How to Write the University of Pittsburgh Application Essays 2018-2019

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The University of Pittsburgh (colloquially known as Pitt) is a large research university established in 1787. Located in the industrial city of Pittsburgh, Pitt is home to 17 schools and over 19,000 undergraduate students.


With an acceptance rate of 60%, Pitt was ranked 26th out of all public universities in the United States by U.S. News & World Report in 2018. The university has a thriving academic community, over 350 student clubs and organizations, and is known for its positive campus atmosphere; in 2010, it was rated as having one of the top 10 happiest student bodies in the country.


The University of Pittsburgh requires applicants to write three short essays, granting potential students a great opportunity to showcase multiple facets of their personality, experiences, and interests. Read on for tips to help you master these essays and boost your chances of acceptance into one of the happiest and highest-ranking public schools in the country!

Essay #1

Describe a challenge that you think you will face in college and how you anticipate handling the challenge. (Response required in 200-300 words.)

This prompt reminds us of the classic job interview question: “What is your biggest weakness?” When answering questions like these, it’s important to demonstrate honesty and self-awareness, but it’s even more important to showcase your strengths through the discussion of your “weaknesses” or anticipated challenges.


A possible route you could take for this essay could be briefly describing something you have struggled with previously (e.g., social anxiety when around a lot of new people) and explain ways in which you’ve overcome this in the past and how it has positively affected you (for example, by putting yourself out there and joining the chess club, which is now one of your favorite hobbies and greatest skills).


This type of response not only shows strength through your willingness to be somewhat vulnerable, but also illustrates your growth, problem-solving skills, and ability to deal with tough situations.


Keep in mind, though, that you should definitely spend more time detailing how you’ve overcome a problem than talking about the problem itself. It won’t give the admissions team much confidence in your ability to deal with the inevitably stressful situations of college if you spend 150 out of 200 words talking about how much of a burden your crippling social anxiety has been for you. Avoid writing a sob story; instead, reflect on your growth and maturity.


Remember: You are trying to demonstrate how you’ve grown from challenges and learned to face your fears, not just describe how your fears have negatively affected you.


Another route you could take is to talk about an anticipated challenge you have not previously faced, but how your strengths and other experiences you’ve had will help you with them. For example, perhaps you come from a small private school with a graduating class of 60 people. Or maybe you live in a rural town in Oklahoma and have never been to a city on the East Coast. Both of these backgrounds would potentially make attending Pitt overwhelming and nerve-wracking for you at first.


For this kind of response, it is still important to focus more on how you will handle the challenge than the actual challenge itself. If, like mentioned in the example above, you are coming from an extremely small high school, you could talk about how your strengths (e.g., outgoing or adventurous personality) or past experiences (for example, doing a summer study-abroad program) will help you deal with the challenge.

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Essay #2


How have you made an impact at your high school? Choose one example and tell us about it. (Response required in 200-300 words.)

This prompt provides you the space to demonstrate your passions, initiative, and desire to help others. Whether the impact you have made is large or small, the essay should show how you possess each of these qualities.

Some good example topics for this essay:


  • You have always been passionate about reducing the stigma surrounding mental health (be sure to give some brief background as to what stimulated this passion). You also noticed that a lot of students at school are always anxious about school work or seem to be struggling with depression. You decide to create an app that allows peers to share mental health resources, ask for advice from other students, or share memes/art/poetry/etc. that cover issues of mental health. You found that the majority of the student body downloaded the app and many have come to you saying how much it has helped them feel less alone and has given them the courage to seek help for their struggles.


  • A new student who began attending your school was bullied by some kids in your grade. Even some of your own friends were mean to him or would make fun of him. He would sit alone at lunch and, one day, you decided to sit down next to him, introduce yourself, and start a conversation with him. You realize you have many of the same interests and end up becoming good friends with him. You stand up to the bullies and they stop bothering him. The student tells you that he dreaded coming to school every day until you started hanging out with him. Later in the year, he makes a similar impact on you by being there for you during a rough time.

While the first example is on a “macro” scale, the second, more “micro” example can be equally as powerful if told well. If you decide to go with a smaller-scale impact, make sure it is written as a story; use descriptive details that really make the reader feel as though they were also there.


While you should be descriptive and show instead of tell no matter what you are writing about (see guide to the prompt below for more details on showing vs. telling), it is especially important when writing about an experience that could seem trivial if it is not well-described. Be sure to also illustrate the impact: For instance, for the second example above, the writer could incorporate dialogue between herself and the student when he expresses his gratitude for her reaching out to him.

Essay #3

Pitt receives nearly 30,000 applications each year. What makes you unique? (Response required in 200-300 words.)

As briefly discussed in our guide How to Write the Common Application Essays 2018-2019, the best response to this question should demonstrate how the intersection of your personality, interests, skills, and analytical-thinking abilities creates a distinctive combination — one that would allow you to contribute in an idiosyncratic way to the college to which you are applying.


It’s extremely important here, however, to remember to show and not tell.

Here’s an example of the difference between the two:


  • Telling — I am unique because I want to combine my lifelong love of riding horses and my philanthropic aspirations to open an equestrian therapy academy.


  • Showing — The feeling I get when riding is incomparable: the gentle leaps of the horse, the clicks of its hooves against the dirt, the briskness of the wind against my face; it gives me an overwhelming sense of freedom and power and tranquility. It’s this feeling that has helped me through all of the inevitable blemishes of adolescence, and it is my dream to help those who are struggling experience the uplifting sensation of riding.

Note that the “showing” example also avoids using any overused adages or clichés, as such sayings can diminish the strength of the experience or emotion you are trying to convey. For example, when explaining the difficulties that come with growing up, writing “the inevitable blemishes of adolescence” is more distinct and illustrative than saying something like “the rollercoaster that is high school.”


We at CollegeVine recommend doing preliminary brainstorming when answering a question like this — especially if you are struggling to think of a good topic. Try writing out all of your interests, skills, and passions and really dig deep into what you believe is (i) truly unique about you and (ii) demonstrates how this idiosyncrasy will help you excel at a school like Pitt.


General Reminders:


  • Be sure to highlight distinct, separate aspects in each of these three essays, but also make sure each essay topic fits into the overall theme of your application.
  • Don’t worry too much about the word limit when writing the first draft. It’s better to just get all of your ideas out on the page from the get-go and cut down during the editing process.


Good luck!


Want to read more college application essay prompt breakdowns like this? Check out our College Essay Prompts Database.


Want help on your University of Pittsburgh application or essays? Learn about our College Apps Program and Essay Editing Program.


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CollegeVine College Essay Team

CollegeVine College Essay Team

Our college essay experts go through a rigorous selection process that evaluates their writing skills and knowledge of college admissions. We also train them on how to interpret prompts, facilitate the brainstorming process, and provide inspiration for great essays, with curriculum culled from our years of experience helping students write essays that work. Learn more about our consultants
CollegeVine College Essay Team
Short bio
Our college essay experts go through a rigorous selection process that evaluates their writing skills and knowledge of college admissions. We also train them on how to interpret prompts, facilitate the brainstorming process, and provide inspiration for great essays, with curriculum culled from our years of experience helping students write essays that work. Learn more about our consultants