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ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated

What Admissions Committees Are Really Looking For

Writing a college admissions essay can be a daunting task. Like it or not — it's the one part of your college application packet that gets the most attention and often is the most time-consuming. Even with a perfect GPA and academic record, some of the best students fail to get into the top college of their choice because of one reason: They didn't stand out from the crowd of other applicants. With hundreds of other students applying who have equally perfect academic records, how can your admissions essay put you at the front of the line of other qualified students seeing your spot at the college of your choice?

Or worse — if your grades are less than stellar, how can you use the opportunity to show the admissions committee that you have more potential than your academic record shows? The answer, of course, is to write an admissions essay that catches their attention. Admissions committees are aware that some of the best potential students might not be good test-takers; they know that the sum of your worth and potential is not only made up of your grades and standardized test scores.

The introduction is key

It goes without saying that your introduction is like meeting someone for the first time — it's the "first impression" that's crucial. For this reason, you should spend the most time arranging and tweaking your introduction, letting the body and conclusion take secondary importance. You need your reader's attention, and if you don't get it with the introduction, you won't get it at all.

So tell a story, start with a question — find a perfect "hook" to grab your reader's attention. Make your reader want — no, NEED — to read more, out of curiosity's sake. When you're writing and planning, keep the following words in mind: unique, engaging, creative, and bold.

Look at the two examples below:

"As a lifelong learner, I realize that education is important to achieve one's goals in life. After graduating high school, I have researched the best option for me to continue my education, and XYZ University is that place."

"I don't remember much about her, but what I do remember has stuck with me. Often quoting passages from books and stanzas from poems, my Grandmother was a woman who showed me that life without Art, Poetry, Music, and the beauty of Language, is really no life at all."

Do you see the difference?

Which paragraph was more engaging? Which made you want to read more? If you say the second one, then you can know that you're in good company — that's what the admissions committee wants to see.

Imagine that you are the one sitting in an office all day, reading over stacks of essays in order to determine which is the most qualified student. You will read over paragraphs upon paragraphs of accomplishments, community service, and organizational affiliation. The paragraphs will start to all sound the same until suddenly, the opening of an essay breaks the monotony and is a breath of fresh air, with information that shows a particular student is different, and that he or she is able to stand out in a crowd.

Make sure that essay is yours.

Big words don't mean big thoughts

Applicants who think that using a thesaurus will make their writing shine tend to miss the point of what the admissions committee wants to see. Using difficult words and "advanced" language is not nearly as important as having a "voice" that engages your reader. Writers who tend to use a thesaurus sound stuffy, formal, or worse. Remember: impress your audience with your style, not your word choice.

Stick with the highlights

If you have volunteered at 20 different community service events or organizations, don't list them all. Likewise, if you received several academic awards, don't use two paragraphs to discuss it. Generally, admissions committees use some variation of the following approach when writing their essay prompts:

  • Tell us what sets you apart from other applicants
  • Tell us what academic successes you've had
  • Tell us why you want to go to XYZ University
  • Tell us what you'll have to offer if you're accepted

If you've had few accomplishments, then focus on the other points. If you've had several accomplishments, this is much more difficult than it sounds. Rarely should you spend more than one paragraph discussing these accomplishments, so determine which ones reiterate the point that you're uniquely qualified. Also, consider using a blanket statement such as, "in addition to achieving several awards for academic excellence, I have also been given the opportunity to work with Teach for America as a student mentor." There will most likely be a place on your application to list these awards separately, leaving you more room in your admissions essay to focus on what the committee wants to see.

Praise the school

Admissions committees tend to be made up of alumni and former faculty members. The politics of who lets whom in the door can be especially difficult at Ivy League schools, or schools with limited space in renowned programs. For this reason — and since you never know who might be reading your essay — make it a point to focus your conclusion on why that particular university is the one for you. Do a little research, find examples of prestigious graduates, and get to know the points that make this particular school/program the best. Conclude your essay with an expression of your desire to be a part of such distinguished alumni. In this case, flattery goes a long way.

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