As part of the Independent Educational Consultant Association (IECA), I have been regularly attending webinars with various college admissions officers since September. In these Zoom sessions, admission officers give independent consultants insights into what they are looking for in a student — below are a few of my most important takeaways:
1) Forget about the “wow” factor, show us your authentic self!
The Yale admissions officer nailed this point on the head. When we directly asked her what “wow” means to her, she plainly and calmly stated that there is no such thing as “wow”, for every officer understands that every person is unique and every candidate to Yale must be a high-achiever.
There is one question I ask every admission officer: “So what do you like to see?”
Our speaker from Yale shared with us a story about a girl from Tennessee. She very openly told us that the only reason she picked this girl above all other candidates in the “final pile” was because while other candidates presented themselves as champions, presidents, leaders, founders, and total winners, this girl wrote in her activities that she is a “co-president” and “co-founder” of the few initiatives she is highly involved with. The officer emphasized that it was the addition of the “co-“ that set her apart from her competitors. She was touched by this girl’s authenticity and “down-to-earth” character as presented in her activities, which were verified by her letters of recommendations and her essays. This girl was admitted to Yale.
2) Do not read “Best Essays” books for inspiration!
One of the most significant issues our students have while thinking of personal statement ideas is that they compare their life-stories with the ones in “Best Essays” books. A common misconception is that a personal essay must be emotional to be impactful, but that is simply not true! An admission officer from the University of Chicago addressed this problem by telling us that the best essays he has read do not include any tragedies. In fact, one of the most memorable essays for him was about a student who has carried a 100-ft long string with her since she was 10. In this story, the student read about whales and wanted to know exactly how long a 100-ft, the approximate length of a humpback, is. Her father then took her to Home Depot to buy a 100-ft long rope for her to visualize. Ever since, she would carry the rope around and compare her own height with that of a whale, reminding herself of the wonders of nature.
The speaker from Penn State and the University of Southern California (USC) also had similar stories to share. The Penn State officer’s most memorable story was about a boy who takes the subway to and from school every day; his story was about his thoughts during these trips. For USC, the story he shared was about a boy who was assigned an emergency exit seat on a plane. He told us that people would normally rejoice when they get an emergency exit seat because of the extra leg-room, but this boy worried about the responsibility he had to carry when sitting in that seat instead!
To our dear students, you can and will always be able to find great stories around you! All you need to do is take a closer look at your life and examine further!
3) The supplement essays are at least as important, if not more important, than your personal statement.
Admissions officers design their supplement questions with the purpose of finding the right character fits from candidates.
The Yale officer revealed to us that she spent hours in meetings to create the “right” supplement questions— the admissions committee needed to find ways to distinguish those who are actually fit for Yale from those who are just high-achieving.
The University of Chicago uses their infamous “Uncommon App” with prompts created by their own students and alumni to find their own kind. There is no word limit in their essays because they want to see as much (or as little) as possible from the student.
On the other hand, Tufts University purposely created very short essay responses to force their candidate to be direct and candid about their intentions and motivations. They have no stomach for fancy buffer words that do not answer to the prompts!
USC offers yet another take. Their supplement essays are made specifically for individual colleges or programs within the university. Unless the student has done extensive research into the courses and programs USC has to offer, one may find it very difficult to effectively respond to the USC essay questions.
And the list goes on… The bottom line is, supplement essays are used as a tool by schools to determine whether a student is a good fit for their school or not. Our students write about 8 to 10 drafts per essay to ensure quality, authenticity, and fit. Admission officers likely read an applicant’s supplementary essays before they reach the personal statement, making it twice as important to write a convincing supplement.
4) Enjoy the application process!
The officer from Marist College gave some honest, most heart-felt advice to all counselors and students about the college application process. When we asked the simple but crucial question of what advice she would give to applying seniors now, his response was to “enjoy your application process, because if you find yourself dreading certain essays, then whatever school you are trying out is not right for you.” Indeed, when the supplements are created to gauge the fit of a student, how can anyone claim that they are genuinely interested in a school if they cannot answer the prompts genuinely?
As admission consultants, our advice to students is to always be genuine. If you write about things that genuinely interest and excite you, you should have no trouble convincing your reader about your passions and how you are as a person or candidate!
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By Ally Ip, Director of Research