Ask the Experts: Application Essay

Ask the Experts: Application Essay

Ask the Experts: Application Essay

How much of an impact can admissions essays actually make? I've read that "most of them are boring and don't really help or hurt the applicant." is this true? - Susi

Essays can be an essential element of an admissions application at selective colleges. Selective colleges are those that have more qualified applicants than they can admit. So, if you are one of a large number of qualified candidates who make it through the initial review process based on your test scores, courses, grades, and so on, the essays can provide the personal window into who you are and what you would add to the college's community. Some institutions even read the essays first, before looking at your other qualifications, to see if the essays reveal important personal qualities or circumstances that could help them interpret your "numbers," activities, recommendation letters, etc.

We believe that it is true that most essays serve to confirm what else is in an applicant's file. Some essays are truly atrocious and could hurt your chances. Such essays might be very poorly written, angry, bitter, depressing, etc. Some essays are so well written and interesting that they can very much help your odds. So, pay attention to all those written components of your applications. They can serve you well, and, at a minimum, they should do no harm.

What do colleges look for most in an admissions essay? - Tiffany

We intentionally use the term "personal statement" when referring to the essay on the college applications. This is intended to make the point that admissions committees do not want a formal, impersonal piece of writing. Rather they want you to tell them who you are as a person, what you believe in, care about, imagine for your future in college and beyond. Telling a story of a major event in your life or a person who influenced you are ways to get these points across. Most of all, write well. Use good English and mature words and phrasing to indicate you are prepared for college level studies.

Is there a minimum and/or maximum length for the college admission essays? Would it be appropriate to write a quality essay and then send copies of that same one to the colleges that you apply to, or create unique essays for each of your colleges? - Amy

Most common length requirement is 250–500 words. Use one main personal statement, and use, for example, the Common Application, to apply to most of your colleges that accept it. Revise shorter supplemental essays to address specific college questions, most commonly, "why do you want to attend college X and why is it a match for you?"

How important role does a personal statement play while a student is being considered for admissions? - Mona

A personal statement is an important tipping factor for selective college admissions. It is your chance to highlight your strengths, interests, personal background, and what you will bring to campus. Some colleges require a very specific personal statement, while others take a general essay from the Common Application, for example. It is very unusual that a personal statement dramatically changes an admission decision — usually the essay(s) serve to confirm what else is in a student's file. However, the personal statement is often the first thing that admissions officers look at in your application, and it can provide a roadmap for them as they consider your overall qualifications and potential match for their institution.

What exactly do you include in your college admission essay? I mean I know you'd include accomplishments, possible significant courses taken, but aside that what else would you include? – Melissa

The essay should truly be a "personal statement" — think about what those words mean. This is your chance to show (and we mean SHOW) who you are, through telling a story, being direct about what's important to you, noting key interests and goals, being creative, or being serious, for example. Your tone can indicate something about your personality. You can use humor. You can be thoughtful. The key is to be yourself, and to choose a topic that then says something about what's important to you. Naturally, this could cover a particular activity or academic strength. However, you also have a short answer "meaningful activity or work experience" essay, and possibly a college supplement asking you to talk about why you are interested in that particular institution. It's OK to take some risks, but above all, be honest and try to write something that only you could write.

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.

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

Admissions officers are looking for "personal statements." They want a window into your personality, values, and life. If you have had a medical condition that has impacted your personal growth, development, school experience, and outlook on life, then it absolutely is relevant to the college admissions process and worth referencing in your essay. Of course there are clear good and bad ways to do so. Complaints, bitterness, oversharing on medical details, or hubris won't fly well. But honesty, a story that shows what you are trying to convey about your condition and its effects on you, and reflections on your perspective will likely be poignant, powerful, and personal: attributes of a good essay.

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.

Peterson’s Staff (2013, October 31). Ask the Experts: Application Essay. Retrieved from