Application essays: the voyage begins

Now that October has arrived, Early Action and Early Decision application deadlines are creeping into view and students are focusing their attention on application essays and supplements.

Over almost thirty years in admissions and college counseling, I estimate that I have read upward of 80,000 individual application essays. As an admissions dean, I worked closely with my staffs at different colleges to create essay prompts that would be interesting to students and useful to us in the evaluation process, and then eagerly awaited the responses. As a college counselor, I helped students decipher those “interesting” prompts, saw them wrestle with ideas for their essays, and encouraged them as they worked through various drafts.

My experience on both sides of the admissions desk confirmed my long-held belief that high school students and college admissions personnel exist in parallel universes.

Photo credit: “Star Walk” app, Picture of the day

Though everyone works on the same process with the same application materials, the perspective of each world is, to some extent, self-limiting. This creates a significant communications gap between the two universes. The “what was asked or said” vs. “what was heard” discrepancy between “Admissions Officer World” and “High School Student World” can be seen pretty clearly through the lens of the application essay.

Broadly speaking, I’ve observed that:

In “Admissions Officer World,” the application is seen as a uniform structure or framework that prompts students to represent themselves clearly, authentically, and in some detail…while in “High School Student World,” students tend to view the application as a constraint, into which truncated information about their lives must be squashed.

Inhabitants of “AO World” think of the application essay as a vehicle for self-introduction (“tell us about yourself”)…while inhabitants of “HSS World” often look at the essays and ask “what do the colleges want to hear?”

Admissions personnel hope the essay will elicit self-reflection on the applicant’s part…while students often see the essay as a means of reporting or describing events, and worry that discussing the personal significance of those events will seem trite, formulaic, or, worst of all, uninteresting.

Admissions personnel at colleges that use institution-specific applications or that request supplements to the Common Application work hard to create interesting essay prompts…which are often viewed by students as contrived (at best) or downright baffling (at worst).

So essay questions are frequently as open-ended questions as possible…which can be frustrating for students who tend to wish for more direction and specificity.

Overall, I think much of the confusion about application essays stems from the fact that students tend to focus on the task itself (“I just need to write the essay”) while college admissions personnel tend to focus on the goal (how does the essay enhance the picture of yourself that is created through the application.) The gulf between what college admissions officers say about application essays and what students hear is widened and muddied by the amount and variety of (frequently contradictory) information available to students from multiple sources, not all of which are reliable. We may not be able to do much to turn down that noise in the system, but those on both sides of the admissions desk can help students as they craft their essays.

In an effort to avoid a further “War of the Worlds,” I offer these suggestions to facilitate reconciliation of the parallel universes:

For college admissions officers:

Offer more information about the context and purpose of the application essays, to let students know how the essays fit into the application as a whole. Over the last decade or so, I’ve listened to a number of admissions reps describe the application process to prospective students, and very few offer “big picture” information to their audiences. It’s obvious to admissions officers that the essay supplements and enhances the information about the applicant that is elsewhere in the application, but students aren’t always able to think about the essays in that broader context. It’s task vs. goal orientation again, and admissions officers could provide more information about the overall goal of the application. I know that not every college or high school can offer “case study” sessions, in which students have the opportunity to review complete sample applications, but these are so useful. Seeing a whole application that is not your own helps one understand how the individual pieces work together.

If you want essays that are less narrative and more reflective, rephrase the prompts. As written, most essay prompts lead with the invitation for students to describe an event, a person, or an issue – and then conclude with a short phrase asking for some reflection. As a result, students often feel they should focus their essays on the event, person, or issue, and include just a sentence or two about what the event means to them. If you’d rather learn more about how the student processes his or her experience rather than how he or she reports it, use the question to direct the response. Flip the standard phrasing and try something like: Please reflect on an event or person important in your life. We don’t need to know a lot about the event or the person you choose – but we’d like to know why either was significant for you, and/or how you have changed as a result of that experience or from knowing that person.

For students:

Before you begin the application, think about the personal qualities you want to present to the admissions officers who will read your application. Take a step back and think carefully about the information each piece of the application will provide about you: the transcript and test scores say something, teacher and counselor recommendations say something – what do you want admissions officers to know that won’t be covered elsewhere? Once you’ve decided what you want to present, then look at the essay prompts and see which one gives you the best opportunity to illustrate the points you want to make about yourself.  When you are submitting multiple essays or supplements with an application, make sure each response complements the others, and adds new information about you to the application.

Detail will win the day. Many essays fall flat because the writers don’t offer sufficient examples to illustrate the points they want to make. Details make individual essays vivid and are unique to each writer. So don’t just say that you learned a lot from working for the Parks Department last summer – let the reader know, specifically, what you learned or how the experience changed you. Don’t leave the reader to draw his or her own conclusions – if you don’t illustrate your points, the conclusions drawn by readers may not be the ones you intend.

Quality of output is proportionate to quality of input. I know that some students feel they do their best work under pressure, with a deadline only hours away. I also know that the best essays I’ve read are NOT first drafts. Trust me on this. Your essays will improve if you allow yourself the time to brainstorm, try out a few different ideas, and revise. And revise again. An ancillary bonus to getting an early start on your essays is that it will make your parents happy, and let them know they don’t have to hound you about deadlines.

Good luck to all as we boldly go into this next phase of the admissions cycle!

Photo credit: “Star Walk” app, Picture of the day

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