The College Admission Essay Topic — Experts Weigh In
To assuage your fears on the college admission essay, we turned to college admission officers from three different types of schools—a state technical school, a small liberal arts college and a large public university—for advice.
Danny Easley, assistant director of admissions at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta
Lisa Przekop, associate director of admissions at the University of California at Santa Barbara
David Wagner, associate director of admissions at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass.
Q: How do colleges use the college application essay?
Easley: At Georgia Tech, we use the college application essay for three purposes:
1 to gain insight into who the student is as a person 2 to know what is important to the student; and 3 to see the student’s writing skills and how well that student communicates. Great writing skills can wow the admissions officer.
Przekop: At a big public university like UCSB, the personal statement is very critical. Because we don’t do interviews, the personal statement portion of the college admission essay is the student’s interview. We want to know why the student is a good fit for our campus and what the student has to offer.
Wagner: Colleges want to get the very best sense of the student—and essays reveal quite a lot. Ultimately, essays give the student a voice in the application process. They give the student a chance to showcase his skills, ideas, history and creativity.
Q: For open-ended college admission essays, what is a good topic?
Easley: Students should give some thought about what is important to them. A topic may seem insignificant on the surface, but it really tells us about the student. Even trivial topics can be important.
Przekop: We like to see an overall picture of how the student has spent the last four years. Don’t just list a plethora of activities, but give examples to back up characteristics. Epiphany moments don’t tell us a lot about the student, unless she was really spurred onward. Also, avoid unnecessary hardships; we are not looking for a tragedy.
Wagner: I get to read more than my fair share of essays on Kerouac and Shakespeare. Original topics can be more interesting, but it is more important that the writing be refreshing.
Q: What emotions should essays include?
Easley: Sincerity. The student doesn’t need to go overboard. Just speak about what is important to him.
Przekop: Be honest. Paint a picture on a day-to-day basis and how it affects you.
Wagner: Tell your story. An analytical essay gives an applicant the opportunity to showcase their ability to think, synthesize sources, make connections, draw conclusions, assert cogent arguments and take intellectual risks.
Q: How much does a college admission essay count toward college admissions?
Easley: The essay is one of the main components we look at in a student. The others, of course, are grades, types of classes, test scores and leadership activity. If there’s a really good essay, that student will stand out. Of course, a really poor essay can stand out as well.
Przekop: I try to formulate a picture of that student on our campus, to tell if the student is a good fit. The essays are part of the overall picture of the student.
Wagner: At Hampshire and other small private liberal arts colleges, essays are a very significant component of the admission process. As writing and analytical thinking are necessary to successfully navigate a Hampshire education, essays are evaluated for sophistication, confidence, critical thought and originality.
The admissions committee also evaluates essays for evidence of initiative, self-direction, imagination and passion.
Q: What essay advice can you offer to students?
Easley: Pick a topic that you feel passionate about, and this enthusiasm will come across in the essay. Don’t try to impress the reader. It isn’t necessary. But watch out for grammar mistakes.
It is too easy to crank out essays online, without reviewing them carefully.
Przekop: Understand that total strangers are reading the essay. Someone that doesn’t know them well. This is the place for you to brag about yourself—the more specifics, the better.
Wagner: Write naturally. Use the vocabulary and writing skills you already have. Allow the creative writing process to happen. Don’t try too hard. Be “real,” and you’ll be fine. Your essays should reflect the time, thought and care of a student who is serious about spending four years in an intellectual learning community. The admissions committee cares deeply about your writing. You should, too.