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How to Ace The Standard Application Online (SAO)’s Student Essays Section

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Hello and welcome to CEA’s Standard Application Online (SAO) Essay Guide!

Below you will find the instructions from the Standard Application Online (SAO), the essay prompts, and our breakdowns for each.

We recommend giving yourself ample time to familiarize yourself with these prompts and brainstorm unique, authentic responses. These essays present you with the opportunity to speak to admissions in your own voice and reveal why you would be a valuable addition to their student body. Let’s dive in!

Note to the Student:

  • This section of the application should be completed by the student.

  • Please do not customize your responses for a specific school. This form, once submitted, will be delivered to all schools requiring it as part of their Standard Application Online (SAO).

  • Please follow the suggested word count in each box to respond.

  • The form can be saved as draft to submit at a later date. Once the form is submitted, it cannot be edited or removed from your application. Please review your responses thoroughly before submitting them. 

Short Essay Prompts

Please respond to the THREE required prompts below using 200-250 words.

Aside from books or articles assigned for school, what book(s), article(s), podcast(s), and or documentary(s) have you most enjoyed in the past year and why?

How do you entertain, soothe, or rest your mind during your non-academic time? You’ll need to be careful to avoid answers that are self-aggrandizing or pandering. Don’t top your list with Tolstoy’s War and Peace unless you genuinely picked it up of your own accord, read it from start to finish, and loved every second of it. Pretty much anything is fair game here, from scripted podcasts to dark, creepy documentaries. Admissions just wants to get to know you, so have fun with your response — geek out!

Just remember to reflect thoughtfully on the “why” part of the prompt. Maybe you devour fantasy novels for breakfast because you love escaping to far, far away places. Perhaps you’re not an avid reader (we can’t all be!), but you love the way podcasts introduce you to new ideas and help you to expand your mind. Maybe you love watching baseball documentaries because they make you feel connected to your late granddad, who was also a raving sports fanatic! Whatever your reasoning, make it known.

Describe EITHER an academic/extracurricular achievement OR a challenge that had a meaningful impact on you. What did it take to accomplish the achievement or overcome the challenge and what did you learn from that experience?

This prompt is sort of a hybrid prompt of the Common App’s prompts #2 and #5, which you’ll likely come across down the line when it’s time to apply to college. In the meantime, let’s dig into what this mishmash prompt is really asking of you.

If you decide to write about an achievement, choose something that you put a lot of energy and thought into manifesting. Admissions wants to learn about a time when you put in the work to effect positive change in your own life. Maybe you want to write about the nights you read the dictionary under your blanket with a flashlight (so as to not wake up your sleeping sibling five feet away), and how you went on to become the regional Spelling Bee champion. Or, perhaps, you want to invite admissions into the exercise room with you as you committed to strengthening your muscles so you could make the varsity rowing team and compete in the state championship. This is an opportunity for you to highlight your work ethic and commitment to seeing things through.

If you decide to write about a challenge that had a meaningful impact on you, aim to showcase qualities like resilience, determination, and humility. The challenge you choose to explore can be as constant as navigating life in a marginalized and policed body, as serious as the immigration barriers that your family has faced for years, as simple as a mistake that frayed a friendship, or as unexpected as the aftermath of a TikTok going viral. While the possibilities are almost endless, students should be careful not to choose challenges that may seem trite (for example, the inability to achieve an A on a quiz) or that illustrate a lapse in good judgment (that time you borrowed your brother’s bike and left it out in the rain overnight 🥶).

Your reflection on what you have learned and how you have grown will be a source of great insight for admissions, and you want to make sure your essay highlights the intangible qualities that don’t show up anywhere else on your application.

Each person has unique characteristics that define who they are. Choose three words that best describe you as a person, and explain how they represent you.

The three words you select to describe yourself do not need to be unconventional or extraordinary, but they should avoid the generalities that so often populate these questions: loyal, kind, smart, determined…you get the idea. We’re sure you are all of these things — and they are lovely qualities to showcase in the stories you tell elsewhere on your application — but descriptors  can ring hollow if you aren’t able to back them up with evidence. What do you like about yourself? Which superpowers (intuition, empathy, peace-making, curiosity, gift of the gab, etc.) are you proud to possess? What aspects of your personality or spirit guide you? Don’t be afraid to think outside the box either. The prompt says to choose three words; it does not specify that they must be adjectives (lasagna, karaoke, turtle). So, focus on representing yourself as fully as possible. Aim for authenticity and specificity.

Choose ONE of these essay prompts and respond in 250-500 words.

Explain an event or activity that has impacted your life and or your way of thinking.

This prompt is quite vague, and we have a sneaking suspicion that the curt wording is no accident. Admissions is presenting you with the opportunity to talk about almost anything that has made an impact on your life. The event or activity that you discuss can be as life-altering as the death of a close relative or as seemingly unremarkable as learning how to ride a bike for the sense of autonomy it gave you. Your goal should be to share something personal about your life and/or perspective. If you’re struggling to think of possible topics, try asking yourself this: When have you had an “Aha!” moment? What has shaped you into the person you are? How have you acquired the worldviews you possess?

Explain a time when you made a decision you regretted. Explain why you made that decision. How would you approach the same situation differently if you could now?

We all make mistakes. What we do in their aftermath, however, is up to us. Admissions wants to know if you’re the kind of person who can own up to errors in judgement and apply what you learned from the experience to future obstacles. Did your failure to follow directions lead you to a botched home science experiment (coca cola explosion!) and an appreciation for a balance of creativity and planned procedure? Perhaps you made a decision that hurt someone close to you. If you could do it again, would you try to take into account the feelings of others? We recommend that you steer clear of tired tropes (“I left my homework until the last minute and now I try not to do that,”) and instead focus on the decision you made, the lesson you learned, and how you would apply that earned knowledge in the future.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received? From whom did you receive the advice and how did you apply it?

The wise words you choose to write about in your response will tell admissions a lot about yourself — what you value, how you see the world, what you struggle with, etc. So, make sure your answer comes from the heart. Maybe you received advice from a relative about the power of positive thinking, and now you apply it every day by finding the silver lining wherever you can. Perhaps the best piece of advice you received was from a book or movie or street art, and you repeat it like a mantra in times of doubt. Any way you slice it, be sure to reflect on why this specific piece of advice is meaningful to you based on your life experiences thus far.

Describe a moment when you felt left out or that you did not fit in well with others. What did you learn about yourself and others? How did you overcome that situation?

We have all felt left out at some point in our lives, and this prompt encourages you to reflect on one such moment of exclusion. It’s in your best interest to focus on what you took away from the experience rather than the specifics of the event or what was said. Maybe you felt like a fish out of water at theatre camp a few summers ago. How did you react publicly vs privately? What would you do differently next time? Ultimately, admissions wants to know how you handle adversity and how you process life’s learning opportunities.

What is your favorite quote from a movie, book or a line from a song or poem? Please name the movie, poem or song, and tell us what it means for you?

For this prompt, we recommend setting a timer for three minutes and writing down every quote (even if paraphrased —  you’ll look it up later for accuracy) you can think of. No idea is too silly; just trust your gut! Recall the Lorde lyrics that have stuck with you, your favorite passages from Flying Lessons & Other Stories, the mantra that your favorite athlete repeats, the little sayings your Aunt Sheila contributes to your everyday life. Whose counsel has touched you? Although you’ll be referencing someone else’s words, this is still an opportunity for you to reveal something new about who you are, what you value, or where you come from. So, be sure to focus the majority of your response on what the quote you select means to you, rather than the history behind the words.

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