Essay Diversity

By Ryan Hickey + updated on April 27th, 2010

While the general terms “admissions essay” and “application essay” refer to a piece of writing accompanying a college or university application, such essays can take a broad variety of forms. Today, let’s examine four subcategories of admissions essays and discuss what makes each unique.

The Long Response Essay

  • In general, we use this to refer to an essay that is at least 1 single-spaced page, or 500-words in length. Most colleges require one or more essays of this length, oftentimes supplemented by several short response essays. If you’re writing a Statement of Purpose or Personal Statement for a higher-level program, it would also fall into this category. When writing a long response essay, make sure that you don’t get caught up in tangents or stuck on ultra-small details. While you have a fair bit of space to work with, you’ll be surprised by how quickly it fills up.

The Common App Essay

  • For college applicants, the most common long response essay is most likely the one found on the Common App. You can check out the in-depth analysis we did of the various 2009 Common App prompts in the blog archives. The most important thing to consider about these essays is that there is no maximum length; rather, there is a minimum length specified in the prompt. When writing an essay on a prompt like this, don’t make the all-too-common mistake of interpreting the lack of a word limit as license to write several pages. You still need to create an essay that is clear, concise, and compelling.

The Short Response Essay

  • Short response questions are usually more targeted, meaning that they’ll ask you about something more specific than the prompt for a long response essay. In addition, they usually only give you a single paragraph (or even just a couple sentences) in which to respond. Common short response essays might ask you why you’re applying to a particular school, what you consider your best traits, about a specific experience in your past, or any number of other detailed questions. When responding to a short response essay, it is vital that you clearly answer the question posed within the allotted space.

Creative Essays

  • Essays of this type require you to think outside the box (to borrow a terrible cliché that you should never, ever use in an essay). Creative prompts do not ask you to reflect on a leadership experience or describe a challenge you’ve overcome; rather, they ask you to write a page of you autobiography, explain what your favorite word is, or write on some other unique/offbeat topic. When tackling an essay like this, remember that the prompt itself is less important than how you interpret it. There is no wrong way to respond to such questions, and since the admissions committee wants to get to know you, you should focus on making your response as personal as possible.

Those four general categories describe the bulk of the essay prompts you’re likely to encounter during your application process. Some essays may fall into multiple categories – a long response creative prompt, for example – while others may be something completely different. Regardless, all you need to remember is that not all application essays are created equal.

And to make things even more complicated, several prominent schools are now accepting “essays” in the form of YouTube videos. Next week, we’ll begin a series of blog posts exploring this new trend and providing constructive advice that will help those of you applying to schools with such essay options.

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Ryan Hickey

Ryan Hickey is Managing Editor of Peterson's & EssayEdge and an expert in many aspects of college, graduate, and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL, editing essays and personal statements, and consulting directly with applicants. He enjoys sharing his knowledge to aid others in achieving their educational goals and, when he gets a break, loves hiking and fly fishing with his wife and two border-collie mixes.

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