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Thursday, June 20, 2019

Five Tips for Writing the #UVA Application Essays

I just updated my Twitter client (a dashboard social media managers use to monitor multiple feeds at once) from following #UVA23 to #UVA24. Our information sessions and tours are getting larger. The questions have picked up on Instagram DM. It's time to start looking to the next application cycle.

Now that our application essay prompts are up, I think it's time to share a little advice for writing your responses. There are certain questions and concerns that come up every year that I should address. As always, I'm happy to answer questions I'm not covering if you would like to submit them through the comment section below. If you are reading this on a mobile device, you may have to switch the full site mode to see the comment box. It doesn't always show up when the site is optimized for mobile.

1. There's no correct answer.

We have essay prompts that are deliberate broad. We are hoping that they let students take their essay in whatever direction feels right for them. Your topic shouldn't be something you think the admission committee would pick, it should be a topic that lets your be interesting and authentic in your writing. Admission officers want to learn something about you that isn't coming through in the rest of the application. They want to get a sense of your voice and personality. Using a topic that makes your writing feel forced probably won't do that.


2. You aren't beholden to the academic format or style of writing.

I distinctly remember when I started attempted my first college application essay. I was laying on the sage green carpet in my room with a spiral notebook turned to a fresh sheet of paper and my favorite pen in front of me. I stared at that page for a long time, not really sure about how to start. Eventually, I did what most students do when charged with writing an essay - I used the standard format I had learned in school. At the time, it was called a 3-5 essay and it had an introduction, three supporting sections, and a conclusion (five paragraphs total). A lot of essays we see tend to adhere to this format, which is fine, but I want you to know that it's okay to free write and then cobble together a format that works for the story/message you want to convey.

3. Be careful about over-editing

It's always smart to have a fresh set of eyes review an important piece of writing. However, I think you have to be careful about letting a helpful editor or two change the voice that's in your essay. Remember the old saying that "two many cooks in the kitchen spoils the broth."

Keep in mind that admission officers work with college-bound students for a living. We aren't expecting a graduate level thesis. You are the expect on what a college-bound student sounds like. When a helpful friend or adult offers suggestions for your essays, don't throw them in without really thinking about whether they work for your voice and the message you want to share.

4. Don't be intimidated by "essays that worked."

Most of us turn to google when we have to do something for the first time. It's natural that you'll look for inspiration online when you start writing your essays. Keep in mind that the essays that get published on websites and in books aren't normal. They are extraordinary. Don't be intimidated by essays describing special talents or experiences that you don't have. Most essays are about pretty normal topics - academic interests, family, or activities. You don't have to have a spectacular story to write an essay that leaves the reader impressed and interested in you. What will make your essay interesting is that we'll learn something new about you.

5. We Aren't Counting the Words.

I can't tell you have many DMs and emails I get from students who are worried about their essays being a few words over or under the length we state. There are also students who notice that the Common App essay box lets you paste in a little bit more text and they want to know exactly how many words we expect.

We don't spend time to count the words in essays. We are more interested in reading them! We provide some direction because we don't want anyone to write a term paper. Your responses to the UVA-specific prompts should be about half a page. If you are over or under by a little bit, we aren't going to notice.

Feel free to ask questions below in the comments.