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Monday, July 23, 2018

2018-2019 #UVA Application Essay Advice

One of the most common questions I get from students is "what was your favorite essay." It's a hard question to answer because I have read so many excellent essays over the years and could never pick just one favorite. Instead, I often talk about what makes an essay good. Notice that I didn't say great or memorable. Every essay doesn't have to be off-the-charts amazing. They don't have to be destined for publication (more on that later). They have to be good. Aim for good.

A good essay conveys the voice and personality of the writer. A good essay shares something that hasn't come through in the other parts of the application. A good essay has made it to it's final form after a round or two of editing. So how does this all come together? Well, I have three main pieces of advice that I give every year:


1. Don't "Overthink" the Topic

The essay prompts colleges give you are deliberately broad because we want students to have some room to take an essay in whatever direction feels right for them. I think some people spend a lot of time googling essay prompts (that's a major source of traffic for the blog in the fall) because the think someone will tell them what the college wants. What we want is to get to know you through these essays. Use the topic that lets you be authentic in your writing.

As you get closer to the deadline, you may start hearing others talk about their essays. Don't let other people's essays make you second guess your topic. You may be tempted to change your essay. I don't think this is always a good idea. You probably wrote with more authenticity about your first choice topic than you will if you use a topic that popped into your head during a moment of panic.


2. Don't Feel Beholden to the Academic Essay Format

Many students are taught to write the "five paragraph essay" in school (I learned it when I was in grade school, too!). This kind of essay has an introduction, three supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion. This format is fantastic for class or for a testing situation, but it's not necessarily the best way to let your personality shine through. Don't feel obligated to use the academic essay format for your application essays. Application essays are personal statements. Use the format that works best for the story or message you want to convey.

I usually tell students to free write first and then cobble together the structure that makes sense for their essay.


3. Get Some Advice.

It's smart to get someone you trust to look over your essays. Remember, though, that these essays need to convey your voice and style, not someone else's. When someone gives you advice that you find helpful, rework it to fit your style. If someone gives you advice that doesn't feel right, don't use it. This sounds obvious, but when you are having a moment of self-doubt, you may need a reminder.

If you're a parent reading this, try to empower your student to say no when the advice they are getting isn't right for them. There are some well-meaning, but not necessarily helpful folks who may want to chime in during this process. The student is the expert on what a high school senior sounds like. They should have final say in what goes into their essays.


  Bonus Tip: Don't Be Intimidated by "Essays that Worked."

The first time you have to do anything, it's really common to google it. If you google "college application essays," you will come across some essays that will be said to have gotten someone into a dream school. First of all, an essay alone doesn't do that. A compelling application, which includes well-written, interesting essays gets someone into college. Second, essays that get published are not normal. Most application essays are never going to see publication. It's fine to look for inspiration online and in books, but do not let an essay about some great feat convince you that your essays needs to be over-the-top impressive. Again, those essays aren't normal.

Most students talk about everyday things in their essays. They write about an academic interest, an activity, a family situation, or a work of art/music/literature. The way you can distinguish yourself from the other students who are going to write about that same topic? You write about why that thing is important to you instead of writing about why it's important to all people.


We can't wait to read your application essays!