Here’s What Admissions Officers Look for in a College Entrance Essay
Published on May 1, 2019
In 2017, Carolina Williams earned admission to Yale thanks in part to an application essay about her love of Papa John's pizza. Williams' essay brought widespread recognition from news outlets and social media, and demonstrated how admissions essays can help students add a personal touch to an otherwise faceless process. The piece highlighted her distinct literary style and fun personality, and it's a model that other applicants should emulate.
While many students stress over their essays, it's important to remember that this is just one component of the admissions process, and rarely the decisive factor. That doesn't mean that the essay is unimportant; it does give you an opportunity to directly make your case to the admissions committee. Just keep a healthy perspective on its relative importance as you write.
Why does the college application essay matter?
The essay is an opportunity to impress an admissions team that may be on the fence regarding your application. While much of the application review process is automated, the essay is an opportunity for students to be evaluated on their creativity and personal experiences. Mitch Warren, the director of admissions at Purdue University, drives this point home.
"We receive about 54,000 applications from high school students each year, and despite that really large number, [the essay] truly is an individual and holistic review." While there is no template for how to write a college application essay, there are easily avoidable mistakes and helpful tips students can follow that will enhance their submission.
Many schools do not require an essay, and in cases where it's optional, some applicants skip it. Warren encourages students to write one, however, arguing that the essay "helps us to better understand the life of the applicant, especially things with grit, humor, motivation. I think also it helps tell stories that we may not have picked up on elsewhere in the application."
A student's narrative can help admissions officers understand how their storyline intersects with the institution's purpose. Below, we've highlighted a few of Warren's do's and don'ts for the essay, recalling mistakes he's seen in his time as an admissions director, and providing practical advice students can incorporate throughout the application process.
Do: Proof read your personal statement
When you're finished writing your admissions essay, it's important to proofread your material. Running your essay through spell check is important, and having someone you trust read your essay to catch other small mistakes is even better. Admissions officers generally won't dock minor mistakes in punctuation, but grammatical errors always look sloppy.
"Proof it," Warren says. "I think students would be surprised by how many essays we read that have lots of errors. We're generally not English majors, we're not looking for comma splices, run on sentences, etc. But it is a college admissions essay, so appropriate grammar should be used as much as possible."
Do: Address the prompt
One common essay mistake is telling a particular story without answering the prompt. Since many colleges allow students to choose from a few different prompts, addressing the topic of your choice is an easy way to tell your story within the constraints of an essay. When writing, consider the admissions officer who will read your essay. Take this opportunity to expand on your application -- but remember to re-read your essay with the prompt in mind.
"Make sure that somebody who doesn't know what you're trying to write reads it and that it actually says what you want it to say. Ask yourself what the admissions office wants to know and use the essay to tell that story," Warren advises. "When the essay is asking for a specific example, make sure you write that and not something else. Sometimes there's a specific question and a student writes a lot of words but they never answer the question."
Again this isn't the time to be totally off the mark, but something that allows a student to be him or herself. Source: Mitch Warren, Director of Admissions at Purdue University
Once your essay is complete, have someone who doesn't know the prompt read your application essay. Afterwards, see if the reader felt the essay answered the prompt. You may be surprised how quickly an essay can stray from the prompt.
Do: Engage the reader from the start
Your high school English teacher's reminder to use a good hook can help you get started. Remember that most universities receive thousands of applications; top colleges sometimes get more than 75,000 applications in a single year. For admissions officers sifting through thousands of essays, a dynamic introduction makes a lasting impression. A great introduction does not need to be outrageous or sensational, but it should give the admissions committee a good sense of your personality.
"I think you certainly [should], as much as you can, have your personality show through," Warren says. "Again this isn't the time to be totally off the mark, but something that allows a student to be him or herself." Remember to not put too much pressure on yourself, but rather ask how your personal narrative and academic history can weave itself into the story of the institution.
Don't: Send the same essay to every school
As time consuming as it can be to write several essays, you must address each prompt properly. While you may be able to incorporate similar material from one essay to the next, be careful with your formatting and proofreading if you do any copy/pasting.
We often tell students, 'if we were seated with you at a table, and asking you some questions, kind of conversational, what might you tell us? Source: Mitch Warren, Director of Admissions at Purdue University
One mistake Warren has seen is students who submit the same essay to multiple schools without changing the name of the university in their essay. "[Students write] 'I really want to go to the University of Notre Dame' and they send that to Notre Dame, which is great, but also to Purdue and University of Texas and UCLA -- that doesn't play as well. And you may really want to go to Notre Dame, that's fine, it's an amazing place, but you should probably watch that in essays that you're writing."
Don't: Submit only half of your essay
Sometimes students neglect to copy over their entire essay into an application and only submit a portion of their work. When Warren was asked about haphazard mistakes students make, he recounted one college essay example.
"Often I think they have written their essays using Microsoft Word and they are attempting to copy and paste it into a box in an application and they don't get the whole thing. So you're reading along and it just stops. And it's clear there's more, but they didn't include that."
Easily avoidable mistakes, like not checking that the entire essay is copied into the application, can harm your application prospects. When an admissions officer doesn't get the whole story or notices a sloppy mistake, it changes how schools perceive you.
Always re-read your college application essay every time you submit it. You should also make sure your essay fits within the word count constraints. Many schools put a cap on essay length. For instance, Purdue's maximum essay length is 650 words for both the common application and transfer student application. If you are copying over a 700-word essay from a different school into an application with 650-word maximum, you'll lose the final 50 words. Remember, don't just lop off the bottom section -- take time to craft a complete essay.
Is this process different for transfer students?
The essay is an important aspect of the application for Common App and Coalition applicants, especially high school students applying for college. For students who already have some college courses completed, GPA is more important.
"It sort of depends if the student is trying to transfer after one year at another institution or if it's two or three years," Warren says. "But for the most part transfer students are being evaluated off of the courses that they have taken at the other institution and their cumulative grade point average." Colleges within the university may also have specific GPA requirements; for instance, entering the college of science will require higher grades in science courses rather than classes in the humanities.
Transfer students should take time to research the major they plan to enroll in and consider how their application reflects their passion.
The essay as an opportunity
When you sit down to write a college application essay, just remember that this is an opportunity to show who you are as a student and who you can become at a university. Admissions officers like Warren are excited to admit students who are passionate, creative, gritty, and driven. "We often tell students, 'if we were seated with you at a table, and asking you some questions, kind of conversational, what might you tell us?' We obviously can't do that for everybody, so this is a way to get that conversation."