In the following Q&A, former Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Cornell University Jason Locke shares college essay tips from admission counselors. He discusses the importance of a well-written college essay and offers advice for students beginning the process. For more guidance on writing a standout college essay, check out Write the World’s College Essay Program.
Why do colleges ask applicants to write essays?
Essays represent an important opportunity for applicants to introduce themselves to the admissions committee, both personally and academically. The high school transcript and in some cases, test scores, are central to the college admissions process. However, with most colleges and universities receiving more applications than available spaces in the class, having a sense of individual applicants and what they might contribute to the campus community is incredibly important as admissions committees build their class each year. Essays also allow admissions committees to assess your ability to write as well as provide insight into the way you develop ideas for a written piece.
In your experience, what makes a college essay stand out?
Essays that integrate academic interests with personal experiences are quite often the best to read. Insights into one’s personal experiences draw the attention of the application reader and often leave a lasting impression. I frequently encourage students to think about that moment when they first developed their academic interest. Tell the story of how a teacher, advisor, or academic mentor encouraged that interest. Describe a particular class or a hands-on learning experience that confirmed your academic interest. These personal stories create a picture of who you are and the kind of student you will be.
What words of encouragement do you have for students starting their essays?
Students often believe they have very little of interest about which to write. Some have even been moved to tears describing the struggle that they are having with the personal essay. My response is always the same – tell me about a memory or moment from your life. I typically ask that students take a few days to come up with a dozen or so memories that we can discuss. It probably seems like an unusual request, but it is one of the most effective ways to develop essay topics. A personal memory or moment activates our senses. We reveal our memories using vivid detail which sets the stage for a truly wonderful story. And unlike writing a research paper or argumentative essay, students are not citing sources or quoting experts – they are telling us about a topic for which they are the experts. I advise students to simply sit down and start writing. Let it pour onto the page without editing. One of the many wonderful students who I have advised referred to this method as “word vomit,” a perfect (and hilarious) description!
Is there anything students should avoid when writing their essays or any final college essay tips?
Essays describing a particularly difficult life experience are, in some cases, essays one should avoid writing. I write, in some cases, because difficult experiences are a part of life and can be an important moment that will help the admissions committee understand those life moments that shaped who you are as a person. What is most important to the reader is understanding how you responded to difficulties. They also want to know more about the person who emerged from these experiences. I encourage students to think carefully about sharing a difficult life experience without giving some thought to how they responded and what they have learned. Without this information, the admissions committee will lack the appropriate context for understanding why the applicant shared this information with the admissions committee.
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Jason Locke has spent over two decades in higher education leadership positions, among them Director of Undergraduate Admissions and Associate Vice Provost for Enrollment at Cornell University. Jason received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Alfred University, a Master of Education degree at the University of Vermont, and a Postgraduate Certificate from Peking University in Beijing, China. He is currently completing his Doctor of Education degree at the University of Pennsylvania. Recently, Jason joined Ransom Everglades School in the inaugural role of Executive Director for College Counseling. Over the years, he has enjoyed participating in the Ithaca Twilight 5K Run, Vinophile Society and Supper Club, and serving as a Friend of the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals).