Once students have completed the personal statement required by many colleges, especially those using the Common Application, they have to move on to supplementary requirements specific to each college. For many more selective colleges, that might mean writing an essay to explain one’s academic interests, moving the focus of the evaluation process from the widely personal to the more narrowly academic. Dean Furda at Penn describes it as an opportunity to ” reflect on who you are as an intellectual and how you can enhance your academic journey at Penn.”
Academic interests essays come in different shapes and sizes. The University of Michigan and Cornell University, for example, both require a 500 word statement in which a student explains his or her motivation for applying to a particular college within each university (such as engineering or arts and letters). Michigan asks students to “describe the unique qualities that attract you to the specific undergraduate College or School to which you are applying.” “How would that curriculum support your interests?” Others ask similar questions with smaller word limits: Rice (150), USC (250) and Northwestern (300), amongst others.
Most liberal arts colleges are at pains to reassure applicants that they do not discriminate against the “Undeclared.” And given the fact that most students within liberal arts colleges will in fact change their majors – several times! – before finally settling on one, the requirement that applicants fix on a single field and write about it, might seem surprising.
But colleges have good reasons for asking applicants to consider where they might want to start their academic journey:
- Asking students to write about academic interests serves to remind them that they are not applying to summer camp, but to an adult institution devoted to the pursuit of ideas.
- In weaving their activities and aspirations into a cogent statement of academic intent, students give readers another chance to evaluate their intellectual depth and writing skills.
- In some fields, engineering in particular, universities do care, often quite acutely, about a student’s depth of commitment to the field.
In writing an academic interest essay, students need to start with an assessment of their academic strengths, intellectual engagements and longer term aspirations. They should also list for themselves all their related reading, summer jobs, college camps, school clubs and volunteer work. The essay is in a sense an interweaving of these two processes into a narrative that shows how they developed questions about the world around them, how they acted on that curiosity, and what they learned in the process about a prospective field of study. That narrative becomes a template that they can adapt for most related questions, from Harvey Mudd’s “What in your background has led to your interest;” to Stanford’s “Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development;” and Tufts’ “Why Tufts?”
Students can shorten or lengthen such a “super essay” according to different requirements; pull from it thoughtful and well-developed answers to several different questions; and show individual colleges that they have done the research to explore why a particular school fits them well. They will also have articulated for themselves a vision of the academic journey ahead, which will help them determine their starting point even as they remain open to changing direction.