What to write in your admissions essay?

When the question is open ended (“Tell us about yourself.”), stress levels seem to increase. Bear in mind that no one knows for sure what any individual reader will want or get from an essay. That being said, I suggest you try to include two main points: Why the school wants to have you there, and why you want to go there.
The first is talking about what you will contribute to the campus. Many admissions officers (particularly those who act incredibly pretentious and uptight) will talk a lot about your “passion” – “we want to see that you have passion, what that passion is, how that passion will cause you to be successful and donate much money so we can place you and the name of your passion on big buildings.” It’s particularly encouraging when the admissions officer making this explanation is doing so with all the passion and enthusiasm you had on the way to take the SAT.
It seems to me what they mean is what you really care about/makes you special. For me, it makes sense to tie that into why you want to go to that particular place – how are you going to contribute to that community with your “passion” (clearly we don’t mean something that will get you listed on juicycampus.com). Most colleges will say that an intellectual passion tends to be more compelling. So computational neuroscience may be more impressive than “I like to help people,” which is probably still better than, “I like Manga comics and it’s all I really want to do.”

In your fanatic zest and zeal for some “passion” that will impress admissions officers, don’t forget to suck up. By that I mean that colleges really do want to know that you REALLY want to go there (more on how colleges use that factor in an upcoming post). This used to be time consuming, typing out each essay with a different college, but now can be as simple as merging in the right name for “and there’s no where I’d rather be than…” (be careful with those when you cut and paste – every year I get at least a few that say, “rather be than…Brown.” My immediate reaction is that I should grant them their wish NOT to go to Mason).
I suggest, however, putting a little more thought into this part of your essay. That doesn’t mean it has to be longer (DON’T make it longer!), but that you should try to include at least one or two reasons why it’s such a great school for you. You might say, for instance, “George Mason University is the school I want most because I want a place with a truly global outlook and to connect with opportunities to solve real world problems the way you can with an incredible suburban D.C. location,” or words to that effect. Warms the cockles of my heart. If you can tie that into your intellectual interests, so much the better.

Next, a little more insight on Do’s and Don’ts in your essay, then (finally) on to new topics. Be seeing you.


5 Responses

  1. Dear Dean Flagel,
    I enjoyed your comments. The application process can be overwhelming! I just took a DEEP breath and I know I will be at the best college for me.
    Have a great day,

  2. Dear Dean Flagel,
    Thank you so much for posting this! Im still a little concerned about how to fit all that I need to in 250 words but these pointers really helped. Thanks again!

    ~Asma A.

  3. I have really found your post to be informative and this has compelled me to visit your blog over and over again. For the sake of relevance I’d like to include a link of site Custom Essay Writing Help to let the visitor get help by its updated resource. In the end I’d like to thank you for your efforts in spreading academic information. Regards.

  4. I don’t know if you see comments on old posts, but if you do, would you happen to have any advice on the “Describe a time in your life when you had to overcome a challenge and it made you a better person” or “What difficulties have you overcome in your quest to be a fabulous student” question? Is this even used often? I was applying for a summer program this year (I wasn’t accepted) and found that I’ve had a remarkably good life. Everything I can think of always seems insignificant or petty. Any tips? Or should I just not worry about it because I’ll probably never come up against it again?


    • I do check old posts!

      I had this conversation two years ago with the daughter of one of our faculty members – what to do when your life just really isn’t all that bad?
      There are likely three possiblities to why a school would ask such a question:
      1) A belief that the topic gives a rich opportunity to share insight into your soul, and they are looking for students with some particular soul
      2) The school is really looking for students from diverse background, and overcoming adversity is super secret code for, “tell us if you’re poor or from a diverse background”
      3) The question sounded like the school was super thoughtful and competitive, but really they rarely read essays for content and just check for typos and grammatical errors.

      So what to do? I’ll try to get a post on possible ways to respond some time this week. In the meantime, hopefully some other readers might post their ideas…

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