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College Application Essays

“Some tips for handling college applications”

“College application essays must engage the reader”

“Personal essay is tough part of college application”


Seminars & email courses

Some tips for handling college applications

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

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 until tomorrow.


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 You question


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 story.


The 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.


The creative question


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 someone else.



Seminars & email courses

College application essays must engage the reader

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

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 well.

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 five weeks.”

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 your opening?”

“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 become.

College Application Essay,
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 from me.


Your Guides to Excellent Writing

Personal essay is tough part of college application

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

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 deadlines.

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 way.

The greatest 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 notes.

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.

Consider 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 themes.

Show that you care.

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 personal statements:

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.

Avoid using To whom it may concern; present your statement as an essay without a salutation.

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.

Avoid cliched language such as had the opportunity, really excited, really exciting, and very interesting experience.

Offer specific, concrete, detailed examples and illustrations.

Write in carefully structured paragraphs, organized under clear topic sentences.

Use transitions between your paragraphs.

Tie all secondary or subordinate points to your main argument; make sure all information and examples are relevant.

Proofread 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 and suggestions.

I wish the applicants good luck, and their beleaguered parents peace of mind.




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