At this time of year, Admission Committee members put in long hours and they have a very short time to read each application. You spend weeks putting your best effort into this. I hate to tell you this, but very probably your whole application will be reviewed in 20 minutes at most.
Often it’s very late at night. They’ve been reading all day. There may be one space left in the class, and two applications. Both applications are equally well-qualified in terms of grades and activities – one has a strong essay, one does not. Or even let’s say both are pretty good essays, but one is full of typos and the other has been carefully proof-read. Which candidate do you think will get that one spot?
Grades are the number one qualification. Your transcript is the first thing the reader will look at, then your activities list, then the essay. A strong essay will not get you in if your grades and activities are weak. The most heart-wrenching and well-written hardship story won’t save a lousy transcript. But a dull, poorly written, or poorly proof-read one may keep you out even if your grades and activities are excellent.
You will hear that at some campuses, and for some majors, if your grades are outstanding, they may never even read your essay, and in fact this is true. But the thing is, you don’t know which ones those are, and you don’t know if your grades are that much better than the competition. Even the head of the Admissions Committee could not tell you right this minute if your essay will be read, because they don’t know until all the applications are in and they have a chance to compare the number of applicants and the number of openings. For sure, if you are applying to an impacted major, or if you are in that big middle pile (not in at first glance, but not necessarily out) then your essay will be crucial.
If your transcript is all A’s, you have been founding President of six clubs on campus and during the summer you built an orphanage in Afghanistan for the 300 children you rescued single-handedly from a terrible mountain avalanche in which all their parents had been killed…OK fine, you might rightfully assume you have a pretty good chance of being admitted to the school of your choice. But you’d be surprised how many other applicants have all A’s and a stellar set of activities. No pressure, but unless you tell that orphanage story really well, one of those other shining stars might just grab that spot you thought was yours.
At virtually every school, every application is read by more than one person. If two agree, you’re in (or out, depending on what they agree on) If they disagree, a third reader will break the tie. Or, depending on the school, sometimes that pile is reviewed & discussed in greater depth by a committee.
It’s also, important to remember that scholarship committees will read these essays too.
So, what are these weary but well-meaning people looking for when they read your essays?
They are looking to find out if you are smart enough, inclined to work hard enough and will fit in. They are also looking to see what unique contributions you will make to the student body.
The U. C. Berkeley Undergraduate Admissions site provides an excellent set of “Characteristics of a Good Personal Statement”:
And their Transfer Application site states that Berkeley seeks information about:
- Demonstrated interest in the major
- Choices you’ve made and what you have gained as a result of those choices
- Exceptional personal or academic recognition
- Intellectual curiosity
- Unusual talent or ability
- Leadership/service to others
- Substantial experience with other cultures
- Participation in an outreach program or internship
- Your ability to overcome or manage significant challenges
- Your ability to think analytically and write critically
- Your essay needs to show (not just tell) them that you are some combination of creative, resourceful, hard-working, intelligent, unique, talented, tenacious, altruistic, committed to a cause you believe in, mature, goal-oriented, introspective, self-confident, receptive to challenges, assertive (but not aggressive!) resilient, either an inspiring leader, or an effective follower, and authentic. Those are all words I have heard application readers use in describing their desired candidates. Piece o’ cake, right?
Last but not least, don‘t let anyone tell you that an Admissions Committee member can’t possibly really care about you. In my experience, application readers care a great deal. The problem is they only have the luxury of caring about you personally for about 20 minutes. Your task is to make whatever they know about you at the end of those 20 minutes so memorable that they very much want to include you in the world of wonderful people on their campus.
Read on for some tips about how to “show not tell” and how to get started on this all-important writing assignment.