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Paging Simone! What do addmission panels look for in essays?


Notoman 20 / 419  
Aug 5, 2009   #1
I remember you mentioning that you worked at a university and were part of the admission selection process. I was hoping that you could share some of your experience here.

What do admissions personnel look for?
What kinds of things will make an essay stand out?
What kinds of things make an essay stand out in a bad way?
How are they rated?
How negatively will one or two misused words or grammar errors affect an applicant?
What if it is an egregious error?
How thoroughly are the essay read (how much time does a reader spend with each essay?)

Thanks! Even though I will be applying for college that don't require an essay, I am curious. I have been reading a lot of application essays lately, *grin*
EF_Simone 2 / 1,986  
Aug 5, 2009   #2
First, let me clarify my relevant experience. I've held two positions that have given me some insight about this. I was one of the graduate student members of the admissions committee for the graduate program in which I was an advanced student. At the same university (a top-tier state university), I held a job for which one of the duties was to explain -- repeatedly, to both students and parents -- how admissions decisions are made. On top of those two appointments, I've helped I-don't-know-how-many students write admissions essays, learning from their experience what works and what doesn't work.

Now, your questions:

What do admissions personnel look for?

This, obviously, depends on the school and the program. Top-tier liberal arts colleges and universities are looking for students who not only have the GPA, SAT/ACT, and extracurricular activities that every applicant has but who also add something interesting to the mix of the student population. Remember, these schools are choosing among a pool of applicants who all meet the minimum requirements. The question is: What are you going to bring to the school that will make it a better place for other students or a more vibrant campus community?

Sometimes, what schools want will change from year to year. If the marching band needs tuba players, then tuba players are in luck that year. Next year, it might be that the biology department is running low on botany majors or that enrollment in dance classes is running low. So, in your essay, you want to make sure to include any of your talents and interests that aren't already evident elsewhere on your application.

What kinds of things will make an essay stand out?

Really good writing. A fresh spin on the given topic. Vivid images. Real feeling. Smart humor. These admissions officers are reading essay after essay after essay... the ennui is enervating. Wake them up. Make them laugh. Make them cry. Put an image in their head they won't soon forget.

For example, we've been reading a lot of FSU essays here lately, and I know I'm not the only one tired of reading about Vires. Imagine how the admissions officers must feel! Why doesn't anybody ever choose one of the other virtues? I'll bet anybody who does would have an edge, if only because those reading the essay would be so grateful not to be reading about Vires.

What kinds of things make an essay stand out in a bad way?

Hubris. Lack of self-awareness. Hilarious grammatical errors.

How are they rated?

Every school has its own system.

How negatively will one or two misused words or grammar errors affect an applicant?

Not so much. That's what Composition 101 is intended to fix.

What if it is an egregious error?

All by itself, not so much if the essay is otherwise strong. But, in the context of lots of minor errors or in the context of a weak essay, an egregious error could hurt a lot.

How thoroughly are the essay read (how much time does a reader spend with each essay?)

Again, this varies from school to school. Typically, there is some weeding, so that the essays of those who don't meet criteria otherwise might not even be read. Those who make the first cut are supposed to get a full reading from whoever is assigned that function but, of course, eyes tend to skim over boring essays in which common topics are addressed in trite language.
Liebe 1 / 542 2  
Aug 6, 2009   #3
has but who also add something interesting to the mix of the student population.

^That is the hardest part.

Typically, there is some weeding, so that the essays of those who don't meet criteria otherwise might not even be read.

*Gasps. WEEDING?
EF_Simone 2 / 1,986  
Aug 6, 2009   #4
Liebe, you crack me up. You'll not have any problem adding something unique to the mix. Whether the schools to which you apply require essays or not, just make sure your personality comes through and you'll do fine.
EF_Sean 6 / 3,491  
Aug 6, 2009   #5
Every school has its own system.

What was the system at the school you worked at while you were on the committee?
Liebe 1 / 542 2  
Aug 6, 2009   #6
Liebe, you crack me up. You'll not have any problem adding something unique to the mix.

^Great to know that I can make you laugh Simone. People have suggested I do stand up.

Whether the schools to which you apply require essays or not, just make sure your personality comes through and you'll do fine.

^Yea, I hope I end up doing a good job on this. I really do :)
EF_Simone 2 / 1,986  
Aug 7, 2009   #7
EF_Simone:
Every school has its own system.

What was the system at the school you worked at while you were on the committee?

This was a very competitive graduate program for which hundreds applied for about a dozen slots. First pass: Weed out obviously inappropriate applications from those failing to meet baseline qualifications. Hundreds remain. Next pass: Divide remaining applications among committee members who will use a rubric to determine which survive to the next round; each application read by two committee members to assure a fair hearing. Because this particular program valued experience outside of the field in question, the rubric included not only the expected criteria but also ineffable extras. In other words, a candidate might be passed to the next round because of graduate work in another field or NGO work in another country or other qualifications not included in the required qualifications. What we wanted was a mix of folks who had specialized in the field in the usual undergraduate to grad school way and folks who had taken a non-traditional path that gave them more life experiences than somebody coming to graduate school right out of college after majoring in the same field.

Next pass: Everybody reads all of the remaining applications to decide who will be interviewed. Next pass: Each finalist interviewed by at least two committee members. Final pass: Day-long (or longer) discussion in which committee members argue for their favorites, with criteria including not only the achievements/personality/etc of each applicant but efforts to create a cohort of students who will compliment each other and work together well. Other factors: Who's interested in research projects for which faculty members need new team members? Who might do independent research on a topic of particular interest to the department? Which faculty members need new advisees and who would be most likely to work well with them?


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