An Admissions Dean's Tips for Getting In

How to write a memorable essay and explain a bad grade.


How can they tell if it is genuine?

Admission officers look to see if you have been involved with a particular activity over time, and if you've grown with that activity. If you've been in the choir for three or four years, well, clearly you like to sing if you've become a soloist , if you've become section leader, if you've become a student director, if you've become an officer in the choir, that suggests you are invested at another level. Forming a club just so you can be president of it is pretty transparent. You have teachers and counselors writing on behalf of the student. If those things are not showing up in the recommendation, that is a good way for us to determine that the student is not terribly genuine about the interest.

Students stress over college application essays. But you've said they don't always make such a big difference to the application.

In my opinion, the essay is a missed opportunity for most students. Only about 20 percent of the submitted essays truly make a difference in who gets in. As an admission officer, you have two basic concerns: Is there evidence that students can write? Can they put words together to make sentences, and sentences together to make paragraphs? And then, of course, what do those paragraphs say? Can the students demonstrate some artistic ability? The faculty at a college or university really wants to make sure that I can bring them students who can write. So that is the primary focus. The teenage tendency is to do something that is good enough. In that case, sure, you satisfied a requirement. But you have probably not produced something that is going to help you get in. It won't hurt you, but it won't help you. Essays that give the reader new perspective into who you are and how you think are the ones that can make a difference.

So how can you make an essay that will help you?

One of the best editorial tools out there is free. It is called time. T-I-M-E. If kids take time to develop an idea and let it become an essay, then they'll create something that can be very meaningful. The objective for the student is to create an essay that I will want to read. I am a busy guy. When I pick up an application, I have to get through it quickly, so I can go to the next application. If you can get me to get past the first paragraph to the second, third, and fourth, now you are making a difference in how your application will be perceived. If you take time to develop the idea so that I will want to read more, so I will want to share it with colleagues, then you win. It is not a bad idea to start thinking about essays at the end of your junior year. Obsess on them? No. But start a journal. Keep track of your thoughts on a regular basis. The thoughts you find yourself coming back to in that journal are often thoughts you could build upon in developing an essay topic.

A lot of parents believe if that if they apply for financial aid, the student's chances of getting in are reduced. Is that true?

I believe that is the case. I would further say that it depends on where the student is applying. It is really important for students to put themselves on the right playing field. By that, I mean putting themselves into a competition that makes sense for them. Find the place that matches up with your ability to perform. Find the place that values you for what you do well. That school will make sure you get what you need in order to complete your education. The bottom line is that a student's ability to be self-supporting financially is an important credential at many places. How about not applying for aid the first year, to give the student a better chance at admission, then, once the student gets in, applying for aid for the second year. Is that a wise strategy?

Colleges build their financial aid budget for the upperclass years based on the expectations or demonstrated need they see in the entering class. As a result, hiding your need for aid the first year is not a good idea. Colleges might say, if you looked rich when you got in but look poor in the second year: "That's your problem," because they didn't budget for the aid when they let the student in. They might just say, "Here are some loans." Better to apply to a school that values the student for who he or she really is.