Youth Canada

How to Write a University Application Essay

27-08-2008 by David Zhang

How to Write a University Application Essay

With the deadlines for university applications fast approaching, many students are struggling to write their application essays. An outstanding essay can make an applicant stand out among his peers, whereas a mediocre essay will make admissions officers think twice about a student with otherwise excellent scores. But how do you write a good essay?


Always consider your audience, be it a school teacher, a politician, a newsreader, a peer, or a university admissions officer. Here are some points to keep in mind about what admissions officers are looking for in your essay:

1. They do not have much time to read your essay. The average application reader spends less than two minutes on each essay.
2. They read thousands of applications daily, which means that they may read several essays that are written similarly.
3. Standards vary depending upon the college. A solid application with no outstanding qualities may suffice at a small liberal arts college, but would not be received with nearly as much excitement at Ivy League schools such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.
4. Admissions officers come from a variety of backgrounds in education, religious beliefs, and political views.
5. They know your academic and extracurricular records extremely well.

The audience determines every aspect of the writing. So what do these characteristics of your demanding audience imply?

a) Style

Presenting one’s ideas in a simple and elegant manner is central to good writing. Therefore, your writing must be succinct, clear, and cohesive.

Some students may wonder about the use of humour in their essays. If your humour is appropriate to the context and well placed, then go for it. However, it should come naturally as you are writing the essay. Do not look for places where you can insert a quip, because it will likely disrupt the flow of your writing.

b) Topic

Students are commonly advised to avoid overused stories that admissions officers have already seen. However, do not shy away from your orchestra performance or playoff baseball game just for that reason, for you might have a unique perspective. On the other hand, do not end an essay with unfounded generalizations or morals, as they are often overused or clichéd. Instead, think of something that distinguishes you – be it the death of a good friend, overcoming a difficult situation, or creatively dissolving a conflict in an orchestra rehearsal. The topic does not have to be complex or profound – just approach it from a sincere perspective. Write to show the person who you are rather than to explain who you are. So long as you reflect your own character and personality, the essay will speak for itself.

c) Content

Your audience is already aware of your academic and extracurricular achievements, so let your essay focus on who you are as a person. Show the reader your passions, your ideals, and your approach to life.

Your audience comes from a diverse educational background, and may not be knowledgeable in the field that you’re applying to. Avoid jargon and technical information, even if you are discussing one of your passions.

Lastly, do not make up a story. It is an act of dishonesty. Moreover, it is far more difficult to pour your heart and soul into an essay that you know is a fabrication.

Now that you know the basic guidelines of a good application essay, start writing. Spend time editing and proofreading, as clear writing and perfect grammar are essential to a good essay. Do not be afraid to benefit from the criticisms from others, too. Friends, family, and teachers may offer you a fresh perspective on your essay. Good luck!

DAVID ZHANG is a grade 12 student at Burnaby North Secondary School. This summer, he attended Shad Valley at the University of Waterloo, and he is now an intern at Impact Entrepreneurship Group.

Image courtesy of photographer "view profile
this is your brain on lithium" at