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Common Essay Questions

While colleges often pose different essay questions to their applicants, there are typically a handful of traditional queries that many schools employ.  In order to respond to the best of your ability, it’s important to understand what universities are driving at/asking.

Write about a significant experience or achievement.

Before you begin to tackle this essay prompt, there are a few points of which you should be aware.  First off, don’t reiterate information that can be found in other parts of your application.  Instead, use this opportunity to showcase an additional side/aspect of yourself.  Secondly, you must recognize that schools don’t only view “big” achievements as a viable topic.  You don’t need to have worked on a cure for AIDS or helped send a rocket into space to write a compelling essay.  Sometimes we learn the most from modest feats.  Third, dig deeply.  Don’t just say that volunteering in a soup kitchen allowed you to see the importance of helping others.  That sounds clichéd and obvious.  Admissions committees really want you to speak to the experience and really explain the impact it had.  Finally, you’ll need to be able to strike a balance between being self-effacing and being a braggart.

Discuss an issue (local/national/international/personal) of importance to you.

As with many of these questions, the issue/cause you select is not nearly as important as your explanation. Though you can certainly demonstrate passion and fervor for your argument, it’s vital you don’t come across as dogmatic.  You want to reveal that you can think logically and objectively; the reader shouldn’t come away thinking you’re myopic.  Additionally, you must remember that, ultimately, admissions officers are using these essays to gain insight into you.  You should relate your opinions and arguments to your own life and experiences.

Where do you see yourself in 5 (or 10 or 20 years)?/What are your future goals?

Be careful – applicants can easily go overboard with this question.  Sure, ambition and creativity will help you craft a colorful (and hopefully memorable) answer.  However, admissions officers aren’t necessarily looking for something quirky (like ringmaster of a chain of flea circuses) or extraordinary (leading senator from Florida).  They simply want to know about your goals and dreams and what makes you tick.

Discuss a book or creative work that has had an influence on you.

Colleges and universities don’t expect you to write about a work that garnered a Pulitzer or sparked a new artistic movement (though it’s okay if you do).  It doesn’t have to be a vital part of a canon or curriculum to be a valuable choice.  In fact, it’s better if you’re able to show that you (even if only occasionally) explore art or literature outside the classroom.  Further, don’t just describe the object or plot points.  Indeed, it’s imperative for you remember that, in the end, you must relate it back to you, your thoughts and your ideas.

Why do you want to attend this school/pursue this degree?

When answering this question, it’s important not to be heavy-handed.  Steer clear of heaping ambiguous praise on a school or program; there is such a thing as being overly effusive.  Instead, demonstrate that you’ve done your research and that you have concrete reasons for wanting to attend.  Highlight specific programs or opportunities that appeal to you and how a particular school will help you meet your goals.

Write about someone you admire or a person who has influenced you.

Similar to the questions above, the emphasis should not be on who you choose.  There’s no right or wrong answer.  Don’t assume a school will view you as a person of strong moral character if you select Martin Luther King Jr., or as a person with intellectual gravitas if you write about Socrates.  If you choose a person in the hopes of merely impressing the admissions committee, it will likely make your essay appear disingenuous.  Instead, write about a person who truly has impacted your life.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a third cousin, your boss at the local pizzeria or your French teacher.  Just be sure that the essay isn’t merely a biographical sketch.  You must write about what they taught you and how it relates to your own outlook on life.

When it comes to writing a successful college essay, you must realize that honesty trumps everything (except possibly good grammar/a typo-free piece).  Schools aren’t interested in fantasy versions of their applicants.  You are a unique individual; be truthful with your answers and the admissions committee will appreciate your point-of-view. 

 


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