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…)

Essay Topics That Worked–And Why

College Application Essays

How Anecdotes Make Them Work

 

One of the best ways to learn what types of topics make the most interesting essays is to check out what other students wrote about. Especially if those students had the right guidance and came up with unique, more about compelling ideas. Like, link say, my students!

If you are new to this blog, I always encourage writers to find mini-stories (anecdotes) that they can relate in their essays to reveal and share their broader ideas, passions and values. I also advise them that everyday (mundane) topics work the best.

The idea is that an anecdote is a perfect “grabber” for an introduction, since it hooks the reader’s attention with a compelling mini-story.

It usually shares one moment or focused image, event or experience, using a fiction-like writing style.

Here are five topics that my students came up with last year. I tried to sum up their anecdote and then how they expanded that moment or experience into an essay.

RELATED: How to Write a College Application Essay in 3 Steps

See if you find these helpful in understanding how you can use this format:

Anecdote: The writer described “the time” he hoisted himself up in a tree using ropes and his knot-tying skills, but got stuck.

Larger theme: He then wrote about how his passion for knot-tying reflected his ability to solve problems, using logic, patience and imagination.

 

college application essay

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The Perfect Topic: Right Under Your Nose

 

College Application Essays: Search For the Perfect Topic

It’s Closer Than You Think

 

I’ve learned a lot about what makes a great essay topic over the last six years I’ve helped students with their college application essays.

If you’re just starting the process of writing your essay, you might be surprised what I’ve discovered about the best topics:

They are not what you would expect.

1. The best topics do not include what might be considered your best accomplishments or achievements. In fact, the opposite is true.

2. They often are the very thing you think would never make a good topic.

3. Good ones can be right in front of your nose. In fact, they might be on your face.

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Find Your Defining Qualities

No matter what the prompt asks for, almost any effective college essay should showcase one or several of what I call your “defining qualities.”

If the prompt asks you to write a personal statement (for The Common App), tell about yourself or wants to know why you are a fit for their university, you will need a clear idea of the core qualities or characteristics that make you who you are—that “define” you.

Once you know those, you can write an essay that helps the reader understand how you are that way, and why it matters.

Of course, along the way, you will also mention your related interests, passions, idiosyncrasies, talents, experiences, accomplishments and even your endearing flaws.

(If you are confused at this point, you might want to check out my Quickie Jumpstart Guide to better understand the role these “defining qualities” play in a college admissions essay or personal statement.) (more…)

How to Land in the “Yes” Pile

college application essay

Photo by n0nick

College Application Essays

Five Places to Start

After helping students discover their own unique topics over the last five or so years, I can spot a great topic the minute a student mentions one.

And I suspect it’s no different for the college  admissions people who read zillions of these.

Like most written pieces, you know after the first sentence or two if it’s going to be engaging or a drag (boring, trying to hard to impress, too general).

I can almost hear their conversations as they decide which essay to neatly stack in the “Yes” pile and those to toss over into the growing “No” pile:

“What do you think about the kid who got stuck in the tree?”

“Loved him!”

“How about the guy who went to Italy and took a class over summer studying architecture.”

“Lucky him. But I didn’t really get any feel about what he’s all about. Pass.”

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Essay Rocket Fuel: The Anecdote

College Admissions Essays

How to Write an Anecdote

For Your College Application Essay, Personal Statement or other Essays

If you can write an anecdote, you can write a powerful essay.

But a lot of students don’t know what an anecdote is, let alone how to write one.

It’s really just a weird word for a little story or animated description of something that happened.

Usually they are very short.

If done well, they make excellent introductions for all essays since they grab the reader’s attention.

In essays, an anecdote is an example of a point you want to make that uses a little story or animated description.

Example: You want to make the point in your essay that you are a creative person.

So you write an anecdote to illustrate your point: You could describe something creative that you made, or you could describe yourself making something interesting.

Like this:

During a walk near my home, I found a long stick that looked like the letter “Y.” I smoothed the surface with sandpaper and covered it with blueberry blue paint I found in the garage, then wrapped it with twine and colored yarn. From my junk drawer, I tied seashells, a couple old keys and a bent fork to the ends and hung it in my room.

“What’s that?” my little sister asked.

“Art,” I said, even though I wasn’t even sure what I had made.

(Then background your interest in art, how you think about it, why you value it, how it has affected you, changed you, and what your plans are for it in the future…)

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