Colleges themselves are great places to start gathering information and ideas for your essays. However, many applicants never think to look there. Here are some suggestions to help you take advantage of all that a college has to offer you as an applicant.
You will learn what local and regional issues are important to the administration, faculty, and students. Certain newsworthy school events or happenings might strike you as particularly interesting, unique, shocking, or praiseworthy. Consider writing about such an issue or event in your essay for that school.
Ask yourself: What values seem to be important to the administration and to the trustees? What image is the school attempting to convey? What are the school's policies and attitudes? What alumni accomplishments is the school touting? These values, policies, and accomplishments might be worth addressing in your essay.
Observe the architecture, the sculptures, and other artwork around the campus. Read the plaques and engravings on, in, and around the buildings. Walk around the neighborhood surrounding the campus looking for essay nuggets in your path. If you cannot visit the school in person, take an online tour of the school or obtain an informational video from the school, if one is available. Keep in mind, however, that schools' websites and videos are marketing tools as well as informational resources, so they may not present a completely objective picture of the school.
Here are a few investigative questions to get you started:
Go to the central meeting place on campus, find some students who are hanging out, and strike up a conversation. Ask them about life in the dormitory, fraternity, or sorority. Ask them what attracted them to the school initially and whether their initial perceptions about the school have changed. You are sure to walk away with essay ideas and the inside scoop on student life.
A surprisingly large number of applicants ignore the directions and guidelines for essay writing that are spelled out in the school's application. Be sure you are not one of these students. Many schools include not only directions but also advice for writing the essay.
After you have read the application materials thoroughly, if any of the guidelines are still unclear, contact the school and ask for clarification. Do not be afraid to communicate with the school's admissions staff yourself.
The Internet is the quickest and least expensive means of gathering information about colleges. Virtually all colleges and universities now make available online their school catalogues as well as admission policies, procedures, applications, and other information.
EssayEdge Extra: Words of Wisdom from Admissions Officers
"In selecting a college, do not allow the rankings that appear in publications such as U.S. News and World Report to limit your range of schools to consider. These rankings may not address your own personal criteria for selecting a college. Look beyond the select few choices at the top of the rankings and the well-known colleges to find those schools that fit your personal needs. Up to this point in your life, your thoughts and actions have been determined largely by the influence of others: your parents, siblings, teachers, and your peer group. Now this is your turn—your time—to decide for yourself what you want. Look inward to assess your own dreams and hopes for college."—Admissions Officer, University of Southern California
"Many students make misguided choices in selecting a college. First, students tend to equate prestige with excellence. There is a difference; it is important to look beyond designer labels in choosing a university. Second, college applicants tend to equate small colleges with limited opportunity and large colleges with unlimited opportunities. The fact is that often more opportunities are generally available to undergraduate students at small- and medium-sized institutions like Stanford than at extremely large institutions. Third, all too often students rely on the advice or experience of one friend, one acquaintance, or one tour guide, in selecting a college. Rely on as many sources as possible. Remember that you are an individual whose needs may be met extremely well at an institution that was not a good match for a friend.
Fourth, just as high school seniors hope that admission officials will look beyond simple statistics in evaluating them as applicants, colleges and universities want applicants to do the same in selecting a college. Statistics can be deceiving. For example, what does student/faculty ratio really tell you? Are all classes characterized by a low ratio or just certain upper-divisional classes? Finally, do not base your assessment of an institution solely on one department; the vast majority of college students change majors at least twice during their undergraduate career."—Admissions Officer, Stanford University