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The College Appliation Essay

PART I: Choosing a College Essay Topic

What you write about says something about YOU

Underlying all essay questions is choice. The essay question may be direct and ask you to choose something about yourself to discuss, or it may be indirect and require you to write about something such as an event, book, or quotation.

Why your choice of essay matters

The college regards your choices as a way to evaluate your preferences, values, mental processes, creativity, sense of humor, and depth of knowledge. Your writing reflects your power of persuasion, organizational abilities, style, and mastery of standard written English.

Here is what colleges look for: 

Your preferences: Your essay topic reveals your preferences. Are you an arts person or a hard-facts science type? Certainly, there is a difference between the person who would choose to talk about the Cold War with Machiavelli than the person who would like to get painting tips from Jackson Pollock.

Your values: Choice also reflects values. The person who drives a beat-up, rusty, 1971 Volkswagen is making a statement about how she wants to spend her money and what she cares about. We say, "That dress isn't me" or "I'm not a cat person." In choosing, you indicate what matters to you and how you perceive yourself.

Your thought process: Choosing shows how you think. Are you a whimsical person who chooses on impulse? Or are you a methodical and careful person who gathers background information before choosing? Questions about you and about career and college reflect these patterns. Even a question about a national issue can show your particular thinking style, level of intelligence, and insight.

Think about topics

The topic you select for your essay can also reveal much about who you are. Yale's application instructs: "In the past, candidates have used this space in great variety of ways.... There is no 'correct' way to respond to this essay request...." No answer is wrong, but sloppy, general, insincere, or tasteless responses can hurt your cause.

Some of the best essays—the memorable and unusual ones—are about very familiar topics. Essays about your family, football team, trip to France, or your parents’ divorce can be effective as long as they're focused and specific: a single Christmas Eve church service, a meal of boiled tongue in Grenoble, or scooping ice cream at your summer job.

 

PART II: Recipe for a Draft

Sometimes the hardest part of writing a college admissions essay is just getting started. Here's a quick exercise to get pen to paper (or keyboard to computer).

Step 1: Think about yourself
What are your strengths and weaknesses? What are your best qualities? Are you a hard worker? An intellectual? A creative type? Curious? Passionate? Determined?

Step 2: Choose a positive quality you'd like to convey to the admissions committee
Don't pick an event or something you've done. President of the Nuclear Awareness Club is not a personal quality. Focus on a quality of your mind or of your character. Complete this sentence: "I am a very _________ person."

Step 3: Tell a story
Set a timer for 20 minutes. Pretend you're taking an exam at high school and responding to, "Tell a story about an experience or time when you showed you were a very _________ person." Use the characteristic you identified in Step 2. Write or type non-stop for 20 minutes; force yourself to keep telling the story and what it reveals until the timer goes off.

You now have a rough draft for your college application essay. Look at your college applications and scan their essay topics. No matter what the questions are, you have already identified the most important characteristic you want to convey to each college.

 

PART III: Sample College Essay Questions

What do colleges want to know?

Generally, there are three types of questions: The "you," the "why us," and the "creative." Here are tips and actual sample questions for each type. Don't assume that the questions are currently being used by a college (most colleges adjust questions annually).

The "You" Question

Many colleges ask for an essay that boils down to, "Tell us about yourself." The school just wants to know you better and see how you'll introduce yourself. For example:

  • Please complete a one-page personal statement and submit it with your application. (James Madison University)
  • How would you describe yourself as a human being? What quality do you like best in yourself and what do you like least? What quality would you most like to see flourish and which would you like to see wither? (Bates College)

·         Describe an interesting experience you have had during you college admission search. (Juanita College)

·         Creative people state that taking risks often promoted important discoveries in their lives or their work.  Discuss a risk that has led to a significant change (positive or negative) in your personal or intellectual life. (Simmons College)

·         Describe the most challenging obstacle you have had to overcome; discuss its impact and tell what you have learned from the experience. (Guilford College)

·         To learn to think is to learn to question.  Discuss a matter you once thought you knew “for sure” that you have since learned to question. (Bryn Mawr College)

This direct question offers a chance to reveal your personality, insight, and commitment. The danger is that it's open-ended, so you need to focus. Find just one or two things that will reveal your best qualities, and avoid the urge to spill everything.

The "Why Us" Question

Some schools ask for an essay about your choice of a school or career. They're looking for information about your goals, and about how serious your commitment is to this particular school. For example:

  • Why is UVM a good college choice for you? (University of Vermont)
  • Please tell us about your career goals and any plans you may have for graduate study. (Westfield State College)

·         Tell us about yourself, your reasons for applying to USF, and your reasons for seeking a college education. (University of San Francisco)

·         Describe your reasons for selecting Loyola College and your personal and professional goals and plans for after college. (Loyola College, Maryland)

·         We would like to know . . . what experiences have led you to select your professional field and objective. (Boston University)

·         Please relate your interest in studying at Georgetown University to your future goals. (Georgetown University)

The focus is provided: Why did you choose this school or path? This should be pretty clear to you, since you probably went through some kind of selection process. Make sure you know your subject well. For example, if you say you want to attend Carleton College to major in agriculture, the school will be able to tell how thoughtful you are in your decision making (Carleton doesn't have an agriculture major).

The "Creative" Question

Some colleges evaluate you through your choice of some tangential item: a national issue, a famous person, what you would put in a time capsule, a photograph. Here the school is looking at your creativity and the breadth of your knowledge and education. For example:

  • Do you believe there's a generation gap? Describe the differences between your generation and others. (Denison University)
  • Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence. (Common Application)

·         Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.(Common Application)

·         In your opinion, what is the greatest challenge that your generation will face?  What ideas do you have for dealing with this issue? (College of the Holy Cross)

·         What is the value and importance of community service in our society and tell us what it means to you. (Ohio Wesleyan University)

·         John Keats said, “Even a proverb is no proverb to you till your Life has illustrated it.”  Please tell us about an experience in your own life which illustrated a proverb, maxim, or quote that has special meaning to you. (Duke University)

·         You have just completed your 300-page autobiography.  Please submit page 217. (University of Pennsylvania)

·         For some prognosticators the end of the world was in sight by year 1000.  How do your foresee your world in 2020? (Dickinson College)

Again, you have something to react to, a way to show yourself and write about your real views. Just don't forget the importance of writing an informed essay. For example, don't write about a fantasy lunch with a famous writer and get the titles of her novels wrong. Also, when thinking about how creative to get, use common sense. Being creative to the point of wacky is a risk you may not want to take.

 

PART IV: Three Steps to a Great College Essay

You, in 500 words or less

The college application essay is a chance to explain you; to open your personality, charm, talents, vision, and spirit to the admissions committee. It's a chance to show you can think about things and that you can write clearly about your thoughts. Don't let the chance disappear. Stand up straight and believe in yourself!

The Essay Writing Process

Okay, boot up your computer and let's get to it. To write a college essay, use the exact three-step process you'd use to write an essay for class: first prewrite, then draft, and finally, edit. This process will help you identify a focus for your essay, and gather the details you'll need to support it.

Prewriting

To begin, you must first collect and organize potential ideas for your essay's focus. Since all essay questions are attempts to learn about you, begin with yourself.

  • Brainstorm: Set a timer for 15 minutes and make a list of your strengths and outstanding characteristics. Focus on strengths of personality, not things you've done. For example, you are responsible (not an "Eagle Scout") or committed (not "played basketball"). If you keep drifting toward events rather than characteristics, make a second list of the things you've done, places you've been, accomplishments you're proud of; use them for the activities section of your application.
  • Discover Your Strengths: Do a little research about yourself: ask parents, friends, and teachers what your strengths are.
  • Create a Self-Outline: Now, next to each trait, list five or six pieces of evidence from your life—things you've been or done—that prove your point.
  • Find Patterns and Connections: Look for patterns in the material you've brainstormed. Group similar ideas and events together. For example, does your passion for numbers show up in your performance in the state math competition and your summer job at the computer store? Was basketball about sports or about friendships? When else have you stuck with the hard work to be with people who matter to you?

Drafting

Now it's time to get down to the actual writing. Write your essay in three basic parts: introduction, body, and conclusion.

  • The introduction gives your reader an idea of your essay's content. It can shrink when you need to be concise. One vivid sentence might do: "The favorite science project was a complete failure."
  • The body presents the evidence that supports your main idea. Use narration and incident to show rather than tell.
  • The conclusion can be brief as well, a few sentences to nail down the meaning of the events and incidents you've described.

An application essay doesn't need to read like an essay about The Bluest Eye or the Congress of Vienna, but thinking in terms of these three traditional parts is a good way to organize your main points.

There are three basic essay styles you should consider:

  • Standard Essay: Take two or three points from your self-outline, give a paragraph to each, and make sure you provide plenty of evidence. Choose things not apparent from the rest of your application or light up some of the activities and experiences listed there.
  • Less-Is-More Essay: In this format, you focus on a single interesting point about yourself. It works well for brief essays of a paragraph or half a page.
  • Narrative Essay: A narrative essay tells a short and vivid story. Omit the introduction, write one or two narrative paragraphs that grab and engage the reader's attention, then explain what this little tale reveals about you.

Editing

When you have a good draft, it's time to make final improvements to your draft, find and correct any errors, and get someone else to give you feedback. Remember, you are your best editor. No one can speak for you; your own words and ideas are your best bet.

  • Let It Cool: Take a break from your work and come back to it in a few days. Does your main idea come across clearly? Do you prove your points with specific details? Is your essay easy to read aloud?
  • Feedback Time: Have someone you like and trust (but someone likely to tell you the truth) read your essay. Ask them to tell you what they think you're trying to convey. Did they get it right?
  • Edit Down: Your language should be simple, direct, and clear. This is a personal essay, not a term paper. Make every word count (e.g., if you wrote "in society today," consider changing that to "now").
  • Proofread Two More Times: Careless spelling or grammatical errors, awkward language, or fuzzy logic will make your essay memorable—in a bad way.

 

PART V: College Essay Writing Tips

Write an effective application essay

A great application essay will present a vivid, personal, and compelling view of you to the admissions staff. It will round out the rest of your application and help you stand out from the other applicants. The essay is one of the only parts of your application over which you have complete control, so take the time to do a good job on it. Check out these tips before you begin.

DO

Keep your focus narrow and personal

Your essay must prove a single point or thesis. The reader must be able to find your main idea and follow it from beginning to end. Try having someone read just your introduction to see what he thinks your essay is about.

Essays that try to be too comprehensive end up sounding watered-down. Remember, it's not about telling the committee what you've done—they can pick that up from your list of activities—instead, it's about showing them who you are.

Prove it

Develop your main idea with vivid and specific facts, events, quotations, examples, and reasons. There's a big difference between simply stating a point of view and letting an idea unfold in the details:

  • Okay: "I like to be surrounded by people with a variety of backgrounds and interests"
  • Better: "During that night, I sang the theme song from Casablanca with a baseball coach who thinks he's Bogie, discussed Marxism with a little old lady, and heard more than I ever wanted to know about some woman's gall bladder operation."

Be specific

Avoid clichéd, generic, and predictable writing by using vivid and specific details.

  • Okay: "I want to help people. I have gotten so much out of life through the love and guidance of my family, I feel that many individuals have not been as fortunate; therefore, I would like to expand the lives of others."
  • Better: "My Mom and Dad stood on plenty of sidelines 'til their shoes filled with water or their fingers turned white, or somebody's golden retriever signed his name on their coats in mud. I think that kind of commitment is what I'd like to bring to working with fourth-graders."

DON’T

Don't tell them what you think they want to hear

Most admissions officers read plenty of essays about the charms of their university, the evils of terrorism, and the personal commitment involved in being a doctor. Bring something new to the table, not just what you think they want to hear.

Don't write a resume

Don't include information that is found elsewhere in the application. Your essay will end up sounding like an autobiography, travelogue, or laundry list. Yawn.

  • "During my junior year, I played first singles on the tennis team, served on the student council, maintained a B+ average, traveled to France, and worked at a cheese factory."

Don't use 50 words when five will do

Eliminate unnecessary words.

  • Okay: "Over the years it has been pointed out to me by my parents, friends, and teachers—and I have even noticed this about myself, as well—that I am not the neatest person in the world."
  • Better: "I'm a slob."

Don't forget to proofread

Typos and spelling or grammatical errors can be interpreted as carelessness or just bad writing. Don't rely on your computer's spell check. It can miss spelling errors like the ones below.

  • "After I graduate form high school, I plan to work for a nonprofit organization during the summer."
  • "From that day on, Daniel was my best fried."


Common Writing Mistakes

·         “I think” . . . I know you can think.  What do you believe?

·         “That” is the most overused word in writing.  Take it out and read the sentence out loud.  Does it make sense?  Then ditch the “that”.

·         Wordy expressions.  Say it out loud.  Does it sound ridiculous?  Then change it.

·         Avoid clichés like the plague.

·         Don’t use quotations – create your own memorable statements.

·         Avoid shifting tense or point of view.  Be consistent. 

·         Not sure about a grammatical rule?  Google it.  There are thousands of sites dedicated to rules of writing. 

·         Don’t talk about their well manicured flower beds or the beautiful landscaping.  Don’t say you like the really old buildings or the overall “feel” of the college.  They know their campus looks good.  Be specific.

·         “It would be so much fun to go to Badger games.”  Yes it would.  However, that should not be the reason why you want to go to Madison.  Even if it is, don’t tell that to the admission committee.

·         Don’t try to impress them with your use of big words. All that does is prove you have a thesaurus.

·         Focus, focus, focus.  You can’t cover lofty issues in 500 words or less.  Narrow it down to a day, an hour, a moment.

·         Does it flow?  Can I easily identify the main point of each paragraph and how those points build upon one another?

·         “then” vs. “than” or “i.e.” vs. “e.g.” – make sure you are using the correct one

·         “My personal opinion” . . . as opposed to your impersonal opinion?

·         “My sincere belief” . . . as opposed to your insincere belief?

·         Does your sentence have more than three commas?  Your sentence is too long.  Rambling is not good. 

·         Avoid passive tense.

·         Irregardless is not a word.

·         Don’t write in fragments.  Texting writing is really not what we would consider academic writing.  K?

·         Focus on the four C's: Writing should be Concise, Crisp, Clear, and (grammatically) Correct.

·         Spell check does not catch everything.

 

PART VI: Sample College Essays

You be the judge

Read the following application essay. See if you can figure out this essay's strengths and weaknesses.

Sample application essay 1

From the time I was able to realize what a university was, all I heard from my mother's side of the family was about the University of Michigan and the great heritage it has. Many a Saturday afternoon my grandfather would devote to me, by sitting me down in front of the television and reminiscing about the University of Michigan while halftime occurred during a Michigan Wolverines football game. Later, as I grew older and universities took on greater meaning, my mother and uncle, both alumni of the University of Michigan, took me to see their old stamping grounds. From first sight, the university looked frightening because of its size, but with such a large school comes diversity of people and of academic and non-academic events.

In Springfield High School, non-academic clubs such as the Future Physicians and the Pylon, both of which I have belonged to for two years, give me an opportunity to see both the business world and the medical world. These two clubs have given me a greater sense of what these careers may be like. In Future Physicians, I participated in field trips to children's hospitals and also participated in two bloodbanks.

Currently I hold a job at Maas Brothers. This lets me interact with people outside my own immediate environment. I meet different kinds of people, in different moods, with different attitudes, and with different values. This job teaches me to be patient with people, to have responsibility, and to appreciate people for what they are.

In the community I am active in my church Youth Group. As a high school sophomore, I was our church's representative to the Diocesan Youth Fellowship. I helped organize youth group events, the largest being "The Bishop's Ball," a state-wide event for 300 young people. I also played high school junior varsity soccer for two years. As a senior I will be playing varsity soccer, but in the off-season. As a junior I coached a girls' soccer team for the town. This gave me a great deal of responsibility because the care of twenty-four girls was put into my custody. It felt very satisfying to pass on the knowledge of soccer to another generation. The girls played teams from other parts of Florida. Though their record was 3-8, the girls enjoyed their season. This is what I taught them was the greatest joy of soccer.

The past three years of my life have given me greater visions of my future. I see the University of Michigan as holding a large book with many unread chapters and myself as an eager child who has just learned to read. I intend to read and probe into all the chapters. The University of Michigan offers me more than the great reputation of this fine school, but a large student body with diverse likes and dislikes, and many activities, both academic and non-academic, to participate in. With the help of the University of Michigan, I will be successful after college and be able to make a name and place for myself in our society.

Sample application essay 2

My most important experience sought me out. It happened to me; I didn't cause it

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My preferred companions are books or music or pen and paper. I have only a small circle of close friends, few of whom get along together. They could easily be counted "misfits." To be plain, I found it quite easy to doubt my ability to have any sort of "close relationship."

After the closing festivities of Andover Summer School this past summer, on the night before we were scheduled to leave, a girl I had met during the program's course approached me. She came to my room and sat down on my bed and announced that she was debating with herself whether she wanted me to become her boyfriend. She wanted my reaction, my opinion.


I was startled, to say the least, and frightened. I instantly said, "No." I told her I on no account wanted this and that I would reject any gestures she made towards starting a relationship. I would ignore her entirely, if need be. I explained that I was a coward. I wanted nothing whatsoever to do with a relationship. I talked a lot and very fast.


To my surprise, she did not leave instantly. Instead, she hugged her knees and rocked back and forth on my bed. I watched her from across the room. She rocked, and I watched. Doubts crept up on me. Opportunity had knocked and the door was still locked. It might soon depart.


"I lied," I said. "I was afraid of what might happen if we became involved. But it's better to take the chance than to be afraid."


She told me she knew I had lied. I had made her realize, though, how much she actually wanted me to be her boyfriend. We decided to keep up a relationship after Andover.


Even then, I was not sure which had been the lie. Now I think that everything I said may have been true when I said it. But I'm still not sure.


I learned, that night, that I could be close to someone. I also realize, now, that it doesn't matter whether or not that person is a misfit; the only important thing is the feeling, the closeness, the connection. As long as there is something between two people -- friendship, love, shared interests, whatever else -- it is a sign that there can be some reconciliation with fear, some "fit" for misfits. And it shows that fear need not always win, that we can grow and change, and even have second chances.


I am still seeing her.

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Admissions committee – see what they had to say

Sample application essay 1

From the time I was able to realize what a university was, all I heard from my mother's side of the family was about the University of Michigan and the great heritage it has. Many a Saturday afternoon my grandfather would devote to me, by sitting me down in front of the television and reminiscing about the University of Michigan while halftime occurred during a Michigan Wolverines football game. Later, as I grew older and universities took on greater meaning, my mother and uncle, both alumni of the University of Michigan, took me to see their old stamping grounds. From first sight, the university looked frightening because of its size, but with such a large school comes diversity of people and of academic and non-academic events.

So far there seems to be a lack of focus: Where’s the writer going with this paragraph?  Where’s the writer going with this essay?

The writer needs to tighten the phrasing (e.g. “while halftime occurred” to “at halftime” or “From first sight” to “Immediately”).

In Springfield High School, non-academic clubs such as the Future Physicians and the Pylon, both of which I have belonged to for two years, give me an opportunity to see both the business world and the medical world. These two clubs have given me a greater sense of what these careers may be like. In Future Physicians, I participated in field trips to children's hospitals and also participated in two bloodbanks.

Very abrupt transition from the first paragraph to the second: how did we get from Michigan’s diversity to the writer’s clubs?

The paragraph includes general statements with little evidence: How did these activities reveal career paths?

Can the writer be more specific?  What does “participated” mean?  Did he drive volunteers from across town, sign people in all day on three Saturdays every month except August or spend 15 minutes on Thursday afternoon in the nurse’s office giving blood?

Currently I hold a job at Maas Brothers. This lets me interact with people outside my own immediate environment. I meet different kinds of people, in different moods, with different attitudes, and with different values. This job teaches me to be patient with people, to have responsibility, and to appreciate people for what they are.

What does the writer do at Maas Brothers? “Interact” needs definition.  What here shows that the writer has thought about the time spent at Maas Brothers?

Misspelling of different (“different”): the writer did not proofread thoroughly. 

In the community I am active in my church Youth Group. As a high school sophomore, I was our church's representative to the Diocesan Youth Fellowship. I helped organize youth group events, the largest being "The Bishop's Ball," a state-wide event for 300 young people. I also played high school junior varsity soccer for two years. As a senior I will be playing varsity soccer, but in the off-season. As a junior I coached a girls' soccer team for the town. This gave me a great deal of responsibility because the care of twenty-four girls was put into my custody. It felt very satisfying to pass on the knowledge of soccer to another generation. The girls played teams from other parts of Florida. Though their record was 3-8, the girls enjoyed their season. This is what I taught them was the greatest joy of soccer.

The information in this paragraph (as well as the last two paragraphs) appears elsewhere in the application.  Essays that simply run down your accomplishments don’t add to your application.

Does the reader need to know that “the girls played teams from other parts of Florida”?

The writer would be better off focusing on one of the things discussed in this essay, such as working with the girls’ soccer team,  What he did to make Jennifer and Gretchen and Courtney enjoy soccer even though they only won three of their games would be more vivid and focused than a lot of talk about passing things on to future generations.

The past three years of my life have given me greater visions of my future. I see the University of Michigan as holding a large book with many unread chapters and myself as an eager child who has just learned to read. I intend to read and probe into all the chapters. The University of Michigan offers me more than the great reputation of this fine school, but a large student body with diverse likes and dislikes, and many activities, both academic and non-academic, to participate in. With the help of the University of Michigan, I will be successful after college and be able to make a name and place for myself in our society.

The conclusion return to the earlier idea of diversity at Michigan, but this isea was not developed in the body of the essay. /The eriter repeats a lot: “University of Michigan” siz times in this essay and “academic and non-academic” twice.

It’s not necessary to mention “the great reputation of this fine school.”  Instead, the writer should give specific, programmatic reasons Michigan offers the kind of education he needs.

In short, this essay seems full of information and demonstrated basic essay organization, but is lacks focus and proof.  The reader gets a laundry list of activities rather than a clean sense of who they writer is and what he’s cared and thought about.


 

Sample application essay 2

My most important experience sought me out. It happened to me; I didn't cause it.

The introduction is brief and memorable.  The reader is drawn into the rest of the essay.

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My preferred companions are books or music or pen and paper. I have only a small circle of close friends, few of whom get along together. They could easily be counted "misfits." To be plain, I found it quite easy to doubt my ability to have any sort of "close relationship."

The essay has a clear focus: his anxiety about relationships.


After the closing festivities of Andover Summer School this past summer, on the night before we were scheduled to leave, a girl I had met during the program's course approached me. She came to my room and sat down on my bed and announced that she was debating with herself whether she wanted me to become her boyfriend. She wanted my reaction, my opinion.


The style is simple and direct, employing short sentences and simple words to tell a simple story.


I was startled, to say the least, and frightened. I instantly said, "No." I told her I on no account wanted this and that I would reject any gestures she made towards starting a relationship. I would ignore her entirely, if need be. I explained that I was a coward. I wanted nothing whatsoever to do with a relationship. I talked a lot and very fast.

The style is simple and direct, employing short sentences and simple words to tell a simple story.

To my surprise, she did not leave instantly. Instead, she hugged her knees and rocked back and forth on my bed. I watched her from across the room. She rocked, and I watched. Doubts crept up on me. Opportunity had knocked and the door was still locked. It might soon depart.


"I lied," I said. "I was afraid of what might happen if we became involved. But it's better to take the chance than to be afraid."


She told me she knew I had lied. I had made her realize, though, how much she actually wanted me to be her boyfriend. We decided to keep up a relationship after Andover.


Thoughtful – the story of his conversation with a girl is a way for the writer to show us about himself – that he’s conservative and shy, but willing to take a risk.


Even then, I was not sure which had been the lie. Now I think that everything I said may have been true when I said it. But I'm still not sure.


I learned, that night, that I could be close to someone. I also realize, now, that it doesn't matter whether or not that person is a misfit; the only important thing is the feeling, the closeness, the connection. As long as there is something between two people -- friendship, love, shared interests, whatever else -- it is a sign that there can be some reconciliation with fear, some "fit" for misfits. And it shows that fear need not always win, that we can grow and change, and even have second chances.


I am still seeing her.


Boyfriends and girlfriends can be risky essay topics.  However, this writer skillfully employs the story of the beginning of a relationship to illustrate a larger point – the power of love to overcome fear.

He concludes with a strong summary paragraph and end sentence.  Like his introduction, his ending is simple, yet memorable.


This essay enriches an application full of academic achievements, scores, and grades.  It’s definitely not something found elsewhere in the application.


It’s short and to the point.  It’s interesting because it is believable.

This article is based on information found in The College Application Essay, by Sarah Myers McGinty

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