Common College Admissions Questions: College Essay

College Application Essay

Does your school require or recommend an essay from applicants? If yes, can you describe some of the characteristics of the best essays you have read over the past few years? What’s your advice to an applicant who wants to make a personal statement with the essay? If no, why has your school decided not to use essays?

Most schools require or recommend a personal essay or answers to one or more questions. It is vital that you take the time to plan, write, and edit your work. Most admissions folks see the written portion of the application as the chance for you to stand out from other applicants — to show how you are unique — to open a window into the person behind the grades and standardized test scores.

[Editor’s Note: See also our article, Writing the Successful College Application Essay: Tips for Success.]

Here are the answers to this question from each member of our panel:

Karen Copetas, Western Washington University

While we do not require a personal essay, we strongly encourage applicants to submit one. Since student interviews are not part of our admissions process, the essays are really our only chance to get know students beyond their grades and test scores. The best essays help distinguish the individual student from other applicants. Students can accomplish this by letting their personal voices come through in their writing, and presenting something that they are truly passionate about.

The best way to answer this question is to show you exactly what we send to students in the fall of their senior year. The following is an excerpt from our online newsletter, “Most Wanted,” which gives students recommendations on how to write an effective personal essay:

  • Don’t wait until the last minute. Remember that time you tried to write a whole paper a couple hours before it was due? Enough said.
  • Be sure to proofread. While it’s tempting to send the application off right after you put the final period on your personal essay, that strategy isn’t recommended. Instead, take a break from the application, and come back to it later with fresh eyes. And after you’re done with it, have someone else (preferably a detail-oriented person) take a look at it.
  • It’s okay to double-dip (a.ka. be efficient). Our application encourages you to provide “a list of your school and community activities, employment, awards, community service, etc.” If you have a resume, or you have put together something like this for another college application, feel free to use it.
  • Help us understand your academic record. Did your grades drop substantially at some point? If so, why? Don’t leave us guessing about what happened. We might guess wrong (i.e. that you just didn’t do your homework because you didn’t feel like it).
  • Tell us what you have to bring to campus. We’re not talking about your stuffed teddy bear or your favorite jacket. What kinds of experiences, perspectives, passions, skills, and goals do you have that will add to our community? We pride ourselves on having an active and diverse student body, and would love to hear about what you have to add to the mix.
  • Don’t worry if you think there isn’t anything “unique” about you. Chances are that most of the admissions committee members haven’t met you before. We just want to get to know you. It really is that simple.

Jay Murray, Marist College

We require the personal essay. We want a student to tell us what makes them unique. We want to read about students who are clearly distinct. Good writers who make the reader laugh, cry, or read more, are the applicants who will be remembered. I feel that the ultimate goal of an essay is to tell the committee something about the applicant that they won’t otherwise know, and to stand out from the other applications. A student should not use the essay as a place to explain negatives (i.e. bad grades). Instead the essay is a vehicle for showcasing positives.

Daniel C. Walls, Emory University

We require one long essay and two short answer responses. Essays, much like letters of recommendation, add a human face to the application.

If we only reviewed courses, scores and grades, it would be more efficient to have a computer make admission decisions. The review process is both holistic and subjective. Good applications share personal information and assist the admission committee in getting to know the candidate beyond just academic information.

Karen Guastelle, Sacred Heart University

Yes, we do require an essay. We give students two options: submit a graded writing sample or answer one of two questions. The student only has to submit one essay. The best essays we read are the ones that come from the heart and we gain insight into students thoughts, feelings and passions. It may seem cliche, but it does make their application come alive and it allows us to “see” a person behind all of the scores and grades and it can be a factor in making a good decision based on “fit”. I also recommend that if a student is writing about a struggle or a negative experience, that they write about what they learned or how they grew from it. The student does not want to come across as an applicant who should be admitted because of the trauma, but rather should be admitted because of their strength and experiences. I can’t overestimate the use of examples to bring alive the essay — “show don’t tell” through examples. Personal statements are a good supplement to the application when it can tell us more about a student than we can’t already get from reading the application. It should add more relevance. If it is not required and does not enhance the student’s application, my recommendation is to omit it.

Tracy Manier, St. Edward’s University

The St. Edward’s University admission application typically provides three or four questions, from which students select one upon which to base their essay. The essay topics that are provided in the admission application change each year and are uniquely developed by the St. Edward’s University Admission Office. In general, one prompt encourages the applicant to formulate a more introspective essay. Another prompt is usually connected to a global issue or current event, while still another prompt is usually constructed to be more open ended and solicit creative responses.

Superior admission essays usually have two main characteristics. First, they serve as a personal lens to the applicant, revealing something unique about the student’s opinions, past experiences, or future aspirations. Second, superior essays are solidly written, free of grammatical or typographical errors, and cohesive in content. Applicants who take the time to address the prompt in a creative way and use language to provide vivid images, produce superior essays. The essay is often the only piece of information in an admission application that reveals the personality, thoughts, and tendencies of the applicant. It is a personal statement in any regard, as it is a manifestation of both the applicant’s academic abilities and his or her unique perspective in the world.

We certainly encourage students to take a personal approach to the essay — to even be bold if they choose to do so. Students should not be overly concerned with whether or not the reader agrees with their point of view. At the same time, it’s important to exercise good judgment. Essays that cause us to question a student’s sense of ethics or integrity, for example, could undermine other positive aspects of the application.

Back to our main page: Answers to Common College Admissions Questions.

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