Application Essays Through Admission Counselors' Eyes

by
Director of Undergraduate Admissions, The University of Tampa

People often ask me about the value of the application essay. “You don’t actually read all of them, do you?” I assure you, at my university and in admission offices across the country, we do. I can tell a lot about a person from his or her application essay; it’s the most current snapshot of who you are as a person. Think about it: most of the items you submit to the colleges or universities you’re applying to showcase talents that you have developed over a long period of time. Your high school transcript contains at least three years of grades, showing evidence of hard work in a variety of subjects. Your clubs, organizations, sports, community service, and other accomplishments reflect years of participation and dedication to fields outside the classroom. Even your good old SAT or ACT scores reflect the accumulation of vocabulary, mathematics, and reading comprehension talents acquired throughout your life. The essay, however, is who you are right now. So, why not get started . . . right now.

I’m going to be completely honest with you: your application essay cannot overshadow years of poor grades and test scores, and in this case, your essay may never find itself in front of the admission committee. At the same time, you shouldn’t downplay the importance of the essay either. Keep in mind essays are a major separating factor in sorting the mediocre students from those who have gone (and most likely will continue to go) above and beyond.

Let’s get started

It’s time to pick your essay topic. Hi. My name is Brent. What’s your name? “[Insert your name here.]” Great! That’s exactly who your essay should be about: you. This is your chance to paint a picture of who you are. I can’t even tell you how many wonderful application essays I’ve read about students’ mothers, fathers, brothers, grandmothers, neighbors, and even the ice cream truck driver being the most influential person in their lives. Those essays make the other people sound amazing! After reading them, I want to call the students up and encourage their grandmothers to apply! But, after reading these enthralling stories about other people, I still know absolutely nothing about the student who wrote the essay. So, I’ll say it again: please, tell me about you. What are you like beyond your GPA and test scores? What makes you unique? What can you contribute to our campus community?

Now, keep in mind that creativity and a bit of humor are nice. Professionals on admission committees have the daunting task of reading thousands of application essays per year, and it can get a bit daunting after a while. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Common Application, but its essay questions don’t exactly push for creativity or thinking outside of the box. For example, “Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you . . . ” is the essay topic where I hear an awful lot about Grandma, and the “topic of your choice” prompt can go from interesting to ridiculous pretty quickly. This being said, remember to choose an essay topic that helps keep the focus on you but is still flexible enough for you to incorporate your personality, your history, your sense of humor.

Some college and university applications provide essay questions that influence some pretty good answers. For example, at The University of Tampa, the question “How do you feel about the month of February?” rarely results in a boring application essay and can go in numerous directions. In fact, many schools have cool, offbeat essay questions that really provide you with the opportunity to present the admission committee with new insight as to who you are. Take a chance! Get out of your comfort zone! Go out on a limb and take a stab at the question that helps you paint a unique and compelling self-portrait. And if your dream school presents you with some of the old standards, remember to approach the subject from the most unique angle you can.

You’ve decided on a topic

Great! Now, let’s start writing. “In 10th grade, I became a hooker.” Yes, this is the actual first line of an application essay we received a few years ago and something I never imagined I would see while reading an admission essay. Ever. Immediately I was stunned trying to think of the events that must have lead up to this moment and how this student was going to swing this into a positive light. I had to read on. What I didn’t know at the time was that a “hooker” was actually the name of a position on a rugby team. The student went on about how he developed the strength and technique needed to be successful in the position and how that experience shaped him into the man he had become. Whether or not it was intentional, this student start-ed his essay in a way that certainly caught the attention of the admission committee, and that’s what your first sentences absolutely need to do.

While it is important to talk yourself up as the awesome student you truly are, you still have to remember that the application essay is not a résumé. You can certainly submit a résumé with your application, but your essay is not the place to do it. We want you to expand upon a few characteristics that make you great, not just give us a list with the thousand and one things that contribute to your greatness. This way, we are able to fully grasp why these particular characteristics, out of the many you could have selected, are so important to you and who you are as an individual. Besides, that other essay would go on forever, and, as I mentioned, we read thousands of these things each year.

On copious occurrences, pupils will endeavor to parade their current acquaintance with the English vernacular in an attempt to affect an air of knowledge. Let’s face it, that sounded a little silly, and this is exactly what we go through each time students attempt to replace every other word in their essays with longer words and more complex terms from a thesaurus. My suggestion to you is this: don’t. When a student attempts to stuff the essay with large words—words we both know are not a part of his or her everyday vocabulary—it often actually detracts from the piece. Be conscious of your word choice. Use your own voice. Remember, the admission committee wants to focus on you, and sometimes it is hard to do so when all they are thinking is, “What is this person talking about?!”

In my experience, students love to write about how they have learned from their mistakes. They will go on and on about the time they did this illegal thing and broke the law, but it’s okay, because they learned from their mistake. The application process is competitive and there are plenty of good applicants out there who have never broken the law. You are not required to incriminate yourself in your application essay, nor should you. This might be your only chance to show the admission committee that you are more than just a GPA, test scores, and a bunch of extracurricular activities, so it may be best not to ruin their first impression of you with your past criminal history.

Sometimes the admission committee will make a decision on whether or not to admit you to their college or university immediately after evaluating your application, and other times, they may hold on to your file for months before making their final decision. You need to end your application essay just as strongly as you began so the committee remembers you when it comes time to make their final decision. When there are only a few spots left in the class, you want to be the one they choose. If your essay is forgettable, well, you might be too.

And, pencils down

You’re done, right? Wrong. Once you have completed your application essay, be sure to find a couple of people you trust to look over your work before you submit it. I don’t recommend a friend who is afraid to correct your mistakes, or a parent, if you can help it. A teacher or family friend would be a great choice. Since you already know how it’s supposed to read, and you’re accustomed to reading it, it’s often easier for another person to catch your mistakes. You should also try reading the essay aloud to yourself.

Don’t rely on spell check alone to catch all of your mistakes, either. We had one applicant that said, “I speak tree languages.” (Really? Birch, oak, and what else?) As you can see, sometimes things are spelled correctly but just don’t make sense in the context of your application essay. Be sure you are using the correct form of words too (they’re, their, there, your, you’re, etc.). Few things will throw off an application evaluator more than misspellings and typos in the college essay—except when you mention the wrong college! Don’t tell us how much you want to attend XYZ University when you are submitting the essay to The College of ABC.  

Remember, in the grand scheme of the college admission process, the application essay is a unique opportunity—and an opportunity to be unique.

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