Last week I presented a workshop to high school students about college essays. My sense is that you may have many of the same questions asked during the workshop. What makes a good essay? What should I avoid? How long should my essay be? Do all good essays come from a tragic life experience? What does the selection committee want to hear? As you can imagine, there simply is no “right” or “wrong” answer when it comes to your college essay. There is no denying that your essays are personal and important pieces of your college applications. You may recall from last year, Angela Herrera blogged about The All Important Cornell Supplement, and how the selection committee values your academic interest essays. Demonstrating your academic “fit” with Cornell is important, but there is more involved in writing a successful essay. Here are some tips to help you along in the process:
- Be sure to answer the question that is asked.
- Write in your voice – not your teacher’s, parent’s, friend’s or sibling’s, remember this essay is about YOU.
- Be sure to edit, don’t just rely on spell check. It is ok to have a parent, teacher, friend look over your essays.
- If you choose to write about a current event or common topic, make sure that your content is personal and unique to you. Your essay should not be a news report.
- Use language you are comfortable with, your essay is not a thesaurus.
- Be personal. If you are a funny person, be funny…but don’t be funny if it isn’t genuine. The selection committee wants to get to know you, how you think, how you approach learning, and how you will contribute to the campus community.
- Make every word count. You have a limited number of words to make a big impact, so choose carefully.
- Have fun! This is your time to tell us something about yourself that we don’t know and that may distinguish you from the rest of the applicant pool.
Most importantly, take your time, start early, and don’t be afraid to continue revising your essay. Writing your college essay is a process and there is no need to rush it. The best essay is well-written, concise, gives a glimpse into who you are, and one that you are proud to share!
"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 Bernardof "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.
Top of Form
Bottom of Form
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.
Filed Under: Advice for specific colleges