college essay writing

Colleges that accept the Common App don’t pick the essays it offers. They do, however, carefully choose each of their supplemental essays, which is why these are often considered as important, if not more important, than the Common App essay.  What they ask can also tell you a bit about the college’s personality; think of off-the-wall creative topics like those the University of Chicago releases every year. How you choose to answer these essays also says a lot about you.

I work with a lot of students who apply to Wake Forest, and the Wake Forest app is one of my favorites. This may surprise you considering there are six (yes six!) supplemental short essay prompts. I like the prompts because they aren’t unnecessarily long and they are mostly very specific, which I find students usually prefer. Let’s take a look at two of them, identify the goal of the essay, and discuss some of the common pitfalls.

Prompt: What outrages you and why? 

This one is really tricky, and students tend to trip on it in a few ways. A few tips:

  1. Some students err by picking something silly. Outrage is a strong word. This isn’t asking what annoys you. Or what irks you. I had a kid write down that his brother didn’t flush the toilet. Annoying? Yes. Gross? Yes.  Something that makes you outraged? Not so much.
  2. Know your audience, or rather, realize you don’t know your audience. This is good advice for all essays, because if you pick something like guns or abortion or anything political, you take a chance that the reader has a vastly different opinion on the matter. This doesn’t mean you can’t voice your opinion, but be careful with your tone.
  3. Students can end up coming off as bitter, judgmental, and super angry about the issue at hand.  This is the most common mistake I see in which people actually get outraged in their essay.  This is the opposite of the first problem.   Students need to voice their outrage in a controlled way. Avoid big, sweeping statements. If you state an opinion that, “all people who think global warming isn’t real are idiots,” it doesn’t actually make those people look bad to the reader, it makes you look bad.

Prompt: Give us your top ten list

Every student in my office asks me, “My top ten what?” when they read this. Unlike the other five questions in this supplement, this is a relatively vague prompt and it throws some students. Try to avoid a pedestrian response such as, “the top 10 things that make me happy.”  Will it be personal? Perhaps. Might it end up a bit boring and cliché? Likely. I once had a student who was very interested in being a realtor list the top ten most underappreciated zip codes in Maryland, with a word or two for each explaining why it was underrated. Very personal for the student, and almost certainly guaranteed to be the only top ten list like it that landed on a Wake application year.

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Written by Karen Spencer
Karen Spencer is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions consultants. Karen previously worked as a senior admissions officer at Georgetown University and Franklin & Marshall College. Visit our website to learn more about Karen Spencer.