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November 17, 2009

Essay advice for Bucknell applicants

A college doesn't necessarily need to require a novel's worth of essays to evaluate and better understand their applicants.  Take Bucknell University, for example. 

Bucknell applicants will likely be pleasantly surprised to find that Bucknell’s Common Application supplement contains just one additional required essay and a second that's optional.  But if you make the most of those two requirements, you can really help a Bucknell admissions officer learn more about you in ways that your application alone would not reveal. 

Here are a few tips on how to approach the Bucknell essays. 

Before you do anything, read the directions.

You can learn a lot about what a college is looking for by just reading the directions. Here are the directions for Bucknell's supplemental essays:

The following questions are your opportunity to demonstrate, within the context of the Common Application, what makes you uncommon and uniquely you. In your responses, be bold and have some fun – really! Tell us about your talents and interests so that we can know the “you” behind the transcripts.

A lot of students will totally ignore those directions and write about things that are common, that are not unique to them, and they will do so in a way that is anything but bold or fun.  They’ll hide behind safe stories about being diligent and determined, or how they learned valuable life lessons through student government, or how community service taught them that it’s important to help people.  Responses like that make you sound like every other applicant.  That's not good. 

Here are some prompt-specific tips.

What are the three most important things Bucknell’s faculty and students should know about you? (up to 200 words each)

First, assume that the aforementioned faculty and students have read your application.  They haven't necessarily, but the admissions officer who's reading your essay has.  So don't make one of your items, "I have volunteered for over 100 hours with National Charity League."  The person reading your essay knows that already because you listed it on the application.  

If you believe that the role community service has played in your life is one of the most important things the faculty and students should know, say so!  But don't write it like a resume.  Put some emotion behind your answer that wasn't apparent when you listed it on your application.  That sounds like this:

"I never feel better about myself than I do when I spend time at the local convalescent hospital.  I didn't know this about myself until recently, but I enjoy being needed.  I like how I feel when patients whose families don't even visit them light up when they see me.  I keep going back every Saturday because of how it makes me feel.  That's why I know I won't stop finding places where people need me once I get to college."

That's a kid I believe.

Second, don't pass up the opportunity to share something about yourself that they never would have known from the application, even if it's not serious. 

One of our former female Collegewise students wrote a number of responses to application questions like this one about how she could out-eat most of the boys on the football team (she was a swimmer and apparently had a metabolism resembling that of a cheetah).  They would challenge her to eating contests, like, to see who could eat the most slices of pizza.  And she would beat them.  Every time.

A number of her acceptance letters had personal notes from admissions officers that referenced this. Those stories were something that all her friends, but none of the colleges, knew about her.  So she shared them, and they made her more memorable and likeable. 

I'm not suggesting that you should be flippant and share trivial things about yourself.  But remember, the question invited you to be playful.  So don't be afraid to give a playful answer, especially if it's something about which the people who know you well would say, "Oh yes--that's totally you." 

Finally, don't be afraid to address the audience directly. 

When you have an emotional point you want to drive home, one effective way to do that is to speak directly to the readers.  Tell them that you want them to know it.  That sounds like this: 

"I wrote my essay on this application about my experience with an eating disorder I had in my sophomore year of high school.  I was scared to share that because I'm afraid the admissions committee will think I'm damaged goods.  But I wrote that essay anyway because I'm proud of the work I've done to recover and get healthy.  And I'd like the students and faculty at Bucknell to know that you don't have to be afraid to admit me.   I am happy, healthy, and excited for college.     

The reference to “you” in the second to last sentence personalizes this response and actually makes it a more powerful.  

What about the "optional essay"?

A lot of people say that "optional essays" on college applications shouldn't be considered optional, that you should always do them because you'll look lazy if you don't.  I don't agree with that.  I think you should do them if you have something you want to say. 

A lot of students find they’re able to share everything they want to share on a college application.  They’ve got nothing left they feel strongly about discussing, and to try and come up with something (or to submit an essay you wrote for another school) just weakens the application.

You should always thoughtfully consider optional essays.  Think about your life and your stories and what you could share that you'd be excited about.  But if the choice you’re left with is to submit a mediocre optional essay or to submit no essay at all, submit no essay at all.  

Here's the optional essay prompt:

At Bucknell, students are free to take creative and thoughtful risks. In fact, we encourage them to do so, and we support them along the way. As students realize their own potential through risk, so, too, do they better understand how valuable risk can be in understanding – and making a difference in – this interconnected world. We’re interested in the kind of positive risk-taking energy you would bring to our University. Please describe a time when you found the courage to step outside of your comfort zone to do something unexpected and completely unlike you. Why did you take this risk? What have you learned from the experience? (up to 500 words)

First, consider why a college would ask this question.  The most engaged, successful students in college take risks.  The math major who enrolls in a philosophy class because it looks interesting, the student who's never traveled but studies abroad, the shy student who puts her hand up in class and then visits the professor during office hours, the high school soccer player who decided to try club rugby, these students are not only going to get more out of their college experience, but they're also going to make a bigger impact while they're in college. 

Think about where you've taken a risk like that in high school that was absolutely not typical for you.  Remember, it doesn't necessarily have to end in success to be valuable.  That math major described above might have failed the philosophy course, but a college would still like a math kid who had the guts to mix it up with Plato. 

As is the case with pretty much every essay in the college admissions universe, honest, thoughtful responses are far more effective and interesting than are responses that are contrived to impress.  Don't tell them that you were nervous before your state debate competition but were very pleased and surprised to win.  C'mon. That sounds like a kid who’s just trying to wedge in the fact that he was a state debate champion.  If you were good enough to make it to state, how were you "stepping outside your comfort zone to do something unexpected and completely unlike you"? 

And if you really don't have an experience like that to share, then opt-out of the optional essay.  Just make sure your other supplemental essays show that you were willing to put effort into the application. 

Note:  Before you follow our tips, we recommend you read our "How to" guide here: Download HowToUse30Guides

And if you have other questions about essays, applications, interviews or financial aid, visit our online store.  We’ve got books, videos and downloadable guides to help you.  Or you could speak with one of our online college counselors.

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