The Application Essay

The most difficult portion of the application is often the essay or essays.  Though challenging, the essay provides opportunity not found elsewhere in most applications.  It is the forum in which you tell schools what you most want them to know about you. Although all essay questions steer the writer in some direction, most are asked in a manner that allows for tremendous variety in the responses.  This is the section where you can add personality to a folder filled with paper, and it is best to make the most of the opportunity.

The following suggestions might help:


A common but most damaging mistake is to ask yourself, “What does the admission office want to hear?”  This leads to writing that sounds all too much like many other essays and is devoid of any individual personality.  Identify in advance what you want to communicate to the admission staff about yourself.   Usually, you can then fit those ideas into the answer for any typical application question. Allow for parts of your character to emerge in your writing and be honest in your words. Do not try to be anyone other than yourself.


First and foremost, what you write about should be of real interest to you.  Admission officers look for commitment, enthusiasm and real passion from potential applicants.  These traits can only come through in your writing if you choose a subject that elicits emotion on your part. The best essay I read one year centered on a fight between two sisters.  Anyone reading this essay learned a great deal about the student (mostly very positive) from this account.  Do try to avoid “McEssay” topics: the big game, your favorite pet or family member, the most popular book of the year, etc.  Search your thoughts considerably for what you would like an admission officer to know about you. Your counselor is eager to help!


Too often, students write on wonderful topics but only scratch the surface with their message. Strive to achieve real personal depth, using cogent anecdotes to illustrate your points.  English teachers typically advise their students to “show, not tell” in their writing, and the same lesson applies here.  Thus, if you do feel the need to write on one of the more common “McEssay” topics, work to make it original and distinct to you.  Write more from the perspective of what they will learn about you than what they will learn about the topic—use the topic as the lens through which they will view you.   Thus, it is best to choose the narrowest lens, a single moment in time, to allow you to shine through with specific and illustrative examples.

Specifics ALWAYS beat generalities. Don’t write a travelogue of your trip to Chile, write about one afternoon spent talking with a teenager there about politics, and what this tells us (and told you) about yourself.


“I am a senior at Eastside Preparatory School.  I compete in crew and am interested in studying history…” is not the best way to approach an essay.  Remember that you already have given them a great deal of factual information in other portions of your application and thus there is no need to regurgitate your resume.   The essay is an opportunity to elaborate on some of those facts What do you enjoy in rowing?  Why is history an interest?


Many good essays contain admissions of a candidate’s weaknesses as well as strengths.  The aforementioned “fight” writer portrayed herself as sloppy and a bit stubborn; however, a lot of real strengths came out as well.  These strengths were made more believable by the honesty shown early in the writing.


There is no good excuse for any type of error in an essay of this importance. Errors that could have been corrected with revision often distract completely from otherwise solid material.  It is a good idea to let someone else read your essay, both to review clarity and to catch any mistakes you might otherwise miss.  Remember, to do a good job of proofreading and sharing your essay with someone else, the essay must be started well in advance of the deadline.