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Story Up! The College Essay Blog

7 Things Admissions Counselors Are Looking For

[fa icon="calendar"] Jun 13, 2012 11:21:00 AM / by Carol Barash

By Carol Barash, PhD, Founder and CEO, Story To College

Last night I led a discussion with 48 college admissions officers from top private colleges and universities in New York State, including Cornell, Hamilton, Union, and Syracuse

Over the past decade the number of 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 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. 

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Carol Barash, PhD, is the Founder and CEO of Story To College, a company that teaches high school and college students tools to advocate for themselves in college admissions, job interviews, and life in the twenty-first century. She is a graduate of Yale and Princeton and an award-winning professor and admissions reader at Rutgers University. She advises students, parents and schools on how to expand educational access and college writing readiness. 

Topics: college admission essay, what admissions officers are looking for, advice, writing application essays

Carol Barash

Written by Carol Barash

Dr. Carol Barash, former English professor and advisor to the admissions committee at Douglass College, Rutgers University, author of Write Out Loud, and founder and CEO of Story2, has empowered over 20,000 students to write authentic admission and scholarship essays. She has been building digital communications tools for over 20 years, and through Story2 teaches the art and science of storytelling to expand college access and career readiness for all people. Have questions about storytelling, college admissions, and life choices? Ask her anything on Twitter @carolbarash.

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