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What Colleges Expect from Application Essays?

by Max Basaraba
When it comes to getting into college, one of the final stages is writing an application essay. After years of taking exams - whether those are ACTs or SATs - you might not feel like writing a long essay too, but don't be disheartened.
Essays are an important part of the college application process. If your grades perhaps aren't where you want them to be, an essay really can make or break an application. It is your chance to set yourself apart and show college application committees what you are passionate about, setting you apart from other candidates.
There are four common essay formats. During the application process for colleges you are interested in, they will provide the prompts for the essay, so use this guide to give you more of an idea what to write when given the questions or outline for the essay. Each college will set its own word count too, which is an indicator of how well you can stick to those when doing college work.
Here are the four main themes you can expect:
  • Who are you? An essay format way of telling admissions committees more about yourself;
  • Personal growth: Show colleges how resilient you are, how you overcame adversity;
  • What inspires you? Favored by colleges where applicants are leaning toward creative professions;
  • Why this college? Favored by prestigious colleges and schools, ones with a unique culture, where committees need to see that a student is going to fit in and benefit from the experience.
In more detail, let’s look at what this means for college applicants and how to prepare for these application essays.
Top 4 college application essays: What to expect?
#1: “Who are you?”
This is the most common essay question asked. Take the following example from Brown University:
“Tell us about the place, or places, you call home. These can be physical places where you have lived, or a community or group that is important to you.”
Application committees want a chance to get to know you, the candidate and a potential student at that university. It is a chance for them to determine, before it gets to interview stage, whether you will fit in, whether you will adapt at thrive at that college, and what sort of person you are. People are often tempted to go on long rambling life-story style essays, but that isn't what committees are looking for.
Instead, with these essays, focus on one event, idea or thing that will answer the question while showing how this has shaped and influenced you.
#2: Personal Growth
Similar to the first option, colleges know that the next few years is going to be a huge time of personal growth and development. Life as a student is challenging. It changes and moulds and strengthens people. It is important for them to see how far you've already come. This essays is a chance to show that you are resilient and driven, someone who can overcome obstacles and challenges.
Here is an example of an essay prompt that fits into this category, from Stony Brook University: “Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?”
#3: “What inspires you?”
Not a question every college is going to throw at applicants. Usually, this is reserved for those who've already got a clear idea what major the want to study, such as going into the arts or law, or who are playing sport at a high-level for a college team.
Similar to the above essays, don't tell your whole life story, or use this to bounce vaguely off aspects of your life, or a series of people or other things that are inspirational. Use this as an opportunity to talk about something more specific. Demonstrate how you think and organize your thoughts by focusing on a specific person, place or event that made a lasting impact.
#4: “Why this college?”
Every college has a unique culture and history. Students who don't fit in aren't going to benefit from the experience and might even drop out. Admission committees need to make sure that new students are going to fit in and thrive, which is why many ask this question at the essay stage of the application process.
With this essay, try to be sincere and don't only ramble about how great the school is. Give examples of how you are geared to play a role in that college and thrive.
Some basic rules for application essays:
  • Answer the question, not some version of the question you want to answer;
  • Stick within the word count. Most encourage essays answered in under 650 words, but in some cases it can be as low as 35;
  • Make sure it sounds like you - it should be you writing it. Not a parent or friend or professional essay writing service (don’t try to use overly complicated words to sound clever; sound like yourself);
  • Don't write what you think the admission officer wants to read: Be yourself, answer the question and be genuine.

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