Our veteran admissions counselors are frequently asked to share expert advice about writing compelling college essays. We asked our admissions counselors to share their perspectives on why the college essay matters and what matters most. We trust you’ll find this information useful as you prepare your college applications. Feel free to contact our admissions staff with additional questions.
Purpose of the Essay
The essay is valuable to you and the colleges to which you are applying. If you think of the application as pieces of a puzzle or as independent voices coming together to tell your story, the essay is part of the puzzle over which you have complete control. The essay also provides you with an opportunity to say what hasn’t been said in your application and do so in your distinct voice.
For colleges, the essay not only provides an opportunity to evaluate your creativity, writing style and ability, but also says something about your outlook on life—your preferences, values, the way you think—and the experiences and people who have uniquely shaped you. Finally, colleges can use the essay to begin picturing how you’ll connect with and make the most of resources within their specific campus communities.
Tell your story.
It may be trite advice, but it’s also true. Admissions counselors develop a sixth sense about essay writers who are authentic. You’ll score points for being earnest and faithful to yourself.
Write with focus.
Another very simple tip, but many of the less compelling essays we read each year fail to focus. Think about the special nugget of information you want the reader to know about you at the end of your essay and write with that central theme in mind.
Answer the question.
At the end of your focused essay, be sure that what you have written directly responds to the request or question presented in the essay prompt you have selected.
Throw out your thesaurus.
Parading your highly evolved vocabulary in front of the admissions committee in order to impress is a very seductive trap. The most sophisticated writers can convey a message in simple and concise language. Being able to cut to the heart of a complex issue is one of the greatest signs of intelligence!
Read your essay aloud to someone.
Reading the essay out loud offers a chance to hear how your essay sounds outside your head. This exercise reveals flaws in the essay’s flow, highlights grammatical errors and helps you ensure that you are communicating the exact message you intended.
Enlist a proofreader.
As a writer, you can become very close to your work. A proofreader will review your essay with fresh eyes and may even catch mistakes that you have routinely missed. In choosing a proofreader, find someone who knows you well, but who will also help you to preserve your voice within the essay.
2017-18 Common Application Essay Prompts
- Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
- Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma - anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
- Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
- Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
Dickinson Writing Supplement
The Writing Supplement is optional for admission consideration, but required for merit scholarship consideration. (Note that you must specify on the Common Application whether or not you will submit a writing supplement.) If you elect to submit a Writing Supplement, write as much or as little as you feel is necessary. There is no recommended minimum word count, although the Common Application does have a limit of 800 words.
Writing Supplement Prompt: Why have you chosen to apply to Dickinson?
One of the most common questions we get from applicants is, “How strict are schools about word limits in their admissions essays and personal statements?” While the answer itself is rather straightforward, we often encourage applicants to stop focusing on the number, take a step back, and consider what admissions officers are really communicating when they put forward a word limit.
First, we’ll answer the question directly: Schools are not out to reject you for going over a word limit by a small amount. Okay, okay… “What’s a small amount?” you’re asking. One rule of thumb that is frequently tossed around is 10%, although it’s worth noting that admissions consultants tend to promote this rule more than any admissions officer does. However, if you can stay within 10% of the word limit for an essay, you probably are okay.
Having said that, we rarely encounter an essay that we don’t think can get down to the word limit. This is where an extra pair of eyes can be extremely helpful; someone else can look at your essay and give you an objective point of view about which details are truly necessary and which ones can be left on the cutting room floor. But, if the limit is 500 words and you’re at 530, then your time may be better spent on things other than trying to hack another 30 words from your essay.
Now that we’ve covered that, let’s think about what admissions officers are saying when they assign a word limit to an essay. In essence, they’re saying, “After reviewing thousands of applications, we’re very confident that you can thoroughly answer this question in this many words.” Even though you know yourself far better than the admissions officers do, they know the process very well, and they’ve heard it all. They really do want to get to know you well, but they only have so much capacity, so they need their applicants to communicate their stories as efficiently as possible.
As an applicant, if you know this and understand the challenge that admissions officers face, then that’s what will guide your decision. Questions such as “Is 525 words more okay than 535 words?” suddenly seem moot compared to “Is an admissions officer going to feel like I wasted her time when she’s done with my essays?” The former question is the kind of “down in the weeds” issue that the uninformed applicant will focus on; the latter is the kind that a smart, prepared applicant will ask.
It’s sort of like watching a movie… If you don’t like a movie and it’s longer than two hours, you will probably mention the length of the movie when you tell you’re friends not to bother seeing it. “That movie was unrealistic, boring, and… way too long!” But, if it’s a great movie, the length will never come up. You won’t even notice the length; you’ll just know that you enjoyed the story and were glad that you made the journey with the main character. The movie was right-sized for the story it told.
Your admissions essays and personal statements will work in much the same way. You don’t have carte blanche — the word limit that admissions officers provide isn’t an arbitrary one — but the quality of your essay is more important than the actual length. If it does its job well (by answering the question and helping admissions officers) then admissions officers won’t think about the word limit nearly as much as the content. On the other hand, if they’re halfway through your essay and they’re already thinking to themselves, “How much longer will this go on?” then you know that the essay missed the mark.
Again, having excellent content does not allow you to flagrantly disregard word limits. We’re saying that admissions officers, based on their considerable experience, know how long an essay needs to be to be great. A shorter essay can also be great, and so can a longer one, but one that is too long risks boring or annoying tired application readers.
One final note: You would be amazed at how accurately application readers can estimate an essay’s word count just from one glance. Yes, they read enough essays every year that they can tell whether you went over the word limit just by looking at the essay on the page (or, increasingly, on the screen). Around the offices here at Veritas Prep we find that we can usually guess an essay’s word count within about 25 words, just by looking at it. Admissions officers will still read your essay even if it’s long, but know that they may already start to form an opinion about you before they’ve read the first sentence!
If you’re ready to start building your own application for Ross or other top MBA programs, call us at 1-800-925-7737 and speak with an MBA admissions expert today. And, as always, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!