All about essays

By Rajkamal Rao  

An EV charging on the Stanford University campus, June 2019. Image: Rao Advisors.

The Essay or Writing Sample ranked 5th in the admissions factors list and continues to be a critical component of a college application. It is the one thing that brings out the true personality of a candidate unrelated to objective measures such as grades and exams. Good essays can be winners, all other things being equal.

According to the College Board, essay questions on college applications can be broadly grouped into three types.

1.  The “Describe” essay - is intended to know more about who you are.  Examples:
  • Please complete a one-page personal statement
  • Describe a person you admire or a book that you love?
  • What is an extracurricular activity that has been meaningful to you?
  • Describe one way in which you have contributed to your community, whether in your family, the classroom or your neighborhood - MIT
  • A community to which you belong and the footprint you have left. - Yale
  • A time in the last few years when you felt genuine excitement learning about something.

2.  The “Explain why you want to attend our college” essay - intended to know more about what your goals are.  Examples:
  • Why do you want to attend this school?
  • Tell us about your career goals and any plans you may have for graduate study
Please review our post about how to compose such "Statement of Purpose" based essays. 

3.  The “Discuss the Issue" type essay - intended to evaluate your ability to think.  Examples:
  • Do you believe there's a generation gap? Describe the differences between your generation and others.
  • What's so odd about odd numbers? - University of Chicago
  • If you could live for a day as another person, past or present, who would it be? Why? (35 words or fewer)
While there are no hard and fast rules about how to write essays, the following tips should help.

“I think it's actually best to present yourself as who you are to a college, rather than how you imagine that they might want you to be. First of all, you want a college to take you - not your imaginary friend.  And the second is, show your essay to a teacher who knows you well, or to a parent that you're on good terms with, or even to a close friend, and say, "Does this sound like me?" If the friend, the teacher, or the parent says, "You know, this really sounds like you," you have succeeded in your college essay. Because presenting yourself as who you are is your best bet in the college admissions process.”  Jeff Brenzel, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions, Yale.

“The best advice that I would give to any student writing an essay is to, number one, answer the question that is asked—that's generally important—and do it as honestly and as personally as they can. So don't try to be somebody else, and don't have anybody else's voice shine through in your essay. Just be yourself in your own voice, tell us the answer to the question, and that's all we want to know.” Stuart Schmill, Dean of Admissions, MIT.

Have your work reviewed by someone whose English is excellent but is also neutral in criticism of your work.  "Find someone who did not raise you from infancy to proofread your essay."  Lacy Crawford, Author. 

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