Essay advice from a high profile guest

Trying something a little different, below is a special guest post from my colleague, Jon Reider, Director of College Counseling at San Francisco High School and former associate director of admissions at Stanford University. It may be a wee bit confusing as I have infused his article with some points (mostly counterpoints) with some notes from yours truly:

Five Traits That Matter in College Admissions
By Jon Reider

College admissions becomes more competitive every year,
Geez, I couldn’t even wait to let him finish his first sentence! Much as I respect Jon, the idea that college admissions is much more competitive isn’t supported by the data. There are a lot more applications, but not so many more applicants compared to the number of spaces available. A small handful of schools have gotten more competitive, but others less so. Of course, Mason is WAY more competitive, but that’s just because we’re so popular. Now, what were you saying?

…and high grades and test scores can no longer make an applicant stand out.
What?! Of course they make you stand out! It’s MOSTLY about the grades!

Students have one shot to personally impress admissions officers – the essays.
And recommendations. And lists of extracurriculars. And at Mason you can submit a YouTube video…

Colleges want to see depth in your personality. A strong essay that harnesses your voice and shows the ‘true you’ often can make a difference in your evaluation.
Unless we don’t really like the true you…

When writing your application essay, consider these five traits that admissions officers usually look for:

Don’t pretend you are a superhero! Through your essay, you need to address the admissions officer who reads it – an adult with their own life experiences, who does not know you but wants to get to know you better. Colleges want students who know they are human and who have developed through challenging themselves.
Hmmm. I see what you mean, but if I could enroll a superhero, I have to admit I’d be tempted. I mean, not Hulk or Wolverine – too much damage to campus. Green Lantern would be a good Mason fit – already has the right colors…

Have you grown with your experiences? Do you look inward and learn from both your successes and failures? Admissions officers look for students who take every opportunity to mature. It is one thing to simply write about what has happened to you, and another to show how you have changed because of these events.
No argument here – insightful seems better than not insightful.

Admissions officers have long days. They might be reading your application at 9am over a cup of coffee or at 11PM before going to sleep. The phones might be ringing in the background. It should not take 110% of their focus to get through your essays. Be succinct and clear. Is that string of 10-letter adjectives really necessary to express yourself, or are you just trying to show off your vocabulary?
yes – short good.

A college is a community, and admissions officers want to know how you interact with others. When writing an essay, try to work in an example of a time in which you brought people together. Perhaps it was with humor, or good-will, or sincerity. The person reading your essay should want to be your friend and not just on facebook.
Unless the admissions officer is an unlikable introvert who really hates the popular people. No really, it happens.

Tell the truth, Jon, is that a word?

If your transcript shows you know how to take a test, you may be tempted to think you don’t need to write about academics. More than grades, however, admissions officers want to know how ideas move you. Will you go to class because you have to, or will you go because you truly love learning? Try to illustrate a time when you were motivated by learning itself, and not just by a high grade.

Jon Reider is the former Senior Associate Director of Admission for Stanford University. He has created curriculum for developing application essays and is the principal advisor to iAdmissions, a unique essay counseling service.
That being said, Jon’s a pretty smart guy, and his points are well taken. And, fortunately, he has a good sense of humor, I hope. Do me a favor and check out his new book, Admissions Matters, just in case he isn’t thrilled with my commentary. Be seeing you.


2 Responses

  1. […] Essay advice from a high profile guest […]

  2. Great advice here! If you want to get a sense of your audience–all important when you write anything!–these suggestions are golden!

    If you would like more help on writing your college essay, check out this blog on how to write these personal narratives:

    Good luck!

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