Recently, I was able to chat about what defines a well-structured college application essay format in terms of topic selection and quality with Parke Muth from Parke Muth Consulting . Before Parke became a consultant, he worked in a number of different leadership positions at the University of Virginia’s Office of Admission, including Associate Dean of Admission and Director of International Admission.
I asked Parke a couple key questions that parents and students often ask during the application process, and Parke does a tremendous job in applying his unique insights to help
1. What do admission officers really want to see from students in their essays? What makes an essay stand out in a positive way?
I wish I could answer this question in a few sound bite sized nuggets so that anyone reading them would come away with useful information. Actually, that’s not true. I think there are far too many nuggets of wisdom out there about essays. The problem is that if people examine them closely they often discover that verbal nuggets are often clichés. While something like ‘all that glitters is not gold’ may initially sound bright it also sounds dim too.
After 3 decades of reading essays and writing about them in places like the US News, I’ve discovered a few things that have made me question my ‘’wisdom’. But I do have a formula.
E= wr2. Like E = mc2, there is a lot that goes on inside the letters and numbers. But essays are not in the same category as paradigm-shifting discoveries in physics. Still, there is a lot more to the reaction than we often think about. Let me see if I can offer a bit of elucidation of and as my proof.
E, of course stands for the Essay. Like Einstein’s E it contains energy; if it doesn’t, the writer’s sunk. The energy is what goes in on the part of both reader and the writer. Both must be willing and able– in this interaction everything in the universe of admission essays depends. Without a positive reaction nothing good happens. It is, however, the variables on the other side of the equation that matter (pun intended): both have to come into play (and work).
W, the writer, the matter at hand, has a job to do: become a subset of one. Sound hard? It should, but not for the reasons most think. Most approach the topics put out by the Common App or the schools themselves as Everest. They think that they have to have scaled the highest peaks or have figured out the secrets to eternal inflation in astrophysics. They think, in other words, that they have to tell a tale never told that will, by its genius or world-class recognition, stand out. A lucky few have such stories. Most don’t. But everyone can become a subset of one. All it takes is the ability to put into telling a detailed story that shows something personal. The essay asked for after all is called a personal statement for a reason. And anyone who’s lived has compelling details and words to share. One of the best student essays I’ve read in a while extolled the virtues of the small. The small means the acts that add up not to a formula but a story that no one else has because each of us generates billions of thoughts and details none of the rest of us have. Each of us lives in a world that’s infinite. The job for students is to take a few of those neural pathways and shape them into words that follow a path, sometimes clear, sometimes meandering, but always well-written. I don’t think any topic leads to pure gold or any to lead (there are a few that might call for serous alchemy though: the student who wrote about the advantages of sniffing glue–really—had set himself a rather difficult task). On the other hand, I’ve talked with thousands of students and it does not take all that long to hear words that have the fire of passion. Turning the heat of passion into effective prose takes work but it is a lot easier than trying to do some sort of magic or transubstantiation. Focus, vision, revision and reading an essay to someone else that knows about writing will all help. All of this takes time and it does take effort, but practice makes writing a craft rather than a special talent. It can be learned but it needs to be earned too.
R, the reader, is harder to define. Readers come in all races, ages, and academic backgrounds. Anyone who says they can tell how an unknown set of readers will respond to a set of words hasn’t done much research. I have done my share. I’ve posted essays on my blog and shared them with parents, students and educators. In some cases the responses have been anything from ‘good, not great’ to ‘publishable’. I am not saying that there isn’t a way to judge whether an essay is great or just pretty good but part of the formula are the experiences and predilections of the readers. I do think most know when an essay is bad, but making subtle distinctions between the best and the good is not nearly as predictable as most books about writing college essays would have students and parents think. I’ve heard too many readers disagree about essays to make me think anyone ‘knows’ what will always work. Some readers have been shaped by words by Toni Morrison; others have not read much fiction or poetry or creative non-fiction. “De gustibus non est disputandum”, however, just doesn’t do it. There are certain essays that sing and some that sink, but there are many that are subject to the subject’s reading and writing background. The audience reading essays for selective schools are a mixed bunch so there simply isn’t a formula or what will move them to fight for a student or an essay. Smarts, and flashes of words juxtaposed well, will likely work in most cases.
‘2’ in my formula is not squared; instead, it’s a reminder that essays dance in dialectic. It takes two to tango and two to have an essay that means anything a solipsistic exercise. The reader and writer need to cohabit in space to create a reaction that makes being come into being.
That is what I have to share. For some this might leave you without a clue. For others it may, or at least that is my hope, to do what Horace, the Latin poet says good writing should do: ‘dulce and utile’: please and instruct. My guess is that some won’t like it much, but some others might. I have tried to show and tell how words don’t always work equally for different readers. But I also tried to share an approach to a topic that’s been written about countless times with a story told as an allegory in the form of a formula.
2. How much of an impact does a well-written and compelling essay have on an applicant’s admission?
This question gets asked in many forms and ways by thousands of parents and student each year. The Ivies, MIT, Stanford etc., on average, accept between 5%-10% of those who apply. In order to be one of the lucky few you have to have more than just a great essay. Essays don’t get looked at first in the evaluation process. Instead the transcript and testing, your background, and school and courses do. Without some compelling numbers and overall stellar performance a great essay won’t get you that far.
On the other hand, having great numbers is just the start of getting in to these kinds of schools. Just about everyone that applies has strong numbers, and some are nearly perfect. Some really are perfect. And still some of those with perfect numbers don’t get in. Why? Numbers predict academic success but they don’t compel a reader to say yes. More often than not words and actions need to come in to play.
In some cases, the actions trump numbers. For example, great athletes whose numbers are decent often get in over those with much higher numbers. So too with those who have other special talents whether it be in a particular academic area or some other interest (fine arts, service or business are just a few examples).
Essays aren’t icing. You are not a cake. But they are not the determinative factor unless you already have passed through the portal of high numbers. There are a few exceptions to this but they mostly come from those who have some sort of amazing story. Those who have had to negotiate with terrorists to save their parents, those who had to step over crack addicts to get to school, those who survived a tsunami. I mention these real examples because if you hope to get n on the basis of the plot of your essay you’d better have something that only a tiny group of people in the world have been through. The stories of overcoming hardship tend to play better than doing some things that are impressive but may cost a whole lot of money and time that most others don’t have. A guy that had climbed 9 of the world’s 10 top mountains didn’t get into most of the top schools on your list even though he had pretty good numbers.
Let’s say you are your average run of the mill really smart person. Here’s where essays can make or break you. I often say it isn’t necessarily the dramatic that gets you in; instead, it’s the well-crafted essay that demonstrates you have not just the ability to communicate beautifully through the written word but that you can do so within the context of the world you live in. By this I mean that what you often know best and can write about with unforgettable detail is what is in front of you each day. Creating that world for others is both an art and a science. It can be learned but it usually takes time.
When I worked in selective admission, I would look for essays that had ‘a local habitation and a name’ (a phrase I have stolen from Shakespeare). I wanted to hear and see and touch and smell and feel the world you are in; details that show, and, by end, tell too. (I agree with the great writer Philip Lopate about the need to do both, but many others who talk about essays emphasize the showing part.) If I felt I found a rare voice I would fight like hell to get that student in. But there are not many who can do this. I say this from personal and professional experience. I write quite a lot and most of it is ok or occasionally even better than ok, but only rarely do I hit a rhythm that does, in a small space, what I want it to—move the reader in some way.
Essays that are poorly written can doom a person who is virtually perfect in most other ways. It usually does not work the other way around. A great essay won’t overcome gaps in the numbers, or if it does, there is usually something else going on—some sort of special category for admission.