What's the Key to a Good Application Essay?

Inside the Admissions Office

What's the Key to a Good Application Essay?

You’ve probably heard rumors about the dreaded “college essay” and how much (or how little) it matters in the admissions process. As international students, essays for you will often matter a great deal, because colleges are looking for evidence of strong English and writing skills neces-sary to succeed in their rigorous programs.


The good news is that overcoming dramatic circumstances and/or curing exotic diseases are not prerequisites for admission. The vast majority of successful college essays focus on small, relevant topics or moments, and it might take a few drafts but you’ll be able to produce a strong topic.


A college education is about making connections, e.g. “how does the past affect the present,” and “what can science teach us about art.” These connections are the basis for the problem solving that makes the college environment a richer and more engaging place. The college essay is not only a place to showcase your spelling and grammar, but a chance for you to prove to admissions officers how you make connections.


There are three general types of essays:

Personal Statements

These often include general questions about your life, such as:

  • Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
  • Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experi-ence there, and why is it meaningful to you?
  • It’s important to remember that schools will ask you to keep these to about 2 pages, so don’t address a topic that is too broad. Find something that you can write about with rich, explicit detail.

Supplemental Essays

These essays are often closely tied with the personality of the school. For example, Tufts asks you to “celebrate your nerdy side” and MIT asks you to “show us and/or tell us about something that you have created. This can be, for example, a design, a device, an object, an idea, or con-cept.” Whatever you do, do NOT recycle an essay you wrote for another school. Admissions officers are asking these questions because they want specific answers, and it’s fairly easy to tell if a student is trying to make an essay fit somewhere it doesn’t belong.

“Why I want to Come To Your University” Essays”

These are basically asking “why are you applying?” This is your chance to prove you’ve done your research by highlighting what is unique about each school. Again, BE SPECIFIC. Saying that a school has “an engineering major” isn’t good enough; find out who is on the faculty, what types of specific programs they offer, and possibly reference successful graduates of the pro-gram who you would like to emulate.


Show, Don’t Tell

Here are a few examples of what I mean when I say, “be specific.”

Not Useful: “I have a very strong passion for medicine. Doctors make the world a better place. I want to make the world a better place. Your school has a strong medical program. Therefore, I am a perfect fit.”

Useful: “Many high schoolers (including myself) have seen the TV show Grey’s Anatomy and want to become doctors. But I asked for Gray’s Anatomy (the book) for my 17th birthday and have volunteered at my local hospital for the past two summers. I am serious about medicine, and from the 300 doctor shadowing opportunities on your campus, I believe you are too.”


See how this “useful” example makes a concrete connection between the applicant’s life and their academic interests? Look for those opportunities, and have fun. I know it might sound strange to ask you to have fun when writing your college essay, but it can help you appear like a stronger candidate if an admissions officer sees you as an individual with passions both inside and outside the classroom.