College Guide


April 22, 2013 4:41 PM Admissions Officers Still Aren’t That Impressed By Your Essays

By Daniel Luzer

College offers are in and so admissions staff are now apparently willing to give feedback about the essays students submitted in their applications.

They hated them:

This is the second year in a row college admissions officers have told me that application essays, as a group, were pretty disappointing. They use phrases like “they’re writing too safe” and “we appreciate the effort,” but what they mean is clear; they were given celery when they were looking for steak. Yes, there were exceptions — like the rep who told one of my students his essay was so wonderful, it brought him to tears — but as a rule, there’s room for improvement for next year’s class.

Isn’t this always true?

Is one’s college application really the time to take “big risks” and go for really bold, and potentially controversial, admissions essays? Say that one you really wanted to write about how heroin legalization would be awesome or Western civilization’s prohibition against incest is too restrictive? Maybe the college application is a good time write a piece in iambic pentameter; that will really get their attention.

All of these things are really, really bad ideas. The college application is a very good to play it safe, boring as this must be for admissions staff.

One thing I’ve always wondered about this, though, is how admissions staff really see the essay. After 5 or so years doesn’t all of the writing sort of look the same? The admissions essay must seem especially underwhelming if the people making the decision routinely read nonfiction written and edited by real adult writers.

But to a professional who’s worked in admissions for several years, don’t the essays start to seem a little silly? I remember when I was 17 or so the essay seemed like a very big deal. That was time for me to prove I was so smart that the college couldn’t possibly turn me down. This now strikes me as pretty arrogant and delusional. How often is someone in admissions blown away by a 500-word piece someone in high school writes?

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • mfw13 on April 23, 2013 11:25 PM:

    Probably has two causes:

    1) Writing is not taught properly in school anymore, because with class sizes increasing, grading and commenting on papers becomes very time consuming. If you are a high school English teacher with a total of 150 students, properly grading a single set of papers (at ten minutes per paper) requires an additional 25 hours of work in addition to all your other tasks and responsibilities.

    2) Thanks to paper mills and high priced consultants, few applicants write their own essays anymore.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on April 24, 2013 9:05 AM:

    The high school experience is remarkably the same across the board. Yes, high school college applicants may vary based on income level or geography or other demographic metrics, but most undergraduates are recruited from high schools, just as most high school students come from junior high schools. Not to mention that the admissions process has been corporatized to the high heavens. So naturally playing it "safe", is the marketable way to go. So a whole lot of "meh" to be had.

    Piggy backing on the comment above about high school writing classes, most writing at that level tends towards the more technical, grammatically correct flavor (at least at my high school). Developing personal voice, as the admission reader recommended, is a much more involved and time consuming teaching/learning process. Teasing out and encouraging the individual idiosyncrasies of 28 pupils is a haul, especially if they only know how to communicate in 140 characters or less. Even when I was in high school, I had tendencies to use my voice when writing, but it was typically frowned upon in favor of a more literate, highly formal style.

    So I doubt any admissions reader is going to read a plethora of jaw-dropping and nuanced essays.