Application Essays

Overview

Welcome to the essay-writing portion of the college application. Within the confines of a couple of double-spaced pages, and sometimes only a few brief paragraphs, the applicant is asked to tell their story. Writing can be stressful; writing about yourself, when the quality of your literary compositions will decide your future, can be more stressful still. Yet, it is a necessary obstacle on the path to higher education. In this section, we will get comfortable with every step of the process from understanding what purpose application essays serve, why veterans have a distinct advantage, and how to approach the writing process, as well as providing some essay examples to provide food for thought.

Why Essays Matter?

With students applying to college in such large numbers, it’s easy to entertain the notion that college admissions is a random process, kind of like pulling names out of a hat. After all, how can students with perfect test scores and GPA get rejected from top-tier schools while some with just-above-average grades are accepted? What it boils down to is that admissions decisions are made holistically; that is, they are made by considering everything the applicant brings to the table. Your numbers give proof that you can succeed at a 4-year institution, but they do not indicate anything about you as a person, and they don’t say anything about how you can fit into their culture—how well your goals and ambitions match up with what a specific institution offers or with the broader school culture. Admissions officers look to application essays to determine how much research the applicant undertook before deciding that their college is the right place to be, and whether you are the kind of person they want to have in the new learning community they build every year. They want to see that the applicant was thoughtful when choosing where to apply. And while thoughtful can mean a lot of things, an essay that flows logically and is enjoyable to read can certainly demonstrate your fit. In other words, a well-crafted essay can carry you past the finish line.

That said, seemingly easy essay prompts mask the complex task of defining oneself to admissions officers, college gatekeepers who must put a face to a faceless application. The essay-writing portion is significant, as it is where applicants have the greatest opportunity to shape their own narratives. So it is no wonder that for many applicants, writing college essays will be the most stressful part of the whole application process. Having to differentiate oneself amongst tens of thousands is tough work. But think of the essays as less of a challenge and more of a self-reflection journey, an exercise in communicating who you are. The rewards for writing a good essay are far worth the price, your effort. Your essays can act as a force-multiplier.

The Veteran Advantage

You already have one distinct advantage when writing your essays: you’re not the average applicant. As a Veteran, you put your education on hold to pursue an unusual path, one that started with signing your life away to Uncle Sam, who broke you down in initial entry training and rebuilt you from the ground up into a disciplined force to be reckoned with. From there, you might have served in combat or on a sea deployment; been stationed half-way across the world in a foreign country; or worked at home as a citizen-warrior, on call to serve at a moment’s notice. In other words, you have made some weighty choices in your life and have rare experience from which to sculpt your admissions essays.

‌This section of the guidebook will help you discover how to harness that advantage. Ultimately, we suggest you write about what matters to you, and write in a way that fits your personal narrative. Just because you are a Silver Star recipient doesn’t necessarily mean you need to write about the award. In some cases, readers are more impressed by what you leave out of your essays than what you include, especially if they have already read about a certain accomplishment in your resume or letters of recommendation. By the end of this section, you will have all the tools you will need to sculpt a moving and authentic essay. We will even go over how to distinguish yourself as more than just another veteran. So be confident. We’ve got your back.

Preparing to Write

A well-written essay requires time, patience, and preparation. There are no substitutes for those ingredients, no matter how many hours you can cram into last-minute essay writing. Let’s look at some of the critical steps you should take before you even start writing your essays.

Give yourself adequate time to prepare: Writing is a process, not a single task. You have incredible incentive to spend time writing and rewriting and editing your essays until you get them right. “Right” means you’re completely satisfied with what you have on paper. Last minute essay writing cannot achieve this. Start brainstorming how to address the essay prompts at least three months in advance of the application deadline. Yes, you heard me, three months ahead of time. Your best writing won’t happen during the first draft. It won’t even happen during the second draft, or the third. Your best writing will happen after an epiphany, an “Ah-ha!” moment. You’ll have several of those moments, which may or may not occur when you’re doing or thinking about something completely unrelated. One of this guidebook’s writers had such an epiphany while listening to “Eye of the Tiger” during a pre-workout run. As for what an epiphany will entail: a solution to parts of your essay that do not feel right to you, such as wording problems, editing dilemmas, and spatial issues. Give yourself enough time to process and tackle those issues, and you’ll facilitate those “Ah-ha!” moments.

Know your reasons for applying (and do your research!): When admissions officers look at a candidate's fit with the school, they want to know does this school make sense for them? Does the candidate know why they want to study there? Admissions teams reject many great candidates every year for not adequately expressing how a specific university will help them achieve their goals. This holds especially true for colleges with a competitive admissions process, who have no shortage of eligible applicants. To distinguish yourself from the rest, you need to research, research, and research. Know exactly what you can gain from the specific schools you’re applying to. This is insanely straightforward effort that can set you apart very quickly by answering some simple questions, like:

  • What is unique and important to you about the school's culture, mission, and values?

  • What academic department/majors, professors, resources (e.g. libraries and research centers) are unique to the school and support your goals?

  • What about the school's community and extracurricular opportunities is appealing?

  • Where would you want to contribute to the above listed categories?

Doing this level of thinking will serve two valuable purposes: first, it will refine your own view of why you are applying and help you craft your own personal story in your essay, and second, it will provide a level of specificity that will set you apart from other applicants.

Devote time to meaningful reflection: Telling your story requires you to know yourself. An essay provides an important opportunity to reflect on where you are in your life and assess deeply what you want to be in future. Think of this reflection as doing your research to answer important questions about yourself that only you can answer. Some illustrative examples are:

  • What makes me unique?

  • What do I value most and why?

  • What are my greatest strengths and weaknesses? (Try asking people who know you well.)

  • What are the experiences and relationships that have had the greatest impact on who I am?

  • What made me want to pursue college (and my specific major)?

  • What are my career goals, or goals for the next 5-10 years?

  • What experiences (successes and failures) have I learned the most from?

The possible questions are numerous, and they are not always easy to answer. However, engaging with them meaningfully, including having intimate conversations with the people who know you best, can yield huge dividends when preparing to write an essay. Regardless of the prompt, essays want to get a sense of who you are; if you feel confident in the answers to these core questions, you will find it a lot easier to communicate who you are, using personal stories that will be memorable to a reader.

Choosing What to Write

Since the purpose of the essay is to help the admissions committee get to know you, choosing what to write requires solving for two factors: what story can I tell that answers the given essay prompt and says something meaningful about who I am?

First, your essay must address the prompt. It is a painfully obvious point, but it should not get lost. The essay is an opportunity to control your narrative; it is also a chance to see if you can respond in writing articulately and succinctly to a question that is common to all applicants. The prompts are almost always sufficiently open-ended that you can still show a great deal of creativity in how you respond.

Beyond the straightforward point of addressing the prompt, the challenge and the magic of the essay is the story you tell, your personal narrative. Avoid the temptation to write an expository essay or position paper. These essays are easily forgotten (no matter how well-written or insightful) because anyone could write them. A personal narrative, on the other hand, allows the reader to step into the author’s shoes and feel what the author wants the reader to feel. The personal essay can span decades and even a lifetime. The personal essay can cover singular moments, too, like a painting. Your story should convey what you want the reader to feel and to know about you.

While writing your personal essay, “You want to reveal yourself in a way that makes an impression,” according to a Creative Writing Professor at Stanford University. “There is no chance of standing out as a human if no risk is taken.” Taking that risk is also essential if you want to seem like more than just a stereotypical veteran. The risk you take when writing your personal essay shouldn’t feel enormous or extreme. Paraphrasing the same professor, there should be enough distance between you and the experience you wish to write about. Yet, it will take a lot of courage to reveal yourself in a way that feels vulnerable. What you write about should make you feel something, anything, a pull at the heartstrings, because you are writing from the heart. Vulnerability is key to telling a story only you can tell, and the best place to start is to draw on the stories that came up most often when reflecting on the personal questions referenced in the previous section.

To make this discussion more tangible, let’s review a famous essay prompt from Stanford University’s application: “What matters to you and why?” The prompt is clear and to the point. It is not a trick question, and the open-ended format means there is no right or wrong answer. In fact, no expert knowledge is needed, just a recollection of your own experiences. Yet, this prompt and its variations cause a great deal of grief for many applicants. The simplicity of the question does not make it any easier to answer, as it strikes at the heart, at the very soul of the applicant, asking why are you who you are? For anyone, veterans and civilians alike, such a question will bring to mind many answers, experiences, vague recollections and old beliefs, and all that brought us to where we are today. The challenge of this prompt is not that it is tough to answer, but that there are many ways to answer such a question.

‌Many applicants address the Stanford prompt by highlighting an issue that matters to them, like global warming or civil unrest in third world countries. Admissions officers aren’t looking for a specific answer, but they do want to hear your voice come out. Most applicants miss out on a chance to tell a story only they can tell by choosing to write about a global issue. No matter how they phrase their question, they are actually asking you to write about YOU. So, our advice for choosing your topic, regardless of the prompt, is to write about something that is authentically unique to you. If you want to write about how your mother matters to you—something one of our writers did to get into Stanford—more power to you! Having a mother isn’t unique per se, but the bond you share with your parent can be. Heck, if you have a unique experience vis-a-vis a global issue, feel free to write about that too! There are no limitations on your topic because there is no right or wrong answer. Just be sure to tell a story only you can tell.

Finally, keep in mind that essays have word and character limitations. To be as personal as possible, you want your topic to be as specific as possible. It is easier to describe a single experience from deployment than it is to describe the whole deployment in a few paragraphs. Specificity allows for greater clarity and more details. At the same time, you may need to balance specificity with scope if you want to cover more time, or if you want the reader to see the bigger picture. The question you want to ask yourself when evaluating a potential topic: can I do this experience, memory or idea justice within the spatial guidelines?

Crafting your essay

Writing

Most veterans haven’t had practice writing a personal essay. We are used to military writing, which is characterized by stating the bottom line up front (BLUF). BLUF simplifies the message to the point you need to get across in military orders, FRAGOs, and manuals. BLUF is critical to military communication, whether you have to call in a MEDEVAC on the battlefield or communicate with your supply NCO. Yet, BLUF-speak is ill-suited for the genre we will be working with. As essential as BLUF is to battlefield communication and military writing, it will bore your reader to tears and sell you short in the application process. Consider the following examples:

Military Writing Example: In October 2011, my friend PFC Castillo was wounded during a firefight at Combat Outpost Bullard. As the only combat medic on patrol, I immediately went over to treat his wounds. He was a good friend and I wanted him to live. I even prayed for him, too.

Personal Essay Version: The explosion shook the ground and I saw friend Castillo’s body crumple like tinfoil under the weight of his 60lb rucksack, and I prayed, “Please God let my brother live.” I ran while finishing my prayer, through smoke and whizzing bullets to arrive at the front of our defensive formation. I think I slid down to Castillo’s body. I think he whispered a quiet help. It’s all hazy now. I did hear the Rata-Tat-Tat-Tat from Lance Corporal Armenta’s Squad Automatic Weapon as he laid down suppressive fire to cover me while I dragged Castillo’s body back to the rear. In a safer position, I checked his body for wounds. An ensemble of automatic weapons could still be heard. I ignored the background noise because I was the only combat medic on this patrol. I was only one who could save Castillo’s life.

The military writing example relied heavily on telling the reader what was happening; the personal narrative, in contrast, showed what the writer was experiencing. Imagine you are telling your story over an open campfire to your audience. Whether it is a horror story, a tale of adventure, or a comedy, a good storyteller meets their audience halfway by leaving room for the imagination. They talk about what was seen, the smells, tastes, noises made and what was felt. A good story does not have to state what the author thought because the audience can learn as much from what was described. What you want is a good balance between showing and telling. Avoid dull, military-style writing in favor of enlivened description that shows the reader what happened.

As you craft your narrative, a few other rules of thumb stand out:

  • Start with an outline: Even though you are telling a story, an outline can be a really helpful way to frame your thinking and ensure that your essay has a logical structure a reader can follow and that you incorporate all of the ideas you want to communicate. It will also help you solve gaps in logic before you invest the time to write hundreds of words.

  • Don't write your first draft for the word count: Pick your story and logic and try to flesh it out fully. Cutting words later to reach your word count is much easier than trying to create coherence in an incomplete story.

  • Avoid military jargon: Your audience is a college admissions committee that has little experience in working with veterans. Try to find words that can be used in place of jargon. Instead of “MOS” use the word “job”; replace “NCOIC” with “supervisor” or “team leader”. Write in a way that any civilian would understand. In rare cases, military jargon can be appropriate in sentences where context fills in the blank (“I do remember hearing the Rata-Tat-Tat-Tat from Private First Class Armenta’s Squad Automatic Weapon as he laid down suppressive fire to cover me”).

Editing

Editing is simply part of the broader writing process, so it’s important to give it adequate time and mental preparation. You will not be done with the heavy lifting after you have a full first draft. Your first draft won’t be your best work; in fact, your last draft may look completely different from what you first started with. Effective editing in early drafts may require restructuring and/or rewriting entire sections of your essay. Later drafts will progress to smoothing the rough edges of your previous drafts, which may include cutting significant numbers of words (and details in your stories), clarifying your wording, and making sentences more concise.

Beyond being mentally prepared, there are some important fundamentals that should guide your process of editing and revision:

  • Edit with fresh eyes: You will have to make a lot of your own revisions. To do this effectively, you will need to be able to read your own writing with some measure of objectivity. Always, put your most recent draft away long enough so that what you wrote isn’t fresh on your mind before you start editing.

  • Ask others for input: We suggest having someone else look at your work after your second or third draft. Having an outside set of eyes can be a reliable indicator on what you’ve done well, and what needs to change. In particular, it is helpful to have:

    • A civilian: They will easily spot military jargon that admissions officials won’t understand. Ask them if there is anything they are confused about, and try to see what they can glean from your essay. It will give you a fresh perspective.

    • A veteran: Other veterans, brothers and sisters who’ve served, know what you are trying to say as it pertains to your military background. They’ve lived similarly to you, and will be helpful in framing how to tell your story.

  • Prioritize what is most important to say: There will be a lot of emotion wrapped up in the story you want to tell. It is critical to be honest about what details are important for telling the story effectively. You will never be able to fit every detail and nuance of a particular experience, so knowing what really lands your point will help you balance brevity and richness in your story.

  • Take your editors seriously, but it is your essay: You shouldn’t change your work based on every little comment someone makes. Fact: your editors are humans too. On the other hand, healthy criticism can go a long way in helping you craft your story. At the end of the day, you are the final arbiter as to whether or not to incorporate a certain piece of feedback. At S2S we often tell our applicants that although we are providing feedback, we want them to know that they should be the ones deciding whether to disregard or implement it.

Personal Essay Examples

Below are essay prompt responses that were written by veterans. Included is one essay that was written for admission into a class. As you read the personal essays, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Did the essay answer the prompt?

  • Could a civilian understand what was written?

  • Did you enjoy reading the essay?

  • What would you have changed?

  • Was the essay well written?

  • Was there more showing or telling?

  • What did you learn about the writer? Did the writer show authenticity and voice?

Prompt: Please describe why you would like to take the class [Reading for Writers].

I can get lost reading fiction. Book opened wide and a flashlight tucked in between my right cheek and shoulder, I used to read past midnight and into the early morning to finish a story. This was in high school. I would lose sleep again to old habits during Army Basic Training, when wakeup was at “zero-five-hundred” (5:00 AM) and the little sleep I got was precious. In Iraq, under the dusty shade of netting, I would go through books like water. Few things are as satisfying as finishing a story. And it’s that same love I want to share with the world through my own writing. Stories about The Wars, about gender inequality, the in-group/out-group psychology that leads to hazing, and survival; all themes I want to blend in fictional stories that reveal deep truths of human behavior. But to get there I need to learn how to become a critical reader first. Otherwise I’ll just get lost while reading fiction, and lose a chance to share my stories.

Prompt: What matters to you and why? (Stanford)

They watched with a gaze often seen at a funeral service, but as I buried myself deeper into embarrassment I just wished someone would laugh. Sweaty palmed, body slightly shaking, and with the lingering taste of old toothpaste on my tongue, I dared glance every now and then from my paper to my audience. What I saw wasn't reassuring. What I heard was worse: A few short laughs, but mostly silence. For a wannabe stand-up comedian the silence emanated failure.

After I ended my routine and took what felt like an undeserved bow, the sound of my classmates' polite applause filled the air. Polite meaning, "Oh, I'm sorry you weren't funny but at least you tried." I wished I hadn't. Worst of all, I couldn't blame my lines for the lackluster performance… I had written them myself. The only conclusion was that I just wasn't funny. And without realizing it, my classmates witnessed the passing of an aspiration. When my first high school semester ended I had a chance to take Comedy Workshop again. I chose Piano class instead.

Seven years later, my fingers anxiously skim across the plastic black and whites, running over the dusty controls to settle briefly on a small red button. (*click*.) A small screen in the middle of the keyboard lights up. I haven't played often since joining the Army, but my fingers remember, working organically, filling the room with a language that is understood by all. I don't feel like I'm in Afghanistan anymore. A male voice says, "I wish I knew how to play." My fingers stop moving as I turn to see my audience: a young, junior-enlisted, infantry soldier in a worn down uniform. Thinking back to why I first started playing the piano, I mutter, "Some doors close, so others can open. He flatly replies back, "Who gives a shit, I still wish I could play." We share a laugh, and I turn back while my fingers pick up from where they had last rested. I lose myself again, far away from the War and its terrorists, and the everyday worries that keep many young soldiers awake at night.

Prompt: How did you spend your last 2 summers? (Stanford short answer)

Well, I spent the summer of ’11 in Afghanistan, which is like a beach minus the water. When I arrived home in June of ’12 I completed “The Tough Mudder”, a 10-mile obstacle course made by the British Special Forces that gave me sunburns, sore muscles and bragging rights.

Prompt: Why do you want to transfer to George Washington University?

I have had the rare opportunity to be one of few women to serve with an infantry unit on a combat deployment. What I learned throughout that deployment has made me absolutely certain of two things. The first is that the opportunities presented to us should never be taken for granted. Witnessing what people are willing to sacrifice in order to protect their freedom and way of life has convinced me that it is every person's duty to be involved in the decisions made in their country because if you do not defend what you believe in then no one else is obligated to. The second great lesson I learned is that I have a passion for economics. I began learning about economics in my free time to help locals realize their dreams. I had the opportunity to help people who could not help themselves to start small businesses and help villages start informal schools for local children. All of these events led up to my decision to begin researching and applying to colleges to continue my education. Being active duty military, I never had the chance to visit George Washington University so everything I learned was from friends, phone calls and the Internet. My interest began with a conversation I had with a dear friend who transferred to George Washington University last year and I quickly found that what I want the most in a school lines up with what is offered at George Washington. I want to attend a school that encourages involvement in politics. One political event that I would have loved to attend was the George Washington Rumble 2012 debate. The atmosphere is appealing to me because I want to be surrounded by people who think it is important to have a voice in the future of this nation. Coming from the military it is important to me to attend a school that offers support to veterans and holds a positive view of the military. I want to continuously serve even outside of the military. Through programs such as Teach for America, George Washington encourages its students to make a positive difference through community service. I have grown to believe that education is essential to the success of a nation, especially after seeing the effect it can have on the small villages in Afghanistan. Beyond just encouraging students to make a difference, George Washington University offers support to those who want to make a difference through Public Service grants for student led projects. These are just a few of the events and programs that piqued my interest though I’ve researched so many more that show George Washington’s willingness to cater to the needs of its students and for these reasons I am convinced George Washington University is the right school for me. I have a lot to offer from my personal experience and I look forward to being a part of a proactive, diverse and engaged community.

Prompt: What are your reasons for Transferring? (CommonApp main essay)

It’s hard to fit a lifetime into a small paper, say my inner thoughts. I still make another attempt:

She walked into my office on that chilly January morning in Afghanistan, wearing a look of defeat and fresh blood on her uniform…

My fingers pause while I ponder, briefly, before going on:

Her voice wavered slightly as she quickly said, “He was a triple amputee… we tried to save him, but he had too many holes in him.”

Suddenly, our obviously distraught Psychiatrist and on-call Surgeon left the room, presumably through the double-doors of the NATO Role III Hospital. I wanted to share that memory because, strange as it may sound, it reminds me of why I want to become a medical doctor.

I realize that a medical provider has to be tough. While I was working at the NATO Role III Hospital, in spring of 2012, there was a constant stream of wounded service members who wouldn’t make it through the night. Yet, I find it admirable that every day, despite the losses, my department Psychiatrist would put in extra hours off-duty to give incoming casualties a fighting chance for survival. I can see myself doing that too, whether it’s on the battlefield or in a civilian hospital. The contentment I get from serving others, and the time spent working with exceptional medical providers have only furthered my childhood desire to join their ranks…

I smile after typing that last sentence, for I didn’t think medical school was possible until I started at Moorpark’s Community College. During that first semester I earned all A’s, which was an about-face from my pre-college record of mediocrity and failing to pass the standard. Still reminiscing, I find inspiration to continue onward:

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed studying at Moorpark’s Community College. Under the mentorship of professors and through collaboration with peers I’ve grown into a more-balanced student these past years. At Moorpark College I was even able to utilize my Military-learned initiative to create research opportunities: the basis for one of my two abstracts accepted into the UC Irvine HTTC Honors research conference, titled “How the Body Can Destroy the Brain”, was statistical data I collected on the health and GPA of randomly-selected classes (stratified sampling). Those experiences and many more have given me high expectations for transfer.

Ideally, my University for transfer would have the following: (1) well-funded, medical research opportunities; (2) rigorous premedical courses and guidance to better prepare me for the MCAT; and (3) a diverse, proactive student population, because I enjoy interacting with other individuals who want to make a positive impact on their environment.

“I know how to end this!” I say aloud, much to my own amusement. Following that excited outburst I end with a proclamation:

At the end of the day I really can’t promise to become one of your famous alumni. But I can say this: the lives I could save as a doctor will be a lasting tribute to your University’s legacy.

Webinar Recordings

The College Essay- Are you having trouble writing the essay for your college applications? Then you don’t want to miss this webinar with our guest speaker Lisa Rielage. Lisa is a Navy Veteran, College Admissions Consultant, S2S Ambassador and is ready to tackle the college essay with you.

To watch this recording, click here