George Washington University gets about 20,000 applications a year; the University of Maryland gets a few thousand more. Parke Muth, director of international admission at the University of Virginia, estimates he has read more than 60,000 essays over the years. "That's why I'm nearly blind," he said.
Muth said he doesn't see many laughably bad essays anymore. College admissions are more competitive than ever. Most applicants get coached by parents, counselors and teachers; many spend the fall semester planning and rewriting essays in English class.
Yes, computer spell-checking still creates the odd correction gone awry that can crack up admissions essay readers. But they say many essays are grammatically perfect, structurally sound and painfully earnest. But not usually anything that would grab a reader from the first line.
That's where Nate Patten and fellow University of Virginia students come in. Each year, they sift through tons of essays from incoming freshmen to put on sketches for the public to show the kaleidoscope of students on campus. "Voices of the Class" gives a funny, illuminating and occasionally sad picture of each fall's freshmen — and some inspiration for all the high school seniors trying to bang out essays.
Patten got a stack of admissions essays more than a foot high to read for the play he was directing this fall. He'd pick one up, read the first line and — unless it grabbed him — toss it aside immediately.
"It was really painful," said fellow cast member Scottie Caldwell. "I would read an essay and think, 'This is terrible!' And … it was exactly like mine."
After all that reading, the cast members sounded like experts on what works: The best essays read like vivid, entertaining dramas led by a compelling main character. More script than résumé, and not a complicated life story — just a sketch.
Cast members reading through essays laughed about the repetition. Lots of sob stories, lots of big, obscure words, lots of "Here I sit, musing about how difficult it is to write my essay."
They wrote a scene for the play with a girl at a laptop moaning, "All of my college applications are due tomorrow, and I haven't written my essay. I haven't got a role model … I haven't been depressed … and my family is obscenely functional." Then she brightens up. "I've got it! It's perfect: I'll write an essay about my essay. No one has ever thought of this. It's self-conscious, yet communal."
One Virginia question asks applicants to look out their front window and describe the view and what they would change. "That gives you a whole lot of socially conscious, 'Damn the Man' kind of essays," said senior Walt McGough. "One kid wrote about the state of youth in America — it read like a 50-year-old man wrote it."
They went back to read their own essays and shuddered. "Mine were much worse," McGough said. "I wrote about running the light board for a high school performance and how everything went wrong and what it meant for me to triumph over adversity." He laughed. "If not that phrase, then something really, really close."
Now his advice is succinct: Be true to yourself. Take some risks.
His first year at Virginia., he heard a story: The Harvard admissions-essay question asked, "What is the bravest thing you've ever done?" and one guy wrote — well, a two-word phrase that is best described, in a family newspaper, as both vulgar and hostile.
"I would let that guy in with honors," McGough said wistfully. "I would love to think that happened; it gives me hope for the future."
For the record, the Harvard application has never asked that question.
Also for the record, more than one admissions officer specifically mentioned being offended by overly graphic use of cuss words. Once, Virginia got a response to "What is your favorite word and why?" featuring the same four-letter word.
"He took a risk," Muth said. And, with the finality of a Virginia education lost forever, "that risk was not successful."
The essay didn't fail because of the word, Muth said, but because it was chosen just for shock value. The essay was lousy.
So the corollary advice: Take a chance, but a calculated one. It's good to stand out, but not in a way that makes admissions-staff members recoil.
Someone once sent the University of Maryland a worn flip-flop along with the application, said Shannon Gundy, associate director of undergraduate admissions. She doesn't remember the essay, just the attachment, which grossed her out.
"My least favorite," said Andrew Flagel, dean of admissions at George Mason University, "is the one cut out into a puzzle. It says, 'Your school is where I fit in.' Every couple years, someone sends that."
One of Muth's favorite essays was about driving really fast, listening to Radiohead. "She wasn't afraid to say, 'This is who I am…. I'm not trying to impress you with how much community service I'm doing. But I'm smart.' " It was the writing that carried it, Muth said, poetic and beautiful.
"Be true to yourself" is good advice, he said — to a point. It's not the best recommendation for ditzes, stoners, sullen teens. He took on a high school senior voice and lilted, " 'Does he like, like you — or just like, like you like you?'
"You don't want to be true to that," he said. "You want to be false to that."
As Virginia cast members read essays, some caught and held them: One about a 4-year-old brother with a brain tumor, making the family laugh and cry when he darted from the hospital elevator saying, "I'm busting out of here!"
One about waking up in the night to the strains of a religious song and creeping downstairs to the basement, sleepy and confused, to find his father high on cocaine, singing and beating his little brother to the cadences of the hymn.
There was one that began: I have always had really big feet.
"Some of these essays are just amazing," Patten said. "Some are very, very funny. Some are so sad, I could cry reading them." In the end, he was disappointed that the admissions office took the names off the essays used in the play. "I thought, this sounds like such a cool person that I would love to get to know better."
University of Virginia Application Essay Prompts
We are looking for passionate students to join our diverse community of scholars, researchers, and artists. Answer the question that corresponds to the school/program to which you are applying in a half page or roughly 250 words.
College of Arts and Sciences
What work of art, music, science, mathematics, or literature has surprised, unsettled, or challenged you, and in what way?
The College of Arts and Sciences receives the most applications of all of the undergraduate schools, so it’s important that your essay stands out. If you are having trouble thinking of a work to write about, make a list of books, music, movies, art pieces, scientific discoveries, etc. that you’ve encountered in the past few years, paying special attention to the ones that you did not immediately like.
Why did you not like them? What made you feel uncomfortable or surprised? How did this further your understanding of the piece itself and of the art form? After brainstorming, your essay should include the context in which you encountered the work, what specific aspect of the work challenged you, and how your understanding and perception of the piece changed — and maybe how it prompted a change in your world view.
An effective essay on this prompt will show off not only your analytical and comprehensive skills in writing coherently about a significant piece of culture, but also will say something about how your perspective and opinions. The underlying question asked in this prompt is how being unsettled, challenged, or surprised helps you grow as a person.
School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
If you were given funding for a small engineering project that would make your everyday life better, what would you do?
As an engineering applicant, you have likely thought about future engineering projects, but probably on a much larger and grander scale than UVA asks you to discuss here. This question asks specifically about a small engineering project for everyday life, so now is not the time to discuss your ideas for space travel.
What minor inconveniences do you experience in your day-to-day life? How might you be able to solve those using your engineering skills? This is as much an opportunity to talk about the challenges of your everyday life as it is to show off your engineering chops, so you do not necessarily need to get too technical. Think simple, think small, and think personal.
School of Architecture
Describe an instance or place where you have been inspired by architecture or design.
This prompt sounds pretty straightforward, but remember that you need to tell a story. While your initial answer might be to rave about a certain stunning place objectively, the whole point of the essay is to get to know you, not another architect.
So in answering this question, think about why it had the effect it had on you, add background to your story (Why were you visiting this place at all? What does it mean to you?), and ask yourself how the architecture or design you saw might inspire you as a future architect. Also, allow yourself to think outside the box: Architecture and design don’t necessarily mean buildings. Think about everyday objects that might inspire you as well.
School of Nursing
Discuss experiences that led you to choose the School of Nursing.
Discuss experiences that led you to choose the kinesiology major.
For the Nursing and Kinesiology programs, the prompts are more straightforward — why do you want to study what you want to study? The prompts also ask for experiences, so think of anecdotes in which you knew that you wanted to study Nursing/Kinesiology. Since you have a whole 250 words, after you come up with a compelling narrative for why you’ve chosen your field, go further and answer why you want to study that field at UVA specifically.
Answer one of the following questions in a half page or roughly 250 words.
What’s your favorite word, and why?
This question tends to show up frequently on supplements, but most other schools don’t ask you to write a full 250-word essay about it. This means that instead of just thinking of a word that sounds cool to you and possibly writing a sentence about it, you will want to write about a word that comes with a story.
Maybe it’s the first word you learned in a foreign language; maybe it’s a word that is an inside joke in your family; maybe it’s a food; or maybe it is just a word that sounds cool to you — but in any regard, you should have background for why you love the word you love.
Describe one of your quirks…
We are a community with quirks, both in language and in traditions. Describe one of your quirks and why it is part of who you are.
This is a more specific version of the “tell us who you are” question. For this, you’ll want to convey your personality, framed by a particular aspect of it (the ‘quirk’). Think of a small personal trait that makes you different — maybe a habit that you learned from your parents or a piece of slang that is used by a community you belong to. Then expand on that quirk into how it influences your personality as a whole.
Student self-governance, which encourages student investment and initiative, is a hallmark of the U.Va. culture. In her fourth year at U.Va., Laura Nelson was inspired to create Flash Seminars, one-time classes which facilitate high-energy discussion about thought-provoking topics outside of traditional coursework. If you created a Flash Seminar, what idea would you explore, and why?
As previously noted, UVA is big on student responsibility, with students acting as the enforcement of the honor code. This is taking that idea of independence and self-governance one step further. The key phrase in this prompt is “outside of traditional coursework” — think out of the box for this one. A good way to approach this prompt is to think of hobbies or interests you have that may not necessarily align with typical subjects in school. Alternatively, think of broader interdisciplinary ideas that span multiple subjects. Then, of course, go into why the topic is of particular interest to you.
Beta Bridge Prompt
U.Va. students paint messages on Beta Bridge when they want to share information with our community. What would you paint on Beta Bridge, and why is this your message?
For this prompt, you have a couple of choices: words or images. If you choose words, you’ll want to write something succinct that conveys a message. Your hypothetical bridge-writing cannot be too long and should be attention-grabbing. Bear in mind that even choosing words over images, this is still a visually-based question, so you should consider how you want to present the words. How big are the letters, what color are they, and is there any embellishment?
If you choose images, you have a bit more freedom. Choose an image or a symbol and describe what it looks like and what it means to you. Just remember that you need something without too much detail, because again, it’s going on the side of a bridge.
And, as with all of these prompts, while the answer itself is important, the reason behind it is even more so. Why do these words or images matter to you? What do they mean?
Remember that, while all of the second prompts are interesting questions in and of themselves, the end goal is for the university to get to know you, so remember to tie your answers back to yourself. What does your answer mean to you, why did you come up with it, etc.
For further assistance and advice, check out CollegeVine’s Essay Editing Service and College Application Guidance Program!