Over the past decade the number of college applications has increased dramatically. As the essay becomes more important in distinguishing between many students who have strong grades and test scores, admissions officers have less time to review individual essays.
We discussed how admissions officers assess essays, what they are looking for, and what turns them off! Here are my takeaways from their lively discussion – with admissions’ actual words in quotation marks:
1. The #1 thing they read for is writing quality: Your application essays should be error-free examples of your best work. Their consensus was that most students don’t spend enough time on their essays to make a “real impact.”
2. Admissions officers crave “authenticity”: They say most students submit very “safe, generic essays that really don’t help.” The essay is the one place where you speak to admissions officers in your own voice, but “most students do not take advantage of this opportunity.” Writing authentically is a bit like dressing for a “casual” party: you can’t just write anything; you need to express your unique characteristics through stories of what you have done.
3. You don’t want to sound “too crazy”: Your personal statement is like a first date with a stranger; what are the most important things you want them to know about you right away? What things are better saved for later?
4. Essays are read in relation to other writing in your app: If you have a very polished essay, but low grades in English class, or a poor SAT Writing score, colleges assume you didn’t write the essay yourself. On the other hand, if your essay is clean and simple and written in your own voice, no matter what your other scores, that’s a plus.
5. 50% of admissions officers read your application for merit scholarships too: “If I have a sense of who this person is, and how the programs we offer will make a difference in their life, I find myself nudging up the amount of aid we offer them,” explains Tyler Socash from the University of Rochester, who organized the session.
6. Admissions officers use the interview as a “reality check”: Even if you can’t visit campus, set up a time to communicate directly when an admissions rep is in your area. And make sure to schedule those interviews for yourself – if your mom does the scheduling, you miss another chance to connect authentically!
7. Each college uses different guidelines to rank candidates: some recalculate your GPA, so everyone is on the same scale; others look for criteria specific to their premier programs; and others seek students to lead key clubs and activities. These guidelines are different for every school, but not mysterious. Take time to learn from web sites what they are looking for, and connect individually with each college to which you apply.