Former Assistant Director of Admissions at Dartmouth College Q&A
DR. MICHELE HERNANDEZ
Former Assistant Director of Admissions, Dartmouth College
Author of A is for Admission
Q: Can you give students an idea of what happens to their applications and essays after they are received by the college?
A: First, admissions officers collect all the different parts of the application. Then, all the pieces are scanned and date stamped. It's all done electronically like an electronic file cabinet. Once everything is assembled, admissions officers start to read them one by one (now they often do them on the computer instead of in hard copy).
Unlike many colleges, Dartmouth doesn't sort the applications at first into regional categories or schools. They are placed into completely random groups that correspond with a particular admissions officer's group of states.
Once an admissions officer reads one application folder, it is passed on to someone else who will also review it. If after two reads it's a tie, the file goes to committee or to the director. After reading all the applications, the admissions officers start meeting and discussing the merits of each applicant one by one through committee meetings.
Admissions officers don't only look at the applicants at the top end of an academic or extracurricular scale. Every single application is reviewed through this process.
Q: What are some of the most common mistakes that students make when writing their essays?
A: Some students simply don't spend any time on their essays. A lot of bright students think, "I'm number one so I don't need to take any time on the application." The result is that it looks rushed. You want to show some reflection, that you thought about your application. You don't want to have the appearance that you spent only five minutes on it. Some of the more obvious errors have been not spell checking or putting the wrong school down, but more often, it's that the essays are not interesting.
Another mistake is the admissions officer doesn't learn anything. If I read an essay and think, "That's nice but I don't know anything more about this student," you've failed. You have to share something interesting about yourself. remember that it's not just one essay, but there are 5 to 6 smaller essays. It's not as limited as you think.
Q: How important is the introduction?
A: Introductions are nice, but the whole essay has to work. It has to grab you from the beginning like a newspaper lead. It has to make you want to keep going.
Q: Can you think of an example of when an applicant wrote about an ordinary topic in an extraordinary way?
A: One student wrote about shooting a squirrel. I'm sure his guidance counselor told him to not write about that. However, the essay was about growing up to be a man, a meditation on what it means to grow up. While the topic may have seemed like the plot of a bad play, it was a slice of life essay that told a lot about his family and about him. The topic doesn't matter as much as what you do with it.
Q: Are there any topics or approaches to topics that students shouldn't write about?
A: Any approach works if it works. Writing is so fluid. There are no hard and fast rules except to be honest about yourself. The magic formula is that there's no magic formula. The truth is that you don't have to be a fabulous writer either. The admissions officers are reading the essays more for content. They're almost speed reading them for content. remember that this is not your chance to be Faulkner. This is your chance to write about something you're interested in. It'll be a lot more vivid if it's something you're interested in. This may sound obvious, but so many kids obsess about the writing style instead of worrying about the actual content and that's a mistake.
Q: Do you recommend that students ask someone else to read their essay and give feedback?
A: You need some feedback because what you think is funny may not be to other people. You don't want it to be over-edited where everything's perfect, and you don't need a professional editor. The essay could be a little unpolished, but I would have a friend or parent read it for diction and flow. You don't want an essay in which you can tell that an English teacher went through it 45 times.
Q: How important is the essay? In your experience, has it ever made the difference between a student being accepted or not?
A: It all depends on where you are. If you are very strong academically, the admissions officers are verifying whether you're the genius everyone says you are. For you, the essay doesn't matter as much. Also, if you're in the low end, it doesn't matter as much. It matters more for the students in the middle of the pool for that college. If we use the scale of 1 to 9, the essay matters a lot for the students who are rated 5, 6, or 7. The essays have made a difference for students, but there haven't been many students who have moved from the rejection to the accepted pile based solely on the essays.
Q: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
A: It's not just one essay that counts. It's the whole application. It doesn't matter how good your essays are if your teachers say you're not interesting. It has to do with how all the information (teacher recs, essays, school support, transcript) fits together. Your essays have to be in line with the rest of your application. The admissions officers are going to be suspicious if you have a brilliant essay but it doesn't match the rest of your application. Everything has to be in the same vein.
Also, if you've had extraordinary circumstances, you should write about them in a note. If you weren't involved in activities, explain that you were taking care of your autistic sister. You want admissions officers to know about anything unusual.
Dr. Michele Hernandez is the former assistant director of admissions at Dartmouth College and the author of A is for Admission, The Middle School Years, Don't Worry You'll Get In and Acing the College Application. She is with the president and founder of Hernandez College Consulting.