How to Write the 2021 University of Texas Application Essays Part 1

My hook for this post is the University of Texas application for 2020-2021, but I am also going to take a look at reusing essays selectively in your other applications, which can save a lot of time and work. There are a couple of venues for applying to the University of Texas, and in discussing these I will introduce (briefly) and compare several important application portals used in Texas, but also nationally. Lesson one: to write a great University of Texas essay, you actually start by taking a look at the alternative of using either the Texas application site or the Coalition Application site.

Like the University of California, Texas runs its own college application portal. But in addition to the Coalition and UT/Apply Texas portals, the good news is that you can write a great University of Texas essay and turn around to reuse it for some of the 800-plus colleges using the Common Application portal, with little or no reediting–if you watch your word counts and choose your prompts wisely.

Different Application Portals: Apply Texas

Goal #1 for applying to college in 2020-2021 is to look for ways to reuse essays. Which brings us to those application portals.

Apply Texas is the foundation of all Texas applications, but universities determine which prompts to use. Assuming you are applying to the University of Texas, you could go directly to the UT website, which shows a single prompt fo the longer personal essay. This prompt is also up as the “A” prompt on the Apply Texas portal, and it is the Apply Texas system that handles all the data and that stands behind the various Texas public university applications–it’s a bit like the way the University of California is set up as a single portal, but there is more variation in the application requirements for Texas. Technical and state colleges are included in Apply Texas, whereas in California, the Cal State university system has a portal that is entirely separate from the University of California system.

For an example of how the Apply Texas requirements can vary from school to school, UT Austin requires a full set of the Texas application essays, including using option A for that longer essay and several shorter essays of about 250 words. In contrast, Texas Tech “strongly suggests” that you write at least one of the required essays but does not require it.

Of course, if you are a serious applicant to Texas Tech: write all of the essays. When offered the chance to do more, you want to do more. It demonstrates commitment.

And this year, in particular: if you did not take the SAT or ACT before the Covid rules came into play, or want to retake because your scores are below the mnidle 50%, but don’t end up getting one of the limited seats available before apps are submitted (or you just don’t want to risk your own or your family’s health for another test) you will want as much positive material for that holistic application evaluation as possible, to make up for missing data from standardized tests.

The Next Portal: The Coalition Application

Next portal: That longer essay prompt for UT Austin, which is Prompt A for Apply Texas is actually shared with the Coalition Application. “Coalition” is the short name for The Coalition for College Access.This might seem odd until you look at the UT Austin site, where it tells you that you can use the Coalition portal to apply, and skip the UT/Apply Texas portal.

To clarify: you only use one portal to apply–you will apply either through the UT portal, which is supported by Apply Texas or you will apply to UT through the Coalition App portal, which also allows you to apply to other schools listed on the Coalition portal, both inside and outside of Texas. So the Coalition is accepted by UT but is not limited to Texas schools. The question then, is whether it covers all or most of the colleges you want to apply to.

How to choose? See if all the colleges you want are among those listed on the Coalition App–if they are, you will save a lot of time by filling out all that basic data from name and personal information through activities only once, instead of using diferent sites and pasting in and tinkering with the same basic information, data and short responses over, and over. Using a more national portal like the Coalition Application offers efficiency. But the Coalition Application itself is not the biggest of the portals available.

A Comparison to the Common Application

A big drawback of the Coalition App is its relatively short list of participating colleges. The Coalition has 151 schools participating for 2020-2021. Compare this to the Common Application, which will be used by 884 universites. Sadly, the Common Application is not accepted by UT, among many others, but the Common App’s reach does make it a portal you are likely to use at some point this year.

To be very clear: though the Common Application is indeed the most commonly used app portal of all, its not an option for Texas public colleges (e.g. Texas Tech, UT Austin, et al). Outside of the University of California system, however, most of the big-name colleges that might come to mind do use the Common Application.

This is why you want to look at it now, and another reason: the Common Aplication essay prompts are up, so you can compare them, to the UT main essay. And there are other good schools in Texas among the Common App’s 800-plus clients, including Baylor, Rice, and TCU, not to mention those dozens of schools you have heard of and likely want to apply to outside of Texas.

So our focus on the Common App in this post is aimed at the possibility of reusing an essay on two or more portals.

Why You Should Look at Reusing Essays

The typical person applying to 10 colleges will generally use at least one main, longer essay of 550-650 words, and a series of supplementals. This means that you could easily write 20 essays for 10 apps–or 30. Most of these supplemental essays will be shorter than the 550-650 word main essays, but still–the more chance you have to reuse material, the more efficiently you can move through the work. And the workload, once school starts, can be quite extreme. With all the variables up in the air for this year, saving some labor on essays is a good idea.

I want to add before you go on to the rest of this post, and taking a look at the essay prompts, that there is one caveat–the various essay checking software programs, like Turnitin, will flag repeat uses of essays, and the use of such software is becoming more widespread–either through the adoption of Turnitin or other options, like in-house algorithms at some schools. Noting that it’s not really possible to plagiarize yourself, the focus here is on being sincere in your appeal to your target schools, and crafting the majority of supplemental essays carefully to suit your targets. But you need to balance this with the knowledge that, in the contemporary application scene, most students applying to selective and super selective colleges apply to ten or more universities, and they almost all reuse some degree of material. I will discuss fine tuning strategy on this in a later post.

Pay Attention to Word Count Limits in Essays

In addition to looking at the essay prompts, you should note that there are some differences in the word counts allowed–if you use the Coalition site, they suggest no more than 550 words; the Common Application allows no more than 650 words, and that is a firm limit; and for U Texas, I suggest 550 to no more than 650 words. (I’ve seen essays of up to 700 plus words accepted through the UT section of the Apply Texas application portal in the past, but suggest shooting for 550 as your max in your Texas main, which of course is the max word count suggested on the Coalition App.)

Many Application Essay Prompts Will Be The Same As Last Year

Whether they have reached perfection or just can’t get a revision done in this Covid-disrupted year, all three of the portals we have discussed will be using the essay prompts they had up last year. Please don’t take this as a green light to imitate your older sibling’s essays from last year, however–that essay scanning software I discussed is one reason. Being yourself and doing your own thing is another.

Let’s take a look at Texas first, then I will compare Texas prompt A to the current Common Application prompts to show you how to save a lot of work by reusing an essay or two–

2020 through Spring 2021: University of Texas Essay Prompt A

ApplyTexas Essay Prompt A

Guidelines for Essay Topic A—350-ca. 750 words, recommend aiming for 550 words.

Texas Essay Topic A (For U.S., applicants, as well as Transient, Readmit, and Transfer International applicants): Tell us your story. What unique opportunities or challenges have you experienced throughout your high school career that have shaped who you are today?

This is the definition of a “personal” essay question, and it overlaps with a range of essay prompts required by other universities. It also overlaps with most of the Common Application prompts, depending on the angle you take–and when you can use one essay for two applications, that is a must-do opportunity. Just take a look at the Common Application prompts, which in the main define a more specific angle on the same broad prompt for how your experience has shaped who you are.

You just want to be sure your focus is on the last few years/high school, but keeping the focus on ongoing and recent experience is a rule of thumb in college essays anyhow–as opposed to writing about that deeply felt experience in elementary school. Generally skip those, unless they initiated or motivated activities that are still ongoing in high school, particularly if they continue today.

A Few Words About Social Justice Topics

One specific comment on topics at this point: Most college counselors advise against putting controversial, editorial-page topics at the center of college essays, but in my opinion, this year is different. Social justice, a perennial but undervalued subplot in American life, has come to the fore as the main focuses in recent months for most of you, for reasons I do not need to review here.

If you are genuinely engaged in the movement for equality and social change, this could be a good topic. Just be sure this is a real commitment for you personally, with some roots, as no doubt quite a few people will choose to write about this as the challenge or experience they faced, or the belief (system) they challenged in college essays in 2020-21. This is a challenging topic, and you need to avoid preaching to the converted (as well as the unconverted) and you really want to be wary of name calling and oversimplification, particularly of solutions. And of course, eschew cynicism. Click my tag for Social Justice at either the top of bottom of this post to see some other discussions of social justice topics over the years.

Now let’s take a look at how closely the Common Application overlaps with the focus of the Texas main essay.

Comparing the University of Texas and Common Application Essay Prompts

In addition to the quick comparison of prompts below, I have recently posted on how to brainstorm/start the Common Application Prompts for 2020-2021. I have also looked compared the Common Application Prompts to the Coalition Application, here: Coalition App Versus Common App Essays.

Common Application Prompts for 2020/2021–compare these with the U Texas Essay A–

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. Note that you would put the majority of the focus on your high school experience, with some background or lead-in, and this prompt is a match for the UT application essay A.

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? If your high school experience included a challenge or setback you had to overcome, bingo. Also a match for the Texas application essay, option A.

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? If this challenge occurred during your high school years, even it it did not happen on campus, just connect it the the person you are or have become and link it to some reference to your high school experience, and you are set.

4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution. Notice that this offers you an opportunity to look at the past or the future. For UT you’d need to background the essay in the past, but then you could always turn from that past experiene to the future, to how your education will be shaped by this and what you plan to do with that education–which is a nice way to wrap up an essay–you never want to repeat or restate your introduction in the conclusoin of a college essay–that is formulaic writing, and frowned on. Not to mention that it does not fit in a pesonal essay format.

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. This overlaps not only with some of the other Common Application prompts, it also matches UT’s prompt A, again if you focus on this occuring during your high school years.

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that 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? Again, if you discovered a passion in high school, or discuss one that grew during high school (usually academic, and tied to whatever you want to major in or focus on in college, for the best effect), this also ties in well with the University of Texas essay.

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. Since anything goes here, any Texas essay should also fit.

Contact Me for Editing and Essay Development

Texas has three additional, short essay responses required, and there is some variation in these (e.g. a prompt for Art and Architecture majors) and I will come back to these in the next week or two. Let me know if it was useful for you to look at comparing and reusing essays–I may look at the UT system short essays in comparison to those used by other systems if y’all hare enthusiastic about this approach. You can leave a comment, or if you are looking for essay development and essay editing, and you want the best, hands-on assistance, Contact Me. This link takes you to my business portal.

I do all the editing and coaching myself, so if you do want to create your best possible essays, contact me soon, while I still have some space available.

The Eyes of Texas

Oh, and of course, here is your bonus for this post, the University of Texas, fight song:

“The Eyes of Texas”

I once did know a president

A-way down South, in Texas.

And, always, everywhere he went,

He saw the Eyes of Texas.

The Eyes of Texas are upon you,

All the livelong day.

The Eyes of Texas are upon you,

You cannot get away.

Do not think you can escape them

At night or early in the morn —

The Eyes of Texas are upon you

’Til Gabriel blows his horn.

Sing me a song of Prexy,*

Of days long since gone by.

Again I seek to greet him,

And hear his kind reply.

Smiles of gracious welcome

Before my memory rise,

Again I hear him say to me,

“Remember Texas’ Eyes.”

*“Prexy” refers to a President, particularly a college president, and dates back to the early 19th Century, so yes, it does predate UT Austin and in fact predates the state of Texas.

(To be sung at UT football games and after a few too many fermented beverages on sundry occasions. Of course, that won’t likely happen this year, but we can hope for the 2021 season, when you will likely be arriving on campus.)

The Coalition Application versus the Common Application–Which One to Use? It Starts with a Look at the Essay Prompts

Who should read this: anybody applying to college in 2019-2020. Post Subjects: The Common Application versus the Coalition Application, A Comparison of Common Application and Coalition Application Essays and for financially challenged families, The Questbridge Application.

The Coalition and the Common Application are the most important college application portals. The Common Application is the Big Kahuna, with over one million students submitting over five million applications, and this year, it handles applications for more than 800 colleges. The only state that has no colleges accepting the Common Application is North Dakota (Why: Most of North Dakota’s colleges are public and use the state’s application portal. If this seems backward, both the University of California and the Cal State Universities use their own portals as well.)

In contrast, the Coalition Application lists 107 colleges for 2019-2020; however, this is a pretty elite list, which includes Stanford, the majority of Ivy League colleges, Cal Tech, Georgia Tech, Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Northeastern . . .

In previous years all of the Ivy League schools were listed as using the Coalition Application, but this year Cornell and Brown are not listed. Could be an error, of course. To which I add, the Coalition Application specifically identifies itself as being designed for students with fewer resources. Here is the full list for you to consult: Coalition Application Colleges

The obvious advantage of the Common Application lies in the number of colleges that use it, roughly 8 times the number of the Coalition Application, but it is also worth comparing the essay questions as you decide which to use, or perhaps if you want to selectively use both portals–so first here are The Coalition Application Essay Prompts for 2019-2020:

  • Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
  • Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.
  • Has there been a time when you’ve had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?
  • What is the hardest part of being a teenager now? What’s the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?
  • Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.

My initial observation is that the Coalition prompts are fewer in number (five, versus seven for the Common App) but also seem to define broader topics. I would agree that in these prompts you can see how the Coalition does, in fact, aim at “lower resourced” students in that way–several of the Common Application Prompts seem slightly better for a well-resourced suburban youth, but there is also a possible overlap in the sense that substance in one can be topic in another. For example, these prompts also do overlap with the Common Application–

Common App Prompt 1 asks about “background, identity or interest or talent” that is “so meaningful” that you need to write about it; there is no direct corollary with the Coalition prompts, but on the other hand the Coalition Application’s first prompt, “a story from your life . . . [that] demonstrates your character” could overlap if it involves an interest, talent or your background and shows something important about you through describing or narrating that. But you can see an interesting difference–the second Coalition App prompt , on making a “meaningful contribution to others,” has no direct corollary in the Common Application (Hmm, is the Common App “All about You?”), unless you could have contributed to others by questioning or challenging “a belief or idea” (Common App Prompt 3), which if you are working with a group like Black Lives Matter, would clearly apply. It’s really about what your examples and content are; keep in mind that you are not “answering a question” in the way you might if an English teacher asks you to write an essay on the theme of a novel or your history teacher asks you to explain the causes of a war. College essay prompts are really aimed at defining areas you write about, and you choose the content that fits the area of the prompt.

Here is a link to the Common Application Prompts if you would like to quickly compare them with the Coalition App: Common Application Essays for 2019-2020.

Another factor to consider is word count. The Common App allows up to 650 words; the Coalition App “strongly advises” no more than 550 words. I find that 100 words is huge if an essay of 650 words is well-written.

My overall take is to tilt toward the Common Application, due to its longer college list and more generous word count. Like the Coalition Application, it does allow you to submit an essay on a topic of your choice. But if you like prompts on the Coalition Application, and you want to emphasize that you are not well-resourced,* you can use both–setting up an account on both is free–and then you could always write a Coalition App essay, and if it is excellent, submit it for the open essay prompt on the Common App. Problem solved. With a bit of extra work to set up two accounts.

*One more thing–if you are not well resourced and are concerned about paying for school, the elite, private schools, like Harvard, do supply excellent financial aid, and you should also look at things like Questbridge to see if you qualify–see here for more: Who Qualifies for Questbridge. If you qualify, you should absolutely pursue a Questbridge application.