For Boston University applicants: A little essay advice

You only have two essays to write, one short and one long, on the Boston University application.  In fact, the short essay is only 5-6 sentences (which really qualifies more as a paragraph than it does a short essay).  It's important to make the most of that limited opportunity to help the BU admissions committee get to know you better.  So here are some tips to help you do that.

Short answer

In five or six sentences, tell us how you first became interested in BU and what steps you have taken to learn more about us.

I'm not sure I can adequately describe just how many responses the BU admissions committee is likely to read that are some version of,

"I first became interested in Boston University when I read about it in a college guidebook.  The combination of great academics in large city seemed like the perfect combination for me.  The more I researched the school, the more I liked it.  I also visited the campus last summer."

At Collegewise, we teach our students a concept we call "Own your story."  To own your story means that you've written something that nobody else applying to college could have written (or at the very least, that thousands of other kids would absolutely not have written).

The person who wrote the response above doesn't own that story.  Any kid applying to Boston University could have written it.  Believe me, a lot of them will.  And they'll torture the admissions committee because of it. 

But compare that response to this one:

"In April of my junior year, my high school counselor told me, "Kevin, you're an interesting kid.  Why are you applying to such uninteresting colleges?  I asked her what she thought would be a good choice for me, and the first school she named was Boston University.  I've visited your website obsessively, probably once a day at least for the last six months.  I've read about all the classes I would take as a communications major.  And last summer, I took a three-hour road trip with my friend in my '93 Corolla just so we could take a tour of BU." 

The chances that another student will write an identical response are zero.  This student owns his story.  So the most important thing you need to do in this response, even though it's only 5-6 sentences long, is to own your story.  Be very specific.  Whether you read a guidebook or talked to your friends or visited the school or went to a college fair, share the details about how you learned and followed up with BU, and do so in a way that no other applicant will be able to do. 

What about the long essay?

Here's the prompt:

This section of the application gives you an opportunity to present yourself in a way that grades and test scores cannot. The Board of Admissions uses your essay to determine your ability to organize thoughts and express yourself clearly. Accordingly, we ask that you prepare this work entirely on your own.

In an essay of no more than 500 words, please select three words that describe you best and tell us how you will use these qualities/characteristics to contribute fully to the BU community.

A lot of students are going to pick three words that make them sound impressive, like "diligent," "determined" and "trustworthy" and then struggle to fill the rest of the essay with descriptions of how they'll use these traits in college.  That's hard to do, because they didn't pick words that actually described themselves; they just picked words that sounded good.  So they don't necessarily have any stories to relate that show these traits in action (or if they do, it's what the admissions committee knows already, like, "I am very committed to my academics").

There are no right or wrong answers to this question.  The three words are just a vehicle for you to share more about yourself and help the admissions committee get to know you better.  The best way to tackle this question is to work backwards.  Don't even think about the three words just yet.  Instead, think about how you will contribute to the BU community.

"Contributing" to a college community means participating, engaging, doing more than just going to class and then sitting in your room playing video games.  So think about what kind of college kid you expect yourself to be.  How do you envision yourself spending your time in and out of class?  What parts of college are you most excited about? 

When you ask yourself those questions, you'll start to get a picture of yourself in college.  For example, you might envision,

"I'm excited to finally start learning more about writing.  I've been saying forever that I like to write, but in college I'm going to actually have professors teach me how to be great at it.  I can't wait for that to happen." Or…

"My favorite times in high school have been Friday nights playing acoustic guitar with my friends.  I really hope I get to do that a lot in college.  I'm going to set a goal for myself to find other musicians whose idea of a good time is to stay up late, teach each other songs, and enjoy making music together." Or…

"I can't remember the last time I wasn't on an athletic team.  And while I'm never going to be a good enough baseball player to play at the college level, one of the things I'm really excited about is to play a lot of different sports and to have some of them just be purely for fun, like pick-up basketball games, or co-ed intramural volleyball, or even just a weekend softball game with my friends.  I might even try broom ball.  I like the camaraderie of playing sports with friends and I think that's how I'll be spending a lot of my time in college." 

Contributing in college means becoming an engaged member of the campus community.  So, that's step one.  Think about how you'll make those contributions.

Now, take the next step backwards and think about your experiences in these areas so far.  What stories do you have that illustrate yourself doing these things, or exemplifying these traits?  Be specific and own the stories.  Review your answers and ask yourself which ones really make up who you are.  The writer, musician and athlete above make it pretty clear that they're going to find some way to do these things wherever they are, and that they spent a lot of time doing these things in high school.  Those stories are part of who they are, and they are the types of examples you should be looking for in your own life.

This is important, because the prompt specifically asks for three words that "best describe you."  It's not always clear what words best describe you, but if you sometimes like to write, or just occasionally strum a guitar, or play basketball with your brother every now and then, those aren't necessarily experiences that are defining for you, and the associated words probably aren't good choices.  

Now, you've identified how you'll contribute, and you've found some stories from your current life that illustrate those themes.  So now, ask yourself what three words you could use to sum these experiences or traits up.  For example, our sample applicants above could be "communicative," "musical" and "athletic." Do an honesty check when you pick the words.  If "musical" isn't really a word you would use to define yourself, is this experience or trait really an important part of who you are?  If it isn't, pick a different story.  And if it is, just pick a different word.  

The best college essays start with a lot of thought, not so much about what would sound good, but rather, about what you'd really like to say. Start there with these essays, and you'll be submitting a much stronger application to BU.

Note:  Before you follow our tips, we recommend you read our "How to" guide here: Download HowToUse30Guides

And if you have other questions about essays, applications, interviews or financial aid, visit our online store.  We’ve got books, videos and downloadable guides to help you.  Or you could speak with one of our online college counselors.


  1. kevin says

    thanks so much for this
    i really needed it
    i had no idea to start and now im on my way to finishing it
    again, thank you