Numbers are a big part of the college admission process: grade-point averages, class percentiles and SAT, ACT and AP scores. But that’s only part of the picture. The essay section gives prospective students the best chance to show their souls. And for admission deans, the written word goes a long way.
“The admission committee is interested in shaping a class of students with a diverse array of personalities, talents, backgrounds, perspectives and interests, and the consideration of these voices as heard through the application essays is a vital part of our work,” says Ryan Hargraves, senior associate dean of admission at UVA, who lectures widely on college entrance-essay writing.
Here, in edited excerpts from a selection of admission essays, are just a few of the voices that make up the Class of 2015.
My grandfather had bought the ring in Tehran, Iran, with all of his life savings. He was an engineer at the pinnacle of his career facing the hassle of the living conditions existing during the Shah regime, and irrevocably in love with a woman whom he had met no more than three times during the course of two years. After convincing her stepfather for her hand in marriage, he finally got his wish.
Staring at my ring, I now think about my ancestors and all the struggles they faced. Occasionally, I feel constricted by my Persian roots, trapped behind an imaginary “hijab,” that caresses and conceals my face, merely exposing my eyes. I’m curious to watch and take in everything as an alternative to putting myself in the spotlight. I prefer to not attract much attention to myself, afraid of some unethical norm my female predecessors faced. I feel like a shy moon slowly rising to its forlorn place up in the sea of obscurity, skirmishing to be seen and appreciated. If my Oma were still alive, she would tell me to be a strong independent woman because I have so many privileges most girls can hardly envision.
San Pedro Sula, Honduras
Watch “Voices of the Class”: students wrote comedy sketches based on application essays that were submitted by the class of 2015. The ringing of the bell indicates that a line of dialogue was lifted directly from the essay that inspired the sketch.
When I Grow Up
It is magical, firstly as a tiny, portable compendium of knowledge equipped to feed my inquisitive appetite. Indeed, the day I turned on the device was the last day I was unsure of something. Granted, there are moments when my cranial store of information fails me, but the secondary store in my pocket never does.
I affectionately consider it like carrying a miniaturized professor everywhere I go, always ready to answer my arbitrary inquiry. At the grocery store, it will tell me the difference between saturated and unsaturated fat. At the airport, it will explain the waves behind the engines. Since I do not understand everything, I perpetually see questions to be answered; thus far, the little professor has not complained about answering them.
My iPhone also keeps me aware of the world around me. I suspect it is exceedingly difficult to be a successful student, an effective leader or a constructive citizen without knowing at least a little about the other 7 billion people with whom we cohabit the globe.
A phone is inherently a communication device, so mine keeps me in touch with more personal matters, too. Phone calls, text messages, e-mail and Facebook together ensure I know who my friends are, where they are, what they like and what they want.
When I grow up, I want to be an iPhone. It was a revolution, shattering the status quo with a whole new way to think of the cell phone. It innovated and transformed with creativity. It defined a new market and a new standard by which others would be measured. Furthermore, it married style to function, sacrificing neither. It communicated well and, by its virtue, developed a strong base of loyal supporters. If, upon my deathbed, I can mark my life with any of these descriptors, I will relish the success.
The Little Things
I will look back and hear my coach shouting encouragement to me during a track workout, feel my hand aching from taking notes in government class, taste my mom’s grilled chicken that she made for dinner and see Michael Scott making a fool of himself on Thursday nights.
One’s life is not defined by the extraordinary but rather the ordinary. I believe it is the routine aspects of our lives that matter most. It is for that reason I appreciate all my endeavors, no matter how mundane or unremarkable they may seem, for time has a way of making the insignificant significant.
Glen Allen, Va.
Memories of days with inflatable water wings and watermelon-seed-spitting contests live in the seascape of my home. As I begin to venture away from my sandcastle called Virginia Beach, the lessons and memories will stick to me like sand to wet feet.
Environmentalism took root in me as I saw little islands growing out of the Lynnhaven River delta, a place once covered with salty surf. Watching my favorite childhood fishing hole go dry is hard to see.
Every facet of my personality has been carved by the big blue in my backyard, just as the tides shape the dunes. The memories and lessons of life in a beach town, as numerous as the grains of sand, always stick with me, no matter how far from my sandcastle I stray.
I am a classical soprano. When I was younger, I never sang Spice Girls, but instead performed Bizet’s “Habanera.” In fact, I was the only 8-year-old who knew what Carmen was. I can only explain the rush of a performance in a heap of oxymorons: scintillatingly dark, sensually angelic and certainly uncertain. As the sound waves emanate from me, a palpable sense of exhilaration envelops me. While standing in front of a crowd, my body becomes nothing more than a vehicle to transmit sound that comes billowing out of me, in different frequencies and volumes, until the last note fades away.
My Favorite Word
The. Arguably the most important word in the English language, and therefore it is my favorite word. The has always been a great friend to me, constantly aiding me in forming complex sentences and modifying nouns when I needed that perfect adjective. Even if I tried to rid myself of the, I knew it would always come skipping back into my life whether I chose to tolerate it or not.
Another reason for the‘s significance to me is that it is never selfish, a trait I find extremely valuable in a word. Unlike many of the three-letter relatives of the, my wordy associate never shows any possessive qualities such as his or hers, words you do not want to get involved with. And do not get me started on it’s; the contractions are the laziest words of all, carelessly leaving out letters as if their existence were not essential to our alphabet. As a best friend to both nouns and myself, I do not think the world could survive without the always lovable the.
Miracle of Science
The human cell.
How do I understand you? How does one express a miracle with words?
There is no answer, but the world keeps spinning under the stars.
I can feel my cells working inside me as if I am their universe, and they go about their daily routines. They make a promise: I promise to wage war for your life as long as you are breathing. And when you no longer breathe, I will give myself up to the universe.
Each day they work. Each day they prove that thousands of human minds can never even come close to the engineering of God.
They fix each other. They help each other. They protect each other.
They are the ultimate model for civilization to function perfectly. Thousands of examples of diversity work together to nurture one human being.
People say they have never seen a miracle. Look down at your hand. Look in the mirror.
As my plane roughly ascended into the air, though I could feel my head spinning and ears popping, my eyes remained glued to the borrowed copy of Don Delilo’s White Noise. Only after landing did I realize the irony of the situation: as I gained a bird’s-eye perspective of the world, Delilo offered the same view of its culture and psychology. In one trip, my perspective had been completely altered.
The message behind White Noise is brilliant in its objectivity. Throughout my life, my peers and I have been bombarded with ideologies and worldviews blind to any realization of an opposing viewpoint. Popular news networks, politicians, and even clergymen all spew slanderous and recycled chunks of bias and either ignore or senselessly blast alternatives. White Noise offers a reason for this mindless whirl: this is a society obsessed with all things possessed. Modern men and women preoccupy themselves with the day-to-day formalities of routine to the extent that even our ideas become trampled under the fascination for the simplified and shiny.
I walked off the plane with my eyes and mind widened. Suddenly, I understood the modern fixation on celebrity figures and why ridiculously corrupt politicians became pop-culture icons. We are a society of White Noise.
THE MAGIC OF MATH
I had always thought that mathematics, and more specifically geometry, only really applied to the man-made world. It is relatively simple to find the surface area of a skyscraper or the time a conical reservoir takes to drain because these objects are made up of strict geometric shapes.
Understandably, I was fascinated when I watched the Nova episode “Hunting the Hidden Dimension,” which explores fractal geometry and its cutting-edge applications. I was amazed that the natural world is not seemingly chaotic, but actually has patterns of self repetition. That trees, mountains and clouds have geometric patterns is really quite mind-boggling. In the video, fractal geometry was being applied to the carbon dioxide intake of a rainforest and the animation in the latest Star Wars movie. Thse same patterns of the outside world also apply to human bodies. Fractals can be utilized to understand the structures of blood vessels and the minute rhythms of heartbeats. My own discovery of the world of the world of fractal geometry reminded me that there is still so much for mankind to discover about our planet and even what lies beneath our skin.
IF I HAD $10,000
A $10,000 budget would be an open door to research, an opportunity to expand my knowledge, possibilities and drive, even though it would be practically limiting. I’ve been fascinated with the idea of developing an entirely self-contained, sensitive, robotic prosthetic arm. There is so much about the human arm that makes it a brilliant machine, and it would be a fascinating project to attempt to replicate it.
I would love to build off of past research to design (though not likely construct) an arm with, for instance, a network of neural simulators to sense touch and other sensory inputs on a sort of synthetic “skin;” an arm with fingers that move as rapidly and precisely as real ones; an arm with its power source, mechanisms, and computer all contained inside a typical arm’s structure.
My grandmother never knew exactly which day she was born. But she knew exactly which day I was. I was the only grandchild she saw brought into this world, and ironically five years later, the only grandchild to see her leave. I don’t regret that my most vivid memory of her is her passing. Looking back, it was probably the most beautiful event I’ve ever experienced: sitting around her bed with my aunt and mother as they whispered a mixture of stories and “I love you’s” into each of her ears; smoothing down what was left of her hair after chemo, holding her hands and nestling close to her side. I just repeated whatever they said: Don’t be afraid, It’s okay to let go, Follow the light; but I don’t know if I really knew what I was doing. I was coaxing my grandmother into the afterlife at five years old, witnessing the conjunction of life and death, not as two separate entities but as one. There I was, the only grandchild she saw take her first breath, watching as she took her last. We will forever be united in that we were present during one’s first entrance and other’s final exit.
This woman that I barely knew has since become so deeply embedded into every thread of my existence; it is as if the soul that left her body that day has been following me ever since. I find it odd because when she was alive I never felt an extremely personal attachment to her; the only times I remember with her are vague and crowded during holiday dinners. The only moments that I know that we shared alone are those my mother shared with me: she teaching me how to walk, getting me to drink whole milk, or giving me my first set of chopsticks. My mother made it a point to tell me about her every time I came across a picture or sat on the couch which my grandmother had upholstered. I doubt it were so much for my sake as it were for hers, a way to reminisce the mother that she had lost.
The Art of the Essay
Advice from Ryan Hargraves, senior associate dean of admission, who regularly presents on the topic through a talk titled “EsSAY what? Helping students communicate their voice.”
What to-pic(k) is an important consideration. Write about things or ideas that allow you to give us a sense of who you are and how you think. While we love Thomas Jefferson, writing “my favorite word is Rotunda” won’t necessarily boost your chances. There are no “good” or “bad” topics, but choose based on your personal experience, not what you think we would like to hear.
Avoid becoming a Tyrannthesaurus Rex. Conveying your voice means using your own words. Overuse (and often, misuse) of “thesaurus” words can distance your reader and muddle your point: “My Uncle Eric, an erudite and taciturn man, used systemic manipulation and quite frequently left individuals in a state of discombobulation.”
To thine own self be true. You have a unique personality and there is no reason to steer away from it during the application process. If you have a strong sense of humor, inject funny into your writing. Don’t feel compelled to write a tear-jerker to spark empathy; be yourself. Shakespeare (and Socrates) would be proud.
Be specific. It is virtually impossible to tell your life story in less than 500 words. Consider using illustrative stories from which we can discover larger points about you. If your application essay were in a sizable stack of essays scattered on the floor, would someone who knows you well be able to identify yours? If so, you have gone beyond the generic and have communicated your voice.
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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!