Advising 101: What Are Admissions Officers Looking for in College Essays?

One rumor that stubbornly reappears concerning the college application process is that the essays don’t really matter. The truth is that they do, especially when considering highly competitive applicant pools or students with borderline GPAs or test scores—in these cases, high-quality, compelling essays can tip things in an applicant’s favor. Moreover, essays are a crucial piece of every application because they give students the chance to showcase their story in their own unique voice. In Green Ivy’s summer college counseling admissions bootcamps, we assign readings from the fantastic Fiske Guide: Real College Essays That Work. This collection shows a range of what is possible in the college essay from a diverse pool of students, and it is a great place to get started.

A few guidelines to consider to help craft effective college essays:

Take time to reflect, and show personal growth and insight. It may seem counterintuitive, but it can be helpful in your prewriting to think about the moments in your life when you failed or things didn’t go as planned. Most students are hesitant to write about failure, but these are most often the experiences that cause self-reflection or insight, which are important characteristics in admissions. In our experience, the most powerful essays are often written about a student’s vulnerabilities or how he or she coped in a challenging time and experienced personal growth.

Give them new information. Your application gathers depth and interest if you can use your writing to capture an aspect of yourself that isn’t readily apparent from your activities list. Consider surprising them—do you have a collection of pens that means everything to you? Do you invent things in your free time? Are you passionate about all things Japanese or all things sewing and quilting? It doesn’t matter the topic, as long as it matters to you and highlights positive aspects of your personality.

Showcase your strengths. You can still write about failure and demonstrate your positive qualities. It’s all about the approach, and if you can show the ways you learned from an experience or benefited in a positive way, that’s showing strength of character. Admissions officers want to see honesty, vulnerability, and the ability to recover from setbacks.

There is no one “right” topic for personal statements or essays. For that matter, there aren’t any “wrong” ones, although we do advise steering clear of the Three Ds: Death, Divorce, and Disease. Although these are meaningful and powerful topics, they are difficult to explore fully in the college essay. Much of the time, great essays spring from smaller moments and experiences that work to illuminate a student’s larger character and personality.

What kind of writer are you? In part, your essays show admissions officers how well you can put your thoughts on paper and what level of writing skills you possess. Critical thinking and writing are key to college success, so the clarity of your writing matters as much as the content of your essays. This means your essays need to go through more drafts than you perhaps thought possible (we’ve had students who wrote more than 20!), but that effort and attention to detail will pay off in the end.

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