What are the qualities of a successful college admission essay?

What are the qualities of a successful college admission essay? :


Let’s get to the heart of the matter. What are the qualities of a successful admission essay? What impresses you when you read an essay?


Peter Osgood - Director of Admission - Harvey Mudd College and Former Associate Dean of Admission - Pomona College

Contrary to popular belief, we are not really looking to be entertained. What we want is to see that the applicant has done some serious thinking and reflection. I am looking for a certain amount of thought to have been put into the essay. When we ask, “Tell us who you are," that’s exactly what we want to know.

Perspective is also something that I look for in essays. It’s hard for high school seniors to remove themselves from the daily grind and be able to step back and write something that’s meaningful. However, those who can usually end up with powerful essays.

Gail Sweezey - Director of Admissions - Gettysburg College

When I read an essay, I expect it to be structured appropriately. That means that the essay must have a beginning, middle and end. But most important it must have a thesis that is developed throughout the essay.

While we want students to explore themselves through their essays and take some chances in their writing, we also expect that they spend the time to edit their work. As I always advise students, the best essays are written from the heart, but proofread from the head.

William T. Conley - Dean of Undergraduate Admission - Case Western Reserve University

The essay needs to be in your own words. We need to hear your voice and get a genuine sense that you are writing about what matters to you. I think that’s where many students get off track. They answer the question but they do so in a manner that seems too stilted or artificial. One of my favorite questions years ago was when we asked students to name a book they read that had a great impact on them. It was a simple but deadly question because a lot of students felt that they had to select a significant book like War & Peace. Students would submit essays about these impressive-sounding titles and then reflect on them in a simplistic way that told us nothing about them. On the other hand, I still remember a student writing about The Little Engine That Could. It was brilliant since she used the story to reflect on her life and gave vivid, memorable examples.

Michael Thorp - Director of Admissions - Lawrence University

I look for a unique perspective on something the student has done. If you look at the tone of essay questions out there, you will notice how general the topics are. This is simply the students’ chance to show us how well they think and how well they can communicate with the written word.

I also personally like humor. There is nothing I would appreciate more at 11 p.m. after picking up the 150th essay than for it to make me chuckle. Of course, if you’re not funny, now’s not the time to experiment.

Something that I am not looking for is a tell-all. Sometimes student feel the need to tell me something very personal about their life. That’s okay as long as I’m not the first person they’ve told. I don’t need to know their deepest, darkest secrets. Students should be aware of who is reading their essay. We’re not a professor, we’re not their best friend, we’re not a political correspondent. We are admission folk. There are a lot of things that admission people share such as the fact that we all want to fi nd out something good about each applicant. Students should think about who we are and make sure their essay is appropriate for us.

Lloyd Peterson - Former Senior Associate Director of Admissions - Yale University and Director of Education - College Coach

I once calculated that I’ve read about 42,000 essays in my career. One crucial fact that I learned is that while you have to answer the question, you also have to understand what the question is asking. Unless you sit down and think about it before you start writing you’re going to miss the boat.

One year I read 18 essays in a row about Gandhi. I know more about Gandhi than I want to know. The problem was that Gandhi was not applying for admission. The students were. Each of those students forgot that what I wanted to learn was something about them. They neglected to write about their reaction to Gandhi or include comparisons to their own thought process and values. Students need to take a stand and voice an opinion. When the admission officer finishes your essay, they should know something important about you—not Gandhi.

Elizabeth Mosier - Acting Director of Admissions - Bryn Mawr College

The best essays use dramatic elements like dialogue and interesting narrative. You really want the admission officer to get hooked into your essay. We all respond to good narrative. It’s a compelling way to tell a story.

Applicants should remember that we are not looking for you to write about a spectacular achievement. You don’t have to find the cure for cancer at age 17. Sometimes even small events can be great subjects.

One student talked about her work for a pro-choice organization that she thought was going to be a profound experience but instead she had to dress up as a condom elf. What we’re really hoping to see in the essay is that the student is thinking beyond her own limited experience. Even if it seems small, you have experienced something. You will be profound.

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