Sunday, December 24, 2006

US College Essay: Expert Advice

I think it's about time pre-university students start preparing and making applications to top universities overseas. Many of these applications will require you to write not just one, but a few college essays.

Well, Jennifer Johnson of the Wall Street Journal did a quick compilation of some frequently asked questions on writing college essays for university entrance. The admission directos at 3 top schools in the United States, Brown, Harvard and Virginia Universities provided the "expert advice". You can't get better 'informed' tips than this.

Q: What role does the essay or personal statement play in the admissions process? How much weight does it receive?
  • BROWN: The essay plays a role slightly less important than the student's high-school performance. High-school performance carries the most weight, and is most important. Everything else -- testing, essays, recommendations, etc. -- carries about the same weight.

  • HARVARD: Because we use no formulas in admissions, or in evaluating applications, there is no specific "weight" assigned to the essay. The importance of the essay depends on the case -- and on the extent to which an essay deepens or illuminates our understanding of the applicant.

  • VIRGINIA: Although we do not place numerical weights on the various factors we consider in an applicant, we count them as important in our coming to know the students better. We see the essays as a means for students to talk to us. They can say whatever is important to them and in doing so, give us a more human sense of who they are. We intentionally shape our several questions so that any student can probably find one that speaks to her or him and lets that person respond in a way that is unique.

Q: What makes a good college essay? How can students stand out among the crowd?
  • BROWN: Essays that have simple themes, are personal and focused are most effective.

  • HARVARD: A good essay extends the admissions committee's appreciation of the candidate, helps us to understand better "what makes him or her tick."

  • VIRGINIA: We think a good essay question is one that separates the best students from those who are not as strong. In the same manner, a good essay is one that gives the admission deans a deeper look at the student -- it permits us to go well beyond the numbers we see on the transcript. After all, we are building a community of people and without an expression of their human qualities, we would be left with only statistics.

    They can stand out from the crowd by being themselves in their writing. Simple, plain language can be a persuasive part of the application.

Q: Are there any topics or techniques that students should avoid?
  • BROWN: Don't write travelogues, don't rehash yesterday's editorial, and don't use gimmicks.

  • HARVARD: It would be hard to proscribe specific topics, though I would advise using common sense in choosing a topic. As to techniques, legibility and clear expression are good techniques to use, always.

  • VIRGINIA: Our parents always said not to discuss politics and religion at the dinner table, but some students write magnificent essays about either, both or just about any other subject. It all depends on how the writer handles it.

Q: How do you feel about online-editing services for college essays?
  • BROWN: Not worth the time or money.

  • HARVARD: We expect applications to be a student's own work, honestly presented.

  • VIRGINIA: We ask our applicants to sign a statement on our application that the work is their own, and we take them at their word.

Q: About how many essays is your committee responsible for reading? And how do you divide the work?
  • BROWN: We read 18,000 to 19,000 applications per year -- each application has four to six short and long essays. So, we read a lot. Applications are divided up among admission officers regionally.

  • HARVARD: We received last year about 23,000 applications and each one is read carefully at least once. Assignments are made by geographic area. The first reader is the officer responsible for presenting the case -- and other cases from assigned areas -- to the admissions committee, and other officers read folders as well. Often, essays (and other materials from the folder) are read in committee meetings, sometimes more than once.

  • VIRGINIA: We ask our deans to read 30 to 35 applications per day, and that includes the essays. On many days, they can't get them done in normal working hours and so they take them home at night or over the weekend to complete. Our process is holistic, and so we do not separate any part of the credentials for evaluation unless it is a portfolio for art or a tape for drama or music. We consider everything in the folder and within the context of the school or community.
I've read the above and I certainly think that they are extremely useful tips. Spend time understanding these tips and review your essays over and over (again). Good luck!

Thanks to for the link!


Anonymous said...

I was reading my cousin's essays, and I liked the assigment from U. Chicago!

U Chicago: essay option 4

The Cartesian coordinate system is a popular method of representing real numbers and is the bane of eighth graders everywhere. Since its introduction by Descartes in 1637, this means of visually characterizing mathematical values has swept the globe, earning a significant role in branches of mathematics such as algebra, geometry, and calculus. Describe yourself as a point or series of points on this axial arrangement. If you are a function, what are you? In which quadrants do you lie? Are x and y enough for you, or do you warrant some love from the z-axis? Be sure to include your domain, range, derivative, and asymptotes, should any apply. Your possibilities are positively and negatively unbounded.
Inspired by Joshua Nalven, a graduate of West Orange High School, West Orange, NJ

Anonymous said...

It's an excellent guide from the original author to the prospective applicants to the US colleges. Does it apply for postgraduate applicants as well? How different does the US college application system from other well-known countries like UK, Australia and Canada?

Anonymous said...

No essays are required for admission into Canadian, Australian Univeristies. The PS for UCAS is as generic as it gets, no real effort is required to earn a place at a British university(except Oxbridge).

Anonymous said...


For postgrad applications, one usually is asked to write a short essay on why one wants to study that subject at that university. I haven't sat on an admissions committee so I don't know how much weight it carries.

Postgrad students are admitted by a committee of professors whereas undergrads are admitted by dedicated 'admissions' staff. In general, the postgrad application process focusses more on finding out more about the applicant as a physicist/economist/lit. scholar etc. rather than as a 'person'. It's much more like applying for a want to leave out 'irrelevant' things from your CV.

Everything is very field and department dependent though, so it's best to ask for advice from senior people in your field who know the places you are applying to...

Anonymous said...

no real effort is required to earn a place at a British university(except Oxbridge).

Hey, whaddya mean? Not if you're doing medicine. I got rejected by Sheffield, you know (but I think that had nothing to do with my PS and everything to do with the fact they knew where I was going. Dirty bums).

And I agree with Charis, best thing is to dig out a senior and pester him/her for advice.