Pros on Prose: The Truth About The College Admission Essay

In 2015 the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) released their State of College Admission Report. The result of their survey revealed that colleges ranked the application essay as the 5th most-important factor in the admission process. The only items ranking higher in importance were grades, GPA, curriculum and test scores. Recommendations, extracurricular activities, class rank and interviews all fell further down the list of items…AFTER the essay.

As the members of the class of 2018 begin their applications, writing the main essay will undoubtedly be one of the most daunting tasks associated with the process. Before putting pen to paper - or fingers to keyboard -  we thought it would be helpful to ask two admission folks who will soon be reading hundreds of these application essays - Janika Berridge from The College of New Jersey and Jeff Mongold from Hiram College in Ohio - to give us the real scoop on what students should be focusing on in their essay.

Q: What role, at your institution, does the essay play in the admission review process?

Berridge: The essay is not likely to change an admissions decision, but it does allow Admissions to learn more about the student. We may also use the essay to assess interest and level of commitment to our college.

Mongold: In many cases, the college essay is second in importance only to the high school transcripts. At Hiram we do a holistic review of a student applying for admission. With the exception of only a few programs, Hiram is test optional. We rely on the essay, the interview, and letters of reference to get a good picture of the student. The essay is an opportunity for the student to display their writing ability, but it is also an opportunity for the student to make a connection with the admission counselor reading the essay. Stories are powerful. This is a chance for the student to tell their story.

Q: What is the one mistake you see students making most often when writing their college application essays? Is there a common myth you'd like to be busted about the essay?

Berridge: In addition to writing a cohesive piece that flows and answers the prompt, students should keep in mind their own writing abilities. It is great to use a thesaurus to diversify word choice, but not at the expense of misusing an advanced word, or placing one in an otherwise simple sentence for no reason other than wanting to impress the reader.

Mongold: Often I find students write in flat, guarded voices. It can be a tough task for a student to balance letting his or her personality shine through and trying not to overshare or get too personal. The counselors I know want a student to stand off the page, to get a sense of the individual. An overly formal voice blocks this.

Q: Should students take a risk in their essay (i.e. write in the form of a poem, share something they feel is very personal, write in the third person, etc.)?

Berridge: It is fine to approach the college essay creatively. Students are welcome to take risks, as long as they make sense. If poetry is your form of self-expression, then go ahead and share your story in verse. I once read an essay about color. It was completely abstract, but so fluid that it highlighted the student’s strong writing ability and artistry. Personal essays are not uncommon and really show us a different, more vulnerable side to the student. Certain experiences or challenges have affected students in ways worth noting, and that is just fine. Other students may not have colorful or profound stories, and that is alright, as well.

Mongold: The short answer to this is yes. The most memorable essays are always from the risk takers. But it wouldn't be a risk without the possibility of things going poorly. If a student is going to take a risk, it should be well thought out, planned, and executed with the end goal in mind: getting accepted to the institution and furthering the case for additional scholarships. I always advise a student to let several trusted mentors read it and to take their feedback into consideration. I also suggest that after it is written, the student put it away for a couple days or a week and then read it again with a fresh perspective.

Q: What do you wish students WOULD share in their essays?

Berridge: I wish for students to share their stories or passions – whatever they may be. What have we not learned about you from the other components of your application?

Mongold: I like for a student to share a story that shows change and includes reflection. It's good to know what happened but even better to know why it happened. What did it mean to them?  What changed? Sometimes when I bring this up, students will think it has to be a major life event or a tragedy of some sort, and it really doesn't. Sometimes the biggest changes and most meaning come from little moments: happy, silly, sad. These little moments move us forward as much as the big ones.

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The moral of the story? Remember that your essay is your opportunity to share something about yourself that is not unveiled in any other part of your application. It’s your chance to become multi-dimensional and for the admission readers to evaluate how and if you would fit into their campus community. Be authentic. Be genuine. Be you.