The admissions essay helps us get acquainted with you in ways different from courses, grades, test scores, and other objective data. It also enables you to demonstrate your ability to organize thoughts and express yourself. This is a very important part of the admission process and we’ve even put together some helpful essay writing tips below to assist you in answering all of your essay-related questions.
- Why do colleges require essays?
- What role does the essay play in the application process?
- Who will read my essay?
- What kinds of topics do most colleges require?
- Do I have to write about something serious?
- What about a humorous essay?
- Is the essay a good place to discuss my academic record?
- What “original” topics do colleges see with surprising frequency?
- Is there a “right” answer?
- Do I need to stick to the essay length suggested by the college?
- Can I send extra writing samples?
- Can I submit something I’ve already used for a class assignment?
- Can’t I just print an essay off the Internet?
- Who should read my essay before I submit it?
- What are some common pitfalls that students encounter when they write essays?
- Getting started on your essay—what comes first?
1. Why do colleges require essays?
Colleges use essays to try and create a personal snapshot of you unobtainable from other parts of the application. Essays tell what you are passionate about, what motivates you, what challenges you have faced, or who you hope to become. At selective colleges, admission officers also use essays to make sure that you can reason through an argument competently, that you can connect a series of thoughts, and that you can arrive at an organized conclusion.
2. What role does the essay play in the application process?
While an admissions decision does not hinge on the essay, it certainly can influence the decision making process. A strong essay will capture the attention of the admissions committee. An essay with grammatical errors and spelling mistakes may leave a negative impression.
Your essay deserves effort and attention, but keep in mind that it is only a part of the overall application process. The transcript, course selection, test scores, recommendations, activities, interviews, and any other required materials will all play a part in the final admissions decision.
3. Who will read my essay?
At small and/or selective colleges, admissions counselors thoroughly read all required materials that are part of the application. At Lewis & Clark applications are read by at least two people. Your application is first reviewed by the area counselor who will make a recommendation on the application. A second reader will then review the file. If the readers agree, a decision is made. If the readers disagree, the application file goes on to the admissions committee for a final review and decision. As this process unfolds, your essay is read by a diverse group of individuals. While admissions counselors take their jobs seriously, do not feel that you must write a serious essay. Your writing should reflect your voice and your personality. Do keep in mind that admissions committees reflect a wide range of ages, interests, professional experiences, and even senses of humor.
4. What kinds of topics do most colleges require?
It is important that you research the essay requirements for every college on your application list. While many colleges will accept a Common Application essay, some colleges have specific essay topics which must be addressed by every applicant. Since Lewis & Clark uses the Common Application exclusively, please use one of the following essay topics when applying:
- 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.
5. Do I have to write about something serious?
Not necessarily. You should not feel that you have to choose a serious topic in order to have a powerful writing sample. Sometimes simple topics can leave lasting impressions on admissions committees. If you feel that a serious event has defined you as a person, changed your opinion about life, or has affected your academic record it may be worthwhile to make this the subject of your essay.
6. What about a humorous essay?
It is always a pleasure to read a “funny” essay. A unique topic or approach is often refreshing to a college admissions officer who has been reading applications all day. Further, an unusual or off-beat essay is an excellent way to show your creativity. However, you should not attempt to be funny if this is not your natural personality or voice. Your comfort level as a writer is a serious factor in the success of your essay. The more natural you sound the better.
7. Is the essay a good place to discuss my academic record?
The essay can be a good place to explain in more detail any ups or downs on your transcript or a significant experience that has impacted your academics. You can, however, also write a separate letter explaining those circumstances if you’d like to write your essay on another topic.
8. What “original” topics do colleges see with surprising frequency?
Students often write about their mission and/or volunteer trips out of the country, an outdoor experience, the death of a family member or close friend, a sports injury, or travel. While you can write a successful essay about these experiences, make sure you focus on a specific moment and how you have been impacted. Don’t just tell the admissions committee that your values or outlook changed when confronted with a challenge – tell us how you changed as a result of that experience.
9. Is there a “right” answer?
No. Specific questions do not necessarily have specific answers. A good essay will be focused on a clear idea with supporting details. How one admissions counselor reacts to a particular essay may be entirely different from how another admissions counselor, your mom, or your friend might respond to the same essay. One thing we can all agree on is that grammar, spelling, and sentence structure is important. As far as content is concerned, we all have different opinions. What about writing on controversial topics? A controversial topic can be successful, but it must be done sensitively so that a reader with an opposite opinion can relate to your essay.
10. Do I need to stick to the essay length suggested by the college?
The Common Application instructions stipulate that the length of your essay should be between 250 and 650 words. The form will count the number of words entered as you type, and will not allow you to submit the essay if it falls outside the parameters. If your essay is outside the length guidelines, check with colleges to see if you can mail your essay separately – most will tell you that would be acceptable. (Do make sure your names and one other identifying piece of information is on every piece of paper you mail.)
11. Can I send extra writing samples?
Many students feel that creative writing, a graded paper, poetry, or newspaper articles will enhance their application and provide a better picture of their writing ability. Unless the application says otherwise, most colleges will accept additional samples. Colleges know the materials that they need to make an admissions decision, but extra writing samples can be good supplements to those required materials. In most cases we would prefer copies of graded writing assignments.
12. Can I submit something I’ve already used for a class assignment?
A piece of writing that served as my essay on The Great Gatsby will read like “My College Essay on How Much I Love The Great Gatsby.” A paper written for your English class may inspire your college essay—just make sure that it doesn’t feel recycled.
13. Can’t I just print an essay off the Internet?
No way! College admissions officers are pretty savvy people. We read thousands of applications and many admissions professionals are familiar with the content of essays discovered online. If we have a question or a concern about an essay we will request graded writing samples to get a better sense of the student’s writing ability. More than anything, you do not want to put your application in jeopardy. You will be writing a great deal in college—consider your application essay to be good practice.
14. Who should read my essay before I submit it?
Do not rely on technology to proofread your essay! Beyond using your computer’s spelling and grammar check program, it is a good idea to have several “real” people read your essay, too. No matter how many times you read your own writing, or how many times you check your spelling, you may miss small errors because you are so familiar with the essay. If they have time, ask a teacher or counselor to read your essay, as well as a parent and/or a friend. It is important to have several different people with different viewpoints read your work for content, errors, and tone.
Keep in mind that admissions committee members are complete strangers to you, so having your essay reviewed by someone who doesn’t know you well (a friend of a friend, for example) isn’t a bad idea either. Remember, your essay should reflect your voice, so listen to the advice of your reviewers but do not let them re-write your essay.
15. What are some common pitfalls that students encounter when they write essays?
Number one is procrastination. Don’t wait for this to be the last part of the application that you do. Start a draft, work on the rest of the application, and then go back to the essay – as many times as necessary. That’s why you start early.
Too often, students write their college essays as “one huge paragraph.” Your essay should resemble any other academic paper where the rules of grammar and style still apply. Remember the basic rules of writing—avoid excessive use of exclamation points, be careful with commas, don’t use slang, don’t overuse capital letters or abbreviations, etc. Also, don’t rely on a thesaurus. Big words, especially when misused, detract from the essay and make the essay sound contrived.
If you have created your essay in a separate document and have cut-and-pasted it into your online application, please double-check before you click on that submit button. Make sure your entire essay gets pasted, your document has copied correctly, etc. Don’t let glitches detract from the quality of your essay.
16. Getting started on your essay—what comes first?
Follow the practices that have worked for you in writing essays, compositions, and research papers in high school. Once you decide on a topic, you might want to:
- Develop an outline
- Determine the best format to present your message and start with a creative lead
- Prepare a draft using detailed and concrete experiences
- Review and edit the draft for grammar, spelling, punctuation, and word usage
- Share your draft with others
- Rewrite and edit as necessary
Every essay or assignment you write must begin with an introduction. It might be helpful to think of the introduction as an inverted pyramid. In such a pyramid, you begin by presenting a broad introduction to the topic and end by making a more focused point about that topic in your thesis statement. The introduction has three essential parts, each of which serves a particular purpose.
- The first part is the “attention-grabber.” You need to interest your reader in your topic so that they will want to continue reading. You also want to do that in a way that is fresh and original. For example, although it may be tempting to begin your essay with a dictionary definition, this technique is stale because it has been widely overused. Instead, you might try one of the following techniques:
- Offer a surprising statistic that conveys something about the problem to be addressed in the paper.
- Perhaps you can find an interesting quote that nicely sums up your argument.
- Use rhetorical questions that place your readers in a different situation in order to get them thinking about your topic in a new way.
- If you have a personal connection to the topic, you might use an anecdote or story to get your readers emotionally involved.
- For example, if you were writing a paper about drunk drivers, you might begin with a compelling story about someone whose life was forever altered by a drunk driver: “At eighteen, Michelle had a lifetime of promise in front of her. Attending college on a track scholarship, she was earning good grades and making lots of friends. Then one night her life was forever altered…”
- From this attention grabbing opener, you would need to move to the next part of the introduction, in which you offer some relevant background on the specific purpose of the essay. This section helps the reader see why you are focusing on this topic and makes the transition to the main point of your paper. For this reason, this is sometimes called the “transitional” part of the introduction.
- In the example above, the anecdote about Michelle might capture the reader’s attention, but the essay is not really about Michelle. The attention grabber might get the reader thinking about how drunk driving can destroy people’s lives, but it doesn’t introduce the topic of the need for stricter drunk driving penalties (or whatever the real focus of the paper might be).
- Therefore, you need to bridge the gap between your attention-grabber and your thesis with some transitional discussion. In this part of your introduction, you narrow your focus of the topic and explain why the attention-grabber is relevant to the specific area you will be discussing. You should introduce your specific topic and provide any necessary background information that the reader would need in order to understand the problem that you are presenting in the paper. You can also define any key terms the reader might not know.
- Continuing with the example above, we might move from the narrative about Michelle to a short discussion of the scope of the problem of drunk drivers. We might say, for example: “Michelle’s story is not isolated. Each year XX (number) of lives are lost due to drunk-driving accidents.” You could follow this with a short discussion of how serious the problem is and why the reader should care about this problem. This effectively moves the reader from the story about Michelle to your real topic, which might be the need for stricter penalties for drinking and driving.
- Finally, the introduction must conclude with a clear statement of the overall point you want to make in the paper. This is called your “thesis statement.” It is the narrowest part of your inverted pyramid, and it states exactly what your essay will be arguing.
- In this scenario, your thesis would be the point you are trying to make about drunk driving. You might be arguing for better enforcement of existing laws, enactment of stricter penalties, or funding for education about drinking and driving. Whatever the case, your thesis would clearly state the main point your paper is trying to make. Here’s an example: “Drunk driving laws need to include stricter penalties for those convicted of drinking under the influence of alcohol.” Your essay would then go on to support this thesis with the reasons why stricter penalties are needed.
- In addition to your thesis, your introduction can often include a “road map” that explains how you will defend your thesis. This gives the reader a general sense of how you will organize the different points that follow throughout the essay. Sometimes the “map” is incorporated right into the thesis statement, and sometimes it is a separate sentence. Below is an example of a thesis with a “map.”
- “Because drunk driving can result in unnecessary and premature deaths, permanent injury for survivors, and billions of dollars spent on medical expenses, drunk drivers should face stricter penalties for driving under the influence.” The underlined words here are the “map” that show your reader the main points of support you will present in the essay. They also serve to set up the paper’s arrangement because they tell the order in which you will present these topics.
- A final note: In constructing an introduction, make sure the introduction clearly reflects the goal or purpose of the assignment and that the thesis presents not only the topic to be discussed but also states a clear position about that topic that you will support and develop throughout the paper. In shorter papers, the introduction is usually only one or two paragraphs, but it can be several paragraphs in a longer paper.
For Longer Papers
Although for short essays the introduction is usually just one paragraph, longer argument or research papers may require a more substantial introduction. The first paragraph might consist of just the attention grabber and some narrative about the problem. Then you might have one or more paragraphs that provide background on the main topics of the paper and present the overall argument, concluding with your thesis statement.
Below is a sample of an introduction that is less effective because it doesn’t apply the principles discussed above.
An Ineffective Introduction
Everyone uses math during their entire lives. Some people use math on the job as adults, and others used math when they were kids. The topic I have chosen to write about for this paper is how I use math in my life both as a child and as an adult. I use math to balance my checkbook and to budget my monthly expenses as an adult. When I was a child, I used math to run a lemonade stand. I will be talking more about these things in my paper.
In the introduction above, the opening line does not serve to grab the reader’s attention. Instead, it is a statement of an obvious and mundane fact. The second sentence is also not very specific. A more effective attention grabber may point out a specific, and perhaps surprising, instance when adults use math in their daily lives, in order to show the reader why this is such as important topic to consider.
Next the writer “announces” her topic by stating, “The topic I have chosen to write about…” Although it is necessary to introduce your specific topic, you want to avoid making generic announcements that reference your assignment. This technique is not as sophisticated and may distract the reader from your larger purpose for writing the essay. Instead, you might try to make the reader see why this is such an important topic to discuss.
Finally, this sample introduction is lacking a clear thesis statement. The writer concludes with a vague statement: “I will be talking more about these things in my paper.” This kind of statement may be referred to as a “purpose statement,” in which the writer states the topics that will be discussed. However, it is not yet working as a thesis statement because it fails to make an argument or claim about those topics. A thesis statement for this essay would clearly tell the reader what “things” you will be discussing and what point you will make about them.
Now let’s look at how the above principles can be incorporated more effectively into an introduction.
A More Effective Introduction
“A penny saved is a penny earned,” the well-known quote by Ben Franklin, is an expression I have never quite understood, because to me it seems that any penny—whether saved or spent—is still earned no matter what is done with it. My earliest memories of earning and spending money are when I was ten years old when I would sell Dixie cups of too-sweet lemonade and bags of salty popcorn to the neighborhood kids. From that early age, I learned the importance of money management and the math skills involved. I learned that there were four quarters in a dollar, and if I bought a non-food item—like a handful of balloons—that I was going to need to come up with six cents for every dollar I spent. I also knew that Kool-Aid packets were 25 cents each or that I could save money and get five of them for a dollar. Today, however, money management involves knowing more than which combinations of 10-cent, five-cent, and one-penny candies I can get for a dollar. Proper money management today involves knowing interest rates, balancing checkbooks, paying taxes, estimating my paycheck, and budgeting to make ends meet from month-to-month.
- In the first line the writer uses a well-known quotation to introduce her topic.
- The writer follows this “attention-grabber” with specific examples of earning and spending money. Compare how the specific details of the second example paint a better picture for the reader about what the writer learned about money as a child, rather than this general statement: “As a child, I used math to run a lemonade stand.” In the first introduction, this statement leaves the reader to guess how the writer used math, but in the second introduction we can actually see what the child did and what she learned.
- Notice, too, how the reader makes the transition from the lessons of childhood to the real focus of her paper in this sentence: “Today, however, money management involves knowing….”
- This transition sentence effectively connects the opening narrative to the main point of the essay, her thesis: “Proper money management today involves knowing interest rates, balancing checkbooks, paying taxes, estimating my paycheck, and budgeting to make ends meet from month-to-month." This thesis also maps out for the reader the main points (underlined here) that will be discussed in the essay.