In competitive cycling, they have what’s known as the “bike throw.” It is that final, forceful thrust across the finish line, when a cyclist fully extends their arms and legs and pushes their bike in front of them in a last-gasp effort to get ahead of the pack. Pulling off a proper bike throw is an art, something that takes training and practice.
In the context of your academic career thus far, a university application essay is your bike throw. The maneuver alone can’t ensure a successful race – success requires stamina and determination throughout the race’s stages – but it is nevertheless an important component of finishing strong.
With college applications opening in October, and students preparing for the OUAC deadline in a few months, we figured now would be the perfect time to take a deeper dive into the process. Namely, we want to discuss a few tips for writing a university application essay or college application essay.
What Are OUAC and OCAS Applications?
Before we zero in on the essay portion, let’s take a broad look at university and college applications.
Depending on whether you plan to attend a university or college, you will apply through the Ontario University Application Centre (OUAC) or the Ontario College Application Service (OCAS), respectively. Effectively, these services streamline the application process, allowing you to apply to several colleges/universities on a single application.
OUAC is a not-for-profit service that processes applications for several accredited programs in Ontario, including undergraduate programs. For current Ontario high school students, the deadline for application is January 13th, 2022, for the following fall. We encourage students to apply to multiple universities and programs through OUAC.
OCAS operates similarly, but with different deadlines and services available. Applications open in October, with the “equal consideration” period lasting until February. For an in-depth exploration of OUAC & OCAS applications, please read our blog article on the topic.
Next, the universities or colleges of your choice receive your applications and reach out to you with any additional documents they require. All universities require transcripts.
Many require you to submit a personal essay.
What Is an Admissions Essay?
Your grades and achievements paint a picture for admissions officers, but it’s an incomplete picture. It tells them what you have done, but not what you are capable of doing. After all, transcripts are just numbers – and numbers can be inherently impersonal.
What most schools, programs and admissions officers look for in an application essay is a personality that fits. Are you a dedicated student, a curious learner, a community-oriented contributor? Will you bring a unique perspective and life experience to the program? How would the program be different with you in it? These are just a few of the questions that admissions officers want you to address with your essay.
Likewise, you might also encounter essays as you apply for post secondary scholarships and bursaries in Ontario. These essays are often similar to university application and college application essays in that they ask you to put your achievements into context, describing your ambitions, personality and unique experiences.
How to Write a Compelling University or College Application Essay
A fantastic application essay is equal parts technical fluency and compelling content. You want to wow them with your writing abilities while demonstrating why you would be a good fit for the program.
In this section, let’s explore how to write a university application essay or college application essay that satisfies the above criteria.
Thoroughly Read the Instructions
Unfortunately, you cannot just write a boilerplate “one-essay-fits-all” sample for several different applications. While application essay prompts may look similar (often asking you to “describe yourself” or “share your story”), they generally contain specific instructions to guide and personalize your essay.
For instance, one essay prompt may ask you to outline your personal growth. Another might request that you revisit an experience when you overcame and learned from an obstacle. You might see an essay prompt asking you to detail what captivates you or another asking you to describe a person you admire.
It’s essential to read and respond to the instructions. If you enter the writing process with a pre-formulated “checklist” of things you want to talk about, rather than directly responding to the prompt, an admissions reader might infer that you have trouble following instructions. Although you may insist that you’re an attentive student in your essay, your inability to follow the prompt says otherwise!
Start with a Hook
First impressions matter. According to neuroscientists, we form impressions about people in mere milliseconds through a series of mechanisms in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and amygdala. We look at people, and our brains make all sorts of inferences, evaluations and judgments largely beyond our control.
Luckily, when you write an essay, you can guide those first impressions — a luxury we don’t enjoy when meeting people in person. You can hook them in, highlight your strengths and pique their interests. Conversely, you can deter them with a weak introduction before they get a proper chance to know you.
As you start your university application essay or college application essay, pay special attention to the opening paragraph. Start strong with a gripping comparison, relevant personal experience or interesting factoid (as we have in the introductory paragraph to this section).
Write from the Heart
Some essayists tend to fall back on cliché and formula in an attempt to sound formal and pleasing. But admissions officers aren’t necessarily looking for formality, nor do they look for servility. Instead, they are looking for a window into your thoughts, an authentic portrayal of what excites, interests, displeases or disheartens you.
Let’s say you apply to an English department and have to write an application essay about what literature means in your life. Rather than recapitulate Steinbeck’s novels or restate arguments about why Shakespeare is the foremost figure in the literary canon, write from the heart. Maybe you grew up reading comic books, and can draw parallels of ostracization and otherness between the X-Men and Of Mice and Men. Perhaps the theme of “private self vs. public self” in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar has special resonance in your life and upbringing, because you had to hide something about yourself.
Make your application essay personal. You might even find that it’s easier to write that way!
Follow a Clear Structure
There’s a reason why architects start designing a building by outlining its structure. If you begin piling bricks on a poorly defined structure, the whole thing topples.
The same is true of essays. You want admissions officers/readers to follow your points, to see the shape your thoughts take. Consider the essay advice your teachers have given you throughout your Ontario online high school courses. Namely, start with a thesis statement and give each paragraph a clear purpose outlined by a topic sentence. Masterclass has a helpful breakdown of different types of essays (expository, analytical, compare and contrast, etc.) along with commonly accompanying structures.
Alternately, you can find structure in other ways. A chronological structure, in which the passage of time forms a through-line, is a perfectly acceptable way to write a narrative essay. Let’s say you write an application essay for a history department asking you how studying history has impacted you. You might start by writing about how, as a child, you found stories of early Canada charming and nice. Then, as you grew older and learned about settler colonialism, your understanding of those foundational stories complexified.
Play to Your Strengths
Are you a descriptive writer who knows their way around a florid sentence? Are you someone who can make people laugh with incisive observations (that aren’t off-colour or gimmicky)? Are you adept at examining social issues through a critical lens?
If so, play to your strengths! Be descriptive, humorous or critical. Let your strong suits guide the content and/or writing style of your application essay. One thing we pride ourselves on here at Ontario eSecondary School is that our courses allow students to follow their passions and find new strengths. Use your talent and education to your advantage!
Avoid Restating or Contradicting Information in the Application
If your volunteer work is relevant to the topic of your essay, by all means, bring it up. But do not unnecessarily repeat information found elsewhere on your application. At best, it comes off as inessential filler. At worst, it can be seen as self-indulgent.
Similarly, avoid contradicting information in your application. If you claim to prefer math over physics, but your transcripts show a higher mark in physics, the essay reader might raise an eyebrow.
Revise, Revise and Revise Again
Revision is the backbone of good writing, whether you’re penning a novel, turning in a sociology paper or crafting an application essay.
Rarely do we get it right the first time. Our first attempt to pen our thoughts often contains the germs of great ideas, but it scarcely follows a confident structure. Further, our first attempts may contain spelling errors, grammatical errors and confusing phrasing that we may not catch until we read through our work a few times.
Everyone wants to hit the nail on the head their first time around. But the truth is that 99% of essays are improved with repeated revisions. As you revisit your university application essay or college application essay, look for areas of improvement. Have you made your points clearly and concisely? Might there be a better avenue you can take toward making a certain point? And, critically, are there spelling and grammar mistakes clouding your writing?
Share Your Essay with Someone
Revisions might only get you so far. Sometimes, we a fresh pair of eyes to put our writing’s strengths and weaknesses into context. Ideally, send your essay to someone whose opinion you trust, whether that’s a teacher, a counsellor or a peer whose writing you admire.
Listen to their feedback and work to incorporate their suggestions. But beware of someone trying to change your essay too much. Remember: these essays are supposed to come from the heart, reflecting who you are.
Let It Go
When you’ve given your application essay all that you can, when you have revised, re-revised, and absorbed feedback from others – let it go.
Do not stress over it once it has left your hands. If you have given it your best shot and written to your best ability, you should consider it a resounding success. Admissions officers will take a holistic approach to your application, taking into account grades, achievements, letters of recommendation, interview answers and extracurriculars, in addition to the essay. If, based on all the information you provide, they believe you’re a good fit, they will choose you.
Other Considerations for University and College Applications
As a final note, let’s talk about other things you can do to make your university or college application stand out. Since grades are a key consideration in the admissions process, consider taking upgrade courses through Ontario eSecondary School. Our upgrade courses allow students the opportunity to re-take courses if they are dissatisfied with their original marks. When you take an upgrade course, the higher of the two marks appears on your transcript. You do not have to be a prior student of OES to take our upgrade courses; we welcome learners from all Ontario high schools who want a convenient, self-paced way to improve their transcripts.
As MacLean’s points out, Canadian universities also look for work experience, leadership experience, extracurriculars and demonstrations of transferrable skills. If you have time before your application deadline, consider improving your application by pursuing one of the assets above. Take a part-time job to show your drive; join an extracurricular that interests you to demonstrate your passions; create your own opportunities by building, writing or otherwise creating something to show your leadership potential. There are several ways to stand out on an application!
If you plan on attending post-secondary school and are nervous about the application essay, refer to this article for guidance and advice. You have done most of the hard work already in your grade 9-12 courses. Now, you just have to glide past the finish line!