US application essays: three key points

Guides / USA

For students and families new to the process, it’s sometimes hard to understand just how important application essays are. If you are used to systems where there’s only one essay to write, the fact that you might have to write a number of essays tailored to each university as well as an overall application essay is something new, and a common mistake that I discuss here.

For students I work with who have already applied and are making a gap-year reapplication, the number one reason why they had to try again is that they realised – unfortunately too late – that they hadn’t put enough time into the essays. Here are my three key points:

Don’t try to compare US applications to any other system.

The way in which US universities select is very different to other systems, and if you approach the essays thinking that they are like other application essays then you will get yourself into difficulty. This is clearly seen in the Common App essay, which asks you questions which require personal answers based on your life and aim to illustrate your character, rather than academic questions which focus on school work.

Don’t start too late

Let’s say you are going to apply to 8 universities, all of which have a couple of supplemental essays. For each of those, you might want to aim for three drafts. Add in the Common Application essay which typically gets to five or more drafts, and that’s over 50 pieces of writing there. If you start in October or November of your application year, with deadlines in early January, there’s no chance that these essays will be as good as they can be. Ideally you should start your Common Application essay in July and have a few supplemental essays completed by the end of the summer holidays.

Don’t be too general

The college supplemental essays are your best chance to explain why that university should admit you. It’s easy to just write that you want to go to a university because it is ‘well ranked’ or ‘in an amazing city’, but that’s not going to cut it. You need to do detailed research into all sorts of aspects of that university – its curriculum, its clubs, its professors – and craft your supplemental essays around them. Bear in mind that the titles of some of these essays will require a lot of thought, here’s an example from the University of Chicago for the 2018-19 application cycle:

You’re on a voyage in the thirteenth century, sailing across the tempestuous seas. What if, suddenly, you fell off the edge of the Earth?

The application essays are a crucial part of the process. If you are lost about where to start and would like some support and guidance with your essays, please get in touch.