Admissions Essay Writing: Part 2

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In my last post on Admissions Essay Writing, I explained that winning essays require not only perfect grammar but also honesty, individuality, and imagination. I discussed honesty last time. Here I will discuss individuality.

Admissions essay readers will sit down with a seemingly never-ending stack of essays. As they read, the essays will blur together until they can remember only a handful individually. You want yours to be among this select few. How can you make that happen? Quite simply, know what the essay readers want to see and find a way to answer one of the essay questions by highlighting that aspect of your application. In general, they want to see four major qualities.

Leadership: Did you CHANGE something? Obviously the larger the number of leadership positions you have held and the higher those positions were the better. But essay readers don’t simply want to identify popular students with the charm to win elections or gain club appointments. They want to identify effective advocates. They are not looking for someone who held a position in name only, but one who actually effected change on an issue he or she cared deeply about. Here, as elsewhere, quality trumps quantity.

Initiative: Did you CREATE something new? Essay readers are looking for students who took the initiative to do something few if any others did. Did you notice a gap in extracurricular activities and start a club? Did you observe a gap in your school’s curriculum and lobby the school to add a class or participate in a Saturday or Summer class on your own, perhaps in art (e.g., graphic design or portfolio creation) or science (e.g., geology or astronomy)? Did you take a science fair project a step further, creating a Web site or an amateur film for a student film festival to increase public awareness (e.g., regarding public health)?


: Did you TRY different types of activities? You don’t have to be someone who has participated in a million extracurricular activities to make an impressive candidate. In fact, students who have been in EVERYTHING may appear unfocused. Ideally, you should have something meaningful to say about everything that goes on your resume or in your application essay. What did you do, learn, or create? So how can you be well-rounded without being unfocused? Quite simply, cover as many different sectors of extracurricular activities as possible: art, drama, or music, sports, public service, student government, and an extension of academics (e.g., French Club).

Passion: Do you LOVE something? Essay readers do not expect you to have your major already selected, but they will expect that you’ve done enough exploring to have some idea of what you might want to do, and, to some degree, they expect to see that reflected in your application. They expect to see your going out of your way to deepen your understanding, skill, or experience with SOMETHING, be it art, writing, music, drama, athletics, or science. Did you take an AP class in a subject about which you are passionate? Participate in a pre-college program during the summer? Play a sport, serve as assistant coach to younger players, and/or participate in national competitions? Enter science fairs, take science courses in the community, tutor younger students in science, and/or apply for a summer research program?

Once you have identified one or two aspects of your academic career involving leadership, initiative, well-roundedness, or passion, select the essay prompt (background, failure, instance where you challenged a belief or idea, place you are content, or accomplishment marking your transition to young adult) that best fits.

For example, suppose for a science fair project, you checked the pH levels in a lake in your community, discovering that they’re either too high or too low, causing fish to die. You decide you’re going to bring this issue to the community by creating a Web site with background information, the details of your experiments (including your findings), and the consequences to the environment. Unfortunately, only a handful of people visit your site. So you decide to attend a community board meeting to bring the issue to the attention of community leaders, or you create a shocking YouTube video with an attention-grabbing title, thereby increasing the community’s awareness. This example is perfect for the essay prompt on failure. You can highlight the fact that you took the initiative to extend your science fair project into something benefiting the community and demonstrate that you learn from your mistakes. One approach failed, so you tried another.

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