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Last updated April 21, 2023

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The 3.5 things I learned reading essays in a top-15 admissions office

Key Takeaway

In this post, Ben, former Vanderbilt admissions officer, reveals the three most important things he learned while reading essays like yours. Admissions officers read quickly, they want to see you stand out, and they want to have a story to tell the committee about you.

I saw a lot in my years in admissions. Universities go test-optional, the impact of covid, interviews gone wrong, amazing students admitted and graduate. It is truly a joy to work with students on a college campus.

I also learned that many students don’t really understand how to use college essays to improve their applications. And that makes perfect sense–writing college essays is a totally different form of writing than you’ve ever experienced before.

Here are three things I learned after reviewing thousands of college admission essays:

The #1 thing I learned: How to speedread

Admission offices at selective schools receive tens of thousands more applications from qualified students than they could possibly admit. Hence, low acceptance rates. That’s not groundbreaking stuff. But, have you ever wondered what it’s like to review applications?

I’ve written about how admission offices process so many applications and how I read 40+ apps a day. One major takeaway is this: part of the job is to read quickly!

I have to read your file in just a few minutes, and you have the first few seconds to make an impression. So, get to the good stuff as quickly as possible.

What does that mean exactly?

For activities, if you have a particularly interesting, unusual, or impressive extracurricular activity, consider putting that at the top of your activities list. This list doesn’t have to be in chronological order or in order of how many hours you spend. Maybe you spend more hours per week on the soccer team than the podcast you produce, but how many kids have a podcast with a following compared to how many kids play sports? Consider putting the podcast (or whatever) first.

Your personal statement needs a hook. Duh. You’ve probably heard this. Reel me in. Assume I’m on my 57th file of the day, am running on coffee and pb&j, and that I’ll only read the first 40 words. Am I compelled to read more? Bait me. Make a bold claim. Use dialogue. Ask a question. These are a few ways my students started their personal statements this year. Don’t go overboard, but don’t be boring. Check out our many example essays for inspiration.

For supplemental essays, don’t bury all the good stuff under mounds of details. Sure, they might give you 450 words to talk about an extracurricular activity. But if you use the first 150 to discuss how many professors you emailed about joining their research teams until one finally said yes before actually discussing your really-interesting-ground-breaking-earth-shattering research… you missed the mark.

There’s a saying in music, “Don’t bore us, get us to the chorus!” The same applies to your essays.

Speaking of essays...

The #2 thing I learned: Most good/ average/ perfectly fine essays represent a missed opportunity to stand out

In highly-selective admissions especially, everything matters. I read a lot of perfectly fine essays that didn’t do anything to move the needle on the application.

Admission offices are looking for signs of academic achievement, impact on others, fit for a particular school or major, uncommon levels of skill, intellectual vitality, and values that align with their academic and residential community. You don’t have to touch on all of these, but your writing should point to some of them.

In other words, each essay should point to your strengths and give the admission office a reason to admit you.

Sadly, a lot of essays miss the mark. A beautifully written personal statement about traditions with your grandparents may evoke emotion, but does it give your Yale admission officer a reason to admit you to Yale?

Check out some of our example essays and our strengths-based college essay writing guide to avoid this pitfall.

The #3 thing I learned: Admissions committee is story time for adults. So, give me a story to tell the committee.

What do you think about when you think about admissions committee at a prestigious college? Wood-panel walls, smoky rooms, top-secret formulas, and uproarious laughter when application by application is thrown into the deny pile?

Sorry to say, it isn’t quite that glamorous.

The second best part about admissions committee was the snacks. I always went for the Goldfish and Skittles. They don’t go very well together, but, hey, I like what I like. We always had snacks on deck at Vanderbilt to keep the admissions committee fueled and alert.

The best part about admissions committee were the stories. The students. The lives lived and distilled down into essays for our consideration.

My job as your admission officer when presenting to an admissions committee is to advocate on your behalf based on the information you’ve provided. Your job is to create an application that conveys a cohesive and compelling story. I would say things to the committee like:

“Julia is a rock star. That’s right, she’s really into rocks. This future geologist partnered with a geology professor at her local college to help lead field trips for kids in her hometown. She ended up doing a research project with them and specifically pointed to a lab here at Vanderbilt she’d like to join. Let’s look at her transcript…”

“Brian does a bit of everything, but the consistent theme is web design. He’s in a band, the chess club, and hockey team, and he’s built websites or basic applications to help each group solve a problem or communicate better. Take a look at his personal statement…”

“This is Cassandra, your future president. Or senator. Or, at least she’ll run student government once you admit her to Vandy. She’s worked on a Senate and House campaign, as well as interned with a non-partisan organization to lead the registration for vote-by-mail in her town. Check out her activities list…”

This is actually how I’d present files to the committee. Am I extra? Maybe. But, the best applications naturally create narratives that lend themselves to a storyline.

Make your admission officer’s job easier. You’ll tell them a lot, but they should be able to pick up on clear themes, strengths, or passions in your application that craft a story. And, if you’re lucky, they’ll tell your story to the committee, and the committee will vote yes.

Good luck out there.

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