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General Guidelines for Writing Application Essays


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This part of the application is usually a source of stress and anxiety for many students. The anxiety generated by the blank page, or in this day and age, the blank screen is tremendous.


Don’t worry!  We can help.


Don’t forget the essay is only one piece of the application. It will not get you in a university if your grades don’t support it. Also, you can get in a good school even with a mediocre essay if you have outstanding scores and grades. It makes a difference however when you have equally good candidates and the essay is the only part that can differentiate them. Or when you are great but not great enough, and the essay can provide this extra context to who you are and why you are a great candidate and fit for the college. Colleges look for who you are as a whole, and the essays are one place in particular where this can be seen most clearly.


What is important?


Universities want answers to two general questions:


  1. Can you write? They are not looking for a Nobel prize in literature but they are looking for your ability to express your thoughts in clear and organized fashion. Just because you are a passionate chemist or mathematician, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put any effort into building a strong personal narrative.


  1. Who are you? Admissions officers want to get to know you better and the essay should provide enough for them to learn more about your values, passions, background and beliefs. What kind of a person and community member will you be in the classroom and outside the classroom?


Shocking but fact: The admissions department at UC Berkeley will read about 20,000 application essays and Stanford will read about 16,000. You’ve got to find a way to stand out. It’s called – be yourself and write with your own voice. Don’t say “I am motivated to succeed” or don’t make your essay your resume.


Getting started


One of the important things is to start early. Most counsellors advise candidates to start the summer before their senior year, i.e. about 12-15 months before your application is due.

The best essays are the ones you start early and you have time to think, talk, think, …and then write.


Colleges usually require one or two personal statements that are longer (up to 650 words), and a shorter response (usually 150-250 words or less). Both are equally important. Visit the Common Application website at to see the essay topics and learn the writing supplemental requirements (these are the essays). Also, visit the websites of all the colleges and universities to which you are applying and check again on requirements and prompts. This is your responsibility. Know exactly what is being asked of you.


Start with Self-Observation


In College Admission by Mamet and Vandevelde, the authors suggest for candidates to take a look at the little things in their lives. What is in your house or in your room? What’s hanging on your wall? What have you kept since you were in 2nd grade? What do you wish you kept? Ask yourself some of these questions:


  • How do you spend your time?
  • What do you like to do?
  • What is important to you?
  • What is your family like? Rituals, TV shows, games?
  • What did you miss in your application that you would like to mention?
  • If someone had a chance to eavesdrop on your funeral, in the distant future, what would they say about you?
  • What do you want to do in college?
  • What are you most proud of?
  • What inspires you or keeps you going?


The Topics


The school may offer an essay topic that jumps at you and all you have to do is start your brainstorming and first draft. In most cases though, students don’t know what to choose and where to start. Don’t forget the topic is you. There is no right topic. Anything that tells a story in your voice about you is right. Also, the topic is not something big. You are advised to write about a subject that is a little thing with some meaning to you. You are not expected to write about “your childhood” or “you and the world”. Some of the best essays are about something quite unimportant. It is how it reveals the student and how the student approaches it that are important. Many admissions officers describe the best essays about “small topics”, like a casual encounter, family dinners, childhood toy,….the most important thing is to be AUTHENTIC, AUTHENTIC, AUTHENTIC


What not to Write


Please try to stay away from any topics that will portray in you an unfavorable light.

Please consider staying away from topics about:


  • Drugs
  • Love life or intimate experiences
  • Your resume – don’t rewrite your resume
  • YOU all the way – make sure I, me and my is not in every sentence.
  • You as a tough and hardened soul – don’t write about topics where you seem to be inflexible or insensitive
  • How could they… and poor me – don’t complain, whine
  • If only….. – don’t find excuses why you did or didn’t do something
  • School paper – don’t submit a paper you wrote for something else, another essay.
  • Travelogue – don’t write a travel diary …it’s about how this travel changed you.
  • Community service – don’t just describe a project and say “it made you a better person.”
  • Don’t lie…no matter what


Last but not least


Read the question and make sure you have answered it.

Don’t use the same essay for different colleges by changing the name of the college.

The best essays are the ones which are not rushed.

Have someone proofread and spell-check your essay.

January 22, 2015

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