Essay advice for Villanova University applicants

I'll say this about Villanova University–their admissions office has guts.  The supplemental essay prompt for Villanova on the Common Application is one that virtually guarantees their admissions officers will have to spend hours reading cliche college essays.  But the truly thoughtful applicants who really take the time to consider the prompt and to write a revealing essay will stand out–and that's just who Villanova wants to admit anyway.

Here's the prompt:

Please answer the following question in an essay of at least one typewritten page. This essay should be distinct and different from the essay submitted through the Common Application

One of the core values of Villanova, as an Augustinian university founded on the teachings of St. Augustine, is that students and faculty learn from each other. As you imagine yourself as a member of the Villanova community, what is one lesson that you have learned in your life that you will want to share with others?

This is the only supplemental essay on the Villanova application, so it's important to make it count.  Here are a few tips:

Resist the urge to try to impress

Learning valuable lessons from life experiences and then applying them is something that mature, intelligent people do.  So it certainly sounds like a good idea to talk about life lessons in a college application essay, which is why so many students choose to do so. 

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But lessons are a tricky business in college applications.  Too many students forget to tell the truth and instead mention lessons in an attempt to say something impressive.  They'll inject deep meaning into an experience by saying they "learned a valuable lesson" that they didn't actually learn.  For example, you can say,

"Community service taught me it's important to help people," or…

"Soccer taught me the importance of hard work and commitment," or…

Traveling to France taught me to appreciate different cultures"…

…but almost certainly, none of those are really true.  

You never had any idea it was important to help people until you did community service? 

The fact that hard work and commitment can help you be successful at something wasn't a concept with which you were familiar before you played soccer? 

You didn't realize that cultures and customs in foreign countries were different from those in America until you traveled to Europe?  Seriously?

So the first thing you have to do is get over the urge to say something deep and impressive.  That's the quickest way to write a trite, cliché college essay that won't help you stand out.  Instead, tell the truth. 

Start by thinking about the learning you've done, not about the experiences you've had

One mistake a lot of students make is to pick an experience and then try to work backwards and ask themselves what they learned from it.  Sometimes that works.  You can certainly look back on an experience and appreciate, in retrospect, what you learned from it. 

But even the most valuable experiences don't necessarily involve learning.  You could win the state championship in football and it might be the highlight of your high school career.  But you may or may not have learned a lesson while doing it. And this is where students can get into trouble and inject meaning that wasn't actually there into an experience.  Then you've got the, "Winning the state championship taught me that if I put my mind to it, I can accomplish anything" lesson  Do you hear that noise?  It's the cliché alarm ringing again. 

So instead, think about times in your life when really learned something you think is important, something that you truly didn't know or fully understand before.  The best examples are ones that actually changed the way you think or even better, inspired you to do something with the lesson.

For example, if you say that the death of your grandfather taught you to appreciate life, that's certainly a valid example.  But if you say that the death of your grandfather taught you to really appreciate just how important your Sunday dinners are at your house where the entire extended family comes over, so much so that since his death three years ago, you haven't missed a single Sunday dinner, even it meant that you had to miss out on something with your friends, now you've got something.  You're actually changing your behavior as a result of learning this lesson.

At Collegewise, we call this "walking your talk."  Don't just say that you learned a valuable lesson.  Show the reader that it was valuable by describing what you actually did as a result of this learning.

Remember that there is more than one way to share a lesson with others.

The prompt specifies that your lesson should be one that you "want to share with others."  So the best responses will include your thoughts about just exactly how you might share this in college.

One way to share your lesson is certainly to tell other people about it.  That's perfectly valid; after all, sharing life experiences is certainly an important part of university life.  If you're willing to be open about this lesson and how you learned it, let Villanova know that.

But another way to share your lesson is to walk your talk and share by example, much like leading by example. 

We once worked with a student who wrote her college essay about the art of tripping on purpose.  She would purposely trip and fall down in situations that would have brought on a crippling wave of teenage embarrassment for your average high school kid.  She'd trip while in line at the movies, or in front of the cute guy at school, or even once at a formal dance. 

But what started as just a way to make her friends laugh actually taught her how much more fun high school life was when she just laughed at herself, when she wasn't so worried about what everybody thought of her.  It was liberating for her and she planned to keep being exactly the same way in college, even if it meant tripping on purpose during her very first day in the dorms.  She wasn't going to sit a group of students down and tell them why they should laugh at themselves.  She'd just let them see for themselves through her example. 

In order for people to learn from each other, they have to be willing to not only discuss their experiences and the lessons that followed, but also to live by those lessons.  You wouldn't listen to a personal trainer who didn't appear to work out.  So when you're telling Villanova how you plan to share those lessons, remember that you don't necessarily have to go on the college lecture circuit to do so.  You could also walk your talk once you get there.

So think about what you've really learned, talk about what you're doing with that lesson, and don't forget to convey how you'll share it with others.  It might seem risky just to tell the truth instead of trying to be impressive.  But if Villanova has the guts to ask the question, you should have the guts to tell the truth. 

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. Hopeful says

    I am writing my essay now (it’s due today!)and I didn’t really know where to go with this task. But now after reading this, I have a better idea. Thank you!