essays and recommendations in college admissions

Once you’re a senior, you start to get the feeling that most of the stuff that will be considered in your college application is increasingly out of your control.  You’re junior grades are already there for the world (the admissions world at least) to see.  You’ve probably already taken the standardized tests at least once (if not several times), and you’ve settled on which extra-curricular/community service/work/habits you’re going to have. 

Then you get to your applications, and you get to the part where you answer some questions and ask some people to say stuff about you, and you realize this is the place you have the MOST control of the process.  Then the panic starts.

Let’s put this in some context.  Essays and recommendations are WAY less important than your academic records.  Your test scores aren’t nearly as important as your academic records, and they (unless you choose a fabulous score optional admissions process like the one at Mason) tower in importance compared to your essays and recommendations.

Yes, every college will read your essays and recommendations, if by read you mean that many many many counselors will first look at your grades and scores and then, mentally placing you in a yes, no, or maybe basket, scan your essays and recommendations rapidly while wondering if drinking one more Redbull will get them through the rest of their reading pile without inducing a stroke.

Of course, there are cases where the essays and recommendations become VERY IMPORTANT – it’s just not the norm. But just in case, I’ll offer some tips.

To start with, bear in mind that most admissions officers are going to read hundreds, if not thousands, of applications. In other words, this is not a volume competition. The saying that used to get sent around is, “The thicker the folder, the thicker the kid.” This really cracks me up, since it’s mostly used by deans who have forgotten that most schools don’t have “folders” anymore – we have these things called “computers.” Anyhow, the basic idea is the same: if you are sending volumes and volumes of justification for your admissions, it may just give the impression that you have SOMETHING WRONG WITH YOU and that they should wonder WHY SO MUCH MATERIAL in the application.

Also, we get bored. It’s a lot of reading, and while most admissions officers just love going on the road and talking about their schools, the same personalities that excel at that task are not ideally suited to sitting in a chair reading (over and over) the intimate details of other people’s lives.

This leads many applicants to try to “stand out”. This takes two annoying forms: clever and humorous. Clever annoying is, for instance, the fad a few years ago when students where putting their essays on cardboard and cutting them out like a puzzle and writing on the back, “you’re school is where I fit in!” Unfortunately, this induced nausea in one out of five admissions officers, according to my very scientific research.

Humor is just plain dangerous. One of my favorite essays was from a young lady who went into detail about all the trouble she caused in high school. It started out mild, but ended with her on her motor bike spraying graffiti across the school, lighting fires, and barely escaping expulsion. And it was all a lie. She ended the essay (which was, I assure you, HILARIOUS) with something like, “I hope you enjoyed my story. I have perfect attendance and have never been in trouble, but that seemed so boring I thought you’d appreciate my sense of humor for trying to liven things up.” I did appreciate it. The other counselor that read the file, however, didn’t. He never got past the first page and had recommended her for immediate denial! So two things to bear in mind on this issue: 1) you can’t assume that the person reading you application has a sense of humor. At all. As you meet admissions officers, put this to the test, and you’ll find out just how right I am. 2) Some of you aren’t funny. Ask your friends – if they’re good friends, they’ll tell you the truth. A good rule of thumb is, if you have to TRY to be funny, try something else.

So don’t write too much, and stay away from the gimmicks. Next up, I’ll offer some suggestions for what you SHOULD write on essays, and what kind of recommendations work best, unless I get distracted (again).

For those of you starting school tomorrow (like my first grader) welcome back and best wishes for a wonderful school year. Be seeing you!


5 Responses

  1. Some schools do not require essays and recommendations. Since we do not require them, I do not read them. So please do not get offended when my answer back to your question “Didn’t you read my recommendations? is “No.”. I have seen enough recommendations for 1.8 GPA’s and 200 days of absences that I do not need to read recommendations when we’re going to admit 85% of those that apply for admission to my institution. Your grades through Junior year, the strength of your senior year schedule, and your attendance/tardy record provide me with a lot of information. Add in test scores (which depending upon your GPA may or may not be important) and I can make a pretty good case for your admission or denial.

    But if you are going to get a letter of recommendation, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE make sure you are passing the class of the teacher you request the letter from. Yes, I have a letter from an instructor that tells us the student is flunking his class. I always enjoy showing this letter when I go out in the spring and talk to the junior classes and their parents.

  2. I recently finished sifting through a bunch of scholarship essays for the myUsearch scholarship and my best advice is: SPELL CHECK. Seriously. How hard is it to do that? One of our top applicants was a 4.0 student on his way to George Washington and he didn’t even spell check. Of course we didn’t have any George Mason applicants. I’m sure they would have been smart enough to check their spelling……

  3. So, if we do submit recommendations, how many should we have? One or two? Three? My counselor is sadly lacking in advice in this area!
    Hahaha, what happened to that girl with the crazy essay? Was she admitted?

  4. Ky – I’ll have an upcoming post on recommendations and the number to send.
    The student with the crazy essay was admitted – she was a terrific student!

  5. […] – bookmarked by 6 members originally found by tistje on 2008-12-09 essays and recommendations in college admissions – bookmarked by 6 members originally found by […]

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