As admission to the nation’s most selective schools has become increasingly competitive over the past decade, Gregory Sneed has seen the college essay rise in significance.
“From my perspective, unless a student interviews (which is not always an option or a requirement), the personal statement is the only place where an applicant can inject some personality into the application,” says Sneed, Vice President of Enrollment Management at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. “Teachers and counselors can write about the applicant, but only the applicant can provide such an intensely personal bit of character. I’ve seen plenty of perfect SAT scores, and straight A’s are straight A’s, but a personal statement can truly be one of a kind—in a good way.”
Sneed is not alone. Admission professionals at top universities across the country tell me time and again exactly what they are looking for in a personal statement. One thing is certain: the personal statement provides an opportunity to show people who may never meet you in real life just what kind of person you are.
Be careful when you start writing your college essays. There’s a lot of information on the web and in books, and many well-meaning adults try to help. But unfortunately much of that information is confusing, gimmicky, or simply inaccurate. You need to make sure you get the right information so your essay can help you, not hurt you.
Related: 15 Mind-Blowing College Essay Tips
What is a college essay, anyway?
Simply put, a college essay refers to any piece of writing that a college requires as part of the admission process. You might hear them referred to as personal statements, personal insight questions, or short-answer questions. There are supplemental essays too, but the hardest one is arguably the personal statement, the first one you will likely write as part of your college application.
As Sneed implies, most schools do not conduct interviews, so the college essay may be the only opportunity you have to share your unique voice with the people who get to decide your fate inside the admission office.
“The college essay is your interview,” says Kim Bryant, Assistant Director of Admissions at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor. “Let me know who you really are.”
Amy Jarich, Associate Vice Chancellor of Admissions & Enrollment and Director of Admissions at the University of California, Berkeley, wants to know what you care about.
“What would you tell me in an elevator? Let me know that you’re active and alive in the world you live in.”
How do I make my essay stand out?
Colleges will use your essays to help select a diverse class from among the hundreds or thousands of applicants whose grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities can make all of you look alike.
Have you considered how to make yourself stand out? Do you know what colleges want and why? I asked admission officers from a diverse group of schools across the US for their insight. Selective schools like Denison, Michigan, UC Berkeley, and others each look for a glimpse of who the applicant is as a writer but more importantly as a person. They use the essay to help determine what an applicant can offer them and what they have learned from their life experiences—the things that are not easily captured on a transcript or activities list.
According to Katie Fretwell, who just retired as Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid from Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts, you “don’t want to get caught in the ‘what do they want to hear?’ trap. The essay is about what you want to say.
“Think about what the rest of your application will already reveal,” Fretwell says. “Don’t waste the opportunity to let your personality shine by stating the obvious or being redundant in your essay content or message.”
When he reads a good essay, Calvin Wise, the Director of Recruitment for Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, gets excited and will share it with colleagues. He doesn’t see any reason to share grades and test scores. Just like admission officers at other highly selective schools, Wise expects strong GPAs and top scores on the ACT, SAT, and AP exams.
At its core, the college essay is all about reflection.
“We need to dig deeper,” Wise says. “That’s where the essay comes into play. That’s where we find out more about the student. We are looking for your story. Academically, we are glad you’ve done well. We want to know who you are. What did your experience mean to you? How did it shape you?
“I never run into a colleague’s office and say, ‘Look at this 4.0 GPA,’” Wise adds. “I will run into an office with a good essay to share; that excites me.”
Does the experience you choose to write about have to be earth shattering? No. Does it have to illustrate an “aha!” moment? Not at all. It is a reflection on something that has meaning to you. It doesn’t matter what that is.
There’s no magic answer, no secret sauce, no shortcut. The essay is one (very important) piece of a holistic admission process.
What makes a good admission essay?
The best essays are often simple and personal. Admission officers tell me time and again they like all types of stories as long as they are genuine, show reflection, and answer the prompt. While small, focused stories get their attention more than anything else, colleges are often less critical of student essays than you or your worried parents might assume.
“Life is truly lived in the smaller moments, and that can make a powerful essay,” says Jan Deike, Assistant Director of Admissions at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. “But sometimes students feel that because they haven’t found the cure for cancer, they have nothing to share.”
There is no rubric for a “good” essay, but admission officers agree the ones that stand out all share a few common features. Regardless of the prompt, they:
- Answer the question;
- Showcase a positive trait or characteristic;
- Sound like a high school student;
- Illustrate something meaningful about the student; and
- Demonstrate reflection.
What should I write about?
What do you want colleges to know about you beyond your grades, transcripts, and test scores? Consider your best traits and characteristics, not your accomplishments and experiences. Always remember that colleges want to know who you are, not what you did. They want genuine stories that illustrate positive characteristics and insight that reveals something meaningful about you.
What are the traits you want to share with colleges? Are you resourceful? Dependable? Curious? A hard worker? Shy? Funny? Competitive? Determined? How are you going to find a story that illustrates your choice trait and use it to answer the essay prompt?
Shawn Felton, the Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, reviews thousands of applications each admission cycle. What delights him? A story that rounds out an applicant’s package and an essay that helps him understand who the person is.
“We want to put a face to the pile of paper,” Felton explains. “It is part of a number of identifiers that deliver who you are as a person.”
What turns him off? Stories that are not genuine, don’t answer the prompt, or fail to give him any insight into the applicant’s character. He doesn’t like it when students try too hard to impress him or write essays that seem forced or inauthentic. “The essay is not something to be cracked,” he cautions.
Christoph Guttentag, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, has worked inside the admission office for many decades. He, too, is disappointed by essays that appear to be inauthentic or over-edited.
“By the time [the application] comes to us, many of them have gone through so many hands that the essays are sanitized,” Guttentag says. “I wish I saw more of a thoughtful voice of a 17-year-old.”
Why are college essays so important?
Try to look at every essay you are asked to write as an opportunity.
“The essay is a student’s best opportunity to speak directly to an admission committee that’s making a decision,” explains Peter Osgood, Director of Admission at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California. “It carries significant value in terms of the impression it communicates.”
Personal statements are very important in adding context to an application file. “Quantitative factors such as transcripts and test scores only tell part of the story,” says Tamara Siler, Senior Associate Director of Admission at Rice University in Houston. “A personal statement can provide context and truly show why a certain student is a better match than other clearly capable students. Sometimes an essay can be the conduit for a student to reveal something to the admission committee that we would never have thought to ask.”
Any last advice?
Most colleges don’t want to be too harsh on students’ writing abilities. They often look for content over grammar but hope applicants have a healthy respect for the rules of written English. Osgood at Harvey Mudd agrees. He doesn’t like to be too harsh on 17-year-olds who have had little or no experience with this type of reflective writing, nor do others. But Osgood does tire of reading essays that don’t share anything meaningful, like “really dry descriptive things and telling us what happened without being reflective.”
The college essay can help, and sometimes it can hurt. Jim Cotter, the Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Michigan State University in East Lansing, has worked inside the world of admission for more than three decades. The essay, he explains, can help a student who is on the cusp get into MSU. “At a highly selective school,” he says, “a poor statement can make the difference between being admitted or not.”