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

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Friday, July 05, 2019

Answering YOUR #UVA Application Essay Questions, #UVA24!

After I wrote my usual summer blog post with essay advice in it, I decided to let students submit questions about essay writing on Instagram. My advice from last year still stands, but I thought it best to reply to what students have on their minds right now. These questions are straight from my DMs and InstaStories. If you aren't following me on Instagram, you're missing almost daily content, especially during application reading season.


What is the first step to writing these essays?
Free writing! I think that if you sit down in front of a blank screen and think "now, I shall write a college essay," you're going to write something pretty contrived. I would look at the essay prompts and so a free writing exercise. Maybe you let your self write whatever comes to find for five minutes. Or, you write one line answers for one question for a few minutes. When you're done, see if something you've written feels interesting enough that it could become a larger piece of writing.


What are you looking for? Character? Organization?
Obviously, you want your writing to be technically correct and you'll edit your essays to make sure you've avoided spelling and grammar errors. Content wise, you want your essays to share things that aren't coming through in the rest of the application. We're interested in knowing a little more about the person behind the forms and letters that have been submitted. This is the place where we get to hear directly from you.

Remember that with an incoming class with 3,800 students in it, we don't have to engineer variety. Feel free to share who you area knowing that we aren't searching for a specific student to check a certain characteristic off on a list. That means that you should write about the topic that you feel is the best vehicle for you to be authentic in your writing. It's not about picking a topic that admission officers would pick themselves.


What is the best structure?
Whatever structure works for the story/message you're conveying works for us. You are not beholden to the academic, five-paragraph format. That's great for class or for a timed exam, but not necessary for personal essays.


What is the preferred average word count for the essays?
I covered this one in the last post.


How much detail should there be?
I don't think you should be vague, if that makes sense. If you can't be thorough in a half-page essay, your topic might be too broad. We've been using most of our essay prompts for years and it shouldn't be hard to answer them in the space allotted.


Is it okay to be funny?
If you're funny, go for it. If you aren't funny, don't force it. I think some people think they need to be super clever or make witty observations in their essays when that's not natural to them.


I know we are suppose to put our best foot forward, but at what point does it appear obnoxious?
What an interesting question! There are definitely times when people try to be more sophisticated than they are and it comes off as a bit forced. We often suggest imagining your close friends coming across your essays and thinking about how they'd react to reading them. Would they know they were yours or would they wonder who wrote them? If it doesn't sound like you, it might be best to do some editing.

Remember that admission officers work primarily with teenagers. When we get an essay that doesn't sound like one, we wonder about how many people were involved in writing it. That's not to say you can't get advice - I also wrote about that in the last blog post.


What are your thought on the way students write about their own privilege?
I *think* this question was asking if it's okay to write about topics that convey wealth - the student who talks about travels abroad or participating in some other expensive activity. I think that's okay, but I think you have to be careful about putting yourself in the territory I mentioned in the last answer.

Of course, it's refreshing when a young person acknowledges their privilege, but some students won't learn about that until they get to college and are exposed to a more diverse environment.


Can we submit a picture with our essay?
I don't think the Common App allows it and I don't think it's necessary. Describe the image, but use the bulk of your essay to talk about why it's important to you or how it affected you. If something write about a painting or photo with which I'm not familiar, I'll often google it.


What is the best way to grab the reader's attention about a topic others may write about?
What are some tips for making an essay stand out?

What's the most important thing to do for a student to stand out and show interest?\
I bundled these three questions together because they are essentially asking the same thing. I wish whoever is telling students they have to be completely unique in their essays or that their application has to "stand out" would take it down a notch. Most students write about normal things like their family, an academic interest, an activity, a piece of literature/music/art that influenced them. You can write about the same book that a dozen other people do and what will make your essay different is that your reaction to the story will be yours alone.

Regarding "showing interest," the only thing you need to do to show interest in UVA is apply. Do not write your essays about UVA. We already know the University quite well and we don't need something to tell us about it. We don't know you yet, though!


I hope that was helpful! I usually do Q&A sessions exclusively on Instagram Stories, but I'll try to do a few more cross-overs in the future! Feel free to ask questions in the comments or DM me on Instagram.