Peabody is the building, Jack is the dog, and I'm Dean J (she/her, btw).

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Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Four Tips for Writing the UVA Application Essays

There are so, so many people who have essay advice for you. I just googled "college essay advice" and the top returns had titles like "9 Essay Writing Tips to 'Wow' Admission Officers," "35+ Best Essay Tips from College Application Experts," and "8 Tips for Crafting Your Best College Essay." Did someone really come up with over 35 distinct tips for essay writing? Hat tip to that because I don't think I could come up with that many. Do you all even have time to read all that? I have four tips. Let's get on with it...

1. The Topic Should Fit YOU

I see a lot of students on Reddit asking about whether their essay topics are appropriate for a certain school and I think that's approaching this exercise in the wrong manner. We wrote the UVA essay prompts in hopes of inspiring you to share something about yourself that we wouldn't otherwise know from your application. Ideally, your topic will be a vehicle for sharing your voice and style. It'll let you be authentic in your writing. It will give us insight into who you are and what things interest you.

By the way, I received an email over the summer from a student who was upset that our essay prompts didn't allow her to convey how strong her interest in UVA was. She was seeking permission to write an extra essay just about how much she loved our school. I gently, but firmly, explained that the extra essay wasn't necessary. Your application makes it clear that you like UVA. We know UVA already. We don't know you yet and that's what your essays are for!


2. There is No Correct Format

Many students assume there are "correct" answers for certain parts of the application and essay formatting seems to be one of them. They ask about word counts, whether it's okay to rhyme or be funny, and if they use a certain tense or point of view in their writing. If you see general language (like when we say the essay should be "half a page or roughly 250 words"), that is permission to be in the ballpark.

When it comes to the specific format of the essay, you have my permission (and encouragement!) to deviate from the more traditional style of writing essays that you use for class. The five-paragraph essay is great for school and for timed testing situations, but your application essays aren't academic exercises. I'd much rather read a personal story about how your topic affected you or why it's important to you than a report about why it's important/interesting to all people who have experienced it. I think the academic essay format leads you to write the later kind of essay. I don't need a stale run down of why a piece of music is technically sound or considered important by critics. I want to read about what that piece of music(*) means to you. How does it make you feel? Where does it take you? How has its message impacted you? Use the format that lets you do that.

*This applies to any topic, whether it's a book, academic interest, activity, etc.

3. Get Some Advice, but Not ALL the Advice

One of my pet peeves is an essay written by a committee. You know there's a student in those lines somewhere, but their voice has be stretched and diluted by others during the editing process. For some reasons, people forget that we work with college-bound students for a living. Some of us are parents to students in this group. Some of us are just a few years removed from this group. When I come across the essays that doesn't sound anything like college-bound students, I feel badly for the student. I imagine them getting more anxious as the deadlines approach, convinced that they aren't talented enough to write these essays (even though their teachers probably have them churning out essays regularly!).

It's okay to get advice. However, I think you need to own your essay and exercise veto power when advice is pouring in. If you find someone's feedback to be helpful, make it your own so it fits your voice and writing style. If the feedback your getting is frustrating and doesn't feel right, toss it. Remember that you are the expert on what a college-bound students sounds like.

Parents, empower your students to say no to some of the well-meaning people who will come out of the woodwork when your student is filling out applications. This is not a team activity. Support is great, but they should have final say in what goes into their essays.


4. Don't Be Intimidated by Essays that Worked

When I google "college essays that worked," I am completely overwhelmed. My gosh, the returns go on for pages. Start clicking and you'll read one witty essay after another. Or, if you choose to head to your local book seller and look in the college admission session (not sure what it's called today, but you know the section - full of advice and prep books), you'll find books full of gorgeous essays. Do not get intimidated by the essays that worked.

Essays that get published are not normal. They are not the bar by which your essays are judged.


Let me know if you have any questions in the comments.