1 Yokree

University Of Virginia Essays 2011

UVA (University of Virginia) is one of those selective public schools that often behaves like a private college.  Their application is a good example of this.  You've got several essays to write that range from describing your academic interests to just being playful and helping them get to know you better.  It’s a good opportunity for the serious applicant to demonstrate just how interested you are in UVA by sitting down and writing some thoughtful, revealing responses.  Here are a few tips to get you started. 

1. Read their Tips on The Application Process.  In particular, pay attention to this advice about writing essays. 

“Write good essays. Write in your style and voice about what you know, not about what you think colleges want to hear. Distinguish your experiences. Pick a small topic. Proofread.

That’s good advice.  Write essays that sound like you.  Don't write what you think they want to hear.  Avoid writing essays that lots of other students could write (like "Volleyball taught me the importance of teamwork"). 

2. Speaking of essays, read this, too. 

Parke Muth, one of UVA's very own admissions officers, wrote what we think is the definitive piece on college essays, especially his advice on avoiding trite, overused stories he calls "McEssays."  It's so good that we've featured it on our blog before. 

OK, you've read the advice from the admissions office and you're ready to start your essays.  UVA requires two supplemental essays as part of their application.  Some colleges' essay topics are seeking thoughtful responses, while others are inviting you to be playful.  UVA serves up examples of both. 

Here's prompt #1

We are looking for passionate students to join our diverse community of scholars, researchers, and artists.  Answer the question that corresponds to the school you selected above. Limit your answer to a half page or roughly 250 words.

*College of Arts and Sciences: What work of art, music, science, mathematics, or literature has surprised, unsettled, or challenged you, and in what way?

*Engineering: Discuss experiences that led you to choose an engineering education at U.Va. and the role that scientific curiosity plays in your life.

*Architecture: What led you to apply to the School of Architecture?

*Nursing: Discuss experiences that led you to choose the School of Nursing.

The key words to notice in this prompt are "passionate students."  Yes, UVA wants you to be excited about dorm life, rooting for the Cavaliers, making new friends, staying up late eating pizza with the aforementioned new friends, etc.  But first and foremost, they want passionate students.  College academics aren't like high school academics; in college, you have choices.  You get to pick what interests you and pursue it as far as you are willing to go.  UVA is looking for students who are excited about this opportunity, and who have shown glimpses of that intellectual passion and academic initiative already.

All four of those prompts appear to be different, but they're really all just looking for you to give them specific examples of experiences where you were excited to learn, or to apply what you'd already learned.  So in crafting your responses, use some emotion. 

Don't tell them…

"Working as an EMT taught me that I have the aptitude for nursing." 

Instead, tell them…

"Ten minutes into my first shift as an EMT, I was doing chest compressions on a 19 year-old motorcycle accident victim who'd just gone into full cardiac arrest.  At some point in the next 8 hours of that shift, I was sure for the first time in my life that I had found what I am meant to do." 

There it is.  

Future engineers, don't tell them that you love math because there's always a right answer, or that you've always excelled in math and science (they know that–they have your transcripts).  Have you ever seen how engineering majors spend their time on college campuses?  They're designing machinery, engaging in cutting-edge research, solving complex equations, and reveling in the science that is engineering.  If you want to be one of those mathematical revelers, let UVA hear your passion for this subject matter. 

Tell them how the best night you’ve had in high school was the night you and the physics Olympics team stayed up all night perfecting your object projector, or how you learned the basics of mechanical engineering fixing your family's mini-van, or how you taught yourself how to repair computers over the summer and are now the go-to tech support source for all your parents' friends. 

Don't hide behind an emotionless answer.  The more you love the subject matter, the more evidence you should have that you are already one of those passionate students who’s just chomping at the bit to bring that passion to UVA and get started.  

Now, prompt #2…

Answer one of the following questions in a half page or roughly 250 words:

What is your favorite word and why?

Describe the world you come from and how that world shaped who you are.

Discuss something you secretly like but pretend not to, or vice versa.

"We might say that we were looking for global schemas, symmetries, universal and unchanging laws – and what we have discovered is the mutable, the ephemeral, the complex." Support or challenge Nobel Prize winner Ilya Prigogine's assertion.

These are the kinds of prompts for which there are no right answers–they are simply designed to give you the opportunity to share more about yourself and help the admissions committee get to know the student behind the grades and test scores.  So you should feel free to be serious, funny, reflective, etc.  Just tell the truth and be yourself.  And whatever you do, make sure the essay sounds like you and don't try to guess what's going to sound good. 

Here are a few more prompt-specific tips.  

"What is your favorite word and why?" 

Really, the best advice I can give is that if you don't have a favorite word, don't answer this one.  Don't try to "find" your favorite word.  People who love to write, tell stories, speak in public, etc. tend to have favorite words.  For example, mine is "kitschy."  I just like that word.  We have history together.  I love that when I need a word to describe something tawdry and designed to appeal to undiscriminating taste, kitschy has always been there for me.  

If you have a favorite word, serve it up here and explain why it's your favorite.  If you don't, move on to the next question.

"Describe the world you come from and how that world shaped who you are." 

Remember their "Tips on the Application Process" and their recommendation that you "Distinguish your experiences" and "Pick a small topic"?  Now it's time to put that advice to use.  If something or someone in your upbringing, family, personal life, community or school has made an impact on you, something that has "shaped the person who you are," describe that someone or something here, and zero in on specific details that are unique to you.  Immigrating to this country, going through your parents’ divorce, growing up in an economically depressed area—all of those stories are worth telling, but they've also all got the potential to sound just like every other student who shared that experience unless you distinguish your story by putting in as much detail as possible. 

"Discuss something you secretly like but pretend not to, or vice versa.

Again, honesty wins here.  You can be serious, like,

"I pretend to like my boss because I help support my family and I can't afford to lose this job.  But pretending to like him is one of the hardest things I've ever had to do, because he makes derogatory comments about homosexuals that I find terribly offensive." 

Or it could be playful.

"OK, I'm just going to say it.  Right here, right now.  I like the Jonas Brothers.  There.  It's out there in the open.  Sure, my friends hate them, but that’s not why I hide my enjoyment of their music.  The internal conflict at work here is that I'm actually a musician.  A good one, in fact.  And the Jonas Brothers are just terrible musicians.  So why can't I stop listening?  Why does their music affect me so?  Why do they make me want to dance?  Please oh please keep this just between us." 

"We might say that we were looking for global schemas, symmetries, universal and unchanging laws – and what we have discovered is the mutable, the ephemeral, the complex." Support or challenge Nobel Prize winner Ilya Prigogine's assertion.

How eager are you to jump into this debate?  If you read this prompt and immediately had a reaction, either to support or contradict it, go with that.  The chemistry buff who spent the summer doing complex research with a professor might immediately have something to say about this, or the student who knows everything there is to know about astronomy, or the kid who read one of Richard Feynman's books just for fun.  If you have a reaction to this, you might have a good answer. But I recommend that you only take it on if you really feel that you have something to say.  And be comfortable geeking out with your answer–this question is pretty much begging to do so.

It takes some time to think through these prompts and to write thoughtful answers.  But UVA will read them carefully, much like a private school would do.  That’s a huge opportunity for you if you’re willing to take the time.

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

Numbers are a big part of the college admission process: grade-point averages, class percentiles and SAT, ACT and AP scores. But that’s only part of the picture. The essay section gives prospective students the best chance to show their souls. And for admission deans, the written word goes a long way.

“The admission committee is interested in shaping a class of students with a diverse array of personalities, talents, backgrounds, perspectives and interests, and the consideration of these voices as heard through the application essays is a vital part of our work,” says Ryan Hargraves, senior associate dean of admission at UVA, who lectures widely on college entrance-essay writing.

Here, in edited excerpts from a selection of admission essays, are just a few of the voices that make up the Class of 2015.

The Ring

My grandfather had bought the ring in Tehran, Iran, with all of his life savings. He was an engineer at the pinnacle of his career facing the hassle of the living conditions existing during the Shah regime, and irrevocably in love with a woman whom he had met no more than three times during the course of two years. After convincing her stepfather for her hand in marriage, he finally got his wish.

Staring at my ring, I now think about my ancestors and all the struggles they faced. Occasionally, I feel constricted by my Persian roots, trapped behind an imaginary “hijab,” that caresses and conceals my face, merely exposing my eyes. I’m curious to watch and take in everything as an alternative to putting myself in the spotlight. I prefer to not attract much attention to myself, afraid of some unethical norm my female predecessors faced. I feel like a shy moon slowly rising to its forlorn place up in the sea of obscurity, skirmishing to be seen and appreciated. If my Oma were still alive, she would tell me to be a strong independent woman because I have so many privileges most girls can hardly envision.

San Pedro Sula, Honduras


Watch “Voices of the Class”: students wrote comedy sketches based on application essays that were submitted by the class of 2015. The ringing of the bell indicates that a line of dialogue was lifted directly from the essay that inspired the sketch.

When I Grow Up

It is magical, firstly as a tiny, portable compendium of knowledge equipped to feed my inquisitive appetite. Indeed, the day I turned on the device was the last day I was unsure of something. Granted, there are moments when my cranial store of information fails me, but the secondary store in my pocket never does.

I affectionately consider it like carrying a miniaturized professor everywhere I go, always ready to answer my arbitrary inquiry. At the grocery store, it will tell me the difference between saturated and unsaturated fat. At the airport, it will explain the waves behind the engines. Since I do not understand everything, I perpetually see questions to be answered; thus far, the little professor has not complained about answering them.

My iPhone also keeps me aware of the world around me. I suspect it is exceedingly difficult to be a successful student, an effective leader or a constructive citizen without knowing at least a little about the other 7 billion people with whom we cohabit the globe.

A phone is inherently a communication device, so mine keeps me in touch with more personal matters, too. Phone calls, text messages, e-mail and Facebook together ensure I know who my friends are, where they are, what they like and what they want.

When I grow up, I want to be an iPhone. It was a revolution, shattering the status quo with a whole new way to think of the cell phone. It innovated and transformed with creativity. It defined a new market and a new standard by which others would be measured. Furthermore, it married style to function, sacrificing neither. It communicated well and, by its virtue, developed a strong base of loyal supporters. If, upon my deathbed, I can mark my life with any of these descriptors, I will relish the success.

Charlotte, N.C.


The Little Things

I will look back and hear my coach shouting encouragement to me during a track workout, feel my hand aching from taking notes in government class, taste my mom’s grilled chicken that she made for dinner and see Michael Scott making a fool of himself on Thursday nights.

One’s life is not defined by the extraordinary but rather the ordinary. I believe it is the routine aspects of our lives that matter most. It is for that reason I appreciate all my endeavors, no matter how mundane or unremarkable they may seem, for time has a way of making the insignificant significant.

Glen Allen, Va.



Memories of days with inflatable water wings and watermelon-seed-spitting contests live in the seascape of my home. As I begin to venture away from my sandcastle called Virginia Beach, the lessons and memories will stick to me like sand to wet feet.

Environmentalism took root in me as I saw little islands growing out of the Lynnhaven River delta, a place once covered with salty surf. Watching my favorite childhood fishing hole go dry is hard to see.

Every facet of my personality has been carved by the big blue in my backyard, just as the tides shape the dunes. The memories and lessons of life in a beach town, as numerous as the grains of sand, always stick with me, no matter how far from my sandcastle I stray.

Virginia Beach


The Singer

I am a classical soprano. When I was younger, I never sang Spice Girls, but instead performed Bizet’s “Habanera.” In fact, I was the only 8-year-old who knew what Carmen was. I can only explain the rush of a performance in a heap of oxymorons: scintillatingly dark, sensually angelic and certainly uncertain. As the sound waves emanate from me, a palpable sense of exhilaration envelops me. While standing in front of a crowd, my body becomes nothing more than a vehicle to transmit sound that comes billowing out of me, in different frequencies and volumes, until the last note fades away.

Manhasset, N.Y.


My Favorite Word

The. Arguably the most important word in the English language, and therefore it is my favorite word. The has always been a great friend to me, constantly aiding me in forming complex sentences and modifying nouns when I needed that perfect adjective. Even if I tried to rid myself of the, I knew it would always come skipping back into my life whether I chose to tolerate it or not.

Another reason for the‘s significance to me is that it is never selfish, a trait I find extremely valuable in a word. Unlike many of the three-letter relatives of the, my wordy associate never shows any possessive qualities such as his or hers, words you do not want to get involved with. And do not get me started on it’s; the contractions are the laziest words of all, carelessly leaving out letters as if their existence were not essential to our alphabet. As a best friend to both nouns and myself, I do not think the world could survive without the always lovable the.

Simsbury, Conn.


Miracle of Science

The human cell.

How do I understand you? How does one express a miracle with words?

There is no answer, but the world keeps spinning under the stars.

I can feel my cells working inside me as if I am their universe, and they go about their daily routines. They make a promise: I promise to wage war for your life as long as you are breathing. And when you no longer breathe, I will give myself up to the universe.

Each day they work. Each day they prove that thousands of human minds can never even come close to the engineering of God.

They fix each other. They help each other. They protect each other.

They are the ultimate model for civilization to function perfectly. Thousands of examples of diversity work together to nurture one human being.

People say they have never seen a miracle. Look down at your hand. Look in the mirror.

Ashburn, Va.



As my plane roughly ascended into the air, though I could feel my head spinning and ears popping, my eyes remained glued to the borrowed copy of Don Delilo’s White Noise. Only after landing did I realize the irony of the situation: as I gained a bird’s-eye perspective of the world, Delilo offered the same view of its culture and psychology. In one trip, my perspective had been completely altered.

The message behind White Noise is brilliant in its objectivity. Throughout my life, my peers and I have been bombarded with ideologies and worldviews blind to any realization of an opposing viewpoint. Popular news networks, politicians, and even clergymen all spew slanderous and recycled chunks of bias and either ignore or senselessly blast alternatives. White Noise offers a reason for this mindless whirl: this is a society obsessed with all things possessed. Modern men and women preoccupy themselves with the day-to-day formalities of routine to the extent that even our ideas become trampled under the fascination for the simplified and shiny.

I walked off the plane with my eyes and mind widened. Suddenly, I understood the modern fixation on celebrity figures and why ridiculously corrupt politicians became pop-culture icons. We are a society of White Noise.

Powhatan, Va.



I had always thought that mathematics, and more specifically geometry, only really applied to the man-made world. It is relatively simple to find the surface area of a skyscraper or the time a conical reservoir takes to drain because these objects are made up of strict geometric shapes.

Understandably, I was fascinated when I watched the Nova episode “Hunting the Hidden Dimension,” which explores fractal geometry and its cutting-edge applications. I was amazed that the natural world is not seemingly chaotic, but actually has patterns of self repetition. That trees, mountains and clouds have geometric patterns is really quite mind-boggling. In the video, fractal geometry was being applied to the carbon dioxide intake of a rainforest and the animation in the latest Star Wars movie. Thse same patterns of the outside world also apply to human bodies. Fractals can be utilized to understand the structures of blood vessels and the minute rhythms of heartbeats. My own discovery of the world of the world of fractal geometry reminded me that there is still so much for mankind to discover about our planet and even what lies beneath our skin.

Lakewood, Ohio


IF I HAD $10,000

A $10,000 budget would be an open door to research, an opportunity to expand my knowledge, possibilities and drive, even though it would be practically limiting. I’ve been fascinated with the idea of developing an entirely self-contained, sensitive, robotic prosthetic arm. There is so much about the human arm that makes it a brilliant machine, and it would be a fascinating project to attempt to replicate it.

I would love to build off of past research to design (though not likely construct) an arm with, for instance, a network of neural simulators to sense touch and other sensory inputs on a sort of synthetic “skin;” an arm with fingers that move as rapidly and precisely as real ones; an arm with its power source, mechanisms, and computer all contained inside a typical arm’s structure.

Littleton, Mass.



My grandmother never knew exactly which day she was born. But she knew exactly which day I was. I was the only grandchild she saw brought into this world, and ironically five years later, the only grandchild to see her leave. I don’t regret that my most vivid memory of her is her passing. Looking back, it was probably the most beautiful event I’ve ever experienced: sitting around her bed with my aunt and mother as they whispered a mixture of stories and “I love you’s” into each of her ears; smoothing down what was left of her hair after chemo, holding her hands and nestling close to her side. I just repeated whatever they said: Don’t be afraid, It’s okay to let go, Follow the light; but I don’t know if I really knew what I was doing. I was coaxing my grandmother into the afterlife at five years old, witnessing the conjunction of life and death, not as two separate entities but as one. There I was, the only grandchild she saw take her first breath, watching as she took her last. We will forever be united in that we were present during one’s first entrance and other’s final exit.

This woman that I barely knew has since become so deeply embedded into every thread of my existence; it is as if the soul that left her body that day has been following me ever since. I find it odd because when she was alive I never felt an extremely personal attachment to her; the only times I remember with her are vague and crowded during holiday dinners. The only moments that I know that we shared alone are those my mother shared with me: she teaching me how to walk, getting me to drink whole milk, or giving me my first set of chopsticks. My mother made it a point to tell me about her every time I came across a picture or sat on the couch which my grandmother had upholstered. I doubt it were so much for my sake as it were for hers, a way to reminisce the mother that she had lost.

Hampton, Va.

The Art of the Essay

Advice from Ryan Hargraves, senior associate dean of admission, who regularly presents on the topic through a talk titled “EsSAY what? Helping students communicate their voice.”

What to-pic(k) is an important consideration. Write about things or ideas that allow you to give us a sense of who you are and how you think. While we love Thomas Jefferson, writing “my favorite word is Rotunda” won’t necessarily boost your chances. There are no “good” or “bad” topics, but choose based on your personal experience, not what you think we would like to hear.

Avoid becoming a Tyrannthesaurus Rex. Conveying your voice means using your own words. Overuse (and often, misuse) of “thesaurus” words can distance your reader and muddle your point: “My Uncle Eric, an erudite and taciturn man, used systemic manipulation and quite frequently left individuals in a state of discombobulation.”

To thine own self be true. You have a unique personality and there is no reason to steer away from it during the application process. If you have a strong sense of humor, inject funny into your writing. Don’t feel compelled to write a tear-jerker to spark empathy; be yourself. Shakespeare (and Socrates) would be proud.

Be specific. It is virtually impossible to tell your life story in less than 500 words. Consider using illustrative stories from which we can discover larger points about you. If your application essay were in a sizable stack of essays scattered on the floor, would someone who knows you well be able to identify yours? If so, you have gone beyond the generic and have communicated your voice.

You may also be interested in:

Leave a Comment


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *