For potential Wolverines: Advice University of Michigan applicants

It's not easy to be personal when you get 24,000 applications to review.  But that's what University of Michigan does.  Applicants have to write multiple essays.  You've got to get letters of recommendation.  You've got to compose a profane song about why Michigan will beat the snot out of Ohio State next year (yeah, I made that last one up). 

Grades and test scores still drive the process, but it's clear that Michigan is taking the time to evaluate more than just your numbers; they're going to give you a thoughtful and thorough review.  It's important that you be just as thoughtful and thorough when you complete your application, so here are a few tips.  

Speaking of tips, read Michigan's


Michigan gives away some good advice about how to write your essays.  In particular, pay close attention to the "What we're looking for" section.  It's got great advice like, "Remember that athletics can be a reason, but should not be the only reason you want to come to Ann Arbor!"

How to approach the short-answer question

Michigan asks that you provide a 250 word response to the following prompt:

“We know that diversity makes us a better university – better for learning, for teaching, and for conducting research.” (U-M President Mary Sue Coleman)

"Share an experience through which you have gained respect for intellectual, social, or cultural differences. Comment on how your personal experiences and achievements would contribute to the diversity of the University of Michigan."

To answer this prompt, you've got to do three things:

1)  Appreciate how and why differences can make experiences more fulfilling for those involved.

2) Consider what makes you different from others. 

3)  Think about how you could bring those differences with you to college and share them with other people (which would make their experience more fulfilling as described in #1, and round and round we go…)

So, how do you do that?

First of all, don't just jump right to the question; read the quote that’s included above it, too.  She's saying that diversity isn't just a statistic or a nice thing to have; it's something that makes the experience of college better for everyone involved.  And remember that "diversity" doesn't relate exclusively to ethnicity.  Diversity means "different."  At Michigan, you've got 25,000 undergraduate students from all over the world.  Different races, yes.  But you also have different religions, different backgrounds and experiences, different sexualities, different home states, etc.  That's why a lot of the learning you do at Michigan takes place while interacting with people who are different from you.  It’s the reason why there are over 1,000 campus organizations on campus you can join.  People who succeed and love their experience at Michigan appreciate that. And they contribute to it by sharing their own experiences.  Everybody has to pitch in for diversity to be valued and appreciated. 

Which brings us to the first part of the prompt–an experience "through which you gained a respect for intellectual, social or cultural differences."  Michigan wants to see some evidence that you're likely to be one of those students who appreciates the diversity on their campus.  So you've got to show an example from your own life that helped you foster this kind of appreciation. 

One direction you could take would be to relate a situation where diversity made the experience a better one (like the diversity on the Michigan campus does for its students and faculty). 

For example, your government class might be more interesting because the only liberal student in the class shakes up the discussion with different viewpoints.  Maybe your co-workers at your part time job started taking their work more seriously when the store hired two recent immigrants who were using their minimum wage salary to support their families.  Maybe you joined an activity at school in which the conversations were much more interesting because the people involved were different from you. 

Consider an experience you had in high school where people were different from you (and/or different from each other) where you think those differences made the experience better for those involved.   

Another approach to the first part of that prompt is to think of an experience where you initially did not respect the existing differences but later came to do so.  This might sound risky, but here's a tip; colleges don't expect that you are supposed to know everything at age 17.  Self-reflection is a good thing.  It takes a mature person to look back on a time when you weren't as open minded as you'd like to have been. 

Going back to our government class example from above, one of our former Collegewise students was the lone liberal in an AP government class.  She talked about how dismissive she was with the opinions of people she initially dubbed as "ignorant conservatives," but acknowledged that while she never did agree with their politics, the opportunity to debate with those students made her a better analytical thinker.  Looking back, she appreciated how her experience improved as a result of being in class with people who were very different from her.   

The key here is "respect."  Talk about an experience that strengthened (or initiated) your respect for differences and be open about how it did so.  The fact that you can identify such an experience and appreciate what made it valuable will be good evidence that you're likely to do the same thing once you get to Michigan.   

The second part of this prompt asks you to consider how "your personal experiences and achievements would contribute to the diversity of the University of Michigan."

Diversity wouldn't make Michigan a better place if everyone just kept to themselves, unwilling to interact and share their experiences, reluctant to join campus activities and to make contributions to the campus community.  Michigan just wants to know if you've thought about who you are, what makes you different, and how you might bring those experiences with you to college to contribute to the campus diversity.

Start by thinking about your life and your experiences.  How are you different from other people?  If you live on a farm, or you live in the poorest section of your city, or you live in a foster home, you almost certainly have an interesting perspective to bring to campus with you. 

But some students struggle with this portion because they feel they aren't diverse.  So what if you're just a regular old high school kid with good grades and test scores who grew up pretty comfortably? 

Remember that everybody's experiences are valuable, no matter how you've grown up.  They're still your experiences.  Maybe you've coached kids' baseball teams and are good with children?  Maybe you've worked in restaurant and know a thing or two about how to manage people?  Maybe you've spent four years as the back-up quarterback and know for sure that you still work hard even when you're not the starter?  Those are your stories; they make up who you are and nobody can discount them. So don't lament whether or not your story is as interesting as those of other students.  Instead, be proud of who you are and identify what your experiences have been.

Finally, consider how you'll share your achievements with your campus community once you get to Michigan.         

The best way to "contribute to the diversity" is to become an engaged member of the campus, someone who works hard in and outside of class, someone who participates, someone who doesn't just go through the motions in college.  When you become that engaged student, you are now a contributing member of the campus community, and you are “contributing to the diversity” of the campus.

Here are three examples of how that might sound:

"I've now coached nearly 100 little league baseball players.  Some were great players.  Some couldn't throw or catch.  And some weren't nearly as interested in baseball as their parents were in seeing them play it.  But I found a way to coach them all.  I'm ready to leave my coaching career behind, but I know this about myself–I'm a patient guy, and I know how to work with and lead people."


"It hasn't been easy growing up in foster care and it won't be easy to put myself through college.  But I will be a student on campus who finds a way to do it.  I've come much too far not to finish."


"I imagine I won't be the only former back-up quarterback in the freshman class in college.  And I'm excited to find my place on an intramural team, or a dorm pick-up game, or a fraternity league.  I may never be a starter, but that’s OK.  The world needs good back-ups, too."

How to handle the academic question

Michigan also asks you to write a 250 word essay specific to the school that houses your chosen major.  With the exception of the "School of Art & Design" prompt which asks about reconfiguring the human species (sorry, artists, but you're on your own for that one–I've got nothing), all of the prompts are seeking evidence of two things:

1)  A thoughtful consideration of your academic interest.

A lot of students today apply to college without really considering the "school" part of the experience.  It's great if you're excited about football games, meeting new people and moving out of your parents' house, but Michigan wants to know that you've also done some academic soul searching, that you've thought about what really interests you and what you'd like to pursue in and after college, and that you're excited about the academic opportunities ahead of you.

"Business seems interesting" is not a discovery of an academic interest.  What are you excited to learn about in college?  How did you discover these interests?  What is it about these subjects or ideas that seems particularly fascinating to you?  Help Michigan understand that you're not just haphazardly checking a box to pick your major, but rather, that you've thought about it.

2) An eagerness to pursue that interest at the University of Michigan.

Imagine yourself studying and learning at Michigan.  Do you see a clear picture in your mind?  Have you really investigated your chosen major?  Have you looked at what classes are required, what will be expected of you and what types of students seem to flourish there?  And when you're answering those questions, how much of what interests you is specific to the University of Michigan?     

Focus on those two areas, and you're more likely to be sharing what Michigan is interested in reading.

And finally, the long essay

You get 500 words to tell your story. Here are some tips for each prompt.

[A] Describe a setback that you have faced.  How did you resolve it? How did the outcome affect you? If something similar happened in the future, how would you react?

Full disclosure:  Gonzaga University asks the same question on their application.  What follows is the advice I wrote for the Gonzaga applicants.  I promise you it will work here, too.

A lot of students we've met are inclined to make one of two mistakes with this answer:

1) To try and position the failure as evidence of a strength, like, "I was spending so much time volunteering that it actually affected my academics," or…

2) To make excuses for something rather than own the outcome, like, "I received a low grade in US history because of a personality conflict with the teacher." 

Even the most successful people in the universe have made mistakes (many of them have even suffered catastrophic failures in their lives).  So colleges don't expect that you're going to be perfect.   But they will notice when an applicant acknowledges his or her failure, accepts responsibility and learns from it.

So think of the honest answer to the question.  What was your biggest failure?  How did it happen?  What did you learn from it?  Show that you're a mature, confident student who can discuss those things and apply the available lessons.  

What does that sound like? (And it should go without saying that you should not, repeat not try to mimic these answers–I'm just giving you examples.)

"I'm not proud of some of the decisions I made to ignore my academics during my sophomore year.  Playing sports and trying new activities and, frankly, spending a lot of time goofing off with my friends were absolutely not worth the price my GPA paid."

"I did something stupid when I was a freshman and I got suspended from school.  It's honestly embarrassing to admit today what my 14-year-old mind thought was a good idea that day in April 2006."

"Not being picked to be the lead in the school play is hardly a tragedy.  But it felt like one at the time.  I really thought I was born to play Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and I was shocked I didn't get the part.  Looking back, the hard truth was that Steven O'Donnell nailed the audition.  I didn't.  It was a hard lesson to learn, but an important one; rejection is a part of acting, and if I'm going to be a drama major, I can't come apart at the seams every time I'm not the star." 

There you have it.  Own up.  Tell the truth.  Accept responsibility.

[B] Discuss an issue of local concern. Why is this issue important to you? How do you think it should be addressed?

The key word here is "local."  It's often easier to discuss an issue of national or global concern because those major issues are summarized in the news regularly.  But if your city is voting on whether or not to continue funding the local homeless shelter, and it serves over 100 homeless people per day, and the local businesses are lobbying to close it because they claim the homeless drive away their customer base, that's a complicated issue of local concern.  You'll really have to know about it to discuss it, and you're more likely to care about it when you do.  That's exactly why Michigan is asking the question.  So don't tackle this one unless you really know–and care–about the topic.  

[C] Tell us about a book you have read that you found especially challenging, stimulating or provocative. Explain why it made an impact on you.

Don't say "Harry Potter." Or "Twilight." 

OK, I'm kidding (sort of).  If you have a book that really did challenge, stimulate, or provoke you, chances are it's going to leap to mind when you read this prompt.  And for your answer to really have some oomph, the book will have inspired you to do something–learn more, get involved, ask questions, etc.

One of our Collegewise students in the class of 2009 talked about a book her English teacher gave her to read (just to her, not to the entire class) called "Feminism in Our Time: The Essential Writings, World War II to the Present."  She loved the book and discussed it with her teacher after class.  She asked her teacher to recommend other books about feminism.  She enrolled in a women's studies class that summer and was applying to college as a women's studies major.  None of that would have happened had she not read this book. 

Your chosen book may not have inspired that much action, but it should have inspired something in you to justify a shout out in this prompt.  

It's not easy to apply to Michigan. But if you really want to be a Wolverine, you've got a huge opportunity here.  Don't just tell Michigan you really want to attend.  Show them by putting some thought, time and energy into your application.  Michigan will appreciate it more than most schools their size would.

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.