By Ellen Ishkanian, Globe Correspondent
Together they have more than 90 years experience reading, and judging college essays: John Mahoney, director of undergraduate admissions at Boston College, Jennifer Desjarlais, dean of admission and financial aid at Wellesley College, and Gail Berson, vice president and dean of admissions at Wheaton College.
The following is a list of do's and donts taken from what all three of the admissions professionals had to say about the things that make a great college essay.
1. Tell a story about yourself that will give the admissions office a sense of who you are.
2. Keep it simple, and keep it short. There is no need to write a novel, and admissions people read thousands of essays,
3. Write it yourself.
4. Use your own voice. This is not the time to experiment with styles you never use - so writing in rhyme, using humor, or satire can be very difficult, and are probably not the best way to go.
5. Throw away the Thesaurus. Using big words doesnt mean youre smart. Use words you actually use in real life.
6. Dont write about the Human Genome Project. Choose something you really know about. Admissions people want to learn something about you.
7. While its tempting to write about a hero, be careful. Sometimes you end up telling all about the hero, and nothing about yourself.
8. Dont make simple mistakes. Typos, misspelled words, and grammar mistakes really do matter.
9. Boastful doesnt mean smart.
10. You dont need to have had adversity in your life to write a compelling essay.
11. You dont need a big accomplishment to write about in your essay to impress the admissions office.
12.Small details added to the essay can be the most revealing.
13. Dont sit down to write the night before the essay is due. It doesnt have to be a Pulitzer Prize winner, but it does have to be thoughtful.
14. Start looking at the questions well in advance. Thoughtfully answering the why or how of the questions is the most important.
15. Dont over-worry it.
Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Boston College Application Essay Prompts
We would like to get a better sense of you. Please select one of the questions below and write an essay of 400 words or less providing your response.
Human beings have a creative side that tends to shine most when we are truly invested in the world around us. Describe a situation when you responded effectively to a particular need and found yourself at your creative best.
Best for those with a humanitarian bent (and whose activities reflect that), this is a loaded prompt with many aspects to address. There are two main topics involved: volunteer/humanitarian-related work and creativity. The prompt asks how helping others has led to an outpouring of personal creativity in your life, weaving the two topics together.
Choose an experience where you responded to a need, and how you were able to exercise creativity through it. This will most likely show up in the form of having to come up with unconventional ways to solve problems that you face with volunteering. Did you need to serve dinner to a couple hundred people at a homeless shelter and had to come up with a spontaneous line organization system?
You don’t need to limit yourself to strict volunteer work, though. You can write about teaching your younger sister how to tie her shoe in a way she could remember, or starting a food compost system at your school with limited supplies. Just remember to illustrate your creativity through solving the problem.
Experience teaches us the importance of being reflective when making major decisions. Share an example from a recent event when a leader or an average person faced a difficult choice. What were the consequences of the decision? Would you have done the same?
This prompt also allows for a wide range of responses. You can write about virtually anyone here. The essay should be divided into two portions, the first part describing the event and its consequences, and the second your thoughts on whether you would have made the same decision and why.
Feel free to choose a widely publicized event or one that is more personal, at which you may have been present. You have higher chances of landing a more unique topic if you choose to talk about a friend’s decision versus a political leader’s, but choose whatever you feel most strongly about; what matters most is your analysis of the event and decision, not the event itself.
The goal of this prompt is to communicate to admissions committees your method of thought and the process through which you come to logical conclusions.
You can choose to delve into something deep such as the U.S. deciding to bomb Japan to end WWII, or something lighter, such as someone deciding between pursing college or going directly to the workforce to support family (keep in mind the restrictive word count). Can you detect the ramifications of certain actions, beyond the obvious? The key is to explain clearly your reasoning for whether or not you would have chosen the same path.
Boston College strives to provide an undergraduate learning experience emphasizing the liberal arts, quality teaching, personal formation, and engagement of critical issues. If you had the opportunity to create your own college course, what enduring question or contemporary problem would you address and why?
Similar to the second question, this prompt provides an opportunity for you to write about real-world thoughts and experiences. Keep in mind that the prompt is focusing on a problem (contemporary or otherwise). While you should definitely choose a topic that you are passionate about, remember that the class is supposed to address and discuss a problem rather than a set, concrete topic (such as microbiology).
This question is best for those who are passionate about a contemporary issue or general problem, and have spent a bit of time thinking about it. The prompt asks you not so much to explain how you would structure the class, but rather why you would choose that question/topic for your course.
Why are you passionate about finding a cure for breast cancer? Why are you really interested in the food-waste problem in the United States? Ideally, you would have thought about the issue to an extent that you have ideas of rough solutions. Feel free to break up your essay into three paragraphs: stating your issue, explaining why you chose that issue (this paragraph should be the longest), and providing thoughts on possible solutions to this problem.
Keep in mind that the point of every essay is to reveal more about who you are. The admissions officers want to know more about you than they do about the topic you are writing about, so keep in mind while writing to write intentionally and portray yourself in a light in which you wish them to see you.
Jesuit education stresses the importance of the liberal arts and sciences, character formation, commitment to the common good, and living a meaningful life. How do you think your personal goals and academic interests will help you grow both intellectually and personally during college?
This is a subtle “Why Boston College?” question, and if you have strong, specific reasons for applying to BC, you may want to take this opportunity to write a more school-specific essay. The question itself is broad, and like for other essays, focus on being truthful and stick to what you are passionate about. Take some time to think about how you truly want to grow in college.
What kinds of skills (academic and otherwise) do you want to learn? Are there are any personal characteristics you wish to strengthen or weaknesses you hope to turn into strengths? Is there a specific research project at Boston College that you wish to work on? You don’t need to know where you will be in four years; in fact, the question is not asking how attending will meet your personal goals, but rather how your current goals will help you grow during your college career.
In this response, be sure to have a balance of personal and academic goals; mention your desire to delve into metaphysics and also your wish to try something completely new and out of your comfort zone, like hip-hop dancing. Admissions officers want to know that you are coming into BC with developed interests and passions, but also a heart to gain new ones.
The “living a meaningful life” phrase in the prompt is key. Reflect on how your interests and goals tie into living (what you consider) a meaningful life, and how you hope to develop and grow those ideas in college. Communicate to BC how going there will influence you as a person, and also touch on how you might be able to make an imprint on the campus as well.
The Boston College prompts allow for deep, personal reflection and the chance to share that with admissions officers. Don’t be afraid to be honest and candid in your answer.
Want more assistance on your application? Check out the CollegeVine application guidance program.