The Application Essay

Article by Dr Jon Tabbert, Dukes Education

The US-UK Fulbright Commission does not endorse any product, service or institution.

Many international students find the American university application essay to be one of the most challenging features of the admission process. 

While British educated students are familiar with writing essays, these essays are usually on a set academic topic, chosen by the school. 

Thus, the notion of self-expression through the creation of an essay may be quite a foreign idea. The difficulty, though, doesn’t end there, for there are usually two different types of essays that many US universities require.

It is important to remember that US university admission officers will know a great deal about an applicant well before reading their essays. 

They will have reviewed school exam results that have been submitted through a student’s transcript, they will have studied SAT or ACT results, they will have reviewed teacher references and they will have seen your extra-curricular profile. What they lack, however, is “your voice” in the application. 

Yes, they have grades and scores, but they don’t know much about you – what “makes you tick”: what’s important to you, what is shaping your life, etc. This is, therefore, an exceedingly important part of the overall admission review procedure: learning about you from you.

To obtain a well-rounded a picture, many universities will set two essay questions. One, they will want to learn something about you that may not appear anywhere else in the application. This may be an experience you’ve had which has had a significant impact upon you, or, perhaps, there is an intellectual issue or problem that has always fascinated you. 

These types of questions do offer insights into who you are.  A second essay question is the “Why us” question – in short, why do you want to study at our university? What is it about our academic programmes, or facilities or faculty that appeals to you? Why are we a good match for you … and you for us?

When combined, these two essay responses allow a university to round off their existing picture of you by adding a more personal dimension to your overall applicant profile.

Are there keys to writing a solid essay? Yes, a number of them. 

  1. Write about what you know. Don’t try to second guess what you think an admission officer wants to read about. 
  2. The only thing a reader wants to learn about is you. You are the central theme of all essays.
  3. Be specific. Sweeping generalities don’t provide much real information – details, concrete illustrations do. “I play sports” is not nearly as informative as “I’m on the first team at school in rugby”. 
  4. Do your homework. Know why you are applying to a given university and, again, be specific.
  5. Use everyday language. No need for a thesaurus.
  6. Proof read. Sloppy essays send the worst possible message.
  7. Get a second opinion, but not more than one. Though it’s fine to ask a teacher to review your essays, if you attempt to incorporate the feedback of many people, you’re likely to get a confused essay.
  8. Draft, re-draft and re-re-draft. Developing a solid essay usually requires several goes. 
  9. Finding your voice as a writer is important. Thus, don’t leave the development of the essays to the very end. 

The essays provide a wonderful opportunity for you to complete the circle – academics, tests scores and, now, more about who you are and what is important to you.  At the end of the day, you will have provided a university with a great deal of information that should allow them to make an informed decision on your application for admission.