College Admissions: Telling Your Story through Writing

17 February, 2018

The application process to almost every college and university in the United States has several parts to it.

Each part tells admissions officials at the schools something different about an applicant.

Class grades can show the subjects a student is strong in, for example. A list of the student's activities outside of school can show what his or her interests are.

But Seth Walker says nothing really tells the story of an applicant as well as the essay or personal statement. Walker is with Indiana University, a public university, in Bloomington, Indiana. He is the school's associate director of international admissions.

Seth Walker, associate director of international admissions at Indiana University.
Seth Walker, associate director of international admissions at Indiana University.

The essay is a short, written statement that almost every college and university in the U.S. requires of applicants. In it, students are expected to write about themselves and express their personal opinions about an issue.

Walker says the statement helps admissions officers answer questions they may have about a given student.

"Maybe your grades dropped a little bit...or maybe you stopped a class halfway through the year," he told VOA. "The essay or the personal statement can be an opportunity, if the school wants it, to explain that, if you don't think the school will get that explanation through a letter of recommendation...or something like that."

But what goes into a good essay?

Walker notes that every school has its own way of looking at the essay. Some schools will ask an applicant a very specific question. Others will let the student choose between different subjects or simply write about anything they want.

Generally speaking, there is no one perfect way to write an essay, Walker says. He says that given a choice, students should choose to write about an issue they care about. This could be about a difficult time when they were growing up or a meaningful relationship they had.

However, they should also be careful about the subject they choose.

"We'll read the same essays a lot," said Walker. "We'll read how a a hero and you be just like that hero. We read a lot about...your...sports team...or some other difficult experience that you've gone through, maybe learning a different language...Those are all great topics and great essays to write. But you have to remember that a lot of people write those essays. have to write about them in a creative way."

Walker notes that schools have an easy time recognizing when students try to write about something they think admissions officials want to see in an essay. And even in cases where students cannot choose the subject, schools can tell when students are writing in a way to make their essay seem more appealing. For example, Walker notes, many students think that telling a sad story makes them easy to remember.

But that is not necessarily what admissions officials want to see, he says. What they want is an essay about anything that is truly special or important to the student, and which also shows their better qualities. In addition, it should show the student's understanding of the world and what their experiences or way of thinking will bring to the school.

Walker admits that getting started in the writing process can be difficult. That is why he says students should remember that schools are not expecting them to sit down and write an essay with little or no preparation. In fact, students should give themselves plenty of time for planning, writing and re-writing.

Most important of all, students should just start with a simple idea and slowly expand that into a full essay, he says.

"Starting very small is always great, because I think if you sit down in front of a computer with...the purpose to write your entire essay without anything else, it'll be very...overwhelming," said Walker. "So start from the small building blocks and go from there."

He suggests keeping things simple, especially because of the rules most schools have for the essay. Many colleges and universities ask applicants to limit their essay to between 500 and 1,000 words. It is also better when students stay focused on one subject and not include unrelated details.

For example, if a student writes about a time they served as the leader of an organization, the writer should not describe difficulties in a class.

Schools often take into consideration whether or not English is a student's native language, Walker adds. Reading one's own writing, especially out loud, can help an applicant recognize mistakes. Also, having someone else read it can help, leading to the removal of unnecessary or unrelated parts of the essay. And hearing someone else read your writing out loud can also help you decide if the way the ideas are expressed is really what you want to say.

So, Walker says, applicants should make use of the many resources available to them. In the U.S., many students work on their college essays with English teachers and fellow students during their last two years of high school.

He suggests that students have parents, friends and even special writing services help them work on their essays. Also, students should consider re-writing the statement at least once to improve it.

However, Walker does note one concern he has about students involving other people in the process. At American colleges and universities, doing one's own work is extremely important. If a school learns a student has asked or paid someone else to write an essay for them, that school will likely remove the student from their study program.

The same is true of the application process, says Walker. It is easy for admissions officials to tell when students have not written their own essays. The wording sounds very general and often very similar to other essays officials have seen before. And it will most likely lead to the applicant not being admitted.

I'm Pete Musto. And I'm Dorothy Gundy.

Pete Musto reported this for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

We want to hear from you. How common is it for colleges and universities in your country to ask applicants for an example of their writing? What are some of their expectations of that writing? Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.


Words in This Story

applicationn. a formal and usually written request for something, such as a job, admission to a school, or a loan

grade(s) – n. a number or letter that indicates how a student performed in a class or on a test

essayn. a short piece of writing that tells a person's thoughts or opinions about a subject

opportunityn. a short piece of writing that tells a person's thoughts or opinions about a subject

letter of recommendationn. a formal letter that explains why a person is appropriate or qualified for a particular job or school

specificadj. special or particular

topic(s) – n. someone or something that people talk or write abou

creativeadj. having or showing an ability to make new things or think of new ideas

recognizingv. to know and remember someone or something because of previous knowledge or experience

overwhelmingadj. used to describe something that is so confusing or difficult that you feel unable to do it

focusedadj. giving attention and effort to a specific task or goal