Brigham Young University Application Essay Prompts
List and describe (in 100 words) up to five of your most meaningful and significant activities, awards, and/or experiences you have had since beginning high school.
Let’s start with the short answer question. In this part of the application, you are allowed to highlight some of your most important high school accomplishments. Because the word limit is rather restrictive — you have approximately 20 words per item — it is important that you are succinct, but still communicate your accomplishments effectively.
The first step is to identify which activities, awards, or experiences you want to list. When deciding, you should think about which activities will help you distinguish yourself. Remember, BYU received approximately 13,408 applicants in the last admissions cycle, so you want to stand out. For instance, listing an award that many other applicants in the pool have also earned is unlikely to significantly benefit your chance of admission.
In addition, it is important to consider BYU’s identity as an LDS school. While you do not have to be a member of the LDS church in order to be accepted (BYU states that “non-LDS applicants will only be required to meet with one of the following: an LDS bishop, branch president, or mission president”) it can be extremely beneficial to highlight your connection to the LDS church, if you have one.
Additionally, you should keep in mind BYU’s admissions criteria. It evaluates students based on their “seminary attendance, service, leadership, personal essays, individual talents, creativity, AP/IB courses taken, unique or special circumstances, and other factors showing a student’s ability to strengthen the BYU community.” You’ll notice that many of these qualities can be directly demonstrated through your extracurricular activities and other high school experiences.
For instance, BYU appreciates applicants who have demonstrated a commitment to service. If you have spent your high school career engaging in meaningful community service, you should certainly prioritize this activity when listing your relevant experiences. Or, if you were the president of your school’s French Club, you should emphasize your strong leadership abilities and background to impress admissions officers who are looking for student leaders.
Finally, consider the types of activities and awards current students have listed on their applications. 96.6% of successful applicants were four-year seminary graduates; 84.2% received Duty to God or Young Women Recognition; 82.2% were employed during high school; 78.3% were involved in the performing arts; and 71.1% participated in high school sports.
While it is not wholly necessary that you match this profile perfectly, it is helpful to know what has impressed admissions officers in the past and to highlight these kinds of awards and activities in your own application. Keep in mind, however, that you should still try to distinguish yourself even when describing experiences that are more typical of the applicant pool. For instance, if you were involved with your high school’s track and field team and earned the position of captain, you should emphasize your leadership position in order to give yourself more of an edge.
What is one of the most difficult things you have ever done or experienced? What did you learn from it?
This essay has a 250-word limit, so as always, it is important to be concise and get your message across as clearly and effectively as possible.
This essay question can, initially, seem a little difficult to tackle because it is so broad. There is some ambiguity in the language; BYU uses the word “thing” as opposed to directly naming a type of difficulty, and allows students to elaborate on things that they have either “done or experienced,” leaving the door wide open for interpretation.
However, there’s no need to balk at this question. In actuality, the relative ambiguity of the prompt just means that you have all the more room to be creative and truly help the admissions officers understand you on a deeper level. In many ways, how you choose to attack this question says a lot about you as an individual and as an applicant.
The most straightforward way to approach this essay would be to talk about a tangible challenge you have had to address. This could be a difficulty you had in school, in your community, or in your personal life. These kinds of challenges could range from family tragedies to academic setbacks to extracurricular obstacles.
A more subtle, but still effective way to answer this question is to think about a moral or ethical dilemma you have faced. While not as obvious of a choice for this essay, this can still be extremely powerful, because at its core, this question seeks to help BYU understand how you tackle problems and how you grow from those experiences.
No matter what kind of challenge or problem you choose to discuss, the focus should not be on describing the problem itself. Rather, the majority of your essay should revolve around your particular approach to this challenge and, most importantly, what you have learned as a result. BYU admissions officers want to see that not only can you handle challenges, but that you welcome them and indeed grow from them.
There are some caveats to keep in mind when answering this question. If you do decide to focus on a personal challenge, you want to ensure that this is not a challenge that may cast doubt on your ability to succeed at BYU. For this reason, it can be safer to choose a problem that has long since been resolved and no longer affects you.
Additionally, be wary of coming across as unnecessarily lamentful. It can be dangerous if your essay bears the tone of “woe is me.” Although the essay is about a difficulty, it should still be positive. Remember, you should focus on 1) your problem solving abilities and 2) your growth in the face of difficulties. These are inherently positive subjects, so as long as your essay is centered around these two angles, you should be in the clear.
Given the choice, which CES school would you most like to attend, and why? Please be specific.
This question is relatively straightforward, in that it is essentially a “Why this major?” essay. In these types of essays, passion is key. You need to convey your deep interest in a given field, or in this case, BYU school.
The first step is to identify which school you are planning to apply to, which is simple enough. You do not need to have identified a specific major within that school, but if you already have an idea of what you intend to study, it can be helpful to include.
This part of your essay should be relatively brief. The bulk of the content needs to be oriented around why that specific school is perfect for you as a student, and more subtly, why you would be a valuable contributor to that school.
As BYU stipulates in the prompt itself, specificity is crucial. The easiest way to convey passion is to identify key, direct reasons why you are choosing that particular school. For instance, if you are intending to pursue law, you can talk about how your early interest in law started when you watched a particularly fascinating trial early on in life.
Then, you should connect it back to your high school extracurricular career and show the admissions officers how your passion for a given field has impacted your secondary studies. Continuing with our law example, perhaps you participated in Mock Trial to gain trial experience and helped lead the Model UN team to improve your public speaking skills.
Beyond highlighting extracurricular activities that help convey your commitment to a discipline, it is also helpful to point to your academic record. For instance, if you are applying to BYU’s physical sciences school, you should highlight the fact that you have chosen to take all of your school’s honors and AP physical science courses. This is particularly effective as it not only demonstrates your strong interest in the field, but also shows admissions officers that you can be successful in that specific subject as well.
That being said, you shouldn’t simply rehash your extracurricular and academic accomplishments in this essay.
Remember that these aspects are already explored in other sections of your application. This essay should be centered around your passion for a field, and while citing examples can help demonstrate this, you should make sure that this essay is personal to you and reveals important information about who you are as a person. Bring in relevant anecdotes, past experiences, and personal characteristics to show admissions officers why you are a perfect fit for a given BYU school.
“Tell us anything else you want us to know about yourself that you haven’t had the opportunity to describe elsewhere in the application. Include any special circumstances, experiences, talents, skills, etc. that you think would have a positive impact on the Admission Committee.”
If you thought that the first essay question was daunting in its breadth, this prompt may seem unthinkably difficult! However, this is just another opportunity to help admissions officers get to know you on a deeper level. The wide scope of the prompt is actually helpful, as it allows you to focus on any subject that 1) demonstrates who you as an individual and 2) adds a new dimension to your application.
With that in mind, you should focus on elucidating something that is otherwise absent from your application. If you choose to write about an experience, it should not be one of the experiences you listed in the short answer question; if you choose to write about a special circumstance, it should not be connected to the challenge you described in the second essay. You get the picture: this essay is supposed to bring something new to the table.
That being said, there aren’t many limits as to what you can write about. The only wrong answers here are things that would detract from your overall application or place you in a negative light, such as mentioning drug or alcohol abuse. Apart from these obviously poor choices, anything is fair game.
There are a few ways you can really take advantage of this prompt. For one thing, because it is so open-ended, this is a fantastic opportunity to help distinguish yourself from the rest of the applicant pool. It is helpful to focus on something that is memorable and unique to you, so that you stand out in the minds of admissions officers. Discussing a quirky skill, unique talent, or another distinguishing attribute or experience is one way to go about this.
This essay can also provide a forum through which you can explain any gaps in your application, or answer any questions that may be lingering in admissions officers’ minds. For instance, if a significant personal circumstance impacted your application — and this was not the circumstance you described in Essay Two — this would be a good time to elaborate on that. Bear in mind, however, that the essay should still end on a positive note and leave no doubt that you are fully capable of succeeding at BYU, should you be accepted.
With these tips and tricks in mind, you are ready to begin writing essays that are sure to impress the Brigham Young University admissions officers. Best of luck from the CollegeVine team!
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The concept of “best fit” resonates fervently among college and university campuses across the country. Research shows 77% of college freshmen applied for admission to at least three colleges or universities. More than 28% of students submitted seven or more applications (NACAC, 2014). But students are not alone in hoping for the best fit in a particular college environment. Increasingly, colleges seem concerned with identifying, admitting, and enrolling students who ultimately represent a particular campus. Further attention to selectivity and yield rates has contributed to wide implementation of holistic admission review philosophies. Application essays, recommendations, extracurricular evaluations, student portfolios, and the like are just a few of the methodologies today’s admission offices utilize. The endgame, ideally, is facilitating a dynamic merger of student-and-campus wherein enrichment, for both parties, is realized.
BYU Institutional Background
Owned and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), Brigham Young University occupies a unique niche in the landscape of higher education. The Provo, Utah, campus is home to more than 30,000 students. While 98% of the student body are members of the LDS church, every student participates in ecclesiastical interviews as part of the initial application process and then annually as a condition of continuing enrollment. The endorsement is a fundamental factor in admission and subsequent matriculation. However, other academic and non-academic elements are included in BYU’s admission evaluation. While holistic admission policies have been fashionable and productive at many colleges and universities, BYU, established in 1875, has long been mindful of more than academic merit.
Quantity of Applications. As a private, faith-based university, “best fit” is an especially important component in admission selection. Specifically, adherence to the University’s Honor Code, academic excellence, and social influence are core areas wherein applicants can demonstrate an ability to assimilate and thrive at Brigham Young. It’s the charge of the University to attract, admit, and retain these students. With a firm enrollment cap, at a time when competition to attend BYU has never been greater (13,000 fall applicants, 54% admission rate, 28.8 ACT average, U.S. News’ Most Popular University title four of the last six years), the holistic review has taken on an increasingly significant role.
Over the last decade, BYU has seen over a 50% increase in applications, from roughly 8,500 in 2005 to 13,000 in 2014. Utah, BYU’s top feeder state, expects a 31% increase in the number of high school seniors by 2022, the second largest gain in the country (NACAC, 2014). Other states ranking high for an expected increase in high school seniors also place as top 10 feeders to BYU (Nevada, #1 for expected increase – 35%; Texas, #3 – 28%; Colorado, #4 – 25%). Additionally, there is similar growth expected in the U.S. LDS population of high school seniors. The current and projected rise in the number of BYU applicants places added emphasis on the admission selection process.
Quality of Applications. While recognizing the demand for admission to BYU, the quality of academic success seems to be mirroring the increase in application quantity. For example, Table 1 illustrates the academic comparisons between the fall 2007 admitted class with the recently admitted class of 2014.
While the increase in academic achievement is noticeable, BYU recognizes there is more to the college experience, especially at a faith-based institution where overall campus engagement is a priority. The University’s admissions process should – and does – reflect the need to consider other strengths and potential contributions outside of the classroom.
Non-Academic Admissions Factors
While both the sheer quantity and academic quality of applications to BYU continue to surge, the University’s mission remains closely tied to its sponsoring organization. Ecclesiastical fit is the primary factor in admission consideration. In this regard, grades and test scores matter little if the ecclesiastical endorsement indicates a worrisome match.
But perhaps more applicable to the general population of college and university campuses across the country, other important variables are strongly considered in BYU’s holistic admission evaluation. The balance of this article will focus on two specific factors: evaluating extracurricular activities, and assessing the essay section of the student application.
Extracurricular Activities. According to the NACAC 2013 State of College Admissions report, the top 10 most important factors in rendering college admission decisions were the following:
- Grades in college prep courses
- Strength of curriculum
- Admission test scores (ACT, SAT)
- Grades in all courses
- Essay or writing sample*
- Student’s demonstrated interest*
- Counselor recommendation*
- Teacher recommendation*
- Class rank
- Extracurricular activities*
While the top four factors are academic indicators, five of the next six elements (noted by asterisks) take into account much different variables. The weighting of extracurricular activities varies from campus to campus, as does the method of evaluating such activities. The Common Application, for example, asks applicants to list extracurricular activities in the order of interest to the applicant. This exercise is mostly free flowing and dependent upon the applicant’s ability to prioritize and weight activities. More importantly, the applicant must also discern what would be most impressive to the colleges. BYU’s model differs in that the University lists 63 specific activities, divided by activity type (Athletics, Service, Employment, Military, Music/Performing Arts, etc.). The applicant is then invited to review the list and simply check the appropriate box if he or she has participated in that particular activity. The 63 selected activities are meant to align with the University’s aims and mission. Here is an example of the School Leadership section of the BYU extracurricular activities review:
School (These may apply to high school or college)
- Served as an officer of an official school club
- Served as Chief Editor of school website or other major publication
- Served as captain of a varsity athletic team
- Served as student body officer of entire school
- Served as class president (of freshman, sophomore etc. class)
- Served as student body president of entire school
For some activities, if the box is checked, a pop-up window will appear, asking for further information in an effort to provide additional context.
While it may seem an exercise in “whoever checks the most boxes wins”, BYU recognizes that not all activities are created equal. Depth will outweigh breadth. Focused and singular accomplishments in a particular domain will be more meaningful than surface involvement in several types of activities. Leadership opportunities are especially commendable.
In addition to simply checking boxes, the applicant is also asked to complete a Noteworthy Accomplishments section, with the following instructions:
“You may use the following boxes to either expand upon a listed activity or introduce an unlisted experience. This is by no means required, but can only serve to your advantage to complete. We encourage you to write about experiences that are meaningful to you personally. Please include the months and years of participation and the total hours spent, and limit explanations to no more than 100 words or 500 characters. In excess will not be visible.”
A series of five free-writing sections allows for the applicant to provide, in 100 words or less, additional information regarding specific activities of their choosing. By combining the “checked boxes” approach with the “mini-essay” approach, BYU has a method of evaluating extracurricular involvement at both quantitative and qualitative levels. The University’s application readers see both the checked boxes and the written comments as the application is evaluated.
The Importance of Essays. As previously noted in the NACAC study, applicant essays are the leading non-academic factor in a college’s admission decision. Of the responding colleges, 58% listed essays as having “considerable” or “moderate” importance. For BYU, the essays are used less as an indicator of college-writing proficiency, but more as a glimpse into the applicant’s background and worldview. When reading essays, BYU instructs its evaluators on the principle, “Content over form.”
BYU typically asks applying freshmen to answer three questions. During the fall 2014 cycle, freshmen answered an essay question about a trial or character building experience he or she has shouldered. The second question addressed specific reasons for applying to BYU. The third essay was one wherein the prompt simply asked if there was anything else the applicant wanted the admissions committee to know and consider.
Each essay provides its own meaning in the BYU admissions process. The character building essay can, among other things, provide context for some perceived deficiencies in the application. Perhaps there was a noticeable absence in the depth and breadth of extracurricular activities, but the essay reveals significant health struggles or multiple moves by the family. The last essay (the Anything Else? essay) allows for the applicant to address a myriad of potential topics, depending on what’s important to the individual. Students have often provided more information about an endured trial. Some applicants share further insights into an absorbing extracurricular activity. Others have submitted poetry, original music compositions, a short story, and so on. Some of the admissions committee’s most memorable essays are derived from the Anything Else? prompt.
Regarding the second essay which addresses why applicants are applying to BYU, early results from longitudinal institutional research (BYU, 2010) show a correlation between high levels of campus engagement and identified reasons for selecting BYU as a preferred choice for college. While there may be many reasons for choosing to apply to BYU, some are more meaningful than others. As members of the admissions committee read and evaluate this particular essay, alignment with institutional values is stressed. When alignment occurs, there is an increased likelihood of a more robust campus experience, in and out of the classroom. When campus engagement is a goal, the admissions application can be an instrument to discern the student’s potential to contribute to that end.
The idea that the college years are more than simply earning grades and diplomas would likely resonate with most people. If the college experience itself is more than an exercise in academic prowess, the admissions process to attend college should reflect as much. The holistic nature of BYU’s admissions process has allowed access for students who normally would not be competitive for admission based on standard academic measures, yet are predicted to contribute to the campus in meaningful ways. While the student may feel fortunate to be admitted, the University certainly feels privileged to welcome those who manifest potential to make a significant impact on campus and also appreciate their time in the distinctive environment. Of the various rankings assigned to the BYU experience, it’s perhaps the institution’s positions in the top 10 of If I Could Do It All Over Again and Best Overall Student Experience (niche.com) that resonate most. Earning the Princeton Review’s #1 Most Stone Cold Sober title for the 17th straight year isn’t far behind!
A holistic admission review can mean more than selecting an applicant based on a variety of contributing factors; holistic can also denote examining the potential long-term relationship of the applicant to the university. An admissions committee is not only admitting a freshman class, it’s admitting someone’s roommate, admitting the following year’s sophomores, future graduates, an alumni base, and a cadre of students who may carry the college’s name for a lifetime. The time spent on the front end of the process is well-worth the endeavor.
National Association for College Admissions Counseling. (2014). 2013 State of College Admission. Retrieved from http://www.nacacnet.org/research/research-data/nacac-research/Pages/default.aspx
Niche.com. Brigham Young University Rankings. (2014). Retrieved from http://colleges.niche.com/brigham-young-university/rankings/
Smith-Barrow, Delece. (2014, January). National Universities Where Accepted Students Usually Enroll. U.S. News and World Report. Retrieved from http://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/articles/2014/01/30/national-universities-where-accepted-students-usually-enroll
Thompson, Carolyn. (2014, August). BYU keeps No. 1 ‘stone-cold sober’ title in Princeton Review; Syracuse is top party school. Salt Lake Tribune. Retrieved from http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/news/58259349-78/university-college-princeton-review.html.csp
BYU Institutional Assessment & Analysis. (2010). BYU Freshman Surveys Combined Report. Provo, UT: Author.
Travis Blackwelder is the Associate Director of Admissions at Brigham Young University. He has been employed at BYU for 11 years. Travis earned his bachelor’s degree from BYU and a master’s degree from Harvard University.
Author’s Note: I would like to acknowledge that BYU’s Dr. Norman Finlinson, Executive Director of Student Academic and Advisement Services, and R. Kirk Strong, Director of Admission Services, were co-presenters at the recent AACRAO Annual Meeting in Denver.
Editor’s Note: An expanded version of this article, including specific implementation measures and how nonacademic factors are assimilated into the holistic admission review process, will appear in a future issue of AACRAO’s College and University.