“College Essays: A Look Behind the Questions”

By Peter Van Buskirk

Sometimes, the simplest prompts can prove to be the most challenging when it comes to writing college essays. Who would think, for example, that some version of “Why do you want to attend this school?” could induce sleepless paranoia? Or that “Explain your choice of a college major” would leave students second-guessing themselves?

After all, one’s interest in a school should be self-evident—shouldn’t it? The place looks good, feels good and has everything you need. What more can you say? How can you hope to capture the “gut feeling” that has inexplicably taken hold of you?

And, about that major—it’s easy to talk about a life-long desire to become a teacher or a doctor or an engineer. But, what if that career direction isn’t so clear? How can you make a convincing argument about something that is seemingly so speculative?

Despite the inevitable brain-freeze, you still need to come up with words that will not only fill the spaces, but come together to create a compelling statement about you, the applicant. Consider, then, the context behind the questions for insight into how you might attempt to answer them.

Many of the schools that ask long and short answer questions of a personal nature are highly selective. They must make fine distinctions between hundreds or, in some cases, thousands of talented, high-achieving students. As an applicant, your data—courses, grades, scores—puts you on the “competitive playing fields” at such schools.

Once in the competition, though, the attention often shifts from, “Can you do the work?” to questions such as, “If we admit this student, what do we get?” and “Where is the evidence that this student would be a good fit for us?” In other words, what sets you apart from others with similar credentials? Moreover, selective colleges want to know if your interest is sparked by an awareness of the synergy that exists between you and the culture of the educational experience on that campus—or is it a more superficial attraction?

Think about it. Do you justify your interest in a place because it is highly ranked, has a beautiful campus and is in an urban area—things the school already knows about itself? Or can you make the case that you are intrigued by the manner in which the curriculum is organized, instruction is offered and students are engaged? There are not-so-subtle differences in the answers. Colleges often ask the questions about your interest in them as well as your intended program of study, not to see how well you can recite their outstanding attributes, but to learn more about you and how you are thinking about your education.

A friend of mine who is the dean admission at a school that asks questions of this nature has often said, “I don’t want applicants to tell me they deserve to be admitted because they have great credentials. I want them to demonstrate that they ‘get it’—that they understand why my institution would be a good fit for them.” His institution, and others like it, want to measure both the sincerity of your interest and the intentionality with which you approach your application.

This takes us back to the “what do we get” question. In response to the essay prompts, do you come across as someone who is thoughtfully engaged and analytically involved—who is fully self-aware and has carefully researched distinctions between programs in search of the best fit? Or is your application merely the product of an expectation that your credentials should be justly rewarded by admission to that institution?

The key to writing essays in response to these prompts, then, is to remember that the essay needs to be about you. It needs to reveal a deeper understanding of who you are, what you think, and how you think within the context of the question. And, it needs to demonstrate an implicit understanding of the nuances of the school to which you aspire.

In responding to a prompt about an intended major, be sure to validate, if not prove, your interest in that discipline. In other words, demonstrate that your understanding of the subject matter is more than superficial. Better yet, provide evidence—if you can—of your current engagement with the subject matter by virtue of extending reading and/or experiential learning. Again, prove your passion. Make it relevant to your interest in the school.

Don’t panic, though, if you don’t have a clear academic interest. Most students don’t. Moreover, the odds are your interests will change throughout your college experience. Reflect instead on the subject areas you do enjoy. See yourself as the sum of many parts. In doing so, convince the reader that you value opportunities to think critically and explore broadly. After all, the college experience should do more than train you for a career. It should make you a more educated person.

In the final analysis, you need to see in each essay prompt the opportunity to give the reader some insight into you that can’t be found anywhere else in the application. This is true whether you are writing about meaningful life experiences or the reason you have chosen to apply. Be thoughtful. Be reflective. Be intentional. As long as you remember that the essay is about you, you’ll be on the right track.

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