Columns and Sample Essays
“Some tips for handling college applications”
First published November 17, 2000
“College application essays must engage the
First published December
“Personal essay is tough part of college
First published December
First published November 17, 2000
Some tips for handling college applications
By Stephen Wilbers
From time to time in the history of our country we as a
people undergo certain rituals that remind us of what it is to be
Americans. We are now experiencing one
of those quintessential experiences:
the writing of the college application essay.
For the parents of high school seniors, it is a time of
anticipation and pride, mixed with wistfulness for a phase in life that is
coming to an irreversible close. For
students, it is a time of hope and expectancy, tinged with anxiety over what
the future may hold.
In less grandiose terms, this is when parents yell at their
kids about filling out forms and meeting deadlines, and students – who really
do care about their futures – nevertheless put off everything that can wait
Well, I’m here to offer some reassurance to both
parties: You’ll get through this, just
as generations of Americans have before you.
To parents I say, don’t give up. You job is to be obnoxious.
Some day your children will thank you for it. To students I say, begin by taking little steps. Today.
Don’t think of writing your application essays as some huge undertaking
that you must accomplish in a single (agonizing?) session.
Start small. Spend
five minutes today reading and thinking over the questions, 10 minutes tomorrow
jotting down ideas and outlining your thoughts, and 30 minutes the next day
drafting. Wait two days. Then spend 20 to 30 minutes revising
(checking for clarity, adding detail, and eliminating errors in grammar,
punctuation, and spelling), get feedback from others (your friends, your
teachers, your high school counselor – even your parents), spend another 10 to
15 minutes revising, and you’re done.
That’s how to manage the process. But what about content?
Here are some common college essay questions (compiled by
Washburn High School in south Minneapolis) and my suggestions for how you might
respond to them:
The “tell us about yourself” question comes in three
varieties: provide a personal
statement (“Write about something that matters to you”; “Convey to us a
sense of yourself”); describe a significant interest, experience, challenge,
or value (“Evaluate a significant experience or achievement that has
special meaning to you”; “Comment on an experience that helped you define a
value”); and tell us how you have grown and developed (“Have your
experiences as a teenager significantly differed from those of your friends?”;
“What is the biggest risk you have every taken?”).
Write about a value or experience that truly matters to
you. Use your best narrative techniques
– including characterization, suspense, and vivid detail – to make it a good
Why us? question
Whether explaining why you think XYZ University and you
would be a good match, or describing how a college degree might help you
achieve your career goals, be specific.
Demonstrate that you know something about the university or
college to which you are applying. With
the Internet it has never been easier to get information about what makes a
place special. If like many students
you are unsure about a major, explain why that particular institution would
provide a good environment for you to explore possible fields of study.
This typically involves your reaction to an issue, an
imagined encounter with a famous person or hero, your thoughts about a book or
quotation, or your account of a humorous experience.
Have some fun with this one. Your
goal here is to make a definite impression, not necessarily to say something
completely new and original. Just be
yourself. Don’t try to sound like
First published December 11, 1998
College application essays must engage the
By Stephen Wilbers
|For many people, the college application essay is one of the most challenging
writing assignments of their lives – not so much because the stakes are so high
(although they are), but because the questions to be addressed are so large:
Who am I? Who do I want to become? And how will the college experience I am
envisioning help me attain my goals?
For the 18-year-old high school senior, who is both child and adult, the
college application essay represents a time of reckoning.
For my daughter, that time is now [fall 1998]. A senior at Washburn High
School, she is an excellent writer, precise and organized. I know she will do
Last week she handed me a draft of her first essay and asked for my
comments. Her essay began:
“I was born in Iowa City. When I was eleven months old, my family moved to
Minneapolis. When I was four, we lived for six months in Colchester, England,
where I attended preschool. In kindergarten my dad’s job took us to France for
What’s this? I thought. Kate has written for the Washburn student newspaper,
even had her own column for a while. I knew she was capable of writing a more
engaging lead than that.
Then I read her next paragraph and understood what she was up to:
“Tomorrow I am leaving for Japan with my older brother. We will be visiting
a friend in Akita for a couple of days and then touring the country on our own
for a week. To add to the adventure, neither of us speaks Japanese.”
She was using her opening to introduce her theme, that “going cool places
beats buying cool things” and that, to her, college represented an opportunity
to seek new experiences, to go “places that take you out of your comfort zone.”
As she explained later in her essay, attending college out East rather than
somewhere in Minnesota would take her to “unfamiliar territory.”
Her concept was good, but her lead, at first glance, appeared to be
something she did not intend it to be: It looked like an uninspired recitation
of biographical facts. I pointed out to her that a college admissions officer,
with 50 essays to read before lunch, might not make it to the second paragraph.
Then I asked her, “What do you think is the most interesting sentence in
“This one, she said, pointing to the first sentence of the second paragraph,
“Tomorrow I am leaving for Japan with my older brother.”
“Try starting there,” I suggested.
All she needed to do was switch paragraphs. But switching the order created
a new problem: how to take the reader from the present (“Tomorrow I am leaving
for Japan . . .”) to the past (“I was born in Iowa City . . .”).
“I think you need a transition,” I said.
For this Kate wrote, “It’s not as though I have always stayed in the same
place.” With that sentence making the connection, the biographical information
took on new meaning.
That was the only major revision I suggested. After that, her essay went on
to offer a thoughtful and coherent explanation of why she wanted to experience
“a place that is different from where I live now.”
And – if you will forgive a father’s pride – I think she managed a few
particularly well-turned sentences along the way. My favorite: “It is important
to me to see the world through educated eyes, eyes that have seen enough to
make me more aware and understanding of things I haven’t experienced.”
Kate’s complete essay, as well
as her brother's, appears below.
College Application Essay,
Written fall 1998
by Kathleen Wilbers
(Enrolled at Bradley
University, fall 1999)
|Tomorrow I am leaving for Japan with my older brother. We will be visiting a
friend in Akita for a couple of days and then touring the country on our own
for a week. To add to the adventure, neither of us speaks Japanese.
It’s not as though I have always stayed in the same place. I was born in
Iowa City. When I was eleven months old, my family moved to Minneapolis. When I
was four, we lived for six months in Colchester, England, where I attended
preschool. In kindergarten my dad’s job took us to France for five weeks.
I feel very fortunate to have had these opportunities to see the world. I
was lucky enough to grow up under the example that going cool places beats
buying cool things. I am grateful for this example because I have learned that
it is the experiences in life that give value and purpose to life.
Some of my dreams and goals come from these examples of values that my
parents have silently instilled in me by showing me how life should work. Now,
as I am carefully choosing a college to attend next year, I know that the most
important things I can get from a college are the experiences. I need a place
that is different from where I live now. I have learned that by trying new
things and going new places especially places that take you out of your comfort
zone you learn about life. It is important to me to see the world through
educated eyes, eyes that have seen enough to make me more aware and
understanding of things I haven’t experienced.
In selecting a college, I want to go somewhere that will stretch me to new
levels and will let me see the world from more than one point of view. I know
that by leaving Minnesota I will be setting myself up for a change in my lifestyle
and a chance for personal growth. I will be stepping into unfamiliar territory.
Everyone asks me why I want to go so far away. In my mind I think, “How can
you not go away? How can you not see that college is your chance to see another
part of the country?” I have to remind myself that while this is the right
choice for me, it isn’t necessarily the right choice for them. I always smile
and answer, “I want something different.” No one ever responds to that. I’m not
sure how many of them understand that I not only want something different from
Minneapolis, but that I want something different from what they want. I want a
new place, one that will help me recognize where I want to go and who I want to
Written fall 1996
by Eddy Wilbers
(Enrolled at the University of
Denver, fall 1997)
|A lonely building stands apart from the night. The soft glowing light that
pours from its windows cuts the darkness like glowing blades. The crackle of a
fire and the rhythmic beat of hammer on steel seem muffled and insignificant by
the endless night.
Inside, the building is filled with smoke. It is hot, almost unbearably so.
Inside, the sounds fill the small room, bouncing off the walls and assaulting
the ear. Everything seems cramped and shoved into such a little space. So much
sound, so much heat, so much light, so much motion all contained from the night
by a few walls. To one side a fire rages. It sounds like a 747 or a herd of
buffalo at a full run. Sparks jump from the glowing coals and illuminate the
dirt floor. To another side there is a long trough of water to temper the
forged metal. The walls are lined with steel, both completed products and
unforged steel waiting its turn at the anvil.
A large man stands before the anvil. He is dressed in leather pants a heavy
leather apron to shield himself from the heat. His strong arms are charred
black and burned hairless from his labors. He wields a massive hammer. Taking
the red metal from the fire, he places it on the anvil and beats it slowly and
precisely. He forms the metal into something useful, adds to its identity and
strength. And as he helps the metal to become something more, he is helped by
the metal. He becomes a better smith, and he will be better able to form the next
piece of steel.
This story expresses what I want from and what I think I can give to your
school. I believe that college should be like the foundry, a mass of light and
motion, sheltered but not separate from the outside world. The instructors and
teachers should be like the smith, tirelessly crafting their trade and yet
always still learning. I see myself as the unwrought steel, stubborn and
needing direction, but also strong and new. I want to be molded into something
more complex and better suited for specific purposes. In the process of my
being educated by your school, I hope that your school could learn something
First published December 5, 1997
Personal essay is tough part of college
By Stephen Wilbers
For parents of
college-bound high school seniors, now begins a month of agony.
Over the next four or
five weeks, parents across the United States will endure that most excruciating
of all rites of passage: hounding, badgering, and otherwise harassing their
children into filling out their college applications in time to meet the
Believe me, it’s not
a pretty sight.
On the one hand, you
have parents distracted to the point of desperation by filling out seemingly
endless financial aid forms; on the other hand, you have teenagers who really do
care about their futures – but only in a “not-today-I’ll-do-it-tomorrow” sort of
impediment to completing those application forms is writing the personal
statement or the application essay. Here are some tips to help those students –
and anyone else who needs to write a letter of application – get started:
Don’t try to write
your statement in a single sitting.
Sure, it’s tempting
just to dash it off and get it over with, but trying to write perfect copy in a
first draft often causes writer’s block. Writing is easier if you do it in
stages. Of course, this approach requires that you begin the process earlier
than the day before the deadline.
Begin by taking
Take a few moments
just to think. Read the question carefully. Reflect on your background, your
experience, and your interests. What sets you apart from other applicants? What
details about you will create a favorable impression? Jot down specific points
without worrying about how you will word or present them.
presenting your material in narrative form.
Remember that readers
like stories. In telling your story, you might want to organize your material
around one or two principal themes (e.g., your commitment to hard work, your
openness to new experiences, your appreciation for other cultures and ways of
thinking, your interest in travel). Give specific examples to illustrate your
Show that you
According to Brian
Peterson, Associate Dean of Undergraduate Admission at Hamline University, the
most important thing is “to have a passion for what you are saying.” As he tells
prospective students, “It’s not only what you say, but how you say
it. Leave the reader engaged with your topic. Take a position.”
Now, write your draft. Then put it aside. After a day or two, come back to it
and begin editing, keeping in mind the four principal challenges in writing
■To convey a
great deal of information in a very limited space
■To get beyond
the facts to convey warmth, personality, and a sense of self
■To write about
yourself, your qualities, and your achievements without sounding immodest
■To engage the
reader without seeming cute or contrived.
Now, you are ready to
get down to the business of close editing:
■State your name
and provide other relevant information to identify your statement; consider
giving it a title.
To whom it may concern; present your statement as an essay without a
■Make sure your
opening is engaging but not contrived (beware of overstatement).
■Make every word
count; write in a style that is both concise and conversational.
language such as had the opportunity, really excited, really exciting,
and very interesting experience.
concrete, detailed examples and illustrations.
carefully structured paragraphs, organized under clear topic sentences.
between your paragraphs.
secondary or subordinate points to your main argument; make sure all information
and examples are relevant.
carefully to eliminate any errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
■Show your draft
to friends and acquaintances – even your parents – and ask for their reactions
I wish the applicants
good luck, and their beleaguered parents peace of mind.