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What Do Admissions Officers Really Really Want?

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College Application Essays

Hot Writing Tips from The Other Side!

 

If you haven’t noticed, I have a lot of opinions about what makes a great college application essay.

But who am I?

I’ve never been an admissions officer, so how do I know what they like and want?

I thought it was time to ask a real live, breathing admissions officer who reads thousands of these essays–and uses them to decide who’s in or who’s out.

To find a great source, I went back to when I started tutoring students on these essays, and my very first client–my daughter.

When Cassidy was an incoming high school senior during the summer of 2008, I helped with her essays.

We had read the guide on finding terrific small liberal arts schools that are off the radar, called 40 Colleges That Change Lives, and she ended up going to one from that book, called Hendrix College in Arkansas.

Cassidy just graduated this spring, and her small college was every bit as wonderful both academically and socially as the book described (Five years in a row Hendrix has been on the “Most Up and Coming Schools” list for U.S. News & World Report).

I decided to ask their admissions officers how they select students using these essays. (more…)

Long, but read every word. Read it twice. Pure gold.

How to Write a Killer Essay

New York Times Upfront , Dec 13, 1999 by Glenn C. Altschuler

An Ivy League dean offers six tips to steer your admission essay in the right direction:

1. Write about your world and your experiences. A 17-year-old inhabits a foreign country, and adults who work in colleges are curious about what it’s like to live within its borders. Essays about a friendship that was forged or one that failed, buying a pair of sneakers, an afternoon working at Dunkin’ Donuts, or getting robbed on the subway can provide glimpses of your ideas, values, and passions.

2. Avoid writing about national and global issues. You’ll sound like a teenager trying to sound like an adult.

3. Describe, don’t characterize. Minimize adjectives and adverbs. “The Coach Who Changed My Life” may be healthy, wealthy, and wise, but these qualities can best be conveyed in a narrative of what he actually said and did. In “Ode to Dad,” a Cornell applicant explained her father’s values by describing his hands, encrusted with dirt from a career as a truck farmer. It worked.

4. Resist the temptation to let others speak for you. A quotation from a philosopher, poet, or politician may appear to be the perfect opportunity to parade your erudition. More often than not, however, you will impress no one.

5. Establish distance from your subject. Distance discourages essayists from drawing the cliched moral. Every semester I yearn for the applicant who will declare that organized sports are not a metaphor for life, that the race is not always to the swift. Years ago we admitted a student whose essay, “Riding the Pine,” found that no enduring truths came from sitting on the bench for an entire baseball season. It’s OK to be just a bit confused, to find the meaning of life elusive.

6. Know yourself. Selection committee members are pretty savvy. They have learned to look for authenticity, not profundity. But knowing yourself, on paper, takes imagination, reflection, and time. Start early, let parents and friends read it, and then revise. The voice you find may be your own.

GLENN C. ALTSCHULER is a dean and professor at Cornell University.