For admissions officers, reviewing applications is like final-exam week for students--except it lasts for months. Great applications tell us we've done our job well, by attracting top-caliber students. But it's challenging to maintain the frenetic pace without forgetting these are all real people with real aspirations--people whose life stories we are here to unravel, if they will let us.
The essay is a key piece of learning those life stories. I live near Los Angeles, where every day screenplays are read without regard for human context. The writer's life and dreams don't matter--all that matters is the writing, the ideas, the end product. On the other hand, in reading essays, context does matter: who wrote this? We are driven to put the jigsaw puzzle together because we think we are building a community, not just choosing neat stories. When I pick up a file, I want to know whether the student has siblings or not, who his parents are, where he went to high school. Then I want the essay to help the rest of the application make sense, to humanize all the numbers that flow past. I am looking for insight.
A brilliantly written essay may compel me to look beyond superficial shortcomings in an application. But if no recommendation or grade or test score hints at such writing talent, I may succumb to cynicism and assume the writer had help--maybe too much. In the worst cases, I may find that I have read it before--with name and place changed--on the Internet, in an essay-editing service or a "best essays" book.
The most appealing essays take the opportunity to show a voice not rendered homogeneous and pasteurized. But sometimes the essays tell us too much. Pomona offers this instruction with one essay option: "We realize that not everything done in life is about getting into college. Tell us about something you did that was just plain fun." One student grimly reported that nothing was fun because in his family everything was about getting into college. Every activity, course choice and spare moment. It did spark our sympathy, but it almost led to a call to Child Protective Services as well.
Perfection isn't required. We have seen phenomenal errors in essays that haven't damaged a student at all. I recall a student who wrote of the July 1969 lunar landing of--I kid you not--Louis Armstrong. I read on, shaking my head. This student was great--a jazz trumpeter who longed to study astronomy. It was a classic slip and perhaps a hurried merging of two personal heroes. He was offered admission, graduated and went on for a Ph.D. in astrophysics. He may not have been as memorable if he had named "Neil" instead of "Louis" in his essay's opening line. Hey, we're human, too.
An essay that is rough around the edges may still be compelling. Good ideas make an impression, even when expressed with bad punctuation and spelling errors. Energy and excitement can be communicated. I'm not suggesting the "I came, I saw, I conquered" approach to essay writing, nor the "I saved the world" angle taken by some students who write about community-service projects. I'm talking about smaller moments that are well captured. Essays don't require the life tragedy that so many seem to think is necessary. Not all admission offers come out of sympathy!
Admissions officers, even at the most selective institutions, really aren't looking for perfection in 17- and 18-year-olds. We are looking for the human being behind the roster of activities and grades. We are looking for those who can let down their guard just a bit to allow others in. We are looking for people whose egos won't get in the way of learning, students whose investment in ideas and words tells us--in the context of their records--that they are aware of a world beyond their own homes, schools, grades and scores. A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words. To us, an essay that reveals a student's unaltered voice is worth much, much more.