Your college essay, regardless of the actual question you’re answering, should somehow address the question, “Who are you?” Your reader should know more about you and what makes you tick by the time they’re finished reading it. The actual essay question can be almost anything from “discuss a person from history you’d like to meet” to “a place where you are content” to “why you have selected your chosen major”, but your answer should always reveal something about you. This common thread that runs through all of your answers is precisely the reason that one essay can often solve multiple purposes.
On the State University of New York (SUNY) Application, students (who also have the option of submitting the Common Application) can choose to answer, “Choose an issue impacting your high school, community, country or the world and why it is important to you.” The University of Maryland asks, “If given the chance to create your own course, what would the course be titled, what material would you cover, and most importantly why you would choose it?” The University of California asks applicants to “describe the world you come from — for example, your family, community or school — and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.” All of these questions are asking you to reveal something about yourself, something that will contribute to their mission as a college or university.
If someone asks you to write about where you are from, it’s ok to give a description of that community (or some aspect of it), but what’s really important is how that community affected or shaped you and/or, how you contribute to it. Alternatively, if you are choosing an issue that is important to you, it’s important to define the issue, but the most important part of that essay is why it is important to you.
Let’s say I choose to write about music in my life (story of a real student). In this essay, I might describe how I started playing the trumpet in elementary school and found myself really enjoying it. In middle school, I joined the band and the jazz band. I also joined a community youth orchestra, and multiple ensembles at the high school. I come from a family with very little musical background, but suddenly, because of my significant musical involvement, our dinner table conversation changed to include talk of orchestral pieces by Shostakovich and jazz by Dave Brubeck. I developed an appreciation for the arts, and though I have no intention of pursuing a professional career in music, I cannot imagine any stage of my life being without it, and, of course, I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to play in college in some capacity. If the question changes to discussing an issue that is important to me, I can reshape my essay so that I include all of the info above after I talk about the importance of arts education in an era of school budget cuts. If the question is, “discuss a significant event in your life”, I might talk about playing in an all-state (or county) concert, or the time I botched up a jazz improve in front of an auditorium full of people with on off-key squeal, much like the changing voice of a teenage boy. It was mortifying, but it was a great illustrator of the importance of practice! I can then follow this with the fact that all of my practice and commitment led me to join multiple high school ensembles and have made music such an integral part of my life. The lens (or essay question) can change, but what I reveal about myself can stay reasonably the same.
This plan won’t work for every single essay question ever asked. In fact, the questions from the University of Chicago might make these connections slightly more challenging and necessitate a bit more creativity to make the connection, but in the vast majority of cases, what you want to say about yourself can be presented in the answer to a host of different questions. Working hard also means working smart, so be efficient with your essays wherever you can!