Former Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale University Q&A
Former Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions, Yale University
Author of The Thinking Parent's Guide to College Admissions
Founder of High School Futures
Q: What are some of the most common mistakes that students make when writing their essays?
A: Some schools ask students to write about a role model such as asking what single person they would have lunch with. The biggest mistake that students make is that they spend more time writing about the other person than themselves. I'd suggest starting from your own vantage point. How have you been affected? From my own life, if I were writing an essay, one person I've always admired is nelson Mandela. Every day on the first day of school I read an inspiring quote from nelson Mandela. One day a boy looked at me and said, reacting to the quote, "Miss, who are you?" Focus on how your own actions and outlook have changed as a result of that person whether you've met them face to face or only know their writing.
Another really common mistake is that students feel they have to write something that makes them look different. When you're applying to a highly selective college, there's nothing you can do that looks different based on the actions themselves. Every admissions officer has seen someone who does what you do. Instead, focus on what makes you you. That's really what admissions officers want to know. Don't tie yourself in knots to look exotic. It doesn't matter what your essay's about. It's how you write about it.
Q: How can you tell if a student's essay is authentic?
A: You look at their critical reading score. If they have a low critical reading and writing score and an essay that looks like it's written by a college professor or if the essay sounds like a very sophisticated person wrote it and the recommendations don't present the same image, these can be a red flag. For many years, there's been an understanding that students in a certain income bracket get coached. If you do nothing, you're putting yourself at risk. remember though it's fine to have someone read your essay and give feedback on how it flows. It's not fine to have someone read your essay and do line by line edits. That would present you in a way that doesn't line up.
Q: What is one or two of the best introductions you remember? What made them so memorable?
A: There was one essay that a student wrote about when his father first took him for karate lessons. The first sentence was about how he had been a complete failure at every other sport. There was another one by a girl who wrote about how she was a comic book artist. She was applying to art school, and some schools don't consider it to be a serious art form. She grabbed me from the very beginning because her passion was so clear. The essays that grab me give me some kind of hook in the beginning to reel me in.
Q: Can you think of an example of when an applicant wrote about an ordinary topic in an extraordinary way?
A: One Yale applicant wrote about how every day on her way to school she passed a building where the pigeons rested. You would think that's a ridiculous topic, but it was so well written and engaging. It was about something mundane, but it really grabbed my attention.
It's important to tell a good story. Think about the stories you listen to in your life that your relatives tell or your friends tell. If they're well told, that's what catches your attention.
Q: Are there any topics or approaches to topics that students shouldn't write about?
A: Topics that deal with personal tragedy are difficult. Frequently the students are not far enough away from the event to write about it with any distance. They're not really telling a story. The essay is either a factual narration or therapeutic. I would be very wary of writing about a really serious, heavy topic. It can be done, but I think that the rule of thumb should be if the topic is still sensitive enough that you might wince a little bit, tear up, or cringe, maybe it's not a good topic. If you can talk about the event and maybe even have a sense of humor about it, that's a sign you're far enough away from it. Of course that doesn't mean you have to write about it with humor.
Q: How important is the essay?
A: There was at least one student where the essay was very significant. I fell in love with this student because of his essay, and I wanted him to go to Yale. I thought he would add so much to the school, but one of his SAT scores was weak. It's so competitive that if there's one chink in the armor, that can end it. I could've passed over him and no one would've objected, but I made such a case for this student. I fought for him, and he got in. However, it can't just be on the basis of the essay alone. His teachers also really loved him and thought he walked on water. There has to be some resonance between the essay, the teachers and the classes.
Q: Is there anything that a student might find surprising about what you are looking for in the essays?
A: I think students would be surprised to know that admissions officers aren't looking for anything exotic. The more specific examples you can use, the more you can make it a story with very specific details, the better. You want to be able to picture what the person looks like, what it would be like to sit in a room and have a conversation with the person. The essay should make the admissions officers feel like they've had a conversation with you and want to learn more. It's not more esoteric than that.
Eva Ostrum worked as an assistant director of undergraduate admissions at Yale University and wrote The Thinking Parent's Guide to College Admissions. She also founded and runs High School Futures, an organization that works on educational reform in urban high schools (www.hsfutures.org).