The College Essay

Amid the stress of application season, one task gives seniors more anxiety than any other — their essays.  Unfortunately, some level of anxiety is justified. After an applicant’s academic record, essays are one of the most important factors in admissions, often serving as a tiebreaker among applicants with similar records. But the anxiety is manageable if applicants treat the essay as an ally in their campaign for admission. For this to happen, they need to understand its true role.

Self-Focus is Essential

In writing an essay, applicants should be self-focused and be in tune with what is important to them and what they are passionate about. This seems counterintuitive, but it’s the right way to approach the task. To write a strong essay, students need to look inward. They must tell a story that has their inner thoughts as its core. Admissions Officers (AO)s evaluate essays for what they reveal about the student’s maturity, character, personality, and motivation.  It’s an opportunity to learn something about the student that may not be evident anywhere else in the application.

The essay is a way for applicants to introduce themselves to a college as a person rather than merely a set of numbers. But applicants need to be aware that AOs also expect essays to be intriguing, entertaining, and persuasive rather than erudite. In an essay, applicants are subtly selling themselves through the power of their message. If the message forms a gut-level connection with the reader, the applicant may have an advantage over the competition.

Essay Readers Seek Authenticity  

Applicants should understand that the majority of AO’s are recent graduates only a few years older than they are. They have a similar frame of reference and the same cultural touchstones as applicants, so informality is appropriate.

Essays are not necessarily grammatically correct. Leeway is granted in the use of creative sentence structure and euphemisms. AO’s want to see that the applicant is genuine and is speaking in their authentic voice. The essayist should write as she speaks.

Sometimes, the applicant needs to disregard the conventions of proper English to ensure that their true self is communicated. Remember “Nobody Doesn’t Like Sara Lee”?  OMG! A double negative! But it might be the most successful tag line ever written.

An AO for Tufts who contributes to the university’s blog has this to say about authenticity.

“As the admissions officer reading your application, I need proof – in the form of a written tone that matches your spoken one. As I read through your essay, I am crafting an image in my head of the person who will arrive on our campus in the fall if admitted. Your job is to arm me with examples of who this person is. Do this not just in what you say but how you say it.”

The best essays are often based on the student’s ordinary life experiences and point of view. Just as Seinfeld was famous for being “A show about nothing”, a student essay about nothing is more apt than an attempt at something profound.

Will Geiger, a former AO, has this to say.

Essays don’t have to be about fancy, expensive programs. Often, students write great essays about unimportant everyday things. A strong essay reveals the student’s authentic voice and unique perspective through storytelling.”

Topic?

There is no magic answer when it comes to topic of the main college essay.  The same topic can produce both a great essay and a lackluster one depending on who is writing it.  The key to success in choosing a topic is finding one that is meaningful to the writer and allows the writer to showcase his/her personal style and what’s important to him/her.

In the case of college specific supplemental essays, it is important to spend the time understanding what a prompt is asking.  It is critical to formulate a response that answers the question in a way that is clear and also reflects the personal style and voice of the student writing it.

Is Humor Appropriate?

Essays are serious business. Even so, an applicant can include a humorous bit; a sentence or two that gets a smile. The AO may remember the line and it will help set a genial tone. Self-deprecating humor is safest. It’s the least likely to be considered offensive to someone, somewhere.

Though it can be beneficial to include humor, it’s not for every student or every essay.  If a student is naturally witty than humor will likely work in getting a point across in an essay.  If not, the humor may seem forced or at times inappropriate. It must also fit well within the essay. If the essay is about a grave topic, it’s best to skip the humor. The applicant must be confident that the bit will help their case and not harm it. If there’s any doubt, it should be omitted.

Who Should Edit?

An applicant can use a copy editor without concern about a breach of ethics. A copy editor proofreads for errors in spelling, punctuation, and word usage. Even the best journalists and authors use a copy editor.

But who should an applicant rely on to critique their essay’s theme, message, and execution. The advice of the Tufts AO is as follows.

Show your essay to two people, and no more: Often the worst thing that can happen to an essay is editing. When you have many different people giving you feedback, you often lose your own voice. You’re hidden behind perfect grammar, sterile language, and phrases thrown in because ‘It’s what admissions officers want to hear.’ Let me demystify something for you: I hate the things you write because it’s what admissions officers want to hear. They’re boring. And forced. And misguided. Show your essays to only two people — one who is a strong writer, and one who knows you very well.”

Start Early

Starting early is a good idea for essays and, for that matter, all tasks related to admissions. The end of junior year is about right for essays. This gives ample time to brainstorm ideas over the summer and to make sure that the chosen theme is consistent with the core message of the entire application.

Most of the colleges’ supplemental essay prompts are not available until August so it is great to have the main essay done by then so students can use the month of August to begin work on college supplements.

Procrastination is especially disastrous in essay writing. No semi-decent essay was ever written during an all-nighter before a deadline. The writer needs sufficient time to be able to walk away from a draft and return to it later, maybe even much later, with fresh eyes. Another great way to see if the essay is ready is to read it out loud – it’s amazing how different something can sound when listened to rather than read.

*****************

As part of our comprehensive consulting services at The College Planner, LLC we coach applicants through their essays from brainstorming, theme development, drafts, and editing to final versions. Laura Cubanski is our Essay Specialist who helps students with their main college essay. Laura is highly qualified and truly enjoys assisting seniors in all stages of the essay writing process.

Reviewing the 2021-22 Admissions Results

In only two years, the long-established patterns of college admissions have been completely disrupted. This is widely considered to be a result of the pandemic, but the pandemic only accelerated trends that had been building for a decade.  

A notable effect of the last two admission cycles is that, while the majority of colleges struggled to reverse declining enrollment, top-tier institutions enjoyed a sharp rise in demand. Two distinct models of admissions have evolved — one for top-tier colleges and another for all the rest.  As admission season approaches again, we at The College Planner,LLC advise that high school seniors and their parents understand and plan for the new status quo in admissions.

The Boom in Applications to Top-Tier Institutions

Although college enrollment is down in general, the most highly selective institutions are thriving. Since colleges accept about the same number of freshmen every year, the rising volume of applications submitted to these schools has resulted in plummeting admission rates. As evidence, the number of colleges that admitted less than 10% of their applicants rose from 9 in 2019 to 28 in 2022.

A main cause of this rise in applications is the shift to test-optional admissions policies. The test-optional movement was well underway prior to 2020, but the closure of test centers caused by the pandemic prevented students from taking the SAT and ACT exams that year. This forced even the most prestigious colleges to drop standardized test scores as a requirement for admission. Most colleges have indicated that they will retain their test-optional policies at least through 2023-24 if not indefinitely.

As a result of the adoption of test-optional policies, students aspiring to attend a top-tier school who didn’t perform well on tests saw an opportunity to rely more heavily on other aspects of their academic record like GPA and strength of curriculum. Many of them joined the already high number of applicants seeking admission to top schools. But this simply meant that more applicants would be disappointed, making admission rates fall.

Top-Tier Colleges Are More Selective Than Ever

Table A shows a set of top-tier schools that reported their Class of 2026 admissions data prior to June 30. They are all ranked among the top 50 schools on either the National Universities or National Liberal Arts College rankings in the College Edition of U.S. News & World Report for 2022.Table A shows their increasing selectivity over the last two years.

Table A

Admission Rates at Top-Tier Institutions

2019-20 and 2021-22 Compared

Institution  Number of Applicants  Number Admitted  2019-20 Admit %  2021-22 Admit %
Amherst14,8001,025127
Barnard12,009961118
Boston College40,4776,6782416
Boston Univ.80,79211,4341914
Bowdoin9,44684399
Brown50,6492,54675
Colby16,8911,25897
Columbia60,3772,25864
Cornell71,0004,908117
Dartmouth28,3361,76796
Davidson6,4871,0902017
Dickinson8,2302,8804835
Duke50,0023,08586
Emory33,5593,5782011
Emory (Oxford)20,8322,9322314
Georgetown26,6703,2291512
Georgia Tech50,6018,6732017
Hamilton9,8991,1681812
Harvard61,2201,95453
Harvey Mudd4,4405761813
Johns Hopkins37,1002,40896
Middlebury13,0281,9402415
MIT33,9761,33774
NYU105,00012,8101512
Notre Dame26,5063,4121713
Northeastern90,9896,179197
Northwestern51,5543,60997
Swarthmore14,7001,02197
Tufts34,8803,139159
Tulane42,0004,2001110
UNC Chapel Hill57,1984,400258
UPenn54,7842,40084
USC69,0008,81981612
Vanderbilt46,7172,86496
Virginia50,9629,5522119
Wellesley8,7001,1311913
Wesleyan14,5212,0132014
Williams15,3211,304159
Yale50,0152,23474

The Decline in College Enrollment

Despite the upturn in applications at the most highly selective schools, there has been a steady drop in general college enrollment that began well before the pandemic. This decline is the primary reason for the turbulence in admissions at many colleges. Data released in May by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows that 662,000 fewer students enrolled in college in spring 2022 than a year earlier, a 5%. Figure A, below, shows that undergraduate enrollment peaked in 2010 at 18.1 million students and fell to 15.9 million in 2020, the last cycle before the pandemic.

                                                                                                         Source: Education Data Initiative

The Financial Condition of Colleges

All indications are that top-tier schools will continue to thrive, but they represent less than 5% of the nearly 4,000 post-secondary institutions in the country. Declining enrollment has devastated the financial stability of many small and mid-sized public and private colleges.

A number of colleges were forced to cease operations prior to and during the pandemic. Another 20% are expected to close their doors in the next few years due to the combined impact of changing demographics, state government disinvestment, unrealistic tuition rates, the lingering effects of the pandemic, and inadequate endowment funds.

Making matters worse is the fact that, for the first time in generations, many Americans are questioning if college is still the path to a secure, well-paying career. According to Stephanie Saul, writing in the New York Times on May 22, “The ongoing enrollment crisis at U.S. colleges and universities deepened in spring 2022, raising concerns that a fundamental shift is taking place in attitudes toward the value of a college degree.”  

According to Inside Higher Education, the outlook for enrollment looks even dimmer as we approach a “demographic cliff” in 2025, when a 15% drop in high school seniors is expected as a result of the reduced birth rate during and after the 2008 recession.

The precariousness of the finances of many schools should concern students and families who are now researching colleges. To the intimidating set of variables already involved should be added the financial condition of the schools on a student’s College List.

Do Admission Rates Matter?

Trends in admissions aren’t something that families can afford to ignore. Admission rates are a key factor in the calculation of college rankings. Although rankings are an imperfect measure of a college’s quality, they serve many people as a proxy for quality. Since rankings affect the level of demand for a college, they also impact its financial viability.

Students shouldn’t throw more than a couple of applications atop the pile at highly competitive “dream” schools. Instead, they should seek admission to sound, reputable, colleges that must increase their enrollment. In addition to a more welcoming set of acceptance criteria, these schools are strongly inclined to provide financial aid in order to increase their tuition revenue. 

As experienced college admissions consultants, the professionals at The College Planner understand the new landscape of college admissions. We guide our students through the maze of admissions all the way to enrollment in the college that fits them just right. The College Planner has placed students in a wide range of excellent colleges including Tufts, Northeastern, Catholic University, Skidmore, Boston University, Boston College, Brown, Fairfield, Fordham, Holy Cross, Colby, George Washington, William & Mary, Penn State, Villanova, Wake Forest, and many others.