Think of your application to a university as a puzzle: each piece you submit adds to the full picture of who you are and how you can contribute to the school. The essay portion is your opportunity to expand on a dimension of yourself that may not be reflected in your grades or your activities summary. It’s also a chance to reflect on what you’ve learned during your high school career and highlight how you’ll apply those insights to your time at post-secondary. If you haven’t pondered your life experiences thus far, don’t worry! Here are a few tips to help you get into the right frame of mind.
Show, don’t tell
Let’s say the question asks you to talk about a time you learned something new. Instead of just outlining the steps you took to complete the process, use this opportunity to take the reader on a journey. Help the reader to experience what you experienced as you were learning.
In ninth grade, I decided to learn Mandarin, which I saw as a real challenge. French and English have many similarities, such as their shared alphabet; however, Mandarin presented me with an entirely new system. I can recall my intimidation when I first encountered the intricate characters my teacher had drawn on the whiteboard. In Mandarin, you’re not given a fixed alphabet; to merely read a newspaper, you need to have a working knowledge of two to three thousand characters.
Let’s say the question asks you to describe how you approach being part of a team, so you start with:
I enjoy challenges, because I like solving problems. I always take initiative and help to support my team. In stressful situations, my sense of humour helps me connect with my coworkers and my customers. Working at a restaurant has taught me how to be a better team member.
This is a good start, but let’s take it a step further, and see how the writer can use specific situations and examples to demonstrate their actual involvement.
When there are challenges, I’ve learned how to step in quickly and problem solve. For instance, when dishwashers become overwhelmed, the bussers cannot reset the tables because there are no clean settings. In these cases, I quickly take the initiative to help them and lobby my team to pitch in. One of my tactics to foster teamwork is to use humour. My positive attitude and quick smile instill confidence in my co-workers and make customers feel comfortable. Working at the restaurant, I’ve discovered I thrive in team settings and enjoy the opportunity to demonstrate my work ethic, sense of responsibility, and professionalism.
Find a new take on cliché topics
Let’s say the essay question asks you to describe a time you overcame adversity. This is an easy question to answer with a cliché topic choice. The trick if you want to talk about what admissions officers would consider a cliché topic is to take an original approach to discussing a common subject.
Two years ago, my parents announced they were getting a divorce. This was a difficult time in my life, but I didn’t make myself vulnerable by sharing what I was going through with my friends. Over the years, I’ve come to terms with the situation by looking at the positive results of the divorce and have grown as an individual: I’ve become much more self-reliant and now better understand my parents as complex individuals, with whom I can empathize. However, the fact that I didn’t reach out to others at the time made me realize that many of my peers are likely experiencing their own struggles. This realization has helped me become closer to those around me, making me more empathetic and understanding of their circumstances. As a tutor, soccer coach, classmate, and friend, I try to be attentive to people’s needs and goals and, without judgment, meet them where they are.
Need a little more help getting started? Try these brainstorming exercises or read some more tips for writing an application essay. Want to work on your application essay in a constructive and supportive environment? We still have space in our virtual December Supplement Writing Workshops, and our writing coaches have limited appointment times available. Contact us to book your group workshop spot or one-on-one appointment.