Crafting effective US university application essays
Updated on Oct 10, 2016 - 11:28 a.m. IST by Dr. Zafeena Suresh

US university application essays: Essays are a great opportunity to demonstrate your interests and express personal strengths in a college or university application. Each aspect of your application is important and shows a different facet of your character and personality to the admissions panel. The US university application essay is one element over which you have total control and this makes it the best media to present what you want to share about yourself! Start early and set aside time for writing multiple drafts for your application essay. This would ensure a good final product that is not rushed or written under stress.

Essay requirements vary by college, university and level of study. For prospective undergraduates, essay requirements for a college application usually comprise the main essay such as the Commonapp essay, supplementary and optional essays which are college specific. You are free to express yourselves on topics related to the given prompts. Graduate student application essay requirements are usually a personal statement, statement of purpose and a diversity statement. Universities may require one or more of these write-ups as part of your application. For prospective graduate students, the essay prompts could be open or semi structured. In an open application essay, you have relative freedom to design the structure. In a semi structured essay, the university will provide you a series of questions, keys words that will have to be addressed in the narrative. For MBA applicants, essay requirements will vary by university.  You may need to work on multiple short essays on themes related to short and long-term career goals, leadership experience, the need for an MBA at this point, ethical dilemma and decision making.

dr-zafeenaGetting started with US university application essays: REFLECT

To get started with essays, you should spend dedicated time with people who know you well and will give you an honest and objective response about your strengths and personality traits. The next step would be to take a personal inventory to start identifying successful or not so successful experiences which have marked your life, academics, and career. For graduate students, this exercise can help you personalise application essays. The essay is also a space to explain setbacks and share your learning from these experiences.  For undergraduate students, choose one or two themes which would reflect your identity and strengths. Even if there has been no extraordinary experience in your life, choose a simple theme that would be effective and say a lot about you. So dig deeper to seek out the nuggets of information that you could share about yourself.


Don’t just narrate- ANALYSE

Once you have the essay theme, the next step would be to pose questions to yourselves and seek answers. Why is this experience important to me? What are the outcomes of this experience on my life? What was the learning during this experience? Why is this experience/moment valuable to me? Has this incident/ moment given me a life changing moment? Are there any setbacks in my life that are reflected in the application that needs an explanation?  What is the impact/contribution of my work and thoughts on the larger world? This exercise will help you provide an analytical perspective and avoid the trap of a bland and boring recital of your experience.


Getting your application essay together

To start writing your essay, you can opt for blind writing or have a frame to help manage the flow of words and thoughts. Both these styles have their own advantages.  The former will give you an opportunity to express ideas freely. In the latter, a frame will help you keep your focus and help maintain control and balance of words and ideas.


The first draft is all about getting your ideas in one place and once this is ready, it is time for scrutiny and reflection. While working on your second draft, focus on segregating sentences and making paragraphs more cohesive units. From the third draft, try to adjust the style and presentation. When you read your essay and make the revisions, keep the reader in mind. The introductory paragraph is very important and should hook the reader to read on. The consequent paragraphs should be neatly tied into cohesive units of thought and flow well. To make an impact on the reader, your conclusion should converge your ideas and reinforce what you have expressed in the earlier paragraphs. Graduate students usually use this space to reflect on career objectives and demonstrate reasons for the choice of the specific university.


Tone, Language, and Style

While writing the essays, undergraduate students have more freedom in the choice of tone and theme. Therefore, it is important to tread carefully. Students can incorporate humor or be serious in their narration based on personal preferences. Be honest and simple while narrating your story. For graduate students, the tone of the essay is usually serious and professional and an articulate flow of academic and career progress from the past to the present to the future. Try to include anecdotes and personal experiences that would enrich the narration and ‘show’ rather ‘tell’ about your achievements. Evidence through action rather than listing the activities will make the essay more interesting and vibrant.


The essays are a formal part of your application. It is important to stick to the point and take care to avoid verbosity and bombastic language. Students should avoid abbreviations and use technical jargon judiciously.  The essays should be ideally written in the active voice which helps communicate information with more clarity. It is advisable to keep your sentences short and allow them to flow logically so that there is no confusion in the readers mind. Choose either American or British English and maintain consistency in the use of language.  An applicant should devote time to proofread carefully to check for errors and consistency.  One strategy that you could adopt is to proofread with a different focus each time you review the application essay. The first proof read could focus on spell errors, the second on grammar, the third on punctuation and so on.


Revisit your essay several times to ensure there is no confusion or contradiction anywhere. Take a break between editing drafts. You will be surprised that there may be a better approach to something you had written earlier. One exercise you could consider is to read the essay aloud to check for language and flow. It may also be a good idea to have a peer proofread and cross check technical terms.


There are no mantras for a perfect essay. A successful essay should demonstrate you as a confident, motivated individual with the clarity of thought and strength of character. What’s important for students is to always keep the objective of writing the essay in mind- ADMISSIONS.


Also read:

What are the frequently asked questions in an essay?

How to write an application essay for US universities

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