So I need to write an application essay…

One Sunday night in October of 2006, I sat down to write an application essay…an essay for the University of Illinois. Looking back, it was probably one of the most important points in determining my future, but I slapped something together in 30 minutes to an hour.

With a whole lot of dumb luck, that application essay that I didn’t think mattered has opened so many doors for me during the past three years.

There are two reasons why this application is so important (one known and one not so known):

  • Hopefully, the essay helps get you in!
  • More importantly (I had no idea at the time): people actually read them. The people who are in charge of awarding merit-based financial aid read them! Many more read them too (i.e. for Campus Honors Program admissions!)

As a part of being in the Campus Honor Program, they actually ask us to read (anonymously of course) and rate admissions essays each year as part of the selection process. I really enjoy seeing other people’s essay and their backgrounds, but they all look a tad bit similar. Here’s a synopsis:

“[Insert what I did in high school][That’s why I’m amazing]”

And the applicants to Illinois have definitely done some pretty cool stuff and are indeed amazing, but if I was in the position of an admissions counselor, I’m not sure I would be able to handle a day’s worth of application essays, much less thousands of them.

Looking back, I set out to do two things when writing admissions essays: what I did in high school and why it was so amazing. Luckily, I failed at that goal. Instead I wrote about my fascination with black walnut trees (per what I’ve learned in NRES 302 Dendrology “The Study of Trees”, Scientific Name: Juglans nigra, Family: Juglandaceae). Considering that I was applying for the natural resources and environmental sciences major and planning to enter the forest science concentration, it was still probably a bit unoriginal.

Retrospectively, there are two reasons it worked:

  • It stood out. I doubt too many others did their admissions essays on the species Juglans nigra or any tree for that matter.
  • It talked about the future. I did not fall into the trap of talking about my high school experience. I talked about my passion for an aspect of my field and consequently, what a degree from this university would mean to me.

And it worked…The essay began the process that eventually led me to Illinois!

They’re a bit tedious but worth spending the extra time on. Multiple people actually read each and every one of them! This is your chance to stand out on paper.

Good luck with the admissions essays!


Please note that comments close after 90 days.


October 10, 2008, 2:36 pm

Hi, I may not go to this school but I was looking into it. I’m a 12th grader living in Memphis scared to death about what I should write in my admission essay. This really helped me out because I didn’t do too much in high school. But this blog opened a new door to how i should write. Thanks so much



October 10, 2008, 7:55 pm


Don’t be scared to death of the admission essay. I would definitely characterize it as more of an opportunity to shine than a chance to fail. Your accomplishments will speak for themselves in the application. However, the essay gives you a chance to expand on who you are and why Illinois (or any other school) is the place for you. At least that’s how I perceive it. Good luck!





October 11, 2008, 4:30 pm

I’m a senior and i’m in the process of editing my personal essay. I was so nervous to write it but i just had to make myself sit down and do it. thanks for sharing your story. Now i won’t be afraid to do something unique for my essay. I’m applying here and this blog realyl helped!



October 13, 2008, 9:18 am

In an essay of 300 words or less, write about how your personal or academic interests relate to your intellectual or professional goals.



October 13, 2008, 9:19 am

One of the essay requires you to write about how your personal interests relate to your professional goals. I am totally stumped, because I am going undeclared and I honestly don’t know what I want to do in the future. How do I make my essay “stand out”?



October 13, 2008, 8:50 pm


I hesitate to throw out specific ideas, because the essay is meant to illustrate who you are.

While you have hundreds of potential career paths, what is it that drives you to get a college degree from Illinois and more importantly, what do you want to do with it regardless of specialization?

Hope that helps.




October 14, 2008, 12:54 pm


This blog is just what I needed, honestly.

I am concerned that by trying to stand out, I will submit an off topic random essay, I don’t want to submit a mess.

What do you think is too risky when submiting and essay.

Thank you very much!



Raghav Sanghi

October 14, 2008, 8:19 pm

Thank you so much Jake. Now I really know what to write…



October 15, 2008, 11:56 am

Thanks for sharing the experience!
Does the essay matter a LOT in the admission process?



October 15, 2008, 1:50 pm

My name is amy. I am a senior in higschool and I am so worried about writing these essays! I’m not sure if my Act and G.P.A are high enought to get accepted into the University of Illinois. I have been told these essays could make or break you. As cliche as this sounds I know U of I is where I want to be and I don’t want to settle for anything less. Do you have any extra tips for me when I am writing these essays to really make the advisors and staff realy impressed while reading my essays? Thank you!



October 15, 2008, 8:30 pm


An off-topic random essay is definitely a concern. However, I would say to just focus on connecting what you write about to your Illinois degree. But definitely watch out for jumps in logic.

The essay topic should logically connect to why you want to be admitted, but be creative within those bounds.




October 15, 2008, 8:48 pm

Jizhe and Amy,

I’m not 100% sure how much weight is put in the admission essay. That would be a question that one of the counselors can answer for sure.

What I will say is that I was very surprised when I later spoke with a couple people who had read my essay as part of the admission and aid award process.


I’ll try to think of some other suggestions in terms of the best essay. For now, I would just suggest that your essay should in some way or another illustrate who you are and why you are different than every other amazing applicant.

A good start would be to just sit down and dedicate some time thinking about it before you pick up the pen.




October 17, 2008, 6:32 pm

I’m a senior and as you tis the season to be jolly right. These essays are very hard to write especially if you have a lot to talk about, but also don’t want to bored the reader. Please help me!!!



October 18, 2008, 7:09 pm

Ok, so like ever since like my 8th grade year i have dreamt of going to U of I Urbana and like my GPA is awesome an basically I’m an all around student the only thing that just killed me was my act score and I’m retaking the test and all that but the essay is freaking me out too I’m like a huge shock of spasms inside cause I’m so freaked out and scared of being denied admission.



October 18, 2008, 9:24 pm

Wow. Thank you!

This has really helped me find a better understanding of what I should probably write for this essay!

I have to admit, these essays have been stressing me out for weeks! I thought I was the only person who was super concerned with all of this, but after reading all of these comments I feel so much better!!!!

Thank you to everyone!!



October 18, 2008, 11:10 pm

I already wrote my essays, but my word count is a little over the 300 limit. Do you think the admissions officers will really care or even notice if i’m 15-20 words over?



October 19, 2008, 2:39 pm

Thanks for the suggestions, Jake. That really helped when I was writing my essays.


Pulkit Shamshery

October 20, 2008, 9:23 am

I will apply for freshman fall2010 in one of the US of A unis. I now understand that the essay is very important aspect of the admission process. Is a good essay really a deciding factor even if the SAT scores and academic grades are excellent. After many net browsing of UOI, I have started liking this Uni.



October 20, 2008, 5:18 pm

Jake, can I ask what your ACT and GPA were? Im just wondering… you know, to compare.



October 20, 2008, 9:23 pm

While writing one of my essays for U of I, I noticed that it was a little on the short side and I was wondering, how short is too short.



October 21, 2008, 6:25 pm


I would definitely encourage you to zoom in on one or two ways of illustrating who you are. In my opinion, an organized essay about one thing would be wayyy better than a disorganized composite of who you are.




October 21, 2008, 6:26 pm


I completely agree! Between applications and schoolwork, I didn’t have any free time the fall of my senior year!




October 21, 2008, 6:27 pm


I have no idea. I always tried to get them to the limit, so I wouldn’t be subject to losing out from any technicalities. I definitely remember my essays improving a lot when I had to make an effort to cut down the length!




October 21, 2008, 6:28 pm


I appreciate it good luck.




October 21, 2008, 6:32 pm


The essay is not going to make or break you by itself. It is always considered as part of the full application. But a good essay can get you above a lot of others with similar scores and grades and as I found out, it helps with the financial aid picture as well (my grades and scores were good but weren’t phenomenal).





October 21, 2008, 6:34 pm


My scores were good but not phenomenal when compared to the rest of the applicant picture. I think I recall that my scores just put me in the top quartile of applicants. I think you can find stats somewhere on the website here, but I can’t seem to find it myself!




October 21, 2008, 6:36 pm


This answer is solely my opinion since I’m not the one making the big decisions. But I think if you have a very solid essay, you have nothing to worry about–it might be a relief to the people reading through them. From my standpoint quality is far more important than quantity.




October 22, 2008, 9:13 pm

i ghave a question im starting to understand this essay thing but i was wondering do they want font do they want it in and is it ok to double space?



October 22, 2008, 11:05 pm


I’m not sure if there are any guidelines. If you can’t find any, I would suggest a normal 12 pt font, definitely double-spaced.




October 25, 2008, 7:12 am

Thank you~You gave me good informations. I’m an international student who wants to apply uiuc. I’m worried about my app. essays because those don’t show my feelings that much. I’m not good at expressing myself and I think this comes out in my essays. Should I just keep practice writing essays until the essays show how I feel?



October 25, 2008, 7:37 pm

Thanks so much Jake! I’m working on my application for UIUC right now. It’s the only place I’ve ever wanted to go to college really. I finished everything but the second essay, and this really helped a lot.



October 27, 2008, 8:01 pm


I would hesitate to suggest writing essays over and over again to get them just right. Just sit down and think about it a little before you write–and more importantly, think about what makes you stand out. From my limited experience with admissions essays, it seems that a lot of people fall into that same trap of talking about what they’ve done and why that’s amazing. I would suggest writing more about what boundaries you are going to break through with that Illinois degree–maybe using anecdotal evidence from your life story to support that.

Good luck!



October 27, 2008, 8:04 pm


I’m glad the info helped. Hope the process goes well!




October 27, 2008, 8:57 pm

Thank you very much. This really helped a lot to me. I am applying UIUC and writing my personal essay. Again, thank you for sharing information.



October 27, 2008, 9:34 pm

so i’ve been working hard on my essays. I wrote one b4 i found out that there has to be specific topics. It turns out that my original is really good but too long. its about twice as long but SUPER GOOD. do u think i should send it in as an extra?



October 28, 2008, 10:27 pm


No problem. Hope all works out!




October 28, 2008, 10:32 pm


I’m not sure if they consider supplemental materials. As I recall, many schools explicitly noted that anything not part of the application would be excluded. I guess it wouldn’t hurt to try.

Is there any way that you could cut your essay in half. I often find that working to reduce the length of an essay really makes mine a lot stronger. Or at least convert some of those theme for the correct essay?

If it’s really good, stick with it. Just make it part of the official application and adapt it if needed.

Good luck,



November 11, 2008, 1:48 pm

In the “is there any additional information that you feel we should be aware of while reviewing your application, including extenuating circumstances that affected your academic record?” …what are they wanting here? A personal Statement or is that to much like the essays? it is opional so should i fill it out?
Thanks, Rob