Write An Application Essay

Frequently Asked Questions

 

**Important note: Expectations for application essays vary widely. The answers below are meant to give some general guidelines, but may not be applicable to the particular program to which you are applying.

Is it all right to use the first person?

In most cases it's essential. The application essay is about you and what you think about yourself and the field you want to study.

How far back should I go in tracing my background?

For your essay, choose the details that you want to highlight in order to best answer the question at hand. The application itself may provide you with a chance to give detailed educational and job history.

Stories about how one became interested in a particular field might reference things as far back as grade school. At the same time, mentioning academic accomplishments prior to college might be viewed as naive. More recent honors will carry more weight.

How long should the essay or statement be?

Your essay should never exceed the limit given in the application instructions.

If no limit is specified, make your essay no longer than two pages.

How much of the information already in my application should I repeat?

Admissions reviewers may not read every detail of your application carefully. Therefore, highlight information from your application that you definitely want noted.

Do not merely list things, though. Be sure to explain the significance of the items you mention and make them relevant to the essay as a whole.

Should I include or explain negative experiences? Should I call attention to a low (or high) G.P.A.?

In some cases, yes. If something in your academic record is weak or questionable, a thoughtful explanation could help.

Discussing a negative experience that taught you something valuable or helped you make important life or career decisions can sometimes be a good way to provide a reviewer with insight into your character and professional goals.

However, if you don't want to draw attention to a particular situation (or have nothing positive to say about it), you might best avoid bringing it up at all.

How "personal" should I be?

By their nature, these essays are "personal" in that they ask you not only to tell things about you but to reflect on their significance to your past and future educational and career goals.

Some applications specifically request that you provide a personal narrative, while others focus more on educational and professional experience.

In either case, it's important to connect your experiences (personal, educational, or professional) to the goals and requirements of the program to which you are applying and to be guided by the essay instructions as to the main content of your essay.

How experimental should I be?

Sometimes doing something unusual with your essay can be a way to stand out from the crowd.

It can be risky, however, and it requires a high degree of sophistication and skill. Whatever flashy or clever tactic you choose to use, you have to be able to use it to complete the task at hand, which is to demonstrate your preparation and suitability for the program to which you are applying.

At the same time, readers of experimental essays have vastly different reactions to them. While some appreciate a break from the more standard essay, others may see it as a failure to follow instructions. A safer strategy is to use compelling details and a clear, artful writing style.

Should I format this as a standard essay (with an introduction, body, conclusion)?

To one degree or another, yes. You want to give your essay a discernable shape -- one that indicates a direction, takes your reader to a destination, and helps him or her understand the significance of what you've written about.

Unlike every other aspect of the application, you control your essay. Make sure that the glimpse you give the admission committee into your character, background, and writing ability is the very best possible. Here are seven tips to help you focus and make the most of your application essay.

In our experience, the main worry that applicants have is that their essay won’t stand out. This is a legitimate concern as you will likely compete with numerous applicants who have backgrounds similar to yours. Therefore, follow these tips to ensure that your essay shines in the competitive admissions process.

1. Analyze the prompt thoroughly

Take three minutes to think about the prompt. If needed, divide the prompt into phrases and look at each aspect. Why would the admissions officers ask this prompt? What do you think they want to know? How does that information relate to your ability to excel in college? Next, leave the prompt for a while and then return to it. Do you see something new? 

With so many other things in your schedule, this process can initially seem like a waste of time. However, it will save you a lot of time in the long run. If you later realize that you misread the prompt, you might need to start the writing process from scratch. 

2. Organize your writing

Like the first item, this isn’t something that should take a lot of time. This is another step that can initially seem completely skippable, but organizing your writing can save you considerable stress and frustration. A good writing plan can streamline or even eliminate the need to do any significant rewrites.

Brainstorm your anecdotes. Create a rough outline, including approximately how long each paragraph needs to be in order to complete the essay within the word count limits. Finally, figure out when you’re going to write. A paragraph a day? The whole thing next weekend? Creating a schedule, even if you need to modify it later, gets your brain in motion. 

3. Show instead of telling

When selecting anecdotes for your essay, pick vivid ones that you can tell succinctly. If a story would require 450 words of a 600 word essay, then you’re not going to have a lot of space to express self-reflection and analysis of the situation. Remember that the admissions officers are more interested in your perspective of what happened than the events themselves.

In addition, keep in mind that the admissions officers don’t know you personally, and that’s why they’re reading your essay. They want to get to know you, and the essay is your first introduction. Because of this, don’t tell them that you’re passionate about public service. Show them through strong examples. Help the admissions officers envision each example as if they’re experiencing the situation alongside you. 

4. Know your vocab

Your admissions essay should reflect command of college-level vocabulary. One of the most common mistakes that we see in essays is using advanced vocabulary almost correctly. Even among synonyms, there are shades of meaning. If you’re using a thesaurus, look online for examples of that word in action. Will it still fit into your sentence?

Avoid overdoing it. Advanced vocabulary should be the spice of the essay to give it flavor, so you’ll use plain language most of the time. Essays that are riddled with advanced vocabulary can seem pompous or even inadvertently comical to the reader. 

5. Write succinctly

Can you say what you need to say in fewer words? Can you substitute an advanced vocabulary word for a phrase? Writing concisely expresses to the admissions officers that can organize your thoughts and that you respect their time. 

6. Combine like ideas into more sophisticated sentence structures

The vast majority of the sentences in your essay should be compound, complex, or a combination of both (compound-complex sentences). Save simple sentences for instances when you need to create impact.

7. Seek qualified second opinions

You should absolutely ask others to take a look at your essay before you submit it. As we work on things, we become blind to mistakes that will be glaringly apparent to others. However, limit the number of people you ask to two or three. Asking too many people for feedback will only confuse you and result in a lower quality essay as you revise the essay according to each person’s advice. Therefore, look to individuals who have background and expertise in the college admissions process.

 

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