Ivy League Admissions Officer Q&a

50 Successful Ivy League Application Essays - Tanabe Gen, Tanabe Kelly 2009

Ivy League Admissions Officer Q&a

Dr. Michele Hernandez

Former Assistant Director of Admissions, Dartmouth College Author of A is for Admission

Q: Can you give students an idea of what happens to their applications and essays after they are received by the college?

A: First, admissions officers collect all the different parts of the application. Then, all the pieces are scanned and date stamped. It’s all done electronically like an electronic file cabinet. Once everything is assembled, admissions officers start to read them one by one (now they often do them on the computer instead of in hard copy).

Unlike many colleges, Dartmouth doesn’t sort the applications at first into regional categories or schools. They are placed into completely random groups that correspond with a particular admissions officer’s group of states.

Once an admissions officer reads one application folder, it is passed on to someone else who will also review it. If after two reads it’s a tie, the file goes to committee or to the director. After reading all the applications, the admissions officers start meeting and discussing the merits of each applicant one by one through committee meetings.

Admissions officers don’t only look at the applicants at the top end of an academic or extracurricular scale. Every single application is reviewed through this process.

Q: What are some of the most common mistakes that students make when writing their essays?

A: Some students simply don’t spend any time on their essays. A lot of bright students think, “I’m number one so I don’t need to take any time on the application.” The result is that it looks rushed. You want to show some reflection, that you thought about your application. You don’t want to have the appearance that you spent only five minutes on it. Some of the more obvious errors have been not spell checking or putting the wrong school down, but more often, it’s that the essays are not interesting.

Another mistake is the admissions officer doesn’t learn anything. If I read an essay and think, “That’s nice but I don’t know anything more about this student,” you’ve failed. You have to share something interesting about yourself. remember that it’s not just one essay, but there are 5 to 6 smaller essays. It’s not as limited as you think.

Q: How important is the introduction?

A: Introductions are nice, but the whole essay has to work. It has to grab you from the beginning like a newspaper lead. It has to make you want to keep going.

Q: Can you think of an example of when an applicant wrote about an ordinary topic in an extraordinary way?

A: One student wrote about shooting a squirrel. I’m sure his guidance counselor told him to not write about that. However, the essay was about growing up to be a man, a meditation on what it means to grow up. While the topic may have seemed like the plot of a bad play, it was a slice of life essay that told a lot about his family and about him. The topic doesn’t matter as much as what you do with it.

Q: Are there any topics or approaches to topics that students shouldn’t write about?

A: Any approach works if it works. Writing is so fluid. There are no hard and fast rules except to be honest about yourself. The magic formula is that there’s no magic formula. The truth is that you don’t have to be a fabulous writer either. The admissions officers are reading the essays more for content. They’re almost speed reading them for content. remember that this is not your chance to be Faulkner. This is your chance to write about something you’re interested in. It’ll be a lot more vivid if it’s something you’re interested in. This may sound obvious, but so many kids obsess about the writing style instead of worry-ing about the actual content and that’s a mistake.

Q: Do you recommend that students ask someone else to read their essay and give feedback?

A: You need some feedback because what you think is funny may not be to other people. You don’t want it to be over-edited where everything’s perfect, and you don’t need a professional editor. The essay could be a little unpolished, but I would have a friend or parent read it for diction and flow. You don’t want an essay in which you can tell that an English teacher went through it 45 times.

Q: How important is the essay? In your experience, has it ever made the difference between a student being accepted or not?

A: It all depends on where you are. If you are very strong academically, the admissions officers are verifying whether you’re the genius everyone says you are. For you, the essay doesn’t matter as much. Also, if you’re in the low end, it doesn’t matter as much. It matters more for the students in the middle of the pool for that college. If we use the scale of 1 to 9, the essay matters a lot for the students who are rated 5, 6, or 7.

The essays have made a difference for students, but there haven’t been many students who have moved from the rejection to the accepted pile based solely on the essays.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

A: It’s not just one essay that counts. It’s the whole application. It doesn’t matter how good your essays are if your teachers say you’re not interesting. It has to do with how all the information (teacher recs, essays, school support, transcript) fits together. Your essays have to be in line with the rest of your application. The admissions officers are going to be suspicious if you have a brilliant essay but it doesn’t match the rest of your application. Everything has to be in the same vein.

Also, if you’ve had extraordinary circumstances, you should write about them in a note. If you weren’t involved in activities, explain that you were taking care of your autistic sister. You want admissions officers to know about anything unusual

Dr. Michele Hernandez is the former assistant director of admissions at Dartmouth College and the author of A is for Admission, The Middle School Years, Don’t Worry You’ll Get In and Acing the College Application. She is with the president and founder of Hernandez College Consulting (www.hernandezcollegeconsulting.com).

Eva Ostrum

Former Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions, Yale University Author of The Thinking Parent’s Guide to College Admissions

Founder of High School Futures

Q: What are some of the most common mistakes that students make when writing their essays?

A: Some schools ask students to write about a role model such as asking what single person they would have lunch with. The biggest mistake that students make is that they spend more time writing about the other person than themselves. I’d suggest starting from your own vantage point. How have you been affected? From my own life, if I were writing an essay, one person I’ve always admired is nelson Mandela.

Every day on the first day of school I read an inspiring quote from nelson Mandela. One day a boy looked at me and said, reacting to the quote, “Miss, who are you?” Focus on how your own actions and outlook have changed as a result of that person whether you’ve met them face to face or only know their writing.

Another really common mistake is that students feel they have to write something that makes them look different. When you’re applying to a highly selective college, there’s nothing you can do that looks different based on the actions themselves. Every admissions officer has seen someone who does what you do. Instead, focus on what makes you you. That’s really what admissions officers want to know. Don’t tie yourself in knots to look exotic. It doesn’t matter what your essay’s about. It’s how you write about it.

Q: How can you tell if a student’s essay is authentic?

A: You look at their critical reading score. If they have a low critical reading and writing score and an essay that looks like it’s written by a college professor or if the essay sounds like a very sophisticated person wrote it and the recommendations don’t present the same image, these can be a red flag. For many years, there’s been an understanding that students in a certain income bracket get coached. If you do nothing, you’re putting yourself at risk. remember though it’s fine to have someone read your essay and give feedback on how it flows. It’s not fine to have someone read your essay and do line by line edits. That would present you in a way that doesn’t line up.

Q: What is one or two of the best introductions you remember?

What made them so memorable?

A: There was one essay that a student wrote about when his father first took him for karate lessons. The first sentence was about how he had been a complete failure at every other sport. There was another one by a girl who wrote about how she was a comic book artist. She was applying to art school, and some schools don’t consider it to be a serious art form. She grabbed me from the very beginning because her passion was so clear. The essays that grab me give me some kind of hook in the beginning to reel me in.

Q: Can you think of an example of when an applicant wrote about an ordinary topic in an extraordinary way?

A: One Yale applicant wrote about how every day on her way to school she passed a building where the pigeons rested. You would think that’s a ridiculous topic, but it was so well written and engaging. It was about something mundane, but it really grabbed my attention.

It’s important to tell a good story. Think about the stories you listen to in your life that your relatives tell or your friends tell. If they’re well told, that’s what catches your attention.

Q: Are there any topics or approaches to topics that students shouldn’t write about?

A: Topics that deal with personal tragedy are difficult. Frequently the students are not far enough away from the event to write about it with any distance. They’re not really telling a story. The essay is either a factual narration or therapeutic. I would be very wary of writing about a really serious, heavy topic. It can be done, but I think that the rule of thumb should be if the topic is still sensitive enough that you might wince a little bit, tear up, or cringe, maybe it’s not a good topic. If you can talk about the event and maybe even have a sense of humor about it, that’s a sign you’re far enough away from it. Of course that doesn’t mean you have to write about it with humor.

Q: How important is the essay?

A: There was at least one student where the essay was very significant.

I fell in love with this student because of his essay, and I wanted him to go to Yale. I thought he would add so much to the school, but one of his SAT scores was weak. It’s so competitive that if there’s one chink in the armor, that can end it. I could’ve passed over him and no one would’ve objected, but I made such a case for this student. I fought for him, and he got in. However, it can’t just be on the basis of the essay alone. His teachers also really loved him and thought he walked on water. There has to be some resonance between the essay, the teachers and the classes.

Q: Is there anything that a student might find surprising about what you are looking for in the essays?

A: I think students would be surprised to know that admissions officers aren’t looking for anything exotic. The more specific examples you can use, the more you can make it a story with very specific details, the better. You want to be able to picture what the person looks like, what it would be like to sit in a room and have a conversation with the person. The essay should make the admissions officers feel like they’ve had a conversation with you and want to learn more. It’s not more esoteric than that.

Eva Ostrum worked as an assistant director of undergraduate admissions at Yale University and wrote The Thinking Parent’s Guide to College Admissions.

She also founded and runs High School Futures, an organization that works on educational reform in urban high schools (www.hsfutures.org).