Like most students, you will likely be applying to around 10 colleges. Hopefully most of these will be on the Common Application, which will save you a lot of time. However, those schools will still have essays on their supplements and often allow you to choose between different topics. What should you be thinking about when making that choice?
Well, first of all, remember that what the admissions people really want to know about is “YOU”, so all of the questions are essentially pointing back to you. I have written in more than one of my other posts about the importance of articulating who you are and practising doing this to many different audiences. Also that it is more important to restrict your description to just a few areas, or at least to have some common thread that connects the areas that you describe. Before you go about the task of deciding on an essay choice, jot down some of the key differentiators that make you stand out. I often explain how the admissions process is not unlike a singing audition. You may be versed in singing many different styles, but you will stick to the one that you are best at and that best highlights your abilities. Same thing in the application process; you may have done tons of things in high school but you need to hone in on the things that are most important to you and that highlight your strengths.
Armed with that information, you can now look at the different essay choices. My advice is to create one document where all of your essays are available in one place. This allows you to see all of the work in front of you, but would also allow you to now decide where the things about yourself that you identified could most easily be discussed in a particular essay.
The next step is to “Have Fun”. Seriously, most students will then write very stale and formal essays that do not sound like the student. Bring your personality into your style of writing and perspective. If you have a good message about yourself, then find a “fun” vehicle (story) to deliver that message. While the admissions person will usually be most interested in the message about you, an entertaining and interesting essay will be what sticks in their brain.
Finally, I would like to discuss some common pitfalls:
- Make sure that you answer the question! If nothing else, they want to see that the student can follow instructions. For example, there is an essay prompt in the Common Application about a failure that you experienced. Writing about how you failed in some mock exams and that made you work really hard and then get the highest marks in your real exams is not a story of failure!
- You may have editors give you feedback, but don’t lose your personal voice in that process.
- While not critical, it is a good idea to use US spellings if applying to US, and UK spellings if applying to the UK.
- You should finalize your essays in a word document, but after you upload them to the application, make sure to read a print preview to make sure that it looks the way that you want it to and is not cut off.
- Try not to make far-reaching or clichéd statements. For example: After helping the orphan children, I realized that they had given me far more than I could have ever given them! Or -The underprivileged children made me realize how much I took for granted in my own life. Or – When I was young I loved taking things apart and putting them back together again (engineering student cliché). Or -I want to use engineering to create an alternative fuel source that will save the environment. You get the idea. Keep it real!
If you can write authentic essays that express clearly your main elements, you will stand out. If there is only one piece of advice that you take from this, it should be to have fun! Of the thousands of essays that I have read, I can tell when a student had fun writing the essay, and those essays are always the best reads.