The Essay in Context

By Ryan Hickey + updated on April 20th, 2010

We spend a lot of time on this blog talking about admissions essays (or application essays, if you prefer). That’s not surprising; after all, it’s what our business is all about. In reality, though, it’s virtually impossible to look at an admissions essay without considering it in a broader context. While we can isolate an essay to write, edit, and polish it, that essay is ultimately just one piece of a multifaceted application that will be reviewed as a whole.

Overall, remember that your essay needs to be about you. That may seem obvious in many ways, but you’d be surprised at how many applicants can write 500-word essays that say very little about them. But what part of “you” should your essay discuss? Think about it this way. You can break your application into three sections: quantitative facts (biographical information, grades, scores), third-party qualitative assessments (recommendations), and first-person “this is who I am” content (essays). Of these, by the time you get around to filling out applications, the essay is the only one that you’ll have full control over. Thus, it will probably be helpful to consider the rest of your application as you prepare to write an essay.

Although the essay is your chance to provide a candid, personal statement, it still needs to somehow fit in with the rest of your application. If your math grades are mediocre and your math teacher’s recommendation is lukewarm, an essay claiming that you want to be a college math professor will be viewed with skepticism. The admissions officer who reads your packet is going to use all of the information provided to build a mental image of you; he or she will notice if something seems conspicuously out of place. On the other hand, an essay about your interest in business coupled with strong grades and recommendations that rave about your leadership qualities would combine to paint a clear picture of an applicant whose skill set and interests clearly touch every aspect of his or her life. Just make sure you don’t seem too one dimensional (more on that in a later post)!

Now, this is not to say that your essay needs to 100% agree with everything else in your application. Rather, an essay that showcases a different side of you or provides a unique viewpoint can be a great addition to your packet. In such an essay, however, you need to clearly explain how you reconcile those parts of you with what is covered in other aspects of your application. For example, if you feel that your passion for art is not fully captured in your coursework and recommendations, an essay can be the perfect opportunity to explain how you find ways to explore that passion. An admission officer could read such an essay alongside your grades and recommendations, and see that you’re not only a strong student and respected leader, but also an avid photographer. Such supplemental information can turn a fairly generic (at least on paper) applicant into something more unique and tangible. That’s a good thing.

Overall, keep your application as a whole in mind as you work on your essay(s); your essay should complement and supplement, not contradict and distract.

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Ryan Hickey

Ryan Hickey is Managing Editor of Peterson's & EssayEdge and an expert in many aspects of college, graduate, and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL, editing essays and personal statements, and consulting directly with applicants. He enjoys sharing his knowledge to aid others in achieving their educational goals and, when he gets a break, loves hiking and fly fishing with his wife and two border-collie mixes.

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