My entire professional life has revolved around education and college admissions. Even though I have observed many changes, including the transition from an entirely paper-based process (featuring typed or hand-written applications) to a largely digital one (with applications and supporting documents completed and/or transmitted online) to recent COVID-necessitated innovations like the now ubiquitous interactive virtual information sessions, I remain most interested in facilitating the reflection and investigation undertaken by prospective students that ultimately leads to a college choice.
In my work with prospective college students, (as an admission officer and/or college counselor) I have always tried to provide the type of counsel that I would have most appreciated when I was attempting to navigate this journey long ago, even though things were far simpler then.
With application portals open, and deadlines fast approaching, I am reminded of the bulk of conversations that I have had about essays, right around this time, for each of the last several years while I was away from MIT.
Student: What did you think of my essay?
Me: What’s the takeaway?
Me: What was I supposed to learn about you as a result of reading your essay?
Student: I’m not sure.
Me: You need to start over.
Me: With anything that you write, you should know what you are attempting to communicate. First, figure out what you want to say, and then figure out how to say it.
Conversation #2 (assuming there is an answer to my first question)
Me: Does the takeaway address the most important (or at least a sufficiently important) thing that the reader/admission officer needs to know in order to determine if you are a good fit for the community?
Student: I don’t know. How am I supposed to know what is most important?
Me: You decide what is important and what you would like for a reader to know.
Me: So, is the takeaway the most important thing they should know about you?
Me: What is the most important thing?
Student: I don’t know.
Me: Once you decide on the most important thing, you’ll know what to write about, but at this point you probably need to start over.
Me: What does your essay say about you as a person or community member?
Me: Have you provided any insight that is personal? Keep in mind that your application and recommendations already contain a lot of information about what you have done. Your essay is really an opportunity to focus on who you are and the ways in which you are likely to interact with other members of your campus community, like classmates, roommates, and teammates.
Did their essays generally turn out better? I don’t know, but I hope so. Now, I am not advocating overthinking the essay, but I certainly encourage taking a thoughtful and intentional approach. In my mind, there is a difference between trying to give the admissions committee what you think they want and being conscious of what you are saying. Since there is no magic formula that will unlock the secret to getting admitted to the college of your choice, taking my advice may not necessarily help you to get into your dream school. It may, however, go a long way toward helping you get into the right school.