The View From Campus: The Application Essay

West Virginia University


This month, David Smith, Executive Director of Recruitment and Entrepreneurial Programs, at West Virginia University’s Intensive English Program, shares his thoughts about the significance of the essay or statement of purpose for international student applicants to U.S. colleges and universities.


Describe your institution in 5 words?

Public university. 150-year history.


What is your institution best known for overseas?

Energy-related programs of study, particularly petroleum engineering.


What are your top academic programs (undergrad & grad)?

  • Energy Systems Engineering (G)
  • Environmental and Natural Resources (UG)
  • Finance (UG/G)
  • Forensic and Investigative Sciences (UG/G)
  • Mining Engineering (UG/G)
  • Petroleum and Natural Gas Engineering (UG/G)


What are the top 5 countries represented at your college?

  • Kuwait
  • Saudi Arabia
  • United Kingdom
  • Oman
  • Spain

West Virginia University has 2,300 international students, or about 6.5% of total enrolment. West Virginia University has many support programs for its international students, including a full Intensive English Program.


How does your institution use IELTS in the admissions process? How valuable a tool is it in evaluating prospective students?

WVU accepts IELTS as one of two measures of English proficiency. IELTS seems to have been an acceptable measurement tool, and requires a score of 6.5 to be considered for admission.


Why do colleges and universities in the United States require essays or a statement of purpose as part of the application process?

Universities often cite “fit” as an important criterion for admissions, and schools that value this concept may rely on the essay to assess it. A more practical use may be that the essay can be a “tie-breaker” to differentiate among many students who might otherwise look virtually identical to each other, with nearly identical test scores and academic records.


How important is grammar, punctuation, and word choice in student essays?

The best answer may be “it depends.” Certainly, taking care to be perfect in terms of grammar and punctuation is important, and mistakes are likely to be noticed. That said, international students who are non-native English speakers are likely to get some tolerance for minor errors. Sometimes, an essay from a non-native speaker that is too perfect may raise some suspicion that it’s not the applicant’s own work.


Should a student personalize essay answers to the different colleges to which he/she is applying?

Probably, but that’s not always practical. It’s very important to be careful not to mention “how much I want to attend School X,” when writing to School Y. That’s a common mistake in cutting and pasting essays into multiple applications.


How creative can students be with their essays?

In most cases, creativity is probably a plus. Admissions staff read hundreds of essays, and they start to all sound very similar. One that’s different will attract attention—the important thing is that it be the right kind of attention. If an essay is remembered because it’s highly controversial, that’s not likely to be as positive as if the same point were made in a creative way without coming across as arrogant, belligerent or one-sided.


Is it okay to share a student’s successes and accomplishments in the essay if those are not accounted for elsewhere in the application?

Absolutely! Admission to good schools is competitive, and if students don’t mention things that could give them an advantage, no one will ever know.

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