering up vulnerabilities, self-deprecation, acting over-confident—it can make it difficult for them to be themselves. 

So as they test out their stories and think through the questions above, they should try to imagine their listener as someone who's eager to get to know them, rather than someone who can't wait to start judging them. Changing their perception of their audience can change the student's entire experience of writing a personal essay. They'll be able to think in more curious, exploratory ways, and they'll be more open to taking creative risks or trying something that feels a little outside of their comfort zone. 

Physical Reminders

Another strategy for generating ideas is to look at physical reminders of the past. 

  • Reflect on personal relics. Have your student read through an old journal or flip through the family photo album. They might browse through their social media accounts or look at their friends' photos and posts from a particular time. (Reminder: Social media isn't always an accurate representation of what actually happened or how people felt about it, so your student should take that all with a grain of salt.) 

  • Recreate past experiences. Your student might put on an album they used to listen to obsessively, thinking about where they listened to it and why it resonated with them. Or they can page through a book they read and couldn't stop thinking about.

  • Revisit meaningful places. They can even revisit physical places that they used to spend time in: an old dance studio, the fro-yo place their teammates always went after practice, the restaurant they worked at the summer after sophomore year. These kinds of strategies can be useful for unlocking sense memories, and they'll also help generate more vivid descriptions of the places and people in your student's story. 

The Reflection Component: Unique Opportunities and Challenges and How They Shaped Who You Are

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Different people's narratives may overlap—for instance, multiple people might write about an experience connected to their sports team—but the reflection on that narrative is always unique to the student. The narrative tells us what happened; the reflection tells us why living those experiences mattered to your student--not to the person next to them and not to a generic student, but to your student personally

The reflection aspect of the essay helps the reader understand how the student has grown and changed over time. It's where your student will look back at the narrative and think seriously about how they have changed because of it. The admissions committee is asking students to substantiate the impression of themselves that they're trying to convey in their story, by giving examples of how the qualities they're emphasizing have played out in their life. 

Even though reflection involves looking back, it isn't about getting stuck in the past or waxing nostalgic about the good ol' days. Instead, it's an activity you engage in to prepare for the future, especially in periods of transition. Reflection can help your student begin to discern patterns in their lives and interests, or threads that connect seemingly disparate areas of their life. They might realize that even in different settings, they naturally gravitate toward certain roles or certain ways of solving problems. These insights can help them understand what their professional strengths might be as they prepare to pursue internships and eventually choose a career. 

Reflecting on Internal Experiences

As your student explores different ways of substantiating or fleshing out that impression of themselves, they should remember to include both external and internal experiences. 

Let's say, for example, that your student is a compassionate, caring person who has always believed in using their talents to strengthen their community. In their essay, they would want to include some details or examples that would help demonstrate how this quality manifests in their life. It's easy to talk about how they completed 150 hours of community service every year at a local homeless shelter—and they've no doubt already listed that on their resume. But their essay can—and should—explore aspects of those experiences that aren't communicated by the resume, if they are truly meaningful for your student.

There's likely more to the story—an internal journey that your student hasn't yet communicated. Perhaps they were raised in a family that prided itself on toughness and self-sufficiency. As a child, they often heard adults in their life urge others to "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" or pass harsh judgment on people who were out of work and unable to support their families. When your student first started volunteering, they sometimes found themselves echoing these beliefs in their thoughts, especially during challenging or frustrating moments. 

But then they began to pay attention to those thoughts and reflect on moments where they arose. As they observed the social workers and other adults who worked at the shelter, they sought to learn from the way they talked about the communities they worked with. During your student's volunteer shifts, they began spending time talking with the people who came to the shelter, forming relationships with them and seeking to better understand their lives. In their free time, they watched documentaries about homelessness and checked out books from the local library. Eventually, as their convictions became stronger and their sense of purpose clearer, they began to have conversations with their family about the work they were doing, even inviting family members to start volunteering with them once a week. 

This learning process may still be ongoing, but they're proud of the change they've seen in their own thoughts and behaviors. They feel like they've finally begun to develop a more nuanced understanding of an issue they care about, as well as a more empathetic perspective toward the people they work with. And within their own family, they are making a quiet but intentional effort to expand their worldview and advocate for those communities. 

Bottom line: Unless we articulate our internal experiences, others may never know how important they have been to our personal growth. The admissions committee won’t know what your student was thinking about and learning unless they explicitly say it.

Plus, these inner experiences are driven by intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation. In other words, they aren't motivated by a desire to earn external recognition in awards, good grades, or praise from others; rather, they emerge out of quieter, more inwardly focused desires, including the desire to deepen their understanding of something they care about, or their desire to more closely align their beliefs and actions with the type of person they want to be.

In general, internal experiences tend to be more emotionally "sticky" than external experiences. They may elicit conflicted or ambivalent feelings, especially if the student is grappling with ideas that fundamentally challenge something about their worldview or sense of self. And while external experiences may have clear endpoints, internal experiences tend to unfold on different timelines. The core questions these experiences generate are not usually ones your student can answer definitively, or just once. Instead, they become guiding preoccupations—ideas they'll spend their whole lives wrestling with and exploring. And that's exactly what the admissions committee wants to hear about.

Brainstorming and freewriting ideas

Reflection isn't necessarily something we know how to do naturally. It's a muscle we gradually strengthen, through processes like freewriting, asking ourselves questions, and discussing our experiences with others. 

Here are some questions your student can ask themselves during the reflection process: 

  • How have you grown emotionally, intellectually, and/or interpersonally through your experiences? 

  • How have your experiences challenged you, pushed you to develop new skills, or shaped your core convictions? 

  • What do you understand about yourself or about the people you work with now that you didn't five years ago? 

  • What have you have come to understand through your experiences that other people your age might not know or understand? 

Engaging in reflective thinking can transform a flat description of "here's what I did" into a compelling, richly layered exploration of the thoughts, feelings, and convictions that shaped your student's engagement.

One final note: Often, students feel like their "unique opportunities or challenges" can only be meaningful if they emerge from those experiences with a positive, punchy life motto or a Sunday school-style moral lesson. But leave the "and they all lived happily ever after" to fairytales. Real life—and real growth—is a lot more complicated. Your student should strive to be honest about what they've learned, how they've changed, and what they're still growing through.

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