This guide takes the mystery out of what makes a great college application essay, clearly shows you the different types of essays (basically there are three) and coaches you through the ways to approach topics, generate ideas, and write essays. This guide is sure to make the writing process an enjoyable experience—just take a look at our “Approaching Personal Essays” section, one of many that will help you write better essays!
This guide, created by the professionals at TIPPS who have helped students gain admittance to the world’s best schools, gives you specific advice on the Do’s and Don’ts of college application essay writing and insight into how college admissions officers view your essays. If you need any further information, personal assistance, or coaching, do not hesitate to call us! We will be very happy to help you with this very important step of your college application process.
College application essays are not like the English papers and essays you have written in high school. If you are like most students about to apply to college, you have probably been thinking about your college application essays, and they may seem quite daunting to you. Once you know more about college application essays, what admissions officers are looking for, and what to write about and what not to write about, you will feel less overwhelmed and more in control. This guide will take many of the challenges out of the essay writing process. To help you get started, let’s take a look at three important topics: why colleges require essays, the importance of your essays, and what the admissions officers are looking for in your essays.
Colleges, and more specifically admissions officers who hold the key to your admission to college, refer to your essays to gain insight into your personality and see how well you fit the school. Your essays are also used to determine whether or not you can write well and support your ideas through reasoning, and thus show potential for handling writing academic papers.
When it comes to applying to college, lots of things play a role in how competitive you are. Your high school grades, standardized test scores, and extra-curricular activities all play a role in how a college views your application. Your essays do too. Most colleges and universities agree that while grades are a deciding factor as to who gets admitted, if there are students who are equally qualified academically, a great essay can make an applicant stand out, and thus gain admission. Take the essay prompt like the one for the University of Illinois: In no more than 300 words, tell us something about yourself that isn't covered elsewhere in this application, some interest or experience of yours that you think the University of Illinois should know about as part of the admissions review. This prompt is clear evidence that your college application essays play a role in your getting admitted to college.
There are three main qualities college admissions officers look for in essays. Self-revelation. Candor. Organization. In other words, show the admissions officer who you are, be sincere, and organize your writing well. It goes without saying that correct grammar and word usage are expected.
You should also keep in mind what college admissions officers are not looking for. Do not try to impress college admissions officers with essays about trips to exclusive destinations, embellished accounts of what you did on your internship at a fancy Wall Street firm, or try to be someone you are not. Admissions officers can tell when an essay is contrived, written to impress, or doesn’t have an authentic feel to it. They will not be impressed by such approaches and most likely your essay will end up in the trash heap.
A note before we go further—we will not present full essays in this app, as there is no specific “right way” to write an essay; there are many ways to go about it. In other words, we have not included full essays so as to avoid stifling great ideas or misleading our users into thinking that there is a certain style, topic, or tone that should be used, and to encourage the users of this app to write essays that are personal and original.
Here is a list of Don’ts that admissions officers do not like to see in essays:
Describing the trip abroad
“We visited some lovely churches in the north of Italy and I discovered another culture, I really liked the tiramisu in the cafes in Florence.”
Writing about a controversial topic to impress the officer with how smart you are, but instead of impressing, you just re-hash the same old arguments seen in global media.
“All in all, the tension in the Middle East has a long and complicated history, a long and complicated history, and until the two sides really sit down and talk things over, a solution may never be found.”
Trying to shock the admissions officer just so you stand out
“I grabbed the stick and began to defend myself.”
Topics such as the death of your pet, or the relationship you have with your boyfriend or girlfriend
“A relationship could be described as two pillars that hold up the roof of a home. That is exactly what my relationship with my boyfriend is like…”
Word usage that is used to impress the admissions officer
“The two weeks I spent as an intern at the local health clinic were salubrious for my self-development.” (No need to use “salubrious” here; “beneficial” would do perfectly.)
Admissions officers dislike profanity, clichés, bad humor, incorrect grammar, and spelling mistakes. Remember your essays should show that you are mature and ready for college!
You may have the idea that all college admissions officers have been teaching chemistry or English literature since your parents were in college, wear glasses and corduroy trousers, and don’t have much of a life outside academics. Wrong. While some have spent years in academics, others may be recent Ph.D. graduates, have a variety of backgrounds, may have travelled to interesting places to do research, but may never have been in a chemistry lab in their life. What we are saying here is that admissions officers come from all walks of life and their objective is to create a community of students who have cultural and intellectual diversity as well as the potential to be successful academically, professionally, and personally. So, when it comes to writing your essays, don’t make the mistake of tailoring your essay towards the chemistry professor who has taught for twenty-five years. Be yourself in your essays, be sincere, and the admissions officer reading them is sure to find your essay engaging.
Now let’s take a look at the different types of essay prompts, and how to approach and write them.
Essays can be broadly classified into three groups:Personal Essays
- Personal Essays
- “Why” Essays
- Less Common or Creative Essays
Essays that focus on you, or in other words, personal essays, can come in several forms. You will probably have to write a personal statement such as the one for the Common App. There are several personal statement prompts in the Common App, one of them is: Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.
Another example of a personal essay is the UPenn short essay: Introduce yourself to Penn. Our aim is to better understand how your identity, talents, and background guide your day-to-day experiences.
Colleges may ask you to write about yourself by using a different approach such as the prompt NYU had: Write a haiku, limerick, or short (eight lines or less) poem that best represents you (500 characters).
The essay prompt that asks about why you want to study a particular major is also another form of personal essay. The essay prompt that follows is an example of such essays. Please write an essay describing how you developed an interest in studying engineering.
Before you even start to brainstorm for ideas, you need to analyze what the essay prompt is asking you to do. Let’s look again at the UPenn short essay:
Introduce yourself to Penn. Our aim is to better understand how your identity, talents, and background guide your day-to-day experiences.
“Guide” is the word you need to pay attention to. Upenn wants to know how your background guides you in daily life and, going deeper, how your background guides you to make decisions that shape your daily experiences.
Another essay prompt such as one for the personal statement in the Common App is:
Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.
Again you need to understand what the essay prompt is asking you to do. The key words here are “evaluate,” and “impact on you.” With this type of essay prompt you need to evaluate an experience, not merely re-tell it, then delve into how the experience affected you. You don’t need to have been through a super demanding experience or have climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro for material to write about. A student who was admitted to a top school wrote about how her summer internship in the mayor’s office in a small town enabled her to challenge some of her assumptions. In other words, the experience is just a vessel through which you show the admissions officer what you want them to know about you. Your mission is to show the admissions officer how the experience impacted you, in what ways, and why.
So, now we have looked at some essay prompts for essays about you, in other words personal essays, and before we move on to the writing process, let’s remember the three main qualities that need to be in essays that focus on you—Self-revelation. Candor. Organization. Let’s look into them further.
In essays about you, self-revelation is critical. However, in a personal statement what you must avoid is trying to explain everything about yourself or you will end up with what college admissions officers call ‘the list essay’—the type of essay that is basically nothing more than a list of what you did, or your achievements, and says very little about you. It is much better to focus on one event or experience as that gives you the opportunity to show who you are in depth. What you should do is tell a story about yourself, for example reveal how you grew from your experience, delve into and relate how you learned something new about yourself, and share a story about yourself that only you can tell.
Candor, as we mentioned previously, as well as honesty, is also important when it comes to your essays. With candor and openness, you will be able to relate a story about yourself that only you can tell. A guidance counselor at a large high school once explained what it means to write such a story; if twenty students all participated in the same activity, then wrote about their experiences on sheets of paper with no names on them, and if the counselor randomly chose an essay to read and could tell who wrote the essay, then the essay was successful, as the student had relayed a story about him or herself that only he or she could tell. Therefore, candor and being open and honest about who you are do a lot to help make your essay more personal.
Organization is also what admissions officers look for in essays. You need to organize your essay well. Make sure your writing is cohesive, and that you do not jump from one topic to another. Engage your readers. Remember you are writing for an audience – so when it comes to revising, make sure that you really have communicated what you meant to say. If you feel you have some awkward paragraphs or phrases, and that you haven’t really got your point across, work on your writing until it has clarity. Of course, when you do the final revision, check for redundant phrases, incorrect grammar, and spelling mistakes!
Writing is really just about thinking, putting thoughts down on paper, and then revising to make sure you have really communicated your thoughts clearly.
So, the next thing to do is start thinking. Grab two pieces of paper. Ask yourself this important question – What do I want the university to know about me? Make notes on one piece of paper about your character, your passions, your background, your point of view about something and the like. Write down everything you can think of. However, avoid creating a brag list of achievements. Put that piece of paper to the side and take the second one.
On the second piece of paper, you will address the essay prompt. If we take the essay prompt from the Common App about how an experience impacted you, start by brainstorming with a list of experiences. Think of extra-curricular activities, part-time jobs, family, community or school events, changes in lifestyle, or challenges you met, write them down and make notes of how the experiences affected you. Keep in mind that good stories are not always ones about making great achievements and a good story does not necessarily have to be a happy one. In other words, note down how you grew, how you might have been challenged, how you handled a change in your life, how your point of view was affected, or what you learned.
Now take a look at the two pieces of paper and you will probably see connections between what you want the colleges to know about you, and the events and experiences that helped shape who you are as far as your character, outlook and culture goes. Now select one thing from your list of what you want the college to know about you, and pair it with experiences that are connected to it. This will give you a good foundation on which you can build a great essay. By focusing on one aspect of who you are, you will likely see that a lot of the angst that comes with writing the personal essay disappears, and your ideas will start to flow.
Let’s look at an example of a student who applied to college last year. In his list of what he wanted the college to know about him, he had written that in the last two years he had become more open-minded. On the second piece of paper about his experiences, he had notes about how he began to read different books while spending a few weeks house sitting for his grandparents because he picked up a book to read from his grandmother’s bookshelf. He also had notes about meeting his grandparent’s neighbors from South America who introduced him to a different culture. He then realized that those weeks of house sitting affected him as he returned to school the following fall ready to try new activities, ready to read a greater variety of books, and to diversify his friendships. That led to his developing new interests, learning a new language and even to his encouraging others to become more open to new ideas, activities, and ways of life.
Sometimes universities may ask to write about why you want to study your particular major at their school. Here is an essay prompt from Princeton University: Please write an essay describing why you are interested in studying engineering, any experiences or exposure to engineering you have had, and how do you think the programs in engineering offered at Princeton suit your particular interest? Other essay prompts may ask you to write about why a particular college, or university appeals to you. The University of Chicago has a similar prompt: How does the University of Chicago, as you know it now, satisfy your desire for a particular kind of learning, community, and future? Please address with some specificity your own wishes and how they relate to UChicago.
The first thing to do, as with personal essays, is to understand the question and what the university is asking you to write about. Let’s look at the Duke University prompt:
If you are applying to Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, please discuss why you consider Duke a good match for you. Is there something in particular at Duke that attracts you? Please limit your response to one or two paragraphs.
Notice that this is not an essay about why you want to go to college. This is an essay about why Duke is a good match for you and specific things that attract you to Duke. Make sure you have researched the school thoroughly—gain insight into the approach to learning the school uses, the student culture, and the programs offered at the school – so you know exactly what compels you to apply to the school.
So, once you know what excites you about a school, how do you go about explaining that Duke, for example, is a good match for you? How do you avoid being too generic? The answer is you make your essay personal and specific. So, you start with you.
As you did when you wrote your personal statement, take two pieces of paper. On one of them, the first thing to do is write it down, by drawing on your experiences, observations, ambitions, and your objectives for college. These could include what you hope to do at college such as explore your interests and passions, participate in research programs, take classes on subjects you have not studied before to expand your perspective, join student organizations, develop your strengths in both your academic and personal life, and the like. Now, take another look at what you have written and get specific. For example, if you have a passion for physics and are really interested in studying how subatomic particles behave, note that down. If you enjoyed being in the drama club at school and now want to take things further and develop your public speaking skills, write that down. Name what your objectives are for college.
Now take the second piece of paper. Make notes—specific notes of what makes you excited about the school you are applying to. Perhaps you would like to take classes from a certain physics professor who has done research on subatomic particles. Perhaps there is some aspect of the music theory courses that you passionately want to get involved in. Perhaps you really like delving into different angles of a topic. Then, if you are applying to Duke, the way Duke designs its cluster courses would appeal to you. Perhaps you know you can gain and share a lot by working with the community to build your skills. Then the Duke Engage Program would appeal to you. Once you have defined what it is about a school that excites you, it is time to connect you with the school.
Take the two pieces of paper and you will likely see where you and the school overlap. Those are the areas on which you should focus in order to show why a school is a good fit for you.
Take a look at the following two paragraphs. In which paragraph does the student connect herself to the school better? In which paragraph does the student get specific?
The way Duke teaches is why I find Duke appealing. I would love to attend Duke because the FOCUS program sounds interesting. Studying different aspects of a topic would widen my views. The FOCUS program would let me learn about how one concept can have different interpretations. Being able to interpret an idea in a different way has always been advantageous for me, therefore, I know I can benefit from the FOCUS program at Duke.
This summer, I started thinking about different concepts of freedom due to my internship in a law firm and the literature from the romantic period I was reading for my summer project. I began to think about what freedom meant to different people in various circumstances. The concept of personal freedom of expression that the Romantic writers supported made me think about how our laws today define personal freedom. Therefore, when I learned about Duke’s FOCUS program, and the cluster courses offered, I was hooked. I wanted to know more, so I contacted a recent Duke graduate who completed the FOCUS program. I know at Duke I would be able to explore different aspects of a concept, question and share ideas with others. At Duke, I will be able to refine my thoughts on an individual basis, but share them with others through stimulating courses, and that is what greatly excites me about Duke.
It is clear that in the second paragraph the student shows how he or she connects with the school, and is more specific about why. By defining why you connect with the school, and how your objectives are parallel with what the school offers is precisely how you can show the school what appeals to you about the school, and why it is a good fit for you. Moreover, if you have specifically and passionately connected yourself to the school, your essay will have your VOICE in it – which is exactly what college admissions officers love to see in an essay.
Don’t ever write a generic essay hoping it will cover essays for several schools. Generic essays are those that speak in general terms. An example of a generic statement follows: “The liberal arts foundation at your school will enable me to explore my interests.” This statement is generic because any school with a liberal arts program would allow a student to explore interests. Generic essays lack detail, passion, and tend to be vague. Essays that target specific schools always have a sense of authenticity about them. Admissions officers can tell if your essay was hashed out for a number of schools and admissions officers will not give your essay serious consideration if it is generic.
Don’t rush your essay. Put real time and effort into it. An essay rushed the night before the application is due will lack the refinement an essay written over time has. Admissions officers will wonder how serious you are about a school if you submit a rushed unpolished essay.
Don’t tell the school what it already knows about itself. For example, don’t tell the University of Illinois that they are a top engineering school, they already know that. Avoid sentences like “Illinois is a top engineering school. In fact, the engineering programs and facilities at Illinois are renown. I was to attend a top engineering school…”
Tufts University as well as The University of Chicago always have some great essay prompts. Here is an essay prompt from Tufts University: Kermit the Frog famously lamented “It’s not easy being green.” Do you agree?
Here are two from The University of Chicago:
Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust," wrote the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail." What is "human personality?" Is it obvious what uplifts and what degrades it? Can law be justified on the basis of it? We want to hear your thoughts on justice as it relates to this "human personality.”
In the spirit of adventurous inquiry, pose a question of your own. If your prompt is original and thoughtful, then you should have little trouble writing a great essay. Draw on your best qualities as a writer, thinker, visionary, social critic, sage, citizen of the world, or future citizen of the University of Chicago; take a little risk, and have fun.
Put yourself in the place of the admissions officer. Your job is to offer admittance to mature and intellectually curious students. Ask yourself what the admissions officer hopes to see in your essay. The answer is not difficult to find – it’s right there in the U Chicago prompt—draw on your best qualities as a writer, thinker—the admissions officer wants to see your ability to think, shown through how you write.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that such unusual essays give you license for writing that is not of academic standard. When working with such essay prompts, you need to remember the three most important qualities that your essays should have—Self-Revelation. Candor. Organization. Reveal your thoughts in such essays with sophistication and sincerity, and make sure you organize your essay well!
The summer before your senior year is when you should start working on essays. Never rush your essays. You should keep deadlines in mind such as the Early Application deadline for the Common App.
Some schools have a cut-off point for the word or character limit for essays and the school’s application will not allow you to write more than the allowed number or words or characters. Other schools may ask you to write (for example) approximately 250 words. We at TIPPS recommend you stay close to what the school requests, say between 220 and 280 words for an essay prompt that asks for approximately 250 words.
If you have bad grades, do not attempt to explain them if you feel the teacher was unfair, or if you had issues with other students. You will come across as a complainer if you do.
If you had a large life-style adjustment to make such as parental divorce, a move to a new state, or a serious illness, and were adversely affected by the changes in your life, then you have a valid reason to explain your performance.
Common App Website: www.commonapp.org
UCAS Website: www.ucas.ac.uk
Yes, they are. However, we advise you to see essay prompts as an opportunity to show the admissions officer who you are. Therefore, you should seriously consider tackling optional essays too!
You are now well aware that college application essays are not your average essay for English class. You also should keep in mind that you should view your college application essays as an opportunity, NOT a laborious task. Thus, there needs to be a sense of excitement and passion in your essays. Don’t write about a topic that does not excite you – it will certainly not excite the admissions officer reading your essay. If you write about a topic that you are truly enthusiastic about, your essay will be personal and authentic. In other words, your “voice” will come through, which is what college admissions officers love to “hear” in essays.
If you need any further information, personal assistance, or coaching, do not hesitate to call us! We will be very happy to help you with this very important step of your college application process.
IT’S SIMPLE... IF YOU KNOW THESE WORDS, YOU’LL GET HIGHER SCORES!