the word

tip of an old-fashioned quill or penBy Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

Kim Bryant, senior assistant director of admissions at the University of Michigan, reads about 5000 college essays every year. Many of them are unimpressive and “pretty boring.”

“We get a lot of essays about mission trips, about being camp counselors, and sports injuries,” she said, adding students list what they did at camp (playing archery, riding in a boat, meeting a lot of really great people) without sharing much insight about themselves.

“When I get to these types of essays, I check out,” she said.

Bryant is not alone. She and other admissions officers at colleges throughout the U.S say they want to read more compelling, reflective essays that help colleges know the applicant beyond the grades, test scores and activities.

“Tell us how your experience affected you,” said Bryant, U-M’s admission rep for Frankel Jewish Academy and Bloomfield Hills High School. “This is your interview. Let me know who you are.”

As admission to the nation’s most selective schools (like U-M) becomes increasingly competitive, the college essay is also rising in significance. Getting good grades in the most challenging courses is top of the list of significant admission factors, according to the National Association of Admission Counseling. Next comes test scores, followed by college essays.

At its core, the college essay is all about reflection. Students, who have had little or no practice doing reflective writing, often find the essay the most daunting part of the entire admission process. They focus on experiences and accomplishments, rather than the traits and characteristics that make them each unique.

“FJA students are prepared for college, but it’s normal for students to have difficulty explaining their story,” said Ella Dunajsky, the school’s director of college counseling.”The essay is sometimes perceived as a way to show off and to infuse it with parts of their resume. But I tell my students it is more about your story and your voice. The colleges have to get to know you and the essay is one important way for you to share a story about yourself and what makes you unique.”

Any type of application essay provides an opportunity for a student to show what kind of person they are.

Gregory Sneed, the Vice President of Enrollment Management at Denison College, believes the essay is the best place to “inject some personality into the application.“

“Teachers and counselors can write about the applicant, but only the applicant can provide such an intensely personal bit of character,” Sneed said. “I’ve seen plenty of perfect SAT scores, and straight A’s are straight A’s, but a personal statement can truly be one-of-a-kind — in a good way.”

Admission officers say the essay helps them determine what an applicant can offer to the school and show what the student has learned from their live experiences; the things that are not easily captured on a transcript or activities list.

Calvin Wise, the Director of Recruitment for Johns Hopkins University, gets excited when he reads a stellar essay. Wise expects perfect grades and top test scores.

“We need to dig deeper,” Wise said. “That’s where the essay comes into play. That’s where we find out more about the student. We are looking for your story. Academically, we are glad you’ve done well. We want to know who you are. What did your experience mean to you? How did it shape you?”

The essay is one (very important) piece of a holistic admission process. Admissions officers like all types of stories, as long as they are genuine, show reflection and answer the prompt. The story does not need to be about an earth-shattering experience. Nor does it need to illustrate an “aha” moment? It is a reflection on something that has meaning to the student. It doesn’t matter what that is. There’s no magic answer. No secret sauce. Not even a shortcut.

What turns admission officers off? Stories that are not genuine, do not answer the prompt, or fail to give any insight into the applicant’s character. Shawn Felton, the director of undergraduate admissions at Cornell University, does not like it when students try too hard to impress him or write essays that seem forced or inauthentic. “The essay is not something to be cracked,” he cautioned.

According to Jim Cotter, Michigan State University’s director of admissions, “the essay is value added. At a moderately selective school, it can pull a student on the cusp up. At a highly selective school, a poor statement can make the difference between being admitted or not.”

The best essays are often simple and personal. While small, focused stories get their attention more than anything else, colleges are often less critical of student essays than students and worried parents might assume.

“Life is truly lived in the smaller moments, and that can make a powerful essay,” said Jan Deike, Assistant Director of Admissions, Vanderbilt University in Nashville. “But sometimes students feel that because they haven’t found the cure for cancer, they have nothing to share.”

There is no rubric for a good essay, but admission officers agree the ones that stand out all share a few common features. Regardless of the prompt, they:

  • Answer the question.
  • Showcase a positive trait or characteristic.
  • Sound like a high school student.
  • Illustrate something meaningful about the student.
  • Demonstrate reflection.
Kim Lifton
Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton, President of Wow Writing Workshop, is a college application writing coach. You can reach her at

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