Thoughts from colleges on the college applicaton essay

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What follows are an insider’s comments on what pleases/displeases college admissions officers in your admissions essays. These quotes are excerpted from a November 6, 1999 New York Times article, "The ------- That Changed My Life" by Glenn C. Altschuler, who has been serving on admissions committees for ten years. In the interests of better essay writing while providing Mr. Altschuler and his colleagues with more "enjoyable" reading material, we are delighted to provide his insights.

"*Essays about national, global and cosmic issues seem as if they have been written by Applicant Anonymous. If what you know about the crises in East Timor comes from Time magazine or from Tom Brokaw, you will probably conclude, as have thousands of other applicants who have written on the same topic, that ethnic and religious repression are reprehensible and peace desirable. And you’ll sound like a teenager trying to sound like an adult.

*Write about your world and your experiences. Seventeen-year-olds inhabit a foreign country, and adults who work in colleges and universities are curious about what it’s like to live within its borders. Essays about a friendship that was forged or one that failed, buying a pair of sneakers, an afternoon working at Dunkin’ Donuts, the first trip to the museum without Mom and Dad, or getting robbed on the subway can provide glimpses of your ideas, values and passions.
*Describe. Don’t characterize. Eliminate all adjectives and adverbs. "The Coach Who Changed My Life" may be healthy, wealthy, and wise, but these qualities can best be conveyed in a narrative of what he actually said and did. In "Ode to Dad," a Cornell applicant explained his father’s values by describing his hands, encrusted with dirt from a career as a truck farmer. It worked.
*Resist the temptation to let others speak for you. A quotation from a philosopher, poet or politician may appear to be the perfect opportunity to parade your erudition. More often than not, you will impress no one while you hijack the personal essay to a place you have never been. This year, a young woman concluded an essay about her embarrassment over her parents’ Old World values and foreign accents, her desire for the approval of her peers and a tear-filled confrontation with her father by invoking Ralph Waldo Emerson. We never got a glimpse of the aftermath of "The Conversation That Changed My Life."
*Academics tend to see through a glass darkly. They value ambiguity, uncertainty and irony. For these reasons, and not because they have an anti-religious agenda, selection committees invariably prefer "How I Lost My Faith" to "God is the Center of My Life." But above all, writers should establish distance from their subjects, including themselves. Distance discourages essayists from drawing the clichéd moral. Every semester I yearn for the applicant who will declare that organized sports are not a metaphor for life, that coaches are often wrong or a little crazy, that the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong. Years ago we admitted a student whose essay, "Riding the Pine," found that no enduring truths came from sitting on the bench for an entire baseball season. It’s O.K. to be just a bit confused, to find the meaning of life elusive.
*Selection committee members are pretty savvy. They have learned to look for authenticity, not profundity. But knowing yourself, on paper, takes imagination, reflection and time. Start early, let parents and friends read it, and then revise: the voice you find may be your own."

Here's some advice to parents from the July 18, 2003 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education: "Admissions officials say that overly involved parents are more likely to hurt rather than help students' application bids. After all, parents cannot change the raw academic data, such as grades and SAT scores, or teacher recommendations, says Thomas H. Parker, dean of admission and financial aid at Amherst College. But they can sap all the originality and spontaneity out of their kids' essays, he says. Parents 'end up subverting the application,' he adds, 'because they have the students play it safe.' If this happens, 'students end up losing their own voice.' And that voice can sometimes greatly influence an admissions decision. 'We're looking at far more intangible than tangible qualities,' Mr. Parker says. 'At a certain point everyone has very high scores and grades. That's when you start to look for evidence of passion, a real commitment to the academic field, and originality. If you're reading an uninspiring essay, it may be because parents have edited it to death.'"
Writing the College Application Essay (Prepared by Bryn Mawr College, Office of Admissions)


Your high school transcript, recommendations, and SAT scores address your academic abilities, but your essay lets us learn more about you as a person. Yes, we really will read your essay carefully -- in fact, we may pass it around the office to share our delight in your writing ability! Remember, though, your essay isn't meant simply to satisfy our curiosity about you, but rather, to:

  • demonstrate your ability to express your views clearly and rationally, to resolve intellectual problems and to make new discoveries -- all important goals of a liberal arts education.


  • illustrate that you are a good match for Bryn Mawr by revealing your thoughts, attitudes, experiences, aspirations, and personal qualities.

This worksheet is meant to help you to choose and address the application essay question that best allows you to reveal yourself with intelligence and style.


Don't panic! You've got plenty to write about. In the words of fiction writer Flannery O'Connor, "The fact is that anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can't make something out of a little experience, you probably won't be able to make it out of a lot." The challenge, then, is to use the application essay not only to report what you know, but also to discover, in the process of writing, something you hadn't known before. Leave plenty of time before your deadline to allow this to happen.


You might try out a topic on a friend in order to test your ideas and to find your natural "voice" for expressing these ideas. Pay attention to the natural structure of your conversation - do you tell a story to illustrate your point? Do your ideas provoke your friend to respond or argue? What logic does your argument follow? Try representing the structure of your conversation in outline form or draw it in an eight-panel storyboard. Then consider what changes might be made to the way you've organized your "oral draft" in order to tell the story or make the argument more effectively in writing.

The college application essay should reveal your thoughts, feelings, and opinions, so you may use the pronoun "I" freely. And by practicing your topic with a friend, you will become aware of qualities of your communication style or "voice" (such as humor, wit, precision, or sincerity) that are important to preserve in your writing.


Next, try discussing your topic with a parent or teacher in order to find a (slightly) more formal tone and more deliberate structure for your essay. Write the first draft based on this new conversation, then set it aside for a day or two. After distancing yourself from your essay, you can re-read it with a fresh perspective and make any necessary changes in organization and tone. At this point, you should also pay close attention to matters of grammar and spelling.

Once you have written your second draft, it would probably be helpful to share it with your family, friends, English teacher, or guidance counselor. They may be able to offer suggestions for improvement, but the final product must be yours.


1. Tell a story.

The question, "Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you" (from the Common Application) requires you to tell a story. This story (along with your thoughts about the events recounted) might become your entire essay, or the story you tell might be limited to an anecdote that illustrates a point that has been made abstractly. The "narrative essay" form derives much of its reader interest from depicting action; you might either begin at the highpoint of the action or at the story's chronological beginning. However you begin, remember that you want to do more than entertain. Think of the impact your experience has had upon you as your thesis; your story should provide the evidence - in vivid, sensory detail -- to support your thesis.

In this form of essay, do:

  • Employ elements of story-telling including action, sensory detail, even dialogue, to make your essay compelling.

  • Remember that "action" can be physical or mental (your thought process).

  • Use your true, unique voice to tell the story, not a flowery, inflated or pretentious style. If you are thorough and thoughtful in expressing the meaning in your experience, this will be impressive enough.

2. Defend a belief or value.

The question, "Discuss some issue of personal, national, or local concern and its importance to you" (from the Common Application) requires that you defend a well-considered point of view. If you choose to answer this question, make sure that the issue you address is one about which you feel strongly. Pay attention to the issues you follow in the news, discuss with your friends or write about in your journal. Once you've identified why this particular issue is important to you, ask yourself, "So what?" Then answer this underlying question with your essay, which also gives you an opportunity to reveal your maturity and perspective by demonstrating your connection to the larger world. Bonus: you'll also show that you are ready to be an active participant in a diverse community, such as a college.

For this form of essay, do:

Write what you really think, not what you think others want to read.

3. Write a character portrait.

The question, "Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence" or "Describe a character in fiction, an historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence" (the Common Application) are intended to reveal what aspects of character you value. Do pay attention to the difference between exterior and interior descriptions.

Do remember that this character portrait is meant to reveal you: not only who you are now, but who you will become as a result. You would do well, though, to show support or plan to support values in college. Is there a research project, program, application, or work of art that has personal meaning and that you intend to pursue?


Is the essay interesting? Will it stand out because it shows who I really am? Is it about something important to me? Do I show how I think? Do I illustrate the issue, story or experience? Is my presentation neat, logical, and clearly stated? Are there good transitions between separate ideas? Did I make a conclusion rather than ending with a summary?

Essay Tips - The college essay is often the most difficult part of an application for admission to a college. To help you get off to a good start, we've put together the following tips and hints. These are comments from from our admissions staff who actually read your essays and evaluate them in the admission process. We can't guarantee results, but this advice might help you get started.

Top 15 Essay Tips from The Readers

  1. View it as an opportunity. The essay is one of the few things that you've got complete control over in the application process, especially by the time you're in your senior year. You've already earned most of your grades; you've already made most of your impressions on teachers; and chances are, you've already found a set of activities you're interested in continuing. So when you write the essay, view it as something more than just a page to fill up with writing. View it as a chance to tell the admissions committee about who you are as a person.

  2. Be yourself. If you are funny, write a funny essay; if you are serious, write a serious essay. Don't start reinventing yourself with the essay.

  3. Make it fun. If you're recounting an amusing and light-hearted anecdote from your childhood, it doesn't have to read like a Congressional Act — make it fun!

  4. Tell us something different from what we'll read on your list of extracurricular activities or transcript.

  5. Take the time to go beyond the obvious. Think about what most students might write in response to the question and then try something a little different.

  6. Don't try to take on too much. Focus on one "most influential person," one event, or one activity. Tackling too much tends to make your essay too watered down or disjointed.

  7. Concentrate on topics of true significance to you. Don't be afraid to reveal yourself in your writing. We want to know who you are and how you think.

  8. Write thoughtfully and from your heart. It'll be clear who believes in what they are saying versus those who are simply saying what they think we want to hear.

  9. Essays should have a thesis that is clear to you and to the reader. Your thesis should indicate where you're going and what you're trying to communicate from the outset.

  10. Don't do a history report. Some background knowledge is okay, but do not re-hash what other authors have already said or written.

  11. Answer each school's essay individually. Recycled "utility essays" come across as impersonal and sanitized. The one exception is an essay written for and submitted to Common Application member schools.

  12. Proofread, proofread, proofread. Nothing says "last-minute essay" like an "are" instead of "our" or a "their" instead of "they're."

  13. Keep it short and to the point.

  14. Limit the number of people from whom you request feedback on your essay. Too much input creates an essay that sounds as though it has been written by a committee or results in writing that is absent your own voice.

  15. Appearances count. Formatting and presentation cannot replace substance, but they can certainly enhance the value of an already well-written essay.


Every school requires one; every counselor tells you how important they are; and yet every student approaches them with fear and maybe even loathing. That’s right, it’s the college essay. The big thing to remember about the college essay is that this is your chance to describe yourself; this is your chance to choose your moment, tell your tale, and create your spin. So, before you put pen to paper, think long and hard about what you want the college admissions officers to know about you and, most importantly, what they might not be getting from the rest of your application.

Pick your topic. Do you want an essay that showcases your love of Jackson Pollack? Do you want to tell us about the recycling program that you started in your neighborhood? Pick an example that illustrates something different and thought provoking about you and what you have accomplished. Do not be afraid to define your accomplishments, whether they are at school as a student, at home as a sister, or in the community as a soccer player. All these things are components of you and therefore exactly what we want to learn more about.

Look close to home. Admission officers don’t expect you to be working on a cure for cancer or to be the winner from the last “Survivor” series. What they expect is that you will tell them the in and outs of being you, the anecdotes and attitudes that make up your daily life. A heartfelt essay about an important relationship or a painfully funny episode from your childhood will be far more interesting than a canned answer to a conventional question.

Go beyond the facts. Remember this is not a résumé; this is a chance to go deep and get serious. This is your chance to talk about feelings - optimism, dread, paranoia, exuberance, compassion. Your application might note that you participated in debate and model United Nations, but it doesn’t mention how much you were inspired by Cicero and spent hours delving into the history of rhetoric and political speaking.

Edit again and again. Spend the necessary time to get it right. As with anything that you write, the more eyes that see it, the fewer chances there are for mistakes. Find people you trust to read your essays and urge them to give truly critical feedback. Bug your friends, ask a teacher, blackmail a relative; just make sure that a number of people proofread your work.

The inside scoop. Essays should be typed or at the very least neatly hand-written; they should look as professional as possible. Spelling and grammar should be correct and your syntax should be standard. Additionally, these essays need to be well organized and contain a logical flow in the progression of ideas. Above and beyond this, a good essay is an inventive essay; this means one that not only is technically correct but one that captures the reader’s imagination. Challenge your vocabulary, ask more from your sentence structure, hone in on the details.

Extra credit tips:
1. Be yourself. Everyone always tells you this and yet you’re never quite sure if it’s a good idea! Nonetheless, it is true that people come across best when talking about things that are truly important to them. Trying to play another role is not only difficult, it’s usually ineffective, so save your energy for creative writing.

2. Start early. You may think that you work well under pressure. You may be right, but chances are that you do even better work when there’s time to think and re-think, write and re-write.

3. Avoid anything too cute or too exotic. Getting noticed will happen if you write well, explain yourself intelligently and express your essential emotional point.

4. Extra long doesn’t mean extra good. Stick to the suggested length for your essay; for the most part about five paragraphs should do it.

5. Be sure to answer the question. When writing your essay, always make sure that you are addressing the questions raised. Digressions are not always a positive, as the admissions readers want to see that you can not only write an excellent essay, but that you can craft a well-conceived response to a particular question.

UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA - Fast Food. That's what I think of when I try to draw an analogy with the process of reading application essays.

The bad. Ninety percent of the applications I read contain what I call McEssays - usually five-paragraph essays that consist primarily of abstractions and unsupported generalization. They are technically correct in that they are organized and have the correct sentence structure and spelling, but they are boring. Sort of like a Big Mac. I have nothing against Big Macs, but the one I eat in Charlottesville is not going to be fundamentally different from the one I eat in Paris, Peoria or Palm Springs. I am not going to rave about the quality of a particular Big Mac. The same can be said about the generic essay. If an essay starts out: "I have been a member of the band and it has taught me leadership, perseverance and hard work," I can almost recite the rest of the essay without reading it. Each of the three middle paragraphs gives a bit of support to an abstraction, and the final paragraph restates what has already been said. A McEssay is not wrong, but it is not going to be a positive factor in the admission decision. It will not allow a student to stand out.

A student who uses vague abstractions poured into a preset form will end up being interpreted as a vague series of abstractions. A student who uses cliché becomes, in effect, a cliché. If we are what we eat, we are also what we write.

Not only does a preset form lead to a generic essay, so does a generic approach to what is perceived as the right topic. Far too many students begin the search of what to write about by asking: What does my college want to hear? The thinking goes something like this: If I can figure out what they are looking for, and if I can make myself look like that, then I'll improve my chances.

Several years ago we asked students to describe an invention or creation from the past that was important to them. Our No.1 response - at least a thousand people - was the Declaration of Independence. This might make some people think that our college bound students are wonderfully patriotic, but given that my institution was found by Thomas Jefferson, I have a better answer. My guess is that a significant portion of the people who chose the Declaration did so because they thought we would want to hear about how much they admired Thomas Jefferson. While this may be a noble sentiment or, in some cases, a cynical maneuver, it ultimately meant that we had a thousand essays that sounded pretty much alike and therefore did not affect the admission decision. We are not looking for students who all think the same way, believe the same thing, or write the same essay.

Too often, however students who want to avoid sounding generic with respect to form or content choose exactly the wrong remedy; they think that bigger topics - or bigger words - are better. But it is almost impossible, in 500 words, to write well about vast topics such as the death of a loved one (see excerpt: "the bad"). I am not advocating longer essays (just remember how many applications admissions officers need to read); I am advocating essays with a sharp focus that allows for detail. Detail is what differentiates one essay from another, one applicant from another.

Instead of detail, however, students try to impress us with big words. In trying to make a topic sound intellectual, students resort to the thesaurus and, as a result, end up sounding pretentious or at least insecure about using the voice they would use to describe an event to a friend. The student assumes that these "impressive" words intensify the experience for a reader rather than diminish it. Before students send off their essay, they should always read it aloud to someone who knows them well; let that person decide if an individual voices comes through.

The good. A good essay is not good because of the topic but because of the voice. A good writer can make any topic interesting, and a weak writer can make even the most dramatic topic a bore.

Students need only to recall the difference between two simple concepts - showing and telling. A good essay always shows; a weak essay always tells.

By showing, a writer appeals to all of the senses, not just the visual. To show means to provide a feast for the eyes, ears and, depending on the essay, the mouth, nose or skin. But rather than telling a reader what show is, it is much easier to show what showing is.

The student whose essay appears below, an example of "the good," has undertaken the task of describing - that is, of showing, in detail - the deterioration of her father as he gets treated for cancer. I do not know of a single member of our staff who was not deeply affected by this essay, the whole of which is as well done as the excerpt. What is impressive about the essay is the willingness of the writer to carefully notice everything that is happening. She opens with a sound, that coughing, and then creates a visual scene that we can see clearly. I said before that writing about death and sickness is perhaps one of the most difficult topics to tackle in a college essay, but here we have an example of why this topic can demonstrate not only writing ability but the courage to face a terrible situation head-on with intellect and power. Compare this with the other essay about death. There, even though the writer was saturated with emotions, he was merely telling us, in abstract terms, what he felt.

A writer who shows respects the intelligence of the reader; a writer who tells focuses on the ideas, or the perceived ideas, behind the details. He or she is more concerned about demonstrating the ability to be abstract then the ability to be precise. In a short, personal essay, precision is power.

The risky. Any student who has already learned the basics of showing should think about taking a risk on the college essay. What kind of risk/ Think about starting an essay with: "I sat in the back of the police car." Or, as in the example (below): " The woman wanted breasts." These first sentences use what journalists call a hook. The sentence reaches out from the page and grabs our attention. It creates a bit of controversy and an expectation that the writer might be willing to take academic risks in the classroom. A good hook does not mean that a good essay will follow, but it does mean that a reader will look forward to seeing what will unfold.

A risky essay can border on the offensive. In some cases, as in the excerpt, it is possible that a few readers might write off an applicant based upon questionable taste. That is the danger of taking a risk. People wonder if they will be penalized if they do take a risk in an application. They want to know, in other words, if there is any risk in taking a risk. Yes, there is. I can say, however, that my experience in the admissions field has led me to conclude the great majority of admissions officers are an open-minded lot and that to err on the side of the baroque might not be as bad as to stay in the comfort of the boring.

The best essays are crafted not from a formula for success but by a voice that is practiced. Those who are willing to take a risk, to focus on that part of the world that matters to them and to show the passion and the practice it takes to write about it well, will help their chances of admission through their essay.

Excerpts from essays to U.Va.

--The bad: From an early age, we accept death as the inevitable, but do not comprehend its actual denotation. Death is the impending future that all people must eventually grasp. In my early teens, my grandfather tragically perished. As a youth who did not identify with such a cataclysm I was saturated with various emotions. Initially, I was grieved by the loss of a loved one and could not understand why this calamity had to befall upon my family. I always considered death to have a devastating effect, but was shocked by the emotional strain it places upon an individual.

--The good: The coughing came first, the hacking in the middle of the night. Then there were the multiple doctor visits, each one the same: the little white rooms with magazines where I tried not to stare at the bald, gaunt woman across from me. One of the white coats finally said something, steadily, forecasting an 80 percent change of rain. The list of second opinions grew too long to count, looking for someone to say the right thing. Finally, there was relief in hearing the name of a kinder killer: lymphoma.

--The risky: The woman wanted breasts. She had fame waiting on her like a slave, money dripping from her fingertips and men diving into her being. Yet she wanted breasts because the world wanted her to have a bust. She looked at the big black and white glossy of herself arching on a silken carpet and knew that the world would be satisfied with her airbrush deception.

------------This woman is us. My family has been in existence for nearly 20 years now, and we are aging and losing our own breasts and tight face - the giddy happiness of a child's unconditional love for his family, the young family's need for each other. Yet, we are constantly pressured by society's family icons into compromising our change and age instead of accepting it.

By Parke Muth, Senior Assistant Dean and Director of International Admission

Office of Undergraduate Admission, University of Virginia (Published in U.S. News and World Reports)

Help with the Writing Process 

College application riddle: Spark Notes can’t help. Spell check is necessary, but it won’t be enough. English teachers are good resources for this, but it’s not about them. That’s right—it’s time to crack down on that one little task that you’ve been putting off for months: writing your college essay.

Choose a Topic

Before you agonize over sitting at the computer for hours staring at a blank Word document, take time to plan. Being a good writer is about understanding your perspective—so the most important part of the writing process is thinking. Sit the laptop aside, and get to thinking about the essay!

“An essay fills in the blanks of your application,” says Sam Patterson, of the San Diego Area Writing Project. “Admission officers can see your grades and activities, but that list doesn’t capture who you are. That’s what you can do in the essay—define yourself.”

Self-definition is no easy task between homework, activities, jobs, and the general stress of the college admission process. Before you get overwhelmed, step back and think about your life and things that you’ve done.

Have you saved any lives lately? Discovered a new energy source? Invented a revolutionary tool that will change the course of humankind? No worries.

Instead of searching for a dramatic story, Patterson suggests that the every day things you do, are more interesting and show who you are better. Take a closer look at your routine. You do it all the time, so you might not think about it. For example, if you have a relative or friend with a health problem, and every day after school, you check in on them—it could be a story. Try keeping a journal of what you do for a week, and then look through it for ideas.

“While the writing process is not the same for everyone, we all go through some kind of a process,” says Patterson. “If ideas are slow in coming, make lists of lessons learned, things you have broken, places you go on Wednesdays. By exploring what we do, we can help colleges see who we are.”

Decide on Your Story Within Your Topic

Once you have a topic, you need to find your angle. For example, say you’re going to write about helping with a food drive; it’s the details that matter. Other students help with food drives too, so what makes you unique?

“Talk about your personal experience—your thoughts, the effect the experience had on you,” says Patterson.

At the same time, you need to balance answering two questions—“who are you?” versus “so what?” As you show who you are, think about why colleges should care. Are you determined, persistent, independent, creative, etc.? Showcase qualities that will help you succeed in college.

While you’re writing, go beyond what happened to examining the difference the experience made. Vivid details that make the reader feel like they are experiencing your story with you are great—visual descriptions, sounds and smells. But don’t get so caught up in painting the world that you leave out the details about your thoughts. For example, instead of re-telling your day at the food drive, give the reader an inside look. What were you thinking? How did your perspective change? Patterson suggests checking out NPR’s “This I Believe” stories for inspiration. [link]

Get the Feedback You Want with a Reader’s Guide

Looking for an expert to help you with your essay draft? Look no further—it’s you. Your essay is all about you, and you’re the only person who knows what will work best. Don’t throw out the help of teachers and friends just yet, though. You’ll need them, but it’s your job to tell them what you need.

“I recommend training every one of your readers. It can be quick, but put it in writing. Your Reader's Guide should ask several questions, but be careful what you ask for,” explains Patterson. “Writing the questions out and putting them on a sheet with limited space encourages your readers to write their responses, and the limited space will, hopefully, make the idea of giving feedback less intimidating.”

Here are some sample questions for a Reader’s Guide:

  • One question should be a test to see if your main idea was clear: “What does this essay say about me?”

  • A second question should ask for specific positive feedback: “Please underline the part you liked best and explain why you like that part.”

  • Another question could guide future revisions: “What questions do you have at the end of the essay?”

With your first drafts, don’t worry about sentence-level errors; concentrate on what you want to say and the best way to do that. The answers to these questions can help you shape your essay into the message you’re trying to communicate. When you find out the parts that people like best, find out why, then try to make other parts of the essay stronger.

Perfecting Your Essay

How do you know when you’re done? Just because you asked for feedback and made a few changes, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ready to upload the essay with your application.

“Do it until it’s good,” says Patterson. “Rate your essay on a scale of 1 to 10. If you think it’s a 3 or 4, ask readers for feedback on your theme. If you think you’re at a 9, then ask readers to help you with grammar.”

Since the purpose of this essay is to help you get into college, you don’t want to forget about your audience—admission officers who are reading many essays. You need to grab their attention. Just like how you quickly scan a Web page, your readers are going to scan your essay for the important parts. “

“Your strongest sentence should be the first one; the next strongest one should be the last one,” says Patterson. “Begin and end each paragraph with strong sentence. Why bury the good stuff?”

Remember, it’s your essay. The comments you get from others can guide you, but, in the end, the essay is a form of self-expression, so it should be from you.

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