Pros on Prose: The Truth About The College Admission Essay

In 2014 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 2017 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 Kailin Burns from Bryant University - 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.

Burns: At Bryant University, we pride ourselves on a holistic review process and that includes full review of the applicant’s essay. For most of our applicants, the essay is the first time that we “hear their voice.” One of my favorite essays this year was written by a student who described himself as a finicky eater but embarked upon trying Chipotle—which would be the ultimate test of trying something new for him. He talked about how this forced him to become more open-minded and be more observant of the world around him. I really enjoyed this essay because I was able to get a sense of the writer’s personality but also felt that I was meeting a student who was ready to embrace college and the new experiences that come with it.

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.

Burns: I find that students think that they have to fully answer the essay prompt and treat it like a traditional high school essay by trying to “tie it up with a bow.” I try to convey to students that the essay is their opportunity for the admission committee to hear their voice and learn something additional about them. The essay should not be repeating everything that is listed on their activities resume; but rather focus on something that is personally significant. Choose something that you care about and your essay will flow naturally.

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.

Burns: While creativity and individualism is encouraged in the application process, the student should also keep their reader in mind. Writing in the form of a poem might be very appropriate for a student that is applying to a creative writing program but might not be best for an engineering student. While the essay is the space for the student’s “voice” to come through, they should be considerate of what they are sharing. Would they feel comfortable if their grandparent were to read what they wrote? If their best friend were to read their essay would they know who had written it?

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

Burns: Several years ago, I read an article from Vanderbilt’s Office of Admission about how before the selfie, the college essay was a selfie. Your essay should be a representation of you and what you have accomplished so far, or what you dream of accomplishing. After reading your essay, the reader should be able to have a clearer sense of who you are as a young person and an idea of what you will bring to their community.

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?

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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.