If you’re a student applying for college, writing a personal essay can seem daunting.
But it doesn’t need to be.
The News & Observer talked to admissions offices at Duke, UNC Chapel Hill, NC State and NC Central to find out what to do — and what to avoid — when writing those essays over the next few weeks.
Here’s what we learned.
Remember: most application deadlines fall around the first or middle of January.
Essay-writing tips from Duke’s dean of admissions
Christoph Guttentag, Duke University’s dean of undergraduate admissions, shared some insight:
The personal essay lets the college know you as an individual.
If a college is asking for an essay (or more than one), it’s because they are looking for the insight that an essay can provide, he said.
A good, useful essay is one that helps the college understand what matters to you, what’s important to you and why.
There aren’t “good” topics to choose or “bad” topics to avoid.
There’s no topic that is particularly good or particularly problematic. Almost anything can be the subject of a good essay, Guttentag said.
What matters is that you write about what matters to you and why. And this is the one part of the application where you get to express yourself in your own words.
Pay attention to style and tone.
The tone does not have to be formal, and the language does not have to be particularly sophisticated. In fact, sometimes those can get in the way of the reader getting a sense of you, he said.
You should approach it as if it were a conversation you were having with an adult who is particularly interested in what you have to say. Not as casual as if you were speaking with a friend or classmate, but not as formal as if it were a paper you were writing for an assignment.
If you read your essay out loud, and it sounds like something you’d say to an adult sitting across from you listening to you with interest, you’ll be on the right track.
“That’s almost literally what’s going to happen,” Guttentag said. “An admissions officer will read that essay, trying to get a sense of you as a unique person, and reading it as if you were speaking it.”
Essays almost never determine a decision.
Essays become important when a college needs to distinguish between many applicants who are academically qualified for that school, he said.
They’re not more important than your academic record or your extracurricular activities and accomplishments, but among similarly qualified students, essays can sometimes help nudge a decision in one direction or another.
Admissions essay tips from UNC Chapel Hill, NCCU
“While there is no weight to individual components of the application, the essay is a unique opportunity to share your story and what is meaningful or important to you,” said Michael Davis, UNC-CH’s associate director of admissions.
Do: Write about a topic that helps the university understand you as a unique individual. Write about how you would contribute to the campus community.
Don’t: Write about topics you’re not comfortable writing about. And don’t write essays that would prompt a generic response, as opposed to one that showcases your unique voice and perspective.
De’Janel Henry, NC Central’s interim associate director of graduate admissions, recommends avoiding essays that involve controversial topics, including political and/or spiritual issues.
How you should prepare to write your college essays
You should ask yourself a few questions before sitting down to write your personal essay, per Duke’s recommendation:
What experiences have you had that make you unique? Can you describe characteristics that would make you a valuable member of the university community for the next four years?
Have you overcome any obstacles in your educational career? Or, have you hit any speedbumps that you need to explain?
What is “missing” from your application file? If they have a transcript, there is no reason to waste words telling them about your high grades. If they have a list of your awards and activities, there is no need to simply re-list them here. Is there something special about one of your activities that doesn’t come through in a list alone?
And here are some additional tips from the College Foundation of North Carolina:
Brainstorm and outline: Essay topics often fall into one of two categories: a personal statement or a structured question. If you can choose which to answer, you might want to brainstorm and outline a response for several questions to see which is best for you.
Begin early: Start working on your essays early. Give yourself plenty of time for revisions.
Get feedback: Seek feedback from a counselor, parent or trusted teacher to help you revise and edit your work.
Be specific: Make sure you answer the specific essay prompt for each application. Don’t just rehash facts about yourself or reuse an essay you wrote for another college.
Edit carefully: Represent your ideas in the best light by checking your essay thoroughly for correct usage, spelling and punctuation.
Don’t overuse the thesaurus: Stick to vocabulary that is familiar to you. If you rely too heavily on a thesaurus in search of bigger and better-sounding words. You risk sounding pretentious, as well as unintentionally misusing words.
Don’t plagiarize: Remember that essay readers are trained to spot plagiarism. You can learn from other essays, but you don’t want to copy them.
Be truthful: It can be tempting to stretch the truth when you are trying to impress someone, but the purpose of the essay is to tell a reader what sort of person you really are.
Essay prompts in UNC Chapel Hill applications
This year, first-year and transfer applicants will choose two short answer prompts from the following list:
Describe a peer you see as a community builder. What actions has that peer taken? How has their work made a difference in your life?
Describe an aspect of your identity (for example, your religion, culture, race, sexual or gender identity, affinity group, etc.). How has this aspect of your identity shaped your life experiences thus far?
If you could change one thing to better your community, what would it be? Why is it important and how would you contribute to this change?
How does history shape who you are? Former UNC-Chapel Hill employee, community service member, and civil rights activist Esphur Foster once said, “We are nothing without our history.” Her words are memorialized on the Northside Neighborhood Freedom Fighters monument.
UNC Chapel Hill applicants must complete all four fill-in-the-blank responses in 25 words:
One family tradition I cherish:
This I believe:
The quality I most admire in myself:
The protagonist I most identify with:
Check out UNC-CH’s FAQ page for more admissions information.
Essay questions for applying to NC State
First-year applicants have to respond to two required short-answer prompts:
Explain why you selected the academic program(s) and why you are interested in studying these at NC State.
NC State University is committed to building a just and inclusive community, one that does not tolerate unjust or inhumane treatment, and that denounces it, clearly and loudly. Please describe what those words mean to you and how you will contribute to a more diverse and inclusive NC State environment.
Check out NC State’s FAQ page for more admissions information.
Duke University essay questions
Duke University requires all applicants to respond to one question in a maximum of 200 words:
Is there something in particular about Duke’s academic or other offerings that attract you? Please share with us why you consider Duke a good match for you.
And all applicants can, but don’t have to, respond to two questions:
Duke University seeks a talented, engaged student body that embodies the wide range of human experience; we believe that the diversity of our students makes our community stronger. If you’d like to share a perspective you bring or experiences you’ve had that would help us understand you better, perhaps a community you belong to or your family or cultural background, we encourage you to do so here. Real people are reading your application, and we want to do our best to understand and appreciate the real people applying to Duke.
Duke’s commitment to diversity and inclusion includes sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. If you would like to share with us more about your identity in these areas, you can do so here. If you feel you have adequately represented your gender and sexual orientation in other parts of your application, feel free to not respond to this prompt.
First-year applicants will use either the Common Application or the Coalition Application to respond to one essay prompt on the list of seven (for the Common App) or five (for the Coalition App) questions.
Check out Duke’s FAQ page for more admissions information.
Essay requirements at NC Central
NCCU currently does not require an essay for admissions.
“However, we do encourage students to have one in hand, in the event they are interested in scholarships or joining clubs or organizations,” said De’Janel Henry, NCCU’s interim associate director of undergraduate admissions.
The university does not use the Common App nor the Coalition App, per Best Accredited Colleges.
Check out NCCU’s FAQ page for more admissions information.