how to write college essays

The University of Virginia has always provided some of my favorite supplemental essay prompts (and not just because it’s where I went to grad school). They are short (250 words max) and they are personal.  Both of these mean that a student is forced to get to their point quickly, something I find students struggle with when they have a longer word count, and they are forced to really think about what makes them tick.

If you look at all the available prompts offered in the first section of the UVa supplement, the theme would be this: What do you value?  All four options essentially ask a student to address this larger question. Even the seemingly breezy, “what is your favorite word and why?” is essentially asking a student to give the reader a little insight into what they think is important.  Because the four prompts focus on the same core question, let’s look more deeply at just one.

“UVa students paint messages on Beta Bridge when they want to share information with our community. What would you paint on Beta Bridge and why is this your message?”

Just last week, I read one of the best responses I have seen for this prompt. The student talked about how “excess is a burden and minimalism is a gift.”  He talked about how he doesn’t allow himself to buy new hangers for the closets in his house because when he buys something new that means something has to be discarded.  His message for the Beta Bridge was: “The things you own end up owning you.”  What I liked most was that his message was very personal and very specific. Do I know everything there is to know about this student? No. But I do know something very intimate about what makes him tick and that’s the whole point of this essay prompt. He values people over things and he proved it throughout the rest of the essay.

Now let’s talk about the supplemental prompt for those applying to the College of Arts and Sciences:

“What work of art, music, science, mathematics, or literature has surprised, unsettled, or challenged you, and in what way?”

A few words of caution:

  1. I think the biggest mistake students make with this prompt is that they presume they should write about their favorite work of art, music, etc. But that’s not what the question asks. I always remind students of something very simple: read the prompt! “Surprised, unsettled, or challenged you” doesn’t mean liked. It might be your favorite, but it could very well be the opposite. I have had more than one student write this essay on “In Cold Blood.”  Grappling with the idea of murder with no real motive is definitely troubling. This, however, leads to the second caveat.
  2.  Remember there are two questions asked. Students often answer the first half and then forget to address the “in what way?” portion which is, frankly, the interesting part to an admissions officer.  At the end of the day, the admissions officer doesn’t care about the book or the song. They care about you. They want to know why you picked this book or that piece of art, and what it tells them about how your mind works.
  3. This isn’t a book report. The response is  challenging because students need to find the happy medium between assuming the reader doesn’t have knowledge of the piece of material in question, and also not wasting too much of the short 250 word count describing it. I’d spend no more than 75-100 words on the description of the work and then spend the rest on your reaction to it.



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