How Important Is It?
A 2006 report found that while grades, admission tests, and
class rank remain the top factors in the college admission
decision, a majority of colleges and universities consider the essay
to be a key factor in determining which academically qualified
students they would choose.
In other words, when all else is equal between competing
applicants, a compelling essay can make the difference. A
powerful, well-written essay can also tip the balance for a
College admission officers look to the essay for evidence that a
student can write well and support her ideas with logical
arguments. They also want to know something about the
personality of the student.
Example: "UV values a diverse student body. What contributions
might you make to our campus community outside of academic
Positive: This type offers you a chance to reveal something about
yourself other than grades and test scores.
Danger: The open-ended nature of these questions can lead to an
essay that's all over the place.
•Focus on just a few things and avoid the urge to "spill
•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 "tell us a story" question. You should tell a story that
only you can
The “You” Prompt
Example: "How did you become interested in American University?"
Positive: This provides a focus for the essay; that is, why you chose
this particular school or path—and the answer to that will
(hopefully) be clear.
Danger: Any factual errors in the essay will reveal that you really
haven't thought deeply about your choice.
•Make absolutely sure you know their subject well.
•Do not to go overboard with flattery. Sound sincere but not
•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 it's better to know that sooner than later
The “Why Us” Prompt
Example: "Sharing intellectual interests is an important aspect of
university life. Describe an experience or idea that you find
intellectually exciting, and explain why."
Positive: This gives you an opportunity to convey your
Danger: You may take the "creative" aspect of the question as
license to be obscure, pretentious, or undisciplined in their writing.
•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" doesn't mean eccentric or self-
•Do not to write about high-minded topics or exotic locales simply
to impress the reader.
The Creative Prompt
YOUR PREFERENCES: Are you an arts person or a hard-facts science
YOUR VALUES: If you choose to drive a beat up old car and donate the
rest of your paycheck to charity, that says something about you. In
choosing your topic, you indicate what matters to you and how you
THE WAY YOU THINK: Are you whimsical, impulsive? Or are you
methodical and careful? Questions about you and about their college
reflect your choosing patterns. Even a question about a national issue
can show your particular thinking style, level of intelligence, and
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 they're focused and specific: a single Christmas Eve church
service, a meal of boiled tongue in Grenoble, or dipping ice cream on a
What Your Topic Says...
Be concise, specific, personal, and honest.
✓ Answer the essay topic EXACTLY as it is given.
✓ Keep your focus NARROW and PERSONAL; your essay must
prove a single point or thesis.
✓ Be specific- develop your main idea with vivid and specific facts,
events, quotations, examples, etc
✓ Do use wit and imagination, but don't try to be funny if that's not
your personality. Many essays backfire when the writer stretched for
humor but what came out was plain silly.
✓ Proofread, then ask someone else to proofread. Then revise, and
proofread again. Careless mistakes will drive the admissions board
✓ Be meticulous with format, mechanics, and style... Keep it to one
page, single spaced in length.
Helpful Hints... The Do’s
Don't be cynical, trite, pretentious, or maudlin.
Do not use “you” or “got” or “like”
Don’t tell them what you think they want to hear... bring
something new to the table!
Don’t use 50 words when 5 will do
Don’t re-write your Activity list/resume or repeat what is
included in other parts of the application by making the essay
a second resume. Go behind the details they already know.
For example, you can describe why membership in an activity
was significant in your growth.
Helpful Hints... The Don’ts
Bad College Essays...CRINGE-INDUCING METAPHOR: Do not describe the fine qualities of
random nothings (roller coasters, beanbag chairs, Chunky Monkey ice
cream, the McRib sandwich and their grandmother’s knitting basket) then,
in a stunning conclusion, reveal that all along -– all along! -– the object has
been a parallelism to the applicant’s own character and disposition.
Fascinating? Not so much.
REFORMED CONVICT ESSAY: This is a favorite for students with
marginal grades and a sudden interest in college, based on their parents’
promise or pressure. Students wrongly assume that a full-blown confession
will neutralize a high school transcript full of C’s. 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 Convict Essay is the exaggerated, volunteer contribution essay.
Sure, some student volunteers really do amazing things in their
communities. But the vast majority spend half a Saturday playing with the
Bad College Essays...
DEAD DOG ESSAY: It doesn’t always have to be a dog. Sometimes
it’s a goldfish, a hamster, Great Uncle Albert. This is the essay that
pits life against death, in an effort to exemplify growth, or courage or
triumph of spirit. I know this advice seems unfair but dead dog
essays rarely deliver the kind of William Wallace, face-paint-speech
punch that their authors intend.
FREE VERSE ESSAY: Despite thinking themselves wise to the pitfall
of gimmicks, the perpetrators lapse into the most gimmicky 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
write entirely in acronyms, as a commentary on society’s frayed,
digital discourse. They use crayons, as a commentary on wax. Their
reasons are their own. And so too is their unplanned denial of
Bad College Essays...
JERSEY SHORE ESSAY: This is the one where students are asked to discuss a
person they admire. And about 5,000 wise alecks think they’re being ironic by citing Mike
the Situation, or the Kardashian sisters or some other walking punch line. They might
expect that admissions committees will swoon over their thoughtful use of topic
sentences and supporting arguments, while ignoring the fact that Mike the
Situation is a schmuck. But this is not a good tactic.
WIZARD OF OZ ESSAY: This is the essay that state schools receive from good
students who are all tuckered out after writing serious essays for the colleges they
actually want to attend. Luckily, since these students have spent two years touring
bigger, fancier schools in faraway places, they can fall back on some patch of truth, 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’s as sweetly phony as a
Sarah Palin wink. But what the hell? It’s called “safety school” for a reason.
PromptsU of Chicago: Find X
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 it say at the edge of your map, and why does it say that?
Brown U: French novelist Anatole France wrote: "An education isn't how much you
have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It's being able to
differentiate between what you do know and what you don't." What don't you
California Institute of Technology: Caltech students have long been known for their
quirky sense of humor and creative pranks and for finding unusual ways to have
fun. What is something that you find fun or humorous?
EssaysUsing 250-650 words...
Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical
dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.
Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its
importance to you.
Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that
Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art,
music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.
A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds
much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an
experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college
community, or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to