According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, application essays are the most important “soft” factors, or non-quantitative elements, that colleges consider when making admission decisions, right behind “hard” factors, or quantitative components, like grades, curriculum, and test scores. Essays are often more important than recommendations, extracurricular activities, and other qualitative application elements. While it’s important to put considerable effort into all college application components, essays are often the finishing touch and should be treated with great care and consideration.
Answer: Many students have the instinct to explain themselves, including any failings or perceived failings, while writing their applications. There are a number of ways you can offer the admissions committee context for something you think went ‘wrong’ in high school, whether that’s low grades, imperfect attendance, or something else. Your recommenders might have a chance to write something about it in their letters, if they were in a position to see you during or after the rough period. You can also write about something going wrong in your personal statement if it has narrative energy; that is to say—if it would make a good essay regardless of whether or not it explained away a failing, go ahead and write about it. An example might be an essay that discussed a student’s home life, say their parents’ difficult divorce during their freshman year. If the student had something introspective to say about the divorce, she might add a line or two that explains that her grades suffered during the incident, but she’d want to conclude the essay by not only showing how she righted things in the years after, but also how what she learned from the difficult period will influence her in the future.
The next Youth Council meeting, I asked questions. I gave feedback. I noticed what the students at my school were really struggling with. For the first time, I went to drug prevention assemblies and helped my friends run mental health workshops. The more involved I became in my city’s Youth Council, the more I understood how similar being an advocate for your community is to being an advocate for your patients. When I volunteered at the hospital every week, I started paying attention to more than whether or not my patients wanted ice chips in their water. I learned that Deborah was campaigning for equal opportunity housing in a deeply segregated neighborhood and George was a paramedic who injured his leg carrying an 8-year-old with an allergic reaction to the Emergency Room. I might not have been the doctor who diagnosed them but I was often the one person who saw them as human beings rather than patients.
Where did you grow up? Describe your neighborhood, town, or community. Big or small? What makes it unlike other parts of the world? How has it affected you? What images are important for someone who has never been to your hometown/neighborhood/community to see? For instance, is there farmland all around you, grain silos, cows? A Chik-Fil-A every block?
Reading the essays of other students who successfully got into the college of their choice is a good way to find inspiration for your own writing. Look for common patterns in college admission essay samples, such as personal stories and a touch of humor. You might also find some good ideas for structuring your essay to give it a breath of fresh air.
Adding feelings to your essays can be much more powerful than just listing your achievements. It allows reviewers to connect with you and understand your personality and what drives you. In particular, be open to showing vulnerability. Nobody expects you to be perfect and acknowledging times in which you have felt nervous or scared shows maturity and self-awareness.
While the idea of writing the essay on college applications is typically fraught with anxiety for the majority of high school seniors, it is important to realize that the essay is a wonderful chance to demonstrate who you really are to the admissions officers. Since colleges are not looking solely for students with straight A’s and the best SAT scores, the most vital component to writing a great essay is to reveal your true personality and demonstrate that you would be a great addition to their campus community. Also, be sure to use these top college application essay tips to help you win big with your essay and get admitted into the school of your dreams!
10. Be smart. Colleges are intellectual places, a fact they almost always keep a secret when they talk about their dorms, climbing walls, and how many sports you can play. It is helpful to show your intellectual vitality. What turns your mind on? This is not the same thing as declaring an intended major; what matters is why that subject interests you.
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No subject is more fraught with anxiety for the high school senior than the essay on the college application. Whether it is as bizarre as the University of Chicago's "How do you feel about Wednesday?"; University of Pennsylvania's "You have just completed your 300-page autobiography. Please submit page 217."; or Tufts University's "Are We Alone?"—or whether it is a more mundane question about a formative experience you've had in your life, or about some controversial social or political issue, students tremble at the very thought of writing the essay and being judged on it.
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As an undergraduate, I was privileged to gain extensive research experience working in a research lab with Dr. Carol. During the three years I worked in her lab, I aided in designing a study, writing an Institutional Review Board (IRB) application, running participants through both pilot and regular studies, coding data, and analyzing said data, with these experiences culminating in my honors thesis. This thesis, entitled Self-Esteem and Need-to-Belong as predictors of implicit stereotypic explanatory bias, focuses on the relationship between levels (high and low) of self-esteem and an individual’s need to belong in a group, and how they predict whether an individual will tend to explain stereotype-inconsistent behavior. Participating in such a large study from start to finish has validated my interest in academic research as a profession.
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Before you dive (or cannonball!) into our pool of essay advice, we’d like to leave you with one last little secret: the prompts are not actually as important as you think they are. In fact, in our instructional writing course and private advising, we encourage applicants to root around for their most meaningful stories first and consider the prompts later. This is a process we call the Backwards Brainstorm, and you can learn more about it here. For now, the main point we want you to take away is this: The prompts don’t really matter. What matters is the story you want to tell. (And that you floss at least every other day—trust us, it will pay off in the long run.) We are as sure as ever that every single one of you has a valuable story (or two or twelve!) to communicate to admissions. All it takes is ample time for reflection and a little writerly elbow grease to find it. So take a peek at what the 2018-19 application has in store for you, absorb what these prompts are really asking, and then forget about them (really!) as you explore the endless possibilities.
Spelling bees were always my forte. I’ve always been able to visualize words and then verbally string individual consonants and vowels together. I may not have known the meaning of every word I spelled, I knew that soliloquy always pushed my buttons: that -quy ending was so bizarre yet memorable! And intaglio with its silent “g” just rolled off the tongue like cultured butter.
Homeschooling laid a firm foundation; my values are firmly rooted. My work ethics are strong. I can stand on my own two feet and function independently. I have the skills to manage both my education and my personal life outside of my home. I have the skills necessary to be a successful college student and to pursue a higher level of learning. I give much of this credit to the experience I received as a homeschooled student early on in my formative years.”
One of the best ways to write an awesome essay for your college application or admissions personal essay is by learning from real college essay samples that worked. So I've compiled some college essay examples from a variety of student experiences as well as tons of supplemental essay and personal statement topics, like the UChicago short answer questions, the "Why This College" essay, and more.
The Dirksen family had three kids. They were all different. Danielle liked bitter black coffee, Christian liked energy drinks, and Becca liked sweet lemon tea. Dawn, the host mom didn’t like winter, and Mark, the host dad, didn’t like summer. After dinner, we would all play Wii Sports together. I was the king of bowling, and Dawn was the queen of tennis. I don’t remember a single time that they argued about the games. Afterward, we would gather in the living room and Danielle would play the piano while the rest of us sang hymns.
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I come from a small, economically depressed town in Northern Wisconson. Many people in this former mining town do not graduate high school and for them college is an idealistic concept, not a reality. Neither of my parents attended college. Feelings of being trapped in a stagnant environment permeated my mind, and yet I knew I had to graduate high school; I had to get out. Although most of my friends and family did not understand my ambitions, I knew I wanted to make a difference and used their doubt as motivation to press through. Four days after I graduated high school, I joined the U.S. Army.
Pizza, community service, grandmothers, barnacles…you name it, and admissions officers have probably read an essay about it. And given that thousands of students are admitted to colleges each year, I hope we can all agree there is no one “best” topic on which to write your Common App essay. What makes a college essay strong isn’t necessary its theme, but the personal and reflective story that emerges from that theme. College admissions officers use your personal statement to get to know you as an individual beyond your transcript and test scores, and the essay can be a powerful factor in determining those students who are admitted and those who are not.
(This approach) pushes kids to use examples to push their amazing qualities, provide some context, and end with hopes and dreams. Colleges are seeking students who will thrive on their campuses, contribute in numerous ways, especially “bridge” building, and develop into citizens who make their worlds and our worlds a better place. So application essays are a unique way for applicants to share, reflect, and connect their values and goals with colleges. Admissions officers want students to share their power, their leadership, their initiative, their grit, their kindness—all through relatively recent stories. I ask students: “Can the admissions officers picture you and help advocate for you by reading your essays?” Often kids don’t see their power, and we can help them by realizing what they offer colleges through their activities and life experiences. Ultimately I tell them, “Give the colleges specific reasons to accept you—and yes you will have to ‘brag.’ But aren’t you worth it? Use your essays to empower your chances of acceptance, merit money, and scholarships.”
Using words in your essay that you don’t typically use in your daily conversations can sound awkward and forced. Words have nuance to them, and simply inserting a word from the thesaurus is a great way to destroy that nuance. Thesaurus abuse is a lazy and easily spotted trick, and seasoned admissions officers will see right through it. If you feel that you’re overusing a particular word, think of alternatives on your own without consulting a thesaurus; using words that you’re familiar with will help you avoid misusing them.