Writing the Essay

Write an essay about yourself? Sounds like a fairly easy task, even when they impose some restrictions. You can’t merely summarize your life. You must focus on a person or experience that profoundly affected you, or speak to personality traits that portray who you are. Getting tougher?

Marketing yourself is so much a part of the application process that it can’t be emphasized enough and the essay is your golden opportunity to shine. Here are some guidelines to help you:

Guidelines of Essay Writing

1: Write about the smaller yet more revealing moments of your life. We all have those experiences when something seemingly meaningless causes us to pause or provokes a profound thought. It doesn’t need to solicit tears from the reader, but it shouldn’t solicit yawns either. You won’t score any points trying to impress the reader with how you plan to achieve world peace. “Been there, done that,” as they say. It has to be honest, yet creative.

2: If you’re funny, it’s okay to write funny. But the fact of the matter is that so much of what is presented by the would-be comic writer as funny is lost on the reader. If you’re serious it’s better to be yourself and write that way. You can still be creative, insightful, and expressive. Need ideas? Find sample essays to read.

3: Get started early. Applications are usually late because of the essay. It’s not going to get any easier to face a blank sheet of paper the closer you get to the deadline. A good essay takes planning. Carry a notepad with you and keep it by your bed. You never know when that brilliant idea will pop into your head. If you don’t write it down, you’ll forget it. Collect memories. Review your childhood and make notes about people and experiences that touched you in some way. Why did they affect you? It would be a good idea to find out what questions you will be facing. Call and ask the admissions office. Remember, all this takes time. Start early.

4: Just talk about yourself honestly. The words will come naturally. Don’t let the pressure give you writer’s block. That’s why we begin the process early. You know as a junior, a sophomore, or even a freshman in high school that you will be facing that “college essay.” Work on it over time. Make a draft, several drafts. Let people read it. Ask parents, friends and teachers for descriptive words and phrases to paint a portrait of you. How does their profile compare to your own assessment of yourself?

5: Find a topic you’re comfortable with. Having filled a notebook with thoughts and anecdotes, it’s time to weed through it all and focus on that one special topic. Need help deciding? You could call the admissions office and ask what topics they are tired of seeing. They’ll probably have a list. Ask your parents or teachers for guidance. Don’t write your essay in solitude. The admissions staff is going to be reading it, so it’s a good idea to get the reaction of others before sending it off. It could mean the difference between an affordable college education and something less.

6: Technical writing skills are extremely important. Poor grammar and misspelled words can doom an otherwise creative essay. Besides, if you’re graduating from high school you should know the difference between their and there or your and you’re. To, two and too are easy to confuse as well. Again, let several people read your essay for errors and content. Do you know a journalist? Or maybe your English teacher could look it over for you—not a bad idea. One little mistake makes a lasting impression.

7: If you’re using a mail-merge function to personalize your generic essay for each college and university you’re applying to, make sure you make the changes and get the right essay with the right application. Telling UVA how much you are looking forward to attending Virginia Tech is a real nasty little slip. Don’t get in a hurry. Check and double check. Two o’clock in the morning is not the time to be stuffing envelopes and doing complicated word processing maneuvers.

8: Make it your essay. It’s your one chance to shine, so toot your horn. If you say it right, they’ll most likely believe you. Admissions officers will judge your essay on your command of the English language, meaningful content, and creativity. The rest is up to you.

Sample Essay Questions:

  • 1. Discuss a recent scientific advance and the important legal, ethical, or philosophical question it raises.
    2. If you could interview any historical figure, who would it be and why?
    3. Discuss an issue of personal, local, or national concern and its importance to you.
    4. You are running for President. Come up with a campaign slogan and a platform.
    5. Do you think it is ever appropriate to break the law?
    6. Given the authority to establish a holiday, what would you commemorate?
    7. Defend your least conventional belief.
    8. Looking out your bedroom window, describe what you see.


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