Mastering the Application Essay: Advice for International Students

There is only one part of the college application left to submit: the dreaded essay.

You have completed your application, requested your transcripts and test scores, and asked your teachers and counselor to write letters of recommendation for you.

There is only one document left to submit: the dreaded essay.

Each year this requirement causes students more stress than any other portion of the college application. What should I write? How will it be utilized—and then scrutinized—in the admission process? What will make me stand out? These and many other questions run through students’ minds as they prepare their document. Here are five pieces of advice to be mindful of as you complete your essay.

1. Let your essay provide a voice for your application

College admission offices review applications in the pursuit of students who are a good match for the institution. From the other documents you have submitted, colleges can determine what you are in terms of academics (GPA, test scores, extracurricular activities, etc.). Just as necessary, however, is who you are. What things are important to you? What experiences will you bring to the campus community? What is your personality like? All of these types of questions can and should be addressed in the essay. Colleges are interested in your story, not just your marks, when making an admission decision. Allow your essay to convey who you are as a person. Whether it is telling the story of a family vacation or your involvement in community service projects, the essay should capture a glimpse of who you are and what you value. The essay also provides a venue for you to explain in your own words why you want to study in the United States.

2. Answer the prompt

Colleges give essay topics for a reason, and they want you to be on target in your response. To write an effective essay, you must make sure you properly address the prompt. If you decide to write about a current event, ensure that you explain why the topic is relevant to you—don’t just report the event. If you write about an influential character, you must illustrate how they have made an impact on your life—don’t just give their biography.

It is also important that you research the institution and its mission when formulating your essay. For example, if you are asked to describe what you imagine your relationship will be like with the institution’s faculty, then find out who they are and what research projects they have undertaken. This will not only provide you with a better sense of the opportunities available at the school, but your essay will also establish your interest in and understanding of the university. Schools that are mission driven often ask students to address a topic that will provide the college with a sense of the student’s understanding of the mission as well as commitment to it. This allows the institution to better determine your fit with its identity.

3. Check your grammar

In this day of texting and instant messaging, it is easy to forget that the college essay is a formal document presented in support of your desire to attend the university. Never underestimate the value of proper grammar and spelling. Editorial mistakes may cast a negative light, creating an impression of you as an applicant that you do not want to make. Spend some time and allow one of your teachers or parents to read your essay and suggest changes. This extra effort can provide great benefits, like the identification of misplaced punctuation, confusing passages, or misused synonyms.

4. Pay attention to details

It is said that the devil can be found in the details. This is especially true when submitting your essay. Each year, admission counselors receive essays from students that were intended for other schools. This may seem like a minor mistake, but it can make a significant impression on the committee. If you are writing institution-specific essays, pay attention and make sure that the correct essay is submitted to each school. Also, before deciding to write an essay that includes school-specific references, double check to determine if the application program you are using allows students to edit essays for each school. Some programs only allow one essay to be submitted to all schools, and if this is the case, you may wish to send in your essays separate from the applications.

5. Make time to edit and revise

The essay is an important factor in the admission decision. At many institutions, it ranks third in importance behind only your transcript and test scores. It is a document that deserves your time and attentiveness in its creation. Set aside time to review and revise your essay. Allow others to provide comments and feedback. These actions are sure to enhance your essay. Admission committees recognize hard work, just as they are able to tell if the essay was written the night before the deadline. While the application process can be a time-consuming and stressful undertaking, the preparation and planning that you devote to your essay can only make it better. Rest assured, that effort will be noticed.

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