Writing a narrative, anecdotal account of an important experience can be an effective method for showing the admissions committee who you are as a person and what kind of Hokie you would be on campus. It’s an open-ended prompt — the story can be about something good or bad, seemingly insignificant or monumental, a failure or a triumph, as long as you can convey why and how the experience made you who you are today.
The most common mistake applicants will make on this essay is falling into the trap of “telling” rather than “showing.” Don’t just say what happened, set the scene and appeal to the senses of the reader. You want to give the reader a deeper understanding of the situation by making them feel a personal connection to the scene — this will help them understand better its impact on you.
For an essay about navigating your parents’ divorce, you’d want to avoid general “telling” statements like, “I had to calm down my little sister, who was upset about having to split time between our parents’ new houses.” Instead, you could “show,” saying, “As the blue-grey facade of my mom’s house faded out the car window, I distracted my sister with a game of tic-tac-toe. By the time we approached dad’s apartment, her tears had dried and she happily pressed her face against the glass to get a glimpse of dad.”
Remember that the focus of the essay is on how the experience changed your character. It may be helpful to use parallel examples from before and after the experience. For example, you could recount the ease with which you wrote, ate, and ran before an accident, and then detail the struggle of relearning these previously taken-for-granted abilities afterward.
If you choose to write about an experience that demonstrated your character rather than shaping it, choose one of your defining character traits and think of a situation or experience that was emblematic of that value.
For example, if you’re hardworking, you may want to write about a project that you gave your all and poured your heart into. No matter what topic you choose, “showing” by appealing to the senses rather than “telling” objectively will help you to write an effective narrative supplement.
Virginia Tech is a large public school (21,000 undergrads) that receives over 17,000 applications for admission. And the admissions portion of the web site makes it clear what they focus on most.
"Admissions directors use a holistic approach throughout the application review process. Many factors are considered, the most important being strength of schedule, high school GPA, and standardized test scores."
That means classes, grades and test scores will dominate the admissions process. But it doesn't mean that VT is using formulas. They're still going to read your application, so you should make the most of what opportunities they give you to help them see the person behind the numbers.
Here are a few tips to balance their need for numbers with your need to express yourself.
Don't slack off
A lot of people talk about how colleges focus on the grades you got in your sophomore and junior years. But at Virginia Tech, the grades you receive in the first semester of your senior year will absolutely be considered, too. So if you're a senior reading this, view this semester as one last opportunity to show admissions officers what you are capable of.
Consider how your test scores stack up.
Virginia Tech requires SAT or ACT scores. But while they want to see the scores from all of your administrations, they will "use the highest scores and even combine your highest test scores from multiple test dates when evaluating your application."
Top of ForBottom of Form
December test scores will still be viable for admission at VT, so it may be in your best interest to a) re-take one of the exams, or b) try the other test type (if you've taken the SAT, try the ACT, or vice versa). Remember, numbers drive the process here, and picking up a few extra points, even in just one of the sub-scores could really make a different.
What about the optional personal statements?
When a college makes essays optional (and has no required essay at all), it's a subtle way of saying that an essay won't usually carry the same importance in admissions as grades and test scores will.
So you have two options–you could blow them off, or you could be one of the students who not only does the optional statements, but also one of the rare students who submits great responses, someone who really sits down and works hard on these essays just for Virginia Tech. If you do that, you’ll know you’ve done everything you possibly could to put out a compelling application. Bottom line–if you really want to be a Hokie, do the personal statements.
Here are the directions:
On an attached sheet, you may respond to up to three of the personal statements below (choose one, two, three, or none) as you feel they support your individual application. Please limit your statement(s) to no more than 250 words in length (each).
So, how many essays should you do?
Think of it this way–if you were going to be set up on a blind date and the person asked you to send one, two or three pictures of yourself, how many would you send? That's a simple answer. It depends. You'd find the very best pictures of yourself, the ones where the lighting and the angles and the magic of photography somehow captured you looking much better than you do in every other photo (we’ve all got those). If you had just one photo like that, you’d send just one photo. If you had two of those photos, you’d send two. If you had…ok…the point’s been made.
So read the prompts. For which one(s) do you believe you've really got something to say, something that you're actually semi-excited about sharing and to which you feel you could give a great response? Those are the prompts you should focus on.
Here are some tips for the specific prompts.
• What are the top five reasons you want to attend Virginia Tech?
Droning on about the academic reputation and pretty campus and the football team won't do a thing to separate you from the other applicants who came up with exactly the same answer. The key to answering questions like this is to avoid reciting facts and statistics about the school, to think honestly about why you'd be excited to attend VT if you were accepted, and to provide some evidence of thoughtful consideration about what you'd like your college career to be like. The answer should be as much (or more) about you as it is about Virginia Tech.
• If there is something you think would be beneficial for the Admissions Committee to know as we review your academic history, please take this opportunity to explain.
Some students have faced particularly difficult circumstances in high school that affected their academics. If that's the case for you, here is your opportunity to describe it. But this is not a place to make excuses for things that were your fault. Colleges read a lot of "My grades went down because I was so overwhelmed with all my activities" essays. That may be true, but it's still your fault. And it's not the job of the admissions committee to excuse it.
I don't want to take on the role of deciding whose circumstances were legitimate and whose weren't. But as you consider this question, think about how much this circumstance really impacted you. If it did, you should talk about here. "I took a part time job working 35 hours a week during my junior year because my father lost his job," or "I have a 65% hearing loss that requires me to sit in the front row of every class so I can read the teacher's lips," or, "When I was sixteen, I lived in a shelter with my mother for six weeks when she decided to leave my abusive father"–those are the kinds of things that absolutely affect a student and should be shared in question like this.
• What do you consider the greatest benefit(s) of a diverse educational community?
Keep the focus on you here.
Are you excited to meet and learn from people who are different from you? What life experiences have you had that make you want VT's diverse environment for your college experience?
Students who have the strongest responses here will likely have a personal and/or emotional reason for seeking out a diverse college environment like that at Virginia Tech.
"Diversity is important because we can learn from people who are different from us," is not a personal or emotional reason. But…
"Every single person in my neighborhood is white. So is every student in my senior class. There's nothing wrong with us. We're good people and we come from good families who work hard and care about each other. But I know this about myself–the world I have been living in for the last eighteen years is not the world I want to live in as an adult. And it's not a world I want live in where I go to college."
That's a personal, emotional reason.
• Describe five unique or interesting things about yourself.
First of all, it wouldn't be a bad idea to look up the word "unique" before you write this. Seriously. A lot of people misuse the word unique and it's a grammatical error that I think should be punishable in the court of law. But that's just me.
Unique means "one of a kind.” And "interesting" means, well, interesting. "I have done over 20 hours of community service" isn't either of those things. Neither is "I am a huge Hokie football fan" or "I was a National Merit semi-finalist."
What kinds of things are interesting and/or unique?
"I once entered a local rodeo competition and road a 1200 pound bull for 7 seconds. Then he threw me off and I broke my pelvis."
"I set a goal for myself three years ago to learn every single one of The Beatles' songs on the guitar. I've got about 20 left to go."
"I've read all of Shakespeare's plays. And I'm not just talking about the famous ones. Shakespeare wrote 37 plays, and I've read them all."
"I will not only be the first person to attend college in my family, but I will also be the first to graduate from high school."
"I am the only person knows how to make my grandmother's meatballs. She taught me before she died and told me to share the recipe only with my own daughter one day."
"I am a black belt in karate and can break bricks with my forearm."
"I teach Greek dancing to little kids, and I compete in dancing competitions at local Greek festivals."
"I can throw a softball 70 miles an hour."
"I worked part-time as a magician for the last two summers."
"I was in a car accident when I was 15 and severed tendons in my fingers. My doctors told me I wouldn't be able to play the piano anymore, so that's how I discovered singing."
What's the common theme here? Every one of these things is interesting, and a few of them are technically unique. Those are the kinds of examples that will get a reader's attention.
• Free response —writing sample.
This response should probably be reserved for true writers. What's a true writer? Writing is difficult skill not unlike music, dancing or art. And true writers spend as much time practicing their skill as musicians, dancers and artists spend practicing theirs.
I would not suggest, however, writing complicated poetry, prose or haiku. Remember, the person reading this might have been a math, physics, music or forestry major. Don't write something that won't be accessible to most readers.
• Which of your current or previous teachers do you admire most, and why?
When you've been fortunate enough to cross paths with a person that you truly come to admire, you change a little bit (and sometimes a lot). That's why the best responses to this prompt will show how you are different today as a result of this teacher's influence. Describe the teacher and why you admire him or her, but don't forget to explain how your actions, perceptions or goals changed as a result of the example this person set for you.
• Describe how a world event has helped to shape the person you are today.
Again, you want to focus on something that fundamentally changed the way you think, behave or act. Or you could write about something that had it not happened, your life would be very different today. If your parents fled a war-torn country before you were born, or you first began volunteering for a political party during the last election, or you decided to stop going to church because the members supported legislation you disagreed with, those are events that really did shape who you are.
Virginia Tech's admissions process may not be as personal as that at other colleges, but they're still asking the questions (a lot of public universities their size don't). And questions like these are one of the few parts of the application process that you still control at this late date. Why not surprise them by treating your responses as though they were the most important part of 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.
Filed Under: Advice for specific colleges