Writing the College Application Essay
Writing the College Application Essay
There are several types of information that colleges will be receiving about you. The application tells them your name, address and various facts. The transcript shows your choice of classes, grades and some test scores. A résumé will show a list of extra-curricular activities, and recommendation letters will present teachers’ and counselors’ observations about you at Fairview. The college essay is your opportunity to “talk” directly to the college’s admissions committee and speak for yourself about your life, your goals, passions, values, strengths, talents, and sometimes, about the obstacles you have faced. It is here that the admissions committee evaluates the effectiveness of your writing and gains insight into the real person behind the facts: you. Regardless of the specific questions, all college application essay questions want you to reveal who are you and what makes you unique.
Colleges with Higher Acceptance Rates - Institutions with more generous admissions standards typically require one essay that is fairly general in nature. Examples of some essays one could expect are:
- A sense of community is an extremely important aspect of a college campus. Please describe how your attitudes and actions towards others will contribute to a welcoming, respectful, and enriching environment for all members of the CU-Boulder community.
- Or, see the examples below of essay topics for colleges with higher acceptance rates.
Most Competitive Colleges - In general, the more competitive the college, the more the essays are weighed. A mediocre essay will probably not eliminate a student from consideration; however, a poor essay may negatively affect chances for acceptance. An outstanding essay, on the other hand, may provide an admissions officer with a reason to accept a student with weaker test scores and grades. For colleges where admission is very competitive, usually more than one essay is required. Examples of writing topics that might be found are:
- Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.
- Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you and describe that influence.
- Or, see the examples below of essay topics for the most competitive colleges.
Timing – When Should You Start?
Begin early! Your junior year is the appropriate time to begin thinking about what you would like to say. Even if you do not know the specific questions, you can start developing a personal statement and trying out topic ideas. Exact essay questions can be downloaded when the latest college applications come out in the summer, but the questions often remain the same for several years.
College Essay Topics - Examples
First Category (Colleges with Higher Acceptance Rates)
1. A sense of community is an extremely important aspect of a college campus. Please describe how your attitudes and actions toward others will contribute to a welcoming, respectful, and enriching environment for all members of the CU-Boulder community. In addition, feel free to attach comments that would be useful in the evaluation process. Include information such as your educational aspirations, travel and work experience, creative talents, factors affecting your academic record, and any other information that might be of use and interest to the admissions Committee. (University of Colorado, Boulder)
2. The personal essay provides an opportunity to get to know you better. The essay should be well-written, focused, honest, and organized. It should be one to two pages in length and may be typed or hand-written. Subjects to address could include: Why Colorado State is a good match, school, community, and/or leadership involvement, demonstration of an appreciation of diversity, low GPA and/or test scores, downward or inconsistent trends, Ds/Fs on transcripts(s). (Colorado State University, Fort Collins)
3. The University of Oregon’s motto is Mens Agitat Molem, or Minds Move Mountains. What mountain do you want to move and how will you use your University of Oregon education to do so? Do you want to make a difference in a neighborhood, a school, a business, a community, a law, or one person’s mind? (University of Oregon)
Second Category (More Competitive Colleges)
1. (Common Application) This personal statement helps us become acquainted with you in ways different from courses, grades, test scores, and other objective data. It will demonstrate your ability to organize thoughts and express yourself. We are looking for an essay that will help us know you better as a person and as a student. Please write an essay (250-500 words) on a topic of your choice or one of the options listed below.
A. Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.
B. Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.
C. Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you and describe that influence.
D. Describe a character in fiction, an historical figure, or a creative work (as in arts, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.
E. A range of academic interest, personal perspective, and life experiences adds much to the education 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 you.
F. Topic of your choice.
2. (University of Pennsylvania) Your intellectual abilities, your sense of imagination and your creativity are important to us. With this in mind, please respond to one of the following three requests. Your essay should not exceed one page.
A. You have just completed you 300-page autobiography. Please submit page 217.
B. First experiences can be defining. Cite a first experience that you have had and explain its impact on you.
C. Recall an occasion when you took a risk that you now know was the right thing to do.
3. (Pomona College, part 2) Choose one of the following options. Please limit your response to one or two pages.
A. At Pomona, we see the ability to question and to think critically as essential to the learning experience. Tell us about something you once thought you knew with certainty but have since reevaluated.
B. Reinvent your high school. What is essential? What would you change?
C. Pick a topic of your own choosing that will give you the opportunity to express to us a sense of how you think, what issues and ideas are most important to you, and a sense of your personal philosophy, traits, goals, etc.
The Writing Process
Step 1: Who Are You? Take time for some reflection. It is not always easy to write about yourself. Take a step back and think about who you are and what makes you distinct. Consider:
What was your most valuable academic learning experience and why?
Discuss three goals you have in life and why. (If you have a big dream, explain how you plan to accomplish it, not just what it is.)
What has been your most pivotal life learning experience and why?
What is your one-sentence philosophy of life and why do you believe it?
What are your values and why?
Discuss a failure and what it taught you. How did it change your life? (Be sure the topic is genuine.)
List three virtues that you admire and respect and why. How do you practice them?
Respond to three quotes that hold meaning for you and explain why they are meaningful. (These can open up and explain a special side of your intellect and character.)
Discuss your definition of happiness and how you discovered it. (This is a good way to find out what you really want in life.)
Who has been the most influential person in your life and why?
Step 2: How Do You Begin to Decide to Tell Who You Are?
Narrow your topic choices.
Tell a story only you can tell.
Choose a topic that shows a willingness to experience life and to learn from mistakes.
Choose the topic that most interests you, one for which you have the most to say. Make it the most specific topic you can devise.
Step 3: First Draft. When you have decided what you want the admissions committee to know about you, you are ready to begin your first draft.
Read all directions carefully. When answering the question(s), be sure you understand the purpose of the essay.
Keep your audience in mind.
The main focus of the first draft should be content.
You do not have to get it right the first time! This is a first try.
B. Content and Style
Tell your story in your own voice, making your essay personal and real. Write so that the reader will care what you have to say.
Give thought to your essay’s content:
Reflect on the meaning of your story. Be self-searching and genuine.
Consider approaching the topic from an unexpected angle.
Be positive and upbeat, avoiding the negative and cynical.
Be honest: fight the temptation to “enhance” the truth. Do not manufacture hardships.
Handle sensitive subjects appropriately. There is a fine line between moving the reader and making them uncomfortable or embarrassed. Avoid controversy, anything sexual, and anything illegal.
Do not write on general or impersonal topics (e.g. global warming or the importance of good management in business). The college wants to know about you.
Some things to avoid:
Do not repeat information that appears elsewhere in the application. Expound upon it, explain it, draw lessons from it, but do not repeat it.
Do not go to extremes with wit, opinions, or an intellectual subject, and do not be “preachy.”
Do not use the personal statement to excuse your shortcomings. It brings attention to them. (Find a different place in the application to explain a problem such as a failing grade, a suspension, or aberrations in your record. These may be topics that a counselor can help explain.)
Give thought to your choice of words:
Be concise, avoiding unnecessary words or cluttered imagery.
Be precise. Do not make the reader guess your meaning.
Use vivid, energized language to make your essay come alive, but avoid pretentious language.
Do not use clichés or trite statements (e.g. “I want to help people.”)
Make sure the pacing of your sentences is energetic and dynamic.
Be humorous if it is your natural style, but do not force it.
C. Structure – More Points to Consider
Write about the specific rather than the general, the concrete rather than the abstract. Show, rather than tell.
Consider the unique features of the institution and connect yourself to it by matching aspects of your record with the college’s focus.
Do not use unconventional fonts or formats; make it easy to read. A standard font, such as Times New Roman, is crisp and easily read.
Write in the active voice, and avoid the second person (the use of “you”).
A well-placed quote can add a point of interest to the essay.
Do not plagiarize.
There are four basic types to choose from when deciding how best to tell your story:
1. Narrative: tells a story; explains the how and why
2. Descriptive: tells about a person, place, condition, situation or feeling; uses language that appeals to the senses
3. Definition: reveals your insight about something of significance to you
4. Example: anecdotes are used to bring out the ideas of the essay
Sample Opening Sentences to Avoid
“I am the sum of my experiences.”
“Since I was very young, I have always been very competitive and career-oriented.”
“Art created with emotion is boundless.”
“Words are the building blocks of both written and oral communications.”
“I’ve always wanted to help people.”
“Drinking and driving is not good for you.”
“Out of class interests have been an important aspect of my life.”
“The title of Editor in Chief of the newspaper entitles the bearer to much power and control.”
If you need more detailed help and want to use a standard essay format, consider the following information about the three parts of the standard essay.
Start with a “hook,” a sentence that surprises or piques interest, such as a quote, question, or statistic.
Your second sentence, then, would be your topic sentence. The topic sentence clearly states your topic, point of view or angle.
Write a good lead for every paragraph so your readers will be interested in the entire paragraph.
Get to the point and make sure that it reveals insight about you.
This is the most important part of your essay because it provides the evidence (examples, details, facts) to support your topic.
Every paragraph in the body should contain this support.
Use transitions to create connections and coherence.
The last sentence of the paragraph, the clincher, refocuses on the essay’s main point.
This serves to refocus and reaffirm the validity of your essay.
Step 4: Review Your Draft.
Let it sit for a few days before rereading it. How does it sound? Does it flow easily? Does every sentence in every paragraph relate to the topic through details and examples?
Step 5: Sample Essays. You may want to read some sample essays to see how others have presented themselves, but if you do so, do not model your essay to be like one you have read.
Examine both the good and bad aspects, along with their critiques.
Numerous sources for these can be found in the Post Graduate Center.
Step 6: Re-write until you are satisfied. Everything you have ever learned about good writing applies here.
Revision is key. Revise until it concisely represents you. Keep the spark of your unique personality in the writing.
Check that the main idea is effectively developed throughout the essay.
If an essay question has more than one part, be sure that you answer every part.
Polish your grammar and word choice.
When you are finished, ask one or two knowledgeable people to read your essay and give you honest feedback.
Be sure the person who critiqued the essay hasn’t injected his or her vocabulary into it. Experienced admissions officers can detect when an essay has been partially or totally written by another.
Step 7: Final Checkpoints
The essay should be typed using standard fonts and formats.
Be sure you have the correct college name on your submission.
Do not exceed the suggested length.
Proofread! Check for typos, spelling mistakes, and grammatical errors. Do not rely on Spell Check exclusively.
If you are filing an online application, proof read it very carefully before sending it off.
Make copies of everything, just in case.
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