Introducing the US College Essay
The Expert View
Get the low down on how to create the very best essay possible.
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As with any other piece of writing, it is important to think about what you’re doing before committing pen to paper. Whether you are writing an essay for English class, a US university/college essay or even a best -selling novel, you have to be clear about, and focus on, the following:
Purpose – to persuade the admissions tutor to offer you a place
Audience – the admissions tutor
Content – addresses the topic/ title and supports your purpose
Register – the appropriate style of English
However, before we get down to the details, we need to be clear about what a university/college essay is and how many you are going to need to write.
University/college essays come in many different forms and of varying lengths, typically between 50 and 500 words. Only 50 words I hear you say, that won’t take long. Well consider this, if you are going to do justice to the title and express your views about it, then being restricted to 50 words is quite challenging.
Above all else, do not underestimate how much time writing your university/college essay, or perhaps we should say essays, is going to take you. Also consider how many university/colleges you’re going to apply to as some university/colleges require multiple essays. Just as an aside, one former student of mine wrote 82 US university/college essays; I did try and talk him out of it but he was determined to go ahead. You’re probably wondering whether with all that work he was accepted into a US university. Well, in the end he decided to go and study in the UK where you only need to write one personal statement.
Students have often told me that writing US university/college essays is the equivalent of doing an extra IB subject. So think carefully about where you apply and how many applications you make.
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Advice on how to plan and write the essay
Brainstorming linked to essay topic
Let’s start with YOU. You are at the centre of this process and if you are going to write an effective essay it has to come from you. And by this we mean write about something where you have the passion, a topic that truly speaks to you and who you are.
The most important part you need to get right is the subject matter. Try and find a topic that resonates with you. University/college essays often focus around the following topics/ themes
- What are your major/proudest accomplishments? Do not limit yourself to accomplishments where you were formally recognised with a prize, award, certificate etc. but to consider also accomplishments that may have seemed relatively minor at the time but placed in the context of your life have proven to be more important than you at first realised.
- What distinguishes you from everyone else?
- What was the most difficult time in your life and why? What did you learn by this experience?
- Describe the moment when you overcame adversity and achieved success? What made you successful?
- Think about your favourite book or movie, how has it influenced you?
- Describe a life changing moment and how you now see things differently.
- What is your most noticeable character trait? How would your friends describe you?
- Who do you admire most, and why?
- What have you done outside of the classroom that demonstrates qualities sought after by universities? Describe the most important/impressive.
- What are your most important extra-curricular activities? Choose one and write about your commitment.
- What are your dreams of the future? How does this particular university fit into your plans for the future?
- Role models: who do you admire and why?
Having brainstormed ideas for all or some of the above, you should have a clearer idea as to the content you could develop into a fully-fledged essay. If the above task is turning out to be too difficult, then you could try an alternative approach.
- Ask your friends to identify your character traits and then try and match these to life experiences
- Think about your interests that began in childhood. Who was influential? Who was a role model?
Read sample essays with feedback comment from admissions tutors. You will find some here: Prep Scholar sample essays and analysis
Always remember who is reading your university/college essay, it is an admissions tutor who has read hundreds of essays already, many of which are very ‘samey’. The challenge is to stand out from the rest. Be unique! The only way to write a unique essay is to have experiences that support your chosen topic.
Most students will be applying to US universities/colleges through the Commonapp. The Commonapp requires you to write an essay and to give you an idea of what you need to write about, here is the choice of Commonapp essays currently on their website.
Commonapp Essays 2020-21
- Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.
- The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
- Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- 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 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, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
- Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
Very important! You will also be writing essays to each university/college you apply to, so the Commonapp essay is just a starting point, albeit a mandatory one.
Things you can do that will make a big difference.
Look at the websites of the universities you plan on applying to, and see how many essays they require.
Ask someone to give you feedback on your first draft.
Brainstorm ideas for your essays and then produce a first draft.
Try and get as much done as possible before you return to school at the start of grade 12.
Selecting an essay topic
Now we come to the moment of decision: choosing the essay topic.
You need to select the topic that speaks to you, that you feel most connected with, but you also have to avoid just writing whatever you feel like, you have to answer the question. Your essay must be focused. And hopefully you will leave a lasting impression on the admissions tutor who has to read dozens of essays each day.
Before selecting your essay topic, have a think about the following:
- Have you selected a topic that describes something of personal importance in your life, with which you can use personal experiences as supporting details? E.g. the moment when your father came home from work and announced that you were all leaving your home country and going to live in ???
- Can you offer valid supporting paragraphs to your essay topic? If you cannot easily think of supporting paragraphs with concrete examples, you should probably choose a different essay topic.
- Can you fully answer the question within the word limit? Or will you end up writing a poor summary of something that might be interesting as a 4,000 word IB Extended Essay?
- Can you keep the reader’s interest from the first word? The entire essay must be interesting, considering the fact admissions tutors will probably only spend a few minutes reading each essay. Grab the reader’s attention and keep it.
Be very wary of alienating or offending the reader. He or she may not share your political, religious or moral views. E.g. do not say everyone should worship your God, do not say the Republican Party is evil and the Democratic party is good, do not say abortion is good. You can, however, approach these topics and say how they impact you. Or you can provide a balanced essay that examines different viewpoints.
If you plan on writing something technical, then make sure you can make it interesting and not merely throw around complicated scientific words that may mean little to the admissions tutor.
Do not try to be funny.
Just a few thoughts:
- Will an admissions tutor remember your essay after reading hundreds of other essays?
- What will he/she remember about your topic?
- What will his/her lasting impression of you be?
Remember your essay is part of a whole, it must fit with the rest of your application. You should not repeat what is already listed elsewhere in your application, the admissions tutors are too busy to read the same thing twice.
Some critical questions that need to be asked
Sometimes the questions are more important than the answers.
How many universities am I going to apply to and therefore how many essays will I need to write?
Our advice is only apply to a university if you’re serious about going there. Do not apply to too many as it will be a lot of work for you.
Who can I turn to for help with feedback on my draft essays?
Tip! Try asking your English teacher or university/college counselor
Will I have to write essays for universities outside the United States?
Some non-US universities may require an essay, some even have a ‘video essay’ and some will require a personal statement or motivation letter. Wigsbury has made modules on both of these.
Writing your Essay..
Never lose sight of purpose and audience!
Persuade the admissions tutor that you are worthy of admission, and make the admissions tutor aware that you are more than just a bunch of grades on your transcript.
Every essay requires a unique approach, there is no one-fit-all method of essay writing. However, if you keep the following tips in mind you shouldn’t go too far wrong.
1. Answer the question
Don’t write to the question you would like to write to, right to the question they have given you. Going off topic is one of the most common errors. Avoid it!
4. Big words? Just write normal English...
Choose an appropriate register for the topic, just write normal, correct English
5. Use Imagery and clear prose
The university/college essay is an ideal platform to use imagery since the entire essay requires your experiences as supporting details.
As a reminder, imagery appeals to the five senses:
- Visual imagery engages the sense of sight. This is what you can see, and includes visual descriptions. Physical attributes including color, size, shape, lightness and darkness, shadows, and shade are all part of visual imagery.
- Gustatory imagery engages the sense of taste. This is what you can taste, and includes flavors.
- Tactile imagery engages the sense of touch. This is what you can feel, and includes textures and the many sensations a human being experiences when touching something.
- Auditory imagery engages the sense of hearing. This is the way things sound. Literary devices such as onomatopoeia and alliteration can help create sounds in writing.
Olfactory imagery engages the sense of smell.
8. Conclusions are critical
The conclusion is your last chance to impress/persuade the reader to offer you a place at the university.
You could consider some or all of the following to include in your conclusion
- Expand upon the broader implications of your discussion.
- Link your conclusion to your introduction to establish a sense of balance
- Frame your discussion within a larger context or show that your topic has widespread appeal.
- Make some attempt at closure.
2. Be Yourself
Admissions tutors want to learn about you and your writing talents. It’s more about describing your feelings and reactions to an event rather than describing the event itself. You are the interesting person here, and you are at the centre.
Stay away from grand themes with which you have little personal experience.
3. Be Original
Even seemingly boring essay topics can sound interesting if you take a creative approach.
e.g ‘I have my own horse and I go and feed my horse every morning before school.’
‘I clamber out of bed on a cold winter’s morning, every morning. It is dark outside and my bed is warm and tempting. I throw on my winter clothes, grab something to snack on from the refrigerator and clamber onto my bike for the 3-mile ride to the stables.
However I have chosen to do this, and my horse, her name is Snowy by the way, needs breakfast just as urgently as I do.’
6. Spend the most time on your introduction
Admissions tutors are busy, they will only spend a couple of minutes on each essay. You must use your introduction to grab their interest from the beginning.
Create a sense of curiosity in your introduction.
7. Use Transitions
You must use transitions between paragraphs to preserve the logical flow of your essay.
9. Feedback from others
Anyone who has ever written something will have soon discovered that when you read your own writing over and over again you lose focus, you lose the ability to see the weaknesses and errors; in short, you can’t see the wood for the trees. This is why it’s important to get a fresh pair of eyes to look over your work. Ask them to critique your work with reference to the following:
- Does the essay answer the question?
- Is the sentence structure varied – some long, some short?
- Clichés? Avoid them like the plague!
- Correct use of transitions?
- Appropriate use of imagery?
- What is the best/worst part of the essay?
- What about the essay is memorable?
- Is every single sentence relevant to the essay?
- What does the essay reveal about my personality?
10. Proof read!
1. Do not rely on spell check.
2. When proofreading look for the following:
- Poorly constructed sentences
- Repetition of words or phrases
- Spelling and grammatical errors
- Does everything relate to the main argument, and crucially does it answer the question?
When you have finished your writing, go away and take a break. Come back the next day and look at it with a fresh pair of eyes, you’re more likely to spot the errors.
Wigsbury Frequently asked questions
Quick answers to the important questions
Do all US universities/colleges require essays?
No. It is a mixed picture, some require one essay, some require multiple essays and some do not require essays at all.
How long is a university/college essay?
Some essays are very short, maybe only 50 words. Most are however longer, typically 500 words.
How many essays will I have to write?
This of course depends on how many university/colleges you apply to. I would suggest you don’t apply to too many universities otherwise you will be writing a lot of essays.
Do I have a free choice as to what I can write about?
Universities/colleges list their essay topics on their websites. Sometimes the list of topics includes a free choice essay, but not always.
What should I look out for when writing a university/college essay?
Try and be original, answer the question, make your essay interesting, and of course proofread it.
What is the purpose of the university/college essay?
From your perspective as a student, the purpose is to impress the admissions tutor so that he or she offers you a place.
From the perspective of the admissions tutor he or she would like to see the quality of your writing and get to know you as a person, to hear your voice.
When should I start writing my university/college essays?
Given the fact that writing a university/college essay is going to take you much longer than you anticipate, my advice is to start early. Try to get them all done by the end of the summer vacation between grades 11 and 12. This will take the pressure off you when you’re in grade 12. And remember, you will be making your university/college applications during the first three months of grade 12.