University of Iowa

“Where do I start?" and “What do they want?”

are the questions we hear most often from applicants, so we are willing to bet that other folks want to ask as well! 

To help you shake off the paralysis that so often happens at beginning of any application process, we pulled together some advice from recent readers and scholars to help you calibrate your expectations and tame your anxieties.


Answer the question.  

This may seem like an obvious one, but we receive a lot of thoughtful responses to questions we have not asked.  As much as we may appreciate the insight or perspective shared in a rogue essay, we do not advance the applicant to the next level of committee review. 


No need to restate the question.

Lately, we have noticed that many students are restating the essay question instead of constructing a thesis sentence which frames the discussion they wish to have with their readers.  At this point in their development as writers and thinkers, we can and do expect more from applicants.


Stay away from absolutes.

“Always,” “never,” and “impossible” tend to kick a reader’s inner Devil’s Advocate into gear. When we read them, we can always think of an example of when your assertion is NOT true.  If you do not employ these inflexible words, you may avoid triggering a committee member’s inner debate champion!  


Let us figure things out for ourselves.

Do not spend time telling us you are hardworking, smart, or extraordinary.  Let us figure it out for ourselves when you show us who you are and what is important to you using evidence and anecdotes. 


Be aware of your relationship to others.

Using phrases like “broken families”, the “less fortunate”, or “lower class individuals" when talking about people whose life experiences and access to resources may be different than your own can unintentionally exacerbate that difference and dehumanize the individuals you have had the privilege of learning about and from as a volunteer or traveler. 


Plagarism is still verboten.

Plagarism is pretty easy to spot and we are surprised at how often we do. Beyond what we hope are obvious ethical concerns, it will be difficult to introduce yourself or your ideas to us effectively if you are using someone else’s words, so don't do it.  We want to hear from YOU.