U.S. Application Writing Tips with Arjun & Atharv

Authored by: Arjun Yadav (XII-I, ’24) and Atharv Kudchadkar (XII-H, ’24)

This is a compilation of all the writing tips you will need to ace your college applications: we’ll cover the guidelines for writing your Common App essay (which prompt to choose in particular), your ‘why major’ essay, your ‘why college’ essay and a short note on how to handle diversity questions that are commonly found in college supplements.

DISCLAIMER: While the authors of this post present the advice in good faith based on their own college admissions experience, we are not experts nor claim to be. This post should serve as a stepping stone rather than a substitute for admissions advice from a qualified counselor.

The Common App essay:

  • The prompts for the Common App essay rarely change – so it would not hurt to get started with this as soon as your why major essay is over!
  • While writing, keep the admission officer in mind: don’t go for an English that is too fancy nor too simplistic, and keep it engaging throughout: one model you can follow while writing your paragraphs is the Hook, Point, Action mode of writing, which will be sure to hold their attention throughout the 650 words.
  • Here’s a guide on which prompt to choose:
    • Prompt 1 – “have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it.” – If you’re someone who is a product of great diversity – this would be the prompt for you: the difference between this prompt and diversity essays should be minuscule.
    • Prompt 2 – “Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure.” – One should tend to avoid this prompt: considering everyone that has access to the prompt: there will (unfortunately) probably be a person with a much larger challenge than you: such as war.
    • Prompt 3 – “Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?” – A great prompt is there is a belief that you’ve held strongly since a child, and you can prove effectively that pursuing educational opportunities or just being proactive in general helped you to change this.
    • Prompt 4 – “Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?” – If you have a mentor that you cannot envision your life being any similar to how it is right now without them, this would be a great prompt!
    • Prompt 5 – “Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.” – This is for someone who has an activity in their activity sheet that is so impactful that the few characters you get to describe it just isn’t enough. You should choose a team-based accomplishment or something team-oriented.
    • Prompt 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?” – Besides your major, if there’s an academic subject you have sunken your teeth into and you have the extracurriculars to prove that “lost sense of time” aspect – this is a perfect prompt.
    • Prompt 7 – If none of the above prompts are to your calling – you can make your own and answer it, though, in our opinion, this should be a last resort (this prompt tends to be quite high risk/high reward).

Crafting a Why Major essay:

  • A fairly common question asked by Colleges, a ‘Why Major’ essay can be framed in different ways, but the idea essentially stays the same. Colleges want to understand why you would want to pursue this major, your academic background to support it, and what you plan to do after completing your major. 
  • The best way to begin working on the content of the essay would be to write down separately the 3 things colleges want from you as written above. After this, spend some time on the University’s website researching their courses, clubs, programs, etc. on your major itself. Lastly, try and connect common interests and fields of study you’d like to pursue from your write-up and research on the university you’ve conducted. This helps you to clearly see what you genuinely have an interest in from that university and hopefully gives you a lot to write about as well.
  • Make sure to keep in mind how detailed you’d want your essay to be so that you’re well within the word count given to you. Do not be repetitive and vague, as it would give an impression to the reader that you’re not sure about the point about yourself you’re trying to get across to him/her. 
  • A good ‘Why Major’ essay would include the following:
    • The ‘thesis’ statement on why you chose your major. A thesis statement is written in a sentence, giving a general idea to the reader on the topic you are going to write on.
    • Your academic background and a detailed reasoning for pursuing your major.
    • Showing how your interests align with the college’s courses and programs and additional information and details added on.
    • A firm idea of your future plans and profession(Don’t be afraid to go into detail on this as well, but make sure to keep your word limit in mind!).

Crafting a Why College essay:

  • Depending on the word count available to you, you’ll want to cover the following points (in decreasing order of importance):
    • The ‘thesis’ statement on why you chose your major.
    • The labs/facilities that can support you in your major.
    • The courses that you are enthusiastic to study- though only mention year 3 and year 4 ones.
    • The unique features of your college. (e.g.: Literature, Science and The Arts colleges in UMich and UW Madison – your why college needs to focus on the benefits of going for LSA v.s. say, an engineering college.).
    • Faculty that you wish to conduct research with/work with.
    • Extracurricular clubs and student societies that you wish to join.

Last point, don’t use too many hyperboles (e.g.: “Attending X school will be the greatest honor of my lifetime.”), admission officers aren’t very keen on those

The ‘diversity’ question:

  • This question can be found intermittently in a lot of university applications: for example, here’s the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor’s for the 2023-24 admission cycle:
    • “Everyone belongs to many different communities and/or groups defined by (among other things) shared geography, religion, ethnicity, income, cuisine, interest, race, ideology, or intellectual heritage. Choose one of the communities to which you belong, and describe that community and your place within it.”
  • Another example is the question from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst:
    • ”At UMass Amherst, no two students are alike. Our communities and groups often define us and shape our individual worlds. Community can refer to various aspects, including shared geography, religion, race/ethnicity, income, ideology, and more. Please choose one of your communities or groups and describe its significance. Explain how, as a product of this community or group, you would enrich our campus.”

Thus, we can typically see that these types of questions revolve around diversity in the communities applicants are part of alongside diversity as a person. Try to write about unique communities you’re a proud member of. If your community is very large (i.e. not very unique), then try to focus on aspects that make your membership/involvement unique.

“My philosophy behind this is that – it shouldn’t really be the same generic stuff you can get with a quick Google search (though just as a primer – we will explain that in the beginning – mainly focusing on the various acronyms and idiosyncrasies involved in the US application process)

Really, it should go into the nitty gritty on how to stand out in an application – from the activity sheet to writing a why major and a knock-out-the-park why college essay.”

Arjun Yadav (XII-I, ’24)
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