Admissions officers review numerous applications, frequently reading as many as fifty per day. Although it’s impossible to predict exactly what a particular college is looking for in its applicants, in general, colleges want to admit a mix of students who can handle the academic workload and make a positive contribution to the college experience—for themselves and their classmates.
To get a favorable reaction from admissions officers, your application should demonstrate:
- Serious intent to pursue a college-level education.
- Genuine desire to attend the particular college.
- Match between your interests and abilities, and what the school needs and has to offer.
- Ability to think clearly, logically, and creatively.
- Ability to write engaging, thoughtful essays that keep your reader’s attention and differentiate you from the other applicants.
What Admissions Officers Look For
You—The person behind the GPA, the test scores, the extracurricular activities, and even the mailing address.
Surprise—An unexpected angle on your topic, even if the experience you’re writing about seems ordinary.
Sincerity—Writing as yourself, without pretension and without taking yourself too seriously; relying on your own vocabulary, rather than the thesaurus or the words your parents think you should use.
Thoughtfulness—Thinking about your experiences and their meanings, to yourself and to others; showing through your reflections that you are a person on whom nothing is lost.
How To Help Them Find It
Think About Who Your Audience Is—Five or six recent graduates of the college you’re applying to and an experienced director of admissions will read your essay. This is an overworked audience on whom your essay needs to make a vivid and memorable impression.
Focus—Instead of generalizing about your experience (“I enjoy sports”), be as specific as you can be. Write about the thrill of catching a fly ball deep to center field just before it became a home run, or of a Little League career spent waiting for someone, anyone, to hit the ball to your position so that you could stop studying the grass and watching the butterflies.
Use Precise And Economical Language—Imagine that each word you write costs you a dollar, and that you don’t have unlimited funds.
Before: “On a yearly basis, we would spend five hours driving to the lake, where I never gave up the hope of meeting the boy that would be my Prince Charming.”
After: “Every August, we trekked to Lake Apponaug, where I always hoped to meet my Prince Charming.”
Give Your Essay Momentum—Make the parts work together and move toward a thoughtful conclusion. In an essay about the summer you spent working in a marine research laboratory, a paragraph on the unreliable bus that took you there each day should be eliminated.
If you want to explain special circumstances affecting your application to the admissions committee, don’t be apologetic or frightened. Simply put an asterisk or footnote next to the issue in question and explain the situation at the bottom of the page or where there is room. In extreme cases, such as when an illness or death in the family affected your grades, you could even write a separate letter. Frequently, colleges will provide space on the application for you to inform them of these circumstances. Just be sure you don’t tell more than they need or want to know, or draw unnecessary attention to negative points.
EssayEdge Extra: Words of Wisdom from Admissions Officers
“We take the essay very seriously, and so should the applicant. Highly selective schools read every piece of information in a file, including essays. While the essay can never be so good that it compensates for everything else in the application, essays are important to us because we make very fine distinctions among applicants.”—Admissions Officer, Williams College
“I also try to learn through applicants’ essays something about their personality, character, and what is important to them as individuals. How might you as an applicant convey this? Before you begin to write your essay, reach down to the base of your feelings and try to figure out what is essential that we should know about you and that we might not learn from other areas of your application. Think of what it is you want to tell us, then think of certain events in your life or about people or influences that you can talk about that demonstrate what you want to communicate.”—Admissions Officer, Columbia University
“A student’s ability to be introspective and reflective really comes through in the essay and provides meaning to the reader. Look back over your high school years, both inside and outside of school, and attempt to view this period within the context of the bigger picture and grander scheme of your life. Reflect upon what this period has meant to you within the framework of your life, and ask yourself where you see yourself heading.”—Admissions Officer, University of Pennsylvania
“Many students mistakenly think that a great essay must be about some topic or event that would be fascinating or compelling to any reader. However, at Duke we look at style just as much as content. In their search for exciting content, applicants often overlook the fact that a well-written essay about a rather “everyday” subject can be far more compelling than a poorly-written essay about a fascinating subject.”—Admissions Officer, Duke University