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- Leadership or Innovation - Are you an organizer? Do you head up projects? Are you a team player? Do you create new ideas or inventions? Do you solve problems?
- Service - Do you have a burden to help others? Are you regularly involved in volunteering? What contributions have you made to your school and local community?
- Well-roundedness - Do you have long-term commitments to extra curricular activities? Have you developed expertise in any area outside of school? Do you actively seek to have new experiences and a broad-base of knowledge?
- Contribution - What are you going to contribute to your future college and society? Do you plan to get involved in your college’s activities, research, or outreach efforts?
I want to take a moment to explain why these qualities are important to colleges. Ultimately, colleges are looking for people that are going to make a difference in their college community as well as in society at large. All four qualities are essential in one person, but leadership can be replaced with innovation. Your job is to show colleges that you have those four qualities, and therefore, can make a difference on their campus as well as your future community.
Let’s look at a few typical college essay questions and how you can build those four target qualities into your answers.
1. Tell us one thing you do just for the pleasure of it.
This question is actually asked on the MIT application, and some form of it is asked by many other schools. This question is initially a peak into how well-rounded you are. Of course you will describe how long you’ve done an activity, your expertise and what you like about it. But take it a step further and point out if you have developed a new technique for it (innovation), if you have shared it with others through teaching or participated in a helpful project (service), if you organized an event around it or lead out in an organization dedicated to it (leadership). Finally, comment on how you intend to explore that activity at college (contribution). Be specific if you can by mentioning a specific club or activity you know of on their college campus.
Choose an activity you have done that you can tie in at least 1 or 2 other qualities aside from well-roundedness into your essay.
2. What programs of study are you interested in and why?
Some variation of this question is common on college essays and obviously is asking about your career goals. When speaking of your career goals, be sure to keep your description “others-focused”, meaning that you want to pursue a particular career because of how it will help others (contribution). Mention a particular experience from your life that captures your interest in that career (well-roundedness, leadership, innovation, or service). Then, mention how some professors at the college are tackling the very real-world problems you are interested in solving and how you hope to get involved in what they are doing (contribution).
If you are unsure of what career you want to do, follow the advice above and just mention various career areas that you may find interesting or real world problems that you may be interested in solving.
3. Tell us about a challenge you have faced and overcome in life.
These types of questions are wonderful opportunities to demonstrate how you positively and proactively react to life. Don’t feel like you have to speak about a school related challenge. In fact, always use your essays as a space to share about things admissions staff cannot see in the rest of your application. But don’t use these types of questions as a way to make them feel sorry for you. When you compose your response, think about a situation in which you actively dealt with the situation and turned it into an opportunity to help someone else in that situation (service), an area where you have developed and share a level of expertise (well-roundedness), or a unique invention (innovation) or new organization (leadership). Mention the character traits you developed from the experience (perseverance, resourcefulness, etc.). Then tie what you gained from the experience into your plans for the future whether at the college-level or career-level (contribution).
Put your best foot forward when writing college admission essays by keeping the four key qualities they are looking for in your mind. Your essays will be compelling and demonstrate depth of character. Admissions staff will be confident that you will be an asset and thrive in their college community.