How Important Is It? A 2006 report found that while grades, admission tests, and class rankremain the top factors in the college admission decision, a majority ofcolleges and universities consider the essay to be a key factor indetermining which academically qualiﬁed students they would choose. In other words, when all else is equal between competing applicants, acompelling essay can make the difference. A powerful, well-writtenessay can also tip the balance for a marginal applicant. College admission ofﬁcers look to the essay for evidence that a studentcan write well and support her ideas with logical arguments. They alsowant to know something about the personality of the student.
The “You” PromptExample: "UV values a diverse student body. What contributions might youmake to our campus community outside of academic achievement?"Positive: This type offers you a chance to reveal something about yourselfother than grades and test scores.Danger: The open-ended nature of these questions can lead to an essay thatsall over the place.Some tips:• Focus on just a few things and avoid the urge to "spill everything"• develop one small SPECIFIC event, person, place, or feeling with a lot of narrative and speciﬁcs• Do not to simply write out your resume in paragraph form• This is a "tell us a story" question. You should tell a story that only you can
The “Why Us” PromptExample: "How did you become interested in American University?"Positive: This provides a focus for the essay; that is, why you chose thisparticular school or path—and the answer to that will (hopefully) be clear.Danger: Any factual errors in the essay will reveal that you really haventthought deeply about your choice.Some tips:• Make absolutely sure you know their subject well.• Do not to go overboard with ﬂattery. Sound sincere but not ingratiating.• An upside to this type of question is that, while working on the essay, you might realize that you are not a match for the college—and its better to know that sooner than later
The Creative PromptExample: "Sharing intellectual interests is an important aspect ofuniversity life. Describe an experience or idea that you ﬁnd intellectuallyexciting, and explain why."Positive: This gives you an opportunity to convey your personality/views.Danger: You may take the "creative" aspect of the question as license to beobscure, pretentious, or undisciplined in their writing.Some tips:• It is important that the writing be informed. For example, you should not write about a fantasy meeting with a famous artist and get the titles of his paintings wrong.• Use common sense ("creative" doesnt mean eccentric or self-indulgent).• Do not to write about high-minded topics or exotic locales simply to impress the reader.
What Your Topic Says...Your Preferences: Are you an arts person or a hard-facts science type?Your Values: The person who drives a beat-up, rusty, 1971 Volkswagen ismaking a statement about how she spends money and what she cares about. Inchoosing, you indicate what matters to you and how you perceive yourself.Your Thought Process: Are you whimsical, a person who chooses on impulse?Or are you methodical and careful, a person who gathers backgroundinformation before choosing? Questions about you and about career andcollege reﬂect these choosing patterns. Even a question about a national issuecan show your particular thinking style, level of intelligence, and insight. Some of the best essays—the memorable and unusual ones—are about everyday topics that are just more focused. Essays about your family, soccer team, trip to France, parents divorce, or your twin can be effective as long as theyre focused and speciﬁc: a single Christmas Eve church service, a meal of boiled tongue in Grenoble, or dipping ice cream on a summer job.
Helpful Hints... The Do’s Do be concise, speciﬁc, personal, and honest. Surprise the reader, go beyond the obvious.✓ Do use wit and imagination, but dont try to be funny if thats not your personality. Many essays backﬁre when the writer stretched for humor but what came out was plain silly.✓ Do proofread and then ask someone else to proofread for you. Careless mistakes will drive the admissions board crazy.✓ Be meticulous with format, mechanics, and style... Keep it to one page, single spaced in length✓ Keep your focus NARROW and PERSONAL; your essay must prove a single point or thesis.✓ Answer the essay topic EXACTLY as it is given.✓ Be speciﬁc- develop your main idea with vivid and speciﬁc facts, events, quotations, examples, etc✓ Write in ﬁrst or third person only- NO “YOU” (unless in dialogue)
Helpful Hints... The Don’tsDont be cynical, trite, pretentious, or maudlin.Don’t tell them what you think they want to hear... bring somethingnew to the table!Don’t use 50 words when 5 will doDon’t re-write your Activity list/resume or repeat what is includedin other parts of the application by making the essay a secondresume. Go behind the details they already know. For example, youcan describe why membership in an activity was signiﬁcant in yourgrowth.
Bad College Essays...CRINGE-INDUCING METAPHOR: College applicants abuse metaphor like a piñata... theydescribe the ﬁne qualities of random nothings: roller coasters, beanbag chairs, ChunkyMonkey ice cream, the McRib sandwich and their grandmother’s knitting basket. Then, in astunning conclusion, the essay reveals that all along -– all along! -– the object has been aparallelism to the applicant’s own character and disposition. Fascinating? Not so much.REFORMED CONVICT ESSAY: This is a favorite for students with marginal grades anda sudden interest in college, based on their parents’ promise of a new car uponacceptance. Having been raised to value honesty, but never actually having practicedmuch, these students wrongly assume that a full-blown confession will neutralize a highschool transcript full of C’s. But unless the parents can afford that new car AND SuckerUniversity’s full tuition price, a repentant college essay based on lessons learned from“sexting” probably won’t make it into the yes pile.MOTHER THERESA ESSAY: Only slightly more annoying than the Reformed ConvictEssay is the exaggerated, volunteer contribution essay. Sure, some student volunteersreally do amazing things in their communities. But the vast majority spend half aSaturday playing with the cute dogs at the local shelter, then use the experience toimpress colleges.
Bad College Essays...DEAD DOG ESSAY: It doesn’t always have to be a dog. Sometimes it’s agoldﬁsh, a hamster, Great Uncle Albert. This is the essay that pits lifeagainst death, in an effort to exemplify growth, or courage or triumph ofspirit. I know this advice seems unfair but dead dog essays rarely deliverthe kind of William Wallace, face-paint-speech punch that their authorsintend.FREE VERSE ESSAY: Despite thinking themselves wise to the pitfall ofgimmicks, the perpetrators of the Free Verse Essay lapse into the mostgimmicky mistake possible. They ignore the rules. They are, after all,tomorrow’s artists, lawyers and revolutionaries. Instead of three pages,they write three words. Instead of an essay, they write a poem. They writeentirely in acronyms, as a commentary on society’s frayed, digitaldiscourse. They use crayons, as a commentary on wax. Their reasons aretheir own. And so too is their unplanned denial of admission.
Bad College Essays...JERSEY SHORE ESSAY: This is the one where students are asked to discuss aperson they admire. And about 5,000 wise alecks think they’re being ironic byciting Mike the Situation, or the Kardashian sisters or some other walking punchline. They might expect that admissions committees, like their 11th grade Englishteachers, will swoon over their thoughtful use of topic sentences and supportingarguments, while ignoring the fact that Mike the Situation is a schmuck. But this isnot a good tactic.WIZARD OF OZ ESSAY: This is the essay that state schools receive from goodstudents who are all tuckered out after writing serious essays for the colleges theyactually want to attend. Luckily, since these students have spent two years touringbigger, fancier schools in faraway places, they can fall back on some patch oftruth, as they chronicle the adventure of their college selection process. In the end,they’ll say they realize, everything they need is waiting in their own backyard. It’sas sweetly phony as a Sarah Palin wink. But what the hell? It’s called “safetyschool” for a reason
Some Creative PromptsU of Chicago: Find XTufts U: The human narrative is replete with memorable characters like Americas Paul Revere, ancientGreeces Perseus or the Fox Spirits of East Asia. Imagine one of humanitys storied ﬁgures is alive andworking in the world today. Why does Joan of Arc have a desk job? Would Shiva be a general or adiplomat? Is Chewbacca trapped in a zoo? In short, connect your chosen ﬁgure to the contemporaryworld and imagine the life he/she/it might lead.Brandeis U: If you could choose to be raised by robots, dinosaurs, or aliens, who would you pick? Why?Kenyon College: Along the edge of ancient maps it used to say, "Here there be monsters." What does itsay at the edge of your map, and why does it say that?Brown U: French novelist Anatole France wrote: "An education isnt how much you have committed tomemory, or even how much you know. Its being able to differentiate between what you do know andwhat you dont." What dont you know?California Institute of Technology: Caltech students have long been known for their quirky sense ofhumor and creative pranks and for ﬁnding unusual ways to have fun. What is something that you ﬁnd funor humorous?