Things You Need to Know to Write Great US College Essays

Things You Need to Know to Write Great US College Essays

Part I: The Common Application Personal Statement

With the application season in full swing, our students at Quantum Prep are well on their way towards finishing their applications for US universities. As US college admissions consultants, we get the most questions by far on one topic – the Personal Statement. There are good reasons why people are so concerned about this too: this one short essay of only 650 words needs to represent you to the admissions officer. It’s your best opportunity to show your voice and make your application stand out among all the dry numbers and lists. It’s also, by far, the part of your application that you have the most control over. For these reasons, it’s critical to make sure your Personal Statement gets the attention it deserves. At Quantum Prep, our consultants help students develop their ideas into essays that stand out, and here are some of our best tips for getting started.

Brainstorming: Finding the right topic

The key to getting an essay that you can be proud to present to a college is finding the right topic – something that’s easier said than done. With only 650 words to work with, it’s impossible to present everything in just one essay, so picking a topic that you feel can confident about representing you is absolutely critical. As a registered teacher in Hong Kong, I’ve seen students in all grade levels ignore brainstorming or think of it as busywork to appease their teachers. But when brainstorming for your Personal Statement, here are some tips to make sure you get useful starting points out of your brainstorming efforts:

 1. Memories you can describe well

Details are what breathes life into an essay, bridging the gap between the printed page and your reader’s imagination. At Quantum Prep, many of our students’ most successful essays engage the reader’s attention, letting the admissions officers walk a mile in the student’s shoes, as the saying goes. Think about moments in your life where the details are still crystal clear and write out as many details as you can off the top of your head. Then, take an objective look at what you’ve written down (or find a friend or your consultant!), and see if there are any common themes that your mind naturally pays attention to. As a teacher and consultant, when I see students who say that they “don’t know” why they do or enjoy certain things, it’s often because they’ve never taken the time to explore how their own mind works. Everybody cares about different things, and this exercise helps you identify what your mind has a natural inclination towards.

Conversely, overly exaggerated stories (or ones that aren’t even true to begin with) often lack the details that make an essay feel real, resulting in poor personal statements. Not everyone can be a fiction writer after all!

2. Be genuine about yourself at your most normal, not only at your greatest

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time? How do you act when you’re at home with nothing to do? Remember that the personal statement is an opportunity for your admissions officer to see if you would fit into their campus culture, and one way they want to identify that is to see how you are in your daily life. Remember that your application forms will already have all the details about your achievements and awards; the personal statement is not the place to rehash those same things! In fact, many admissions officers at the top universities we’ve spoken to over the years have mentioned how personal statements that just show daily life can be very effective – it’s a breath of fresh air to see “real people” and not just caricatures of “student leadership”! The admissions officers are looking for a balanced student body. With that said, though, if you ARE an elite power athlete who is at 110% every day of your life, or a prolific volunteer that just can’t ever say “no”, don’t be afraid to present that too – just remember to be genuine.

3. Things about yourself you’ve always wanted to tell people close to you

Everyone acts different in front of different people – that’s a fact of life. But is there anything you think your group of friends doesn’t know about you? Or that your parents don’t realize you’ve changed about? Or that your teachers have misunderstood about you? That’s great, because this is exactly what admissions officers want to see too. This forces you to think about yourself from your own perspective, without the influence of those around you, something that has gotten harder and harder to do in the age of social media. But for an admissions officer, they want to see what you have to say about yourself. It can be difficult for them to pick that out of an entire application profile which will always be influenced by your surroundings – your school may impose restrictions on pursuing your genuine interests, your activities may be limited by what’s available – but your own voice can still be free to say what you want.

4. Conflicts and turning points

Conflicts exist at the heart of every good story. This is also true for college application statements. Conflicts also don’t need to only be about winners or losers of an argument – we would always be interested in seeing anything that you as an applicant are willing to take a stand on, as these tell us about your personal values. Think about issues that you care strongly about – including things that are lighthearted. Conflicts don’t always need to be serious! Your pet peeve being small talk or insistence on never double-dipping fries can be just as telling about your character as someone’s staunch support for specific social issues.

Turning points in your life in which you took an active role can also be a great vehicle for showing personal growth. However, be careful to think carefully about why you took the actions you took – one of the biggest pet peeves of admissions officers are students who say that they’ve *always* liked something (really? Even when you were a baby?) or moments when students had a sudden and magical realization – these are often the opposite of growth, when it’s something that happens to you rather than something you take an active role in.

There are no set answers on writing the US personal statements – for every rule you may see, there will always be a dozen exceptions. But finding the right topic to represent you is the first and most important step towards writing an essay that can stand out among your fellow applicants, so spend the time to think things through before you begin!

Part II: College-specific supplement essays

While the personal statement takes the spotlight when we’re looking at college application essays, they’re not the only piece of writing that most colleges will see. Among the top 100 universities and liberal arts colleges in the US, nearly all of them will have between one to three (and sometimes even more) supplementary essays that are specific to their college. Even more crucially, a consistent message from admissions officers is that they consider their own college-specific supplement essays to be even more important than the personal statement! While the personal statements tell us about you in general and show us “your voice”, the supplement essays serve to identify specific characteristics that the universities are looking for in their applicants.

Although most competitive colleges will have their own unique supplement essays, we can still see some common trends. Here are four of the most common types of supplement essays, and how to handle them.

The Why Essay

Definitely the most common type of supplement essay, the Why essay can take a number of different forms, from the Why College essay to the Why Major essay. At its heart, though, the Why essay asks you to show that you have done your research, and that you have specific reasons why you are choosing a specific college.

“Why Major” and “Why College” are often inextricable. You can’t choose a college without considering its academic offerings – you’re applying to be a student after all – and you can’t consider a major outside of the context of where you’re applying – how many English majors do you know from MIT? (Actually, they do have a Bachelor of Science degree in Literature, but most literature students would be hard-pressed to explain why they’re choosing to do that at one of the most STEM-focused universities in the world!) In order to write a good Why essay, then, you must be able to justify your reasons for choosing the path you’re choosing. But what if you’re undecided about your major? Universities are still academic institutions, and they would still like to understand what kind of a path you are on, even if it may cross several distinct majors – if you’re undecided, be the kind of applicant who has too many interests and can’t choose one, not the kind with no idea what you’re doing!

With that said, here are some guidelines on how to approach the ubiquitous Why essay.

Think about your goals. As Admissions Consultants, we help our students develop clear goals for their future and work together to lay out concrete paths to achieve those goals. This is also a great way to think about Why essays, because it helps colleges understand two questions at the heart of a good Why essay: 1) how can this college help you reach your goals, and 2) does your choice of major make sense?

Find out what essays you need to write early. Work together with your Admissions Consultant to see how your dream university’s essays have changed over the years – this gives you hints about what they’re looking for in their applicants. It can help you greatly to read a university’s specific essay prompts before going to a campus tour or attending an admissions info session, as these events often stress the things that a university is most proud of. They’d love to see you talk about those same qualities in their application essays, especially when they tie into your goals for the future.

Do your research. As an Admissions Consultant with over a dozen years of experience in education, I have seen countless students try to take shortcuts in their work. For Why essays, one of the most egregious mistakes a student can make is writing a generic essay that can work with multiple different universities. Every admissions officer will have stories about students who sent applications with the name of the wrong university in the essays – whether a genuine mistake or a misguided attempt to reuse an essay full of empty platitudes, this should be an obvious blunder to avoid. Instead, make sure you can tie in specific details of a university into your goals. Does a university follow a unique curriculum that matches your interests perfectly? Does it have any specific resources you could make use of? Make sure you are specific too – my rule of thumb is that if a sentence still makes sense if I change the name of a university, then it’s not specific enough!

Make sure the essay talks about you. All too often we see students name-drop other people in a Why essay. Whether it’s idolizing famous alumni who went to that school, listing off renowned professors in the faculty, gushing over random landmarks, or trying to subtly drop the name of a distant relative who attended, these cliché statements simply don’t tell the admissions officers anything about you as the applicant. Just like how we require students to consider their goals, ensure that anything you talk about in your Why essay relates to you specifically. One of the most common mistakes that we see in Why essays is when a student simply praises a university and lists out its laudable qualities. But remember, the university already knows that they are great; what they want to learn is why YOU are choosing them!

The Activity Essay

The Activity essay used to be a required essay within the Common App. Even after it was removed from the main application, however, many universities have kept some form of an Activity essay in their own supplements. It’s easy to see why – many applicants, especially at the most competitive universities, have been involved in far more activities than they can write about. The Activity essay allows applicants to show off a bit and write about something that they’ve done that they’re proud of.

Most Activity essays ask applicants to reflect briefly on an extracurricular experience they’ve had. These experiences can be in any kind of activity, and in fact, in my years of experience, I’ve had students write very successful essays even in unexpected activities such as gaming! All that matters is that the experience shows one keyword: initiative.

Demonstrate your initiative. Activities, where things happen *to* you, are rarely interesting to an admissions officer. When writing about your activities, consider what kind of initiative you’ve shown – this can take many different forms, such as your leadership, commitment, or achievements. Make a list of your activities, and choose one that shows a good balance between these elements – a one-off internship or volunteer trip may not be as meaningful as a long-term club committee position. Similarly, a seemingly strong leadership position may not be convincing if it’s not backed by corroborating initiatives that you’ve taken.

Show, don’t tell. If ever there was a time to paint a picture of you in action, it’s during an Activity essay. These essays are often more visual, letting your reader imagine you at work doing something you love. One of the most common mistakes we see is when students turn an activity essay into a laundry list of achievements or awards – remember, you already have your activities list in the other parts of your application.

The Community Essay

An increasingly common essay type, Community essays usually contain a few keywords, such as working in groups or a school’s mission statement. These essays challenge you to show whether you would be a good fit for the university’s campus community. No matter whether the essay asks you to elaborate on a community you’re already part of or how you’d fit into a future community, there are a few general rules you should follow.

Choose an ideal community. For the essays that ask you to describe a community you’re already a part of, make sure you choose a well-defined group where you interact with or at least recognize most of the people in that group. Your entire high school may not be a meaningful community to write about, much less “all of Hong Kong”, two communities that many students mistakenly jump to immediately when they see these topics. Instead, perhaps think of a club you’re part of, your immediate friend group, or even your family – these smaller groups often have had a bigger impact on your own growth and development, and vice versa.

Identify your role in the community. Not everyone can be a leader all the time, and the Community essay often doesn’t even expect that at all. Instead, we want to see how you can cooperate within a larger group. Part of this is outlining how your chosen community is structured, and what kind of role you have within that group. It’s important to consider that your dream university is looking for a diverse student body – that doesn’t mean that every member is diverse, but instead, the group is made up of many unique individuals.

Consider the university’s mission statement. While not all Community essays touch upon this, each university does have its own atmosphere. Some are famous for their pressure-cooker-style of stress and are looking for students who can both handle and thrive in that environment; others might look for students with a commitment to specific causes. Ensure that your Community essay reflects the same values that your university is looking for.

Quantum Prep is an education consultancy that focuses on placing their students at the best colleges or universities. We boast of diverse results. In addition to the traditional rap sheet of prestigious university acceptances, our consultants like to highlight the different paths they have sent students on. All of our students are different; we are proud of our one-on-one tailored approach towards university counselling. Submit your information for a complimentary 30-minute initial meeting, where you can get tailored individualized advice on how to put your best foot forward. 

By Conrad Yu, Director of Development

Published 18-07-2020

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