Application Essay

There is one main essay question on the Common Application, and each college/university has the option to include essay questions in their writing supplement.

The essay is a maximum of 650 words on one of the topics below (the Common Application will cut you off at 650 words). The most important point to keep in mind is that the essay must focus on you. Here are the topics:

  • Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  • The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  • Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  • Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
  • Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
The writing supplement is specific to each individual college. Each college chooses what they ask students to write.
Well-written essays with a personal voice allow admission officers to see a special dimension not addressed in other parts of the application. This opportunity is a way to illustrate aspects of your personality that go beyond grades and standardized test scores. Be sure to write several drafts of the essay so that you capture strong emotions while focusing the essay on a specific theme. It is assumed that your grammar, spelling, and punctuation will be perfect; therefore, pay close attention to those matters. Let your essay show what you want to convey; don't give generalizations to tell a point.
It is important that you portray yourself as you really are. Be authentic and genuine in your writing; do not try to impress an admissions officer. Your goal is to have your voice come through in all your essays. Be sure to catch the reader’s attention with an intriguing opening sentence so that your entire essay will be read. When you tell your story, you are highlighting your personality and character so that you come alive to the reader.

Answer the Essay Question
Be aware of the question being asked, understand what is being asked of you, and try to answer it in summary form early in the essay. Don’t drift off setting the stage for the big answer in the third paragraph. By then, you have lost the reader.
Be Yourself
Your own life is what makes you unique and separates you from every human that has ever lived. Write about what you know best: You. Write YOUR story. This is what makes you stand out and allows the admissions officer to get to know you. Express your own passions, beliefs, and struggles honestly. You may think your life has been average and mundane, but it is your authenticity and conviction about what you genuinely enjoy that shows up in your writing.
Be Specific/Use Specific Examples/Draw the Reader In/Telling Your Story
Specific Examples: If you say, “I am a world traveler,” follow it up with specific travel experiences – “When I was in Spain for a month, my host family spoke only Spanish with me which really nurtured my language skills.”
Drawing the Reader In: Saying “I love to help people and I am involved in a number of community service activities” is not engaging. Instead you could say, “Working in the afternoons this year at the local boys and girls club was incredibly enlightening. Seeing the look on 8-year-old Sarah’s face when she succeeded at reading an entire paragraph on her own was unbelievable.” This specificity makes the reader become more connected with your story and want to read more.
Write. Sleep. Read. Edit. Repeat.
It can take three or four versions (perhaps more) to polish a 500 to 600-word essay to a final document. Make sure you read and re-read your essay to catch errors and improve flow. Pay attention to mechanics – spelling, punctuation, and grammar are very important. We encourage you to have the counseling staff, and a member of the English department, read and give constructive suggestions as well.
Do Not Reiterate Your Resume
The admissions evaluator will already have a list of your extracurricular and leadership activities in addition to your activity essay. You do not need to repeat these, or narrate your life’s events in your essay. Choose a theme or an event from your life that is related to the Essay Question, and focus primarily on one or two events.
Do Not Tell the Admissions Staff What You Think They Want to Hear
Essays are far more interesting when they come from your point of view and experience. Write what you believe, feel and think, not what you think an admissions officer wants to read.
Do Not Fall Into the Thesaurus Trap
Use your words, not someone else’s. If you use the words “myriad” and “plethora” in everyday language, it will be obvious to the reader in the flow of your essay. If it is not natural for you, don’t do it.

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  • General Tips to Follow:

    • Be honest; get to the point; keep the pace flowing
    • Keep your audience in mind – you are demonstrating not only your intellectual and creative talents, but also your maturity
    • Make sure that the first sentence is a “grabber” that entices the reader to continue to the end
    • Avoid rambling sentences, clichés, generalizations, and esoteric vocabulary
    • Never begin with “This experience has changed me completely” or other trite phrases
    • Do not write a list of activities, an itinerary, or a travel diary
    • Avoid clichés (such as the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat) and be original
    • Your goal is not necessarily to write a depiction of a time you saved the world, but a story that expresses your individuality; keep the scope manageable
    • Focus on one key point in each paragraph and present vivid details to illuminate that point
    • Make sure that the essay connects with the rest of the application while presenting a fuller picture and not just a repetition of what appears elsewhere.
    • Don’t dwell on negatives (death, divorce, etc.)
    • Humor is good but more difficult to create than you would think; avoid gimmicks
    • Conclude with momentum, but don’t summarize your essay in a final sentence; don't end with a moral or platitude to prove a point

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  • Tips on Writing Supplemental Essays for Specific Colleges:

    • Read the question carefully and be sure to answer all parts of it. Sometimes students address part of the question, but not the entirety. It is important to follow the length that is recommended. If you go over a few words, that is not a cause for concern unless you have too many general comments or repetition of the same idea.
    • When asked about your academic and intellectual interests, include specifics as to what you enjoyed in high school and why; give examples of projects or assignments that capture your imagination. Don’t just list items; give the story behind them.
    • If the supplemental essay question asks why you are interested in a particular school, do not write first about the location of the school, especially if it is in a city. You want to focus on the academic institution and what it has to offer. Do not describe life in the city or how you enjoyed visiting the city or your interest in living in a city. Always focus on what that specific school offers and how it connects with your goals.
    • When answering questions about a specific major, you need to explain the history of your own interest in a major. When did you begin to be intrigued by a specific field? What is the origin of that interest? Then you should go on their website and find programs that relate to your interest and highlight them in your essay. It is not necessary to list every program that a college offers; rather, find those programs that are unique or stand out in your mind.
    • An essay that focuses on events and experiences in your life will be the most effective. Be thoughtful, concise, and engaging as you relate your story. Finally, be sure to check grammar and spelling

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