Exclusive: Application Essay Tips From a Former College Admissions Officer (Part 1)

Admissions Officers will be the ones deciding your fate this fall, so it’s always important to hear their perspective, whether by keeping up with their interviews or attending info sessions during your campus visits. I had the privilege of interviewing a former admissions officer for a private urban national university and she was kind enough to let you all in on the private chat. See below for the first round-up - Part 2 will be coming next month.

If they’re undecided, the admissions essay will make all the difference

“For the applicant where it’s a little bit harder to distinguish the unique value of what they bring, they need something to put them over the edge - that's where the essay is important. If an admissions officer feels ‘I believe in this person,’ after reading their essay, it can absolutely turn a waitlist into an admit. Each kid gets read for 10-15 minutes - people in the middle will go to committee, and that’s where the essay can make all the difference. When I would read applications, my goal would be to get through 50 a day - the essay is the one place you’re really telling a story about the person. It can also help determine how much scholarship money you get.”

Don’t write an academic op-ed essay

“You have to figure out a way that you’re standing out. The Common App essay shouldn’t be an op-Ed about politics or an academic essay you’d be writing for a class on medieval history. Anything can be done well except, ‘Here's why I disagree with gun control.’ Try to avoid opinion pieces on policy: your personal essay shouldn’t be 15 points about why the NRA is evil. The core of the essay should be about who you are, your core values and personal traits. In your application, you really don't have a voice in any other part of the application except for the essay. Your test scores speak for you, your guidance counselor speaks for you, but the essay is the only place you're speaking for yourself. Tell us who you think you are versus what you think of a random topic.”

Always make the essay come back to you

“When writing about your grandmother or RBG, we call it the ‘this person is my hero’ essay, you run the risk of the essay not being about you, which is the point of the personal essay. Always ask yourself, what is the admissions team learning about you? The most important thing to ask yourself is: what do I want the admissions team to learn about me? Do you want them to know that you’re empathetic or that you’ll always persevere? Know what the goal of your message is. Whatever makes you who are you are, talk about that. You should always go back to yourself as the core of the essay: what did this person teach you about yourself and how did they inspire you to achieve your own success?”

There’s no such thing as “too personal”

“If you choose to write about a pretty traumatic incident, make sure you’ve really moved past it and that the essay conveys that perseverance. You should show how you moved past it, and how you are still able to be a contributing member of the community. Try to answer how you are you turning that experience into something they're bringing to the campus. For example, will you help contribute to sexual assault prevention and how we work with survivors?”