How to Write an Application Essay
That intimidating college application essay is becoming increasingly important for transfer students. Nowadays more transfer essays are read and considered in the admission decision because admission as a transfer student implies that you have a major, maybe even a career, in mind and that you have taken coursework, done internships or worked in your major field. The college to which you are applying wants to evaluate your preparedness for that major and your committment to completing your bachelor's degree in a timely fashion.
So, what should you put in your essay; how should you prepare to present yourself in writing; and where can you go for help? These pages will give you some essay writing tips and lead you to other web sites or resources for more help.
Tips for a Good Readable Essay
First some shocking statistics
The admissions department at UC Berkeley will read about 20,000 application essays and Stanford will read about 16,000.
- Your essay should be a slice of you on paper.
- Your essay should not be trite ("I am motivated to succeed") or read like a resume list of your club and work accomplishments.
- Below are some tips for writing an essay that will enhance your application.
Don't be gimmicky or artificial
Every admissions office has a story about receiving an essay folded into origami, or embossed on a five pound chocolate bar. These are not amusing at 11 PM after ten hours of essay reading.
Instead, write an essay that sounds like you are talking to a favorite aunt or uncle. After reading your essay, the committee member should know something about your personality, your style and your values.
Be careful when using humor. Your sense of humor may not match that of your reader.
The best transfer essays I've read tell a story that only that writer can tell - about a personal accomplishment or a personal failure, or about a job or volunteer opportunity that lead to a major or career decision. Good essays are always quite personal without being sentimental.
Bragging or inflating your role or accomplishments is usually ineffective. Having someone else help you too much with your essay, or even writing it for you, is not a good idea. Some schools even have acronyms for these essays such as DBD ("Done by Daddy"). The best essays sound like they were written by someone your age. They have a 20 - something voice, or a 30 - something voice that is yours alone. They aren't so polished and smooth that they read like the work of a pro. After years of practice reading essays the admissions officers and faculty who make admission decisions are quite astute in picking out the student voice. Don't too closely follow the pattern of essays you find on the internet or in essay books. Use these for inspiration but start with a completely blank page when you compose your own. I haven't read a lot of good essays in those books anyway.
Be vivid, have passion
This is no time to write in generalities or in a broad sweeping style. Instead, use descriptions and adjectives galore. Tell a story that comes visually alive as well as intellectually alive. I know that this is not a creative writing assignment, but in March after an admissions officer has read thousands of essays, the one that stands out is the one that leaves you with a sense of place and time. Once at an essay writing seminar, I heard an essay from Stanford that told the story of a bowling trophy and what it meant to this person at a young age. It was so descriptive and evocative of feeling, values and youthful enthusiasm that to this day I remember it. Also, express your passion in your essay. It doesn't matter if you are pro-life or pro-choice, a Democrat or an Independent, the important thing is to have passion about something and present that in a way that doesn't negate the other side. Be passionate about your major subject or your career choice. Tell why you care so much. Show intellectual curiosity and the desire to learn and grow in that field. Mention particular faculty at that University you might like to study with. Be knowledgeable and committed to your passions.
Your essay should read like a short English paper about yourself. Start with a main idea and cite specific evidence to support your statement about yourself. A claim about your transformation into a superior student after languishing in high school might be proven by telling a specific story about becoming passionate about literature in your African American Literature class. Tell the reader what awakened your enthusiasm. Describe your feelings when you found your career or major goals. Where were you, did your priorities change? How did this decision affect those around you? Did you change jobs? Only you can write this story.
Your essay should have a clear beginning, middle and end. Coherence is important—don't wander off your topic. Make a clear point. Edit out sentences that don't support your thesis about yourself.
Have your essay edited for misspellings or grammatical errors. There is no excuse for presenting yourself in a negative light. Show the essay around for editing.
Avoid the big issues
Instead write about what you know. Your opinions about apartheid probably aren't nearly as interesting as what you experienced or learned on your internship working with children in the cancer ward.
Use the essay to tell the admission readers about:
- Lapses in your education—what were you doing, why didn't you go straight through college after high school?
- Learning disabilities that have affected your progress—how have you compensated?
- Any other disabilities—such as illness or physical disabilities that have made higher education a challenge. Tell your story of overcoming these hindrances.
- Disadvantages—economic disadvantage, immigrant status or family losses can make compelling stories if you concentrate on the positive aspects of overcoming your hardships. Everyone faces adversity but some are more successful than others in overcoming. If this is part of your own story, tell it.
This is your chance to fill out your personal story. The reader is looking to round you out and learn some personal details that will help them recommend you for admission. Don't make your story boring and dull. Be personal and lighthearted.
Assistance with Your Essay
- Sometimes it helps to read essays by other students just to see what is possible. Although I wouldn't rely on them for inspiration. One source is Amazon.com (search keywords "college admissions essays").
- Take a look at a book about writing essays, by our own Nancy Gill, called The Subject is You: Writing The Transfer Essay. Nancy works in the Foothill College Writing Center and has been editing college essays for years. Her book is available at the Foothill College Bookstore for only $4.00.
- If you're applying to UC Berkeley, or even if you're not, check out the Berkeley Personal Statement .
- Here are a few of the many services that will help you with your essay for a fee. We are not recommending these services; just letting you know they exist.
- At Foothill College:
- Visit the Transfer Center to check out the video Transfer Essays That Work by McDonald, Gill and Heslet.
- Preview materials used at the essay writing workshop.
- How to Write a College Essay by Maureen Dowd
- Formatting and Editing Your College Application Essays by Joan McDonald
- UC Davis Transfer Opportunity Program Personal Statement Comment
- Sign up for ENGL 156 - Writing College Transfer Essaysphp
Timeline for Writing Your Essay
- Start freewriting about your essay topic—brainstorm without self-judgement.
- Pick a topic/thesis/statement that addresses the application question.
- Write a draft and let it sit for a week.
- Go back to edit it. Cut mercilessly.
- Show this draft to your college English teacher, your counselor, your Transfer Center director, or a relative who will be brutally honest. Ask this reader if your essay sounds like you, is interesting to read, wanders off the topic anywhere, and is vivid and coherent.
- Rewrite it.
- Show it to your readers again.
- Now you probably have something good. Mail it.