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. 

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Essay advice for University of Chicago applicants

I've never known a school whose application reflects its personality better than that of the University of Chicago. Even when they moved to the Common Application two years ago (and jettisoned their beloved "Uncommon Application"), Chicago's supplemental essay questions are still the same sort of intellectual, thoughtful and just plain quirky prompts we've come to expect from them. 

U of C is a place where fit is just as important as intellect.  The strongest applicants here are those who get giddy about the idea of immersing themselves in the experience that is unique to U of C, and they're able to express that on the application.  If you think you're a good match, here are a few tips to help make the most of the opportunities the application allows.

Before you start, really consider why you want to attend U of C.

I say that because U of C is almost certainly not the place for you if you are applying because "it's a great school" or "it has a great reputation."  You could say that about lots of other colleges, and proud Chicago students and faculty would be the first to tell you that the University of Chicago is most certainly not like other schools.  True matches are keenly aware of this fact.  I'll talk more about this below when we get to the essay question that asks why you want to attend.  

Here are the supplemental essay prompts with their directions. 

Respond to Question 1 – and, if you choose, Question 2 – by writing a paragraph or two for each question. Then choose one of the five extended essay options, indicate your choice, and write a one- or two-page response. This is your chance to speak to us and our chance to listen as you tell us about yourself, your tastes, and your ambitions. Each topic can be addressed with utter seriousness, complete fancy, or something in between-it is your choice. Play, analyze (don't agonize), create, compose-let us hear the result of your thinking about something that interests you, in a voice that is your own.

Required Question 1. How does the University of Chicago, as you know it now, satisfy your desire for a particular kind of learning, community, and future? Please address with some specificity your own wishes and how they relate to Chicago.

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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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Washington State University applicants should consider recycling

Before I give you my tips for Washington State applicants, I have to start with two disclaimers.

Disclaimer #1:  Washington State University is not the same as Oregon State University.  (As you can tell, we're professionals.) 

Disclaimer #2:  We don't usually recommend that students blatantly recycle their essay responses, unchanged, at multiple colleges. 

But what about when the essay questions are the same?  And by the "the same," we mean exactly the same, right down to the instructions?

What Oregon State calls their insight resume, Washington State calls its personal statement.  And as you'll see if you click the links, the six questions are exactly the same. (And yes, for the sticklers out there, we noticed that Washington State allows 110 words per response while Oregon State allows just 100.  Thought you could slip one by us, didn't ya?!)

So with apologies to the Cougars and the Beavers for lumping you together, we're going to just blatantly repeat our previously posted advice for Oregon State applicants here.  And if you're applying to both, just make sure you don't mistakenly address Washington as Oregon or vice-versa.

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Advice for Cornell applicants (who won’t be donating buildings)

"I got into Cornell off the wait list. A lot of people were like, "Oh, you just got into Cornell because your dad donated a building." No. Okay. I got into Cornell because I'm smart. I'm smart enough to have a dad who donates buildings to things."

Andrew Bernard of "The Office" 

It would appear that the Harvard and Dartmouth grads who write for The Office are gleefully taking shots at Cornell University via "The 'Nard Dawg."  But if your parents didn't donate a building to Cornell, you'll need to make the most of the lone supplemental essay they require that asks you to write a 500-word essay about your chosen course of study.

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Lots of schools require applicants to respond to a similar prompt, but very few allow you up to 500 words to do so.  If you've really investigated Cornell, you'll know that's not surprising.  Ezra Cornell, who founded the school, once said, "I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study."  Today, there are over 70 academic majors and Cornell has a reputation for academic intensity.  Successful applicants have to show not only that they've excelled in academics, but also that they're excited about the academic opportunities waiting for them at Cornell.

Here are the prompts (we'll return with advice down below):

Please respond to the essay question below (maximum of 500 words) that corresponds to the undergraduate college(s) to which you are applying.

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences:
How have your interests and related experiences influenced your selection of major?

College of Architecture, Art, and Planning:
How does the major you would like to study in the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning match your intellectual, academic, and career interests? Discuss any activities you have engaged in that are relevant to your chosen major.

College of Arts and Sciences:
Describe your intellectual interests, their evolution, and what makes them exciting to you. Tell us how you will utilize the academic programs in the College of Arts and Sciences to further explore your interests, intended major, or field of study.

College of Engineering:
Engineers turn ideas (technical, scientific, mathematical) into reality. Tell us about an engineering idea you have or your interest in engineering. Explain how Cornell Engineering can help you further explore this idea or interest.

School of Hotel Administration:
What work and non-work experiences, academic interests, and career goals influenced your decision to study hospitality management? How will these contribute to your success at the School of Hotel Administration?

College of Human Ecology:
What do you value about the College of Human Ecology perspective as you consider your academic goals and plans for the future? Reflect on our majors that interest you as you respond.

School of Industrial and Labor Relations:
Describe your intellectual interests, their evolution, and what makes them exciting to you. In your essay please address how the ILR curriculum will help you fulfill these interests and your long-term goals.

Back to the advice…

If you apply to Cornell just because it's an Ivy League school and autumns in upstate New York are spectacular, you'll be in for a rude awaking when you arrive and realize a) Cornell's academic workload trumps that of most of the other Ivies and b) spectacular autumns in upstate New York are but a teasing precursor to the spectacularly terrible winters that follow.

Successful applicants choose Cornell in large part because they're drawn to their chosen academic program.  These students have well-developed academic interests.  They can tell you what their favorite classes have been, what subjects they have to know more about and why they find those topics so interesting.  They like to learn and can't wait to dive in and do more of it at Cornell.

Whichever prompt above you're responding to, focus on these important areas:

1)  Show the origins and development of your academic interests. 

Cornell needs to know that you're not selecting a major simply because that's one of the questions on the application.  They expect you to have defined academic interests and they want to know the story of those interests. 

Origins of interest sound like this:

"I've never seen my father angrier than the day I took our family television apart just to see how it worked.  I was 12 years old, and Monday Night Football was just about to start.  It wasn't the first time I'd done something like that, but it was the first time I wasn't able to put something back together quickly.  It took me three hours, but I did it, just in time for my dad to see his beloved Giants lose.  I never made that mistake again, but I've also never stopped trying to learn how things work." 

The development of interests sounds like this:

"My junior year of high school, I volunteered to lead a fundraiser to send our soccer team to Europe to compete in a tournament.  And while I enjoyed organizing the car wash and the donation drive and the now much maligned "shrimp-a-thon" (Sizzler doesn't really mean it when they say, "All you can eat shrimp," by the way), what I really enjoyed was crafting personal emails to ask for donations, and writing the regular update newsletters I sent to people who were supporting us, and updating the travel blog I wrote during our stay in Europe.  Every day, I thought about new ways to share our story with people who might be interested.  Yes, we raised money.  But we also raised interest.  People who had never cared about our team started caring.  We developed a following of loyal supporters, and 18 guys who had never been to Europe finally got to go because of it.  That experience was the first time I started to understand the power of the well-written word."

Those examples are specific and, more importantly, believable.  These students aren't telling us that "Engineering is interesting because I've always been fascinated with math and science," or "I learned about communications by taking AP English."  They're giving us specific, real examples to show where their academic interests came from. 

2)  Focus on your genuine interest, maybe even excitement, for the subject matter.

When you're sharing your stories, let the reader hear your genuine interests.  True engineers get giddy when they talk about engineering.  Seriously, they do.  Students who really love politics don't believe that talking about it ever gets old.  A real Civil War buff can talk for hours about her favorite battles.  Look for examples of you showing your true passion for the subject matter, something you weren't just doing to get a good grade.  Even if it seems silly, like the fact that you and your fellow math geeks solve problem sets together on the weekends, that's perfectly valid.  In fact, most math majors would tell you you'd be right at home with them. 

3)  Tie these interests to Cornell.

Any student who really has this kind of academic passion would investigate the academic programs of her chosen colleges.  These students don't talk about the classes they'll have to take in their chosen major; they talk about the classes they'll get to take in their chosen major.

Successful Cornell applicants can tell you with some clarity how they'll be spending their academic time at Cornell, why their chosen course of study is the right one, and what they're most excited about when it comes to learning, particularly at Cornell.   

It's just one essay.  But at Cornell, it's a crucial one.  So talk about how your academic interests got started and how they developed.  Focus on your real passion and let the reader see just how much intellectual enjoyment these subjects bring you.  And most importantly, tie those interests to Cornell and show why it's there you want to pursue them.

Andrew Bernard likely didn't do these things, but then again, his dad donated a building.  The rest of us have to get in the old fashioned way.

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.

Advice for applicants to Saint Mary’s College of California

The internet and tools like the Common Application have allowed many students to apply to colleges somewhat indiscriminately, firing off applications without being able to give a cogent reason for why they're applying to each particular school.  That actually gives you a huge opportunity at smaller colleges like Saint Mary's College of California who reward the applicants behind thoughtful applications.

St. Mary's supplement to the Common Application requires you to submit two short-answer questions and a longer essay of 500 words.  And for the applicant who really takes the time to provide thoughtful responses, there's a lot of opportunity to help St. Mary's get to know you better, and to give them even more reasons to admit you.

Briefly describe how you learned about Saint Mary's College and why it is one of your college choices.

When a college asks you a question like this, they're looking for evidence that you are a mature college shopper who's thought about your future in college and what you want it to look like.  And they want to understand how, after that thoughtful introspection, you decided to add their little school to your list when you could have picked any of over 2,000 other colleges. 

The more specific you can be here, the better.  Don't just say,

"I heard about St. Mary's from a friend and I was very interested." 

How does that help the college learn anything at all about you (other than the fact that you reportedly have "a friend")?  They want to learn something about how you and St. Mary's were originally introduced.  What if you said,

"Surprisingly, I learned about St. Mary's during a visit to UCLA.  I went with a friend to tour the campus and we had two completely different reactions.  She felt like she had found her future college; I was totally overwhelmed.  I don't know if it was because I'm a little shy or because I went to a small high school, but I was intimidated by so many people on such a large campus.  We talked about it on the way home and she told me her older sister visited St. Mary's when she was applying to college and thought it seemed really comfortable.  Then she said, 'You should check it out.'  I'm glad I listened to her." 

Now they've learned something about you.  And it's believable.  Anybody can say they heard about a school and it was interesting, or that they visited the college and loved it.  But if you inject enough detail into the story, it becomes much more believable.

And when you're explaining why St. Mary's is one of your college choices, keep the focus on you.  They don't need to know that St. Mary's has a pretty campus or that it's small or that the students seem nice.  Remember, they work there.  And they do so presumably by choice.  They know what's great about St. Mary's.  What they don't know is why you think you would flourish there.

"Small classes" alone is not a reason to apply to a particular college.  But…

"I have never worked as hard to learn as I did during my sophomore English class.  My teacher told me she saw potential in my writing and took the time to help me improve.  She pushed me to be better, and it worked.  I’d never had a teacher take such a personal interest in me; now I know how I respond when one does.  That's an experience I want to repeat over and over again in college." 

That is a reason to apply.

"I visited and the students seemed very nice" is something that could have happened on a lot of college campuses.  But…

"I visited St. Mary's last summer.  Mostly because of my own insecurities, I felt like I was wearing a t-shirt that read, 'I'm a lowly high school student visiting today.'  I must have looked completely lost because, well, I was.  That’s when two girls stopped to ask me if I needed help finding something.  They couldn’t have been nicer, and from that second on, I felt more comfortable.  I spent the next hour imagining myself walking around next fall wearing a St. Mary's College' sweatshirt.   Something about that just feels right."  

Now we're talking.  That's a student who's thought about this. 

This answer is limited to 500 characters when you're filling out the supplemental form online, which about 80 words (a short paragraph). That means you're going to need to be brief, forceful, and very specific.  Don't wallow in generalities.  Get right to the point.

Now, on to the next prompt.

What is your favorite subject in high school, and why?

Why would they ask this?  They ask it because lots of students get great grades so they can get into college, but not all of them necessarily love to learn.  That's an important distinction, one that St. Mary's is interested in evaluating. 

One of the most amazing things about college is the opportunity for learning.  Not drudgery where you plod through homework assignments just to get them done.  I'm talking about learning things that fascinate you, learning things that make you excited to go to class, and learning them from professors who've spent their professional lives studying this subject matter.   

Students who love to learn make the most of that opportunity, especially at a small school like St. Mary's.  Will you actively seek out the subjects that interest you?  Will you be an engaged student who's excited to be there?  Will you visit professors during office hours, meet with your academic adviser and talk to TA's when you have questions? 

Good grades on your high school transcript are evidence that you are intelligent and willing to work hard (which are still good things).   But they aren't necessarily evidence of a love of learning.  A story about your favorite subject in high school, however, can be. 

Think of a time when you were really interested in what you were learning.  What made you so interested?  Was the subject itself fascinating?  Did the teacher make it fascinating for you?  How did you treat this favorite subject differently than your other subjects?  Did you visit the teacher after class, do additional reading to learn more, participate in class, or even just look forward to that particular class every day?  That's what St. Mary's wants to learn about in this particular answer. 

Whatever course you describe, focus on why you loved it and how you treated it differently.  There is no "wrong answer" here (although I wouldn't recommend that you tell them, "I loved my geology course because the teacher let us sleep and goof off all day").  

One more prompt to go…

The ability to learn from one’s mistakes is key to personal growth and success. Tell us about what you learned from a mistake you’ve made.

Gonzaga University asks a similar question on their application, and I wrote an extensive entry on how to handle it here.  The one difference is that Gonzaga asks about a "failure," while St. Mary's asks about a mistake.  That's a subtle but important difference.  Here's why.

You can do everything right and still fail.  You can try your best, do exactly what you were supposed to do, and still lose a race, be passed over for a leadership position, or not make the varsity team.  None of those things are necessarily due to any act on your part.

But a "mistake" is all you.  You have to own up to it, accept responsibility and explain what you're doing now (or not doing now) as a result of that experience. 

St. Mary's is one of those wonderful schools where you don't necessarily need straight A's, perfect test scores, and a certificate proclaiming that you invented hydrogen to get accepted.  But you'll need to acknowledge the opportunity you're being given on the St. Mary's application.  Don't just race through those responses in an effort to get your application done. Be thoughtful in your responses and you're more likely to find a thoughtful letter of acceptance in return. 

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.

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.

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Hokie Hopefuls: Advice for Virginia Tech applicants

Virginia Tech is a large public school (21,000 undergrads) that receives over 17,000 applications for admission.  And the admissions portion of the web site makes it clear what they focus on most.

"Admissions directors use a holistic approach throughout the application review process. Many factors are considered, the most important being strength of schedule, high school GPA, and standardized test scores."

That means classes, grades and test scores will dominate the admissions process.  But it doesn't mean that VT is using formulas. They're still going to read your application, so you should make the most of what opportunities they give you to help them see the person behind the numbers.

Here are a few tips to balance their need for numbers with your need to express yourself. 

Don't slack off

A lot of people talk about how colleges focus on the grades you got in your sophomore and junior years.  But at Virginia Tech, the grades you receive in the first semester of your senior year will absolutely be considered, too.  So if you're a senior reading this, view this semester as one last opportunity to show admissions officers what you are capable of.

Consider how your test scores stack up. 

Virginia Tech requires SAT or ACT scores.  But while they want to see the scores from all of your administrations, they will "use the highest scores and even combine your highest test scores from multiple test dates when evaluating your application."

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December test scores will still be viable for admission at VT, so it may be in your best interest to a) re-take one of the exams, or b) try the other test type (if you've taken the SAT, try the ACT, or vice versa).  Remember, numbers drive the process here, and picking up a few extra points, even in just one of the sub-scores could really make a different. 

What about the optional personal statements? 

When a college makes essays optional (and has no required essay at all), it's a subtle way of saying that an essay won't usually carry the same importance in admissions as grades and test scores will.     

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Essay advice for Bucknell applicants

A college doesn't necessarily need to require a novel's worth of essays to evaluate and better understand their applicants.  Take Bucknell University, for example. 

Bucknell applicants will likely be pleasantly surprised to find that Bucknell’s Common Application supplement contains just one additional required essay and a second that's optional.  But if you make the most of those two requirements, you can really help a Bucknell admissions officer learn more about you in ways that your application alone would not reveal. 

Here are a few tips on how to approach the Bucknell essays. 

Before you do anything, read the directions.

You can learn a lot about what a college is looking for by just reading the directions. Here are the directions for Bucknell's supplemental essays:

The following questions are your opportunity to demonstrate, within the context of the Common Application, what makes you uncommon and uniquely you. In your responses, be bold and have some fun – really! Tell us about your talents and interests so that we can know the “you” behind the transcripts.

A lot of students will totally ignore those directions and write about things that are common, that are not unique to them, and they will do so in a way that is anything but bold or fun.  They’ll hide behind safe stories about being diligent and determined, or how they learned valuable life lessons through student government, or how community service taught them that it’s important to help people.  Responses like that make you sound like every other applicant.  That's not good. 

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So you want to be a horned frog? Here’s some advice for TCU applicants

Applying to TCU (Texas Christian University)?  Good for you.  TCU is one of those little colleges that we just can't help but love.  We think so highly of them we even featured them in one of our college spotlights.  We love their energy, how much our Collegewise students turned TCU horned frogs seem to love their experience there.  But enough about why we like TCU.  Here are some tips to help you get admitted.

If TCU is your first choice, you might want to consider forgoing the Common Application. 

OK, just to be clear, I am not speaking for TCU here.  I'm sure if you called their admissions office, they'd tell you that applicants who apply using the TCU's application are given no inherent advantage over those applicants submitting the Common Application.  And it's probably true.

But here's the thing.  TCU's application gives you more opportunity to express yourself than the Common App does.  You get to write an essay just for TCU.  You get to do an optional activity summary just for TCU.  And you even get to do an optional "Freedom of Expression" page where you can fill a page with anything that you think will help them get to know you better.  Those are a lot of opportunities, and you might consider using them.

If you do fill out the Common Application, you have no supplemental essays to write.  So the rest of my advice here will be directed to those students who are filling out TCU's own application. 

Advice for the long essay

Here's the prompt:

TCU is a selective university, and our Admission and Scholarship Committees review thousands of applications each year. The essay tells us a great deal about our candidates and allows for expression of writing skills, organizational skills, creativity and imagination. The essay should be 300-500 words in length and legible. Feel free to be serious, humorous or somewhere in between. Compose your essay on one of the following topics.

You want to choose the topic for which you have something to say about yourself, something that provides you with a platform to help the reader get to know something about you.  Here are a few tips for how to approach each prompt.

1. Pick an important social, political or economic problem in today’s world. Write a solution for it.

First, keep in mind that most important problems in the world today are problems because there are no easy solutions.  You want to communicate what you know, what you believe, and why you believe it, but you don't want to come off as a know-it-all either, as part of being successful in college means being open to new ideas and interpretations. 

Second, it's particularly compelling if you pick an issue for which you have some personal investment, experience and factual knowledge.  Doing so lets you combine your knowledge with your passion, and that's almost always an appealing combination. 

For example, if you've spent time volunteering at a homeless shelter, and you've seen how budget cuts reduced the number of meals that you can serve, and watched people show up hungry and be turned away because there just isn't enough food, you are personally invested in that issue.  And you know how it would be different if there were more tax dollars funneled towards county services.

People who are personally invested in issues tend to speak passionately about them, and tend to do so with more knowledge of the issue at hand.  If you don't feel that strongly about a serious problem in the world today, you might consider one of the other topics.

2. Leap forward or backward 100 years and tell us about your day.

This is begging for some imagination and creativity.  But remember that TCU is trying to get to know more about you, and in this case, a description of your day is the vehicle to help them do that.  One way to approach this is to think about something that you know for sure about yourself, and imagine how that would look 100 years ago, or 100 years from now.

For example, if you are passionate about programming computers, how could you have channeled a passion for technology 100 years ago?  What would your natural curiosities have lead you to do given that there weren’t any computers?  Or, based on what you know about computers, what kinds of things could you dream about them doing 100 years from now?  And how would you like to see yourself working with them that far in the future?

The key is that whether you go back 100 years or forward 100 years, your answer should reveal something about the person you are today.

3. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." How has the implicit philosophy in this proverb shaped the history of conflict among people?

Intellectuals, history buffs, deep thinkers–this one's for you.  While the previous topic was nudging you to be playful, this one really needs you to thoughtfully consider this question and give a critical, organized response. Stick with what you know.  Don't try to tackle all of human civilization here.  If you're a Civil War buff, or you did a research project on survivors of the holocaust, or your parents escaped war torn Bosnia to move here, you might have a knowledgeable frame of reference from which to consider this question.  And remember, the reader still needs to get to know you, not just academic reasoning in your response.  Relate how you came to know so much about this.  What drove you to become this knowledgeable?  How did the information affect you as you gathered it?  Have you continued to learn about this subject since then? 

These are the kinds of things readers really want learn while they’re evaluating your reasoning, organization and critical thinking in a response like this.   

4. Discuss a significant person, experience or achievement that has meaning for you.

The most important part of this topic is "…has meaning for you."  That means that the essay has to be about you.  A 500 word essay on why you admire Martin Luther King is much more about Martin Luther King than it is about you.  He’s certainly worthy of the admiration, but it would be a much more interesting essay if you tied it to something in your own life, how you act, how you feel, what you’ve done, etc.  Keep the focus on yourself. 

Second, the essay has to describe the "meaning" this subject had for you.  An essay about how you made the varsity soccer team is really just repeating a story they already know from reading your list of activities.  But if making the varsity soccer team was the first time you ever got to wear a team jacket, or it was the first time your dad left work early on a weekday to come see one of your activities, or how it finally made you feel like you'd found your place at your new school, now we're learning about the meaning, and we're learning something that we wouldn't have known just from reading your application. 

What about the "Freedom of Expression" exercise?

Yeah, you're on your own for that one.  Kidding.

It's better to submit something that you're proud of, that you really felt was a great opportunity for you to share more about yourself, than it is to do the exercise just for the sake of doing it.  If you have something worth sharing, you'll probably think of it pretty quickly because it will be important to you.

Here are ten examples of ways our Collegewise kids have filled the space. 

1.  A musician pasted a photo of him playing guitar in his band with the caption, "February 2, 2002.  This was the first time I ever played guitar in front of an audience."

2. A volleyball player included the text from a letter her father wrote to her and left on her pillow the night her team lost the state championship.

3.  A "C" student pasted a copy of a painting he'd done in art class that was selected to be displayed in the main foyer of the school.  He told TCU it was the first time in his life a teacher had ever used his work as an example for other students.

4.  A fairly shy girl wrote ten quotations on the page and titled them, "Life Lessons from My Older Brother."  The quotations ranged from,

"If you do something wrong, tell Dad first–he won't freak out like mom does,"


"Don't concern yourself with what other people think about you.  You don’t know it now, but it’s all just high school bullsh*$t and nobody in college will ever care about it." 

5.  A student who worked at a daycare pasted photos of the kids at work.

6.  A youth group leader included a copy of her favorite passage from the Bible. 

7.  A science buff wrote a description of his science fair project and what he set out to prove with it.

8.  One student wrote a letter to her mother who had passed away the year before.  It told her mom how hard it had been to deal with her passing, but not to worry too much because her daughter was still on track to graduate and go to college.

9.  A list entitled "Ten Reasons There is More to Joey than My 2.1 GPA."  He wasn't admitted to TCU, but I’m including it here because I loved how he swung for the fences.

10.  Nine statements that began with "I am…" like "I am a good brother," and "I am a trumpet player" and "I am a host at Chilis."

The last statement was, "But I am not a good SAT test-taker." 

Nobody has been admitted or rejected based on the "Freedom of Expression" page alone.  But if you're going to do it, take the time to do it right.  The key is to come up with something you feel good about and share it proudly.

Spend any time on the TCU campus (or at a football game) and you’ll see that this student body doesn’t hold back.  It’s an energetic place injected with personality.  That’s one of the reasons I like the school.  If you’re the type of person who could get on board with a student body like that, show them by giving them some revealing, fun, personality-injected responses in to these questions.

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.