Essays. If you're in the midst of our application process, you'll see that we're working with some pretty neat prompts, and we hope they're providing more fun than stress in your (college apps obsessed) life right now! We know that writing essays for any college can be a daunting process; we hope this gives you some tips that will help you navigate our essays, and a sense that most things are just fine with us, if well written and well considered.
If there's only one thing that you take away from this post, it should be this: there is no right way to answer our essay questions. And no wrong way. Anything--so long as you like it and it speaks to you as a great response--is fair game! I know some of you think there may be some kind of locked room where we're holding Waldo--we promise, this isn't the case! We give out unique prompts hoping that you'll see an opportunity to take the prompt in whatever direction you'd like to. Any topic (well, except a few that I'll suggest avoiding below) is fair game.
A resume is not an essay. A reasonably common way that we'll see students respond to a prompt is by taking the prompt and somehow bending it, alongside a description of an activity--or list of activities--that they participate in, in to essay form. While we're happy to see you discuss something important to you in depth, our essays may not be the best space to provide a laundry list of your achievements and accomplishments. You are welcome to list activities and achievements in your Common Application activities section--trust us, we read these, so we'll already be aware of your fabulous self. It's also important to know that we can learn a lot about you when you're not talking directly about "you"--if one of our prompts speaks to you in a way that lends naturally to you talking about yourself, that is certainly appropriate, but we've also see great essays that have ostensibly no relation to a student or their experiences, but tell us a lot about how that student thinks, and the kinds of things she's thinking about.
Creativity appreciated! But make sure it's authentically "you". We certainly enjoy seeing essays that are neat combinations of style and substance-- but don't skimp on the substance. I recall a great essay that took us from "Playdoh to Plato" (one of last year's prompts) as an example, in which a student discussed the topic as a fictitious dialogue between Plato and Socrates. But it was clear that this student's essay really lent itself to that format--and that the ideas contained in the presentation were solid, interesting, and well considered. If your essay makes the most sense as a dialogue, or a short story, or something other than a 'traditional' 5-paragraph piece, go for it! But: don't just feel the need to be creative for the sake of having done something creative. Style cannot make up for an essay that lacks substance--an acrostic poem spelling UCHICAGO with only one word per letter may not be the best choice. If you're not a person who often likes to express yourself through rap, poetry, or songwriting, your college application essay is not the time to start. An essay with well considered ideas in a traditional format will carry you much further than a super-quirky format with few solid ideas to back it up. Creativity and originality are certainly much appreciated in our application process, but make sure to ask yourself a very important question: am I presenting this idea or this format because it is the way I feel I can best express myself and my ideas? Is making a statement about this topic--or making my statement in this way--truly important to me? Or am I doing it just for the sake of doing it?
Avoid the TMI. Just go through a big breakup? We've been there, and we sympathize, but it may be better to process the experience with your parents, friends, or counselor than through your essay. Same goes for a detailed description of your current crush, your bodily functions, etc... discussions of personal experiences that have affected your life are certainly not off limits, but please do your best to make sure that it doesn't cross a line in to "inappropriate" territory.
Edit, edit, edit. We don't want you to lose sight of your ideas and yourself, but it is important to make sure that SOMEONE looks at your essay to catch typos, sentence fragments, or [INSERT NAME OF OTHER COLLEGE] moments. Having a trusted teacher, older friend, or parent edit your work can be really helpful in catching these lingering uh-ohs. At UChicago, we suggest keeping your extended essay at 1-2 pages, single or double spaced, and shorter essays at or around 2-3 paragraphs; if you're exceeding that suggestion, having another set of eyes look over your work can be really helpful in determining ways you may consider making your work a bit more concise. We'll read every word you write, but we're much more enthusiastic about the second page than the thirteenth page [note: please no thirteen page essays!]
Tl;dr: Be yourself. You are probably awesome! Feel free to be creative, but don't cross the line in to crazy or inappropriate. And make sure someone--anyone!--reads your essays, even if just for typos, before you submit them.