University Application Essays: The 5 Secrets of Successful Writing

The simple steps that will boost the confidence of your native English speaking & ESL students alike and transform their university application essays.

Close-up of student writing a university application essay

Whether it’s coaxing students to work on their university application essays or sitting down to write their recommendations yourself, chances are you’re familiar with the one thing that can plague us all when we face a blank page: writer’s block.

Writer’s block comes in many shapes and sizes… from your one student who keeps asking you to re-read their latest draft to the few who’ve yet to make a start.

But it’s important to tackle writer’s block head-on. Not only will your students benefit from having time on their side, but the strength of your students’ application essays (like the UCAS personal statement or the University of California system’s personal insight questions) also play a huge role in determining your school’s overall university acceptance rate.

University application essays also give students a taste of the calibre of writing they’ll be expected to maintain throughout their university education - and by then, they won’t be able to rely on your step-by-step support.

So how can you equip your students with the skills they need to beat the block?

Organised into five easy-to-follow steps, these tips and tricks will boost both your native English speakers’ and ESL students’ confidence, and set them up for success in their university applications and beyond.

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Step 1: Paraphrase the university application essay question

One of the most common sources of frustration for students (that leads to writer's block) is when they pour time and effort into something, yet don’t receive the grade, reply, or response they were hoping for.

Most often, it’s because students have misunderstood the question, or haven't been selective enough when choosing relevant examples to support their claims. 

Paraphrasing the question or prompt will ensure your students slow down and really pay attention to what’s being asked for their university application essay. It might even help them identify other questions that are hiding below the surface.

Think about it; a student could pen an essay worthy of George Orwell… but if they’ve written about the American Civil War and the question was about molecular biology, they’re hardly going to score top marks.

The same holds true for university application essays. Some application portals (for instance Common App) provide prompts. Other platforms (like UCAS), don’t… but students’ personal statements must nonetheless answer the implicit question that underpins all university application essays: “why should you study this programme?”.

Top tip: Choose a common essay prompt, set a timer, and challenge your students to come up with as many re-wordings as possible. When time’s up, compare them as a class and discuss how different wordings change their understanding of the original question.

Re-worded, “why should you study this programme?” begins to reveal other key questions your students' essays will have to touch on, such as “why is our programme a good fit for you” or even “how does this programme fit your personal and career goals?”.

Step 2: Pencil in planning time

Once your students are confident they’ve understood the question, it’s time to think about how they’ll answer it.

We’ll cover the components of an essay plan in a moment, but the first step is ensuring your students have factored in enough time for said planning… and understood why it’s so important.

Close-up of university essay plan

Jumping headfirst into the introduction without a plan is like setting off on a trip without a map. Your students might still find their way to their final destination, but they’re risking unnecessary detours, delays, and stress along the way... all of which can negatively impact the overall quality of their final application essay. 

To help make planning a habit, encourage your students to dedicate 10% of the time they have allotted to complete time-bound written assignments (like coursework or an exam) to planning. That could look like setting aside 3 days to plan for an essay due in a month, or the first 6 minutes of an hour-long exam.

Step 3: University application essay planning with the 3 Ss

At the root of any decent essay is a good argument. An argument, in this case, simply means a clear main point (in other words, a thesis) that is effectively and compellingly made.

When planning a university application essay, students might find it helpful to think about their argument using the 3 Ss:

Summary of argument

Students should have a clear idea of what they plan to talk about before they start thinking about how they’re going to say it.

That’s where a summary of their argument comes in. Just like a trip itinerary, summarising their thesis will ensure your students have thought about the direction their essay needs to take (which they’ll signpost in their introduction), the destination they plan to reach (that’s the essay’s conclusion), and how they plan on getting there (the body).

With this in mind, you might find it helpful to have your students submit a summary of their university application essay before they start working on their drafts.

Top tip: If certain students seem really stuck, task them with writing mini summaries of their essay in different formats. These can be as varied and random as they like. It could be a social media post, instructions for flat-pack furniture, a play or short story… 

Purposefully starting with something a little silly can encourage students to let go of the fear that they won’t write something good enough (another frequent cause of writer's block)!

If a student is finding it hard to neatly distil their essay ideas into a succinct summary, it’s often a sign that they need to spend more time fine-tuning their argument.

Structure of argument

Once students have a summary of their thesis and the talking points they’ll use to support it, they’ve got the building blocks of their argument!

Now it’s time to put it all together by organising it into logical order, to ensure it’s easy to follow for the reader.

The first step is choosing what belongs in the introduction, the body, and the conclusion.

The second step is organising each of these sections into individual paragraphs. The STAR technique is a handy trick students can use when writing about their own achievements in their university application essays. With this technique, students use one paragraph per example to cover the following:

  • Situation: Describe the situation/set the scene
  • Task: Explain the challenge they had to overcome
  • Action: Explain what actions they took reach their goal
  • Result: Highlight the result they achieved

Style of argument

Once your students have cooked up the recipe for their perfect essay, it’s time to think about the last key ingredient: style! Just like adding spices to a favourite dish, a carefully-chosen writing style will help your students’ arguments stand out from the crowd.

Style is made up of two main building blocks: tone, and voice. A good way to choose a style is to think about how the audience will best engage with the essay’s topic and argument.

Want more advice like this?

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For university application essays, the audience will be the universities each student is hoping to impress. It’s therefore imperative for the essay’s tone and voice to remain professional and clear.

Naturally, that rules out slang, emojis, abbreviations, and anything else that’d be more at home in a text message than it would a CV. But there’s still plenty of room for creativity.

Each student’s hobbies - particularly those related to the subject they’re hoping to study at university - can be a great starting point. You might want to encourage students to find some articles online written by leaders in the subject or career area they’re interested in pursuing for inspiration.

The trick is for each student to think carefully about what will best serve their unique application essay, and ensure they don’t overdo it: style should never eclipse substance. 

For example, a student writing a personal statement for a literature degree might choose to incorporate a few stylistic devices borrowed from their favourite modernist author… but those would seem out of place in an application essay for a chemical engineering programme.

Step 4: Encourage students to edit their university application essays

If you’re familiar with Raymond Carver, you’ll know he was credited with revitalising American literature due to his distinctive writing style and concise short stories. But according to legend, this minimalist flair was actually all down to his eagle-eyed editor’s red pen.

What many students don’t foresee - and therefore plan for - is that editing can be one of the most time-consuming parts of the essay writing process. That can spell trouble for your students, especially if they’ve left editing close to the deadline.

To help spark fresh ideas, partner students into pairs and have them give feedback on each other’s drafts. An outside perspective can do wonders when it comes to catching a poorly-explained example or an embarrassing typo.

Learning how to give feedback on each other’s work will also help your students learn what they should look out for when they proofread their own essays.

Students editing each other's essays

However, even your hyper-organised students might find it easy to miss mistakes in their university application essays when exams, coursework, and other external pressures are also competing for their attention.

That’s where tools and software come to the rescue. In this day and age, there’s a wealth of resources you and your students can use to streamline the editing process and strengthen their final essays.

Word processing tools and spell check software are an international student’s best friend! Technology is now clever enough to go beyond catching typos and ensure your students’ spelling and punctuation is consistent (which can help weed out any accidental Americanism or Britishisms).

Step 5: Equip your students with the right tools to ace their applications

As helpful as these tools are, your students could be missing a trick or two by relying on technology solely to catch grammatical errors in 2022. 

Our full library of university application resources is just one click away!

Speak to a member of our team to learn about setting up a free BridgeU account for you and your students. 

Platforms like BridgeU, which you can unlock for your students by creating a free school account, are designed to help your students plan, write, and edit their essays all in one place. 

On BridgeU, your students can search for, and save, the countries and courses they’d like to apply to, or fill in their profile to receive data-driven university suggestions. 

They can then use BridgeU’s built-in search and editing tools, complete with annotated sample essays, how-to guides, and a wealth of other features designed specifically for international students, to research, plan, and perfect their university applications. 

As for you, you’ll get access to your very own Advisor Dashboard, where you can offer feedback and suggest edits to your current students' applications essays and keep track of their progress, including their application status, references, and recommendation requests.

So if you’re ready to power up your students’ application essays and boost your schools’ university acceptance rate, set your school up for a free BridgeU account today.

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