Writing is a very important piece of university admissions applications around the world. It is an opportunity for a student to connect with a reader on his/her own terms and make a case for why he/she would be a strong fit for the university.
With this said, a common misunderstanding is that all universities require writing. This is not the case, and it is wise for families to research thoroughly what the requirements are of the universities to which their child is applying. Here is an overview of what might be expected:
- United States – Most universities will require a general essay and, perhaps, one or two short pieces of writing on a specific topic. The general essay should be a reflective piece of writing which allows the reader to understand better who the student is as a person and a thinker. The shorter pieces of writing vary but one common prompt asks students to describe why they are interested in a particular university.
- United Kingdom, Netherlands, China (Hong Kong) – All universities in the U.K. will require a personal statement, and most will in the Netherlands and the special administrative region of Hong Kong in China. The statement should explain clearly why the student is interested in a particular course of study and explain why he/she is well-prepared for that course.
- Canada, Germany, Spain, Australia, Singapore – Many countries require no writing at all. These are five countries that generally do not accept writing from students. Please note that there are exceptions so look closely at the requirements. For example, the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada does require a personal statement.
Now that we understand better what might be required for writing, let’s take a look at best practices in crafting language for the general essay in the United States and the personal statement in the United Kingdom.
United States Essay
In the United States, most universities use the Common Application. The Common Application allows students to create one application for admission which can be sent out to multiple universities with the click of a button. Each year the Common Application publishes several essay prompts, and students are able to choose the one of their liking. Here is the list of prompts for the 2019-2020 application cycle:
1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story
2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
At WISS, we use some of the best online resources which help students organize themselves in the application process. WISS would like to share some excellent advice for students as they begin to approach the essay:
First, students should be strategic in considering which essay prompt to write about, as students will want to write on a topic that can highlight their strengths. Here are several questions that students should ask themselves:
- Which personal experience from my life will make an interesting story?
- How can my essay tell a story and keep a reader interested?
- How can I best illustrate moments in my life which have changed/defined me?
- Will this story show me in my best light?
Once the student begins the writing process in earnest, he/she will need to consider the following elements in their writing:
- Opening Line and Paragraph – The importance of the opening line in the Common App essay can’t be understated. It’s a chance for applicants to demonstrate flair, originality, and wit, and to really grab the reader’s attention. That’s why brainstorming the opening line is an important exercise in itself.
- Storytelling – Vivid storytelling and the ability to hone a narrative with descriptive language and imagery is vital when writing the essay.
- Personal Touch – It is essential that the application reader feels like he/she can get to know the applicant well through the essay. Therefore, students should not hesitate to share their passions and things that are important to them. They can do this in several ways. For example, they may wish to highlight an event that they struggled to make sense of or a moment when their status quo was challenged.
And when writing the actual essay, students will want to incorporate all the same skills and techniques that they do in their writing at school – good time management, the drafting process, the use of spell checker, etc.
United Kingdom Personal Statement
We will now turn to discussing how students might approach crafting a personal statement for applications to the United Kingdom. Please note that the advice provided here can also apply to other universities around the globe which require a personal statement. This style of writing is very different from that of essay writing in the U.S.
UCAS is the application portal for the United Kingdom (www.ucas.com). It is a very useful resource for students and families, as it provides specific advice regarding universities and course choices.
According to UCAS, a personal statement supports a student’s application to study at a university or college. It’s a chance for a student to articulate why he/she would like to study a particular course or subject, and what skills and experience he/she possesses that show passion for a chosen field.
One important piece of information to remember is that a student can only write one personal statement. If a student has chosen similar subjects, he/she should talk about the subject in general and try not to mention course titles. If he/she has chosen a variety of subjects, he should write about common themes, like problem solving or creativity.
Here are some ideas from UCAS to help students get started:
- Look at course descriptions and identify the qualities, skills, and experience it requires – you can use these to help you decide what to write about.
- Tell the reader why you’re applying – include your ambitions, as well as what interests you about the subject, the course provider, and higher education.
- Think about what makes you suitable – this could be relevant experience, skills, or achievements you’ve gained from education, work, or other activities.
- Include any clubs or societies you belong to – sporting, creative, or musical.
- Mention any relevant employment experience or volunteering you’ve done, such as Model United Nations or Saturday School at WISS.
- If you’ve developed skills through programs like the Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award, tell them.
- If you took part in a higher education taster course, placement, or summer school, or something similar, include it.
Writing for university applications can be challenging and daunting at times. Students should look at this as an opportunity to make a good impression on universities through their own words. With thought, care, and determination all students should be able to come out on top!
By WISS University and Careers Counselling