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The Complete Guide to writing the ApplyTexas application | 2021-22

What to Write About
Brad Schiller
Brad Schiller
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Imagine you’re the president of a prestigious college that uses the ApplyTexas system — let’s call it Armadillo State. 

What are your ambitions for Armadillo? Let’s brainstorm ... 

  • Maybe you want your students to be interesting and diverse?
  • Maybe you want to hear that they’re doing exciting things in the classroom? (Original research on the cultural history of armadillo racing.)
  • Or contributing to a lively campus culture? (Started a Battle of the Bands benefit for an armadillo nonprofit.)
  • Or succeeding off-campus? (Getting a job offer after an internship at a nonprofit partnering with farmers on non-lethal armadillo-coping practices.)


Your particular measure of success may be less armadillo-focused, but we bet it would hit some of these same notes. 

This article will crack the ApplyTexas code for you by showing you just what ApplyTexas admissions officers want (hint: it’s pretty much that list we brainstormed above) and how best to deliver it via ApplyTexas’s:

  • Essays A, B, C and supplements; 
  • How your Common App essay will often work for AT (or vice versa);
  • extracurriculars/volunteer/job descriptions;
  • and recommendations.  

How do we know how admissions people think? We’re proud admissions nerds who love interviewing admissions officers, reading exposes and digging into data in our mission to be the best essay coaches and tutors we can be. 

A great ApplyTexas application is all about proof you’ll succeed in college;Think holistically and sketch a plan for your ApplyTexas application;Essay Prompts A, B and C: Showcase your strongest experiences;Essay Prompts A, B and C: 10 steps for writing a great one;Our best advice for Essay Prompts A, B and C;For each school, know what supplements they ask;Activities & Employment: Add a resume + use the “Awards” slots;Activities & Employment: Describe your impact;Recommendations: Ask people with whom you have a strong, personal relationship;Recommendations: Provide an outline of your strengths
A great ApplyTexas application is all about proof you’ll succeed in college;Think holistically and sketch a plan for your ApplyTexas application;Essay Prompts A, B and C: Showcase your strongest experiences;Essay Prompts A, B and C: 10 steps for writing a great one;Our best advice for Essay Prompts A, B and C;For each school, know what supplements they ask;Activities & Employment: Add a resume + use the “Awards” slots;Activities & Employment: Describe your impact;Recommendations: Ask people with whom you have a strong, personal relationship;Recommendations: Provide an outline of your strengths

    Reuse your essay: CommonApp usually works for Apply Texas (and vice versa)

    As essay coaches, we can say this: often, the Common App essay can just be used directly for the AT essay — provided it answers the prompt, which it usually does. And it works just as well the other way, too — you can reuse your AT essay for the CA personal statement.

    If you do this, just promise us you’ll double check that you’re fully answering all elements of each prompt. 

    A great ApplyTexas application is all about proof you’ll succeed in college

    We brainstormed above on what makes a great college: students who thrive on campus, doing a wide variety of interesting, unusual, and exciting things — all while keeping up with classes, graduating, and going on to meaningful careers. 

    With that in mind, it won’t surprise you that the admissions officers have a directive to find that kind of student. Students who’ll succeed in college and beyond

    Your goal as you write your essays and activity descriptions is to show that you have that college potential. 

    At this point, your grades and test scores (if submitting) are mostly set, so let’s focus on making the rest as strong as it can be. (Essays can 10x your admission chances, so you won’t be wasting your energy.)

    How can you show college potential in an essay? As we discussed, it’s not about flowery language or lovely turns of phrase — that didn’t come up when we thought about our dream campus.  

    Rather, we’ve found that the most effective way to think about showing your potential is to describe experiences in which you’ve shown one or more of 5 special traits that colleges love: 

    1. Drive Going above and beyond. You found a way to take your Battle of the Bands virtual when the pandemic canceled your event. The armadillos appreciated your grit. 
    2. Intellectual curiosity — You did a stellar research presentation on the armadillo life-cycle. It led you to go on a State Park-funded armadillo exploration series. You scored a summer internship at the park, and have since continued learning about local wildlife ecosystems on your own time. 
    3. Initiative Changing the status quo. You learned about an area near your school where armadillos keep getting run over by cars. You joined a campaign to fund a wildlife bridge to protect those animals, starting a chapter at your high school.  
    4. ContributionYou give back. You volunteer 5 hours a week at an animal shelter. When you found a hurt armadillo by the side of the road, you knew just where to take it (the exotic animal vet that your shelter uses).
    5. Diversity of experiencesTons of experiences fit here. In any of the examples above, the skills and knowledge you gained would probably qualify you (ex: in #4, the student knows more about animals and animal abandonment than most). But it can also be about family or personal circumstances — challenging family situations, a background from an ethnic or religious minority, an unusual upbringing. 

    Which of the 5 traits resonates most with you? Find out by creating a free Prompt account to take our 5 traits test

    Knowing which 1-3 traits are most “you” is critical because your entire ApplyTexas application should be about showing off those traits through your experiences (armadillo-related or not) that show them off. 

    Think holistically and sketch a plan for your ApplyTexas application 

    Most students tackle each piece of the application separately. But that’s not how admission readers grade them — and it’s not how you should approach them either. 

    While the details of the process vary from school to school, all schools give you one global score (usually, the “personal” score) for your essays, activity descriptions, recommendations and interviews (if you have any).

    That means that you want to create a “brand” of you — you as a student with the potential to succeed in college and contribute to campus culture, as we saw above — that comes through in each piece of your application. 

    To pull this off, you’ll need to follow our 2-part plan:

    1. Brainstorm your best experiences that show 1 or more of the 5 traits, and
    2. Match that content for each part of the ApplyTexas application — for each school to which you’re applying.

    This should take you about 1-2 hours

    The hardest part is probably brainstorming the experiences you’ve had that show off the 5 traits. You can use our free brainstorming tools (just create an account). We also recommend getting a second opinion about your most compelling experiences. This is part of our coaching and feedback process but you should get that second opinion whether or not you use our services.

    Once you’ve got your 5 traits-demonstrating experiences all in a big heap on your kitchen table (metaphorically speaking), you want to carefully arrange them to fit into each of your school’s application processes. (Unfortunately, while 150+ schools may use ApplyTexas, they generally each have unique requirements.)

    You want your very strongest experience(s) to go in your main essay, fitting other strong experiences into supplemental essays, your activity descriptions, and recommendations. Let’s take a look at each of these in turn. 

    Essay Prompts A, B and C: Showcase your strongest experiences

    Alright. ApplyTexas has 3 main essay prompts, and the good news is that all of them are great for 5 trait-demonstrating essays. That’s good because you don’t always have the choice of which of these to write.

    If you DO have a choice of which prompt to choose, don’t start by reading them. They don’t really matter. (They do matter in that you must read the prompt carefully and answer it fully. We’ll get to that below.) They don’t matter in that they shouldn’t be dictating what you’re going to write about — you should have already determined above when you:

    1. Took the 5 traits test, then
    2. Brainstormed your best trait-demonstrating experiences, then
    3. Mapped the experiences out so they fit in each school’s application.

    In other words, your top concern here is clearly and in an easy-to-follow way showing the experience that best shows your potential for college success. (Your second concern is answering the prompt fully. Your third concern is grammar and spelling. In that order.)

    Are you thinking: “Why are they harping on this? I already got it from the section above.” That’s great! It’s just that we see a ton of common mistakes. Here’s what talented, bright, smart students tend to write about that does them no favors. 

    • Let me share a lot about my interesting family background!
    • I’ve got some deep, philosophical thoughts about life. Let me muse on them in this essay, to show how deep I am.
    • If I get really artistic and writerly in this essay, I’ll win my college over with my beautiful, creative soul.

    These are mistakes not because your family isn’t interesting or because you don’t have a beautiful, creative soul. (It is! You do!) The mistake, though, is that these topics don’t paint that picture of you succeeding on campus that admission officers want to see. Remember your college? (Did you call it Armadillo College or did you go with something more reasonable?) Remember what kind of students and atmosphere you wanted on it?

    If you write an essay that shows you as:

    • Driven or
    • Intellectually curious or
    • Taking initiative or
    • Contributing or
    • Operating from a unique perspective, 

    You will indeed be making your admissions reader leap up from their desk and yell “Admit this kid!” (Good thing they’re probably WFH as this will probably startle their colleagues.)

    10 steps for writing a great Essay A, B, or C

    If you’re following along in our College Admissions Dashboard, it walks you through how to transform your best experiences into a powerful ApplyTexas essay for prompts A, B, and C. 

    If you want to just read about it, here are our 10 steps: 

    • Step 1: Understand what admissions officer want. [Check this one off! You know it by this point in our article.] 
    • Step 2: Determine what you’ll say. Brainstorm your most 5 trait-demonstrating experiences. [You’ve either done this or you’re getting more convinced it’s worth your time.]
    • Step 2a: Leave metaphors and philosophy for another day. See step 1: your admission officer is just digging around for potential for success. Don’t bury it under layers of fine poetry. Clunk them over the head with it in straightforward style. They’ll thank you (and possibly admit you!). Sure, some students can pull off creatively writing about their potential for success, but it’s super tricky and we don’t advise it. 
    • Step 2b: Focus your essay on YOU and the ACTIONS YOU’VE TAKEN. Here are some topics that can be fascinating but are rarely admissions boosting: your upbringing, family background, a traumatic event you faced, or your love of sports/music/theater. Those topics only go from “fascinating” to “admissions-boosting” if they show actions you’ve taken that relate to one or more of the 5 traits. 
    • Step 3: Closely read your prompt. You must answer it in full. In the section below, we’ll tackle how to succeed with each of the three choices. If you have a choice of prompts, go with the one(s) that let you share your best experiences. 
    • Step 4: Use an outline. Do you like saving time? Do you like doing a great job? Outlines save you time and help you do a great job.  
    • Step 5: 1 hour + 0 distractions = first draft done. Did you see that amazing Emma Thompson impersonation on TikTok? No? Well, you’re gonna have to wait. That’s right: you need to put your phone! Hide yourself in the nearest basement, library or bunker, set a 60-minute timer, and type like mad without worrying about length, spelling or grammar. You can celebrate the beautiful first draft that emerges by going on Twitch or something. (We’re admissions nerds, we don’t understand Twitch.)
    • Step 6: Get feedback — content, structure, clarity. Find someone who’ll focus on content only. Ask (politely, especially if it’s your mom): What did they learn about you? What did they not learn that they wanted to know? Where were they confused? (You can also use experts like us if you want to get the most targeted and actionable advice.)
    • Step 7: Revise based on feedback. At this stage, a revision is often a radical start-all-over-again thing. Head back to your bunker leaving your phone behind. You can do it!
    • Step 8: Your college career depends on this essay so let’s do a 2nd round of feedback. Try to stick with the same reviewer. Ask the exact same questions as before. 
    • Step 9: Revise again, focusing on clear writing. In terms of essay style, flowery language is bad; straightforward, easy-to-understand language is good. Writing clearly is harder (and more creative) than it sounds. 
    • Step 10: Finishing touches. In your final revision round, you can now work on cutting your essay down — while there’s no formal word limit, we recommend sticking to 2 pages or less. Reread the whole thing out loud so you can see exactly where things are wrong or unclear. (You’re in a bunker, right? So no one’s going to think you’re strange.) If you know someone who loves to obsess over grammar, now is the time to let them at it.

    Our best advice for Essay Prompts A, B and C

    Each of the prompts can form the basis for a winning essay. But each also has hidden pitfalls. Here’s our best advice for each one. 

    The 2021-2022 cycle prompts are: 

    • Essay A — Tell us your story. What unique opportunities or challenges have you experienced throughout your high school career that have shaped who you are today?
    • Essay B — Most students have an identity, an interest, or a talent that defines them in an essential way. Tell us about yourself.
    • Essay C — You’ve got a ticket in your hand - Where will you go? What will you do? What will happen when you get there?

    Some school requirements:

    • UT Austin — Essay A (required)
    • Texas A&M — Essay A (required)
    • Texas Tech — Choose A or B (optional) 
    • Baylor — Choose between A, B, C (required)
    • For all Texas colleges, see ApplyTexas’ search page

    Essay AWhat to do

    • Keep the focus on you and actions you’ve taken — how did you take advantage of that “unique opportunity”? Or how did you overcome that “challenge”? 
    • Answer the “shaped who you are today” part: How did that opportunity/challenge lead to the actions you take today? What kind of person are you now? (Ie: what things do you do that show who you are.)   

    Essay A — What to avoid

    • The first sentence “Tell us your story” is vague and broad. Don’t get lost there: stick to the opportunity/challenge actions you took and what you do now. 
    • The “shaped who you are today” piece is critical, but easy to flub. Don’t (1) leave it out (agh!), or (2) give it short-shrift (“I’m much more patient now.”), but rather (3) show the actions and things you do as a person shaped by the experiences in the opportunity/challenge piece (“Instead of putting the hurt armadillo in the back of my bike, I called the vets and described the situation. They told me the injury was minor, and to place it further off, allowing it to recover on its own. I’d learned that asking questions leads to better actions.”)

    Essay BWhat to do

    • Describe the actions you took to arrive at this IDENTITY; or to develop and dig deep into this INTEREST; or to practice, improve, and develop this TALENT. 
    • You want to show that you made this identity/interest/talent happen. And that you continue to take actions based on it. 
    • Ex: If your identity is “animal lover” based on an encounter with (yes!) an armadillo, well, what do you do now as an animal lover now? (You volunteer at the shelter, and advocate on animal rights issues.)
    • Ex: If you developed a talent for singing, what are you doing with it now? Are you just “there,” ready for Broadway? (Admissions readers will think: Hubris alert!) Or are there still areas you’re working to improve? Are there ambitious goals you’re setting for yourself? (Admissions readers will like this.)

    Note on choosing between an “identity,” “interest,” or “talent”: 

    • The INTEREST piece may be the best one here for writing a great essay — You can describe your Intellectual Curiosity; how you developed it; what you do in your own time to pursue it; what you’ve achieved because of it. 
    • Colleges love students who learn for learning’s sake — colleges are institutions of learning, after all. 
    • That being said, if “identity” or “talent” fit better with your experiences, don’t hesitate to choose them. Just make sure you focus on your actions within those. 

    Essay B — What to avoid

    • The pitfall here is talking about an IDENTITY that’s deeply meaningful, but that you don’t do much with. 
    • Or an INTEREST that’s dear to you, but, again, just watching old movies all the time doesn’t make you an exciting campus prospect. (Unless you host movie marathons for your family or write a blog with a growing following: “Old Movies in the age of Twitch” (Sorry, again, not fully sure what Twitch is.).) 
    • Or a TALENT that’s stupendous, but just there. You’re the best singer in your church choir — easy to rhapsodize about how much you love it, but if you don’t talk about your actions, you won’t be showing your potential for college success. 

    Essay CWhat to do

    • Tie the future accomplishment or action to one of your 5 trait-demonstrating experiences. 
    • Show what you’ve done in your high school career (focusing on you and your actions), and connect that to how you want to keep developing and achieving in future. 
    • Let’s say you want to be a biologist/activist working to protect the local ecosystems where armadillos (ok, among other animals) live. That’s great! You’ve got a dream. But honestly, who doesn’t? 
    • Make your dream seem tangible, exciting, and actually possible by talking about all steps that came before — the time you rescued the armadillo on the side of the road; how that led to volunteering at the animal shelter; how that led to reading about the local ecosystem, and joining the anti-road kill bridge campaign.   

    Essay C What to avoid

    • Talking all about your future dreams without grounding them in things you’ve done. The risk is that they won’t come off as believable or compelling.
    • Worse, you’ll leave your admissions officer with no proof of the things you’ve done and the potential you have for college success.

    Finally, the very best piece of advice we can give you for any of these prompts is: get feedback on your content. Don’t start writing before a trusted outside perspective has shared their thoughts on what you plan to say. 

    For this, you can choose a parent, a teacher, a friend or college essay experts (like us), or all of the above. If there’s one step not to skip it’s this one. If you have a really compelling experience to write up, it’s hard to go wrong — you’re going to impress that admissions reader. If you don’t, you’ll likely end up wasting a lot of time trying to get a strong essay out of weak material. 

    For each school, know what supplements they ask

    We mentioned this above. Each ApplyTexas school has its own unique requirements. Whereas you have brainstormed one list of great experiences that show your potential for college success; you have one “brand” that you want to show off to every school. 

    It thus follows that you need to tailor your list of experiences to each school, fitting them in best via the required and optional elements they allow you.

    You can access a list of every supplement for every college on your Prompt dashboard, including ones required or optional for specific majors, programs, and scholarships offered by a college.

    You can also read our 5-part strategy for great supplemental essays. While schools do sometimes ask idiosyncratic, unique questions, more often they ask common ones, such as Why Us, Why Major, and Describe an Activity.

    Activities & Employment: Add a resume + use the “Awards” slots

    You know that you need to tell your colleges all about your experiences that say you’ve got potential for college success. A great place to do this is in the activities sections. So you should be feeling really excited about this opportunity.

    However, ApplyTexas’ activities sections require some strategizing. They’ve divided non-academic activities into 3 sections:

    • Extracurriculars, Community Service & Awards [page 7]
    • Employment, Internships & Summer Activities [page 8]
    • Family Obligations [page 2]

    Within those 3 pages, your space to describe what you’ve done varies, but it’s pretty limited. In fact, it’s complicated enough that we’ve made you a chart to help your sort things out:

    ApplyTexas’ activities sections

    The point of this chart is not to make you think you should have quantity — you don’t need to fill in every slot or have an activity in each category. (In fact, the “family obligations” category is only for if they “keep you from participating in extracurricular activities.” Most people should keep this one blank, and you’ll likely have other blank categories, as well.)

    The point of this chart is to help you think through how you can use these slots to express your “brand,” and how what you’ve done aligns with 1+ of the 5 traits. In other words, quality.

    We’ll talk about how to write strong descriptions below (spoiler: it’s all about showing impact). For now, let’s talk about how to make room to fit these descriptions in.

    There are 2 main strategies here:

    First, use the “Talents, Awards, Honors” slots (which allow you up to 8 “Award, Honor, Distinction”) from page 7 to describe achievements you had in your jobs, internships, and summer activities, as well as your extracurriculars/community service. 

    For example:

    • You got a promotion at work — that’s an honor and a distinction. 
    • You got the biggest tips at your restaurant shift (and you can quantify that) — that’s a distinction.
    • Your internship gave you a special additional assignment — that’s a distinction.
    • You were voted “most punctual volunteer” at the animal shelter — that’s an honor.
    • You canoed over to rescue a stranded armadillo and the camp director noted it in her weekly email to parents — that’s an honor.

    You can be creative with these ideas. Try to think of something that could qualify as an award, honor or distinction for every activity you list. Then get someone to look them over for an outside perspective on whether you’re shining light on your impact or stretching things a little too much. 

    Second, since space is so limited, accept ApplyTexas’s offer to supplement this section with a full (one-page max) resume

    Even if you have no traditional extracurriculars because of those family obligations (for example), you can describe what they entailed in more detail — making it more clear the time involved and which of the 5 traits you demonstrated in meeting them (perhaps grit aka drive). 

    By including a resume, you also give yourself space for unconventional, but potentially meaningful activities, such as learning on your own (trading stocks, taking a MOOC) or creative projects (blog, YouTube channel). 

    Resumes can be challenging to write — they have their own lay-out and stylistic conventions. We recommend asking a teacher or writing coach for support. But showing that you have interests and impact outside of the classroom is so critical to a strong college application that it’s worth the extra effort. (Plus, you’ll need a resume for internship and job searches very soon, so why not get a headstart?)

    For more on what makes a great activity (and a great activity description) take a look at our complete guide to the Common App Activity List. Even though there are differences with ApplyTexas, the basics hold true. 

    Activities & Employment: Describe your impact

    We’ve written in depth on how to write up your descriptions. The most important thing is to understand what the admissions officer is reading them for — evidence that you’ll succeed in college and contribute to the campus. 

    If you just want the gist, our style advice boils down to: 

    • Use strong verbs and short phrases. 
    • Quantify your impact where possible. 
    • If there’s any ambiguity, explain what the activity was and what you did. 

    More important than style is content. We recommend spending the time to brainstorm everything you’ve done in high school. Be creative about what you consider an activity. Write something up for each activity and come back to it a few times (you’ll keep thinking of new things to add). Ask for feedback from parents, teachers or coaches

    Then sort your list based on these 3 criteria: 

    1. How impressive is the description? — Descriptions with big impacts or awards should come first.
    2. Where do you have leadership roles?  
    3. How much time have you devoted to it? (Per week and over what period) 

    This applies both for the ApplyTexas activity lists as well as for your resume. 

    Recommendations: Provide an outline of your strengths

    Whether required or optional, recommendations can do a lot for your application. 

    As you were mapping out the experiences you wanted to highlight to the admission committee, it’s very possible that there was one piece you couldn’t quite fit anywhere. Asking a recommender to talk about that piece could be a great way to fit it in. 

    Similarly, you can think of recommenders as a chance to emphasize experiences that you really want highlighted in the admissions officers’ minds. 

    What we’re saying is that you should take charge of the recommendation process. Offer to write them an outline if they’d like one. (Obviously, if they say no, don’t force it.) More likely, they’ll be grateful. 

    Your recommender’s outline: Using your brainstormed list of experiences as a guide, provide 2-3 specific examples that the recommender can include. Categories to think about include:

    • Your academic success and history
    • Any special circumstances 
    • Areas in which you’ve made an impact
    • And any distinctive qualities of yours — the ability to share a few memorable anecdotes.

    After all the hard experience brainstorming and essay writing and activity describing you’ve done by now, writing up this outline should be relatively easy. 

    It will also keep your recommendations from being the bland things they usually are — they’re often vague, impersonal and filled with cliches. 

    Speaking of which, the other thing you can do to improve your recommendations is quite simple: choose a teacher, coach or guidance counselor (or even a supervisor) who has a strong personal relationship with you. The better they know you, the more likely they’ll write a vivid letter that makes you shine.

    For more advice on college admissions, check out:


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