Essay advice for University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill applicants

University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC) is obviously trying to get to know their applicants.  With multiple essay questions on a variety of topics, students who thoughtfully consider the prompts will have plenty of opportunities to share some revealing stories about themselves.  Here are a few tips to help you do that.

Short-answer Questions

Complete each of the following sentences about yourself. Don’t think too long or too hard; just help us get to know you better. Your responses could be as short as one word or as long as about 20 words—no longer, please.

Their directions really say it all.  Don't over-think these.  The very worst strategy here is to try to impress them.  You'll just end up sounding like every other kid. 

Instead, tell the truth, whatever it is.  And where appropriate, inject some personality into your answer. Here are some examples of what that sounds like:

The last book I read outside of class was…

 "Paris Hilton: Life on the Edge"  Please don't throw my application away.

It would surprise my friends to know that I…

"..feel a little hurt when they make fun of my hair.  I do have bad hair but it's hard to laugh along with them."

If I could travel anywhere in time or space, either real or imagined, I’d go…

"…back in time to my parents' wedding.  They looked so happy and it would be fun to see them at 24 and newly in love."

The form of communication that I’d most like to ban from existence is

"Any sentence where people use the word 'like' too often, as in, 'We should, like, hang out.'  Ugh."

The question I would most like to have answered is

"Is Jason Siegal going to ever grow a spine and ask me to the prom?  Seriously. Embarrassing, but true."       

My favorite random fact is 

"There are fourteen punctuation marks in standard English grammar."

My most treasured possession is

"My necklace that my mom gave me for my 16th birthday.  She got it from her mother when she was 16."         

This applicant did a good job.  There's no secret strategy at work here–she just told the truth, even when it was embarrassing.  She injected her personality into the answers, sometimes being funny, sometimes being serious.  And most importantly, she didn't try to serve up responses that were designed to impress.

The message here isn't that everyone should try to be funny; the message is that everyone should be themselves, whether you're funny, self-deprecating, introspective, intellectual, etc.  Just relax and tell the truth.  And have a little fun while you're doing it.

Essays (Required)

Please respond to two of the prompts below. One of your essays should be short (about 250 words), and one essay should be longer (about 500 words).

I would suggest that you read through all the prompts and see which one(s) you have an immediate reaction to.  See if there are any that you read and immediately think of something you could, or better yet, would want, to say.  Those are the prompts you should focus on.

Here are a few prompt-specific tips.

1. People find many ways to express their inner world. Some write novels; others paint, perform, or debate; still others design elegant solutions to complex mathematical problems. How do you express your inner world, and how does the world around you respond?

Do you do anything that you feel is a great representation of who you really are, the parts of you that other people may or may not know about?  If you like to play soccer, that's not really an "inner world."  But if you're fascinated with the game of soccer, if you love the rich pageantry of the sport when it's played in the World Cup, if you read soccer magazines to keep up with your favorite teams in England, and you study the history and legends of the game, where do you express that part of yourself?  Do you wear jerseys from your favorite teams?  Do you set the DVR to record all the European league games and watch them while wearing team paraphernalia?  Do you have posters in your room or a bumper sticker on your car? 

Like so many essay questions, this one is trying to learn something about you that might not necessarily be outwardly apparent to everyone else, an interest or passion you have in your mind that you express in your own way. So share one with them.

2. It’s easy to identify with the hero—the literary or historical figure who saves the day. Have you ever identified with a figure who wasn’t a hero—a villain or a scapegoat, a bench-warmer or a bit player? If so, tell us why this figure appealed to you—and if your opinion changed over time, tell us about that, too.

Twenty bucks says the UNC admissions office will read more than 30 (probably more than 100, but I don't want to risk my 20!) essays about Rudy.  Any takers?  Hey, I love that movie, too.  But if you spend 500 words telling them that Rudy never gave up and that he inspired you to, well, never give up, that's a pretty cliche essay, and one that virtually anybody who's seen this movie could write.

The most compelling answers will use the person you describe as a vehicle to share more about yourself.  Don't write a 500-word essay about someone else.  Write a 500-word essay about how and why this person appealed to you and what the impact was. And most importantly, don't write the same essay that anyone else familiar with this figure could write.  Inject enough of your own details so that you own your story.

What if you told your story about being the worst runner on the cross country team, how you struggled with your decision whether to quit, how you actually watched "Rudy" five times that summer and finally just decided that you'd rather be a slow but proud runner than a free but ashamed quitter.  Now they've learned something about you (and good ol' Rudy helped out!).

3. Carolina students conduct original research and work to solve problems in almost every imaginable field. If you could spend a semester researching a specific topic or problem, what would you choose and why?

You know this is a topic you should tackle if your immediate reaction is to borderline fantasize about how great it would be if you could actually do what the prompt is describing.  That kind of reaction is usually driven by a more than casual knowledge of the topic or problem and a passion for research and scientific discovery.  That's why this question is for students who really have a passion for learning.

Maybe you already know a thing or two about spider monkeys and what's killing them, or that science is actually much closer to finding an AIDS vaccine than many people realize, or that the melting ice in Antarctica is actually having a cooling effect on the water?  Or maybe you've read about the secret FBI files on John Lennon, or the various interpretations of what the founders really intended with the Bill of Rights and how that document impacts Supreme Court decisions, or the effects of subversive racism on under-represented populations?  If you do, this is the place to talk about it.

If you have an academic passion for which research and deeper study could help solve problems, answer questions, or impact the world in some way, you might have a good answer to this question.

4. After your long and happy life, your family must choose no more than a dozen words to adorn your headstone. What do you hope they choose, and why?

Here's a good opportunity to think about what you really want your life to be like.  The more articulate vision you have for it, the more likely you'll have something to say in response to this question.  If you want to be a journalist, that's a good start.  If you want to be a journalist who covers world issues, that's a better start.  If you want to be a journalist who makes your professional mission to tell the stories of those impoverished populations who never have a voice, that's a great start.

This doesn't have to be about saving the world.  You might have an articulate vision for your family, or your work with your church, or your community involvement or what your kids will think of you.  But you should have some sense of what you want your life to be like, some idea of your goals and values that you'd like reflected on a headstone.  If you don't have those yet, don't worry.  You've still got a long life to lead.

5. We tend to spend our time doing the things we know we do well—running because we’re good runners or painting because we’re talented artists. Tell us about a time when you tried something for which you had no talent. How did it go?

First of all, don't use this question as an excuse to talk about a talent that wasn't all that surprising.  For example, don't tell them that you ran for student body president and were surprised that you were such a great leader once you were elected. If you really had no leadership talent, you likely wouldn't have run for (or won) that kind of position. 

The most effective answers to this question will be brutally honest and share experiences where you had no talent but tried it anyway.  Sometimes those experiences go well (maybe you can't dance but actually did a pretty decent job in the school musical).  Sometimes those experiences go badly (maybe you were a decent soccer player but discovered you were the world's worst goalkeeper when you took over for the injured starter).  That's what makes these stories interesting–the sometimes surprising but always story-worthy outcomes of trying things we know we're not naturally good at.

Nobody is good at everything.  If you had the guts to take a risk and try something you knew you didn't know how to do, you deserve credit.  And you can get some credit by sharing your story here, even if the experience didn't go well.

6. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? What’s the best you’ve ever given?

One good way to judge the value of any advice is in the outcome it produces.  If you've been given advice that, when you followed it, left you happier or healthier, made you more successful, more confident or more engaged, improved your relationship with your family or a teacher or a friend, or just generally impacted your life in a positive way, so much so that you can illustrate the change that took place after taking the advice, you might have a good story to tell here. The same goes for the best advice you've ever given to someone else.  How did it change their life?

7. If you have written an essay for another school’s application that you really like, feel free to use it as your short or long essay for us.  Please be sure to tell us (a) what essay you are answering and (b) why you think this essay represents you well (your explanation will not be included in the essay word count).

It's tempting to just recycle one of your essays from another application here so you only have to write one essay for UNC.  But I'd be careful with that approach. One of the reasons UNC asks you why you think this essay represents you well is so they can hear from you why you decided to use this instead of answering one of their own prompts.  Your response will tell them a lot.

For example, if a student submitted an essay about her work with National Charity League and told UNC,

"This essay represents me well because NCL is very important to me.  I have done over 12 community service projects totaling over 150 hours of service, and I've served as our vice-president during my junior year."

…that doesn't really tell the admissions committee much that they didn't already read on your application.  It smacks of recycling just to make things easier on yourself.

You should only be submitting an essay from another college's application if you believe that the story you wrote, whether because of the subject matter or the writing or even just the way the prompt grabbed you, is one that you think represents you better then what you might have to say for UNC's prompts.  Don't recycle one just because it's less work to do it that way.

Optional Additional Statement (please limit your answer to approximately 250 words)
Is there anything else you would like to share with us regarding your background or interests that you didn’t have the opportunity to share elsewhere? Have you overcome exceptional difficulties or challenges? Have you participated in any programs or activities to help you prepare for college, such as Governor’s School, Project Uplift, Gear-Up, AVID, Upward Bound, LEAD, ROTC or Summer Ventures?

Don't fill this space just for the sake of filling it.  If you add something here that's not all that important or not well-written just so that you can use the space, you'll dull the rest of your application.  So follow the prompt's advice.  If you have something that you really wish you had the opportunity to share elsewhere, especially if it was a difficulty, challenge, or a unique educational opportunity that you didn't describe anywhere else, this is the space to do it.

It's a lot of work to apply to college today, and multiple essay questions certainly add to the workload.  But you don't have to wonder if UNC will take the time to read your work–they will.  So you'll want to take the time to share some revealing answers.  Write clearly and in a way that sounds like you.  And most importantly, relax and have a little fun.  I know that's not easy to do during application season, but the more you can do it, the better your essays will be.

Note:  Before you follow our tips, we recommend you read our "How to" guide here: Download HowToUse30Guides

And if you have other questions about essays, applications, interviews or financial aid, visit our online store.  We’ve got books, videos and downloadable guides to help you.  Or you could speak with one of our online college counselors.


  1. says

    Tell the truth about reading a Paris Hilton book? Surely, you jest. I don’t think there’s any situation where I would ever tell such a truth, lol. That’s what deathbeds are for!