Who Actually Reads Your College Application Essay?

Posted February 17, 2015 by
Ryan Hickey

Ryan Hickey, Managing Editor of Peterson’s & EssayEdge

When it comes to college essays, the most significant point to remember is that the readers are not machines or algorithms looking for specific keywords that will clink together to advance you to the next round. These are academic professionals who have taken on the role of going through thousands of entrance essays (many of them horribly written or at the very least terrifically boring). Give them a break. Make yours a gem.

Who are these mysterious admissions officers?

Admissions officers usually have a communications and education background and are likely fiercely proud of (and incredibly knowledgeable about) the institution for which they work. That means you want to make sure to be equally enthusiastic in your essay — don’t give them the impression that you are casting a large net and will take the first thing that comes along, or that you might rather go to Harvard, but you guess that Vassar will do.

Remember, they can also be the ones crafting the promotional pamphlets and other material that make up the university’s outreach, so it might be nice to give them an indication that you’ve received their message. If the overreaching theme of the university is diversity, give this a small nod in your piece. Let them know their strategy is working.

Respect the essay prompt — even if it seems silly.

These are people who LOVE academia. They believe in the power of their school to help you become a successful professional (as you should too, if you are applying). Consider that idea when approaching your essay. A laugh or two can be good in your writing, but this is someone’s job — try not to poke fun at (or denigrate) the application process when showing off your creative spirit. Even if you think the topic question is slight, tuck into it as if it is the most intriguing inquiry anyone has ever made of you. The essay is not a joke or a throwaway. It is a crucial addition to your transcript no matter how impressive your grades and test scores.

Are admissions officers the only ones I have to impress?

Often those who work in an admissions capacity are professors and staff (sometimes students) of the school to which you are applying. Are they judging you? Yes. But they are also rooting for you. Each of these people has a vested interest in providing the best possible classroom for next year. If you look good, they look good. They are not grading your paper like an English teacher, but rather searching for what qualities, displayed in your writing and your choice of topic, make you a perfect fit for the incoming class. Sometimes even the best writers are tempted to make their essay controlled and clinical. Write from the heart, and be sure to add emotion to your experiences and not just list them. The adjudicators want to know how you feel about your accomplishments and obtain information that they could never glean from your resume.

How do I make sure I get in?!

The fact is, you can’t be sure. This question reminds me of an actress I knew who auditioned for a wonderful college musical theatre conservatory program. She flew from California to Chicago for the audition, and while she was warming up, someone came out and said, “Well, we have already admitted a redhead.” What can you do? Just your best. There will be extenuating circumstances surrounding every possible application scenario. Admissions officers I’ve talked to have many, many reasons for their decisions, and they fully admit that human failings like hunger, boredom, or the afternoon blues can influence their ability to make quality choices.

So why struggle over these pieces? Why not just leave it to the luck of the draw? The idea is to have a statistical edge through a truly fantastic essay. The most important factor is to be yourself and explain your true desires to the best of your abilities. Do not to try to fool anyone, outsmart the system, or write something you think they want to hear. Instead make sure you are presenting something authentic, and they will appreciate it.

By Ryan Hickey, Managing Editor of Petersons & EssayEdge

About the Author

Ryan Hickey is the Managing Editor of Peterson’s & EssayEdge and is an expert in many aspects of college, graduate, and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL, editing essays and personal statements, and consulting directly with applicants.

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