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What Do Colleges Want In An Essay

Colleges use a few different parameters to filter out candidates from among the thousands of applications they receive. Most of us believe that our school grades and admission test scores are the ones that matter the most. The truth is that even if other parameters are average, your admissions essay can be the key factor that determines whether or not you make the cut. That should be incentive enough to push you to put some solid effort into the essay. You can do a great job of getting yours noticed when you know what the admissions team are looking for.

Sometimes the essay requires you to describe your personal goals and motivations. Other times you may be required to carry out a piece of research. Either way, a great deal of information about the candidate can be gleaned by reading an example of their writing. That’s the point of the application essay; it gives the college a different perspective on you, one that cannot be accessed through your grades and test performance.

Here’s what your essay says about you:

  • It shows your creativity and originality in tackling a complex subject. Sometimes, the topics are deliberately provocative to see how you manage to field an unusual question.
  • It reveals what motivates and drives you and why you think you deserve a place at the college you are applying to.
  • Your ability to express yourself in writing. It is important to retain your own unique voice without giving in to the temptation to use flowery language and tiresome jargon. The best writing is always clear, concise, and natural.
  • Your level of enthusiasm with regard to the subject. Your tone and depth of research will reveal just how much effort you’ve put in and how much you truly enjoy the subject.
  • It reveals whether or not you are able to bring something new to a discussion. Anyone can use internet based sources or received opinion as the basis of their research, but you can truly dazzle the admissions committee by bring an unusual perspective to a tired subject.
  • Your clarity of thought. This comes through in the content of your essay.
  • Your powers of reasoning and analysis. Everyone has the same data to work with but the conclusions that you draw reveal your abilities to connect the dots and discover patterns.
  • Your ability to think critically. This is one of the most prized qualities in a good essay. It is easy to merely regurgitate information you have picked up elsewhere but the power to discern what makes sense and what doesn’t is far more valuable.
  • It shows whether or not you are able to construct logical arguments.

It can be hard to project all of these qualities in a single essay while sticking to the guidelines and word count. With multiple applications to attend to, you may not have enough time to give as much attention to each individual essay as you might like. One option is to practice in advance using sample questions, particularly quirky ones like these.

The important thing is that your essay should reflect your individuality and your personal opinions. This is one of the crucial reasons why you are asked to write one in the first place. The college wants to know how you think and what opinions you hold. Even if you need external help in order to express yourself, do make sure that the content of the essay remains yours and yours alone. That way, you can strike the perfect balance and ensure that your work gets noticed and you get accepted into the college of your choice.

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Read actual questions from students about the application essay and see answers and advice from college planning and admissions experts

How much of an impact can admissions essays actually make? - Susi

Probably a bigger impact than you imagine. If you are overqualified and applying to a school with a high acceptance rate, then maybe not. However, if you are like most students where you are applying to competitive schools, then your essays will make a significant difference in the number and quality of acceptance offers that you receive.

Especially for students who fall just short of a school’s admissions requirements, the essay can be your way to help the school understand why you belong in their program and how you can make a meaningful contribution. If you show passion and enthusiasm, then you can tip the scales in your favor. However, you’ll need to craft an essay that is stellar in every dimension: content, organization, tone, and writing that is free from errors.

Would it be appropriate to write a quality essay and then send copies of that same one to every college, or should I create unique essays for each college? - Amy

Each essay should be tailored to the prompt. However, schools often have similar prompts that will allow you to use the main body of your essay, or at least a few paragraphs, across multiple applications. The main pitfall we see in this situation is when applicants are trying to apply to too many schools in the hopes that casting a wide net will ensure acceptance from at least one school. Admissions officers know a generic essay when they see one, so be sure that your essays always reflect strong interest in that particular school.

I am pretty much in love with the admissions essay I wrote, but the limit is 500 words and mine is almost 600. Do you think that having an essay that is 80 words or so too long would count against me, even if it's good? - Laura

Look at the prompt again. Many schools will ask you to write an essay of ‘about’ a particular length. In that case, they’re telling you that they want you to generally stay within those bounds, but it’s not a hard rule. If the prompt gives a specific word length, then 10% over is typically okay, but remember that you’re sending a tacit message to the admissions officers that you can’t follow their guidelines. You might want to have another person look at your essay and ask what could be trimmed without losing any meaning from the essay.

For my college essay, I was thinking of writing about how a medical condition I have has affected me. But at the same time, I don't want to sound like I am trying to get sympathy from the college admissions officers. How do college admissions people feel about these types of essays? - Lisa 

That largely depends on your attitude within the essay. From the way you phrased the question, it seems that you aren’t looking to play on the admissions officers heartstrings. Overcoming a challenging medical condition can foster resilience and a more mature outlook on life. These are qualities that, in our experience, all colleges are seeking in their applicants. One potential pitfall in writing about medical conditions is making the admissions officers wonder if your medical condition will interfere with your potential for success. Therefore, be clear that either 1) you are in full recovery or 2) you know how to manage your condition. Let them see how the situation has built character and a strong sense of personal responsibility.

What do the admission office try to learn from the college essay? What kind of person you are or experiences you have gone through that has made you a better person? - Monowara

Both. In your admissions essays, write about pivotal experiences in your life. They want to see the ability to think critically about situations you have encountered and how those situations affected who you are as well as your approach to life. Show the admissions officers that you will grow from the college experience and leave college better prepared not only for a career but also to become a contributing member of society. 

What should the topic be in my essay? Would I describe my past academic achievements, sports, clubs, etc.? Or would I describe what I want to achieve throughout my four years of college and my career aspirations thereafter? - Susan

We encourage applicants to develop a mindset that they are creating a personal statement rather than an essay to the admissions committees. This should set a tone of sharing what you consider to be the most important interests you have, experiences that influence your interests or academic interests and goals for college. You do not want to write what amounts to a summary of your activities and accomplishments which you will list in other parts of the application. The best starting point to the personal statement is to decide what key personal features or characteristics you want a group of strangers to know about you. Then choose an event, a circumstance, or an activity that enables you to develop these features into a coherent story. Be relaxed, be honest, and be energetic in your writing.

What do the admission office try to learn from the college essay? What kind of person you are or experiences you have gone through that has made you a better person? - Monowara

This is a very good question that almost all students ask when it comes time to write their college applications. In a very real sense, the admissions committee wants to gain insight into the individual behind the objective information (grades, courses, test scores, GPA). What does this mean? They want to know what experiences you have had or the circumstances in which you have grown up that have shaped your values, your beliefs, your view of the world, your dreams and ambitions for your future, your commitment to hard work, and a genuine desire to learn and to live with others of different backgrounds and beliefs. So, you should write about any experiences that have influenced the factors listed above. The admissions committees are also going to learn about you from the thoughtfulness and the quality of your writing.

I heard that you can write your application essay as a poem if you're really good at poetry or not even make the essay an essay at all. Is this true? - india

Yes, you can be creative in your approach to the application. A poem is a logical way to go. Doing something very different entails some amount of risk. Some colleges do offer a "my space" section, with which you are encouraged to do anything you want, including photos, artwork, film, writing. However, for the main essay, colleges want an essay, meaning an example of your writing. Could you do it in iambic pentameter? Sure. But, don't just draw a picture.

 

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