Questbridge Application Essays Mba

Founded in 1740 by Benjamin Franklin, the University of Pennsylvania claims the distinction of being the first university in the United States to offer both undergraduate and graduate studies. Located in the heart of Philadelphia, Penn has a history of innovation. It is home to the nation’s first medical school, first collegiate business school, and first student union.

 

Today, Penn continues to offer innovative academic approaches and stellar educational opportunities. It is one of the top research universities in the nation, and in 2015 Penn boasted a research budget of $851 million. It also boasts a top notch faculty, including twenty eight Nobel prize winners. Penn offers four undergraduate and twelve graduate schools, and the school also offers opportunities from “innovative dual degree programs that defy traditional academic boundaries to rigorous grounding in the liberal arts and sciences”

 

Overview

 

It comes as no surprise that Penn is the top choice for many students across the nation. Admissions to this urban Ivy League university are highly competitive; in 2015, 37,268 students applied to Penn. Of those, 3,787, or 10.1%, were admitted. Of those admitted, 47% identified themselves as students of color. 16% of admitted students were legacies, and 12% were first generation college students.

 

For the Class of 2019, the SAT range for admitted students was 690-780 on critical reading, 710-800 on math, and 700-790 on writing, for an average composite score of 2120-2370 (or 1480-1590 on the redesigned SAT scale). The ACT Composite score range was from 32-35.

 

For this admissions cycle, the Early Decision deadline is November 1, 2016. Penn’s Early Decision program is binding, meaning that if you are admitted under Early Decision, you must attend. However, if you are deferred in the Early Decision round and later admitted under Regular Decision, you are not bound to accepting your offer of admission from Penn and may choose from among your options. Additionally, if you choose to apply to Penn under Early Decision, you may not apply to any other school early.

 

For Regular Decision applicants, the deadline is January 5, 2017. The application fee is $75, but may be waived for students who qualify. For more information on fee waivers, check out the CollegeVine guide to waiving application fees.

 

Penn accepts applications under the Common App, and students are required to send the Common App and the Penn  supplement. We’ll go over the Penn supplement in more detail later on in this post.

 

In addition, you must submit your official high school transcript, your school report, a counselor recommendation, and two evaluations from academic teachers. Students who are deferred under the Early Decision program, or who are applying under Regular Decision, must submit their mid year reports.

 

Penn requires that applicants submit either SAT or ACT scores. You may also send both, if you wish to do so. The SAT Subject Tests are optional, but may help strengthen your application.

 

Penn offers interviews based on availability of alumni volunteer interviewers. In the last admissions cycle, 91% of Penn applicants received interviews. Interviewers generally contact Early Decision applicants between mid-October and late November. QuestBridge Finalists are usually contacted in November. Regular decision applicants are typically contacted in between December and February.

 

Whether or not you receive an interview has no bearing on the overall strength of your application; applicants are not pre screened for interviews, and alumni volunteer interviewers do not have access to student applications. If you are offered an interview, you are strongly encouraged to take it. Interviews offer an opportunity for you not only to show admissions committees a more personal side to your application, but also to learn more about Penn.

 

Penn also allows students to submit supplementary materials, with the caveat that they “recommend that you think very carefully before sending in supplementary material. If information is already included somewhere in your application, that information does not need to be submitted again in supplemental form.”

 

Penn only considers the following types of supplementary materials: an additional letter of recommendation, an art or music sample, or an expanded resume or research abstract. The deadline for an additional letter of recommendation is November 1, 2016 for Early Decision and January 5, 2017 for Regular Decision; the letter should not be from another academic teacher. The deadline for a fine arts supplement is November 10, 2016 for Early Decision and January 15, 2017 for Regular Decision. For more information, check out the CollegeVine guide to submitting supplementary materials.

 

Early Decision applicants will receive their admissions decision in mid December. Regular Decision applicants will receive their decision by April 1, 2017. All decisions are final, and Penn does not accept appeals. If you would like to reapply, you must wait until the next admissions cycle.

Paying for Penn

 

For the 2016-2017 academic year, the approximate cost attendance for Penn is $69,340. Penn practices need blind admissions, which means that a student’s ability to pay will not be considered when making admissions decisions. Penn also meets the full demonstrated financial need of students.

 

Penn offers financial aid plans that include grants and scholarships, work study, and loans. That being said, Penn is also committed to making a debt-free education possible, and as such “enables all dependent undergraduates eligible for aid to receive all-grants aid packages”.

 

To apply for financial aid, students must submit the Penn Financial Aid Supplement, which is available online, the CSS profile, and the parents’ and student’s federal income tax returns, all schedules, pages and W-2 forms from the previous year. The deadline to submit these documents is November 2, 2016 for Early Decision applicants, and February 1, 2017 for Regular Decision students.

 

In addition, applicants must submit the parents’ and student’s federal income tax returns, all schedules, pages and W-2 for the current tax year by February 15, 2017 for students admitted under Early Decision and for Regular Decision applicants. All applicants must submit the FAFSA by April 15, 2017.

 

Applying to Penn

The Penn supplement to the Common App contains a series of questions in additional to supplemental essays. In the first part of the Penn supplement, you are asked to report general information. This includes your start term, for which the only option is Fall 2017; whether you are applying under the Early Decision or Regular Decision program; whether you are a QuestBridge finalist or a Penn Promise Fee Waiver recipient requesting a fee waiver; whether you are pursuing need based financial aid; and whether you are sending supplemental materials.

In the next section, you are asked select the school or program to which you are applying. The options are: Computer and Cognitive Science/Artificial Intelligence; the Seven Year Bio Dental Program; Digital Media Design; the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business; the Roy and Diana Vagelos Program in Life Sciences and Management; the Jerome Fisher Program in Management and Technology; Networked and Social Systems Engineering; Nursing and Health Care Management; Vagelos Integrated Program in Energy Research; the College of Arts and Sciences; the School of Engineering and Applied Science; the School of Nursing; and The Wharton School. Depending on the school or program you have chosen, you may be asked to choose a potential major within that school/program, or to identify an alternate school/program as a second choice.

Next, you are to respond to questions regarding your prior contacts with the University of Pennsylvania. Namely, you are asked whether you have previously applied to Penn, and how you learned about Penn. You also have the option to give your consent to be contacted by Penn admissions via phone or text.

The next section focuses on family ties to Penn. You are asked whether any of your siblings are applying to Penn in this admissions cycle; whether any of your relatives have attended Penn; and whether any of your relatives have worked at Penn. If you answer yes to any of those questions, you are then asked to provide further information regarding your relationship to the person in question, as well as their name.

The final section, titled “Other Information”, asks whether you would like to indicate your preferred gender pronouns or identify with the LGBTQIA+ community on your application. If you answer yes, you then have the opportunity to provide this information.

Essay Questions

 

The general Penn supplement contains one essay question:

 

How will you explore your intellectual and academic interests at the University of Pennsylvania? Please answer this question given the specific undergraduate school to which you are applying.

 

Your response to this question should be 400-650 words. Students applying to dual degree programs should respond in accordance to their single degree school choice.

 

Some schools and programs ask additional essay questions. They are as follows:

 

Seven Year Bio Dental Program

  • Please list pre-dental or pre-medical experience. This experience can include but is not limited to observation in a private practice, dental clinic, or hospital setting; dental assisting; dental laboratory work; dental or medical research, etc. Please include time allotted to each activity, dates of attendance, location, and description of your experience. If you do not have any predental or premedical experience, please indicate what you have done that led you to your decision to enter dentistry.
  • List any activities which demonstrate your ability to work with your hands.
  • What activities have you performed that demonstrate your ability to work cooperatively with people?
  • Please explain your reasons for selecting a career in dentistry. Please include what interests you the most in dentistry as well as what interests you the least.
  • Do you have relatives who are dentists or are in dental school? If so, indicate the name of each relative, his/her relationship to you, the school attended, and the dates attended.
  • If you wish to submit a resume, please upload it (not required).

 

Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business

  • Discuss a current international issue, which demonstrates how international affairs and business intersect and explain how the Huntsman curriculum might assist to resolve the issue. (max 500 words)

 

Applicants to the Huntsman Program are also asked to select which of the eleven Huntsman target languages they intend to pursue. The language options are Chinese (Mandarin), French, German, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish. You are also asked to indicate how much experience you have with your selected language.

 

Roy and Diana Vagelos Program in Life Sciences and Management

  • LSM seeks students who are enthusiastic about combining science with management. What excites you about this combination? What advantages and opportunities does the combination provide, and what needs does it address? Be as specific and original as possible in addressing these questions. (400-650 words)
  • If you wish to submit a resume, please upload it (not required)

 

Jerome Fisher Program in Management and Technology

  • Explain how you will use this program to explore your interest in business, engineering, and the intersection of the two. It is helpful to identify potential engineering and business paths available at Penn. (400-650 words)
  • Please describe a time in which you displayed leadership. (250 words maximum)
  • If you wish to submit a resume, please upload it (not required).

 

Networked and Social Systems Engineering

  • Describe your interests in modern networked information systems and technologies, such as the Internet, and their impact on society, whether in terms of economics, communication, or the creation of beneficial content for society. Feel free to draw on examples from your own experiences as a user, developer, or student of technology. (400-650 words)
  • If you wish to submit a resume, please upload it (not required).

 

Nursing and Health Care Management

  • Discuss your interest in nursing and health care management. How might Penn’s coordinated dual-degree program in nursing and business help you meet your goals? (400-650 words)

 

Vagelos Integrated Program in Energy Research

  • Describe your interests in energy science and technology drawing on your previous academic, research, and extracurricular experiences that allow you to appreciate the scientific or engineering challenges related to energy and sustainability. If you have previous experience with research, describe your research project (outlining the goals, hypotheses, approach, results, and conclusions). Describe how your experiences have shaped your research and interests, and identify how the VIPER program will help you achieve your goals. Also, please indicate which VIPER majors in both science and engineering are most interesting to you at this time. (400-650 words)
  • If you wish to submit a resume, please upload it (not required).

 

For more information, check out the CollegeVine Guide to writing the 2016-2017 Penn Essays here.

 

We hope that this guide has helped clear up some of the questions you may have had regarding applying to the University of Pennsylvania. We at CollegeVine wish you the best of luck with your application!

 

Want more help with your application to the University of Pennsylvania? Schedule a free consultation today for personalized advice from one of our admissions experts!

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Lydia Tahraoui

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine

Lydia is a Social Studies concentrator at Harvard University who is deeply committed to helping guide students through the college admissions process. In addition to writing for the CollegeVine blog, Lydia enjoys analyzing Middle Eastern and North African politics and keeping up with all things pop culture.

Latest posts by Lydia Tahraoui (see all)

Related CollegeVine Blog Posts

Mechanics

What are best proofreading practices?

What grammar essentials should I keep in mind?

What are run-on sentences and how can I avoid them?

When is it appropriate to use sentence fragments?

Is it okay to use a thesaurus as I write?

Which cliches should I avoid?

Structure

What is the concept of "flow" and why is it so important?

How many paragraphs should I use?

How can I use transitions to improve the flow of my essay?

What does "full circle" mean and how can I incorporate it?

How can I identify and avoid tangents?

Content

How can I make a good first impression?

What are cliche essay introductions that I should avoid?

What is a "common thread" and why is it important?

How am I supposed to make a unique point in my essay?

Why is it so important to focus the essay on myself?

How and where can I add more detail to my essay?

How do I strike a balance between challenges and successes?

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What are best proofreading practices?

There are three essential elements to proofreading:

  1. Revise, revise, revise. You should plan on going through many drafts. You shouldn't be afraid to completely start from scratch, or change the primary point of your essay. Avoid refusing to change your primary content/topic as you edit; you might find later on that you have a more compelling story to tell than what you began with.
  2. Read your essay out loud. Slowly, backward, sentence by sentence, in as many ways as possible. This will help you catch errors that your eyes gloss over when reading. 
  3. Ask as many people for help as you can. Remember to ask them in person if they are able to help you before sending your essay along and give them several weeks to review your essay. The more tips you can get, the better. You don't have to take all the advice they give you — go with what you think will be most helpful. 

For more proofreading advice, we suggest the How to Proofread guide and the Editing Checklist of twelve common errors from the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin - Madison.

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What grammar essentials should I keep in mind

Correct grammar and writing mechanics, including spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure, allow readers to easily navigate your essay and clearly understand the message that you want to convey. An essay with major errors or even consistent minor mistakes will make it difficult for readers to focus on the story you are trying to tell them about yourself. Instead, they may become distracted by these mistakes and struggle to process the meaning of individual sentences.

Consider the difference correct grammar can make between these two sentences.

  1. Incorrect grammar: This is the first time, I had ben told I was special; I wasnt about to let this opportunity slip away as i watched.
  2. Correct grammar: This was the first time I had been told I was special and I wasn’t about to let this opportunity slip away as I watched.

Carefully proofreading your essay for errors is a critical step in polishing your essay. 

Below are three areas students consistently struggle with:

Spelling: The spell check feature in your word processing program (e.g., Microsoft Word) is your first defense. Keep in mind that a misspelled word may itself be the correct spelling of a completely different word — your spell check may not catch these types of errors. A good resource is the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Than/then, we're/were, there/their and effect/affect are all examples of common misspellings. 

Punctuation: The Grammarly Handbook includes separate tutorials on individual punctuation marks. Be particularly mindful of how you use commas, semicolons, and dashes, and be careful not to overuse the latter two.

Verb tenses: Verb tenses provide information to the reader about what point in time an action takes place. There are six basic tenses in the English language, three simple (past, present, and future) and three perfect (past perfect, present perfect, and future perfect). You might use only one tense in your essay, but it’s more likely that you will need to use different tenses in different sections of your essay, or even within the same sentence (e.g., "In elementary school, I hoped to be an astronaut when I grew up, but now I plan to become a medical researcher").

For example, perhaps you use past tense when relating a specific experience, and then shift back to present tense later in the essay when describing who you are now. Be careful to be consistent with your tenses, especially when making lots of revisions (don’t switch back and forth between present and past in the same story). It can be easy to accidentally shift tenses when making lots of edits, so proofread carefully. Here's an example of what a sentence with improper tense use can look like, and how to solve it.

  1. Improper mixed tenses: As my dad was opening the door my heart was racing, knowing the impact the next few minutes will have on me.
  2. Resolved (past tense): As my dad opened the door my heart was racing, knowing the impact the next few minutes would have on me.
  3. Resolved (present tense): As my dad opens the door my heart is racing, knowing the impact the next few minutes will have on me.

For more grammar help, two good resources are the Grammarly Handbook and the Grammar, Punctuation, and Style section in Haverford College’s Resources for Writers. 

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What are run-on sentences and how can I avoid them?

Run-on sentences are two or more sentences joined incorrectly or even just unwisely. Complex sentences, when used carefully, make your writing more sophisticated. However, these sentences still must be grammatically correct and should not be so long that they make it difficult for the reader to follow your thoughts. There are a few different mistakes to avoid:

Fused sentences: A fused sentence is two separate independent clauses (complete sentences on their own) joined without punctuation or conjunctions (and, but, or, however, therefore, etc.).

  1. Bad example: At home my brothers were loud enough for all of us I preferred the quiet escape of books and music.
  2. How it can be improved: At home my brothers were loud enough for all of us, and I preferred the quiet escape of books and music.
  3. How it can be improved: At home my brothers were loud enough for all of us. I preferred the quiet escape of books and music.

Comma splices: A comma splice is when two independent clauses are joined by a comma without a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet) or with a word that is not one of these conjunctions.

  1. Bad example: I escaped the tension at home by driving to the beach, even then my mind couldn't stay still.
  2. How it can be improved: I escaped the tension at home by driving to the beach, but even then my mind couldn't stay still.
  3. Bad example: I always thought I would attend my local community college, however, my plans took an unexpected turn when I heard about QuestBridge during my sophomore year of high school.
  4. How it can be improved: I always thought I would attend my local community college. However, my plans took an unexpected turn when I heard about QuestBridge during my sophomore year of high school.

Sentences that are too long: A complex sentence that is grammatically correct can still, if not constructed carefully and thoughtfully, be unnecessary and hard for readers to understand. Try reading your essay out loud to find any run-on sentences in this category, and then break them into smaller sentences.

  1. Bad example: As we pulled up the driveway, I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, I reached over and grabbed my mom's hand, because I knew we could only get through this together.
  2. How it can be improved: As we pulled up the driveway, I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. I reached over and grabbed my mom's hand. I knew we could only get through this together.

Please keep in mind that there is always more than one way to correct any run-on sentence; the above examples do not represent all possibilities.

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When is it appropriate to use sentence fragments?

A sentence fragment is a group of words that cannot grammatically stand alone as a sentence — it is missing a subject and/or a verb or is a dependent clause. For a good explanation of sentence fragments and how to correct them, please see Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab.

While most sentence fragments should be corrected, thoughtfully and creatively using them for special purposes can strengthen your essay. Specific instances where it's okay to use a sentence fragment include when it:

  • Is used for emphasis
  • Answers a question
  • Functions as a transition
  • Is an exclamation

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Is it okay to use a thesaurus as I write?

A well-written essay will use varied vocabulary that is not overly simplistic, and making good use of a thesaurus can strengthen your essay. However, in an effort to sound more sophisticated, be careful not to rely so much on a thesaurus that your language sounds unnatural and perhaps includes words that even the reader doesn't understand. Your essay should still be in your voice, and should not simply include the biggest words you can find. When the reader can tell that a thesaurus was overused, it may become difficult to focus on your message instead of simply the large words that you use. Consider the difference between the following two sentences:

  • Unnatural: I invariably find myself ambushed beneath copious volumes of course-work, laboring to inhale air.
  • Natural: I always seem to be trapped beneath copious amounts of homework, struggling to grab a breath of air.

You'll notice that the second sentence still contains with word "copious", which is generally not be used in everyday conversation. It works well in this case, because the sentence is not full of words that appear to be pulled from a thesaurus. Furthermore, the word itself enhances the image the author is trying to convey without being so obscure that the reader has to look up the definition.

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Which cliches should I avoid?

Certain common phrases become cliche when they are overused and portray a lack of original thought. College admissions officers read dozens, often hundreds, of essays — you want your essay to stand out, not blend in with the crowd. One way to do that is to avoid these types of phrases, and instead find a way to creatively convey your thoughts in your own original words. Below are some examples of these types of phrases:

  • In today’s society…
  • At the end of the day…
  • Live life to the fullest…
  • All walks of life…
  • Survival of the fittest…

For more on cliches, including additional examples and strategies to avoid them, see the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Writing Center.

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What is the concept of "flow" and why is it so important?

"Flow" is often used to describe the way that the essay moves from point to point. It can refer to each paragraph or how the paragraphs are connected to one another. An essay that flows well does not include choppy sentences, illogical structure, or paragraphs that are out of sequence. An essay that flows well includes transitions and transitional devices. 

Your essay should also have a common thread that connects each paragraph logically. 

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How many paragraphs should I use?

Essays of this length generally work best with more than one paragraph. These paragraphs can simply follow a typical essay layout: introduction, body paragraphs, conclusion.

In the introduction, grab the reader’s attention and clearly explain the subject of the essay. Avoid repeating the essay prompt so your introduction stands out. Make sure your body paragraphs are in logical order and develop your primary point(s). There is no set number of body paragraphs for an essay and a good paragraph has one central point. In the conclusion, you can summarize your main points and leave your readers with an impactful final sentence.

Remember, you should feel free to use paragraphs in whichever way fits your essay. It's perfectly fine to leave a quote or short phrase as a separate paragraph, just be sure to have someone else make sure your essay reads easily.

Tip: it's easiest to read essays with a line break between each paragraph!

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How can I use transitions to improve the flow of my essay?

Transitions can be a few words or even a few sentences. They connect your ideas and views throughout the essay. A list of transitional devices can be found here.

When writing your college admissions essay, it can be easy to jump from one idea to another, as you might want to talk about many different things. First and foremost, we suggest narrowing your focus to a few key ideas or topics. Then, make sure that every sentence and paragraph leads to each other. You don't want to leave the reader behind as you quickly move from one idea to the next.

Here is an example of a how a transition can improve the flow within a paragraph. (Source here.)

  1. Before transition: Amy Tan became a famous author after her novel, The Joy Luck Club, skyrocketed up the bestseller list. There are other things to note about Tan as well. Amy Tan also participates in the satirical garage band the Rock Bottom Remainders with Stephen King and Dave Barry.
  2. With transition: Amy Tan became a famous author after her novel, The Joy Luck Club, skyrocketed up the bestseller list. Though her fiction is well known, her work with the satirical garage band the Rock Bottom Remainders receives far less publicity.

Similarly, you should make sure that the reader can understand why one paragraph follows the other. You want your ideas to build off of each other throughout the essay, instead of being fragmented. Use transitions to achieve that goal.

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What does "full circle" mean and how can I incorporate it?

An effective essay is one that successfully concludes all the ideas it has carried throughout. This is done most effectively when there is a common thread that is concluded at the end of your essay. 

For example, a student might write about three different ideas in their essay:

  1. How their family has taught them to be grateful.
  2. How they have grown into a leader during high school.
  3. Their desire to give back to their community after college.

To come "full circle" they will need to touch on each of these points near the end of their essay. Doing so will tie the ideas together more cohesively in the readers mind and help them follow the structure of the essay. Similarly, a student might write about just one primary point (for example, how they have grown into a leader during high school). They should still include a summative statements and/or a paragraph near the end that wrap up their thoughts on this matter. Bringing you essay full circle will allow you to emphasize your primary point(s) and leave a lasting impression.

It can also be effective to refer back to your introduction in your final sentences. In this sample essay, you can see how the author mirrored the same sentence type at the end (with the student calling and speaking to someone on the phone). In doing so, the difference between those two phone calls, and thus the personal growth of the author, is emphasized. This neatly brings the essay and the points therein full circle. 

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How can I identify and avoid tangents?

When you are writing about something that is personal to you or that you are passionate about, you can easily go off on a tangent. When this happens, you lose sight of the point you are trying to make and lead the reader to a completely different topic. The best way to avoid tangents is to ask someone to proofread your essay for you. Sometimes you may not know that you have strayed off topic.

If you are not comfortable with asking someone to read your essay, read your essay carefully. If each paragraph and sentence supports the main point of your essay, you have successfully avoided unnecessary tangents.

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How can I make a good first impression?

The reader's first impression of your essay isn’t limited to what you write in your first sentence — the entire first paragraph is filled with opportunity to leave a good first impression. The beginning of your essay is also a space for you to introduce the themes you will use throughout your essay. Remember, you don’t have to start with a conversation, event, or other creative piece of writing, although that is one strategy.

Admissions officers read hundreds of college applications and essays. It takes effort to stand out from the crowd and make them want to thoughtfully read your essay, instead of just skim it. A great first impression will give your essay (and thus, your entire application) a head start.

Sometimes it’s easiest to write your introduction after you’ve written the rest of your essay. You might find that there’s a quote, or some symbolism, or other detail you want to start with at the beginning and carry throughout the rest of your essay. If you find yourself spending too much time on the introduction, write other parts of the essay and come back to it later!

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What are cliche essay introductions that I should avoid?

There are many ways to begin an essay, and some are more common than others. Contrary to what you might have been taught in school, you should avoid repeating the essay prompt to make your introduction stand out.

For example, the QuestBridge National College Match biographical essay topic has historically asked students to: “describe the factors and challenges that have most shaped your personal life and aspirations."

Accordingly, many essays begin with some variation of the following: “There have been many factors and challenges that have shaped my life and aspirations.

Avoid falling into the “cliche introduction” trap by never repeating the prompt verbatim. Using a few words from the prompt is acceptable, but often there are more interesting and captivating ways to begin your essay.

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What is a "common thread" and why is it important?

The term "common thread" refers to an idea, topic, or theme that is carried throughout your essay. It doesn’t have to be explicit — you don’t have to explain how every paragraph relates to the common thread. However, it should be prevalent enough to ensure your essay is united. It can be particularly difficult to use common threads in biographical essays, but that is where they are most important. Unfortunately, there will never be enough space to tell your complete story. Instead, you should use a common thread to convey the primary point you want admissions officers to understand about yourself. When they finish your essay, what is the one thing you want them to remember about you?

In this sample essay, the student’s common thread is the process of growing from a follower into a leader. This character growth and maturity are the one thing the student wants to stand out above all else. You can see how this thread is weaved subtly into the essay — it’s present, but not overwhelming.

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How am I supposed to make a unique point in my essay?

With thousands of students writing essays in response to the same prompts, certain topics quickly become overused. To avoid these, take time to think about what makes you unique. Here are a few ways you can get started in this brainstorm process:

  • List adjectives that describe you.
  • Make a timeline of your life.
  • Reflect on a memorable event.

There are several cliche college essay topics that you should be aware of: 

  • The Big Issue: I believe that world peace is the most important…
  • Tales of My Successes: I’m student body president and…
  • The Jock Essay: Football taught me the importance of teamwork…
  • The Autobiography: I was born on February 22, 1996…
  • The Significant Relationship: My mom/dad/boyfriend changed my life…
  • Moving: I attended three different middle schools…
  • The Trip: I had to adjust to a different culture in my trip to…
  • The Academic Risk: I took all APs and risked not getting a 4.0…

(Adapted from Harry Bauld’s On Writing the College Application Essay)

While you are welcome to write about any of these topics, please know that many students do write about them. You should be convinced that you have a unique spin on that particular topic that will really make your essay memorable. Also, remember that a topic does not have to be particularly thrilling to be unique. It’s possible to write a compelling essay about something as mundane as working at a fast food restaurant! What really matters is the time and effort you put into writing your essay.

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Why is it so important to focus the essay on myself?

The college admissions essay isn’t just a place to demonstrate your writing skills, it’s also the place where the reader should learn more about you. Many college essays are well written, but miss the target because they focus on someone or something besides the student. A perfect example of this is an essay that primarily tells the story of a student’s mother. While it’s entirely possible that the student’s mother is an inspiring person, the college is deciding whether or not to admit the student, not the mother. An essay that doesn’t give the admissions officers more insight into yourself doesn’t pull it’s weight in your application.

At the same time, you shouldn’t be afraid to talk about people in your life who are important to your development and story. Just be sure to do so in a way that emphasizes the person’s impact on your life and your own personal development. In this sample essay, some details about the student’s parents are included but the primary focus is on the student.

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How and where can I add more detail to my essay?

Your college essay is a perfect place to add in the interesting, descriptive details you might leave out of academic papers. By "details" we mean a few different things:

Adjectives and adverbs — use these to help your story come to life for your reader. In the following examples, the writer is saying essentially the same thing, but by using more descriptive writing, the second example is far more engaging and interesting to read.

  • Little detail: I walked into my first high school class, feeling nervous.
  • More detail: On September 2nd, at 7:58 a.m., I walked into the first class of my high school career. My stomach churned as my nerves overwhelmed my emotions.

Describing a setting, situation, or event with concrete examples to back up your description. In the following example, the writer talks about his/her hometown in two very different ways.

  • Little detail: My hometown is a small town in a very rural area. It is very isolated from the more urban areas of New York.
  • More detail: My hometown, located along the rural stretches of the Columbia River, has a population of 523. 

Speak of broad topics, such as a personal character quality, while offering evidence in support of it. In the following examples, the writer claims to have a strong work ethic, but only in the second example does the writer illustrate this.

  • Little detail: Throughout my life I have developed a strong work ethic. There have been many things that have taught me the value of hard work. My parents in particular made sure I developed a strong work ethic as I grew up. Although I used to have little self-discipline, I am now driven by my strong work ethic.
  • More detail: Beginning in middle school, I was expected to work at my parent’s store during the summer. I stocked shelves, assisted customers, and swept the floor as a full time employee. Those long summer days allowed me to recognize the value of hard work, and gain respect for my parents’ self-discipline. My strong work ethic can be directly credited to those working summers.

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How do I strike a balance between challenges and successes?

Students from low-income backgrounds may have encountered many challenges in life. While those challenges and obstacles are worthy of mention, it's important to focus on how they were overcome. The ability to reach high achievement levels in the face of these obstacles is noteworthy, and admissions officers want to hear more about that. They don't, however, want to read an entire essay that is excessively negative — where it seems the writer hasn't learned anything from the challenges he or she has faced.

Avoid listing the challenges you have faced. Instead, mention them but then shift to explaining what you learned as a result, how you were inspired, etc. In doing so, you will show great character development and a maturity that admissions officers are looking for.

 

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