Make An Admissions Officer Smile

… and you'll be halfway home. That's one of the cornerstones of my advice to college applicants about writing application essays. In my work with high school seniors applying to competitive colleges, I'm amazed at the lifelessness of the majority of essay drafts that I see. The core of the problem of their ability to produce mundane text seems to be that they're writing what they think the admissions committee readers want to see rather than what they (the applicant) want to write.

How many times in your life have you told someone what you think they want to hear instead of what you really wanted to say? Granted, there are common-sense limits to what you really should say, or in the case of application essays, what you want to write. However, put yourself in the shoes of a typical harried admissions person who is facing a mountain of folders and an unreasonable deadline. Picture this poor, exhausted man or woman struggling to stay awake at 1:30 a.m. on a freezing, snowy night, opening your application folder (or electronic equivalent) and, going straight to your essay, seeing this stimulating opening sentence: “Through soccer, I have learned the value of teamwork, perseverance, and hard work."

Now there's a cure for insomnia. Granted, the new prompts for the Common Application have eliminated the handy “Any topic" category, but that shouldn't stop you from using your innate creativity and even a scintilla of a sense of humor to keep things stimulating and lively. Granted, there are times when a serious tone is appropriate. In fact, trying to make light of a serious topic can sometimes backfire. In general, though, if you can create some kind of memorable “anchor" in the brains of your readers, you stand a better chance to win a favorable judgment about your case, assuming of course that your other credentials are at least in the ballpark with your competition. They may just remember you and that smile you inspired.

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