Study abroad applicants should already be well into the drafting stages of their college essays by now. If you are applying for undergraduate studies in the UK (except Oxford or Cambridge or medical, dental or veterinary courses) your UCAS application and required ‘Personal Statement’ is due on January 15th (check http://www.ucas.comto find out the specific deadlines and requirements for your course). For the US, regular decision deadline on January 1, 2013, you have about two months to finish your required essays.
Once you know the deadlines, you need to understand how to write the essay. For UK applicants the topic is fairly straightforward and you typically only need to write one personal statement in a maximum of 4000 characters. The UCAS website gives some helpful tips on what to include in the personal statement: http://www.ucas.com/students/applying/howtoapply/personalstatement/. In general, the UCAS personal statement should discuss why you have chosen a particular course, your skills and achievements, hobbies and interests, any relevant work experience, why you want to study in the UK and any future plans you have after college.
The US application essays are much more complex. To apply to any of the 400+ colleges that use the Common Application, you will need to write a 500 word essay on any one of six topics and a short essay of 1000 characters on an extracurricular activity or work experience (see https://www.commonapp.org for details). In addition you must write any number of specific ‘supplemental’ essays for the college where you are applying. However many colleges do not use the Common Application (for example: UC Berkeley and MIT, Georgia Tech), but have their own set of essay question. There is no easy way to summarize this process except to say that if you are applying to the US, expect to write a lot of essays.
But what should you write about? Unlike UCAS, the US college essays topics are directed try to get you to relate a specific experience through which the reader can learn something about your character or your approach to life. When asked, admissions officers claim that the essay is the part of the application where they really get to know and understand the student, beyond numbers and scores. An applicant who simply repeats achievements that are listed in the application forms has missed the opportunity to bring their application to life. E.g. if you started a garbage recycling initiative in your neighborhood, write about how you motivated people and organized their participation. This will demonstrate your leadership, passion and commitment; something you cannot express elsewhere in your application.
In a recent Business Insider interview, a former Dartmouth admissions officer says “most essays are not very memorable. I think people should be willing to take a larger risk with essays”. Remember that admissions officers are reading hundreds of essays. If your topic is common or the writing is boring, you will be overlooked. Write catchy, engaging prose that gets your readers attention and then take them on a journey to get to know you through onespecific incident – Remember that the essay is not a chance to showcase all of your accomplishments – it is a chance to show that you can learn from a small experience, connect it to your past experiences and let it guide you in your future.