The Application Essay

Depending on what colleges you apply to, you may be required to develop an admission essay as part of the application process. Admissions personnel won't be reading your essay to determine whether your opinion is the "right" one. Instead, they will be looking for your ability to use the English language, to organize your thoughts, and to explain your position. An essay is different from other methods of evaluating potential students, in that it is much more subjective; there is usually no right or wrong answer. The issue you are presented with will likely be a contentious one that elicits many different opinions and reactions. Evaluators will be assessing your ability to provide a substantive rationale, concrete examples, and evidence to support your position on the issue. In other words, they'll be looking for evidence that you have what it takes to earn an undergraduate degree.

Developing a strong admission essay is a process, not a task that can be completed in a few minutes. Give yourself plenty of time to think about the issue, organize your material, and thoroughly review your essay for organizational flaws, faulty logic, and grammatical and spelling errors. Using the steps outlined below to guide you through the process may help, particularly if you are someone who automatically panics whenever someone even mentions the word "essay."

Step 1: You've received your topic. Read the question or statement and spend the next few hours exploring your thoughts and experiences related to this particular topic. Don't worry about organizing your essay just yet - simply let your mind wander and see what appears. Try to look at the issue from as many different sides and perspectives as possible. Let's say the essay prompt is "Minimum wage in North America should be raised to $10 an hour." You may be tempted to simply write an essay agreeing that workers would enjoy a better quality of life if they earned more, but try to dig deeper. How would such a rule affect business owners operating on slim profit margins? Would businesses decide to relocate to other countries if such a rule were in place? Have you seen firsthand examples of corporations moving to areas where labor is cheaper? How would such a rule affect workers already making this amount? Would they then desire a raise, and would higher salaries across the board lead to inflation? How would such a rule affect prices at supermarkets and department stores? Feel free to jot down notes about your own experiences as well. For example, have you ever tried to make ends meet on a minimum wage job? Do you know people who are struggling to do so? Anything you have gone through or observed can be used to support your position. Stop when you feel you've gone as deep as you can.

Step 2: Review the information you have compiled and choose a point of view. Generally, the side that you can support most strongly is the one you will argue in favor of in your essay. You may be surprised to find you end up supporting a side that conflicts with your personal beliefs. For example, you may personally agree that minimum wage should be higher, but find when you review your Word document or scrap paper that almost all of your points oppose this notion. Regardless of your beliefs, choose the side that will allow you to construct the most solid argument.

Step 3: Choose the points you will use to construct your essay. If you spent enough time brainstorming, there should be plenty of arguments to choose from. Choose the most compelling arguments in your list, ones that you will be able to expand upon in the essay. It's better to really flesh out a few solid points than to briefly touch upon all of your arguments - that is not, after all, what an essay is all about. Most essays will contain a minimum of three supporting points, with longer essays having more. If you are arguing against raising the minimum wage, your arguments might be: 1) such a raise would lead to higher consumer costs; 2) a mandatory raise would cause some companies to look outside the United States for employees; and 3) a raise might reduce the ability of local businesses to be competitive in export markets.

Step 4: Organize your ideas. Decide in what order you will present your ideas. In the above example, you might start with the point that some companies might leave the country, move on to talk about how businesses would be less competitive, and end with an issue that affects us all (higher consumer prices). You'll also have to decide how you will support each of your ideas. Statistics, quotes, real-life examples, theories, personal observations and experiences, and primary and secondary sources are all options. Organize your supporting evidence in such a way that it reads and flows naturally - avoid jumping around and completely changing the topic.

Step 5: Write the first paragraph of your essay. Your introductory paragraph will basically give the reader an overview of the issue and the contents of the essay. In it, briefly describe the topic, making sure to use your own words. Also include an explanation of how you feel about the topic and why, and state your final decision or conclusion. Finally, briefly state the points you will expand upon in the remainder of the essay. There is no need to go into any great detail - a sentence about each point should suffice.

Step 6: Develop the body of your essay. In this main part of your essay, you will present your chief arguments and provide the supporting evidence and examples you selected during step 4. Each paragraph in the body of the essay should begin with a topic sentence that identifies the point to be discussed. Then, present your evidence - statistics, observations, etc. Finally, write a sentence to wrap up the paragraph and transition smoothly into the next section.

Step 7: Develop your conclusion. This final paragraph is simply a way to neatly wrap up your essay. It is not the place to introduce new arguments, since you have already thoroughly explained everything in the body of the essay. Basically, you should use this space to summarize and reinforce your opinion and your reason for holding that opinion (the points made in your essay).

Step 8: Review your essay. Allow some time to pass before you go back to check over your essay; it will allow you to be more objective while looking for mistakes and problems. While you're reading your essay, ensure that the information is logically organized and flows well. Look for smooth transitions between paragraphs. Add transitional phrases or sentences if required, and move paragraphs and sentences to other locations if you feel they would fit better somewhere else. You can also delete information if it just doesn't seem to fit in with the overall content, or if you find an idea is redundant. A shorter essay that succinctly and effectively presents your position is preferable to a long, rambling one. If your word count is a bit short, add some extra points you recorded during your brainstorming session. Trying to be as wordy as possible just to make the minimum word count is something that a professional scorer will notice. Correct any grammar or spelling errors that may be present in your paper. Look for fragments and run-on sentences as well. If sentences stand out because they are too short or too long, cut them or expand them accordingly. Ensure that the words you have chosen, particularly lengthy and difficult ones, are correct and make sense in the context of the sentence in which they are used. In general, avoid using big words just to impress the reader - they may sound awkward and detract from your paper.

Step 9: Ask others for input. After you have thoroughly reviewed your essay and prepared a final rough draft, it's time to ask for some outside help. You should try to get between three and five outside readers. You'll want to choose people who possess strong grammar and writing skills and have expertise in the relevant field. To give them a better picture of your situation and qualifications, you might decide to give them a copy of your application, resume, and other important materials. They may suggest you include information from these forms in your essay. You'll want to give all these individuals who have so graciously agreed to help you plenty of time to review your essay. Finally, try not to take constructive criticism personally - having others critique your work is never easy, but it will most likely make your essay stronger and more compelling in the end.

Step 10: Create your final draft. Consider all of the suggestions offered by your reviewers, and revise your essay based on these suggestions. Press print, and there you have it - a well-written essay that will help you get into your favorite school. As a final note, remember that some schools will require you to write two essays instead of just one. If this is the case, ensure that you have enough time to go through the entire writing and review process for each of your essays. Otherwise, you may end up with a stellar essay and a very weak one, something that college admissions professionals will notice immediately.

The Post or Pre-Interview Essay

The essay submitted with your application is usually written in the hopes that it will help you get an interview at the school of your choice. Depending on whether writing is a skill that comes naturally to you, writing the essay may have been a tortuous or mostly enjoyable process. If your college is impressed with your essay, they may ask you in for an interview. Before or after this all-important event, you may also be asked to write another essay. You will probably have to write it on-site, which is a compelling reason never to hire anybody to write your application essay. Writing styles are very difficult to imitate, and chances are good that the person reviewing your essays will realize they were not written by the same person. The suspicion that another person may have written your earlier essay can quickly squash your chances of acceptance.

The on-site essay will most likely be timed, so you will have to work quickly to complete it. For the most part, you can follow the same process you used when you wrote your application essay: brainstorm ideas and thoughts about the topic presented, choose the best ideas from your list, organize them in a way that makes sense, and decide on the angle or approach you will take in your essay.

As with your application essay, ensure that your paper is clearly and logically structured. Include an introductory paragraph, a body that expands upon your main arguments, and a conclusion that restates your position and provides a satisfying summary of your most salient points. Finally, go back to review your essay one last time and fix any errors. While reviewing your essay, consider the following points in evaluating its strengths and weaknesses:

  • Did you outline how you prepared for college and mention your positive personal attributes?
  • Did you include specific personal experiences to strengthen the case presented in your essay?
  • Did you mention your academic background and provide specific examples of your successes and achievements?
  • Did you mention any past work experience?
  • Is the essay clear, concrete, and cohesive, and does it flow well?
  • Have all grammar and punctuation errors been corrected?

Finally, remember to pace yourself. While you were able to take your time when you developed your admission essay, you'll have to work through this writing process much faster. Take a watch with you and time each stage of the process to ensure you'll be able to finish on time.

Last Updated: 04/24/2014

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