All about college essays: Top 6 Tips on how to tackle the “Evaluate a significant experience” essay question

Post By: COYD Staff

common application essaysThe full question on the 2011 Common Application is “Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.” Below are six tips on answering this question:

1. Don’t regurgitate your resume.

You have already listed your accomplishments and awards in your application. Don’t use this precious essay space to reiterate your accomplishments.

2. Answer the question.

The question says “Evaluate” not “Describe”. The Merriam-Webster definition of “evaluate” is “to determine the significance, worth, or condition of, usually by careful appraisal and study.” Thus, the majority of the essay should be determining the significance of this experience, not just describing it. In high school you learn that when you write an evaluative essay you must start with a clear stance, a judgment. In addition, you need to have evidence to support your stance. For this type of essay, strong evidence would be past experiences, people, and events in your life that can back up this judgment. Most of the time, the experience, achievement, risk, or dilemma is just the tip of an iceberg made up of a history of lessons learned, wisdom gained, and past experiences that combined to bring you to that point.

For instance, let’s say your significant risk was running for president of your student body. In order to truly evaluate this risk, you need to provide details about your past experiences, your surroundings, and the people who have influenced you in order to show the impact it had on you. For some students, it wasn’t a risk because public speaking is a cinch for them. For other students, it is a huge risk because the fear of rejection and public speaking are their biggest fears.

Also, don’t forget the “it’s impact on you” portion. Most students who truly “evaluate” the significant experience and not just describe it do in fact naturally include the impact it has on them. This could be a good way to determine if you are truly evaluating or just describing this significant experience.

3. Focus on 1 thing.

Though the essay question lists several items, it only asks for one particular thing whether it is an experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma. The key word in this question is “or”. Many students incorporate several things and this dilutes the answer in addition to not properly answering the question.

4. Keep it focused and detailed.

To piggyback on the above point, the reason why the question only asks you for one significant, experience, achievement…etc is because you only have a limited amount of words to describe it. Focus on just one thing, and back it up with specific and detailed examples.

5. What is the purpose of the question?

Like thePerson who influenced you” essayquestion, this question is once again a way for the admissions officers to discover your character. Look back at yesterday’s blog post to see a list of values and attributes that admissions officers want to see in a prospective freshman.

6. Don’t write about an ethical dilemma that will incriminate you.

I recently read an essay where the student talks about snorting cocaine and trying other drugs. By the end of the essay, I was emotionally moved; however, I don’t know if every admission officer would want to admit a student that has used drugs. It is very hard for students with a criminal record to get into the nation’s top colleges so I would generally advise students not to admit an act that was in violation of the law.


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