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Read What These Admissions Officers Have to Say About Application Essays

Enjoy this post by Alex Thaler, the founder of Zoomita, and an expert in college admissions essays!

As the founder of a site that helps students organize their application essays, I get a lot of essay-related questions. One that comes up a lot is “what will the admissions committee think about my essay?”

Wouldn’t it be nice if the Deans of Admission actually told you what needed to be in your application essay? It would, which is why I’ve collected the following eight quotes about what colleges are looking for in the essays, straight from the Deans of Admissions themselves:


“We train counselors to say ‘would you like [this student] to be your roommate…would you like to work on a group project with this person or be a lab partner with them?’ And the essay gives you more of a glimpse than a score.”

    – Mike Sexton, VP Enrollment Management, Santa Clara University. (College Board))

This is perhaps the most fascinating quote I’ve come across. Mike is illustrating a very specific point here: the essay is not about credentials or academic performance. It’s about creating a message that allows the admissions folks to connect with you on a personal, emotional level.


“For many schools, including mine, there is no interview process, making this personal statement your only opportunity to hear your voice. If I met you in a non-admissions context, what would you want to tell me about yourself? What type of picture would you paint of yourself and your world?”

    – Amy Jarich, Director of Undergraduate Admissions, UC Berkeley. (zoomita.com)

Amy is again reinforcing the idea that the essays have little to do with academics and quite a bit to do with character, personality, viewpoint, etc. The vehicle for conveying those qualities is “voice,” or as I say to my students, “authentic voice.” This is like the fingerprint of your essence – something that is unique to you. Using words and phrases, how can you convey who you are?


“The essay…is an opportunity for students to deliver a bit more about who they are…it’s a moment to be creative…the essay is, beyond a transcript, the most important part of an application….we’re trying to understand and see how you think…are you creative?”

    – Shawn Felton, Director of Undergraduate Admissions, Cornell University. (wowwritingworkshop).

I found it interesting that Shawn mentions creativity twice. He seems to be signaling that admissions officers appreciate students who take some risks with the essay. Also important to note that he explicitly identifies the essay as the most important part of the application beyond the transcript, which reflects similar data published by the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


“One of the great clichés of college admissions is the exhortation that students find their own voices in the essay (and interviews)—and “be themselves.” It’s a cliché because it’s good advice.”

    – William Fitzsimmons, Dean of Admissions, Harvard College. (New York Times)

Another admissions giant weighing in on “voice.” So how do you find you own voice? By consciously monitoring all of the little thoughts, feelings, and emotions constantly bubbling up to your consciousness, of course. This is roughly about as hard as it sounds. But you can do it.


“The personal statement adds a spark to the larger application.”

    – Eric Furda, Dean of Admissions, University of Pennsylvania. (zoomita.com)

A reference to that subjective, vibey, emotionally unquantifiable element of college admissions. If the colleges are asking for an essay, they’re interested in more than grades and test scores.


“Your ability to write well is critical to our decision because your writing reflects your thinking. No matter what question is asked on a college application, admission officers are looking to see how well you convey your ideas and express yourself in writing. It is our window to your world.”

    – Janet Lavin Rapelye, Dean of Admissions at Princeton University. (New York Times)

This is perhaps the clearest explanation of why the essay is important. Writing reflects your thinking, and colleges – institutions of higher learning – are fundamentally concerned with helping to shape the thinking of their students. Janet goes one step further though by mentioning the window into your world, which seems to suggest that viewpoint or worldview are important.


“A good essay just might be what turns a “maybe” into a “yes.”

    – Martha C. Merril, Dean of Admission and Financial aid of Connecticut College. (New York Times)

Few admissions officers will actually say this explicitly. Thank you Martha.


“…[I]t’s best to present yourself as you are to a college, rather than how you imagine that they might want to be.”

    – Jeff Brenzel, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions, Yale (College Board)

This is an interesting one. Is Jeff referring to students who think the admissions committee is looking for academically accomplished students, or students who think the admissions committee wants genuine, “authentic” students? How many different versions of you can be expressed through an essay? What if you are actually really good at portraying yourself as a student who is genuine, creative, etc., even if that portrayal isn’t really you? It all gets confusing pretty quickly. What Jeff seems to be getting at is this: don’t even start playing these games. Just stick with you. If you can nail that, you’re good.


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