Admissions Essays: The Ins and Outs

Your Comments on Admissions Essays ~ courtesy of the NYTimes



One of the pleasures of editing The Choice occurs when readers lob in level-headed comments borne of experience. Many of the responses to Dave Marcus’s post on Monday about essay-writing would have surely helped me as a high school senior applying to college (yes, a long time ago, in the mid-1980s) and may yet help my own children, whose college application deadlines are, mercifully, still years away.

Though the entire comment stream on Mr. Marcus’s post is worth sifting for good advice, I want to draw particular attention to a handful of reader responses. These include the commenter who wrote:

I think it’s important for readers to get into the heads of the applicants, feel the rhythm of these young lives. If you can help the reader to relate and understand the thoughts, feelings, and movements of the writer, then you have them hooked.

Another commenter
, a parent, advised:


Write about something they cannot learn from your résumé or your activities list — a small moment that tells the reviewer something about you that would otherwise not be revealed.

This commenter
, someone who has helped students with their essays, suggests that whatever subject the writer chooses, it ultimately be a means to an end:

Your application essay is a story about you. It’s not about poor orphans in Ecuador or your Great-Aunt Lucy or the time you ran for student government. It’s about how that person or experience affected you. Are you different now? Did you learn something meaningful about yourself?

While Mr. Marcus learned much about college essay-writing as a journalist shadowing a guidance counselor, my own perspective was heavily informed by the year I spent as a journalist sitting at the elbow of an admissions officer and his colleagues. Some of you, in your comments, expressed a hunger to read model essays — essays perceived to have gained a student entry to the college of his or her choice.

While I can understand this desire, I want to caution you that, like so much of the admissions process, how an essay is received can be heavily dependent on the point of view, life experience and priorities of the reader. So to the extent you look at so-called model essays, don’t be lulled into thinking there is any formula at work here. As one commenter wrote, there is “no magic potion.”

That said, I appreciate the comment, posted this morning, from the teacher who recommends that students read a handful of sample admissions essays that have been published over the years and then “identify three things or traits that were revealed about the writer/applicant.”

Two closing thoughts on this subject:

Several of you wondered whether admissions officers can tell if an essay has been largely written by an adult (presumably a parent or independent consultant), or, at the least, extensively revised in a pass through a grown-up’s computer. I would suggest, having read dozens of essays alongside some admissions officers and interviewed many others, that they can often distinguish the voice of a young person from that of someone who, say, has put a few more miles on the odometer.

Some admissions have read upwards of 1,000 essays a year over the course of several decades; they’re critical readers, and, as a gut-check, they might try to compare the writing sample in front of them to everything else they know about the applicant, such as his or her grades in English or what the student’s teachers say.

Is it possible to put one over on them? Of course, but is that any way to start a college education?

Lastly, one of the best pieces of advice I heard on approaching the college essay was at a College Board conference in New York last year. At a panel discussion there, I heard Chad Hemmelgarn, an English teacher at Bexley High School in Columbus, Ohio, offer the following analogy for a college admissions essay.

“It’s kind of like a first date,” he said. “You’re telling us the stuff that makes you special.”


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