The Importance of U.S. University Application Essays
Writing essays is one of the most challenging parts of applying to U.S. universities. We estimate that if you apply to 12 universities, you will need to submit 40+ pages of well-written composition.
The best U.S colleges and universities look for candidates with self-awareness, character, emotional maturity, leadership, critical thinking, and demonstrated passion. The U.S. university application essays (along with your letters of recommendation and interviews) are an opportunity to highlight these qualities, and to distinguish yourself from a competitive pool of applicants.
U.S. universities may ask you to write on a variety of topics. You could be asked to write on a mundane topic, a formative life experience, a complex social issue, or even abstract questions such as “Are we alone” and “How do you feel about weekends?”.
Done correctly, your essays give the admission officers a glimpse of the real you; they show what you can do when you have time to think or work on a writing project.
Writing the University Application Essay
Each university application essay you write must be grammatically correct, well written, and authentic. Here are ten tips for writing an application essay that represents your strengths and passions in the best possible way.
- Be yourself: When writing your application essay, present yourself as you are, rather than trying to be the model candidate you think the university wants. In fact, there is no such thing as an “ideal candidate.” U.S. university admissions officers try to build a diverse student body, so let your personality shine through in your writing!
During the admission interview, you may be asked about information provided in your application essay, and any inconsistencies between the persona on paper and the real you will be apparent to an experienced U.S. university admissions officer.
A few things to avoid –
- Don’t embellish your achievements, titles, and offices. Be honest.
- Don’t write about life experiences that you haven’t faced; you will just come across as unnatural or dishonest.
- Don’t try to make an impression by using sophisticated words; just focus on producing a compelling essay
- Don’t read the essay repeatedly; it will only drive you nuts.
- Don’t overthink it: Once you find a topic that’s close to your heart, sit down and write the essay. Edit the piece and walk away from the table. Come back a few hours later to read the essay again. After a final round of proofreading and editorial cuts, show the essay to a parent, friend or teacher who knows you well. Ask the person who proofreads your essay if the writing sounds like you. If you are working with a writing coach, have your coach read your essay and give personal feedback. Incidentally, essay writing coaching is one of our key offerings.
- Focus on one thing: When you pick a topic, be coherent in your writing so that the reader can follow the main idea of the essay from the beginning to the end. Don’t try to share too many aspects of your life or personality in a single essay. Doing so can make you sound scattered and superficial. At the same time, don’t write an essay that doesn’t offer any real insights into you as a person.
- Tell them what’s not on the application: The essays are an opportunity to share information that does not fit in with other sections of the application. Look at the overall university application and ask the question, “What else do they need to know about me?”. The answer should lead you to the topics for your essay. Find a story or event in your life that meant something to you and write about how it has shaped you as an individual.
- Be descriptive: Don’t just introduce a fact, make it interesting for the reader by adding details. For instance, when you make a statement such as, “I love to meet people from diverse backgrounds”, also mention the occasions or the activities that allowed you to do that. Whom did you meet and where? What did you learn from meeting these people? Use names of the people in the story to make it personal.
- Pay attention to essay word limits: S. universities generally impose a maximum word limit on application essays. If the essay has a maximum word limit, stick to it. You don’t have to reach the limit exactly, but if the university asks for 500 words and you write only 100 words, the admissions officer may wonder about your writing ability. On the other hand, you may irritate the admissions officer if you write 700 words where only 500 words are required. Also, be aware that most essays are submitted electronically, and the application may discard everything you write over the limit (even if it is just a word or two). However, if no limit is stated, remember that admissions officers only spend about three to five minutes reading the essays, so stick to a word limit of 700 to 800 per essay. The admissions staff at U.S. universities understand that the application essays offer only a glimpse of your personality and don’t tell your whole story. Give them enough to want to meet you in the next stage of the admission process (which is often an interview).
- Be likable: S. Universities are communities where individuals must get along with each other. While reading the university application essay, the admission counsellor is trying to decipher if you are the kind person they’d like to be their roommate, lab partner, or be willing to work with on a group project. Instead of an essay that sounds clichéd, develop a piece of writing that is intelligent, subtle, and fresh. Ask yourself, “What do I want the reader to think about me?” and “Is the story accurate and compelling?”
- Follow the instructions: Whether it’s the specified word limit or the general directions provided on writing the essay, know that the university has put a lot of thought into the essay writing instructions. Read and understand the essay writing instructions before you plan your university application essay themes.
It is critical that you pay attention to the prompt you are given and that your essay answers all the questions asked in the prompt. For example, if the prompt says, “Describe a difficult situation you overcame and what you learned from it”, be sure that your essays talks about the situation, how you overcame it, and what you learned from it. It is surprisingly common for applicants to only answer part of a prompt.
- Learn from others: The most efficient way for learning about writing a university application essay is to read the essays submitted by successful candidates. You’ll be surprised that instead of sophisticated stories, the essays that are well received by admission counsellors are either the ones that have a consistent plot, or ones that paint a true picture of someone’s life.
Note, however that you should NEVER copy something from someone else’s essay as U.S. universities consider copying to be dishonest. U.S. universities do not tolerate plagiarism and many use sophisticated software tools to detect non-original work.
- Be entertaining: You want to write an essay the admission officer will not want to put down. One way to do that is to write an essay that is entertaining. Regardless of the serious or sentimental nature of your topic, humor is one way to grab the reader’s attention. Another is to open with an anecdote to engage the reader from the very beginning. A compelling subject, powerful narrative and a unique essay writing style will help your university application stand apart from the dozens of other applications the admissions officer reads every day.
So, be honest about yourself and your experiences as you write the university application essays. Use your own voice to show how your mind works and how you are distinctive. Be mindful in your use of humor as what’s funny to one person may be offensive to another.
Although application essays offer you a unique opportunity to share more about yourself, they are probably not going to make or break your chances of admission. The application essay is just one of the pieces of the overall application puzzle. Keep that in context as you plan your university application strategy.
Eagle Pathways can help with all aspects of your application to U.S. universities, including essay writing. A key component of our ApplyWrite program is essay coaching where we assign you an experienced, native English speaking essay writing coach (usually an experienced U.S. teacher or professional writer) to help you develop an essay strategy that shines a bright light on all your strengths and passions. Contact Eagle Pathways to learn more.
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Eagle Pathways is an elite American education consultancy headquartered in Silicon Valley that works with families across the U.S. and in China to plan the educational futures of their children. We offer clients the best one-stop source for all US University admissions needs. We are dedicated to providing clients with the personalized attention, guidance, and skills necessary to be successful in the US University application process, in university studies, and in life.
The Eagle Pathways team of US university lecturers, teachers, former admissions interviewers, and industry experts advise our clients on admissions trends, what universities look for, key preparation tips, and how to navigate an increasingly complex and dynamic admissions process. We then provide the training, experiences and services to get our clients admitted to top US universities through our three focus areas – ApplyWrite, LEAD, and preVIEW.