For potential Cavaliers–advice for University of Virginia applicants

UVA (University of Virginia) is one of those selective public schools that often behaves like a private college.  Their application is a good example of this.  You've got several essays to write that range from describing your academic interests to just being playful and helping them get to know you better.  It’s a good opportunity for the serious applicant to demonstrate just how interested you are in UVA by sitting down and writing some thoughtful, revealing responses.  Here are a few tips to get you started. 

1. Read their Tips on The Application Process.  In particular, pay attention to this advice about writing essays. 

“Write good essays. Write in your style and voice about what you know, not about what you think colleges want to hear. Distinguish your experiences. Pick a small topic. Proofread.

That’s good advice.  Write essays that sound like you.  Don't write what you think they want to hear.  Avoid writing essays that lots of other students could write (like "Volleyball taught me the importance of teamwork"). 

2. Speaking of essays, read this, too. 

Parke Muth, one of UVA's very own admissions officers, wrote what we think is the definitive piece on college essays, especially his advice on avoiding trite, overused stories he calls "McEssays."  It's so good that we've featured it on our blog before. 

OK, you've read the advice from the admissions office and you're ready to start your essays.  UVA requires two supplemental essays as part of their application.  Some colleges' essay topics are seeking thoughtful responses, while others are inviting you to be playful.  UVA serves up examples of both. 

Here's prompt #1

We are looking for passionate students to join our diverse community of scholars, researchers, and artists.  Answer the question that corresponds to the school you selected above. Limit your answer to a half page or roughly 250 words.

*College of Arts and Sciences: What work of art, music, science, mathematics, or literature has surprised, unsettled, or challenged you, and in what way?

*Engineering: Discuss experiences that led you to choose an engineering education at U.Va. and the role that scientific curiosity plays in your life.

*Architecture: What led you to apply to the School of Architecture?

*Nursing: Discuss experiences that led you to choose the School of Nursing.

The key words to notice in this prompt are "passionate students."  Yes, UVA wants you to be excited about dorm life, rooting for the Cavaliers, making new friends, staying up late eating pizza with the aforementioned new friends, etc.  But first and foremost, they want passionate students.  College academics aren't like high school academics; in college, you have choices.  You get to pick what interests you and pursue it as far as you are willing to go.  UVA is looking for students who are excited about this opportunity, and who have shown glimpses of that intellectual passion and academic initiative already.

All four of those prompts appear to be different, but they're really all just looking for you to give them specific examples of experiences where you were excited to learn, or to apply what you'd already learned.  So in crafting your responses, use some emotion. 

Don't tell them…

"Working as an EMT taught me that I have the aptitude for nursing." 

Instead, tell them…

"Ten minutes into my first shift as an EMT, I was doing chest compressions on a 19 year-old motorcycle accident victim who'd just gone into full cardiac arrest.  At some point in the next 8 hours of that shift, I was sure for the first time in my life that I had found what I am meant to do." 

There it is.  

Future engineers, don't tell them that you love math because there's always a right answer, or that you've always excelled in math and science (they know that–they have your transcripts).  Have you ever seen how engineering majors spend their time on college campuses?  They're designing machinery, engaging in cutting-edge research, solving complex equations, and reveling in the science that is engineering.  If you want to be one of those mathematical revelers, let UVA hear your passion for this subject matter. 

Tell them how the best night you’ve had in high school was the night you and the physics Olympics team stayed up all night perfecting your object projector, or how you learned the basics of mechanical engineering fixing your family's mini-van, or how you taught yourself how to repair computers over the summer and are now the go-to tech support source for all your parents' friends. 

Don't hide behind an emotionless answer.  The more you love the subject matter, the more evidence you should have that you are already one of those passionate students who’s just chomping at the bit to bring that passion to UVA and get started.  

Now, prompt #2…

Answer one of the following questions in a half page or roughly 250 words:

What is your favorite word and why?

Describe the world you come from and how that world shaped who you are.

Discuss something you secretly like but pretend not to, or vice versa.

"We might say that we were looking for global schemas, symmetries, universal and unchanging laws – and what we have discovered is the mutable, the ephemeral, the complex." Support or challenge Nobel Prize winner Ilya Prigogine's assertion.

These are the kinds of prompts for which there are no right answers–they are simply designed to give you the opportunity to share more about yourself and help the admissions committee get to know the student behind the grades and test scores.  So you should feel free to be serious, funny, reflective, etc.  Just tell the truth and be yourself.  And whatever you do, make sure the essay sounds like you and don't try to guess what's going to sound good. 

Here are a few more prompt-specific tips.  

"What is your favorite word and why?" 

Really, the best advice I can give is that if you don't have a favorite word, don't answer this one.  Don't try to "find" your favorite word.  People who love to write, tell stories, speak in public, etc. tend to have favorite words.  For example, mine is "kitschy."  I just like that word.  We have history together.  I love that when I need a word to describe something tawdry and designed to appeal to undiscriminating taste, kitschy has always been there for me.  

If you have a favorite word, serve it up here and explain why it's your favorite.  If you don't, move on to the next question.

"Describe the world you come from and how that world shaped who you are." 

Remember their "Tips on the Application Process" and their recommendation that you "Distinguish your experiences" and "Pick a small topic"?  Now it's time to put that advice to use.  If something or someone in your upbringing, family, personal life, community or school has made an impact on you, something that has "shaped the person who you are," describe that someone or something here, and zero in on specific details that are unique to you.  Immigrating to this country, going through your parents’ divorce, growing up in an economically depressed area—all of those stories are worth telling, but they've also all got the potential to sound just like every other student who shared that experience unless you distinguish your story by putting in as much detail as possible. 

"Discuss something you secretly like but pretend not to, or vice versa.

Again, honesty wins here.  You can be serious, like,

"I pretend to like my boss because I help support my family and I can't afford to lose this job.  But pretending to like him is one of the hardest things I've ever had to do, because he makes derogatory comments about homosexuals that I find terribly offensive." 

Or it could be playful.

"OK, I'm just going to say it.  Right here, right now.  I like the Jonas Brothers.  There.  It's out there in the open.  Sure, my friends hate them, but that’s not why I hide my enjoyment of their music.  The internal conflict at work here is that I'm actually a musician.  A good one, in fact.  And the Jonas Brothers are just terrible musicians.  So why can't I stop listening?  Why does their music affect me so?  Why do they make me want to dance?  Please oh please keep this just between us." 

"We might say that we were looking for global schemas, symmetries, universal and unchanging laws – and what we have discovered is the mutable, the ephemeral, the complex." Support or challenge Nobel Prize winner Ilya Prigogine's assertion.

How eager are you to jump into this debate?  If you read this prompt and immediately had a reaction, either to support or contradict it, go with that.  The chemistry buff who spent the summer doing complex research with a professor might immediately have something to say about this, or the student who knows everything there is to know about astronomy, or the kid who read one of Richard Feynman's  books just for fun.  If you have a reaction to this, you might have a good answer. But I recommend that you only take it on if you really feel that you have something to say.  And be comfortable geeking out with your answer–this question is pretty much begging to do so.

It takes some time to think through these prompts and to write thoughtful answers.  But UVA will read them carefully, much like a private school would do.  That’s a huge opportunity for you if you’re willing to take the time.

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.

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